In any difficult conversation, there is much more going on beneath the surface than you realize.

In the book, “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most” the authors describe 3 sub-conversations that a person is having with themselves when having a difficult conversation with another.

1.) What is the content of the conversation?

2.) How do I feel about this?

3.) How does this impact my identity?

The third piece (identity) is broken into 3 more questions that a person is asking themselves in relation to what’s being said:

1.) Am I competent?

2.) Am I a good person?

3.) Am I worthy of respect?

For example: Let’s say you’re having a conversation with a co-worker about a project that’s not getting done, and they’re telling you they feel like they’re working more than you are to finish it.

First, you would evaluate what’s being said. Second, you’re checking in with yourself on how you feel about what’s being said (angry, frustrated). And next, this is probably threatening some piece of your perceived identity, such as you feeling incompetent or not being a good person.

The authors suggest also taking the perspective of the OTHER person and walking through these questions before having the difficult conversation. From the other person’s perspective, what is the content, how do they feel about it, and how is it impacting their identity? You might be surprised what comes up, and perhaps it will give you some new perspectives to come into the conversation with.