How to Swim Through Difficult Conversations (And Not Drown)

Once in a blue moon I stumble upon a book and I can’t stop raving about it. A few years ago, the same thing happened with Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, a very small and easy read on how you’d be more happy if you’d Just.Let.It.Go. I turned full blown fan girl and bought that book for all my friends, one of which actually got it on two separate occasions. Yup, I gave her the same present twice.

And I feel something similar happening with Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.

Now, whenever people shove something in my face to emphasize how amazing, awesome, life changing that thing is, my only reaction is an eye roll, and this is how it honestly felt reading the preface and the reviews on the back cover. But, as I started reading and couldn’t put it down, I slowly started feeling that no review is going to make this book justice.

The thing with self help books, regardless of the topic, is that you actually have to be there to be able to truly understand the content and allow it to make changes on your psyche. Our perception of the information surrounding us rules our lives and our interpretation is full of biases, built from the early experiences that shaped us to something as small as our mood when we got up this morning.

This interpretation is the story we tell ourselves everyday, for every moment of interaction with another person. For example, in an open office setting, the colleague next to us is constantly putting his coffee mug on your side of the desk, sometimes even leaving in on some important papers. How you interpret this action, the story you tell yourself about your colleague’s intentions, will influence the interactions you two are going to have.

You could think that he did it on purpose, to undermine you, even remember a talk you two once had on delimiting desk space. You could get annoyed thinking about all the other times he’s done the same, take it as a personal affront and get even more annoyed noticing his messy desk.

Or you could see how caught up in work he is that he simply didn’t notice.

The intention you attribute to that specific action shapes the story you tell yourself and will later on influence how you’ll raise the issue with your messy colleague. If you think he did it on purpose, it’s very likely your tone of voice will create tension, things might escalate and who knows, both of you might actually start messing with each other.

To be able to fully benefit from this book — and similar ones — you have to be ready and willing to change this story, the story on interpretation you tell yourself. You have to be able to ask yourself “What if I’m not right?” and put in the extra work required when taking a new path.

Assumptions all lead to miscommunication and it feels like this is this century’s plague, as it can spread violently and kill relationships at the blink of an eye.

The book, authored by consultants that teach at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Negotiation Project, has three parts, three heavy conversation that can make or break — the conversation about what happened, on feelings and on identity.

I’m not going to dwell too much on the content mainly because books like this mean a different thing for each person. Since we each have our biases, we could all read the same identical paragraph and find as many interpretations and real life — applications for it as possible.

I do have some general takeaways, most of them from the What Happened conversation (Part I), since I realized I was pretty much bringing into all my relationships all the no-nos described there.

  1. Don’t blame, try to understand contribution

One of the first and most harmful mistakes in communication is trying to find a culprit. This conversation is not only unhealthy to the relationship, regardless if it’s a business or personal one, it’s also useless.

When you’re trying to place the blame, it makes it harder to focus on a solution and action steps. Instead, the conversation should be shifted to contribution. Or, differently said, from outward (blaming the other) to inward (how did I contribute to the situation?). When blamed, the other person takes on a defensive mood, which only makes getting to the root of the problem even harder.

2. Be curious. When you’re curious, you want to get to the heart and soul of the problem

Shifting from a blaming attitude to the contribution one takes a lot of curiosity. When you’re curious, you’re more willing to dig deeper into the issue to unravel the real feelings behind a situation. Be open, curious and start asking questions from a neutral point of view. Which leads us to:

3. Don’t assume you know the other’s intentions.

Attributing to the other a whole set of bad intentions is detrimental to good communication and can make any interaction become heated. Reading through the pages of examples, I found I’m the poster girl for assuming the wrong things and boy, this can lead to arguments so explosive they can match a 4th of July fireworks show.

Usually, people are just trying to do the good thing for themselves or others, but that doesn’t always come out as innocent. For example, a husband might tell his wife not to get a second dessert as she’s dieting. Jumping to conclusions, he could come off as insensitive, controlling or ashamed of her behavior, which could easily be turned into a fight about how ‘he doesn’t find her attractive anymore’, which might lead to a lower self esteem on her part which could eventually become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Instead, she could just ask what he meant to which he could respond that he was just following her orders; before they left home, she instructed him not to let her have a second dessert, if the mood strikes, as she’s trying to lose weight.

4. Don’t jump to fixing stuff, don’t gloss over feelings, try to understand

Whenever miscommunication is present, one or the other has problems with identifying and expressing a certain feeling. There are a lot of underlying feelings not so easy to identify, but the authors give us a roadmap to start learning.

For example, under the spectrum of fear, someone might feel anxious, terrified, worried, suspicious or even obsessed. Is someone is needy, disappointed, betrayed or let down, he or she is on a spectrum of hurt. And so on. Get the book for more :)

So the key here is to be curious enough to take a good look into yourself and respond to the good ol’ cliche of “how did that make you feel?

A very nice saying on feelings that I actually happened to hear before reading this book is don’t be so eager to tear down the walls before you understand why you have built them.

Now, just as in therapy or learning a new language, it takes time. You’re really not going to get up next morning after staying up reading all night with your communication style changed. It takes time and, as most things that count, effort.

But, you know, as long as your intentions are good, right?

Marketing Manager in the IT Industry. Storyteller.