Discussing What Matters Most

Main highlights from the book “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Been.

I’ve gone through a number of relationships, my own parents are divorced, and my brother is recently going through a tough divorce after his son reached age 2. Looking back at all these situations, I realized this book provided an alternative to the situations we have often deemed “unsolvable.”

My own relationships were often driven be a fight to see who’s right, and the alternative position of defending one’s pride and identity. Though I loved my girlfriends very much, I often felt too much animosity had built up already for salvaging. My brother mentioned his own relationship came to a halt when neither felt they were on the same team anymore–each fight they were fighting for their own team.

How does it get to that point? How do we keep it from getting to that point? I think this book provides an alternative.

The Road Map:


  • Sort out the 3 conversations: Each difficult conversation is really 3 conversations
    • The “What Happened?”: What’s the story here?
      • The Truth Assumption: You don’t know the truth
      • The Intention Invention: Don’t assume their intention
      • The Blame Frame: Avoid blaming
    • The Feelings: What should we do with our emotions?
      • An Opera Without Music: Let them know how it’s making you feel
    • The Identity: What does this say about me?
      • Keeping your balance: Understand when you and the other person is actually defending their identity (and maybe not the situation)
    • Focus on what we can change, and acknowledge what we can’t change. The point is to make it a learning conversation, so listen and share.


  • Stop arguing about who’s right: Explore each other stories
    • Why we argue, and why it doesn’t help
      • We think they are the problem
      • They think we are the problem
      • We each make sense in our own story of what happened
      • Arguing blocks us from exploring
      • Arguing without understanding/listening is unpersuasive
    • Different stories: Why we each see the world differently
      • We have different information
        • We notice different things
        • We each know ourselves better than anyone else can
      • We have different interpretations
        • We are influenced by our past experiences
        • We apply different implicit rules
      • Our conclusions reflect self-interest
    • Move from certainty to curiosity (this is contribution)
      • Curiosity is the way into their story
      • What’s your story? Share
      • Identify what’s contributed to this situation
    • Embrace both stories by adapting the “And Stance”
      • Two exceptions that AREN’T
        • I really am right…
        • Giving bad news…
    • To move forward, first you need to understand where you are
  • Don’t assume they meant it: Disentangle intent from impact
    • The battle over intentions is fruitless
      • Mistake 1: Our assumptions about intentions are often wrong
        • We assume intentions from the impact on us
          • We assume the worst
          • We treat ourselves more charitably
          • Are there never bad intentions?
        • Getting their intentions wrong is costly
          • We assume bad intentions means bad character
          • Accusing them of bad intentions creates defensiveness
          • Attributions can become self-fulfilling
      • Mistake 2: Good intentions don’t sanitize bad impact
        • We don’t hear what they are really trying to say because we are so focused on intent/impact
        • We ignore the complexity of human motivations
        • We aggravate Hostility – especially between groups
    • Avoiding the 2 Mistakes
      • On Mistake 1: How to disentangle intent from impact
        • Hold your view as a hypothesis
        • Share the impact on you; inquire about their intentions
        • Don’t pretend you don’t have a hypothesis
        • Some defensiveness is inevitable, so continue clarifying
      • On Mistake 2: Listen for feelings, and reflect on your own intentions
        • Listen past the accusations for the feelings
        • Be open to reflecting on the complexity of your intentions
  • Abandon Blame: Map the contribution system
    • From your perspective, the blame is always clear!
      • We get caught in the Blame’s web
    • Distinguish blame from contribution
      • Blame is about judging and looks backwards
      • Contribution is about understanding and looking forward
      • Contribution is joint and interactive
    • There is a cost to blaming
      • When blame is the goal, understanding is the casualty
      • When focusing on blame, you’re not problem-solving, rather you’re hindering it
      • Blame can lead to a lack of identifying the REAL problems
    • There are clear benefits to understanding Contributions
      • Contribution makes it easier to raise concerns/issues
      • Contribution encourages learning and change (via the first)
    • Three misconceptions about contribution:
      • 1. I should only focus on my contribution
      • 2. Putting aside blame means putting aside my feelings
      • 3. Exploring contribution means “Blaming the Victim”
    • Finding your Fair Share: 4 Hard-To-Spot Contributions
      • 1. Avoiding Until Now (i.e. speak up now!)
      • 2. Being Unapproachable (i.e. open your doors and listen)
      • 3. Intersections (i.e. understand there may be personal & cultural differences in the way people communicate. talk about it)
      • 4. Problematic Role Assumptions (i.e. don’t say “that’s not part of the scope of my role.” own it.)
    • Two tools for spotting contribution
      • 1. Role Reversal (i.e. look at it from their eyes)
      • 2. The Observer’s Insight (i.e. look at it as an outsider)
    • Moving from blame to contribution – Road Map
      • Questions to ask:
        • What are they contributing?
        • What am I contributing?
        • Who else is involved?
      • Take responsibility to initiate contribution early
      • Help them understand their contribution
        • Make observations and reasoning Explicit
        • Clarify what you’re asking them to do differently


  • Have Your Feelings Under Control (Or they will have you)
    • Feelings Matter: They are often the heart of difficult conversations
    • We try to frame feelings out of the problem
      • Unexpressed feelings can leak and/or burst into the conversation
      • They make it difficult to listen
      • They take a toll on the self-esteem and relationship
    • A way out of the feelings bind
      • Finding your feelings: learn where they hide (your emotional footprint)
        • Accept that feelings are normal & neutral
        • Recognize that good people can have bad feelings
        • Learn that your feelings are as important as theirs
        • Don’t let hidden feelings block other emotions
        • Lift the lid on attributions and judgment (what are the feelings driving these?)
        • Use the urge you have to blame as a clue to find important hidden feelings
      • Don’t treat feelings as gospel: negotiate with them
      • Don’t vent: Describe feelings carefully
        • 1. Frame feelings back into the problem
        • 2. Express the full spectrum of your feelings
        • 3. Don’t evaluate – just share
          • Express feelings without judging, attributing, or blaming
          • Don’t monopolize: both sides can share
          • Say “I FEEL”
      • The importance of Acknowledgment
      • Sometimes feelings are all that matter


  • Ground your Identity:

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