The Three Conversations

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project  argue that conversations that we dread and find unpleasant come in three main varieties.  By identifying what kind of conversation you are having, you can help transform  “damaging battles of warring messages” into learning conversations (Difficult Conversations xxx).  The three main types of conversations are:

  1. The “What Happened” Conversation
  2. The Feelings Conversation
  3. The Identity Conversation

Here is a summary of the Assumptions and Goals made in each Conversation (Difficult Conversations 18-19; reproduced in html by  The goal is to get past the “battle of messages” and move into a “learning conversation”:

Conversation A Battle of Messages A Learning Conversation
The “What Happened?” conversation Challenge: The situation is more complex than either person can see Assumption: I know all I need to know to understand what happened
Goal: persuade them I’m right
Assumption: Each of us is bringing different information and perceptions to the table; there are likely to be important things that each of us doesn’t know.
: Explore each other’s stories: how we understand the situation and why.
Assumption: I know what they intended
: Let them know what they did was wrong
Assumption: I know what I intended, and the impact their actions had on me. I don’t and can’t know what’s in their head.
: Share the impact on me, and find out what they were thinking. Also find out what impact I’m having on them.
Assumption: It’s all their fault. (Or it’s all my fault.) Goal: Get them to admit blame and take responsibility for making amends. Assumption: We have probably both contributed to this mess.
: Understand the contribution system; how our actions interact to produce this result.
The Feeling Conversation Challenge: The situation is emotionally charged. Assumption: 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. (Or let ‘em have it!)
Assumption: Feelings are the heart of the situation. Feelings are usually complex. I may have to dig a bit to understand my feelings.
Goal: Address feelings (mine and theirs) without judgments or attributions. Acknowledge feelings before problem solving.
The Identity Conversation Challenge: The situation threatens our identity. Assumption: I’m competent or incompetent, good or bad, lovable or unlovable. There is no in-between.
: Protect my all-or-nothing self-image.
Assumption: There may be a lot at stake psychologically for both of us. Each of us is complex, neither of us is perfect.
: Understand the identity issues on the line for each of us. Build a more complex self-image to maintain my balance better.

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