February 22, 2020
 
Conversations to Have Just Because They're Difficult

Nonprofit leaders generally recognize that long-term success rests on doing a number of things well—financing, hiring, managing—but perhaps the most crucial skill may be their ability to master difficult conversations, for which the aptly titled Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most provides inestimable guidance.

Why? Because, as authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of The Harvard Negotiation Project write, globalized competition and technological development have made rapid change and adaptation a necessity for organizational survival, and "the ability to handle difficult conversations well is a prerequisite to organizational change and adaptation."

Nonprofits serving constituencies in Massachusetts may like to think they don't have global competitors, but they do just because technology enables donors to contribute to charitable causes almost anywhere as easily they can support local organizations.

Going forward, the authors argue, breakthrough performance will depend on people learning to deal with conflict more effectively and then leveraging it for competitive advantage. That will make them faster learners and more innovative, thereby increasing their—and their organization's—ability to thrive.

Learning to have difficult conversations starts with understanding, or decoding, the structure of those discussions, and, the authors write, each difficult conversation is really three conversations:
  • The "what happened?" conversation, in which the parties disagree about what has happened or what should happen. Who said what and who did what? Who's right? Who meant what?

  • The feelings conversation, in which the question is not will strong feelings arise, but rather how to handle them when they arise. Are my feelings valid? What do I do about the other person's feelings?

  • The identity conversation, which we have with ourselves about what the situation means. Are we competent? How do my answers affect our well-being?
Successfully concluding a difficult conversation, the authors contend, requires learning to operate effectively in each of the three realms.

Using highly detailed examples, Difficult Conversations guides the reader through the subtleties of successful conversations. In addition to providing comprehensive analysis throughout their narrative, the authors provide "A Difficult Conversations Checklist."

The second edition of the book also includes a list of 10 questions people ask about Difficult Conversations, along with detailed exploration of the issues raised, e.g., What if the other person really does have bad intentions? What if the conversations aren't face-to-face? How does this work with someone who has all the power, like my boss?

Readers should keep in mind two concepts. First, engaging in meaningful discussion is very much about listening: "You can't move the conversation in a more positive direction until the other person feels heard and understood....Whenever you feel overwhelmed or unsure how to proceed, remember that it is always a good time to listen." Second, "Most difficult conversations are not, in actuality, a single conversation. They are a series of exchanges and explorations that happen over time."

There's no question that effective discussions take work, but so do the relationships they help create and sustain. We owe it to ourselves and the people we engage with to make those conversations as productive as possible.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is available from Amazon.

Reviewed by Peter Lowy
February 2020


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