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Difficult Conversations. Discussing What Matters Most with Our Partners DNSI – Tuesday July 9, 2013 . Context. Given that : Diplomas Now is responsible for using the insights of cutting edge research to guide the professional work of schools

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difficult conversations

Difficult Conversations

Discussing What Matters Most with Our Partners

DNSI – Tuesday July 9, 2013

  • Given that :
    • Diplomas Now is responsible for using the insights of cutting edge research to guide the professional work of schools
    • We are partnered with schools that are charged with improving their practice
    • Working with our school partners involves challenging and delicate conversations, learning from them about their circumstances and needs
    • All of our staff should be involved in some way in these conversations
    • We do not currently have a system for training for and analyzing these discussions
  • Resolved:
    • We must create a system for training and analyzing difficult discussions so our Diplomas Now staff are set up for success in their schools

Material referenced within is adapted from “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matter Most” by Stone, Patton and Heen

session objectives
Session Objectives
  • Begin developing a common language around identifying and working through difficult conversations
  • Identify and begin to practice techniques to shift difficult conversations to learning conversations
key concepts common language
Key Concepts – Common Language
  • Difficult Conversations are comprised of 3 simultaneous conversations (what happened, feelings, identity)
  • Shift from a “message delivery” stance to a “learning” stance
  • Explore each other’s stories instead of arguing about who is right
  • Move from certainty to curiosity
  • Distinguish blame from contribution
  • Understand your feelings or they will have you
  • Ground your identity: ask yourself what is at stake
  • Begin from the third story
  • Listening transforms the conversation
  • Speak for yourself with clarity and power
  • Take the lead when problem solving and reframe when necessary
what is a difficult conversation
What is a Difficult Conversation?

We experience a conversation as difficult when:

  • We feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated
  • When the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain
  • When we care deeply about what is being discussed and/or about the people with whom we are conversing
the 3 conversations
The 3 Conversations

Difficult Conversations are comprised of 3 simultaneous conversations

  • The “What Happened?” Conversation—What’s the Story Here?
  • The Feelings Conversation—What Should We Do with our Emotions?
  • The Identity Conversation—What Does This Say About Me?
the what happened conversation
The What Happened Conversation
  • Challenge: The situation is more complex than either person can see.
  • Who’s right (the truth), who meant what (intentions), and who’s to blame.
  • With each of these we often make a common but crippling assumption.
    • Truth Assumption
      • I know all I need to know to understand what happened; “I am right, you are wrong.”
      • Goal: Persuade them I’m right
    • Intention Assumption
      • I know what they intended
      • Goal: Let them know what they did wrong
    • Blame Frame
      • It’s all their fault. (Or, it’s all my fault.)
      • Goal: Let them admit blame and take responsibility for making amends
the feelings conversation
The Feelings Conversation
  • Challenge: The conversation is emotionally charged
    • Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings; they are at their very core about feelings.
    • Feelingsare not just some noisy byproduct of engaging in difficult talk; they are an integral part of almost every conflict.
    • The question is not whether strong feelings will arise. The question is how to handle them when they do.
  • Assumptions
    • Feelings are irrelevant and wouldn’t be helpful to share
    • Or, my feelings are their fault and they need to hear about them
    • Goal: Avoid talking about feelings
the identity conversation
The Identity Conversation
  • Challenge: The situation threatens our Identity
    • The Identity Conversation looks inward. It is all about who we are and how we see ourselves.
    • How does what happened affect my self-esteem, my self-image, and my sense of who I am in the world?
    • When a conversation feels difficult, it is precisely because at the core it is about you. Something beyond the apparent substance of the conversation is at stake for you.
  • Assumption
    • I’m competent or incompetent, good or bad, lovable or unlovable
    • There is no in between
    • Goal: Protect my all-or-nothing self-image
learning conversations
Learning Conversations
  • Despite what we sometimes pretend, our initial purpose for having a difficult conversation is often to prove a point, give them a piece of our mind, or get them to do what we want.
    • To deliver a message.
  • A battle of messages can be reframed into a learning conversation.
    • This involves trying to understand what has happened from the other person’s point of view; explaining your point of view; sharing and understanding feelings; and working together to figure out a way to problem solve
shifting to learning conversations
Shifting to Learning Conversations


