Sheila Heen: Defusing Difficult Conversations #41

Warwick Fairfax

October 27, 2020

We know them when we’re in them. Or avoiding them. Uncomfortable conversations when it feels like one wrong word — or even one right word expressed wrongly — can explode like a hand grenade. But we can avoid the detonation and destruction, Harvard Negotiation Project and Harvard Law School lecturer Sheila Heen explain in unpacking the insights and action items in her books Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback. The key, she says, is recognizing that in tough conversations we’re speaking words but exchanging emotions.

Highlights

  • The seeds of her writing books about managing conflict (4:21)
  • The personal crucible that helped solidify her professional path (5:46)
  • How having difficult conversations may have helped Warwick avoid his crucible (9:56)
  • Difficult conversations not had can lead to crucibles … as can difficult conversations had (12:07)
  • The either/or nature of difficult conversations (14:18)
  • The three types of difficult conversations (16:06)
  • The tensions inherent in having difficult conversations (15:18)
  • The importance of the internal voice (17:14)
  • Managing the feelings informing difficult conversations (18:26)
  • The importance of understanding others (21:56)
  • Shifting from blame to responsibility (24:27)
  • The benefit of a leader admitting responsibility (27:03)
  • How to have a “learning conversation” (27:58)
  • The challenges of professional feedback (33:44)
  • Why receiving feedback is so hard (36:05)
  • The triggers we all have when receiving feedback (38:26)
  • Receiving feedback is a leadership skill (41:21)
  • When receiving feedback becomes a crucible moment (45:20)
  • The challenges of evaluation (46:26)
  • Where to find hope in crucible moments of division (49:22)
  • Key episode takeaways (53:17)

Transcript

Warwick F:
Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Sheila H:
One of the things that at the end of the day is true is that more than people will remember the facts of exactly who said what in the exchange, they’re going to remember how they felt treated. And moving your purpose from, “Let me just reiterate and persuade you about why I’m right,” to “And so my purpose is to have a learning conversation. I don’t know whether I’ll change my mind at the end of this, but I at least want to learn why we see it differently and how it’s been for you and what you’re worried about.” And we also try to teach people to listen for feelings as well as listen for facts. Because if I can listen for feelings, I can really hear what’s behind your concerns, objections, et cetera.

Gary S:
Conversations in which the goal is to learn what the other person’s thinking and to have the other person learn what you’re thinking, listening for feelings in conversations rather than trying to make points and win arguments, these are just two ways to navigate difficult conversations that we explore on today’s episode. Hi. I’m Gary Schneeberger the cohost of the show and the communications director for Crucible Leadership.

Gary S:
And today we have an interview with Sheila Heen. Sheila is the founder of Triad Consulting Group, and she’s been on the Harvard Law School faculty as a lecturer on law since 1995. Sheila spent more than 20 years with the Harvard Negotiation Project, developing negotiation theory and practice. She specializes in particularly difficult negotiations, what we might call crucible negotiations, where emotions run high and relationships become strained. For the purposes of our discussion today, Sheila is the coauthor of two New York Times best sellers.

Gary S:
The first book was Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and her most recent book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, (Even When It Is Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, And, Frankly, You’re Not In The Mood). What you’ll hear from this conversation today is how you can, especially in the midst of a crucible, allow for both sides in a conversation not only to speak, but to truly be heard. And as you’ll hear from Sheila herself as we kick off her interview, she comes by her expertise in this area quite honestly.

Warwick F:
Well Sheila, it’s an honor to have you. So just so the listeners know kind of how this all came about is, like many of us in the era of COVID, I have three adult kids in their 20s who are all wonderful people just pursuing different things. And my daughter is in the middle of my two sons. She said, “Dad, I came across this book and article on difficult conversations and I think the author that would be great to have on your podcast.” So I took a look and I thought, “Wow. Well, we at Crucible Leadership and Beyond the Crucible we’re all about bouncing back from adversity, and as you’re doing that, you are going to have some difficult conversations. And so how do you do that well?” So I was fascinated by this.

Warwick F:
And I like to think I’m reasonably good at communications, fairly discerning, but I learned a lot just from reading some of the stuff that you’ve written Sheila. It’s like, “Wow.” I mean, I’m not bad in this area, but there’s a lot I didn’t know. So talk about what led you to write these books. And obviously one follows the other, Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback, but what was some of the genesis of that? Was there anything in growing up or… Often there’s a story behind the story. But what was sort of the backstory that led you to focus so much of your working life on these two books?

Sheila H:
Yeah. It’s such a good question. And it’s interesting because I think when you look back on your life, things are much more clear than when you’re living them at the time. Right? That’s the challenge. But there’s also a way in which you’re stitching together things which may or may not be related. Right? But when I do look back, I think about the fact that… I grew up in the Midwest in Iowa and Nebraska where, although I don’t think there were big secrets that were not talked about in my family, the general tenor I think is, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Sheila H:
And conflict was kind of a big deal. I have very vivid memories of the arguments between my parents that I witnessed because they were relatively rare, so I knew it was a big deal. And then in college, I went to college in California and got interested in public policy and international relations and was doing simulations, negotiating between the two World Wars, that kind of thing, and my advisor, as I was thinking about going to law school… my dad’s a lawyer by the way, said, “I really have an instinct that this negotiation thing might be your thing, and if that’s your thing, Harvard really is the center of some of the most interesting work being done.”

