Almost caught up! Watch for a particularly jazzy entry next week.
Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen
Psychology (2010 – 295 pp.)
Difficult Conversations is one of the many products of the Harvard Negotiation Project, which was established to correct many of the human problems faced in business, law and other settings. It was originally published in 1994, with a foreword and FAQ added in the 2010 edition.
For the most part, Difficult Conversations is a great book everyone needs to read. Much of the book contains information that appears obvious to the reader upon being told it but that is likely few readers could have conjured on their own. It’s quick, it’s accessible, it’s applicable in almost any situation, and it really gets at a big issue people tend to ignore – how to deal with difficult conversations. Every part of a difficult conversation is analyzed at length, from perspectives of the parties to what a difficult conversation means for someone’s identity. Charts throughout the book help illustrate how different problems arise in different situations and which techniques can be applied where. It’s also broken down into bite-sized chunks, including an index at the back listing all the sub-chapters.
Difficult Conversations is very good at pointing out the errors people make. People commit fundamental attribution error. People jump to conclusions. People don’t consider that they may be exhibiting the same behaviours they condemn in others. Thankfully, most people are also quite receptive to hearing a question or a statement worded the right way. Sometimes, all people need is to feel validated. The sub-chapter title “Good Intentions Don’t Sanitize Bad Impact” is an example of an error that comes up in difficult conversations all the time. The sub-chapter heading “Don’t Present Your Conclusions as The Truth” is another one people understand on an intellectual level yet often fail to follow in practice. “Don’t Rely on Subtext” is one I hadn’t thought about enough but now I’ll start.
The aforementioned FAQ unpacks quite a bit. As someone who is usually against the idea of objective truth outside the realm of algebra, I like the approach Stone, Patton and Heen take. Their discussion of false memories, although they do not use that term, informs the reader on what he or she thought he or she knew. Possibly the best answer is the one to “Who has time for all this in the real world?” which is, quite bluntly, that people make time all the time and don’t realize it. A short conversation now instead of a long fight later is something I’ve preached in every relationship I’ve had since I’ve started learning about negotiations. Seeing Difficult Conversations state that principle so emphatically is one of the highlights of the 2010 edition.
As with any book, I have a few minor qualms. One arises on pages 41-42 in the discussion of alcoholism: “Even when it seems the dispute’s about what’s true, you may find that being the one who’s right doesn’t get you very far. Your friend may deny he is an alcoholic and that his drinking is affecting his marriage.” Alcoholism-like behaviour may be a symptom of a root cause like anxiety or depression; considering the alcoholism to be the problem in that case would actually be wrong, even if the friend falls under the medical definition of alcoholism. Another is in the mini-section “Think like a Mediator” on page 150. It states that “Mediators don’t possess some magical intuition that allows them to do this. They are relying on a formula (and a lot of practice), and this formula can be learned by anyone.” The “(and a lot of practice)” caveat aside, this statement downplays the considerable education and training a significant portion of mediators require. Finally, Difficult Conversations often comes off as the exact sort of touchy-feely, soft book that makes too many corporate cultures roll their eyes. For a book like Difficult Conversations to sell itself to a business or legal audience, explanation of where profits come from is always a plus. As a book for more general consumption, it already succeeds just fine.
Of course, a big thank-you to the lovely lady who lent me this book. Our difficult conversations have been the most fun ones yet.
Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 6