Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations: Telling your story

“Words create the bridges between us.  Without them we would be lost islands.  Affection, recognition and understanding travel across these fragile bridges and enable us to discover each other and awaken friendship and intimacy.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

We are going to discuss how to have a difficult conversation with someone whom you disagree.

In any difficult conversation, you must be able to advocate for yourself.  You have a story to tell.  It is your story–your perspective on events.  Mutual understanding cannot occur if your story is not expressed.  To be effective, per Douglas Stone, author of Difficult Conversations, you must learn to “speak with clarity and power.” 

Telling your story is best accomplished after you have effectively listened to the other person’s story.  You now understand their point of view.  You can see the impact of events on them.  You should have a clear understanding of their intent: their goals and values.  You understand their thought processes and feelings involved.  Where did they start from and where did they intend to end up?

You have an advantage in going second. You can tailor your story to address key moments that were brought up during the telling of the other person’s story. You are not going to try to undermine their story, but you can start to close the gap between what you both know. They might have observed that you appeared to be feeling one way, for instance. However, your feelings may have been far more complex. You can help clarify for them which observations they made about you were true and which weren’t.

Remind them that their beliefs regarding your own feelings and intentions are merely hypotheses needing to be tested.

Remember, emotional intelligence experts need not apply. Give the other person credit if they’ve observed you feeling certain feelings. Kindly correct them when your feelings, thoughts, and intentions are different than what they imagined. Remind them that their beliefs regarding your own feelings and intentions are merely hypotheses needing to be tested.

This Article Contains:

Before starting… sort out your own story in your head
How to understand three perspectives in any difficult conversation
How to begin from the “third story”
How to roll into your story: Start with a feeling and an identity anchor
Do’s of telling your story
Things to avoid when telling your story:
How to turn blame into contribution
How to be genuine
How to manage nonverbal communication
How to balance honesty in storytelling
How to exercise discretion – you are not an open book
The back-and-forth rhythm of storytelling
Bookshelf: advanced reading on difficult conversations

Before starting… sort out your own conversation in your head

Your goal is to create a learning conversation.  Understanding is key.  To do this, you must first exercise some humility yourself.  You are not here to dole out blame and punishments, whether to yourself or the other person.  You are not going to prescribe “fixes” for the issue.  You do not have all the answers and solutions.  Solutions will blossom organically only after mutual understanding is achieved.  Let connection be the cure

Let connection be the cure. 

To be effective, you must be able to sort out your own story in your head.  It’s ok if your story is still confusing, but you must have a good chunk of it arranged first.  Saying, “I don’t know” is a very effective signal of humility that invites curiosity from the listener.

Chances are you are confused by your own conflicting feelings.  Having heard the other person’s story, there are parts of you that can now empathize with their point-of-view.  That is expected. If you can’t do this yet, go back and try active listening again until you can.

You should also expect to have other parts of you now rebelling against some things they said.  That is normal and natural. After all, your point-of-view matters, too! Do your best to map out these feelings ahead of time.  You can then get them out there.  In fact, this is often a great place to begin, by stating out-loud the internal conflict that you have.  “I have mixed feelings about this situation. On the one hand, I am very appreciative when you… On the other hand, it also makes me quite angry…”

Understand three perspectives in any difficult conversation

Before you begin, you must also have a good understanding of perspective.  There are three perspectives at stake in any difficulty conversation.  Each person has their own perspective—their own story.  This includes the personal feelings, thoughts, values, and mental processes that the person experienced.  It also includes their intentions, their observations, and the impact of unfolding events on them.  

The “third story”

This chart shows three perspectives. The first perspective is shown in orange, which represents one person’s story. That person felt the impact of events and circumstances and then took some action. The second perspective is shown in blue, which represents the second person’s story. They also felt the impact of events and circumstances and then took some action.

The “third story” occurs when we take a step back and see the impact of everyone’s actions altogether. Here we see the basic outline of a behavior cycle. One person’s actions have an impact on the other person, who responds in turn. The third story is an outsider’s perspective, the type of perspective that would be assumed by a mediator or relationship counselor.

