Toronto Firm Tackles Difficult Conversations: Stitt Feld Handy Group

We’ve all had difficult conversations, the ones that cause us to break out in a sweat before we’ve even begun. Whether it’s confronting a co-worker who has claimed credit for our work, firing an employee, confessing to a lie or asking for a raise these conversations have an added emotional complexity that fill us with dread.

Most of us try to avoid these conversations. The problem with avoidance is that the issue doesn’t get resolved and what may have begun, as a small problem becomes a much larger one. Let’s say, for example, you have an unproductive employee whom you’ve decided to let go but haven’t yet because you feel bad about firing him and are worried about how he may react. What are the consequences of keeping him on? You may realize you’re not doing as well as you would if you replaced him, his continued presence is having a negative effect on his coworkers and he may also be hurting your company’s reputation either directly or indirectly as a result of his ineffectiveness. You may know all of this and even have a reputation as a tough negotiator but there is still something about this conversation that turns you to jelly.

Why are these conversations so difficult? The answer according to Harvard University professors, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen in their book “Difficult Conversations” is that there are actually three different conversations going on simultaneously: the “What happened” conversation, the “Feelings” conversation and the “Identity” conversation. Untangling all three conversations can be a daunting challenge.

The “What happened” conversation is where most people get bogged down by making false assumptions about intent and insisting that the other person accept their view of who’s right and who’s wrong. These arguments centred around blame often bring rise to strong emotions. These emotions make up the “Feelings” conversation. Feelings are often irrational and rarely can be argued away. Even trying to identify the feelings can be tricky. When trying to fire someone you can feel fear of their reaction, pity for their situation, anger at their arguments and, possibly personally inadequate and cruel. These last two feelings are elements of the “Identity” conversation. The Identity conversation reveals itself when what’s at stake challenges the person you think you are. If you see yourself as a kind, helpful person who would never throw another person out on the street, firing someone may be a particularly difficult conversation for you. Similarly if the other person considers himself to be a hard-working, conscientious team player, imagine how difficult it will be for him to hear your message.

The Stitt Feld Handy Group through it’s subsidiary Zapdramatic has created an engaging on-line simulation based on the Harvard model entitled “You’re Fired!”.

“The best way to improve your skills is to practice”, says course developer Michael Gibson. “Failure is the best teacher”. But failure in the real world can be humiliating and costly. “Our simulations allow the users to safely take chances, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and try again. Throughout, an on-line coach offers practical tips on how to improve your effectiveness.”

In “You’re Fired” you learn how to avoid the blame trap by adopting an attitude of curiosity rather than certainty. You learn how to manage feelings effectively by listening without being judgmental. You also get tips on how to prepare for the “Identity Conversation” so that when it occurs you don’t feel the carpet pulled out from under you.

“You’re Fired” is available for a fee of five dollars at The five dollar fee gives you a month’s access to not only “You’re Fired” but also 14 other interactive negotiation simulations including a six part murder mystery. “We have over 100,000 visitors to Zap from all over the world,” says Gibson. “Our goal is to teach the art and science of negotiation through interactive entertainment.”

If you really want to learn more about the art of Difficult Conversations, The Stitt Feld Handy Group offers workshops on the subject. For more information call 416 307-0006 or visit

About Stitt Feld Handy Group

The members of the Stitt Feld Handy Group teach, practise, conduct research, and publish in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Negotiation. The Group also provides consultation advice for the design and implementation of ADR and conflict-management systems.