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Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen.
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1-Page Summary1-Page Book Summary of Difficult Conversations

In business, in day-to-day interactions, and in personal matters, difficult conversations come up all the time — conversations where people’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions about certain issues are in conflict. But if we can learn how to handle difficult conversations more productively, our relationships and our lives will improve.

Difficult conversations involve anything we find it difficult to talk about. In these conversations, we usually fear consequences, whether we bring up the issue or avoid it. If we avoid the subject, we risk our feelings festering or the situation worsening. If we bring up the issue, we risk upsetting the other person or not getting what we want.

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.” To have better difficult conversations, we have to change how we think of difficult conversations, and how we approach them.

(Shortform note: There is a lot of information packed into this book, and consequentially this summary. While the 1-page summary hits all the major ideas of Difficult Conversations, the full summary goes into much greater detail and instruction on how to use these ideas.)

The Three Conversations Within a Difficult Conversation

The authors studied thousands of difficult conversations and discovered that they all shared the same basic structure comprised of three conversations going on within the difficult conversation:

  1. The What Happened Conversation
  2. The Feelings Conversation
  3. The Identity Conversation

In difficult conversations that don’t go well, we usually make crucial mistakes in each of these internal conversations.

The What Happened Conversation

In a bad difficult conversation, the What Happened Conversation is about who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.” In these conversations, we usually confuse intention with impact and believe, because we’re upset about something, that the other person intended to hurt us. We blame the other person for the issue, and view ourselves as victims. We essentially turn what could be a productive difficult conversation into an argument about who was in the right and who deserves to be punished.

The Contribution System

The antidote to this harmful version of the What Happened Conversation is to embrace something called the Contribution System. In any difficult conversation, no one person is to blame: difficult conversations arise when two people have both contributed to the situation to make it difficult. There are some exceptions to this rule, but in general, conflict arises when two people’s choices and beliefs clash with one another, meaning both people have contributed something to the conflict.

The Contribution System helps us focus on the ways we might have contributed to the issue so that we can take some ownership over the situation and make better choices in the future. It also helps us express the ways we think the other person has contributed in a productive fashion — the other person has less room to get defensive (which quickly turns a difficult conversation into a blaming conversation) if they feel we’ve taken some responsibility for our own actions as well.

The Feelings Conversation

In a bad difficult conversation, the Feelings Conversation gets suppressed and goes unmentioned, or becomes one-sided and ultimately turns into blame — most of us go into difficult conversations either:

  • Oblivious to our own feelings about the issue
  • Convinced we shouldn’t bring our feelings into the conversation
  • Or convinced that our feelings are the only ones that matter.
Analyzing Your Emotional Footprint and Negotiating Your Feelings

The first antidote to this harmful version of the Feelings Conversation is getting to know our emotional footprint — what emotions we feel comfortable acknowledging and what emotions we don’t feel comfortable acknowledging, usually based on how our family handled emotions. Once we’re...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Introduction to Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations was written by members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, whose goal is to establish and circulate conflict resolution strategies. The first book published by the HNP, Getting to Yes, has been massively successful since its publishing in 1981. While Getting to Yes focuses on effective strategies for traditional negotiation, Difficult Conversations applies the “Harvard Method” more broadly to everyday disagreements. Negotiations happen in everyday life, and people don’t seem to want to have them. Or, more troublesome, things get worse when people do talk about the issues they’re facing. This is where Difficult Conversations comes in.

At their core, everyone is the same: we all have our own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, and every day we interact with other people who have their own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Sometimes our thoughts conflict with someone else’s thoughts, or feelings with feelings, or perceptions with perceptions — that’s when difficult conversations arise.

Difficult conversations aren’t an anomaly you can solve once and be done with. Difficult...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 1: What Are Difficult Conversations?

A simple definition is this: a difficult conversation involves anything you find it difficult to talk about. Commonly, difficult conversations involve major categories like race, religion, sexuality, gender, or politics. But difficult conversations also include topics we feel insecure about, or issues that make us feel vulnerable, or matters that are important to us, or situations where the outcome is unknown, or instances that concern people we care about.

In short, the situations that require difficult conversations are many and varied:

  • You have to fire an employee at work who’s now an old friend.
  • You overhear your mother-in-law criticizing your parenting style right before you go on vacation with her.
  • You want to tell your father how much you love him, but it makes you both uncomfortable.
  • Your neighbors’ dog has been barking nonstop at night, and you can’t get any sleep.

