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By: Lee Warren, Jack C. Massey College of Business at Belmont University

For most of us, difficult conversations are a part of life. Of course, this includes topics that are challenging to all of us – the regular topics on the editorial page. And it includes any discussion that you dread or find unpleasant.

For example, a long-time colleague (and friend) has become a liability to the company, and you have been chosen to fire her. Your project took twice as much time as you told the client; you can’t afford not to bill for the work, but you dread telling your customer. In their book, “Difficult Conversations,” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen suggest that a successful approach to these discussions begins with recognizing three conversations within the communication: the “what happened” conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity conversation.

The challenges of the “what happened” conversation derive from flawed, and sometimes disastrous, assumptions around truth, intentions, and blame. Deliberately confronting each of these constructs is the first step in improving your approach to difficult conversations in both your professional and personal life.

1. Truth: Disagreement is a hallmark of the “what happened” conversation. We each make sense of “what happened” in our own story. Each of us brings our own conclusions to the conversation, founded on a unique collection of information and individual interpretations of that information based on our experience. If our conversation consists of trading conclusions back and forth, we argue. Instead, our exchange needs to move to the level of information. What data do I have that you do not? What experience leads you to interpret information in such a way?

Surrendering the posture of certainty of our conclusions, for the sake of curiosity relative to information and interpretation, allows us to think in terms of both/and instead of either/or. In almost every case, neither participant is in sole possession of the truth. Our perceived “truth” varies because of differences in information and experience.

2. Intentions: It is impossible to know someone else’s intention. We assume the intent of another’s action based on the impact of that action on us. If we were hurt by someone’s decision to move us to a different, lower priority project, we assume that person intended to hurt us. And once we have made that determination, we tend to see that person through the lens of hurt.

We cannot know the intention. Rather, we know impact. So, address impact. Rather than making accusations about intention, be explicit about the impact on you, something you can address with confidence.

Here is some useful language for this conversation: “I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but moving me off of our most important project hurt my feelings.” The second mistake we make relative to intentions is to assume that, because I didn’t intend for my decision to hurt you, all is well. Honorable intentions do not eliminate harmful impact. Even when you did not intend to hurt, you need to consider the unintended consequences of your actions.

3. Blame: While assigning blame may “feel” good, it is seldom productive in solving a problem. Blame involves judgement and is backward looking. Blame denotes making an accusation, and when accused, most of us take up a posture of defense. Blame frequently considers what the appropriate punishment should be.

In this context, it is unlikely that the reality of “what happened” will ever be unearthed or that the original problem will be solved. Instead, Stone, Patton and Heen recommend focusing on contribution. What did each of us contribute to this situation? What did we each do, or not do, to get us into this situation?

Once we have identified the system of contribution, we can think about how to change that system. Instead of looking back, we are looking forward. Contribution is easier to surface and more likely to lead to positive change.

Difficult conversations are a part of life, professionally and personally. Changing how you deal with them takes time and effort. (You cannot change your golf swing without practice. You do not become instantly fluent in a new language.) And the process can be uncomfortable and threatening. The potential rewards are worth it.

Some of the tough chats will become easier, and with time and practice, you may choose to engage in conversations that you have been avoiding. Start by changing your approach from certainty in your conclusions, to curiosity about what information you may have missed.

Focus on impact rather than assumed intentions. Abandon the notion of blame, and explore the system of contribution and how it can be improved going forward.


Contact Professor Warren to continue the conversation.

Jack C. Massey College of Business at Belmont University offers MBA, MAcc and MSAA programs to help students grow professionally and personally, connecting students to Nashville’s thriving business community. Small class sizes and student-faculty ratio allow Massey to enable students to develop their unique strengths, with faculty selected for both academic and industry accomplishments.

Lee Warren, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Jack C. Massey College of Business at Belmont University. Following professional experience in both manufacturing and financial industries, she received her Ph.D. in Accounting from the University of Georgia. She maintains an active training practice with both local and national clients. Email Professor Warren to learn more.