How to have “Difficult Conversations”

Teachers have them all the time—with students, with students’ parents, with colleagues, with superiors, and with their own friends and family:

Difficult conversations.

And if you’re anything like me, you feel some serious anxiety whenever you know you must have one.

Indeed, I know that with the start of the school year, I’ll experience at least a few difficult conversations with students other anxiety-fueled issues ranging from cheating and absences to late assignments and grading.

I love almost everything about teaching, except for those discussions, because too often they are not resolved as well as I know they could be.

Obviously, it’s impossible to settle every issue so that both parties walk away feeling respected, heard and understood, but I’ve long known I could do better if I knew a little more about conflict resolution.

Several months ago, a colleague recommended I read Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, a book that tackles this painful subject. In very colloquial language, the authors (members of the Harvard Negotiation Project) provide a step-by-step process for deciding when to have those contentious conversations, how go about them, and when to give up the ghost.

This book may very well change my life. That’s because it will revolutionize the way that I deal with one-on-one conflicts with everyone, including family.

Difficult Conversations is more than 300 pages and provides great detail about the discussion process and what’s going on in the background when conflict occurs between two people, so I can’t unveil all of its secrets in this 800-word blog entry. However, I’ll summarize what the authors (Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen) say probably has to happen for a successful resolution to occur.

There are five steps:

1. Before confronting the other person, figure out how you’ve both contributed to the problem and why (e.g. impact of your past experience/background). Forget trying to assign blame. Ask yourself what the impact of the situation has been on you and what the other person intended. Seek to understand your own emotions, and consider what impact the incident had on your identity or self-esteem. You may even want to write it all down.

2. Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by having a difficult conversation. It should be because you want to learn, or share, or solve a problem, not because you want to bite back. Ask yourself if talking could fix the issue or if you should take another action. Also consider if you can help affect change by altering your contributions to the problem. And ask yourself, if you don’t raise this issue, will the problem endure?

3. Start the conversation from what the authors refer to as the “Third Story.” Think of yourself as a person viewing the conflict looking down on the participants from a third-story balcony and describe the problem as the difference between the two people’s stories. Both viewpoints must be included and considered legitimate. Then share the purposes you hope to pursue in a discussion (understanding their story, expressing your views and feelings, and solving the problem) and invite the other person to help you sort out the problem.

4. Listen to the other person to understand what they believe has happened. Ask questions and acknowledge the feelings behind that person’s arguments and then paraphrase to make sure you understand correctly. Try to figure out how the conflict arrived at this point. Then share your viewpoint. If the person doesn’t want to stay on track, reframe the issue. For example, if the other person refuses to hear your viewpoint and insists that he or she is right and you are wrong, the authors suggest you say something like this: “I want to ensure I understand your perspective. You obviously feel very strongly about it. I’d also like to share my perspective on the situation.”

5. Create options that meet both parties’ critical interests. Consider standards (e.g. legal, local, and industry) for what should happen. Make sure that concessions that are made to reach viable options are not one-sided, and talk about how to keep the lines of communication open for the future.

Use the Difficult Conversations checklist and your next “argument” may be a lot more productive

Oh, and here’s a fantastic piece of advice that I know every teacher could use the next time a student asks, “But don’t you trust me?” The authors suggest you say something like this: “Actually, I don’t know you well enough to be sure, and if you are telling the truth I assume you have no problem offering verification or a guarantee.”

But I digress.

To completely understand all of the previous steps, you’ll want to read the book. However, I hope this brief checklist will inspire you to realize that there is some incredible insight available to help us tackle those difficult conversations.

I’m still not looking forward to my next difficult conversation.

But I feel a whole lot more prepared for it.

About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
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4 Responses to How to have “Difficult Conversations”

  1. Trevor says:

    Nice one. Those types of conversations are real anxiety makers, but I do agree there are good ways and bad ways to go about it, and wisdom in knowing, as Kenny Rogers would say, when to hold up, to fold up, when to walk away and when to run!

  2. When I read about these difficult conversations with students, I’m glad that I’m not teaching college students anymore–although I do miss it. From what I’ve been reading, and from all the prep you do (based on the awesome books you talk about here), I think you will be well-prepared for these conversations, and everything will work out just fine. Thanks for sharing so many of these resources.

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