The I/We/It Tool For Difficult Conversations

A difficult conversation tool: I/We/It Vectors

This comes from Doug Stone and Sheila Heen’s Harvard Negotiation Project work and their two books. 

In any conversation, meaning is flowing on 3 levels (or vectors, but I’m not that fancy). In any difficult conversation, there’s a block on one of these three levels. The I/We/It tool helps us source the blockage to restore it. 

Before I break it down, let’s say you need to fire or fix someone who hasn’t been doing the best job at work.  

You go to start the conversation, and before you get to make a statement they start explaining how frustrated they are with the current system, how it feels like you’ve been butting heads lately, and worst of all, they’re embarrassed how this all makes them look in the world. 

Time for an extra difficult conversation.

Here are the 3 levels – take a look at their definitions first, and then we’ll tease them out: 

The “I” level has to do with each participant’s individual identity and how they feel about themselves. 

The “We” level includes the relational view between the participants, and how they feel about each other. 

The “It” level is whatever stuff is being discussed and has nothing to do with emotions – just the facts. 

In our fix or fire scenario, the “it” level is backed up with however the system is failing to work/function. The “we” level is choking on head-butts. The “I” level is concerned with how this is reflecting on our problem child to the rest of the world. 

So you say, “I hear you. The system isn’t working for you, which is causing stress between us, and it’s reflecting poorly on you professionally.”

They agree. 

Now here’s the actual difficult part – you have to systematically unblock them. 

A few ideas for this case:

The system isn’t working for you, but it is clearly working for others (give examples if necessary). What’s going on there and what might we do to make it better for you? 

If we’re butting heads, it’s because neither of us are feeling heard. We’re trying to get “here” (some mutual goal), but it sounds like you feel stuck and need help to get to where I want to see you. How can I help you, how can you help you, and how can you help me? 

I’m worried about how you think this all reflects back on you professionally. Your identity is really important here, what would have to happen to improve your status/stature? 

At this point it should be clear – are you proactively unclogging the drains of your situation? Or just frustratingly adding water and thinking about chugging draino yourself? 

If you can clear the blockages via I/We/It you’ll have a plan for positive progress. 

If you can’t – or even if you get 2 out of 3 but can’t solve 1 OR plan to solve all 3 in a timely manner, it’s better for all parties to move on. 

To be clear, this is just me interpreting some of their work, but – focusing on the person in question, the relationship between you and them, and the facts on the table is an excellent starting point in my book. 

Here’s Ali Schultz at Reboot with a deep dive, and a Reboot Podcast episode “Wisdom for Work #15” on the topic/tool too.