Sheila H:
And that’s kind of how I ended up at Harvard. But if we then also want to go one step further, I was in a really hard on-again, off-again relationship during law school. We kept breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together. And I knew in my heart of hearts this was not the right relationship for me, but I kept getting talked back into it. And I was simultaneously taking negotiation class, serving as a teaching assistant for negotiation class and trying to figure out why can I not negotiate my way out of this relationship?

Sheila H:
And a lot of it was a conversation with myself about whether I… He would say, “You’re not giving it a fair shot,” et cetera, and I’d think, “Well, I want to be fair so I guess…” And it took me a long time to realize this is not actually a negotiation. If I don’t want to be in this relationship, he doesn’t have to agree. And he can think I’m a terrible person and okay, I am hopeful he’s not right about that but he can exist in the world and think that about me and that will not kill me. So that’s a little bit of I think the backstory of what led me to what is missing from these negotiation skills and why am I so stuck when I think I’m a pretty thoughtful, reasonable person.

Sheila H:
And of course when I watch other people be in on-again, off-going relationships, I think, “Why are you being so stupid?” While I’m in one, while I can’t seem to find the exit door. It keeps leading me back into the room.

Warwick F:
What it probably makes us think is, as smart as we all like to think we are, we have moments where we feel maybe we’re kind of dumb and stupid. I mean, where we’re kind of less than we… We’re not operating at maximum intellectual, emotional, spiritual capacity and we’re-

Sheila H:
I think that’s exactly right. And sometimes I’m very aware that I’m not operating at my best and other times I’m so stuck that I can’t see that I am stuck or why I’m stuck, whereas people around me see it faster than I can.

Warwick F:
Well, and that’s why friends are useful. I mean, just one other point on this. Do you ever kind of… Obviously you’re very familiar with your books and reread it and say, “Boy. Back when I was in California in that relationship, I needed to read or think about chapter six and seven and five. I had kind of…” Okay. But you could probably… Because you actually give examples on your book of relationships. You give professional examples, but relationship examples. And you look at that and say, “Diagnose it like self-autopsy, if you will. Yeah. That it was this and this that was really missing in that conversation.”

Sheila H:
Yeah. And by the way, I can’t take all the credit for that because what ended up happening is that I was doing independent research projects during law school with Doug Stone and Bruce Patton. We became coauthors of Difficult Conversations. And my third-year paper, which Bruce supervised was actually about a terrible interaction I had in an elevator when I went to renew my passport in Los Angeles. And there was someone in the elevator making these awful racist, demeaning comments, and we’re in a packed elevator of people and no one said anything. And it was so upsetting. I just felt ill. I was trembling when I got out of the elevator and I felt ill for the rest of the day and every time I thought about it.

Sheila H:
And so I decided to take that moment as a moment of analysis to try to figure out what was going on with me, what was I trying to accomplish, what were my options that I couldn’t see at the moment. And so I wrote that paper while Bruce and Doug were actually asking some of the same questions. So as I graduated and joined them full time, we found that we were coming at those questions from different directions, but that we were trying to see what are the patterns in what gets us stuck and what would help. And it turns out those patterns… The underlying structure of difficult conversations is the same, whether it’s in your personal life or your professional life. And that’s one of the reasons we wrote the book really with a huge range, every possible combination or context we could think of. We wanted to include real examples.

Warwick F:
And that’s very helpful. And we’re going to get into here in just a second just some of the key elements of difficult conversations. But as I reflect on this, I think as some listeners will know, I grew up in a large wealthy family newspaper business in Australia, it kind of had the equivalent of New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. And like some other relatives of mine, I went did my undergrad at Oxford, worked on Wall Street banking, Harvard Business School. So I like to think I’m reasonably intelligent.

Warwick F:
And so I come back and I launched this two billion plus takeover and did so many dumb things. I mean, that was within months of graduating from Harvard Business School. It’s meant to give you some level of understanding of things. And there was so many dumb… I even look back then… That must have been another person. I couldn’t have been that… So many dumb assumptions. But often when you look beneath the waterline, it was various emotional dynamics. Without belaboring it too much, some other relatives had thrown my dad out as chairman 11 years before in ’76. So come ’87, I felt like the company wasn’t being well run along the ideals of the founder, it wasn’t being well managed.

Warwick F:
So there’s all these emotional subtext in which my normal level of reasoning was subverted by some various emotional things that I wasn’t fully aware of that led me to make some poor decisions. And the classic was, talk about difficult non-conversations, I was so focused on, “I don’t need any more information. There’s right, there’s wrong, let’s go.” Sort of like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Launch this takeover. And I had conversations with other close family members who were heavily involved in the family business the night before. I’m doing this in the morning. Clearly I wasn’t interested in listening, I was informing them. I mean, what is-

Sheila H:
Yes.

Warwick F:
It’s a rhetorical question which you don’t need to answer. But what is the point? That’s not a conversation. That’s like an edict. That’s like a diatribe. I mean, it was just… I just blindsided them. I just can’t believe I did that. I was just so stupid and disappointing any way. So all that’s to say is bright people can make really dumb decisions because it’s all this emotional feeling, identity subtext.

