Handling Tough Conversations

Communication lies at the crux of a healthy relationship. While some people are naturally good at communicating, many others find it extremely difficult to conduct, hold, or manoeuvre difficult conversations. However, it is essential for everyone to know and learn how to handle conversations, especially the difficult ones that people try to avoid.

Difficult Conversations (1999) by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen is a compilation of everyday examples of difficult conversations and tips to help manoeuver them. It helps in analysing what makes some conversations difficult to have and why people tend to avoid them. It also gives an insight into how one can end a difficult conversation and make sure that there are no hurtful outcomes from those difficult conversations.

Never Avoid Difficult Conversations

When one finds any topic difficult to discuss with others, it can be termed as a difficult conversation. While gender politics, race, sexuality, and religion are topics that find their way into conversations easily, they can quickly turn difficult to discuss. 

Unpleasant and difficult conversations often leave people vulnerable and thus, are often avoided. Most people who avoid such conversations face a conundrum of whether they should approach the topic, or steer clear of it altogether. While mustering the courage to approach the topic could lead to improving situations, the risk of an undesirable outcome is always present.

For example, if a neighbour has a dog that keeps incessantly barking at night, having a conversation with the neighbour about the issue could either make the neighbour sympathetic towards others’ plight, keeping his dog inside at night, or he could react in an unpleasant manner thinking that one is overreacting to the issue and hold a grudge.

While difficult conversations are never ideal, not facing the issue to find a solution is worse. Hence, it is always better to have that difficult conversation, learn to speak up in an effective manner and find a viable solution to the problem so that relationships surrounding that conversation improve.

Difficult Conversation (1999) by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen - Book Review & Summary
Difficult Conversation (1999) by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen – Book Review & Summary

Blame, Feelings, And Identity

There are three parts of a difficult conversation, which take place simultaneously. They are – the “What Happened” conversation’, the Feelings conversation, and the Identity conversation.

  1. The “What Happened?” conversation – In this conversation, the two parties fight over who is right, assume and believe the other person is wrong, and assign blame. For example, if a person tells a friend “What you said the other day was inappropriate,” however, the other person could tell the first person the same thing!

While trying to assert that one is right, one could end up accusing the other of ill intent. For example, if a person flushed down their partner’s cigarettes down the drain, the partner could perceive the act as malicious and one of trying to gain control, rather than perceive it as the more likely scenario of trying to help the partner quit the habit.

People also tend to blame the opposite person for actions that they may have nothing to do with. For example, the partner could accuse the person of being the reason why they were late to work (“I was late to work because I had to stop to buy a new pack of cigarettes. If you hadn’t flushed them down the drain, I wouldn’t be late!”)

  1. The Feelings conversation – Conversations are all about the emotions a person feels, and this is what makes them difficult. Emotions such as disappointment, anger, frustration, hurt, fear etc. can cause people to feel disrespected.
  1. The Identity conversation – This conversation revolves around character. In the case of the neighbour and his dog, the person feels uneasy to have the conversation with the neighbour, even though they decide to confront the neighbour. The person considers himself as being friendly and is worried about being perceived by his neighbour as aggressive. This worry leads to self-doubt, challenges one’s self-image, and causes imbalance making the person avoid the conversation with the neighbour.

Understanding these components of a difficult conversation helps in understanding which areas need improvement. One then needs to turn a difficult conversation into a Learning Conversation.

The Learning Conversation

When two people in a conversation discuss without blame, fighting, silencing their emotions, or without self-doubt, the conversation is said to be a Learning Conversation. The concept can be applied to the aforementioned three types of difficult conversations.

  1. The ‘What Happened’ Conversation – Firstly, rather than think about the irrationality of the opposite person opinions and thoughts, one should try to understand where the person is coming from. One can try to focus on the fact that the person views the situation in a completely different manner. What are the person’s perspectives? Does the person have different information that has led to this conclusion?

Thinking in this manner helps in feeling offended and incites a genuine interest in the opinions of the other person.

Secondly, the focus should be on the actions of the person rather than thinking that the opposite person has any ill intentions. For example, if a friend comments that your attire is shabby, rather than thinking that the friend is trying to insult, maybe, actually, the friend is concerned about your health.

