Review: Difficult Conversations

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

Difficult ConversationsOne of the most frequent issues that I’m asked about is how exactly to start a conversation about a delicate money topic with family members or friends. How do you tell your spouse that your debt problem is worse than they thought? How do you talk about estate planning with your elderly parents? How do you talk to your new significant other about getting your finances straight? These conversations can be difficult, even for the most extroverted among us.

At the same time, these difficult conversations can be very important. They can be among the most important conversations we have within our relationships, as money is a foundational concern. It defines what things we have the freedom and ability to do and to buy.

Thus, knowing how to handle difficult conversations is a key part of personal finance success, and Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen focuses directly on that topic. They offer a set of ideas that, although time-consuming, can make sure that the difficult conversations you need to have come off with success and without argument.

Sort Out the Three Conversations
The authors open the book by positing that there are essentially three conversations that people have: the “what happened” conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity conversation. In each of these, people tend to lead with their own impressions and thoughts and undermine the impressions and thoughts of others. In each case, it’s almost always useful to instead think of them as a learning conversation, where you’re trying your best to figure out exactly what the other participant in the conversation thinks.

Stop Arguing About Who’s Right
Most conversations devolve into discomfort and argument because both people believe that they are right – and, thus, that the other person is wrong. Most of the time, both sides have a good point that comes about due to the perspective that person is bringing to the table. If you step back and simply take some time to try to understand where the other person is coming from and what experiences and thoughts make up their stance on the issue, you’ll often find a path to a resolution that makes you both happy.

Don’t Assume They Meant It
When we’re emotionally upset and angry, we all sometimes say things that we don’t really mean in the cool light of calmness. What’s more important is to recognize that something severely upset the other person, not so much what they explicitly said. You have to disentangle intent from impact by worrying less about what was actually said and focusing more on why that emotional outburst occurred.

Abandon Blame
In most disagreements, both parties are to blame to at least some extent. There are usually a lot of factors that caused a situation to devolve into disagreeement and the more of those elements you understand, the better. This is perfect ground for thought before you ever even have the conversation, as most of these elements can be pieced through long before you have the conversation. The more you know, the better it goes. The authors offer up some techniques for doing this that are pretty insightful here.

Have Your Feelings
If you want to have a successful conversation, you’ve got to keep your emotions in check. If you do not, you’re going to destroy any positive progress from this conversation. One great technique for managing emotions is to work through them before ever having the conversation. Think through responses that would make you upset and allow yourself to be upset when it doesn’t impact the conversation. Also, simply knowing that it’s vital that you not lose control of your emotions can make a significant difference.

Ground Your Identity
The most important part of any difficult conversation is the stakes. What’s at stake here? What do the participants have to gain from a good outcome? What do they have to lose from a poor outcome? What’s at stake for you? What do you have to gain from a good outcome and lose from a bad one? This is motivation to prepare for your conversation properly as well as potential information for steering the conversation in a healthy direction.

What’s Your Purpose?
What is your purpose in even engaging in this conversation? It’s important to know why you’re engaging in this conversation. At the same time, it’s also important to know how vital that purpose is compared to other factors in your life. This way, you can know beforehand when it’s a good idea to go for your purpose – and when it’s a good idea to let it go (for now, or perhaps forever). Your purpose (and the relative place it holds in your life) is the most important thing, not winning or your pride.

Getting Started
The best way to engage in any important discussion is to essentially function like a reasonable mediator. During such a conversation, you’re going to hear your story and you’re going to hear the other person’s story. Look for the “third story” – in other words, the difference between your story and the other person’s story. Navigating that difference in stories is the key to success.

Listening is absolutely essential. So often in a conversation, people, rather than listening, spend the time when the other person is speaking merely planning out how they will articulate their next point. Very rarely will a conversation end well when both participants are doing this. Do not fall into this trap. Instead, make it your point to extract as much information as possible from every sentence uttered by the other person. This helps you figure out their story in more detail and thus helps you figure out more clearly the difference between the two stories that has to be navigated.

When you do speak for yourself, there are some key elements you must have for success. First, speak with clarity. You should be unequivocably clear in everything you say in a discussion. Don’t be vague or mysterious or passive-aggressive with your statements. Be clear and state what you mean. Second, say it with power. Say it with action words that make it clear that you mean what you say and that you aren’t to be just tossed aside by the other person. Finally, speak without anger. Anger never solves anything in conversation.

As you begin to resolve the two stories that are brought to the table, take the lead in coming up with a solution to the problem. Don’t be afraid to articulate exactly how you see the middle point between the two stories and why. State the solution to the problem as you see it with clarity and power and without anger, but while also listening to the input of the other person and a respect for the true middle point between your stories.

Is Difficult Conversations Worth Reading?
If it’s truly important to you to get the big conversations in your life right and you’re willing to invest some time and thought into making those conversations work out right, Difficult Conversations will be a valuable book for you to read.

It pretty much provides exactly what it describes on the cover: methods for handling difficult conversations, like money conversations and other major concerns. The methods inside are thorough, but they can be time-consuming and they require you to be willing to conduct some serious introspection and draw some conclusions about your own end of these conversations that you may not like.

If you’re comfortable with that, Difficult Conversations absolutely gets the job done. It gives you such a great set of tools for conversations that you’ll feel able to handle any discussion life might throw at you.

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