The goal here is not to judge who is right. Instead, the mediator’s job is to allow both stories to be heard. Only then will imaginative solutions reveal themselves. Both sides must see the true impact of their actions. How does that impact then feed into the cycle in a type of rhythm. A person who feeds negative energy into the system should fully expect that negative energy to return to them–to bounce back. It may bounce back amplified or diminished, depending on how much work the second person puts in to affect it. But nevertheless, it will return.

Begin from the “third story”

It is most effective to begin your story from the position of the “third story.” You now have both stories in your mind. Look at the whole of everything that has happened. How did their behavior affect yours? How did your behavior affect theirs? Most likely, both of you contributed to the cycle, at least in some way. Start by saying things like:

  • “I don’t like the way things have gone between us. After hearing you, I can see now that we both contributed to the problem…”
  • “I can see now how we’ve both been attacking each other, each in our own different ways, and that this hasn’t been healthy for our relationship…”
  • “After hearing you, I can see how the connection between us has frayed and finally come to a head here…”

The third story is an admission of humility. It puts aside the discussion about right-vs-wrong–blame and guilt. These concepts are generally toxic to understanding. We are not seeking to punish. Instead, we look to concepts of safety, values, perspective, accountability, connection, and understanding. Each of these concepts can only be seen fully from the “third story.” It is here in this space that we can establish safe boundaries and build bridges of connection.

Start with a feeling and an identity anchor

After giving brief statement acknowledging the existence of the “third story,” feel free to roll into your story. If this is particularly difficult conversation, consider starting with an identity anchor and a feeling that you might attach to that anchor. Typically, the identity anchor is the main subject at hand. It could be the relationship between the two individuals or another important relationship that forms the focus of discussion. Then say plainly how you’ve been feeling about that subject.

For example:

  • I worry about our son
  • I really like my job, but I feel things haven’t been working out for me lately…
  • I’ve been feeling somewhat disconnected from you these past few months…
  • I’ve had a lot of anger recently. I’m not sure what it’s about, but it’s got something to do with stress at work. I know that it’s made me feel disconnected from you
  • I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings about spending Christmas with your parents

In each case, you’ve clarified what you think is the primary subject for discussion. You make it plain that this subject is important to you just by bringing it up. Then you give a feeling. Remember that feelings are energy. This important feeling (or small group of mixed feelings) will drive your story forward.

From here, you may not know exactly how your story will go from the outset. Engage with your listener. Let them ask curious questions. Give them some freedom to play around in your world. Give as much control to the listener as possible. You have important points make, certainly. But the order in which you tell them isn’t necessarily as important.

