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Title: Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most (Updated with Answers to the 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Difficult Conversations) 10th - Anniversary Edition

Author: Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

ISBN: 978-0-14-311844-2


A general purpose handbook for understanding and managing Difficult Conversations from the Harvard Negotiation Project[1].

Writing Style:

This book is aimed at a general audience and its examples are pulled from work, home, and daily experiences. The language is simple and straight forward. It has a somewhat impersonal presentation style, snappy titles, and short sections. This book came out of a business/law school and is used in workplace conflict and communications training. The presentation of the book reflects that.[2]

It does not have a keyword index. Instead, the back of the book contains a “A Roadmap to Difficult Conversations” section which outlines the main ideas of every section in a few words. That is useful, but some people may find the lack of an index irritating. (I tried to look up “empathy”. I was annoyed that I had to dig through the Roadmap, then the text, so that I could reference it in an example.)

My Opinion:

This is an excellent book on its own or as a compliment to other communications and conflict books. I recommend it.

Its definition of a Difficult Conversation is simple: a difficult conversation is a conversation about anything you find it hard to talk about. These conversations may be awkward, uncomfortable, dreaded, uncertain, important, annoying, avoided, or about things we care deeply about. These are the conversations we wish we could wave a magic wand at or simply nuke from space. The book’s process is intended to make these conversations less painful and more successful.

The first part of the book breaks down Difficult Conversations into three concurrent conversations: the “What happened…?” conversation, the Feelings conversation, and the Identity conversation. It explores what each of these are, how to approach them successfully, and ways to make them blow up in your face. The middle section breaks down Difficult Conversations into a step-by-step walk through of what-comes-when and the skills to use in each part. The final section (in this edition) is a FAQ that addresses a variety  of (antagonistic) questions about the process (i.e. “It sounds like you are saying everything is relative. Aren’t some things just true, and can’t someone be just wrong?”). The entire book focuses on implementing a LEARNING STANCE and the CONTRIBUTION APPROACH in Difficult Conversations.[3] This stuff works. The book contains knowledge and skills that conflict professionals actually use and which doesn’t require both parties in the conversation to be on-board for them to work.

I wouldn’t call this a “self-help” book, so much as a “how-to” book. It is the kind of book which you could pick up 15 minutes before a Difficult Conversation and you would quickly get a few tactics that might be immediately applicable in said conversation. It answers the question “What do I do?” (i.e. Problem + Solution = Action) in every section, no matter how short the section.

It is a process and applications type book. It will appeal to a problem-solving mindset as it focuses on behaviour changes (via changes in goals and thinking) and treads very lightly on issues of self-awareness and other complicating issues. It acknowledges that these are important in a similar manner to a house-building manual acknowledging that a “good location” is important. It acknowledges that “good location” is something you should consider when “building a house”, but it doesn’t go into these in depth. This will be especially appealing to the “I just want to build a FUCKING HOUSE, DAMNIT! I don’t want to waste my time with useless SHIT!” crowd. Which is fine. This book is well targeted for that attitude[4].

However, even the best built house will have problems if it is built without regard to its surroundings[5] and this process isn’t a MAGIC BULLET that will be the SOLUTION TO ALL THINGS allowing you to bypass everything that makes you UNCOMFORTABLE. If you come at this book with that attitude, I invite you to imagine me demonstrating my EVIL LAUGH in your general direction. Good tactics and strategies are built on a backbone of good intel. This book assumes you have some skills in “Know Thy Landmines” and that shit. Or that you will work at learning those skills.

Evil Overlord Assessment:

In the Mirror Universe, this book would be about “How to Pick Fights” and would map out how to be positional, confrontational, avoidant, and competitive instead of using a better option. We would be able to ensure that we shoot ourselves in the foot with the greatest of ease! (All the things outlined under “normal behaviours that people do” in this book. All the “before” parts in the examples.) In the Mirror Universe, guaranteed-to-blow-up things would be preferred methods of creating conflict in difficult situations. The Right way of doing things… Are you sure you aren’t living in the Mirror Universe?[6]


[1]  Harvard Negotiation Project

[2] If you can’t find it in the self-help or psychology section of your local bookstore, then check the business section.

[3] I have a very strong bias in favour of the learning stance (curiosity) approach to conflict. That’s what Insight mediation is all about (my training).

[4] Chapter 9 is filled with tools that are useful for performing empathy, but only the last two paragraphs of the chapter directly use the word “empathy”.

[5] When I was a teenager, I read Pierre Berton’s series on the building of the Canadian transcontinental railway. He told a story about locomotives disappearing into a swamp and the company building more tracks over top of them. Applying “fixes” to conflict and relationships may not work as expected… not because the processes (locomotives) aren’t well built, but because it was in a swamp. Sometimes you have to build in swamps. That happens.

[6] Quick, check for unnecessary goatees!

Date: 2016-08-19 12:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Very interesting!
Thank you for the review!

Date: 2016-08-19 01:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The engineering school I attended required you to take the English Composition Achievement test before you applied.
They didn't expect a good score. But, they wanted it to be clear from the very beginning that you would be expected to write things...

Date: 2016-08-19 02:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ours wasn't specifically English.
We could do language (English or another), arts, stage, literature, or several others.
I did history. I got enough stage credit I could have taken that too, but I had already fulfilled on history.


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