We just can’t avoid them. As much as we want to, try to, resolve to get along with our students, our colleagues, and our supervisors, we keep finding ourselves in the middle of discussions that make us angry, make us queasy, make us sad. We don’t want to act like jerks, but we don’t want to be doormats, either. We need help, and not the smarmy, touchy-feely stuff that fills so many books on interpersonal communication. We want something that really works. We want some techniques that we can remember when we need them most.
Despite my general disenchantment with the self-help genre…a messy shelf of books on organizational strategies bears mute testimony to my disappointment…I took a valued friend’s recommendation and sprung for a copy of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project. I figured if the Harvard Negotiation Project can’t guide me, I’m probably beyond help. Miracle of miracles, I found some strategies that actually work. A few choice morsels:
- Learn to look for the “Third Conversation.”
- Curiosity is your friend.
- Paraphrasing helps.
- Your own identity plays a role in your positions.
- “And” statements let you move ahead while maintaining your own point of view.
Best of all, the book is full of examples of typical conversations that we can all relate to. The last chapter even features a difficult conversation with an imaginary coach guiding a participant through a tough situation.
Realizing the proof is in the doing, I anticipated a conversation with a student whom a colleague had found to be very challenging. Fortunately, I’d overheard enough of their conversation to anticipate some of the student’s positions and likely responses, and I was able to reflect on which techniques offered in the book were likely to be effective. To my astonishment, the student left my office after a relatively pleasant half hour and even sent a followup email to thank me for my assistance.
Maybe I’ll keep that self-help section of my library after all.