The 3 Power Moves to Manage Difficult Conversations

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Difficult Conversations" by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you hold and manage difficult conversations? What can you do to keep the conversation on track and not let it escalate into an argument?

In business and in personal matters, difficult conversations come up all the time. But if we can learn how to manage difficult conversations more productively, our relationships and our lives will improve tremendously.

Here are three “power moves” that can help you manage difficult conversations in spite of the other person’s lack of cooperation.

How to Manage Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are so difficult first and foremost because of how we approach them. Most of us approach difficult conversations as though we are right and the other person is wrong, as though our feelings are the most important, and as though we have to either “win” the conversation, or risk “losing it.” Learning how to manage difficult conversations constructively starts with letting go of this competitive attitude.

There are three “power moves” that can help manage difficult conversations in spite of the other person’s lack of cooperation: reframing, listening, and naming the dynamic.

1) Reframing

Reframing is listening to the other person’s contributions and translating them into more helpful ones. It usually uses the Three Conversations as the translation categories. 

Reframing helps keep a conversation on track when the other person is heading down a destructive path and helps you translate negative statements into useful ones. And it almost always works: anything the other person says, you can usually reframe it as a helpful contribution to a learning conversation.

You can reframe:

  • Facts or truths as differing stories.
  • Accusations as impact and intention.
  • Blame as contribution.
  • Judgments as feelings.
  • Comments about what’s wrong with you as insight into what’s happening to them.

Some examples of how to reframe: 

  • “It’s all your fault” can be reframed as “I know I’ve contributed to the issue — we both have. Instead of focusing on whose fault it is, can we explore how we both got here?”
  • “I’m not a bad neighbor” can be reframed as “I don’t think you are either, and I hope you don’t think I’m a bad neighbor. I think we disagree about how this issue should be handled, and I think even good neighbors sometimes disagree on how to handle things. I’m hoping we can work together to make sure both our concerns are addressed.”

Though a single sentence can’t turn a whole conversation around, hopefully, these examples give you an idea of how to reframe constructively.

2) Active Listening

Active listening can go a long way in helping you manage difficult conversations. When you listen, you get information that is crucial to directing the conversation. If they get emotional, listen and acknowledge their feelings. If they refuse to accept your version of the story, paraphrase what you’re getting from their story and ask them questions about their perspective. If they accuse you of something, try to understand where they’re coming from before you defend yourself.

If you get overwhelmed in a conversation, or if you aren’t sure how to proceed, ask them questions, and listen.

3) Naming the Dynamic

Naming the dynamic is essentially bringing into the conversation what’s happening in the conversation. It allows you to articulate the trouble spots of the conversation and is especially useful when the other person won’t follow your example and hogs the conversation. 

Naming the dynamic can help clear the air between you by cutting to the core of what’s going on in the conversation in the present. However, it can also take the conversation off course, and can sometimes escalate tension, so it’s probably best to use it as a last resort.

Here are some examples of how naming the dynamic can help you manage difficult conversations more constructively.

  • Self-sabotaging: the other person could be bringing up an issue when they don’t have time to talk about it. You could say, “I’ve observed that we always run out of time whenever we get into this conversation. Could we set aside a designated hour when we can really sit down and focus on this?”
  • The other person refuses to hear your side of things. You could say, “I’ve tried three times now to say what I felt, but you keep talking over me. I’m not sure if you’re aware you’re doing it, but I’m getting frustrated. If there’s something important you’re saying that I’m not understanding, please share what it is. Then I’d like to be able to finish what I’m trying to say.”
  • The person says they’re fine when they’re clearly not. You could say, “I’m noticing that I ask you if you’re feeling hurt, and you say no, of course not — but then you behave like other people behave when they’re hurt or mad at me. It seems like we should try to figure out what I’m doing that’s upsetting you, or we won’t get anywhere.”
  • The person gets upset even when you express things healthily. You could say, “The last few times I’ve expressed what’s important to me, you’ve gotten angry and I’ve felt a little threatened. I’m not sure why. If what I’m saying is angering you, then I’d like to hear why it’s upsetting to you. If you’re trying to scare me into changing my mind, that’s not going to work. I really want to know what’s upsetting you, and I’d like us figure out how to talk about this so that I don’t feel intimidated.”
The 3 Power Moves to Manage Difficult Conversations

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  • Why healthy relationships need difficult conversations
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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