Book Brief: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

conversations black and white

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
2000, Penguin Books

difficult conversations reviewThe Idea

The hardest conversations are typically the most important ones (and the easiest to screw up).

Thankfully, three smart souls from the Harvard Negotiation project have hooked us up with this gem, a book that helps us navigate the challenging meta-conversations that underlie any hairy discussion and become better communicators.

Recommended For

  • Anyone who’s ever felt misunderstood.
  • Anyone who’s ever had difficulty communicating, personally or professionally.
  • Anyone who’s wanted to better understand themselves or other people.

(At this point, I think we’ve covered literally everyone. Please, everyone: read this book!)

The Pros

The book uses many short examples to illustrate different points along the way, but there’s one main conversation that you follow and analyze from start to finish. As you read, you start to see ways a tense conversations between friends and colleagues could be adjusted in a way that strengthens rather than damns their relationship. You learn with the “protagonist,” getting to review the materials through his perspective. This gives you the opportunity to practice some of the book’s techniques from the comfort of your home before testing them out IRL.

The Cons

The authors of Difficult Conversations wrote the book with such skill and thoughtfulness that the material all seems decceptively easy. You may be fooled into think that you’ve become a better communicator just by reading the book just by reading the book. And, in some ways you will have. But for the longterm gain of internalizing what this book has to offer and becoming a truly skilled at having difficult conversations, you’ll have to bravely and doggedly seek them out.

(Oh, and “becoming a great communicator” is a never-ending process that you’ll never perfect. So there’s that. Are you up for the challenge?)

My Take

I’m one of those people who can give you a Buzzfeed-style top 10 countdown of most facepalm-inducing conversations ever. While I’m not shy about engaging dialogue about tricky topics, I tend to end up with my food in my mouth. And I’m lucky that it hasn’t been anyone else’s foot, frankly!

Reading Difficult Conversations gave me hope that I could practice several concrete techniques and slowly but surely decrease the number of painful chats in my life. Not only has reading this book been valuable from a negotiation standpoint (calm, cool, collected–cha-ching!), but it’s also improved aspects of my life that you can’t put a price on, like my connections to family and friends.

Fun Fact

All of the authors of Difficult Conversations teach at Harvard Law School and are part of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation. Bruce Patton founded the university consortium with Roger Fisher and William Ury after the three co-authored Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (a great book to read after Difficult Conversations).

Have you read Difficult Conversations? What did you think?

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