Why Do Difficult Conversations Threaten Our Identity?

The article “Identity and Difficult Conversations” explains how identity issues can threaten our identity, but we have the power to learn from the issues and ground our identity. Identity issues revolve around three core concerns:
1) Am I competent?
2) Am I good person?
3) Am I worthy of love?

When humans are communicating, especially within a difficult conversation, the communication process can pose a threat to the three concerns that influence identity. If one answers “no” to any of these questions, one’s identity is threatened and their sense of being is disrupted.

There is not a quick fix regarding these identity issues; however, one solution is to avoid the all or nothing syndrome. When faced with negative information about ourselves, all or nothing thinking results in two unhealthy options.
1) We try to deny the information that in inconsistent with our self-image.
2) Or we do the opposite: we take in the information in a way that exaggerates its importance to a crippling degree.

Neither denial nor exaggeration is a healthy way to ground your identity within the communication process. In order to ground your identity, it is important to recognize that identities issues exist and that our identity is complex. Further, it is important you accept these three things when grounding your identity:
1) you will make mistakes
2) your intentions are complex
3) you have contributed to the problem.

Understanding and accepting these three things allows for a balanced and informative communication process even when the process is difficult. Below are more tips for grounding your identity during difficult conversations.

1) Become aware of your identity issues- What patterns tend to knock you off balance during conflict? What about your identity feels at risk?
2) Let go of trying to control the other person’s reaction during conversation- You can’t control other people’s reactions, and it can be destructive to try.
3) Imagine the conversation in advance- What can you learn about how the other person might respond? In what way do any of these responses implicate identity issues for you?
4) Remember, their identity is also implicated during the conversation.


Stewart, J., Zediker, K., & Whitteborn, S. (2005). Constructing Identities In J. Stewart (Ed.), Bridges Not Walls: A Book About Interpersonal Communication(11 ed., pp. 73-84). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (1999). Identity and difficult conversations. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Bridges Not Walls: A book about Interpersonal Communication (11 ed., pp. 91-99). New York: Penguin Books.


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