A three letter word that makes difficult conversations less painful

Updated to Habits on December 14, 2022.

I have a surprising discovery for you. And it’s a three letter word.

Before I get to that…let’s talk about difficult conversations.

In high stakes conversations I often choke. My nervous system goes into fight or flight mode, blood drains from my brain, pupils dilate, breathing gets shallow and fast, heart rate races, meanwhile I’m trying to be the best version of myself possible. Good luck.

In times like that, good habits save my bacon. Habits like: not interrupting, reflecting back (if they are concerned, show concern) and not checking my email.

One more habit that works like a charm is the three letter word I want to share with you.


The goal in any conversation is understanding and agreement. The more understanding of the other person’s needs and the closer to agreement the better the outcome. Easier said than done.

Remind yourself that if you think you already understand how someone feels or what they are trying to say, it is a delusion. Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations

The problem is we get in the way.

I have a bad habit of becoming defensive when I feel like I’m being attacked. “The urge to blame” says Douglas Stone in Difficult Conversations “is based on the fear of being blamed.” And it doesn’t take much to trigger my defensiveness – any accusation or hint I might have been wrong and the six-year-old in me starts swinging back. Pathetic, really.

I am only successful if I remind myself what the real goal is. And it’s not about being right. It’s good to remember the old question: “Would you rather be right or happy?” – you can’t usually have both. The real goal is understanding and agreement.


Obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open. Kerry Patterson, Crucial Conversations

With the real goal in mind, it’s time to enter the conversation.

Maybe this sounds familiar…

“I know you needed that done, but this has been a tough time for me.”


“That’s easy for you to say, but you have no idea what I’m going through.”


“I know I shouldn’t have done that but it’s not a big deal so let’s forget about it.”

In all cases, these are counter attacks. Great in battle, lousy strategy in the bedroom (or the office, kitchen, car…). You might even be right, but now they can’t hear you because they’re too busy building ramparts and wanting to defend and attack back. Say sayonara to that romantic night out.

The trick to respectfully disagreeing is to use the three letter word I keep hinting about. And the word is (drum roll, please)…


Now, before you start pouting that it doesn’t have six syllables, hear me out.

The secret to respectfully disagreeing – which is an inevitable part of any high stakes conversation – is to acknowledge their point of view and segue to yours.

It can sound like this.

“I know you needed that done, and I’ve been swamped so it didn’t get done.”


“That’s easy for you to say, and this has been a tough time for me.”


“I know I shouldn’t have done that and help me to understand how you see it”


The trick is to replace “but” with “and”. Sure it’s a tiny change and I know it works (dang! see what I did there).

Here’s your homework. For the rest of the day simply insert “and” when you would normally say “but”. You’ll present yourself as more collaborative and respectful, even a better listener. And you can open the door to being heard and creating agreement.

Difficult conversations are just that, difficult. Presenting the best version of you (thoughtful, respectful, understanding, empathetic) with a few skills, goes a long way to resolution.

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