Thirdly, one should avoid blaming others at all costs. Blaming focuses on judgement. It incites resentment and is a backwards-looking tactic, which gets people nowhere. Instead, one can focus on trying to understand how people contribute to a situation. 

The focus should lie on understanding how both the parties involved have contributed to the argument, and what can be done to resolve the differences.

  1. The Feelings Conversation – Dealing with, and sharing ones emotions with others are tough. Moreover, when these feelings threaten to embarrass, people tend to suppress such emotions. Applying the concept of the Learning Conversation to the Feelings conversation takes place in three steps.
  1. Exploring – The first step involves exploring one’s emotional footprint. This essential entails understanding emotional reactions and what one considers ok to express or suppress. Questions such as, ‘How did one learn to categorize certain feelings as inappropriate?’ ‘How did one process these feelings as a child?’ etc. these questions help in identifying what one is feeling.
  1. Negotiating – Feelings change as perceptions change. Hence negotiating one’s feelings by focussing on curiosity, impact and contribution is important. For example, rather than assuming things about the opposite person, one can focus on finding out what is one’s own contribution, and how does one impact the conversation. Once assumptions and impact are addressed, one will be able to understand the situation more clearly and also understand how one’s emotions are affected.
  1. Sharing – The third step involves sharing one’s feelings with the opposite person in a thoughtful manner. If one simply bombards the opposite person with pent-up emotions, any difficult conversation will worsen. Thus, while sharing feelings, it is important to address, both, the good feelings as well as the bad ones. For example, rather than telling one’s mother outright, ‘I am angry with you.’ One can say, ‘I understand your concern for me, but I also feel angry every time you bring up the issue of me not having a job.’
  1. The Identity Conversation – People tend to get confused about their own identity because humans by nature tend to judge themselves in terms of absolutes: useless or competent, incapable or capable, kind or mean, etc. however, it is essential to understand that identities are made up of a number of components in varying degrees.

For example, let us consider a person who considered himself loyal. This person gets a job offer from a rival company. Though the pay is very attractive, he turns down the offer thinking that accepting the job would amount to disloyalty.

A person should ideally try to understand which are the traits and characteristics they value most in themselves and are afraid to lose. Once a person is able to understand these, one can start building complexities to one’s identity.

Essentially, the person should start challenging the thought that he would be disloyal. Doesn’t being underpaid in the current job and still staying put amount to loyalty?

People should accept that there are grey areas to everything and that the world isn’t either black or white. Hence battling others challenges to ones own self-perception is always a futile task.

Another way to manage the identity conversation is to stop believing that one can control others reactions. This helps in balancing oneself. Others reactions are their own and one can never predict them. Understanding this will help in staying focused in the conversation and others reactions won’t seem so unsettling as they did before.

The Neutral Third Story

Difficult conversations are always tough to initiate. However, it is never a good idea to start with one’s own perceptions, as they could threaten the opposite person’s self-image.

For example, if a person tells his partner, “I’m upset about what you said about me in front of your friends.” This could be misinterpreted by the partner in this manner, “You betrayed me by talking about me to your friends, or if you accidentally said those things, you are thoughtless.”

Here the partner would then become aggressive or defensive in her response, so as to protect their own self-image as a loyal partner. How should one then, address a problem without inciting defensiveness or causing hurt?

Telling a neutral third story is the key. A third story is a third-person perspective of an issue. It addresses the differences between the two sides in a conversation.

Consider two roommates. The first roommate complains that the second roommate never does the dishes. The second roommate can’t understand why the first roommate is so obsessed with cleaning dishes. Neither of the arguments is a good starting point for a discussion. Hence, they can turn to the third story, with a statement such as, “the definitions of cleanliness and choice of washing the dished differ.” In this statement, no one has passed a judgement on the other, and hence, neither of the parties in the conversation needs to get defensive. Both the roommates can then look for a solution that satisfies the needs, perceptions, and opinions of both.

With a neutral third story, any difficult conversation can turn into a productive and meaningful one.


People often avoid difficult conversations due to the fear of their outcomes. In order to have, manage, and find a resolution to a difficult conversation, one has to understand the components of a difficult conversation. They need to convert the difficult conversation into a Learning Conversation. 

The focus should lie on sharing feelings, curiosity to understand the opposite persons perspective and avoid playing the blame game. 

Finally, turning to a neutral third story can help transform a difficult conversation into a meaningful and productive one.