Gary S:
And that’s an interesting-

Sheila H:
Yeah.

Gary S:
… point to sort of talk about… We talk about difficult conversations in the context of your book Sheila, but we’ve started to call them crucible conversations here at crucible leadership because… And what you just described Warwick is crucibles can be conversations that aren’t had?

Warwick F:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gary S:
Right? They can cause crucibles if you don’t have conversations. And sometimes conversations can be… The actual difficult conversation itself can be a crucible. And I pulled a statistic or some stats, Sheila, from an article that someone wrote in reference to your book. And this was from a 2013 survey of 200 professionals. And this is what was found about people’s attitudes toward difficult conversations.

Gary S:
97% of respondents said they were concerned about the associated levels of stress for the other person. 94% were worried about damaging the other person’s self-esteem. 92% were fearful of causing upset. And this is the one that really got me. 80% of respondents said these conversations were part of their job. They had to have these difficult conversations. Eight of 10 people said they had to have them, but more than half indicated, they didn’t feel like they had adequate training on how to conduct them. And I think that goes to speak to a couple of quotes from your book Difficult Conversations.

Gary S:
One, the idea that you got to have them, but you don’t want to have them. You talk about how delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade. So, that will kind of scare you off a little bit. So there’s that aspect of it. But on the positive side, what you say in the book, is that we think there may be a broader organizational need driving interest in a business community. A recognition that the longterm success and even survival of many organizations may depend on their ability to master difficult conversations. That’s a hard road to plow. A hard road to pave when 97% of people who responded, business professionals, say they’re concerned about the levels of stress.

Sheila H:
Indeed it is. And I think part of what you’re capturing in those statistics, I think, is the either-or choice that we feel. Warwick like you were saying, “I’m smart, I’ve run the numbers, I have the story that reinforces why I’m right about what I’m about to do, and that story feels like I’m just factually right about the risks and what we’re putting on the line and how this is going to turn out.” But of course at a deeper level, it’s also about the story we tell ourselves about who am I and what are my responsibilities here? Or I’m playing the role of the hero who’s going to save the day. Right?

Warwick F:
Right.

Sheila H:
And that’s sort of happening at the deeper level. And Gary, when you raise how worried we are about creating stress for the other person, or emotional upset, or self-esteem issues, that’s tied to identity because we’re thinking, “Well, I don’t want to be the kind of person who upsets other people.” Right? “Or doesn’t treat them fairly.” But I’m now caught because I want to be a good colleague, but I don’t know how to bring this up without being a bad person. And I think the problem is that we’re thinking my choices are either explain to them why I’m right and they’re wrong, or why they’re the problem and they need to change or keep quiet about it.

Sheila H:
And one of the things we say in the book is that we are in a message-delivery sort of stance. So it’s like, “Do I throw the hand grenade or not?” And holding onto it, not saying anything is no better. Right? Once the pin has been pulled, you can’t hold on to the hand grenade.

Warwick F:
Either way damage will be done to you, to them.

Sheila H:
Either way damage is being done to you and to them. Yeah.

Warwick F:
Or to both. One of the things I think that’s fascinating is you break down conversations into three areas, the “What happened?” conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity. It made so much sense as I was reading it. And often I think, as you point out, we get into the “What happened?” They did that, this was wrong, or I said this, or we’re just dealing in, “Well, let’s talk about the facts.” Okay. This business decision makes no sense, therefore I have to correct them. And you’re not at all realizing there’s a feeling and a subtext and identity. So talk about why we just tend to deal with the visible, if you will, with the what happened and why those other two components are so important.

Warwick F:
Because I think most of us and I like to think I’m reasonably good at communication, it’s one of my highest values, but I don’t think about those things consciously. So talk about the differences in those three.

Sheila H:
Yeah. So this is sort of the central learning for us that’s captured in the book, which is that if we want to understand these conversations, because there’s so much that people don’t say to each other, because they’re afraid to say it, you’ve got to look beyond what people say to what they’re really each thinking and feeling and what we call their internal voice. And if you look at people’s internal voices in the midst of a difficult conversation or a conflict, what you’ll find is that they’re very predictable. What we’re preoccupied with is very predictable and it falls into those three buckets that you mentioned Warwick.

Sheila H:
The first is that we each have a story about what we call what happened, which includes what has happened up until this point… I’ve got a story about that, what is happening as you and I are, or aren’t having this conversation and what we each think should happen. And that story itself actually has three sub-components because we’re each preoccupied with what we’re right about, whose fault it is that we’re having this problem and to the extent that you’re being difficult, I have a theory about why you’re acting that way, what your intentions or motivations or character might be. You just don’t get it.

Sheila H:
You’re controlling, you’re whatever. You won’t listen to anybody, you’re power-hungry. So that’s our story about what happened and that’s coming from both parties by the way. But then if you look a little deeper, by the time something becomes a difficult conversation, one and often both parties have strong feelings that we’re trying to figure out what to do with maybe particularly in a professional context. And those feelings are often a bundle of frustration, anxiety, confusion, maybe self-doubt, anxiety, guilt. We’re not talking about them, but they’re infusing the conversation.