Difficult conversations are usually conversations where we fear the consequences, whether we avoid having the conversation or we raise the issue. And there are risks no matter how you choose to proceed:

  • If we avoid the conversation, we risk having our feelings fester, or...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 2: What Happened Mistake #1 - Arguing About Who’s Right

In the What Happened conversation, people usually disagree — there wouldn’t be much reason to have a difficult conversation, and therefore the What Happened part of it, if everyone was in agreement. Each side typically thinks they’re right and that they hold the one single truth.

When we get into an argument with someone, we typically assume they’re the problem. We’re right, they won’t listen, they’re selfish, or naive, or controlling, or irrational — so we push our own opinion harder, or try to make them see the light.

But, of course, on the other side, they think we’re the problem too. And they think we’re stubborn, or selfish, or naive. In an argument, we rarely stop to pause and consider that it might be us who’s in the wrong — but this is because our story makes perfect sense to us. We know why we’re right; we have all the supporting evidence in our minds.

Why Doesn’t It Work?

Difficult conversations are usually about differences in perception, and in this case, the only truth is that there is no truth. Asking who’s right or who’s wrong goes nowhere.

**Arguments are when two people’s respective stories make perfect sense to them, but the stories are...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 3: What Happened Mistake #2 - Assuming Intentions

We all know our own intentions, so we never question them. But we never know the other person’s intentions unless we ask — and we rarely do that in the midst of a difficult conversation. Instead, we assume we know what the other person intended to do. We assume that cutting remark was meant to hurt us, even though we know our own remark that seemed to hurt the other person’s feelings wasn’t meant to hurt them.

The best rule of thumb for going into difficult conversations is don’t assume the other person had bad intentions.

Intentions influence how we view other people: we judge someone more harshly if we think they intended to hurt us, or if we think their intentions are bad or ignoble.

Think of it this way: you’re in a rush to get back to the office after stopping off at a cafe to get a quick bite for lunch. You go to back out of your parking spot, but you find yourself blocked in by a fancy BMW, parked in the middle of the lot. What’s the first thought that jumps into your mind? Now, what if it was an ambulance with its lights on instead? This is a good metaphor for how we go into difficult conversations. The BMW represents the assumption that someone...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 4: What Happened Mistake #3 - Blame

Similar to the first mistake in the What Happened conversation, most people go into difficult conversations wanting to blame the other person for what happened. “If only she hadn’t said or done X, this would never have happened.” In our version of events, who to blame always seems clear, and rarely is it us.

Focusing on blame isn’t constructive because it prevents us from learning what the real problem is and doing something to fix it. Blame isn’t relevant, and it isn’t fair. We often blame others because we don’t want to be blamed. We also blame others because we equate it with talking about our feelings — “You hurt my feelings, so you’re to blame.” The first part can be useful; the second part never is.

We can’t stop blaming until we understand what blame is, what motivates it, and how to move towards the idea of the contribution system instead.

What Is Blame?

Blame is about judgment and looking backwards. The issue of whether someone’s to “blame” is really about three connected questions:

  1. Did this person cause the problem?
  2. Should their actions be judged against some standard, and if so, what standard?
  3. Should they be punished?

“This is...

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Shortform Exercise: Practicing the Contribution System

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you take a more balanced approach to contribution. You can return to this exercise whenever a difficult issue arises.

Pick a current issue you have with someone in your life, such as a partner, a friend, your boss, or a colleague. Briefly summarize the issue from your own perspective.

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 5: The Feelings Conversation

Difficult conversations aren’t just about what happened, but how we feel about what happened.

We tend to avoid our feelings, especially in difficult conversations, because we feel they get in the way of progress, or are embarrassing, or don’t matter. It’s also scary and risky to share feelings, and it leaves us feeling vulnerable.

But feelings are vital to any difficult conversation. Ignoring emotions removes an integral component of the content of the conversation. The authors describe it as “staging an opera without the music. You’ll get the plot but miss the point.”

The authors encourage you tohave your feelings, or they’ll have you.” This means emotions will come out one way or another, and you can either acknowledge and embrace your feelings and deal with them constructively, or you can deal with the aftermath of holding them back. If we manage our feelings, they can be useful; if we avoid them, they’ll color our communication, ruin our relationships, and make us feel worse about ourselves.