Do’s of telling your story

  • Start with what matters most.  The listener’s energy tanks are highest at the beginning.  Don’t work up to the most important subject by easing them into it.  This will only heighten everybody’s anxiety or surprise them at the end after they’re starting to feel exhausted.
  • Speak for yourself with power. This is your story. These are your feelings and values. This is your perspective–how you see things. There is no need to beat around the bush. But if you are confused or your feelings are mixed, make sure to state this also. Feelings and values are sacrosanct. They are personal to you and not to be questioned.
  • Present your thoughts and conclusions as hypotheses needing to be tested. Everything is experimental at this point. You do not have all the answers. Your judgment is not the final word. Let the listener hear your thoughts but leave wiggle room for changing your mind. You need to know the difference between feelings, values, thoughts and conclusions. Here are some examples:
    • I felt abandoned when I saw you flirting with that other girl (feeling).
    • I value family over workplace responsibilities (value).
    • I observed that you appeared uncomfortable around my ex (an observation / thought).
    • I thought that you cared more about your job than mine (thought).
    • I believe that we made a mistake when we let our daughter go to that party (conclusion).
  • Tell the process behind your conclusions. Recognize how past experiences may have created biases in your mind:
    • “I grounded our kids for a week because that’s what my parents would have done if I’d skipped school. That’s what worked for me when I was a child. I understand the same strategy may not also work for our children…”
  • Talk about your conflicting feelings.  You don’t have to fully understand them.
    • “I’ve had these feelings of shame lately. I don’t know where they come from. I know I’m worried about our finances…”
  • Give examples of ways the other person might have communicated better for you. Present these as suggestions, not as absolute ways in which something ought to be done.
    • “When you said that to me, it really didn’t sit well. I know I exploded. Now that I’ve seen your side of things, I think it would’ve been helpful for me if you had said… instead. That’s a message that would’ve resonated with me and not rubbed me the wrong way.”
    • “When you said you were bored last year at the lake cabin, what I heard was that you don’t like spending time with my family and that they drive you nuts. I think I would have responded better if you had said that you would prefer to do a canoe trip with my family rather than sit around fishing.”
  • Call out their behavior.  Help them understand the impact their behavior had on you.  However, you must be careful not to make definitive judgments on right vs wrong.
    • “I don’t think it’s appropriate for your daughter to be wearing those clothes. I think they will attract the wrong kind of attention from the boys at school.”
    • “You are staying out until 2AM with your buddies and coming home drunk. Maybe that’s ok on occasion, but I don’t think that’s appropriate behavior for a married man.”
    • “I think you were too hard on the kids today. You really blew up at them.”
    • “I feel like I can’t talk to you. It seems that when things get difficult, you retreat to your office and spend hours there with the door shut.”
    • “I feel like lately you’ve been dismissing my concerns about our son’s bullying at school.”
  • Be sure not to attack their identity (directly). You are not accusing them of being a bad spouse, parent, worker, etc. You are only calling out behavior or patterns of behavior. Take care with accusatory language that calls out who they are. In fact, even as you’re calling out their behavior, you should be building up their identity at the same time. Here are examples of what not to do:
    • “No boyfriend has ever treated me like that before.”
    • “None of my friends would’ve found that acceptable…”
    • “Why can’t you be more like her?”
    • “You’ve let yourself go.”
  • Avoid making them feel like you’re attacking their identity (implicitly). In the process of calling out behavior, you may establish a pattern that paints the picture of a bad person. Your goal is not to lay out a prosecutor’s case for jail time. Make it clear that you still respect and appreciate their identity.
    • “I’m not saying you’re a bad father. I just think you could’ve handled that fight with our daughter better. Here are some things I would have done differently…”
    • “I want to make clear that even though I felt abandoned when you didn’t support me changing careers, that was uncharacteristic of how you had helped me so many times before. It was surprising because of all the other things you supported me with over the years… I still appreciate you for all of that.”
  • Pause to check in with how they are feeling periodically. Make sure you still have permission to continue the conversation.
    • “That was a lot. I appreciate you. Do you need a break?”
  • Recognize when they begin feeling defensive. Rather than accuse them of defensiveness, realize that you are probably saying too much too quickly. Slow down and let them speak, too.
    • “It seems your anxiety meter going through the roof right now. I understand this is a lot. I’m uncomfortable, too. But I appreciate you listening. Can you tell me more about what you’re thinking right now?”
  • Speak from a place of empathy.  Your caring is directed towards the relationship, which you must regard as important.  Connection is cure.  Your goal is to always build connection and understanding, not destroy the other person or prove one side right or wrong. Keep supporting the listener in their role. You want to build them up.
  • Kindly remind them if they switch to fix-it mode. Tell them you need them to be a good listener now. Fix-it mode is what we do to hurry up and dismiss the other person’s feelings. It is usually a sign the listener is running low on energy. Ask them to be patient and keep listening, if they are able. Or suggest a break.
  • Be accountable for your mistakes and contributions. Point out that you have room to grow. Hopefully you learned something from listening to their side of the story. Point that out. It will give them hopeful energy that you’re on the right track.
  • Discuss openly areas of fit.
    • “I’m not sure you’re the right person for this job.”
    • “I question if we’re right for each other and if we share the same values.”
    • “I can’t tell if you’re fully committed to the relationship the way I am.”

Things to avoid when telling your story:

  • Avoid easing-in, prefacing, or beating around the bush. Instead, just get right to the point. For example, don’t says something like:
    • “There’s something I need to tell you and I don’t think you’re going to like it. I want you to know, before I say it, that I still think you’re a good person…”
  • Presenting your conclusions as “the truth”
  • Absolutes: “always,” “never”
  • Avoid insults.
  • Emotional Intelligence experts need not apply. Avoid assuming you know the other person’s mind, thoughts or feelings. You may score very high on emotional intelligence tests and think you’re an expert on reading people. This mistaken belief will probably hurt you during the discussion. It’s best to speak from a position of humility.
  • Avoid destroying their identity, even if you do question their fit within a group. Even if they did something terrible, it does not make them a bad person. Keep the focus on their behavior (actions and impact). Do not assume their intentions. Remember, their identity is not defined by a single action or pattern of behavior. For conflict resolution to be successful, both individuals’ identities should be strengthened over time.
    • Also keep in mind, identity is not the same as ego. Ego relates to one’s belief in one’s own abilities compared to others. A healthy dose of humility (a reality check) is needed from time to time to balance out ego. Identity relates to a person’s role within a group. There is no person-to-person comparison. Instead, in regard to identity, we measure group cohesion, or fit. For instance, a person’s ego may be too high. However, a group can never be too cohesive. A person can never fit too well within a group. A family can never be too close.
    • Another example of questioning fit without attacking a person’s identity: “I don’t think you’re a bad partner, I just question whether the two of us are a good fit.”

