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  • Jennie Antolak

Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen


What coaching clients have fallen prey to victimhood mentality? What clients seek beneficial ways to develop their confidence when confronted with challenging conversations? @Kelly Weiley points out in her review of Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen that their suggested approaches provide individuals with practical steps for effectively responding to complex discussions. In her review, Kelly expresses her appreciation for this book and how it has enhanced her coaching. "As a coach, this book improved my ability to notice when elements identified in the book come up in comments and conversations. I can and do use that knowledge to get curious and ask better open-ended questions (not guiding questions – just curious ones :) to help facilitate the exploration of stories."

Review by: Kelly C. Weiley, ACC, Certified Life Coach Practitioner

Book Title: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most Author: Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

Key Points:

There are so many! I’ll use the framework the authors use to break down the key points and their meanings.

1. The What Happened Conversation

a. The what happened conversation acknowledges that we each have our own individual realities so two people in the same conversation experience it and reality differently.

b. In addition to this, we bring different information & perceptions to the situation. There are things that we can know, “I know what I intended and the impact their action had on me.” And then there are things we don’t know, “I don't and can't know what's in their head.”

c. “Stop arguing about who’s right and instead explore each other’s stories.”

2. The Feelings Conversation

a. Feelings are not irrelevant – they are the heart of the situation. A difficult conversation is anything we find difficult to talk about, and when that is the case, it is because we care.

b. It is not possible to separate feelings from situations. While we’d love to do this (and even have been told in the past to “check your feelings at the door”) we know from neuroscience that it is not possible.

c. While we can’t separate feelings from situations, we can work to understand them and their impact better. Adults (and kids) often need to dig deeper and get curious to identify and understand our reactions.

3. The Identity Conversation

a. Difficult conversations threaten our identity. (Am I competent? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love?)

b. The identity conversation is HUGE and one that is often not discussed or explored. In a difficult conversation, there may be a lot at stake psychologically for both/all parties involved.

c. The takeaway from this section is that none of us are all good or bad, competent or incompetent. Each of us is complex, neither of us is perfect.

d. Developing a more complex sense of identity, along with mapping contribution (what have I contributed to this situation) can be a very powerful way of calming our amygdala and regaining balance so that we can enter into a two-way conversation.


Favorite passage & what made it your favorite passage?

Some favorite quotes:

· “To make the structure of a difficult conversation visible, we need to understand not only what is said, but also what is not said.” P. 5

· “Typically, instead of exploring what information the other person might have that we don’t, we assume we know all we need to know to understand and explain things.” P. 8

· “Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings.” P. 13

· “When we argue, we tend to trade conclusions – the “bottom line” of what we think.” P. 29

· “Arguing creates another problem in difficult conversations: it inhibits change.” P.29

· “Certainty locks us out of their story; curiosity lets us in. p. 37


But one that stands out to me that is so applicable for coaches and to remember while coaching is, “Remember you can’t change people. In many situations, our purpose in initiating a conversation is to get the other person to change. There’s nothing wrong with hoping for change. The urge to change others is universal. We want them to be more loving, to show more appreciation for our hard work, to give us more personal space, or to be more social at parties. To accept our career choice or sexual orientation. To believe in our God or our views on important issues of the day. The problem is, we can’t make these happen. We can’t change someone else’s mind or force them to change their behavior. If we could, many difficult conversations would simply vanish. We’d say, “Here are the reasons you should love me more,” and they’d say,” Now that I know those reasons, I do.”

But we know things don’t work that way. Changes in attitudes and behavior rarely come about because of arguments, facts and attempts to persuade.


The paradox is that trying to change someone rarely results in change. On the other hand, engaging someone in a conversation where mutual learning is the goal often results in change.” (p.137-138)

Application of Key Messages Within my Coaching


· “Certainty locks us out of their story; curiosity lets us in. p. 37

This entire text illustrates how getting curious can help us – and gives a model to use to be curious. About what happened. About feelings. About identities and how we view ourselves. About how we understand intent versus impact.


I believe this framework, for me, has been a fundamental shift in naming the elements of a difficult conversation. As a coach, this book has enhanced my ability to notice when these elements come up in comments and conversations. I can and do use that knowledge to get curious and ask better open ended questions (not guiding questions – just curious ones :) to help facilitate the exploration of stories.

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