Why Feelings Have to Come Out

**No negotiation, no matter how skillful, will resolve a difficult conversation if the feelings at the heart of the matter...

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Shortform Exercise: Discovering Your Emotional Footprint

Use this exercise to help you home in on your own personal emotional footprint by starting to understand your family’s footprint and how it affects your present emotional footprint.

Our families play a large part in shaping our emotional footprint. Which feelings were openly discussed in your family? Another way to think of this question is what emotion words (angry, sad, happy, disappointed) did you hear your parents openly use?

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 6: The Identity Conversation

The Identity Conversation is an internal conversation about who we think we are and how we see ourselves. It’s what you’re saying to yourself about yourself. This is probably the most nuanced and difficult of the What Happened components.

Difficult conversations threaten our identity — who we think we are. The Identity Conversation is about what’s at stake for us in a difficult conversation. The anxiety we feel when we think about approaching a difficult conversation is at least partially because these conversations can shake our idea of ourselves.

  • If you see yourself as a good person, for example, but you have to fire someone at work, they probably aren’t going to see you that way, which will challenge how you see yourself.
  • Think about asking for a raise. As you prepare for the meeting, questions are flying through your mind, consciously or unconsciously. What if your boss says no? What if she has good reasons for saying no - because you’re not as competent as you think?

There are three core identity questions that give us anxiety during difficult conversations:

1. Am I competent? We all like to think we are — so if you’re the person getting...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 7: Whether to Start a Difficult Conversation

Now that we’ve covered the three meta-conversations in-depth, these next chapters are about how to move through a difficult conversation. The first question is important - should you have a difficult conversation, or just get over it?

We can’t have every single difficult conversation in life — there are too many. So sometimes, it’s best to let things go. But how can you tell what issues to let go and what issues to raise?

Consider the purpose of the conversation, rule out conversations that won’t help, and consider whether it’s better to merely let go.

What’s the Purpose of the Conversation?

The main purpose of any difficult conversation should be mutual understanding. This doesn’t mean mutual agreement. Difficult conversations are about working to understand each other’s stories better, so you can make better collective decisions about what to do next.

If your purposes are focused on learning and solving together, the situation would benefit from a difficult conversation. But in some cases, a difficult conversation isn’t the best path forward.

Four Situations Where Conversations Won’t Help

**1. If the conflict is inside of you, raising the issue won’t...

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Shortform Exercise: Separating Intention from Impact

Use this exercise to practice separating someone else’s intentions from the impact their behavior had on you, either by reflecting on a past issue or working through a current one.

Think of an issue you had with someone else in the past, or one you’re currently experiencing. First, write down the actions the other person took. What did they actually say or do that led to the issue?

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 8: Beginning a Difficult Conversation

The beginning of a difficult conversation is usually the most stressful moment, where we either learn that bad news is coming our way, or that the person we’re talking to is going to get upset.

We also usually start the conversation in unhelpful ways. Difficult conversations are difficult: most of us treat the beginning of them like we treat swimming — we close our eyes and just jump in.

As a reflection on what we’ve covered so far, here are the attitudes to take into a difficult conversation:

  • Replace certainty with curiosity. Don’t believe that your story is the one right story. Challenge why you believe what you do, and ask what you don’t know. Then be curious about someone else’s story and ask questions.
  • Adopt the And Stance. Embrace that both sides’ stories are valid.
  • Don’t assume bad intentions of the other person. Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean the other person wanted you to feel bad. Ask what the other person said or did exactly, and what assumptions you’re making about the intention behind it.
    • Even go in assuming good intentions, and phrase things accordingly — “I was surprised by your comment” or “I thought that action...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 9: The Importance of Listening

Humans want to be heard. We want to feel like someone else cares about us enough to listen. Listening is a vital skill for difficult conversations. Not only does it help us understand the other person better, but it helps them understand us better as well.

Listening can transform a difficult conversation into a learning conversation. It requires us to be curious about the other person, to reframe our purpose from persuading the other person to learning about them. We need to ask questions to better understand the other person and acknowledge the other person’s feelings.

One of the most common complaints the authors hear about difficult conversations is that the other person isn’t listening. This really means we need to be better at listening first. When we feel others aren’t listening to us, we tell ourselves they’re stubborn, don’t care what we have to say, or don’t understand it. So we often double-down, repeat ourselves, and talk over the other person.

