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Difficult Conversations 101: Blaming Sarah

There appears to be no small amount of blame to spread around for the Republican’s loss at the polls, much of it centering on Sarah Palin, as if she hadn’t been hand-picked and thrown out to American conservatives as a “Hail Mary” pass.

Because scape-goating gives rise to oodles of litigation every year, let’s talk briefly about having difficult conversations in which everyone “takes their part” in the loss experienced, failure suffered or mistake made.  

Time to pull out your hopefully dog-eared and battered copy of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, reviewed by the good folks at not too many years ago.  As the Conflict Research Consortium Staff reviewers wrote, Difficult Conversations recomments that we:

start conversations from the perspective of a “third story” that describes (or at least acknowledges) the difference between the parties views in neutral terms. The opening should then invite the other party to join in a conversation seeking mutual understanding or joint problem solving.

Listening is a crucially important part of handling difficult conversations well. It helps us to understand the other person, and the feeling of having been heard makes the other more able to listen themselves. The key to being a good listener is to be truly curious and concerned about the other person.

Techniques that can help you show that care and concern include asking open questions, asking for more concrete information, asking questions that explore the three conversations, and giving the other the option of not answering.

Avoid questions that are actually statements. Do not cross-examine the other. Another technique is paraphrasing the other person to clarify and check your own understanding.

Acknowledge the power and importance of the other person’s feelings, both expressed and unexpressed.

Each person must recognize that her views and feelings are no less (and no more) legitimate and important than anyone else’s, and she is entitled to express herself. Once you have found the courage to speak, start by saying explicitly what is most important to you. Do not use hints or leading questions.

Share the information, reasoning and experience behind your views. Help the other person to understand you by having them paraphrase, or asking how they see it differently.

Blame statements should be reframed in terms of contributions [of all parties to the trouble at hand]. You can’t move the conversation in a more positive direction until the other person feels heard and understood.”

Naming the dynamic. When the other party persistently puts the conversation off track, for instance by interrupting or denying emotions, explicitly name that behavior and raise it as an issue for discussion. This makes the other person aware of the behavior, and it brings out more unexpressed thought and feelings.

Problem solving is the final step. First, remember that it takes two to agree. The other party needs to persuade you just as much as you need to persuade her. Gather information and seek missing information. Ask what would persuade the other person.

Tell them what would persuade you. Ask them what they would do in your position. Try to invent new options for dealing with the problem, and consider what principles could guide a fair solution.

When the parties cannot find a mutually acceptable solution, each must decide whether to accept a lesser solution, or to accept the consequences of failing to agree and walking away. When a person does walk away, they should explain why, describing their interests, feelings and choices.

Re-framing the GOP’s loss?  How about this?  The Dems and the GOP are natural correctives to one another every four years.  Things change.  Like the economy.  And the culture.  New generations arise to replace the old ones.  We evolve.  We also fail, stumble, falter, lose courage, miss opportunities, and resist change.

We Americans believe in the benefit of adversarial processes to course correct; to shine a light on the problems we might otherwise blind ourselves to; and, to see which ideas survive the harsh illumination of debate.  The transition of power from one party to another is the way we do things.  Instead of casting blame, we might all take a look at our personal and organizational contribution to things as they currently are — which is none too good for anyone.

Bottom line?  There’s simply no advantage to be achieved by blaming Sarah.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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