Taming wicked conversations

If something can be learned from demonic possession movies, is that you have to ask for the deamon´s name before exorcising it. The Ritual requires it for a specific purpose. Naming something, or knowing its name, means having power over that thing. In fact, God gives Adam the power to name things. At the instant that the demon reveals his name, it shows that he has been weakened

In the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, we found a framework to understand the different layers of complexity in a wicked conversation. The first layer, the more superficial, is the “what happened” topic. This is where most conversations start and end. It basically states why I am right, who is the one to blame for the ploblems and some theories about why other people are so lazy, mean or mischievious.

This is why a 1:1 conversation about a flaky UI strategy, is never about the UI strategy. And as much as we try to take the rational course and discuss objects and not people, we end up feeling awful after the conversation. Even worse, feeling that the whole meeting drained our energy and did not move us any farther.

At rare ocassions, though, we dare to move into a deeper stage of the model: letting emotions and feelings being part of the conversation. The standard strategy is usually to work harder to keep emotions out of the discussion. The quest for an objective conversation as opposed to an emotional one, feel vs. think. But, what if we acknowledge that feelings are actually information? Information as a critical element for decision-making as good as the hard data coming from diagrams and analytics. Even further, having diagrams and analytics on the emotions involved.

This second stage of the conversations, an emotional layer, is hard to develop because we don´t have the training to talk about emotions at work. So, here´s a simple trick to avoid the analysis-paralisis and take your difficult meetings one step farther next time. A trick borrowed from dozens of exorcism movies: start by naming it. Instead of elaborating on why you think someone is presenting an awkward architecture for the front-end, add the information about the frustration that generates in you that a less prepared person is in charge of defining that. Or how angry you are because you never heard back from the feedback you sent.

Do not try to start from scratch. There is a good deal of techniques derived from positive psychology to help you spot, identify and evaluate emotional cues. As well as taxonomies to avoid uncomfortable overlaps and misunderstandings. Feel free to reach out about these tools.


  • Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult conversations. Penguin.





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Patricio Adrian Maller

Patricio Adrian Maller


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