  • Certainty to curiosity
  • Debate to exploration
  • Simplicity to complexity
  • “Either/or” to “and”
a contribution systems framework
A Contribution Systems Framework
  • From blame to contribution
    • “How did we each contribute to the current situation?”
    • Blame is about judging and looks backward
    • Contribution is about understanding and looks forward
  • Contribution is joint and interactive and encourages learning and change
  • The contribution frame improves the ability to work together in the future
the third story
The Third Story
  • We typically begin difficult conversations inside our own story. We describe the problem from our own perspective and in doing so, trigger reactions we hope to avoid.
    • We forget that if others agreed with our story, we probably would not be having this conversation in the first place.
  • The Third Story is the one a keen observer would tell, someone with no stake in your particular problem or its outcome.
    • A learning conversation begins from the third story.
the third story continued
The Third Story (continued)
  • Begin from the Third Story
    • Describe the problem in a way that rings true to both sides simultaneously so that both parties will feel acknowledged
    • Describe the problem as differences rather than judgments
    • This doesn’t mean giving up your point of view
  • Extend an Invitation
    • Describe your purpose (goal for the conversation)
    • Invite, don’t impose
    • Make them your partner in figuring out together
    • Be persistent
listening from the inside out
Listening from the Inside Out
  • Primary purpose of the conversation is to understand the other person
  • Listening transforms the conversation from persuasion to learning
    • Increases their listening of you
  • Genuine curiosity shifts your stance from “I understand” to “Help me understand”
    • Be aware of your own thoughts (internal chatter)
  • Inquire to learn by asking open-ended questions and for concrete information
  • Paraphrase for clarity and so other person feels heard
  • Acknowledge feelings
make sure you should have the conversation
Make sure you should have the conversation
  • Is the real conflict inside you?
    • Is this more about something going on in your life than what’s going on between you and the other person
  • Is there a better way to address the issue than by talking about it?
    • As you sort through your feelings or identify your contribution to a situation it may become clear that what is called for is not a conversation but a change in your behavior or attitude.
  • Do you have purposes that make sense?
    • Make certain you know before you begin what the point is or what a good outcome would look like.
speak for yourself with clarity and purpose
Speak for Yourself with Clarity and Purpose
  • Express what you see and why you see it that way
  • Negotiate yourself into a place where you truly believe that what you want to express is worthy of expression
  • Diagnose self-sabotage around why you feel you are not entitled to speak up?
  • Begin your story with the heart of the matter (what is it really about? what are the core feelings?)
  • Tell your story with clarity
    • Present conclusions as possibilities
    • Share where conclusions came from
    • Avoid “always” and “never”
  • Instead of asking for agreement, ask “How would you do it differently?”
problem solving
Problem Solving
  • Reframe: Take what the other has said and translate it into concepts that are more helpful (e.g., from blame into contribution)
  • Remember that the conversation cannot move in a more positive direction until the other person feels heard and understood
  • Name the dynamic between you and the other party to clear the air
  • Create options that would met all parties primary concerns
  • Walk away if you need, but explain why and what concerns have not been met and be prepared to accept the consequences
putting it together
Putting it Together
  • Prepare by Walking Through the Three Conversations
  • Check Your Purposes and Decide Whether to Raise It
  • Start from The Third Story
  • Explore Their Story and Yours
  • Problem-Solve
sample scenarios to prepare and roll play
Sample Scenarios to Prepare and Roll Play
  • CM is doing something to make a teacher frustrated (e.g., inappropriate boundaries)
    • "An assistant principal comes to the PM with this concern from a teacher.  The Corps Member is disrupting a teacher's class by engaging with students at inappropriate times.  The CM says they are only trying to explain things to students who are not understanding the lectures."
  • A principal thinks a teacher is not effective and blames the coach for not working quickly enough to address the problem
    • "The principal comes to the STF to complain about a coach.  The coach has been working with a teacher who has been running drills for the first 35 minutes of class for three months.  The principal does not think the coach is doing his job if the teacher is still making that mistake."
  • Principal isn’t following through on their DN-related action items
    • "The principal attends DN meetings on a bi-weekly basis, and the meetings are thoughtful and exciting for the first four times.  The team is noticing however, that while the principal is engaged and inspiring in the meetings, she does not actually follow through on most action steps, leading to weak implementation and lowering morale on the team." 
thank you
Thank you!

Comments, Questions, and Contact Info:

Jeff Kasowitz at [email protected]

Lisa Fortenberry Spaloss at [email protected]