The reality is that people stop listening when they don’t feel heard. If we feel like someone isn’t listening to us, they probably feel the same way about us. **The way to get someone to listen to...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 10: Uphold Your End of a Difficult Conversation

Understanding the other person in a difficult conversation is vital — but it’s vital for them to understand you, too, and you’re responsible for how thoroughly you express yourself.

If you have difficulty expressing yourself, you may be insecure about how much you deserve to speak. Remember: what you have to say is worth saying. You have the right to share your thoughts, feelings, and past experiences. Even if you’re talking to a superior, your views are equally important — no more, no less.

(If you tend to feel that you’re not entitled to speak, delve into your Identity Conversation. Who from your past made you believe that? What would it take for you to feel entitled?)

Begin at the Heart of the Matter

Start with what’s most important to you. Many of us try to drop clues about how we feel instead of stating it outright, or we try to ease our way into the conversation.

Subtext Isn’t the Solution

Subtext is indirect communication — through jokes, offhand comments, or other behavior. For instance, if you’re upset at your spouse for sharing in cleaning duties, indirect expression includes statements like, “The house really could use a clean-up,” or, “Do you...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 11: Controlling a Difficult Conversation for a Better Outcome

In an ideal world, everyone you enter into a difficult conversation with would have read this book and can deftly and productively handle the conversation. But that is rarely going to be the case.

More often, you’ll enter into a difficult conversation with someone who does all the wrong things. Your goal is understanding, theirs is being right. You acknowledge contribution, they blame.

You can still have a productive difficult conversation with someone who hasn’t read this book — you do it by leading the conversation. There are three “power moves” that can help you lead the conversation in spite of the other person’s lack of cooperation: reframing, listening, and naming the dynamic.


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...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Chapter 12: The Last Phase — Problem-Solving

You’ve finally unpacked what happened and how it makes you both feel, and have started to understand each other’s stories much better. But ultimately, you still have to work together to solve the issue, and you may disagree on how best to go about it. This is the problem-solving stage.

Problem-solving is essentially collecting the information you just received and coming up with some test options that might help solve both sides’ issues. Problem-solving in difficult conversations requires both parties to consider compromises and accommodation of the needs of the other person.

Test Your (Differing) Hypotheses

Differences in perspective usually stem from assumptions or hypotheses that conflict with each other. We usually keep these assumptions to ourselves, or we might not even know they’re assumptions.

If you can identify what the conflicting assumptions are, then you can come up with a fair test to see whose assumption is more valid, or how much more valid it is.

Example: Your neighbor’s dog has been keeping you up with his barking. You talk to your neighbors and discover they just had a baby and have been keeping the dog outside at night because they’re afraid...

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Difficult Conversations Summary Appendix: Ten Common Questions About Difficult Conversations

The authors included a list of 10 common questions they receive about Difficult Conversations, and how they’d respond to these questions.

Q1: Is Everything Relative?

Q: Are you saying everything is relative? Aren’t things sometimes true, and aren’t people sometimes wrong about their opinions?

A: Facts are facts. Everything else is everything else.

Facts aren’t relative — but it can be hard to distinguish between what’s fact and what’s subjective. You can measure facts and verify them. But opinions, judgments, values, assumptions, interests, predictions — these are all subjective and are not facts. It’s crucial during a difficult conversation to be able to distinguish between facts and everything else.

For example, if you get a $30 bill at dinner and leave a 15% tip of $6, it’s a fact that you’ve done the math wrong: a 15% tip would be $4.50. However, if you’re at dinner with someone who leaves a 15% tip and you tell them that 20% tips are the appropriate amount, that’s an opinion, not a fact. Even if you’re opinion is based on a survey that says 20% is the usual amount that people tip — the survey is a fact, but your judgment is still subjective


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Shortform Exercise: Navigating the Three Conversations

Remember, it’s helpful to do some work on your own before heading into a difficult conversation. Use this exercise to help you work through a past or present issue — and come back to it anytime you find yourself approaching a difficult conversation.

Think of an issue you’re having currently or have had in the past. Instead of writing down your POV, do your best to summarize the Third Story perspective on the issue (refer back to Chapter 14 for how to do that).

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