Few people look forward to difficult conversations. Despite going into one with the best of intentions, emotions can often get the best of you and make things even worse than before you had the conversation. After fifteen years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project, we now have a great deal of information about what goes on “behind the scenes” during difficult conversations and conflict.

In Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen and Roger Fisher (Penguin Books, 2010), the authors explain there are three basic kinds of conversations, no matter what the subject.

In each of these conversations, we make predictable errors that distort our thoughts and feelings:

  1. The “What Happened?” conversation. There is usually disagreement about what happened in the past or what should happen in the future. Stop arguing about who’s right. Instead, explore each other’s stories and POV to try to learn something new. Don’t assume meanings. Disentangle intent from impact. Abandon blaming anyone and think in terms of how you can contribute to a solution.
  2. The “Feelings” conversation. Every difficult conversation has an emotional component that is formed in response to our thoughts based on negotiable perceptions. You have to ask yourself, “Are these emotions are valid? Appropriate?” Often times in conversation difficult feelings are not directly addressed, thus getting in the way of any potential resolution.
  3. The “Identity” conversation. This is where we examine what’s at stake: what do you stand to lose or gain? What impact might this conversation have on my career, marriage, self-esteem, or relationship? These issues determine the degree to which we feel off-centered and anxious.

Sometimes a third party can help facilitate difficult conversations. Talking it through with your coach can help decipher the underlying components of a difficult conversation. With a coach, you can examine your assumptions, your emotions, and your personal identity. Through this process, you can learn to structure difficult conversations in a way that improves relationships rather than risking them.

Even with the best-laid plans, however, emotions can still get the best of us and a conversation can derail. It’s never too late to start the discussion over. Ask your coach to help so that your difficult conversations become a pathway for you to learn and grow.

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