Book - "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most"

by the Harvard Negotiation Project

Some quotes: "Returning from several years in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, I discovered that my roommate, two of my closest friends, and dozens of classmates had been killed in the war.  Ever since, I have worked to improve the skills with which we deal with our differences; to improve the prospects for our children's future; and to enlist others in that cause."  "What makes these situations so hard to face?  It's our fear of the consequences -- whether we raise the issue or try to avoid it."  "The dilemma ... Why is it so difficult to decide whether to avoid or to confront?  Because at some level we know the truth - If we try to avoid the problem, we'll feel taken advantage of, our feelings will fester, we'll wonder why we don't stick up for ourselves, and we'll rob the other person of the opportunity to improve things.  But if we confront the problem, things might get even worse.  We may be rejected or attacked; we might hurt the other person in ways we didn't intend; and the relationship might suffer."  "Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade.  Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage. Try as you may, there's no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun its consequences.  And keeping it to yourself is no better.  Choosing not to deliver a difficult message is like hanging on to a hand grenade once you've pulled the pin.  So we feel stuck.  We need advice that is more powerful than "Be diplomatic" or "Try to stay positive".  The problems run deeper than that; so must the answers."  "... learning conversations ... people who have learned new approaches to dealing with their most challenging conversations report less anxiety and greater effectiveness in all of their conversations ... dealing constructively with tough topics and awkward situations strengthens a relationship."  "At heart, the problem isn't in your actions, it's in your thinking."  You can buy the book for $11.20 at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/014028852X/002-6059897-9091241?v=glance .  To increase our chances of achieving a successful conversation we must have a good strategy.  Here are some general tips from the above book:
1. having a purpose (what is the point and what does a good outcome look like?; three purposes that work: learning their story, expressing your views and feelings, and problem-solving together)
2. remember that we can not change or control other people (we can have influence, and engaging someone in a conversation where mutual learning is the goal often results in change)
3. letting go of past issues (grievances, losses) and working together from a basis of current commonalities, strengths and assets to build a better future
4. engaging in nonviolent communication (eg. do not "poke the other person in the eye" ;-); otherwise they get defensive and/or offensive (and blind to us ;-) (for information on compassionate communication, refer to http://www.bcncc.org/ )
5. realizing all parties to the conversation are not perfect (we all see the world differently, we all have powerful feelings, and we each have our own identity issues to work through; in short, we each have our own story, and our own picture of peace)
6. think like a mediator (identify the Third Side, or Third Story; the key is learning to describe the gap or difference between our stories, then working to try to close it, which may take movement by all parties)
7. turn it into a learning conversation: describe the problem in a way both sides can accept, propose mutual understanding and problem-solving as purposes, check with others to see if this makes sense, and invite others to join the conversation (make them your partner in figuring it out; those that do not wish to participate can opt-out).  Provide some relevant background reading that might help open minds.
8. listen to understand; ask open-ended questions; ask for more information; respect others; create a safe environment for dialogue
9. think and strategize before you speak; don't cross-examine; don't blame; don't take away from the other person; paraphrase for clarity, to show that you heard, and check your understanding; acknowledge their feelings; empathize; speak from the heart, start with what matters most and say what you mean; don't exaggerate, generalize or stereotype; be humble (having humility does not mean allowing others to "walk all over you")
10. It is up to each of us to find our own truth (i.e. my truth is not necessarily your truth; you should not simply accept what I say: you have to do your own "homework")
11. identify the issues and problems from all perspectives; make the "trouble" explicit; find out where there is agreement and disagreement, and why; then begin to problem-solve: brainstorm with all affected parties, invent options, ask what standards should apply, consider alternatives
12. have patience: it takes time
13. rehearse the conversation in your mind before starting (have preparation notes; think things through)
14. appreciate the diversity of thoughts and ideas
15. sometimes we have to agree to disagree, with all due respect
16. thank the parties for their participation (it will take a lot of effort, and hopefully it is worthwhile)


I look forward to your thoughts and additional suggestions on this.  I am most interested because peacebuilders and peace educators are always having a difficult conversation.  I am hopeful that we can develop a model for peacebuilding to help us work through the various difficult conversations that must take place.  Please provide feedback to Bob Stewart at stewartr [at] peace.ca