Speak Eagle

How to Start a Difficult Conversation

As you have probably gathered by now, I love writing stories.  But I also love communication- especially studying how to communicate in more healthy ways and then teaching others.  In fact, the title of my blog is really about communication- how our nonverbal communication “says” so much more than our words.

Lately, God has given me more and more opportunities to teach communication skills through Williamson College where I chair the General Education Department, through Hippo Solutions where I serve as a communication consultant and trainer, and through private coaching such as coaching  executives on their public speaking skills.

For the past few weeks I have been wondering- how can I merge my love of stories and my love of communication so that it will be a benefit to you- my blog readers (all 10 of you)?  I honestly want my PhD to be something more than just some letters after my name.

So begins an experiment.  For the next number of weeks I will write stories that teach communication skills.  Hopefully my posts will still include humor and passion and all that I love about this blog, but at the same time be a benefit to your own relationships as you experiment with applying the principles you find here.



I looked at the time.  Just 5 minutes before I was to teach communication skills in conflict management with Hippo Solutions to a group of employees at the MARS headquarters in Franklin, Tennessee.

Since I had a few minutes to spare, I checked my email.  Wow- what timing!  A friend had just sent a distressed message, forwarding on an email she had sent to a client, asking me what she had done wrong. The client had called her on the phone spewing a verbal firestorm, saying her “tone” in her email was totally out of line.

I looked at what she had written.  She had started the email by defending herself, stating her perspective of something they had discussed earlier.  Right out of the gate she had shot herself in the foot (how’s that for two idioms in a row?).

I hurriedly wrote her back.  “It’s best to have these kinds of conversations in person or at least on the phone.  Email often doesn’t relay our ‘tone’ accurately.  In any case, you might want to try starting your conversation by showing that you believe the best about him, stating something you can both agree on.”

It was exactly what I was about to teach.  Advisors from The Harvard Negotiation Project in their book Difficult Conversations recommend that we start from “The Third Story.”  Instead of starting from The First Story, your story, in which you would say, “I think you are wrong,” or from The Second Story, in which you would say, “I know you think you are right,” try starting from The Third Story.

Whether it’s a tough conversation with a coworker or your spouse, the Third Story is the story you can both agree on, the story which starts, “You and I both want this relationship to work,” or “We both want to keep this customer,” or “You and I both love our kids.”  In so doing, you start by affirming the other person as having good intentions and paint the picture of the two of you on the same team working together to solve a problem.

Then you can clarify, “It seems like we have different perspectives on this.  I would like to hear yours and share mine with you, too.”  (Of course, you would say all of this in your own words so it won’t sound like it came directly out of a textbook.)

After I finished teaching the session to my captive audience MARS employees, I checked my email.  My friend had decided to call her client.  Not surprisingly, he call-screened her, so she left him a message.  If he gives her another chance and calls her back, I have a feeling he’s going to hear her begin the conversation with a much better story- The Third Story.

If you anticipate having a difficult conversation, save yourself from suffering through a spewing verbal firestorm- or from being the one doing the spewing.  Start with the principle of The Third Story.

And if you do, post a comment here.  I look forward to hearing your story!

8 thoughts on “How to Start a Difficult Conversation”

  1. Thanks Heidi! Good communicating tips 🙂 I’ll watch for opportunities. They will be soon I am sure!

  2. Heidi, this is most useful. I like the idea of starting with what the 2 parties have in common even over how it makes one feel (which may be considered a form of First Story?) You are SO in your element. I’m gonna go start a fight with my hubby right now just to practice and I’ll tell ya how it turns out. 🙂

  3. I’ve used something similar in communicating with my husband….as I’m not in the work force. It’s the 3rd party idea, where it isn’t about me, or you, but “us”….the relationship. I say “I’d like to set something on ‘the coffee table’ for us to look at”. We ‘walk around it’ as it sits there on the invisible coffee table, dialoguing about what works best for “us”.

    1. That’s a great approach, Melody! I taught in the conflict session about keeping the conflict “out there” as opposed to within either of us, and that’s a perfect picture of that concept!

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