Sheila H:
And then at the deepest level, if something’s a difficult conversation, what we started to notice is that there’s something the situation suggests about you that feels like it’s at stake. Am I kind or not kind if I’m going to have this conversation and hurt someone’s feelings? Am I being fair or not fair? Am I competent? Do I know what I’m doing? Warwick I wonder to what extent the night before you heard people’s doubts about the plan, your plan as maybe, “We don’t believe in you. We’re not sure you’re worthy. We’re not sure you’re smart enough.” And you’re like, “I just came back from Harvard. All those people are maybe not smart enough but I’m bringing that ‘wisdom’ back with me.” I don’t know if you felt that as an identity hook in their doubts about you or about-

Warwick F:
Yeah.

Sheila H:
It’s not really about you, but of course you hear it as doubts about me rather than doubts about my plan.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I mean, I think you tend to believe your own truth as being absolute truth. Like these other members of my family threw my dad out as chairman, and I thought he was a brilliant intellectual person I admired and loved greatly. And how could they do that? So there was this emotional subtext. My parents reinforced me growing up, “Yep. The company is not being well run,” and a bit too sensational and the papers, so I just had this feeling of this is true and this almost heroic type of thing. So I felt like, “Well, I don’t need more information because I know what’s true. It’s patently obvious.”

Warwick F:
I didn’t need to ask them their opinion. Or maybe they thought my dad was hanging around too long and maybe it was time for a new direction. And I had this just notion of what was true, but some of these subtexts of emotions of how could they do this to such a wonderful person? This feeling of this was not fair, this is not just, not conscious. And then identity, my whole identity was wrapped up with Fairfax Media. And yeah. I mean, you tend to feel like it’s a sacred cause, I know it’s what are they… That phrase the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Beware of the person who’s on some righteous crusade or mission. They can be good, but be careful.

Sheila H:
Yes. Absolutely.

Warwick F:
A lot of bad things are done by well-meaning people. Sometimes not intentionally.

Sheila H:
And I think that one of the things, I mean, you have lots of company in history of sons and daughters who have their life story and purpose wrapped up in, or certainly heavily influenced by sort of avenging what happened to their parents. I mean, my dad left his firm for ethics reasons. Right? And I think my own path of being an entrepreneur was heavily influenced by his view that organizations can make bad decisions and you need to stick up for what’s right. So I also think that what we need to get out of, if you’re going to have a better conversation and make good decisions, it means leaving behind each of us being focused on what we’re right about and talking past each other, and instead shifting to get curious about, well, so why do we see this so differently? Why am I so sure that this is the right path? And why are you really not sure? To say the least.

Sheila H:
And if we can tease apart, what are you looking at and what am I looking at and why do we come to different conclusions here, we’re at least going to have a better conversation where we’re really listening to each other and we can isolate, are we looking at different things? Are we interpreting them differently? Do we have different predictions? Do you think this is the right path but now is not the right time? Often we’re each actually right about what we think the conversation or the decision is about.

Sheila H:
And then shifting from blame to looking at what did we each contribute that got us here to this tough moment or to this place where there’s conflict and friction between us, and that tells us if we each could change a couple of things, would we be able to work better together? Et cetera. So it’s about actually first negotiating with your own internal voice, then stepping into the conversation with a very different stance.

Warwick F:
Yeah. It’s so true. It’s funny. I’ve kind of written a book that will get published next year that talks about leadership lessons through the lens of my story and some inspirational historical figures. So when it comes to myself it’s typically I did this, don’t do this, do this instead. And one of the things I talk about is some of what you’re saying exactly right now is I had this belief of what is true about other family members, but I never sat down and chatted to them about, “Well, what’s your perspective? What’s your truth? What’s your perspective?” And if I’d done that, maybe I would have learned some things. You can’t always assume that your truth is the truth.

Warwick F:
So yeah. A lot of what you’re saying, I look back on and saying, “Yeah. That would have been helpful.” Even what I wanted to do in life. I really wasn’t wired to be some Rupert Murdoch type of person. I’m more a reflective adviser. That’s a whole nother conversation, which I talk a lot about in the book. But yeah. Just that sense of be willing to listen. I love that phrase you just mentioned, not so much focused on blame but contribution why you’re each contributing to the situation. Talk about why that’s such a huge paradigm shift, contribution versus blame.

Sheila H:
I think because, I mean, I think human beings when things go wrong, we instinctively look for whose fault is this. And that answer tends to be singular. If it’s not, it’s mostly your fault, it’s at least those guys are the ones who dropped the ball. Right? It might be a group. And making a shift to say, “Look. Let’s assume instead that everybody contributed in some way to the problem of where we are now.” And it’s not necessarily 50/50, it could be 90/10.

Sheila H:
But thinking about what did we each do or fail to do that got us here then actually tells us what would solve the problem and allows us to hold each other accountable for choices. That okay, these are some things I think I need to do differently, here’s what would be helpful if you could do it differently, then let’s check in. Because I don’t want to have the same conversation next week and next month. And it allows us to actually signal that actually I don’t think this is about blame, this is about actually making it better and solving the problem. And that’s a really strong signal to send.

