Book Review 5: Difficult Conversations
Hello + Hello to all my Team Health and Team Wealth fans.
Coming back at ya with another book review. This one, this book, it got me. Man, it was so so so good. I love having Ryan’s help in selecting what to read. I tell him where I think I’m weak, and he seems to have the perfect book to match me with.
One amazing thing that happened while reading this book is I saw a tweet that hurt my feelings by someone who I admire. It’s somewhat of a theme, and that is the exact person who inspired me to ask Ryan for help with having difficult conversations. I also had to have a difficult conversation at some point with my then-girlfriend, and resultantly, she became my ex-girlfriend. It’s for the best, I believe.
But in my focused reading time, that tweet derailed me. But it then focused me. I started applying all of the techniques. Searching for how to learn from the potential conversation. Imagine you were reading how to grill the world’s most perfect steak, and someone knocked on your door with a new Traeger Grill, Sous Vide, and some grass-fed goodness. I’m thankful for that pain today. And without further ado, let’s talk about the book:
The aim is to teach you how to have difficult conversations. You know the kind, the ones that produce the classic pit in the stomach. The ones you talk yourself out of, because you’re nervous to even bring it up. I’m not good at this, yet. But I’m getting better.
The biggest problem with these conversations, in my view, is the desire to do two things - tell someone you’re right + they’re wrong, and get them to agree with you. I always say, offense creates defense. If you approach with a drawn sword, you will get the wrong kinds of reactions. Instead, this book teaches us to adopt a learning framework. Enter the situation, to gather information.
Now - these are very delicate situations. Perhaps you want to confront your parents and their lack of support of your gay sibling. Tempers may flare. Can’t always avoid that. But to be productive, enter the situation to learn. That is the central theme we will explore.
First, it’s important to understand the 3 components of a difficult conversation, in order:
The What Happened Conversation
The Feelings Conversation
The Identity Conversation
1) What happened?
People can disagree about what happened, and both be right. Reality is real, but our view of it is subjective.
Stop arguing about who is right
Great minds can hold two opposing ideas at the same time, and not destroy them. It is possible, for example, that I am too sensitive to comments about my work and that the tweeter should use different words. Why must it be adversarial? There is the Me-Me and You-Me and framework. That’s a You-Me. Something about them and something about me. A Me-Me would be I am a hard worker, and I should spend more time on the weekends doing code school. That last one feels weird to me still. I’ll get there 😃
Instead of figuring out who is right, try to learn more about your situation. As a first step, we need to roll back troublesome assumptions.
Intent - are we really mind-readers?
When things happen, we are quick to assume bad intent. “Dave doesn’t care how this project goes because he is about to quit anyway”. Starting here is human nature. But we are not mind readers! We must make a better effort to understand intent vs. impact. We can feel impact, and no one can argue it away. My feeling are hurt. I am discouraged about my weight loss. But intent of others, we never really know. So ask, explore, understand. Don’t assume.
It takes time to even dig out your assumptions! This is a critical part of preparing for a difficult convo. Remember, you only have 100% certainty on your view. Everything else, we must dig for.
The Blame Frame vs. The Contribution System
Blame gets us nowhere. It’s funny how primal we become in the throw of a heated conversation. People use lines of thinking like :: Dave embarrassed me in front of our friends by telling me I shouldn’t eat ice cream —> he knows that I’m trying to lose weight (assumption) —> he doesn’t care about my feelings (assumption) —> Dave is a dick (judgement). Always the worst. Yet, we might encourage our mom or dad to hit the gym a bit more. Because we love them, right? And we want the best for them.
Instead, I love their idea: think of it as a contribution system. A system is complex, it has many inputs, and potentially many outputs. There are multiple people involved. That is reality. One must look to find their contributions, and the contributions of others, and of previous life experience, of other opinions, biases, everything. Again, that is reality. We are not apes people. Embrace the complexity!
2) How do you feel?
Difficult conversations are underpinned with latent feelings. In folks heads, they say things like “Dave doesn’t appreciate my work” or “Martha isn’t sensitive to my needs as a man”. However, these are not feelings. These are judgements!
