From Awful to Awesome Conversations (Part 1)

It is a common goal to want to have quality communication and fulfilling relationships with those we care about.  In spite of such good intentions and positive goals, sometimes our communication with others doesn’t go as well as we’d like.  And sometimes it’s just plain awful…

There are conversations which can be tough.  These conversations can include things like: gender, race, raising children, dealing with someone at work who you feel is not pulling their weight, or sharing your feelings with someone you care about but worried that it might be awkward.  This is just to name a few but the list goes on and on.

Difficult conversations are common when:

  • We feel vulnerable
  • Our self-esteem is implicated
  • Our beliefs about who we are and what we stand for are brought into question
  • The issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain
  • When we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it.

A book I found useful for enhancing the quality of communication is Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen.  Rarely is anything to do with human being simple, but according to these authors, all difficult conversations at least have a common structure.

When you’re in the middle of such conversations, it can be hard to see the structure (without practice anyway). However, the understanding that all difficult conversation contain three underlying conversations creates a whole new perspective that enhances interactions with others.

These three underlying conversations are:

  • The “What happened?” Conversation
  • The Feelings Conversation
  • The Identity Conversation

The “What happened?” conversation…  This part of the conversation derives from the fact that we all see the world differently.  When in a difficult conversation, we think they are the problem and they think we are the problem, and we each try to make sense of our story of what happened.  This thought process is related to the ‘truth assumption’ in which we (as human beings) have a tendency to view our side of the story as being the truth of what happened – or ‘reality’.

We perceive different realities for a number of reasons:

  • We have different information.  This is because we notice different things and we each know ourselves better than anyone else can know us.
  • We have different interpretations.  This is because our processing and interpreting of information is influenced by our past and we each apply our own set of implicit rules to any situation.
  • Our conclusions reflect our self-interest.  This may make us sound like we are selfish but that is it not what it means.  It means that is natural for human being to first view our side of a situation and that we are only selfish if we do not then consciously take the time to view other sides of a difficult conversation as well as our own.

Ultimately what we all want is better relationships.  Better relationships come from better communication.  Sometimes it is easy to get lost in a difficult conversation and then, without realising, you are fighting to be right, instead of putting your energy into have a better relationship with those you care about, or better outcomes with those things that are important to you.

So let’s talk about some strategies that, while they can sometimes take practice, can be implemented immediately:

First… Move from certainty to curiosity.  A key to being heard in any difficult conversation is to first listen and understand another point of view.

Second… Understand that our assumptions about the intentions of others are often wrong.  Never assume that someone meant to do the wrong thing by you.

My experience is that no-one is ever intentionally doing the wrong thing by anyone… Everyone is doing the best they know how with the knowledge and experiences they have received up until that point.  No, this does not mean that we simply accept bad behaviour.  It means that we do not interpret bad behaviour as a direct intention to harm us.

Third… Understand that good intentions do not negate bad impact.  Often if someone has been wronged, more than a correction of the ‘wrong’, what human beings often desire is to feel heard and understood about how the situation has impacted them.  So rather than justify your ‘good’ intentions, listen and understand the impact and reflect it back.

Fourth… Learn to hear what someone is really trying to say.  When someone is giving us a hard time about something, an automatic human response is to protect ourselves and justify what we have done.  Just one example might be when a wife/husband complains to her/his partner that they are working too much.  The wife/husband may in turn then feel unappreciated for what they view as all of the effort they give to support their partner and their children.  From this perspective, the following reaction is usually in a negative and/or angry tone.  The reaction is likely to different, perhaps softer, if what the husband/wife hears within the words are “we love you, miss you and need you.”  Often these words are a better representation of what human beings actually desire, but so often harder to say because they involve the ability to be vulnerable.  While there may be times when your partner can’t say it, choose to hear what is likely to be true.

These strategies on how to deal with difficult conversations often require a shift in thinking. Breaking out of your comfort zone is usually required too; something that is rarely easy and never risk free.

The good news is the Inner Wisdom and the personal growth makes it all worth the effort.

For more details on dealing with difficult conversations, including ‘The Feelings Conversation’, stay tuned for Part 2.

Much love,



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