A "difficult conversation," according to Stone et al, is "anything you find it hard to talk about":
Sexuality, race, gender, politics, and religion come quickly to mind as difficult topics to discuss, and for many of us they are. But discomfort and awkwardness are not limited to topics on the editorial page. Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult.
Per the authors, there are three dimensions to a difficult conversation: practical substance ("the What Happened conversation"), emotional (or inter-personal) subtext, and identity (or inner-personal) subtext. Pointing out something that's both obvious and easy to miss, Stone et al point out that difficult conversations are rarely about what's true so much as they're about what's important, and a lot of trouble can be saved when participants are careful to distinguish between factual claims and value claims.
The What Happened conversation consists of the concrete matter of dispute, such as a friend's drug abuse or a boss' bullying. Stone et al urge readers to keep in mind that facts fit into a story, and disagreements usually stem from different stories rather than conflicting facts. To get past this, it's important to be clear about "what happened" according to you, including the assumptions, values, and past experiences which inform your story; and of course it's just as important to clearly understand the other person's "what happened" story, and where they're coming from. For example, an undocumented migrant laborer and a member of the Romney clan will have very different life-experiences to inform their views on, say, the police. This doesn't mean both are equally right; it just means that if you want to communicate, you've gotta get clear about what you're saying and what the other person's saying.
Because at bottom, difficult conversations are about feelings. This sounds a little hippie-woo-woo, sure, but when you think about it, what could be more obvious than the fact that emotionally-difficult conversations are difficult because of the emotions at their core. If anger is what's getting in the way of a productive exchange, then you've gotta deal with anger (and the brew of other emotions which are almost always simmering underneath it).
And these strong emotions which can make conversations so difficult are connected not only to the other person, but to internal issues of self-image, confidence, and identity. Your correspondent can report that in his own emotional travails, the times when he's gotten pissy and brutal have been only weakly correlated to something shitty the other person did. (When I'm internally okay, it's hard for other people to hurt me.) Incidents of pissy brutality strongly correlate, on the other hand, to my own shame, inadequacy, etc. (When I'm hurting and desperate, I'll find something to be angry about.) Anger is an easier emotion to handle than self-loathing or incompetence; like a nation which goes to war rather than address domestic inequality, getting pissed off is a way to dodge your own spiritual self-improvement.
So those are the three conversations: the "What Happened" conversation, the emotions conversation, and the identity conversation. The three bleed into each other like pages of a damp sketchpad, with "What Happened" ("You tattled on me to the boss") serving as an unconscious metaphor for emotional ("I feel betrayed, hurt, angry, and confused") and identity ("I fear that other people don't value me or take me seriously") subtext. Again, this all sounds really whiny and touchy-feeling, like a new-age inner-child symposium complete with re-birthing ceremonies and 'Song of Myself' creative re-writes. But, again, here's the juice: people fundamentally act based on emotion and self-identity. We are not a species of Spocks; we are a species of McCoys. If you want to ignore emotions, you're free to emulate the hollow machismo of Sly Stallone and the GOP; but if you want to have productive conversations about blood-pressure-raising topics, you've gotta address identity and emotions. And if you want to behave rationally, you've gotta manage your emotions first. You cannot will yourself to emotional balance. This means doing stuff like learning to listen to your own emotions, and thinking hard about which emotions you've learned are appropriate and which are taboo, and thinking about how you've learned to express your emotions.
Strategies for hearing where the other person is coming from, and for difficultly conversing in general, include:
-Shut up and listen. Don't pretend to listen, don't interrupt, don't nod while thinking about how you're going to respond. Listen.
-If you're too keyed-up and can't listen, then say so: "What you're saying is important to me and I want to hear it. But I'm having a hard time concentrating on what you're saying, because I feel really angry and cornered right now. Having put that out there, I'd like to try again to hear what you've got to say."
-Ask questions--real questions, not statements cloaked as rhetorical questions or cross-examination questions designed to show the internal contradiction in what the other person is saying. Genuinely try to understand where the other person is coming from. Paraphrase what you're hearing from them, to make sure you've got it right.
-What's their story? What's at stake for them? What's the cost for them to accept your version of the story?
-Find common ground between your story and theirs by thinking of how a disinterested observer might describe things: "Jesse smokes a pack a day. He does this because cigarettes help him deal with stress and depression, and he's afraid of failing if he tries to quit. His sister Joan hates that he smokes because of smoking's health effects, plus she finds cigarettes gross." Stone et al call this the "Third Story." You can talk about What Happened and how it was perceived and felt by both parties in neutral terms (indeed, that's often what we mean when we refer to "reality": it's just consensus-perception). Doing this gets all the important pieces out in the open without triggering anyone.
-Acknowledge what you hear from them. Sometimes someone really just needs to be hears: "I hear that you were hurt by what I did." Sometimes that's all you need. And by the way, acknowledging ≠ agreeing or ceding your view. Beware either/or dichotomies...
