Difficult Conversations

A great blog post by Canadian voice teacher Nikki Loney, author of The Full Voice series, reminded me of one of my favorite books. I revisit it regularly to incorporate more of its wisdom into my personal and professional life. That book is Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone.

A huge (and often neglected) part of professional development is learning how to manage difficult conversations. Otherwise, all the time spent learning about pedagogy, history, IPA, acoustics, anatomy, biology, music theory, sight reading, etc., will be for NAUGHT if you cannot address difficult conversations with those around you as they arise. (Who cares how much you know if you become a doormat or a bully?)

This is a sorely lacking skill in our profession, as emotional intelligence often gets lost in the training shuffle when becoming a voice teaching professional.

What is a difficult conversation? According to Stone, it’s this:


Here are some examples:

  • How do I engage with a colleague that has disrespected me on social media?
  • How do I deal with a parent that wants to sit in on every lesson?
  • How do I engage with a student that is resisting my teaching, isn’t practicing, doesn’t show up on time?
  • How do I deal with a mom making extra demands on my already full calendar?
  • How do I have the conversation to get a family to pay me on time?
  • How do I have an honest conversation with a student I’m worried about?

Pithy quotes and advice from fellow teachers on social media can be rarely helpful. “FIRE THEM!,” lacks nuance and misses the humanity of the situation. If only the world could exist in such absolutes! I wish more teachers would be careful of the pedagogical company they keep when asking for advice of such a nature. Pedagogical collectivism doesn’t always work on a personal level.

Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade. Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage. Try as you may, there’s no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun the consequences. And keeping it to yourself is no better. Choosing not to deliver a difficult message is like hanging on to a hand grenade once you’ve pulled the pin.

To have a difficult conversation, it’s helpful to have a strategy and understanding of the different types of conversations one might have as a voice teacher. Holding on to the conversation is NOT the way to go. Difficult conversations are difficult for a reason!! And they will always pose a challenge, even when you feel equipped to have them.

Understanding the structure of difficult conversations can go a long way to building strategies for engaging more effectively. Stone points out THREE main types of difficult conversations:

DIFFICULT CONVERSATION #1: The “What Happened?” Conversation:

These conversations include disagreement about what happened or what SHOULD happen. Who said what? Who’s right? Who’s to blame? TRUTH-INTENTION-BLAME

As teachers we will have this conversation A LOT. Whether it comes to billing, or lesson times, or schedules, or email conversations, this is a common one for all of us.

DIFFICULT CONVERSATION #2: The Feelings Conversation:

Every difficult conversation is going to ask and answer questions about feelings. Is how I am feeling appropriate? Are my feelings valid? Should I deny them or acknowledge them? What am I gonna do about the other person’s feelings? What if they’re angry or hurt?

DIFFICULT CONVERSATION #3: The Identity Conversation

This is the conversation we have with ourselves about WHAT THE SITUATION MEANS TO US. Does this mean I’m incompetent? Good or bad? Worthy of love or unlovable? Talented or untalented? Smart or stupid? A large part of feeling balanced in a conversation is addressing these issues. If we don’t, we’ll feel anxious or off-center: “What are they trying to say about me?”

Here’s the rub: EVERY difficult conversation you will ever have includes aspects of ALL THREE of these conversations. EVERY ONE. It’s vital that we learn to operate in ALL THREE of them. (Once when I was in a book club for this book, participants mocked having difficult conversations, and BOY was that an educational experience!!)

Difficult conversations are not about getting facts right, although our egos love a ‘win.’ They’re about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and VALUES.

The answer to having better difficult conversations is to switch to having a LEARNING conversation. YOU be the learner. Work through the three conversations above on your own. Mock it with your spouse, friend, or helpful colleague. You’d be surprised what a good rehearsal of a difficult conversation can do for your confidence when you DO engage.

Here are some quick tips when approaching a difficult conversation:

  1. Learn THEIR story.
  2. Express YOUR views and YOUR feelings
  3. Problem solve together

In every case, work through the Three Conversations as best you can. Get a better handle on your feelings, key identity issues, and possible distortions or gaps in your perceptions. Think clearly about what you do know (your own feelings, your own experiences and story, your identity issues), and what you don’t know (their intentions, their perspective, or feelings).

This approach will help you become more aware of the process of communication and gain insight into what’s making your conversations difficult. Sometimes the insights you find will present a clear answer: “Raising this is important, and now I have some ideas about how to do it differently” or “Now I’m starting to see why having a conversation probably won’t help.”

Here are some helpful things to remember:

  1. It’s not your responsibility to make things better; it’s your responsibility to DO YOUR BEST. Some people cannot be changed.
  2. The other person has limitations too. They are just as imperfect as you are.
  3. This conflict is NOT who you are.
  4. Letting go doesn’t mean you no longer care. Letting go of emotions and identity issues wrapped up in difficult conversations is one of the most challenging things you can do.

I encourage every voice teacher to read and practice the ideas set forth in Stone’s book. It is an empowering read, and I have found that when we know how to engage in difficult conversations it gives us a sense of control and confidence to go forth and deal more effectively with all aspects of our interpersonal lives. Find a friend and read it together – practice with each other. You’ll be surprised at how liberating and FREEING a difficult conversation will be, and you’ll tend to be less fearful of them in the future. Having the understanding and tools for a difficult conversation is something that should be in every voice teacher’s back pocket.



Stone, Douglas, Sheila Heen, and Bruce Patton. Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin, 2010.


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