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Back Story: Book Review: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

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MAY 2009
“There is no better time than the present to prepare for your next difficult conversation.”
“Asking for a raise. Ending a relationship. Giving a critical performance review. Saying no to someone in need. Confronting disrespectful or hurtful behavior. Disagreeing with the majority in a group. Apologizing.” (“Difficult Conversations” at xv.) So begins this book, written by three lawyers, negotiators and mediators from the Harvard Negotiation Project, a place perhaps best known for the groundbreaking mediation manual, “Getting to Yes.” The authors might as well follow this list by asking whether or not your blood pressure is rising yet. Of course, making you nervous and desperate to read anything that will help you through these unpleasant scenarios is certainly just what they intend. My recommendation is to go ahead and fall for their set-up. Read the book and follow its recommendations. These people know what they are talking about. While this book was written a few years ago, its advice is particularly relevant today. The difficult economic circumstances in which many lawyers, clients and other legal professionals currently find themselves create ample opportunity for difficult conversations. Miscommunication and lack of communication exist at law firms and other organizations even in the best of times. When times are tougher, productive communication can become even more challenging. So what does this book do that sets it apart from other how-to books on improving communication skills? First, the authors focus specifically on difficult conversations, the type that many people avoid and that many others confront hastily and head-on with disastrous consequences. The authors begin by identifying and de-mystifying problems that are at the heart of all difficult conversations, whether personal or professional. Second, they make the hard work of having a difficult conversation seem both doable and worth doing, without resorting to puffery about how great everything is going to be during the conversation or after it is over. Finally, the conversational roadmap they provide is flexible and can be used in many different contexts, even in the context of deciding not to have a difficult conversation. Everyone has their own individual communication challenges, and this book speaks to many of them. As lawyers, however, there are probably a few challenges that most of us share. One of my favorite pieces of advice from the book is that, for the purpose of handling a conversation well, it does not matter whether or not you are “right.” Even if you are right, that is not what a difficult conversation is about. This can understandably be a difficult shift in mindset for a lawyer – used to persuading others that his or her position is correct – to take. The authors instead recommend adopting a “learning stance” in difficult conversations, where the goal is to find out what the conversation is really about, whether that requires examining what happened, what underlying feelings are involved or whether a party’s identity is being challenged. Ultimately, adopting the mindset promoted in this book will require many of us to leave behind some of the inaccurate notions about communication that we have picked up throughout our lives. Some of us have grown up hearing the mantra, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Others have gone through life hearing that it is best to “speak your mind” and “lay all your cards on the table.” The former can lead to avoiding important but unpleasant conversations, allowing problems to fester and grow into seemingly insurmountable challenges. The latter can lead to emotional chaos, hurt feelings and lingering resentment. “Difficult Conversations” encourages everyone to face their communication fears and problems constructively, and it does a good job of showing the reader how to do just that. There is no better time than the present to prepare for your next difficult conversation. Unfortunately, it is almost certainly bound to come sooner, rather than later.
HEIDI PARRY STERN practices commercial and appellate litigation at Lewis and Roca (formerly Beckley Singleton). Prior to practicing appellate law in Nevada, she clerked for the Honorable Johnnie Rawlinson on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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