Sheila H:
What the research shows is that one of the most reliable ways to build trust or regain trust is to make what’s called a statement against interest, being to say something that you would not say it because it’s not good for you, except for the need to be honest. And owning your contribution to the problem, saying, “Looking back, there are some things I wish I had done differently that I think didn’t help us,” is a really strong signal that’s a statement against interest. It’s saying I’m not about blame, I just want this to get better.

Warwick F:
I think that’s true. What I love about some of the examples you mentioned is, even if you don’t think it’s all your fault, just… I guess part of being a leader is being willing to go first to saying, “Well, I probably didn’t help matters in that conversation when I said A or B,” or “I assumed this and that about you and I’m sorry,” or “That probably didn’t help.” Then you give the other person space potentially to say, “Yeah. I probably could have handled it better,” rather than going in there all guns blazing saying, “Look. It ticks me off that you did A, B and C, and therefore you are A, and you are B.”

Warwick F:
It’s different as you point out saying, “It made me feel that.” That’s not saying it’s truth, but saying you are… It’s like it’s your truth. So just that willing to be vulnerable and go first. It doesn’t guarantee a positive contribution, but it helps. I mean that to me-

Sheila H:
It definitely helps.

Warwick F:
… makes so much sense.

Sheila H:
Yeah. It definitely helps. And also, if you look at the research, reciprocity is one of the strongest social norms. So if you blame me, I’m going to blame you back or blame somebody else. But if you take the initiative as a leader to be accountable for your part of the problem, it’s much more likely that I’ll lean in to own mine. Now what’s the worst that could happen? The worst that could happen is I say, “Oh gosh Warwick. I’m so glad you finally admitted that this is all your fault.” Right? This conversation is going so much better than I expected it to.

Sheila H:
But that doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. You can still then say, “Look. I do think that I did some things that didn’t help. At the same time, I can’t fix this by myself. I think actually there were a number of things that got us here and there are a couple of things that would be helpful if you might be willing to change them.” So that the risk that we feel we’re taking is a risk that you can also influence over time. If they don’t take the invitation right away, be patient and keep at it.

Warwick F:
Absolutely.

Gary S:
And because so much of what we’re talking about here is emotions, it’s the emotional undercurrent of the conversation, we’re speaking words to each other, but what we’re really doing is imparting emotions to each other. That’s the thing that’s not being seen in word clouds above our heads. Because that’s true, when you do those kinds of things, when there is reciprocity of, “Okay. I could have done this differently,” or “Boy. I messed this up a little bit,” it’s true that that deescalates, and it can deescalate rather quickly the negative emotions of a conversation. And that helps it move to a place where it’s beneficial and healing. Is that fair?

Sheila H:
I think that’s really fair and I’m glad you brought that up, Gary, because one of the things that at the end of the day is true is that more than people will remember the facts of exactly who said what in the exchange, they’re going to remember how they felt treated. And moving your purpose from, “Let me just reiterate and persuade you about why I’m right,” to “And so my purpose is to have a learning conversation. I don’t know whether I’ll change my mind at the end of this, but I at least want to learn why we see it differently and how it’s been for you and what you’re worried about.” And we also try to teach people to listen for feelings, as well as listen for facts. Because if I can listen for feelings, I can really hear what’s behind your concerns, objections, et cetera.

Warwick F:
And it just seems like so-

Sheila H:
Yeah.

Warwick F:
… much as you write in the book, what lies behind the conversation is sense of feelings and identity. And the more that you try to understand yourself and certainly understand the other person or through a learning conversation, that helps. I mean, that’s so important. I know sometimes I’ll be angry or fearful and I’ll be like… And I won’t know why. And so for me, if it’s personal, first stop would be my wife I’d say, “But I’m feeling fearful about something, but I don’t know what it is.” And we’ll chat. And nine times out of 10, she’ll nail it or we’ll figure it out. And then, “Okay. Now I can deal with…” Or identity, I’m far more attuned to that.

Warwick F:
So the more we understand feelings and identity about ourself, it’s a big help if we react with like, “Why did I react that way? Was it feelings? Was it identity?” And the more we can… You can’t know somebody else’s feelings and identity but you can explore and probe. I mean that to me, that’s… Talk about why that is so huge, and dealing with feelings and identity, both in yourself and having a learning conversation with others. Why is that a game changer rather than sticking in the what happened circle.

Sheila H:
I think because what you’re hearing is what’s really at the heart of it. So by the time something becomes a difficult conversation, typically you’ve got two problems. You’ve got the surface problem of whatever we’re arguing about. For instance, I’ve had several conversations in the last three weeks with my parents about, are we going to be able to get together at Christmas or not?

Sheila H:
So I live on the East Coast now, one of my sisters actually lives down the street from me in the same town on the East Coast, my parents still live in Nebraska, my other sister lives an hour away from them in Nebraska. We alternate years. So this is a Heen year. And my parents keep bringing up have we made a decision about Christmas? And I keep saying I don’t think we can make a decision yet. Right?

Warwick F:
Right.

Sheila H:
And as long as I’m focused on what’s the factual question we’re trying to decide, is it safe? You guys are in a hotspot now. We used to be the hotspot. What would it entail? What risks would we be taking? We can talk about that factual thing, but the deeper question is how are we feeling treated around this? Do you care enough about us? We’re feeling lonely. We miss you guys. I feel like you’re arguing the facts, but that facts aren’t what’s actually causing me to bring this up again. I just feel sad. And I think the deeper issue is often how I’m feeling generally or how I’m feeling treated in the relationship.

