Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Difficult Conversations

The news headlines have been unrelenting sirens about the challenges of our time. Global pandemic. Variant strains. Vaccine distribution failures. Political mayhem. Unemployment and economic upheaval. Racial injustice. Social unrest. I am finding that these huge social stressors have crossed the blood-brain barrier so to speak and are now part of virtually every conversation I have that scratches beneath the surface. It is easy when I completely agree with the person I am talking to, but these are complex issues, and even with close family, friends, and colleagues, we don’t all see or understand the world in exactly the same way.

A recent conversation got me thinking about the book, Difficult Conversations, by psychologists Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone, and Sheila Heen. They define a ‘difficult’ conversation as anything you find hard to talk about. Their central premise is that underlying every difficult conversation are three deeper conversations organized around “facts,” feelings and identity. When we fully respect and appreciate the relevance of these three layers of a conversation, we have a much greater chance of having better outcomes – and maybe we even gain greater understanding of ourselves and others. Some highlights from their book, which I highly recommend:

1. The “What Happened?” Conversation. Seems like a straightforward question, but we have to beware of hidden landmines. Difficult conversations almost always involve disagreement about what happened in the past or what should happen in the future. We are at serious risk of spending a lot of time in difficult conversations debating who is right about what happened, who meant what, and who is to blame. On each of these three fronts – truth, intention and blame – we can make assumptions that will quickly sink the conversation.

2. The Feelings Conversation. Every difficult conversation at its core is about feelings. One of the biggest obstacles we face in difficult conversations is that a lot of times we can’t pinpoint how we feel, don’t quite understand why we feel a certain way, or struggle to know how to articulate and express those emotions. It is tempting to try to ignore the emotional component of difficult conversations, but we do so at our peril. When we acknowledging both our own feelings and the other person’s feelings – even if we think the other person’s feelings are unjustified or outsized – we communicate respect and have a much better chance of having a productive conversation.

3. The Identity Conversation. This layer can sometimes be the most subtle part of the conversation. Often the identity conversation is one that we have with ourselves about what the topic says about who we are and what we hold true. Conversations become more emotionally intense when we feel that our identity is being threatened. We can feel that our character, intelligence, abilities, or life choices are being questioned, The risk of becoming avoidant or defensive grows. Becoming aware of this for ourselves, and recognizing that a parallel conversation is likely going on for the others in the conversation, will go a long way towards increasing the potential for a constructive dialogue.

4. Moving towards a learning conversation. We might not like to admit it, but a lot of the time we engage in difficult conversations to make a point, give the other person a piece of our mind, or get them to do what we want. Once we shift away from placing blame, proving our truth, and persuading to get our way, we are freed up to listen, learn and grow. When we acknowledge that we cannot change someone else, that our identities are separate from the issue at hand, and that we and the other person do not have to agree, we can let go and still care about the issue and the person. Of course, not all difficult conversations end to our satisfaction, and sometimes we really do have to consider whether we have reached an impasse, but for all of us there are conversations that could have ended differently if only we had put Patton, Stone and Heen’s guidance into practice.

5. Difficult conversations and mental health. Over the years, I have had a number of conversations that play like an audio loop in my brain. It is fatiguing. It is distracting. It is distressing. Sometimes the mental health cost is due to a highly conflictual conversation that went south leaving us dysphoric or depressed. Sometimes it is the result of avoiding having the conversation due to anticipated conflict. In the short run, avoidance of feared situations can lead to decreased anxiety. The problem is that over time, avoidance can greatly exaggerate the anxiety. Avoidance can also lead to social and emotional distance, which may be okay in some cases, but may have seriously damaging effects on intimate relationships. Unresolved conflict can fester, causing chronic stress that negatively impacts our overall health and longevity. Failing to develop the skills to effectively express our feelings, particularly anger, may even shorten our lives.

Difficult conversations are not unique to our time. Patton, Stone and Heen’s book, Difficult Conversations was first published over twenty years ago. Obviously, not all conflicts can be resolved by the guidance they offer, but when we decide we care enough about the person and issue that are causing us angst, their framework and many real-life examples provide clarity and wisdom that can help us discuss what matters most to us in ways that will increase our chances of a positive outcome and be good for our mental health.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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