Difficult Conversations - How to discuss what matters most.

Information from this section is taken from the book Difficult Conversations – How To Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Tone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999) The book is one of the best I have read about how to have difficult conversations and be able to move forward together, even when the topics are controversial or challenging. To be able to more forward, the skills in having these very challenging conversations are very important.

A difficult conversation is any situation where the needs/wants, opinions or perceptions of the involved parties are diverse, with their feelings and emotions running strong. Usually the reason behind such strong feelings and emotions is that they have a lot at stake and they dread the consequences such as a conflict.


An individual’s ability to handle his emotions in such circumstances and convey information in an extremely sensitive manner is referred to as his skills of managing difficult conversations. Such conversations usually take place, and are required to be managed, one-to-one.


Before looking at a process, it is important to understand the Biblical understandings we need to have to be successful in a difficult conversation.


1. Dealing with A Sinning Brother:

The process we need to use is to first go privately to speak to the person. If they do not hear then take someone with you to talk to them and if then that does not work, then refer the problem to someone who can help you.



2. Our goal is to bring healing.

When speaking to people our goal is to speak to bring healing and health.


3. We need to build up everyone we speak to.

Our words need to be ones that edify or instruct or improve the person we are speaking to both morally or intellectually.


4. How we should speak and listen.

Every time we have a conversation with someone our goal is to hear first and be slow to speak or get angry. Listen to their feelings and perceptions and respond to these, not just force your opinion or feelings on the people.

Background Information

When conducting a difficult meeting or conversation it is essential that you are aware of how different conversations work. We need to understand the three conversations, how to explore each other’s stories, understand intent and impact need to be disentangled and abandon blame. We need to identify our feelings and know our identity and understand what our purpose is.

To be successful in any difficult conversation we first must weigh up the risks and benefits. If we avoid the issue we could feel others are taking advantage of us, our feelings fester, we feel like a coward and we have lost an opportunity to improve things. If we confront issues things may get worse so we need to proceed with caution and have thought out what we are doing before we start.

The key to having a successful conversation is to have a paradigm shift, where we move from a message delivery stance where we want to prove a point, give a piece of our mind, get our way or persuade others to do or be what we want, to a learning stance where we start by understanding what happened from the other person’s point of view.

a. The Three Conversations

When we are having a difficult conversation there are three conversations that need to be had:-

1. What happened conversation (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999, pp. 9-12). The situation we are dealing with is often more complex than both parties can see and who is right is often is not as important as understanding where the other person is coming from. By default, we assume the intentions of the person are negative for us and are often imagined. Finally, when we focus on blame we defend and protect our own position. Instead, focusing on contribution allows the problem to be seen and addressed.

2. Feelings Conversation (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999, pp. 12-14). Any difficult conversation is emotionally charged, and the core is the feelings of the parties involved.

3. Identity Conversation (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999, pp. 14-16). The most important things about a difficult conversation is that is often threatens our identity. We need to be secure in who we are so the conversation does not cause us to become emotional and unable to listen to the other person.

The ‘WHAT HAPPENED’ conversation.

Challenge: The situation is much more complex than either person can see


1: Explore each others stories, how we understand the situation and why.


Each is bringing different information and perceptions to the table. There are likely to be important things that each of us doesn’t know.

2: Share the impact on me and find out what they were thinking. Also find out what impact I’m having on them


I know what I intended and the impact their actions had on me. I don’t and can't know what’s in their head.

3. Understand the contribution system, how our actions interact to produce this result


We have probably both contributed to this mess.

The FEELINGS conversation

Challenge: The situation is emotionally charged.


1. Address feelings (Mine and theirs) without judgement or attributions. Acknowledge feelings before problem-solving.


Feelings are the heart of the situation. Feelings are usually complex. I may have to dig a bit to understand my feelings.

The IDENTITY Conversation. Challenge: The situation threatens our identity.


1. Understand the identity issues on the line for each of us. Build a more complex self-image to maintain my balance better.


There may be a lot at stake psychologically for both of us. Each of us is complex neither of us is perfect.




Adapted from Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999, pp. 18-19)



b. Start With The Other Person’s Story

The first part of a difficult conversation is to understand the other persons story, so we can see how they see the situation and understand them. When we move from proving who is right and wrong, we can understand what their perceptions are of the situation and their feelings. When people know they are understood they can then move to being able to listen to another point of view. We also need to articulate what we feel and perceive so it makes sense to others. Our attitude needs to move from certainty to becoming curious in how they see the situation, how they are feeling and thinking.

c. How we feel about what happened and impact are often not related.

