3 min read

Difficult Conversations? Here’s a Way Out . . .

Difficult Conversations? Here’s a Way Out . . .

“The ability to handle difficult conversations is a prerequisite to organizational change -- because the combination of globalized competition and technological development have made rapid change and adaptation a necessity for organizational survival. . . . The ability to manage difficult conversations effectively is foundational  to achieving any significant change.”

Sheila Heen
Harvard Business School Lecturer, and Best-Selling Author


sheila heen triad consulting group feedback and conversations healthy communication in workplace Sheila Heen, Triad Consulting Group


Who doesn’t wish for a way to navigate those stressful, difficult conversations at work (and at school, and at home)?

Sheila Heen knows the way. Her expertise can be the solution you’ve been looking for.

Sheila is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. She’s been on the Harvard Law School faculty as a Lecturer of Law since 1995.  She’s spent more than twenty years with the Harvard Negotiation Project, developing negotiation theory and practice. She specializes in particularly difficult negotiations – where emotions run high and relationships become strained.

And here’s where she hits the nail on the head: 

“More and more, getting anything done really requires skills in collaborating with, and influencing, other people and working on problems across cultures, differences, and functions.

“This has left leaders thinking, ‘How do I develop the skills as I face bigger and bigger challenges and people are not collaborating to solve problems the way I need them to.’”

Decoding the Structure of a Difficult Conversation

Says Sheila, “It doesn’t matter what the conflict is about, every difficult conversation has the same structure that can give you some landmarks to help you find your way through the thicket to take you to the other side and bring other people with you.

"Three things show up in our internal voice; there are three underlying conversations we're having with ourselves:

  • The “What happened?” Conversation contains three key, embedded pieces. My story of what happened, is happening, or should happen includes:
    • what I think I’m right about,
    • whose fault it is, and
    • why are they being this way?
  • The "Feelings" Conversation centers on "What do I do with all the feelings I've got that I'm not supposed to be showing at work." Often, you're left with not knowing what to do with feeling exasperated, afraid, betrayed, (fill in the blank). Meanwhile, your feelings are leaking out in your facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
  • The "Identity" Conversation points to the possibility that your difficult conversation is keeping you up at night and that it’s suggesting something about you that’s at stake: Am I not a good leader? Am I not valued around here? Am I a good person, or a bad person? Am I worthy of love? These questions fuel the feelings we’re having about the story we’re telling ourselves, the story of what’s going on.

[shareable cite="Sheila Heen"]Navigating difficult conversations has to do more with reflecting on your story first, and then changing the purpose of your conversation.”[/shareable]

How to Get Through the Dark Tunnel

“Often, a difficult conversation can feel like we’re in a dark tunnel where there’s only one way out. Or it can feel like we’re in a labyrinth where there are so many options and none of them feel promising, or easy to choose. So, we’re left feeling:

  • I can’t find a way out
  • I can’t see my way through to where they’re going to cooperate
  • I don’t have the magic words for them to get them to see and agree that I’m right, and to get them on board with what I think is the right thing to do.

“This kind of thinking will end up getting you stuck. It’s not about finding the perfect words to get the other person to go along with you. Navigating difficult conversations has to do more with reflecting on your story first, and then changing the purpose of your conversation.”

With that, you’re that much closer to successfully navigating difficult conversations (and to improving your relationship with the person/s involved).

The step-by-step solution is waiting for you in this episode of The Flourishing Culture Podcast.

It's Your Turn

Which of the three stories, above, brings to mind a situation you would like to see improved?

Coming Up Next in on our Continuing Series

“Our Favorite Life-Changing Stories of 2019”
Al Lopus, Giselle Jenkins, Cary Humphries
Best Christian Workplaces Institute

Additional Resources

Buy Sheila's book:

sheila heen difficult conversations book


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