Having Difficult Conversations

Tips on Having Difficult Conversations

Difference of opinion is nothing new. And in these unique times, we are being forced into having difficult conversations with one another on what feels like a daily basis. With the stakes so high in pretty much every area of life these days, it’s easy for these to get heated, fast.

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Expert Tips on Having Difficult Conversations from Sheila Heen

As a conflict-averse person, I wanted to talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do about how to navigate these intense interactions, and that’s why I am so excited to be talking with Sheila Heen today. Sheila is a lecturer at Harvard Law School, a 20-year member of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and the author of two New York Times bestselling books–Difficult Conversations, and Thanks for the Feedback. She knows how to talk about the tough stuff with other people in a way that leads to understanding.

Part of the problem with difficult conversations is that it can feel like you switch over into defensive mode and your wits leave you. Because a lot of difficult conversations aren’t planned–they happen when you’re in the middle of something else. Is there a framework you can share about how to view disagreements that can help us shift out of that high alert mode?

Sheila: Oh, golly. I wish I had one because that would mean that I was not just defensive and you know, frustrated a lot of the time. But I do think that that’s one of the difficulties, which is that we often are sort of ambushed by difficult conversations and then we’re in reactive mode. So I think in reactive mode, my first instinct is to demonstrate why I’m right about whatever you’ve just attacked to me for. And to defend myself as a good person. And if I have the wherewithal to catch myself in that stance, then shifting that from, I have to persuade you that I’m right about whatever I think is most important to, gosh, let me understand why we maybe see this so differently.

If I can actually have that shift to have that as my purpose, then we’re much more likely to have an interesting conversation. Because I can share why I think I’m right, but I’m not pushing you to agree with me. Because of course then you’ll have the instinct to demonstrate that no you’re right, which means that I’m wrong. And now we each defending ourselves as good people and people who know what they’re talking about. So if I can make that half step to, gosh, I wonder why we see this so differently. I actually stepped to a stance of curiosity. And it’s also more likely that I can invite you to come with me to that stance.

I think it is so interesting because it is really important. I think that is part of our reaction is that we feel somehow critiqued if somebody has a different opinion than we are, because it says something about us.

Sheila: Yeah. And it’s interesting. You know, one of the easy examples here is masks, right? And what I was reflecting on the other day is I was sitting on a flight and the guy next to me, took off his mask and left it off. I was sitting there contemplating whether and what to say to him. I was thinking about the difference between saying, Hey, could you put your mask back on? Which totally came out of my assumption. Like if you were a good person, you would not be sitting next to me with your mask off. But in doing that, he really hears that condemnation in how I’m seeing him. Like, I am the good person. You are the dumb person, or the stupid person, or the uncaring person. Please correct yourself.

And instead what I said to him eventually after I negotiated with myself was, “Hey, don’t forget to put your mask back on.” Which the only difference between those two was, I know, and I assume that you’re a good person and that you’ve just forgotten. And that’s not a big deal. We all forget.  I’m just here to be helpful to you. And you know, to his credit, he didn’t say anything. He just nodded and put it back up. But I do think that that identity thing of like, how am I cast in this little play of ours? This conversation we’re having. Am I the good person or the bad person? But if I can cast the other person has also a good person. Even if we see this differently, that can make all the difference in the world.

So does your advice change at all if the situation that we’re talking about is a friend or a family member who is seeing something that is racist?

Sheila: Yeah, well, as a white person, which I should just name a front for our listeners. There’s a way in which I have the opportunity to say something that might be more likely to be heard, at least to a friend or family member who is also white. Which might be, you know, “Hey, that’s really interesting if it’s true, you know, I used to think that too.” Or, “here’s what I think I didn’t understand until more recently.” Or, “here’s how I’m thinking about it.” And I may say, ” Just so you know,  part of what you just said will definitely get a kind of attention I think you don’t intend.” It will have a bad impact. And I know you are well-intended so I’m just flagging it for you. So you’re aware. In all of those situations, I’m basically making an affiliation move toward them. Like, Hey, as your friend or family member, I’m just sharing sort of how my thinking has evolved.

And also I’m trying to be helpful to you because I know that you’re a good person. And I do think that the one additional thing I would add is that I think I’m much more aware recently of who else is affected by this. Who else is in the room listening? Like one of my children or a colleague of mine, who may not feel comfortable speaking up themselves. And where I really have a responsibility to be the person who speaks up on their behalf, because I want to say something to them as much as I want to say something to the person who has made the comment that is maybe problematic.

