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How a "Third Story" Can Help in Difficult Conversations

Never forget the purpose of a difficult conversation

Frequently, a coaching conversation orbits around a difficult conversation: everything from firing an employee, confronting a disrespectful co-worker, delivering tough feedback to having a heart-to-heart with a co-founder. Sometimes, procrastinating or avoiding the conversation is the source of persistent anxiety. Or the client is aware that the conversation must happen but doesn’t know how to prepare. At other times, the client is picking apart a discussion that occurred in the past, looking back with regret on how they might have handled it differently. Often, something is being unsaid that needs to be said, and the difficult conversation is meant to bring it to the surface—you might hear me call these “Name the Elephant” moments.

Some years ago, when I was at Google, an engineering director held in high esteem reached out to me to talk about one of my PMs. He wanted to share some first–hand concerns and some frustration that had bubbled up from his engineers. He was precise, to the point, and constructive. He started the conversation by taking an interesting third-party perspective on the problem, almost as if he was a wise observer noticing what none of the parties could see. Even though he had some hard to hear feedback for me on how I could handle the situation better, his framing was constructive and blameless. We had a fruitful conversation that strengthened our relationship and only increased my admiration of him. I left that meeting wanting to learn how to do what he did.

I soon discovered that Google offered an internal course called “Having Difficult Conversations,” run by the company’s outstanding internal learning and development team in conjunction with the Harvard Negotiation Project. I immediately signed up and, several months later, took the class. It was fantastic. A version of the class is occasionally offered through Harvard and the creators also wrote a book called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.

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