Sheila H:
And so we might solve the surface issue if we stay there, but then the deeper issue is going to reinvent itself as whatever the next argument is, or the next topic that we’re not agreeing about. So listening for feelings and identity is really getting to the deeper issue that is trying to be expressed whether or not it’s even conscious sometimes.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I want to shift just a little bit to Thanks for the Feedback, to at least touch on it, because I feel like obviously one they’re very linked, it feels like. I mean-

Sheila H:
They are. Yes.

Warwick F:
… inevitably…

Gary S:
Yeah. It’s like The Godfather Part II. It’s the sort of the sequel to the-

Warwick F:
There you go.

Gary S:
… the first.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I wonder if they had a different way of dealing with difficult conversations.

Gary S:
Yeah. For sure.

Sheila H:
They did.

Warwick F:
Maybe not-

Sheila H:
They did.

Warwick F:
… but why have them?

Sheila H:
Yeah.

Warwick F:
But I was fascinated by so often there’s a lot of literature about, okay, here’s how you need to give feedback, but talking about how you receive feedback, that’s a different paradigm. You talk about truth, relationship, identity triggers so it’s… Because yeah. I mean, as I tell my adult kids, don’t assume you’re going to get a good boss. I tell them most bosses are probably not going to be that good. That’s just the way life is. Most bosses, they hate giving feedback and the first time you’ll get feedback is, “Well, I hate giving feedback, so you’re fired.” “So. I mean, say what?”

Sheila H:
What?

Warwick F:
“Well, I just don’t like doing it. So, here’s the pink slip.” It’s like, “Really?” “Yeah. Sorry. But bye.”

Gary S:
And even though I’m a word guy and I’m terrible at math, I’ll be the numbers guy again and read some statistics again about this issue. To your point Warwick about bosses, generally some aren’t good especially at this. This is actually from an article that you wrote Sheila a few years back for the Harvard Business Review. Only 36% of managers complete appraisals thoroughly and on time. That’s just over one third. In one recent survey, 55% of employees said their most recent performance review had been unfair or inaccurate. And one in four said they dread such evaluations more than anything in their working lives.

Gary S:
When senior HR executives were asked about their biggest performance management challenge, 63% cited manager’s inability or unwillingness to have difficult feedback discussions. That is a huge problem in the workplace. And those statistics are crucible experiences waiting to happen. Going back to the words you used in your Difficult Conversations book, it’s those are hand grenades waiting to be thrown.

Sheila H:
Yeah. I think that that’s right. And I think that those statistics aren’t going to be better this year for us working remotely from each other, having a hard… Any goals that we set at the beginning of the year probably have either gone totally out the window or been heavily revised. And the sense of is this going to feel fair and how do we connect with each other? This is actually a current project that we’re working on right now, which is to put out resources for people to have richer and more meaningful conversations as we do check ins, as we turn the corner on the year, we settle in for the next six months of working remotely.

Sheila H:
Because I think the question of can we connect and can we wrestle together with the challenges of offering honest and meaningful and fair feedback and taking in what others see, experience the impact we have on them and to sort it for what’s valuable and not let it destroy us at the same time, I think is the central challenge.

Warwick F:
And I think for most human beings, receiving feedback is just so hard. I mean, you hear books saying use a three to one ratio, three to positive to one negative, but I’ll hear some high performers say, “Don’t tell me about any of the good stuff. I just want to know where I need to grow.” Which is in my view stupid. You need to be told-

Gary S:
To use the technical business term-

Warwick F:
Exactly. Yeah.

Gary S:
… from Harvard Business School.

Sheila H:
Yup.

Gary S:
Stupid.

Warwick F:
Exactly.

Sheila H:
Stupid. Yes.

Warwick F:
You need to know the areas where you actually did poorly… where you did well at. In fact, I often find, I will remember the bad stuff, but if you ask me five minutes later, “Okay. You were just told by your family or by somebody at work, there were five things you did well, what were those five things?” “Is I really can’t remember. I can’t process good feedback”, which is a whole other discussion which I think is fascinating.

Warwick F:
But it’s just so hard. And I love these sort of truth, relationship, identity. I mean, you may believe it’s not true or, “Oh. My boss is awful and they’re clueless and I despise everything about them.” Whether it’s their lifestyle, their politics, the way they manage, they might be conventional, might not have an entrepreneurial bone in their body, and they’re giving me feedback? Come on? They’re clueless.

Warwick F:
Or identity. If somebody said to you, “Well, gosh Sheila. I know you think you’re a pretty good professor, but actually maybe not so much.” Well that strikes at the identity of who you are. It’s like, “Excuse me? Really? I think if there’s room for improvement, I think I’m pretty good.” Or me, I’ve done a lot of executive coaching and, “Gee, you’re a terrible executive coach.” “Wow. Really? I thought I’m pretty good at listening to people and discerning.” And so that’s tough stuff. I mean, I read it, but to receive feedback when it is used for relationship and identity triggers and I mean… How do you deal with that? I mean, that’s tough.

