3 levels of conversation: great for figuring out “what just went wrong?!”

Have you ever walked away from a conversation, thinking “what just went wrong?!”. The 3 levels of conversation can help you.

For example, I was talking to my partner. I wanted to save some money from our daily expenses so we could put away a little more for the future. I talked about how we spent our money, where we could save, and what I thought we should do. Can you see where this is going? Before too long my partner became defensive and in response I become more coldly logical. We were reduced to silence, both feeling frustrated.

This type of thing happens at work too!

For example, I was talking to my manager in a team meeting, proposing a new project that I felt would really add value to our team. I was full of enthusiasm, sure that this was a great idea. My manager knocked back the idea. I became frustrated, feeling like she didn’t value my idea, and stopped contributing to the meeting.

What just went wrong?! The 3 levels of conversation can help.

Introducing the 3 levels of conversation

This model was developed by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen and features in their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most which provides a step-by-step approach to having those tough conversations with less stress and more success.

In any conversation, there are 3 levels of conversation taking place. Think of them as 3 separate conversations.

  1. The “what happened?” conversation
  2. The feelings conversation
  3. The identity conversation

Things go wrong because we’re not mindful of these 3 levels.

Let’s dive a little deeper.

The “What happened?” conversation

This is the level of the conversation that is dealing with the facts of what happened. We go wrong at this level because we have different interpretations of ‘the facts’, make assumptions about intentions and assign blame.

Take the first example, above, the conversation with my partner.

I was talking about how we spend money. My partner was interpreting this as me saying “this is how you spend our money”. Already we were on the wrong track. We had different interpretations of the facts.

The feelings level of conversation

This is the level of conversation most people don’t want to have. Talking about feelings is risky. Also, it’s not easy to know exactly what you’re feeling, and it’s not easy to express it, especially ‘in the moment’ as you’re struggling with the emotions.

To continue the example, my partner felt blamed for spending too much money. I was feeling frustrated because I just wanted a logical, rational conversation about how to save some money (I can be quite cold and rational at times!).

And neither of us wanted, or felt able, to express our feelings.

The identity level of conversation

This is the level of conversation that most people aren’t aware of, it’s all about how the conversation effects your sense of identity. This becomes relevant when the conversation challenges or threatens the feeling of who you are, your identity.

Using the same case as an example, an important part of my partner’s identity is associated with being a good home builder. And part of this is about spending money wisely.

Just taking about saving some money was triggering a subtle “you’re doubting my worth!” response, making my partner feel vulnerable. (All I wanted to do was talk about saving a little money!).

The reason I know all this? Because we used the 3 levels of conversation model to diagnose what had happened. It took time, lots of coffee, and some openness and honesty, but we got there in the end.

3 levels of conversation, the way forward

The 3 levels of conversation tool is useful, but you still need the skills to apply the tool.

When you’re in conversation, be willing to:

  • Recognize the 3 levels
  • Be open to the other person’s perspective
  • Give up your ‘position’ and focus on becoming a better listener
  • Be willing to raise the difficult issues, with a gentle, enquiring approach

For more, take a look at how to start a difficult conversation.

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