Difficult Conversations by Sheila Heen (GLS18)

Sheila Heen helped start the Triad Consulting Group, lectures at Harvard Law School, and wrote Difficult Conversations at Global Leadership Summit 2018.

Our Common Struggles:

  • Standing up for myself
  • Disappointing someone
  • Working across cultures
  • Telling my boss they are wrong.
  • Helping my peers with their “self-awareness”

In difficult conversations we have to go beyond what is being said.

We have to listen to our internal voice which is turned up loudly in those moments.

Every dIfficult conversation has the same internal structure.

Three Questions That Make Up Our Internal Story
What Happened?

  • Who is right? What am I right about? What can I defend easiest? (Explain)
  • Whose fault is it? Blaming is our common reaction. (Accuse)
  • Why are they acting this way? (“Fix” them)

The more frustrated we are, the more likely we are to create a terrible story about the other person.

On Feelings

When frustrated, ask yourself: what am I feeling?

Don’t forget to consider: what are they feeling?

We check our feelings in at the door, but our feelings are real. We are having emotional reactions at work all the time. By the time a conversation has become difficult, we have shifted into feeling mistreated. Not dealing with how we feel will mean this will come up again and again.

Our Identity

Our identity drives our emotions and our frustrations.

We struggle with what the situation says about me.

So What Do We Do?

Change the story in your head.

1. Instead of: Who’s right?

Ask: What do we each think this conversation is about?


2. Instead of: Whose fault?

Ask: What how can we solve this together?

Blame looks for who is most at fault and someone did something wrong.

Joint contribution considers reasonable things that just were not helpful.


3. Instead of: Why are they acting this way?

Ask: What separates their intentions from the impact?

Speak to the impact about what I am truly concerned about.

Improving Difficult Conversations

There is a difference between ‘talking at’ and ‘talking to’. We need to get to ‘talking with’.

Stop arguing about who is right so we can start working towards a solution together and keeping each other accountable.

Stop blaming and instead worked on joint contribution.

Give the benefit of the doubt about intentions and be honest about your concerns.

Be open to the possibilities of learning from the other person!

“There are some things I wish I’d done differently…”

“It would help if you could….”

Leadership is about showing someone a better future that we will co-create together.

Remember: We are all fallible and all worthy of love.


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