 It sounds like something that is common to what you just shared in terms of, you know, here’s something that I’ve learned in this might not be coming across the way you intended is that you have to suspend your judgment. And I mean, judgment of like, I can’t believe you just said that.

Sheila: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Or I can’t believe that you just said that and “Oh gosh, you know, I wish you saw it differently” or “I wish you could remember this.” So I have family members and some of this is generational by the way, and habit based. So when I have family members who refer to people of Asian descent as Orientals. And I have mentioned it to them at least 20 times that like, that’s not really a term that’s used anymore. But they just can’t remember because that was the polite way to say it in their day. And so we’re all carrying things that at the time were sort of maybe even at the forefront of thinking. But that no longer are heard that way. And that’s hard,

You have three kids. So what do you most want them to know about how to talk to folks about the things that matter most?

Sheila: I think mostly it’s to talk about the things that matter most. So part of what’s actually been under in our family quite recently has been the importance of at least having the conversation that when you’re upset with someone, when you’re frustrated with someone, don’t go complain to another family member about it, like go back to the person. You can vent to somebody else if you need to do that, but don’t let that be a substitute for actually going back to the person to have the conversation, whether it’s in our, our family or the extended family, your friends, and eventually, you know, your work colleagues. And that letting that sit and fester and avoiding the conversation is actually in most cases only going to make it worse.

Right. Yeah. I mean, just hearing you say that I feel such relief. If we all just could have that find that resolution, it’s not that things get tie-dyed up in a bow, right. But it gets out of your head and out into the world where perhaps it can change things for the better, as opposed to just fester.

Sheila: Perhaps it can. And also the habits that we learn as kids in our family system, we then take into the world. So if our experience as kids has been that, talking about it only escalates it and makes it worse. Then I’m definitely not going to raise something right. When I’m 30 years old and you know, relatively junior person on a new team. But if I had the experience of saying, gosh, if I raise it and I raise it with curiosity. Like, I have some thoughts and I want you to be aware of this and I’m interested in what you think. Then I have the experience that says, that’s likely to be a helpful conversation to have. Then I’m more likely to bring it up. And so I feel like I’m trying to equip my kids. Teach them not just to bring it up, but also how to bring things up in ways that  are more likely to spur productive conversations on that front.

So in terms of imparting wisdom and this isn’t necessarily kid related, if there’s one thing you wish everyone who’s listening could remember in those heated moments, when something is coming up, what would it be?

Maybe that it’s normal. I mean, when I, when I work with an organization, or family that says, gosh, we’re struggling with difficult conversations. Part of my reaction is, okay, well that tells me two things about you. It tells me that you care a lot about what you’re doing, that you do it as well as possible. And you care a lot about the people you’re doing it with that. Having conflict and stress and friction in those relationships is actually important to you. You’re worried about it. And those are two huge assets to have because conflict in human relationships is inevitable. And then the question is just how do we handle it better?

Right? So even just listening to this podcast episode,

Your podcast is about how to become a better person. And that’s very aligned with the way I think about it, which is how do I, how do I become a more transparent and authentic person? So that what I say is aligned with what I’m thinking and who I am, and also being willing to be open, to learn something new. And that alone can make both more authentic and hopefully a better person over time.

I love it. Sheila, it’s been so great to talk to you. Where can people find you so that they can get more of your great advice?

If you Google me Sheila Heen, you’ll find a number of resources. So on our tribe consulting group page, there’s a nav called help yourself. And it has a bunch of free resources for people who are interested.

Daily Tiny Assignment

So I know that this isn’t a tiny assignment, but I want to challenge you to, if there’s something that you’ve been avoiding talking about, or if you find yourself in a situation where somebody says something that makes, you know, prickles the hair on the back of your neck a little bit. And you feel like you really need to address it and let, just want to be the little angel on your shoulder to say, talk about this.

That’s the only way that we’re going to evolve collectively together is to talk about the things that are hard and that we don’t know the answers on. And just how we all evolve our thinking. And not just, it’s not like you’re right, and you need to lead them. Maybe they’re thinking of something and seeing something from a perspective that you’re not considering. And even if you don’t agree, it’s going to help refine your thinking about how to talk about it.


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