Many of us, possibly most of us, find it challenging not to react immediately to various triggers without anger, irritation, or defensiveness. Rather than take the time to contemplate and reflect, we react much like Pavlov’s conditioned dogs. And thus we go through life, repeating the same script over and over, with little awareness that we have the choice to respond differently.
Harri Holkeri, a former Finnish prime minister (1937-2011) who helped shepherd talks that led to the historic 1998 peace agreement in Northern Ireland, died this week in Helsinki. In a speech in 2008, Mr. Holkeri cited several reasons he and his colleagues were able to guide the long-divided parties to a deal. I wondered, as I read the NYTimes obituary, whether these might be helpful in navigating our own everyday disagreements and conflicts.
One of my favorite books on the subject of handling tough conversations and situations is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Patton, Heen & Fisher, 2010). Based on 15 years of work at the Harvard Negotiation Project and consultations with thousands of people struggling to communicate effectively in tough situations, the authors answer the question: When people confront the conversations they dread the most, what works?