Too often we attribute intentions based on the impact the situation has had on us. We naturally believe that if we are hurt then that was their intention and so we become defensive. Both parties can quickly think they are victims, that the other person is the problem and so we can both act to defend ourselves and not deal with the problem. The second mistake is that we can misunderstand that good intentions can sometimes end with bad impact and so we can be confused easily by the other person’s position.

To deal with the situation effectively we must hold our view as a hypothesis as we are unaware the other person’s intentions and our impact on others. In doing this we can share our hypothesis and the impact the other had on you, ask about their intentions and listen past the accusation for the feelings.

c. Contribution not blame is the goal.

Blame inhibits our ability to learn what really caused the problem and stops us from doing something meaningful about it. (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999, p. 59) Blame looks backwards while contribution allows both parties to move forward. When we focus on contribution we ask how we have both contributed to this situation, how can change it and what we can do to move forward.

d. The Importance Of Feelings

When dealing with a situation, the most important thing that needs to be addressed is how the person feels about the situation. Feelings are often at the heart of difficulty situations, and if feelings have not been expressed it can block our ability to listen.

e. The Importance Of Identity

Our identity is the story we have about ourselves and who we are. (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999, p. 112) Our core identities deal with whether we are competent, a good person and we are worthy of love. Issues occur when we see ourselves with an “all or nothing” syndrome. This means we are either competent or incompetent, good or bad or even worthy or love or not. With this view of ourselves we become hypersensitive to feedback and our identity becomes unstable. We need to enter a difficult conversation by understanding that we will make mistakes, our intentions are complex and we have contributed to the problem. When we are thrown by something we need to be able to regain our balance and understand

f. Begin from the third story

When we start from the third story, we tell the story from the perspective of an onlooker who has no stake in the problem. The problem is described in a way that rings true for both parties and the problem is described as differences rather than judgements. Invite the person to present their perspective, then share your perspective and talk about how to move forward together.


How To Have A Difficult Conversation


1. Before you jump into a difficult conversation, spend some private time to identify the difficulty and acknowledge different points of view.

· How do you see the situation?

· What assumptions are you making? What stories are you telling yourself?

· How might the other person perceive the same situation?

· What emotions is this problem stirring up for you?

· What is the impact of this situation on you and what hypothesis do you have about the other person’s intention?

2. Be certain this is a conversation that is worth having.

· What is your purpose in addressing this issue/having this conversation?

· What will likely happen if you ignore this problem? How will you feel?

· How is this problem affecting the productivity and morale of you and the other person.

3. Invite the other person to talk with you.

Go through the three conversations. Understand what happened, the feelings both parties have about the problem and ensure the process does not undermine both party’s identity. Emphasize your interest in working well together and hearing their point of view. A couple of sentences you might consider using are: “I would like to understand where you are coming from on … or "Can you say a little more about how you see things about …?"

4. Start the conversation by “seeking first to understand.”

Start with the other person’s story. Remember it is their perception of what happened. You must also ask how they feel about the situation. Ask the other person an open-ended question that will get him/her to describe how she sees the situation. Do your very best listening. Listen with empathy. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and point of view. Paraphrase to see if you got it right. The aim of this section is to identify how each person has contributed to the problem NOT who is to blame.

5. Share your own point of view, your intentions, and your feelings.

Only when the other person has been fully understood can you then ask them if they give you permission to share what you saw and how you feel about the situation. Use “I” statements. Describe how you believe you got to where you are, including how you contributed to the problem. Take responsibility for your part. Remember the focus is on contribution not blame.

6. Talk about the future and what can happen differently, so you don’t end up in the same place.

Offer what you plan to do differently. Ask the person what suggestions they have to resolve the situation. Suggest what you think the other person could do.

7. Thank the other person for talking with you.

Recount what has been covered and if possible plan to put it in writing, so they can read what has been covered and learnt and what has been agreed on so both parties can move forward. Offer why it was important to resolve this conflict. If you have not been able to resolve the issue, then remind the person that you want them to know your heart in having this resolved. You may need to invite someone else to be part of another meeting if you have been unable to resolve it by yourself.


My your conversations be ones that build up your relationship with the other person and provide a way forward that both parties are very happy about.


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He has rescued us completely from the tyrannical rule of darkness and has translated us into the kingdom realm of his beloved Son. Colossians 1:13. (TPT)

©2018 by Timothy Peden.