An Overview of “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patten, Sheila Heen

Although I have already written my own post on How to have difficult conversations I had to write another one about “Difficult Conversations” by Stone, Patton and Heen, because of the authors thorough and insightful approach to difficult conversations. The book is an absolute gem and while I can’t describe all of what it covers here, I will try and describe the model they use.

In essence, the authors consider any difficult conversation to actually involve three different types of conversation. There is a conversation about 1) What actually happened?, 2) About feelings and 3) About identity

1. What Happened?

To be effective this conversation needs to be about what the particular issue was that occurred, and a collaborative discussion about how to move forward from where things are and how to avoid the same thing happening in the future. It should never be about attributing blame. In any situation both sides have had some contribution to the issue and acknowledging this is important. When discussing issues/areas of disagreement there are two key mistakes to be avoided.

  • we must not assume we know someone’s intentions based on the impact they have on us. We are all different and act with different and sometimes complex intentions. Typically when we assume intentions we judge others harshly and ourselves generously
  • When something we do has a bad impact on someone else, simply explaining what our intentions were is not enough, we need to acknowledge the impact we have had (and apologise if appropriate)


2. Feelings

Virtually every conversation involves feelings – it is usually at the core of why a difficult conversation is difficult. We don’t want to make others feel bad and we don’t want to feel bad ourselves. Yet with many difficult conversations the more we avoid them the stronger those feelings can become and the worse the issue at the centre of the difficult conversation becomes.

In dealing with feelings, the authors have a number of key points

Try to fully understand your feelings first.  All of your feelings need to be included in the conversation but before that you need to “negotiate” with your feelings – look at them rationally, consider your contributions to the problem (e.g. drawing on part 1. Why it happened?), and identify where the feelings are coming from.

In a difficult conversation, feelings need to be raised carefully, without attributing blame. Leading with the phrase “I feel ……” is recommended. The intent is to share your feelings without judging or blaming the other person. The goal is after all to reach a satisfactory outcome where those involved understand each other better. We also need to recognise that we will not be the only one with feelings and we need to be open to hearing from the other person about their feelings. And acknowledge the other persons’ feelings thoughtfully – after all sharing feelings isn’t easy


3. Identity

This is described as the most “subtle and challenging” of the three conversations.

We all have a personal identity. This is essentially how we view ourselves and is influenced by many factors, including our values and our experiences. Some of our identity is demonstrated in how we behave and even what we wear, but some parts of our identity are hidden and private.

Difficult conversations may challenge our identity by causing us to question ourselves, for example “am I competent?” or “am I a good person?”. Where these questions appear to challenge our own beliefs in ourselves it can be quite confronting. The authors describe this as an “identity quake” and when it arises during a conversation it can be quite destabilising. They also emphasise that during a difficult conversation it is not only your identity which can be shaken.

Identity quakes cannot be avoided but it is helpful if we understand the identity issues we have so we are aware of them when then they happen. The book offers several ways to help with this.

  • recognise that life is not an “all or nothing” proposition. You won’t always be competent or always be good at everything. Nor are most things in life an either/or proposition, e.g. good vs bad, competent vs incompetent.
  • Become aware of your identity issues. Think about the subjects that have thrown you off balance in previous conversations and reflect on why this happens. Understanding the cause is a step towards mitigated the effect it has on you
  • recognise that you are complex person.  This means you will make mistakes – and that is okay. Also your intentions may be more complex than you realise. It is worth reflecting on this. For example, sometimes we do say things during difficult conversations to provoke the other person.
  • accept that in any situation we have also contributed to the problem/issue. Perhaps we ignored it longer than we should have, or weren’t clear about our needs or expectations.
  • Don’t try to control the other person’s reactions. They are allowed to feel they way they do.
  • Prepare for their response. How do you think they might react? Could it trigger on of your identity issues? If so, what can you do to prepare yourself? If they cry, how will you respond?
  • Get some perspective by imagining what things will be like in a few months or a few years time. Will this difficult conversation be significant in a few months or years time?
  • Take a break. If a conversation, or even the preparation for a conversation, feels overwhelming suggest a break. Make sure you organise another time to continue the conversation, and accept that sometimes a break is the best option.
  • Sometimes it may be valuable to raise the identity issue explicitly. For example, “I find it challenging to hear criticisms of my writing style. I realise your feedback can help me improve so can we agree a way between us that you can provide feedback in a less challenging way?”
  • Ask for help. Some challenges to our identity can cause a major identity quake. Seeking help from someone you trust can provide a valuable third party perspective.


Having explored these three conversations, the remainder of the book looks at how to bring them together to have more effective difficult conversations, and also how to assess whether a difficult conversation is necessary at all. For example, sometimes if we reflect on the issue we may find the problem is inside us and we can fix it ourselves. Or we may recognise the need for a difficult conversation, in which case the following points are invaluable.

1) Begin from the “third story” – no matter how carefully your describe your view of the situation, it may be interpreted by the other person as an attack by the other person. Starting by describing the issue from the perspective of an objective third person can help. e.g. “I wanted to talk to you about how the jobs are allocated amongst the team. We both seem to have quite different perspectives on what the priorities should be so I’d like to understand better why you view things the way you do and share with you my perspective.”

2) Invite them into the conversation (see the wording in the previous example. Be upfront about the purpose of the conversation. Invite them to be your partner in solving a problem, not in fixing a problem they created (because as previously stated, very few problems are the fault of only one side).

3) Be persistent and consistent. You need to live up to your end of whatever is agreed to as part of the conversation. This isn’t always easy and people fall back into old habits, so you may need to revisit the conversation, again in a collaborative and objective way.

4) Listen carefully to their point of view and acknowledge it. Be genuinely curious about understanding their point of view – ask open ended questions, seek clarification for that which you don’t understand, use paraphrasing to check that you do understand what the mean. Keep going until you truly understand their point of view.

5) Acknowledge their feelings, particularly before you attempt to solve the issue together. This does not mean you agree with them, just that you are acknowledging their right to have a point of view/feelings about the issue.

5) Start the conversation with what matters most and don’t beat around the bush. Be direct and remember that you are entitled to YOUR own point of view.

The above is little more than a overview of what I think is a wonderful book. If it sounds interesting to you, I recommend getting hold of a copy. It offers a comprehensive and truly insightful approach to those dreaded difficult conversations.



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