Sheila H:
Yeah. Well, so I think the shift for us was the shift from thinking about how to give feedback effectively to, “Well, gosh, what’s so hard for all of us about receiving it?” Whether it’s formal, like those dreaded reviews or informal like I got taken off the project without any conversation because my boss won’t have the conversation. How do I figure out whether that even is feedback? So maybe I’ll just say a couple of things about it. One is that what we found is all of us really do have three kinds of triggered reactions when we have feedback incoming, direct or indirect.

Sheila H:
And as you say, one is truth triggers. What’s wrong with the feedback? Is it accurate? Does it fully understand the situation? Is it good or bad advice? Would it work? It’s all about assessing the quality of the feedback itself. The second is a relationship trigger and that is everything around who gave me the feedback. Do I like them? Do I trust them? Do I think they’re credible? Do I want to be like them? What are their real motives? Et cetera. And the irony here is the who looms larger than the what. The who actually… People that we find difficult and don’t want to be like sometimes actually are valuable sources of learning for us. Right?

Sheila H:
They bring out our worst, it’s their fault, but of course it is our worst, and annoyingly. They can sometimes have valuable things to offer. And then the third is an identity trigger and that’s the story we have about who we are and also our sensitivity to feedback. What we found is that individual sensitivity can vary by up to 3000%.

Warwick F:
Wow.

Sheila H:
So for some people you’re really under-sensitive and people have to really hit you over the head before you even understand that it is feedback for you, and for others, you’re going to hear feedback in any little hint of anything even beyond what anybody intends. So figuring out how do I understand my own profile around feedback and how do I coach other people on how to give me feedback effectively is part of the journey of becoming better at receiving.

Warwick F:
Well, that’s fascinating because for some people that may be, “Yeah. You’ll need to hit me with a two-by-four before I listen.” Me-

Sheila H:
Yeah. And saying, “Do hit me with the two-by-four by the way.”

Warwick F:
Yeah. Me I guess I’m wired at the other end of the spectrum, because I get discerning pretty well, so you don’t have to yell. You just say something softly, message received. I mean, I may agree or disagree, but I’m the other end. So yeah. Don’t yell or shout. No. Don’t use a two-by-four with me because it won’t be very effective. But that’s so valuable. But gosh. I mean this whole… I mean obviously they’re very lengthy feedback and difficult conversations, but it’s just… I love the phrase you used about need to grow and be accepted. If feedback was done better, it would be a game changer in our world, if people were really focused on giving it in a way that could be heard and people would receive it in a way, even if it was done poorly, “Gosh. Maybe this jerk is telling me something. I can’t believe it. It’s actually helpful even though I despise who he is,” kind of deal.

Sheila H:
Yeah. And I think for me the most… And I know we’re short on time, so maybe I’ll offer the most hopeful and powerful thing that I’ve found personally in this journey for myself, which is that by understanding what’s so hard about receiving and understanding that receiving feedback is actually a distinct leadership skill and I can get better at it, I can get better. And if I become better at it as a leader, the receiving side, then I actually become a better giver myself, I have better feedback conversations in all directions.

Sheila H:
But to me, the thing that really lands it for me is that that actually means that I don’t have to wait around for the perfect mentor to show up or wait around for somebody to have time for me. I can actually be reflective about and ask for what I need from people. And we have a theory about what people do need, which is three different types of feedback. Appreciation, and that might be words, but for other people, “I don’t need to hear the words. They’re embarrassing and put me on the spot. But the fact that you come to me with your toughest problems makes me feel appreciated.” So I need to think about what makes me feel seen and appreciated and when do I need some of that.

Sheila H:
Coaching, which is just the engine for learning. Anything designed to help me improve counts as coaching. And what do I want coaching about and who might be able to offer it to me? Not just the person above me, but people in my own team. They have coaching for me, they’re just not telling me because they don’t know if I want to know. And how do I ask for one thing that I might think about regularly that I could change?

Warwick F:
And that’s so helpful. Don’t ask for everything, ask for one thing. It’s funny when I think of great leaders and it’s tough in our world today to think of them. But you look back in history and as I’m sure you know Abraham Lincoln is voted pretty much every year by historians as the greatest president, and Washington’s number two but they always vote for Lincoln. And you think about some of his personality characteristics, he had this ability to receive feedback better than pretty much most people I know.

Warwick F:
Like there’s one time somebody said, “Well, Mr. Lincoln, I believe in this area you’re an idiot.” And he said, “Well, you’re probably right, but tell me why.” His first reaction wasn’t, “How could you possibly call me Abraham Lincoln an idiot.” He said, “But I’d like to learn.” So he combined certainly a lot of drive and is extremely secure with a sense of humility, a sense of curiosity, a sense of willingness to learn, not just accept what was given to him. So I often think it’s the character behind the leader that determines greatness. So as you’re talking about how to receive feedback, here’s a pretty good example of best practice of how to do it, how to do it well, how to receive it and not just instantly reject it.

Sheila H:
I love that example because it really shifts us from our instinct often, which is the feedback is incoming and I have to decide as it’s coming in and do I agree with it or do I not agree with it? Is this good feedback, helpful feedback? Is it right or is it wrong? And Lincoln, your example from Abraham Lincoln really says, “I reserve the right to decide later whether I think there’s something valuable here. My purpose in this conversation is just to learn more about what you see and then I can sort for myself what’s valuable about it and set the rest of it aside.”

