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Nobody tells you how to discuss the hard things. You may learn from your parents how to "play fair." You're taught that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, and a few other gems. But how are you supposed to know what to say to a boss who undermines you in a big meeting? What do you do when you keep having the same, but increasingly annoying, argument with your spouse? How about (my personal favorite) dealing with the noisy neighbors? Sometimes these conversations happen in a fit of anger, in which case not much usually improves. Sometimes we plan strategically with friends. Their advice, and our own ideas about how to broach difficult matters, come from experience, which is nothing to be scoffed at. But often we fret in nervous anticipation, stumble through a conversation, come away frustrated or fail to get the desired results. We are left to wonder: If we'd approached the issue differently, could we be better satisfied with the outcome?
Difficult Conversations is a new work by the Harvard Negotiation Project, the group that produced the bestselling Getting to Yes . This is a step-by-step guide to weathering conversational storms. It breaks down a conversation into three parts, illuminating the moments where misunderstandings arise. First, there is the "What Happened?" conversation. That's when you and your interlocutor each decide you are right, make assumptions about why the other person did what she or he did, and ascribe blame. Next, there's the "Feelings" conversation, in which many people do not think it's important to communicate—or successfully communicate—how the issue at hand affected them emotionally. Finally, there's the "Identity" part, which is the most subtle and complex. The Identity Conversation, the authors write, is "all about who we are and how we see ourselves. How does what happened affect my self-esteem, my self-image, my sense of who I am in the world?"
Sometimes we're confident that we've given the other person a fair chance, but here we learn how arguments emerge in spite of good intentions. Your husband embarrassed you in front of your friends; he apologized, but he didn't seem to understand why what he did was wrong, and the apology didn't make you feel any better. The tools in this book show us how to express what we wanted to express in the conversation, but in such a way as to understand about the other person, to learn why the issue emerged, and to manage the issue in a productive way. The authors refer to this as a "Learning Conversation."
The techniques in this book won't surprise you. Fine, you think, but yesterday when I blasted my kid for breaking his curfew, I was right. He was wrong. I showed him that such behavior was unacceptable. But will he break his curfew again? Probably. Is he pouting in his room or complaining to his friends? Likely. In spite of how familiar and sensible the advice in this book is, such logic tends to slip away at just the wrong moment. This is not a book you should cozy up with on a Sunday afternoon. This is a book you should use as a prep/pep talk, so that the night before you're planning to fire your assistant, break up with your boyfriend, or tell your sister you're contesting your father's will, you can remind yourself what to expect and how to manage your confrontation.
Hilary Liftin is the coauthor of Dear Exile.