A difficult conversation is any conversation that you find challenging to discuss. A conversation with a co-worker, a friend, family member, or someone you manage. Difficult conversations are a normal part of life, and no matter how good at them you get, they will always challenge you. In Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, the authors identify the three common layers or structures that make up a difficult conversation. We will explore them here so that it doesn't feel like you are banging your head against the wall every time they come up. Those three layers are the “What Happened?” Conversation, the Feelings Conversation and the Identity Conversation.
The “What happened?” Conversation
It’s fascinating to realize that such conversations rarely center around facts. Instead, they revolve around conflicting perceptions and interpretations. We are prone to assuming we know others’ intentions while overlooking our own. When we argue about what happened, we instinctively see the other party as the problem. But let’s be honest, they see us the same way. Our version of events becomes a barrier to understanding theirs. Arguing without understanding accomplishes nothing.
The overarching goal of the “What happened?” conversation should shift from assigning blame with assuming intentions to learning opportunities. Rather than being certain of what happened, shift to being curious about what you feel happened. Then, embrace the other person’s story, even if it clashes with yours. How do you do this? By adopting the “And Stance.” We usually assume that we must either accept or reject the other person’s story, and that, if we accept theirs, we must abandon our own. You don’t have to choose between the two stories; you can embrace both. That’s the And Stance.
The And Stance is based on the assumption that the world is complex—you can feel hurt, angry and wronged, and they can feel just as hurt, angry and wronged. They can feel like they are doing their best, and you can feel that it’s not good enough. I’m reminded of a situation that happened several years ago between my husband and I. We have a dual light switch in the garage. Every time someone came inside from the garage, they would flip both switches off, not realizing that this second mysterious switch (that seemed to do nothing) was actually turning off the automatic driveway lights. In the wintertime, when the sun would set sooner, my husband would come home from work to a pitch-dark driveway. He’d storm inside fuming, and I’d be left annoyed that he came home fussing. He was feeling angry, and I was feeling angry.
The Feelings Conversation (the heart of all difficult conversations)
Feelings, which often remain hidden even from ourselves, influence our communications. Our feelings are so deeply rooted that we may have difficulty truly understanding what we are even feeling. Anger tends to be a secondary emotion, rooted in something much deeper. Often these are feelings we don't want to admit exist: hurt, disappointment, betrayal. When my husband and I finally had the conversation about the driveway lights, he was able to share his feelings. When he came home to a dark driveway, he felt unwelcomed, which made him feel hurt. I was able to share that I felt disappointed he wasn’t happier to see me after being gone for most of the day. We thought we were fighting over a “silly light switch,” but our feelings really went much deeper than anger. Until you are able to identify what is at the root of your feelings, you will have a hard time understanding what is bothering you and an even harder time discussing it with the other person.
However, feelings can be a sensitive topic for most of us. Here are five keys to consider when having the Feelings Conversation.
Firstly, describe your true feelings meticulously. This invites understanding and empathy, fostering an environment where both parties can truly connect.
Second, express the full spectrum of your emotions. Remember, feelings aren't limited to just happiness or anger; they’re complex and multi-dimensional.
Third, refrain from evaluating, and simply share. By withholding judgment, you create a space where you can authentically express your feelings.
Fourth, stick to “I feel…” statements. This helps you avoid blaming or assuming intentions.
And finally, acknowledge the feelings of others. Just as you seek understanding, extend the same courtesy. Validating someone else’s emotions doesn’t mean you agree. It simply means what they have said has made an impression on you, their feelings matter to you and you are working to understand them.
The Identity Conversation
In the third layer, the Identity Conversation, we discover that difficult conversations are a challenge to our very identity. Our core identities are a reflection of the narratives we craft internally. They are the stories we tell ourselves in answers to questions that have been shaped by our perceptions of ourselves such as, “Am I competent? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love?”
Often, we find ourselves fixated on preserving our self-image, fearing the opinions and judgments of others if we disappoint them. Many times, we cling to an “all-or-nothing” perception of ourselves. This leads us to be susceptible to either denial or exaggeration of our core identity.
The individual that has difficulty accepting feedback gets stuck in denial rather than being able to accept that they made a mistake and are still competent. The alternative to denial is exaggeration. If I’m not completely competent, then I’m completely incompetent. When we exaggerate, we act as if the other person’s feedback is the only information we have about ourselves.
During the conversation of the light switch and our feelings, my husband and I were
also able to discover some “identity issues” we held in conjunction with the
conflict. With the driveway dark when my husband came home at night, which made him feel unwelcomed, it also whispered he was “not important enough to have a light on when he returned home.” When my husband would bring up the fact that switching the light off upset him, I’d hear an internal dialog of “you are not a good person for upsetting someone you love.” Many times, our internal dialogue is worse than the actual conversation and creates a barrier to resolving conflict.
To improve your ability to manage the Identity Conversation, you need to become familiar with those identity issues that are important to you. Then, you need to learn to integrate new information into your identity in ways that are healthy by letting go of all-or-nothing thinking.
This again is where we need to embrace complexity and adopt the and stance. Embracing complexity and accepting our imperfections can help reshape these negative identities. Here are three tips to help you in this area.
Mistakes are inevitable. Everyone makes mistakes and they are key to growth and learning if you are able to embrace the and.
Intentions are intricate. Sometimes we get nervous about upcoming conversations because we know our past behavior was not always motivated by good intentions. Being honest with yourself about the complexity of your motivations gives you a better chance of staying on your feet if the accusation of having bad intentions arises. If this happens, you can respond in a way that is genuine. Maybe you did shortcut a project you were working on because you were pressed for time. Maybe you did respond in a way that was rude to your spouse because you had a bad day.
You have contributed to the problem. This may be the hardest step but it’s crucial to assess, acknowledge and take responsibility for what you’ve contributed to the problem.
I have one final piece of advice for any difficult conversations. Let go of trying to control the other person’s reaction, especially in conversations that hold important identity issues. You may already feel bad enough having to initiate this conversation, so you may try to avoid the extra pressure of a bad reaction from the other person.
As a result, one of your primary goals of getting through the conversation may be to keep the other person from having a “bad” reaction, rather than understanding or expressing how you feel. This can only lead to trouble. Just as you can’t change another person, you also can not control their reaction—and you shouldn’t try.
Trying to control their reaction can seem like a way to avoid the difficult work of accepting your contribution to what’s happening. You may intend the message to be that “Everything will be alright,” but the message the other person is likely to hear is “I don’t understand how you feel” or worse, “You’re not allowed to be upset by this.”
Rather than trying to control the other person’s reaction, adopt the And Stance. This gives you control over everything you can actually control, such as yourself, and it gives them space to be honest with their response.
These three layers to a difficult conversation: the “What happened?” Conversation, the Feelings Conversation, and the Identity Conversation can help transform how we relate to others and ourselves. It allows us to embrace curiosity, acknowledge feelings and nurture a resilient identity centered in Christ. Difficult Conversations aren't just about words. They're about the transformation that occurs within us and around us.
Join the conversation with the Unite Leadership Collective and explore ways that you and your ministry teams can inmprove your conversations. Be sure to check out our free ministry teams webinar hosted by the ULC in Aug. RSVP below!