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Why we get stuck in difficult conversations

The hallmark of an effective leader is the quality of their working relationships – the trust, respect, care and candor they represent. More specifically, the ability to manage a “difficult conversation" and make it possible to discuss the undiscussable, is a leader's distinguishing attribute. 


This being so, why do so many leaders avoid having difficult conversations? What is it that they fear? What’s holding them back? Why do some relationships become so dysfunctional?    
In the book, Difficult Conversations – How To Discuss What Matters Most, Stone, Patton and Heen share their insights into why we get stuck in difficult conversations and how to get “unstuck”. 

To begin with, the reason we get stuck in difficult conversations is because we spend most of the time in our story, thinking we’re right and they’re wrong, assuming we know what the other party's intentions were and focusing on who to blame (most of the time, “them”) 

There are 3 things that keep us stuck in a behavioural pattern with unintended consequences.

Firstly, we focus on “our truth” – we believe that our facts are the truth and therefore try and convince the other party to see it from our perspective and try and convince them we’re right and they’re wrong. Been in this situation before? It’s no wonder we get stuck! 

Secondly, we assume we know what the other party intended – for some obscure reason we believe we can mind read.  To make it worse, we accuse them of intending to negatively impact us. It’s no wonder we find others feeling provoked and needing to defend themselves.

Thirdly we spend most of the time focusing on whose fault it was – and it’s seldom our fault! It’s no wonder we end up disagreeing and escalate the conflict. 

We accept that human dynamics are complex and there’s no quick and easy fix. BUT we have a choice. The first step to getting “unstuck” is to acknowledge that as long as we focus on our story and defend our position, the more closed we are to learning about the others’ story. In order to get unstuck you have to be genuinely open to learning - we need to be able to facilitate a ‘learning conversation”. 

Whilst there can be no guarantee, we can significantly increase the probability of having a more constructive conversation in which both parties feel more understood and open to consider a way forward to resolving the issue. Here are 5 steps to having a 'learning conversation'.

Step 1: Prepare before deciding to have the conversation. Think about both the stories, yours and theirs – what happened. What did you both intend and how did your intentions impact each other? What did you each do that contributed to the issue?. There will always be things you both did or didn’t do that had some contribution to 'it' being the issue.    

Step 2: Begin from the 3rd story. Focus on the DIFFERENCE between the stories. It’s not about whose right or wrong, or whose story is better or worse; it’s about the difference between your stories. Describe the problem in a way that rings true for both parties. 

Step 3: Listen from the inside out. Shift from being certain about what you believe to being curious about how THEY see it – inquire about what information, assumptions, intentions, purpose and how they believe they contributed to the issue. Demonstrate you have listened by paraphrasing and acknowledge their feelings. 

Step 4: Share your story. Share what matters most to you, say what you mean and tell your story with clarity and conviction. Present your conclusions as opinions, NOT facts (or truth). Share how you feel and the impact it’s had on you – difficult conversations are about feelings not facts (that’s why they’re difficult) Reframe the conversation from focusing on judgments to feelings, blame to contribution, truth to difference, accusations to intentions and impact and from what’s wrong with them to what’s going on for them. 

Step 5: Invite joint problem solving:  Invite you both invent options that address both your interests and concerns (not positions) Gather information by asking for their advice, what would persuade them and share what would persuade you and say what is still missing. Lastly, keep communications open and address what should happen to ensure the issue be resolved. 

It’s seldom this simply and each issue has a different context BUT don’t use as an excuse to not trying a different approach. All you can expect of yourself is to give it a go – invite you both adopt a mutual learning approach. By doing so, there has to be a higher probability of achieving a more acceptable outcome and a more constructive working relationship. Good luck and let me know how you go.

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