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Thursday, 05 December 2013 20:08

Communication Skills Roundup: The Difficult Conversation Anatomy

One of the influences that led me to become an attorney mediator focusing on helping families navigate conflicts, challenges, change and opportunity is the incredibly useful book, Difficult Conversations, written by the directors of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  This book is the product of thousands of hours of discussions with people from all walks of life who came into their clinic to talk about the difficulties they were having in navigating conversations about conflicts in their lives.  In constantly analyzing where such conversations broke down, turned nasty, or just lost focus, the authors were able to develop an understanding of the anatomy of the difficult conversation.  That is, the authors found in their thousands of case studies that there was a uniform arrangement of structures, obstacles, opportunities and pitfalls that must be carefully navigated in talking about any conflict.  More importantly, they created a map and a tool kit to help everyone learn how to navigate these conversations skillfully.

The most basic “bare bones” version of this anatomy is this: Every difficult conversation has three layers and each layer has certain pitfalls that must be avoided by applying specific constructive communication practices. 

The three layers present in every difficult conversation are: the What Happened layer, the Feelings layer, and the Identity layer.  Over the last several blog posts, I have provided a brief description of the significance of each of these layers in understanding the forces at play in any conflict.  In addition, I have described each of the pitfalls present in the difficult conversation anatomy and refelcted on the communication strategies developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project for keeping things constructive.

Accordingly, below I offer you today just a list of links setting in order my discussion of the difficult conversation anatomy over the last several months.  I hope you find this list useful and would love to hear from you about your experience experimenting with the techniques offered in Difficult Conversations.

Whether mediating cases of high-conflict divorce, assisting people trying to escape abusive relationships, working with families facing difficult choices concerning the care for elderly parents, or coaching people in developing a plan for pursuing their dreams (and in so many other contexts continuously arising in life), I have found these strategies to be unfailingly constructive and a source of great confidence that, no matter how challenging and entrenched a given conflict may seem, there is a way forward that will help everyone involved to feel better and more empowered to meet their most important needs.  I hope you will find some measure of the value I have found in the book, Difficult Conversations, in the series of articles offered below.

Here at Family Tree Mediation, one of the services I offer is communication and personal development coaching.  If you are looking for help preparing for a difficult conversation, wanting to improve your communication skills generally, or seeking a support vehicle for clarifying and pursuing your goals for your ongoing evolution, I invite you to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or give me a call to schedule a coaching session at (650) 762-8733.

Photo by Flickr user borderlys used under a Creative Commons license

Oh, and I can't recommend highly enough this terrific book!