“Difficult Conversations” by Stone, Patton and Heen

Difficult Conversations, 10th Anniversary Edition
By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
1999, 2010

There is a reason why I don’t tend to read self-help type books (or attend church services very often either), and that problem is separating the wheat from the chaff. I believe that no one is perfect but everyone has something of value; it’s the ratio of valuable insight to crap that can get annoying.

I rediscovered this as I was reading my next assigned text, Difficult Conversations.

There was a lot of chaff in the book and not much wheat.

I was not looking forward to reading this book anyway, because I hate difficult conversations and will attempt to avoid them if I reasonably can. I have had several situations over the years that maybe could have been improved by my being willing to confront a situation head on and a couple more situations where I was impressed with another person for their strength of will that allowed them to start a needed conversation. So, I started this book, not looking forward to the reading, but expecting it to be good for me.

Instead I discover that once more I am enough of an odd duck that when the authors talk about how I think X, Y, or Z, — and the author’s do write in the second person, “you do this”, “you do that” in order to make all of their pronouncements as personal as possible — I’m over here going, wait, but I almost always respond with G or H or J, rarely with X, and think Y and Z are idiotic. So why are the authors telling me that I always make a certain set of assumptions (which I don’t) and should instead soliciting the other person’s interpretations, when they (the authors) are making all sorts of assumptions about me and, by virtue of the medium being a book, not giving me the opportunity much less an invitation to clarify my side?

At which point I’m feeling all maligned like one of their example cases AND feeling like I’m unnatural in some way, AND feeling like an idiot for taking this personally.

When I brought up my problem with the book in class, though, expecting other students to have had similar thoughts, I discovered that apparently I really am that odd and no one else had a similar take. A lot of the other students thought it was an excellent book that helped a lot. A few of the other students didn’t care for the book for one reason or another (it was simplistic, it contained too many scenarios and not enough theory, the scenarios were all a bit too contrived, etc.), but none of them disliked it for the same reason that I did.

There were some good points. The book did offer some useful ideas about how to distinguish the real goal of several different types of difficult conversations, how to think about each type of confrontation, and how to prepare for each type. Plus, the actual writing is quite well done, and the book goes pretty fast (or it would if I didn’t have to put it down and walk away periodically.)

However, my big conclusion is that while everybody has some set of conversations that they find really unpleasant to participate in, we don’t all agree on what set of conversations those are — a conversation that I consider difficult may not be one that you do and vice versa. And this book really was not addressing my issues at all.

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