Turn blame into contribution

Blame is toxic to a relationship. Blame often exists as a poor proxy for a discussion about feelings and impact. To move forward, each person must understand their contributions to past problems. This needs to be done without blaming.

Blame also muddles important issues of intent, behavior, identity, feelings, thoughts, and values. These elements need to be separated out, processed, and understood. People who throw around blame are cheating themselves and others. To put it bluntly, blaming is lazy. It is short-cutting the difficult work of separating these key elements, seeing multiple conflicting perspectives, and then seeing the overall evolution of what has been happening.

The toxic nature of blaming can be understood as a type of vicious cycle. Overall blaming tends to contract personal growth for all parties involved. Parties take turns assuming postures of attack and defensiveness. Their ability to appreciate multiple perspectives diminishes. It leads to inflexibility in values and behavior. Blaming also generates feelings of cynicism. Finally, cynicism destroys connection, which completes the cycle of toxicity. We call this negative cycling when a person or group gets caught in a trap of blaming and cynicism.

Escaping the trap involves transforming a discussion about blame into a discussion about contribution. Here is a table showing examples of this transformation:

Questions intent.Questions fit.
Who is the cause?  (This question assumes finite perspective inside a finite time frame).Assume multiple causes witnessed across multiple perspectives over an expansive timeframe.
Judge actions against a “standard” (for example: “my friends all do things this way…”).Evaluate value system fit.
Assign roles to individuals in the story: “the accused,” “the victim,” “the enabler,” “the ally”.Start with a neutral discussion of roles. Assume everyone is a “contributor” to problems that have arisen.
“blame” is a poor (lazy) proxy for feelings.Feelings are discussed openly.
Define a person by their behavior (diminish and attack a person’s identity).Separate intent, behavior, identity, feelings and values (i.e. separate behavior from the person).
Use cynicism as an instrument of attack. Alternate attack and defensive postures. Question cynicism? Where does it come from? Refocus energy towards understanding and growth.
Focus on one perspective.All perspectives respected and explored.

Be genuine

Being genuine is about being aware of oneself and taking steps to align one’s beliefs, values, and actions. Being genuine is harder than it sounds. There are many pieces involved. Here are a few key, basic steps:

  • Have awareness of one’s own feelings, beliefs, and values. How does one element influence the other?
  • Have awareness of raw spots, areas of past personal trauma and injury.  How does your past influence present feelings and values?
  • Have awareness of how your values and feelings work together to drive your behavior.
  • Take active steps to change behavior so that beliefs, values, and actions become better aligned over time.
  • Recognize the impact of your own actions on others and on yourself.
  • Being genuine has little to do with the specific words and phrases you choose. Instead, being genuine is about reflecting your true feelings and values. Communicate your true feelings to the other person. Don’t pretend to feel one way, when in fact you feel something else. Be sure that you stay consistent to your values.

Managing nonverbal communication

Be aware of the nonverbal communication you are using. Remember that what you communicate is the summation of your words and emotions. In your message, emotions overshadow words by a tremendous amount. A message completely changes when delivered with compassion vs with anger, disgust, or contempt.

Practice delivering your message with compassion rather than using other emotions.  If the other person is listening, they will be doing so with empathy. It’s best to match their caring with your own.

Rather than focusing on the right message with the right words, instead practice using the correct emotions to deliver your message. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice being genuine. State out loud what emotions you are feeling, but then take steps to keep them from steamrolling the listener. Let them exist, but also hold them back.

