How to have difficult conversations

I’ve recently been reading Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler), because I wanted to know how to have hard conversations with people. It’s something that everyone struggles with.

Designers at my company can’t be successful if they can’t communicate their ideas to stakeholders, ask for resources or deal well with conflicts. Whether at work or at home, if you can’t talk about the things that matter to you, you’ll end up in less-than-ideal situations. 

I wanted to outline some things from Crucial Conversations that stuck out for me. 


Understand how you got into this particular conflict or issue:

  1. Notice your behavior. Ask: Am I in some form of silence or violence (flight or fight)
  2. Get in touch with your feelings. What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?
  3. Analyze your stories. What story is creating these emotions?
  4. Get back to the facts. What evidence do I have to support this story that I’m telling myself about the situation?

Watch for clever stories that we tell ourselves. 

  1. Victim stories: you intentionally ignore the role you have played in the problem. You tell your story in a way that judiciously avoids whatever you had done that might have contributed to the problem
  2. Villain stories: automatically assuming the worst possible motives or grossest incompetence while ignoring any possible good or neutral intentions or skills a person have have. 
  3. Helpless stories: Making ourselves to be powerless to do anything healthy or helpful. 

These  stories get us off the hook and keep us from acknowledging our own sellouts. When we feel the need to push our ideas on others, it’s generally because we believe we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We exaggerate, lace our language with inflammatory terms and appeal to authority (“everyone knows this is the case, even my boss thinks so”). The harder we try, the greater resistance we create, the worse the results and the more battered our relationships. 

Focus on what you really want 

Focus your brain on the end goal when conversing so that you are responding in a way that will get you there rather than continuing to fuel a fire or comments that lean away from it. “…as the conversation unfolds and you find yourself starting to, say, defer to the boss or give your spouse the cold shoulder, pay attention to what’s happening to your objectives. Are you starting to change your goal to save face, avoid embarrassment, win, be right, or punish others?…Our motives usually change without any conscious thought on our part.”

Ask yourself these questions when you find yourself slipping out of dialogue:

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?
  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Make it safe.

“The worst at dialogue …totally ignore the crying need for more safety. They say whatever is on their minds – with no regard for how it will be received. Or…they conclude the topic is completely unsafe and move to silence. The good realize that safety is at risk, but they fix it in exactly the wrong way. They try to make the subject more palatable by sugarcoating their message…. They try to make things safer by watering down or dressing up their content. This strategy, of course, avoids the real problem, and it never gets fixed.”

The best do this:

“Can we change gears for a minute? I’d like to talk about what happens when <insert problem>. It would be good if we could both share what’s working and what isn’t. My goal isn’t to make you feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to become defensive. What’ I’d really love is for us to come up with a solution that makes us both satisfied in <scenario>.”

^ The person is being upfront about the issue rather than avoid it. They create contrasting statements that help to make the situation safe for the other person. And they stated a goal that they wanted to achieve. 

Remember the ABCS

  1. Agree: point out areas of agreement.
  2. Build: add elements that were left out of the discussion
  3. Compare: rather than suggesting that he/she is wrong, suggest that you differ. Rather than saying “wrong!”, try “I think I see things differently. Let me describe how.”

Document your outcomes. Write down the conclusions and decisions you’ve made. Make sure that there’s a follow-up and that you’re both held accountable. 

Last step: read Crucial Conversations

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Reasoning & Physics

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My roommate has recently being watching a lot of Elon Musk interviews. She sent me a section of transcript from the Q&A that followed his TED talk. I’d like to share it, because it’s not often that I find ideas about thinking itself to be so crystal clear.

Watch the TED talk

Question to Elon Musk:

18:46 CA: My theory is that you have an ability to think at a system level of design that pulls together design, technology and business, so if TED was TBD, design, technology and business, into one package, synthesize it in a way that very few people can and — and this is the critical thing — feel so damn confident in that clicked-together package that you take crazy risks. You bet your fortune on it, and you seem to have done that multiple times. I mean, almost no one can do that. Is that — could we have some of that secret sauce? Can we put it into our education system? Can someone learn from you? It is truly amazing what you’ve done.

Musk’s Answer:

19:30 EM: Well, thanks. Thank you. Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics. It’s really counterintuitive. So I think that’s an important thing to do, and then also to really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.