Navigating Difficult Conversations

By Dick Koehneke

That was the focus of a speech by Sheila Heen at last August’s Global Leadership Summit.  A lecturer on law at Harvard Law School, she has worked for two decades at the Harvard Negotiation Project.  Her consulting firm, Triad Consulting Group, works with executive teams to help them make sound decisions together.  She has co-authored two books, Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback.  If you want to know more, here are two websites you may want to check out: and

Here are seven of Sheila Heen’s observations at the Global Leadership Summit. [My comments are in brackets.]

  1. “Difficult conversations indicate that you care about what you do, and you care about the people you are doing it with.”

[If you don’t care, you don’t engage.  Apathy is the enemy of excellence.  Apathy is deadly to relationships.  It’s much better to be upset than to be apathetic.  In the midst of a difficult conversation, if you can think to yourself, “I really care about this subject” and/or “I really care about this person” you become much more likely to navigate the conversation in a healthy way.]

  1. “In difficult conversations, we need to become aware of our internal voice, because in difficult conversations our internal voices are turned up to full volume.”

[In a difficult conversation I need to ask myself, “Why am I feeling what I’m feeling right now?  What is it that’s got me so annoyed?  Why am I having such a hard time listening?  What else is going on in my life that might be affecting my feelings and attitudes at this moment?”] 

  1. “The other person also has an internal voice that’s reminding them what they are right about. In most difficult conversations, we feel like it’s our job to set the other person straight.”

[Maybe I’m falling victim to the attitude that says, “I’m not arguing with you, I’m simply explaining why I’m right.”  People don’t respond well to someone else’s self-righteousness and sense of superiority.  We don’t appreciate being treated with this kind of condescension:  “Your problem is that you don’t know all that I know; if you did, you would agree with me.”]

  1. “Instead of trying to prove who’s right, try asking what it is that we both think this conversation is about. Why do we see this situation so differently?”

[That question could help clear up a lot of confusion, couldn’t it?  So often people talk right past each other because they don’t realize that they are talking about two (or more) different things.  That happens in marriages and families, in the workplace, in the community, everywhere.  Let’s agree on the subject of the conversation before we start talking.]

  1. “Instead of asking whose fault it is, try asking what each of us has contributed to this problem. Blame looks for who is at fault. It assumes someone is wrong.”

[The Biblical statement, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” doesn’t apply only to everybody else on the planet.  “All” includes me.  Another good question could be, “What can each of us contribute to solving this problem?”]

  1. “Separate intentions from impact.”

[We can evaluate behavior, but we cannot discern motives.  Sometimes we mess up when we are sincerely trying to do the right thing.  A mistake is not the same as a sin.  There is truth and wisdom in the saying, “We judge others by their worst moments, but we judge ourselves by our best intentions.” Why not assume the best, not the worst, about the intentions of the other person?]     

  1. “Stop holding on to an either/or mentality. We are saints and sinners, fallible but also precious to God. Sometimes we misunderstand each other and let each other down.  We need each other to learn from those mistakes.”

[I love the many “both/and” truths of our Christian faith.  God is a Trinity, both Three and One.  Jesus Christ is both true God and true man.  The Bible is both human words and the Word of God.  Holy Communion is both bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ.  Eternal life is both “here and now” and “not yet.”  Let’s celebrate paradox and mystery instead of trying to figure everything out.  Let’s rejoice in the complexity of one another and the relationships that God has given us.  When we do that, we can navigate difficult conversations and find our way through them together.]