Balancing honesty

Honesty is a key value in communicating. However, honesty needs to be balanced by compassion and listening. You cannot just bulldoze the other person with your unbridled opinions. If you want to be understood, follow a few final steps:

  • Pick and choose pieces of your story, when to deliver them and how.
  • Be patient.  Pause and check-in.  Be curious about how they are receiving your story.  Give them breaks when needed.
  • Tailor your message to your audience. Be cognizant of their emotional response. The message you rehearse is not necessarily the one you will give. 
  • Avoid ulterior motives (agendas) other than mutual understanding.  All additional motives must be set aside. You are not trying to convince your listener of anything apart from making them understand your story.
  • Edit! Edit! Edit! Behind every good story is a good editor. Rarely would a deleted scene ever add to a movie. Likewise, you do not have to subject your listener to your every fleeting thought, detail, idea, and impulse. You can edit out much of it while still remaining true to your story. Keep the core pieces that build to understanding. Leave the extraneous behind which may otherwise throw off the listener and detract from your message.

Exercise discretion. You are not an open book.

There are details in your life that you would rather not share. The listener doesn’t have a right to learn things that ought to be kept private. But you don’t have lie by omission. Simply let them know that you don’t feel comfortable answering certain types of questions. Say, “This is as much as I’m willing to share right now on that subject.”

This is an often-overlooked point. Someone who is willing to share EVERYTHING will lose respect from their listener. They think they’re communicating openness and vulnerability. In fact, they’re communicating that they can’t maintain adequate boundaries and thus lack emotional self-control.

For instance, consider someone who is willing to tell you EVERYTHING about themselves, without discretion. Would you truly feel comfortable sharing your own vulnerabilities with that person? Would you trust them, when they might turn around and use that same open-book policy to later share your secrets with someone else?

By not being an open book, you are protecting your listener. You are giving them select details of your story a little at a time. You may be open to sharing deeper layers, eventually, as mutual trust builds.

Remember that being genuine is about conveying your true feelings and values, not about sharing every detail and secret. For instance, instead of vomiting out every sin or dirty thought you’ve ever had, you can very easily say, “I’ve done some things I’m not proud of. I’m not ready to talk about them, but I am sorry for the people I’ve hurt.”

Obviously, if you’d done something terrible to the listener, you shouldn’t hide that for long or else that quickly becomes a lie of omission, which is no different from any other terrible lie. And so, we see that discretion should be balanced against honesty. If you did something that had a direct impact on the listener, they probably have the right to know. If you did something to someone else, especially something in the distant past, use appropriate discretion. Find the right time to convey such information.

The back-and-forth rhythm of storytelling

The process of having a difficult conversation is much like climbing a mountain. At the bottom, you are never quite sure how things will go or how you’ll get there, you just know you need to get to the top. It’s a winding, twisting journey. It takes both strength and flexibility to succeed.

As you climb through your conversation, you’ll notice frequent switchbacks. Each person must switch roles from being listener to speaker, often many times.

The conversation is also like a dance. One person needs to take the lead on this. It’s typically best if the leader assumes the listening role first. Listen as much as possible until your own strong feelings start to bubble up, and then insist on a switch. Flip the conversation and insert your own story. The leader thus takes the initiative in switching roles, while gently encouraging their partner to then become the listener. Take care not to have both people speaking their stories at the same time, like penguins talking over each other.

As the leader speaks, the leader should notice when their partner becomes exhausted as listener. The listener’s anxiety starts to heighten, and they will appear increasingly uncomfortable. The leader will switch back into listening mode at that point. They will signal the switch with a caring, curious open-ended question. They may also change posture, appearing themselves more relaxed and ready to tackle something difficult.

The partner who is speaking generally is unloading a weight off their shoulders. They are venting frustration and pend-up negative energy. The process is cathartic as long as the speaker feels listened to. The speaker gains positive energy with which they can use to later be the listener. If things go well, the weight being passed back-and-forth between partners will grow lighter over time.

If this process is done correctly, we call this positive cycling. It forms a type of virtuous cycle. Understanding is the result. Each person’s imagination opens to new possibilities of cooperation (bridge building). Each partner also becomes more aware of the other person’s raw spots and boundaries. Respect builds, and with that comes trust. There also comes a more honest evaluation of fit. How well is the situation working for both people? Where can it be improved?

Next: Evaluating Fit


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
Continue reading