Stone, Douglas, Patton, Bruce, and Heen, Sheila. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. 10th Anniversary Edition. Penguin, 1999.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

These reflections on Difficult Conversations are not a commentary on Christmas with the family.

It’s a pure coincidence that I got Difficult Conversations on loan from one of the members of my congregation, to review as an option for a next step in our participation in Golden Rule 2020, and have only now had a chance to gather my thoughts about it.

[We are trying to think of how we can follow through on the initiative implied in the Golden Rule 2020 agenda. We thought one way we could do that would be by becoming more skilled at behaving the way we should behave – less blame, less knee-jerk reaction, more listening and understanding, more probing and sensitivity.]

On the other hand, holiday family gatherings can be a fertile field for the difficult conversations the book addresses, so maybe the coincidence is less than entirely pure after all.

cover Difficult Conversations

This book seems like it could help with a tense holiday dinner spent tiptoeing around an elephant, and could help with the Golden Rule 2020 project for all the same reasons. It offers a lot of what sounds like great advice for planning, broaching, and getting through difficult conversations, and for bringing them to satisfactory outcomes. This is advice based on research and observation and experience and expertise. That’s something that will appeal to a congregation full of people who respect expertise. Which, we seem to think, ought to be everyone.

The authors present a basic understanding of what is always going on in a difficult conversation, based on an analysis of the structure of a conversation (the “what really happened” conversation, in which it’s vital to focus on the mutual contribution to the problem; the feelings conversation; and the identity conversation – in which we need to recognize what’s at stake, what kind of person the conversation is suggesting I am). They offer many ways to solve the problems that arise in these difficult conversations, from what to say to how to say it, but mainly how to think about the nature of a difficult conversation, about what makes it difficult, and based on that, how to prepare for having it, and then to have it as well as possible.

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I had several thoughts reading this book. First, that the skill of listening to people we disagree with, while not blaming them for the disagreement, is SO HARD for us humans. We could think more about why that is, but first it will help us to observe that we are none of us alone in this.

Second, it seems to me that a lot of what the authors cover are things some people already know. For instance, people who have had plenty of therapy will already know how to have conversations about feelings, using “I messages” and taking responsibility for their own responses and so on. When it comes to being aware of my own feelings, and being able to acknowledge them to other people, therapy helps.

Clinical pastoral education (CPE) helps with that, too; the point of CPE is to learn how to observe yourself having feelings and thinking things about yourself, and keeping from getting so hooked on or in that stuff that you can’t keep doing your task of listening empathetically to the person you’re talking to, and steering them towards some insight into their own situation, and ideally some openness to the comfort and presence of God (or the sheltering universe, or whatever form of that the person is open to being open to – in a big city hospital, you have to respect other people’s commitments).

Having had listening skills micro training, such as one might have had in a counseling class, helps too.

So, this is in effect a book for regular people who didn’t take classes in counseling, haven’t been to seminary, and haven’t had years of therapy. Or for those of us who need remediation, because the lessons didn’t take well enough the first or second or third time.

Finally, it seems like having some basic attitudes helps when facing a difficult conversation. For instance, having the idea that of course everyone matters, that everyone is really, truly, genuinely spiritually equal and infinitely valuable, ought to make difficult conversations easier. It definitely ought to help when people really think this way, as opposed to just pretend to for the sake of getting through a difficult exchange with another person.

Because of that, it seems to me that Christians would be – or rather, should be – in an ideal position to advocate for this approach to conversing with our neighbors. Because Christian faith commitments are, genuinely, that everyone [including whoever we are talking to] matters, that everyone [including we ourselves] sins, that we must decrease and Christ must increase, all those helpful things that ought to make taking the other person completely seriously, in love, and speaking the truth in love in return, second nature for us.

Christians, however, do not seem to be known for our skill at listening and empathizing and de-escalating conflicts and helping our world reach mutually beneficial and acceptable solutions to disagreements.

Why not? What that we preach are we forgetting to practice, or not learning to practice effectively in the first place? More importantly, how can we get back to practicing it? What needs to change?

Difficult Conversations might help us figure that out.

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A tower of books with a almond- or vaginal-shaped opening
“Any recommendations for a book study?”