-...Speaking of neither "either" nor "or," you should make it a habit to say "and" instead of "either/or" in difficult conversations: "I didn't finish the assignment by the deadline AND I thought I communicated clearly that I was behind schedule AND I hear you when you say that you didn't find that to be clearly communicated AND part of why I was behind was the other extra work you asked me to do AND I can see how it impacts you for me to miss the deadline AND...etc." As Whitman put it, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." Don't oversimplify the issue, like politicians do (e.g. "Either you support the war, or you don't love America"). Recognize the smorgasbord of facts, observations, values, interpretations, etc. which inform both you and the other person.
-Disentangle intent from impact: what the other person meant to do ≠ what their effect was. You know what their impact was; you don't know what their intent was.
-At the same time, good intentions don't sanitize bad impact (think of drunk driving). Own your impact.
-Don't refrain from re-framing! Figure out how to frame the issue in a way that's accurate and rings true while also allowing you to work toward a solution. The difference between "I'm a useless scumhole junkie" and "I struggle with addiction" is nothing other than framing, but that difference is the basis of recovery.
-Name the Dynamic: if there's some sort of pattern which keeps the conversation from moving forward--the other person keeps cutting you off, or changing the subject--you can make that pattern itself a topic of the conversation. "I've noticed that several times when I've started to talk about the class schedule, you've interrupted me. Does that seem accurate to you? Can you think of what might be causing that?" The downside of this tactic is that it distracts the conversation (e.g. about the class schedule) into a meta-conversation.
-Work on a solution together, as a joint-exploration. Consider alternatives and compromises, and always try to work on the assumption that the other person is acting in good faith and on honest purposes (recall: their impact ≠ their intentions).
Blame vs. Contribution
Don't talk about blame; talk about contributions to the problem. This is philosophy 101 stuff, but the difference between having caused something vs. being responsible for something is massive. Cause is about the chain of events which lead to some outcome. Responsibility (or blame) is a complex, socially-constructed ethical claim. Think again of a drunk driver who runs over a pedestrian: it's obvious that the driver is responsible (or blameworthy) for the accident. But it's also obvious that the pedestrian contributed to the accident by walking across the street; similarly, the driver's friends contributed by not doing more to keep him from drinking and driving. Talking about blame is useful if the goal of the conversation is figuring out who to punish. But if your goal is to problem-solve, then talking about contribution instead of blame frees you from decreeing a judgment and lets you concentrate on the practical question of, "What can we change to fix this in the future?" Concentrating on blame also prevents the conversation from addressing systems of contribution, by focusing on individual actors: for example, it's much easier to blame Romney or Obama or whoever than it is to think about the complex web of contribution which causes the US government to behave in the way that it does. (That doesn't mean you shouldn't get angry, just that your anger should be directed toward finding solutions rather than scapegoats.)
Also, when you try to raise the issue of contributions during a difficult conversation, own your contributions to the problem first, then explain what you think they contributed. This may take the other person off the defensive and make them more open to hearing about their own contribution, because it signals that you're not trying to cast them as the sole villain. And always make your reasoning explicit: "Here's what I think you contributed, and here's why I think that..."
3 Facts About Yourself Which Are Helpful to Keep In Mind
1. "I will make mistakes."
2. "My intentions are complex."
3. "I have contributed to the problem."
4 Ways to Regain Balance When You Feel a Mel-Gibson-level Freakout Coming On
1. Let go of trying to control their reaction. That's outside your power.
2. Prepare (emotionally, ahead of time) for their response.
3. Imagine yourself in the distant future, to get some perspective on just how important this conversation really is.
4. Take a break if you need it.
4 Liberating Assumptions
1. "It's not my responsibility to make things better; it's my responsibility to try my best.
2. "They have limitations, too."
3. "This conflict is not about who I am."
4. "Letting go doesn't mean I no longer care."
Bonus: "I am the ultimate authority on me: how I feel, what I value, how I'm affected, etc."
3 Purposes In a Conversation (That Work)
1. Learning the other person's story.
2. Expressing your views and feelings.
3. Problem solving together.
Even If You Can't Work It Out
Keep in mind that all this hippie-dippy stuff about listening to the other person's story and exploring feelings and reframing blame into contribution doesn't mean you cave into whatever they want you to do. Contra John McCain, there is a difference between listening to someone you disagree with and consenting to their demands. You can make strong demands on someone without acting like a bully or a blowhard.
If you do end up without an amenable solution, be clear about what you're doing and why. Don't be passive-aggressive; be calm-assertive. "While I think I understand why you want me to stay, I'm still going to leave this company in two weeks. As I've said, the pay is better, and I don't feel confident enough about working conditions here for me to stay on. But I appreciate you taking the time to discuss this with me...etc."