Judgements are not feelings
Feelings are unique to you, and no one can argue them away. If you bash your head on a concrete wall, and say “Dang, I am in a lot of pain” no one can reasonably tell you you’re not. Judgements are offense, and they invite defense. If you said “Dave, you don’t appreciate my work”, he might reply with “That’s not true. We just approved your long vacation last week, doesn’t that show you we appreciate you?” In making a judgement, you invite the wrong kind of discourse.
“I feel…” + “I am…” usually express feelings. I feel hurt by what you did. I am discouraged about my weight loss and my inability to stick to my diet. Productive conversations must address feelings, not ignore them. It can be very uncomfortable, but there’s no solution if you don’t address the problem. All the problems.
Observe the sculpture of your feelings
To express how you feel, you must know how you feel. It was the absolute best line in the book: “Observe the sculpture of your feelings”. We often don’t know how we feel. We must make best efforts to do so. And if we can’t figure them out, well then just say that. I feel angry, and I feel nervous, and I’m not sure how much of either.
3) How does the situation impact your view of who you are?
My 2nd favorite phrase from the book - the Identity Quake. Aptly named, this occurs when a situation challenges your view of what kind of person you are. Mind, the bigger the gap between what you hope is true, and fear is true, the more susceptible you are to an identity quake. This is me as an entrepreneur. I’m always so scared that I’m an imposter. Things that challenge me here, really knock me off kilter. But if someone says I could lose 5lbs, whatever!
The identity conversation usually occurs internally. It maps to the contribution system. It really got me.
I’m scared of not being a great co-worker. I want people to love me, revere me and admire me. It’s probably why I have a tough time being tough sometimes. In the same breath, I think too many founder/CEOs want to be Steve Jobs. Don’t be an asshole. But still do great work. They are not mutually exclusive. I’m afraid that people might see me as a Jobs-like enforcer if I keep harping that something isn’t high quality enough. Even moreso if I’m not an expert in their job function.
Whew, ok. So we’ve mapped out difficult conversations a bit. But we need actionable advice! Diagnosis done. Now, let’s start writing prescriptions.
First, it’s not always the right move to have the difficult convo. Sometimes, the conflict is actually inside of us. If you are going to have it, don’t hit and run. A casual flyby comment can be incredibly incendiary. “Another donut, huh?” as your walk to your desk. If you’re going to talk, TALK. Difficult convos take time. Also if you’re going to talk, have a purpose. If you aren’t sure of it, try what they recommend: to Learn, Understand, and Problem-Solve together.
When you start, start with Third Party Thinking. Imagine you’re a mediator working on the conflict, with both parties interests in mind. Agh, I suck at this. I’m still trying to write a description of my situation that satisfies both parties. Mediators say things like “What we have here is a misalignment between how Will is taking comments and how the comments are intended to help or motivate”. If both parties would agree with the description, you’re off to a great start!
Find your contributions, and start there. In my situation, I think I haven’t done enough to communicate my progress on a particular project and that may have invited commentary. Opening with Third Party Thinking communicates the problem. Then, you map your contributions to the problem first. THAT OPENS THE DOOR. Given time and space, your partner will be more honest. You are inviting them into the learning conversation. You are being vulnerable. With that, they hopefully will follow suit. Again, learn their story, acknowledge their feelings, express your views, then problem-solve together.
Lastly, your partner may not cooperate. You may go in with a third party view (“We don’t agree on how to discipline our children”) and your partner may blame you immediately. Something like “We don’t agree because you’re too quick to spank them or tell them off in public and embarrass them”. Boom, judgement to the face! You will need to regain your balance, reframe, reframe, reframe, knowing that your other party may make things hard.
Reframe to learn. learn & listen + express + problem-solve. Something like “I’d like to understand why you think I’m too quick to discipline. What feeds your opinion of how one should use discipline?” Now we’re talking, pun intended. Now we are learning!
And that’s it. Understanding why difficult conversations are difficult, we’ve learned. To have better ones, use 3rd party thinking. Cast blame, judgements, and assumptions aside, and map your actions in the contribution system. Listen to how the other person feels, and express how you feel. Map their actions in the contribution system. Uncover non-obvious parts of the system. Explore those. Lastly, reframe to learn, and understand. After learning and understanding, problem-solve. What can both parties do to make progress?
With that, I’m out!