Sheila H:
And that actually diffuses the tension in the conversation because it leaves me more open to learning and listening because I’m not deciding. I have to first understand it, then I can decide what I want to take from it later. And that’s just gives you a ton of freedom and humility in the conversation.

Warwick F:
Absolutely.

Gary S:
I can see the flight attendants are coming through the cabin to pick up our peanut bags-

Sheila H:
They’re tapping their foot.

Gary S:
They’re coming through the cabin to pick up our peanut bags. So the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign and it’s time to land the plane in a bit, not now yet, but in a bit. But there’s something you wrote Sheila, in this article that I referred to from the Harvard Business Review back in 2013 about why feedback is hard. And to hear you describe it as a leadership skill, to receive feedback is itself a leadership skill, and then to see this reason that you explain why it’s difficult, I think those things coalesce really nicely into why these can be crucible moments for people and that the difficulty of receiving feedback you wrote, what makes it hard is that it hits at the juncture of our need to grow and our need to be accepted as who we are.

Gary S:
It’s almost a push me, pull you kind of situation. It can feel like it’s dissonant. How do we get beyond that? How do we move beyond that? You had mentioned that there are three types of feedback. I think I heard you say appreciation and coaching. Was there a third one that we missed?

Sheila H:
There’s a third one, which is evaluation.

Gary S:
Okay.

Sheila H:
And evaluation rates or ranks you. It tells you where you stand, how you’re doing against some set of criteria or expectations. And I would say we need all three kinds to learn and grow, but we need different kinds at different times. And evaluation, Gary, coming back to what you were just mentioning is the most emotionally volatile. Being judged, measured, ranked, assessed, whether you’re worthy enough is the one that gets everybody’s attention. I think that’s the one where we feel most acutely that tension between genuinely wanting to grow and get better.

Sheila H:
If you look at the happiness research, getting better at things is a big piece of what makes life satisfying. It’s why people are listening to this podcast by the way. But we also deeply need to be seen and accepted and respected and loved the way we are now, and that’s the tension that shows up most acutely around evaluation. So I would say, you were talking Warwick about ratios, of positive and negative, evaluation by the way it can be positive. Like that was the best episode we’ve ever done.

Sheila H:
That doubles as appreciation, but it is a judgment compared to something. But what I would say is that we really should be appreciating and coaching throughout the year, day in and day out in small practices and how we work together. And that actually takes some of the pressure off of at the end of the year, like so let’s just get a sense where we stand. So that tells us, what do we want to work on next? What do we want to improve? What are our priorities for next year? And Carol Dweck’s work on shifting from a fixed mindset, “I’m good enough or not good enough, smart enough or not smart enough,” to a growth mindset, “I am learning my whole life and feedback is a way to get a sense of where I stand and what I could do and work on next as a leader,” I think is part of what helps us sit with those two, wanting to grow and be accepted, and hear feedback, not as verdict or imprint, but instead as input.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I mean, great leaders they want to learn and grow. And just as we sort of sum up, I mean, I think most of us think we’re in about as divided a world as we’ve ever been. Maybe every generation says that, I don’t know. Maybe they have for thousands of years. But it does feel that way. People are in their own tribes and they’re hearing their own truth and the self-reinforcing and it’s hard to solve the world’s big problems if everybody thinks they’re right.

Warwick F:
And there are all these camps and nobody’s talking and nobody’s listening. It’s easy to feel hopeless amidst the division that’s tearing this country and a lot of other places apart. Do you have a message of hope amidst difficult conversation and receiving feedback of how we can get out of this cycle of I’m right, you’re wrong and lack of learning, lack of listening, lack of understanding, lack of awareness, lack of a bunch of things. Is there a message of hope for a world that needs hope right now?

Sheila H:
Yeah. I mean, I think you’re right that it really feels like at least in the United States, our country is in a crucible moment, and that everyone is yelling about what they’re right about and frustrated that they feel misunderstood or dismissed or unheard. And shifting to think about what does the other side, whatever that means to you in whatever conversation you’re in, what do they feel frustrated that I don’t understand about them?

Sheila H:
And what I hear is people talking, we would say talking past each other, because they’re talking about two different topics, so that they’re each yelling about what they’re right about, but they’re right about different things. I don’t know if you want to include political examples, but you can think about Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter are talking about two completely different topics. Black Lives Matter is trying to say they are treated as if they don’t matter and black people are disproportionately impacted by… Fill in the blank. Everything.

Sheila H:
And saying All Lives Matter is raising a different question, which is, do we feel like in saying black lives matter, dismissing the other people? Well, it’s also true that all lives matter. That is true. So that’s right. They’re both right. But they’re talking past each other. I saw a post this morning about our new Supreme Court nominee saying what did she ever do to Democrats? And Democrats would say, “Nothing. That’s not the point. The point is whether we should be rushing someone through this process right now.”

Sheila H:
And so that we’re just talking past each other. And I think for me… And by the way, I live in a split political household myself and in a split political family, and to me it’s about what do we each feel frustrated that the other doesn’t understand about what matters to us. And if we can sort of flip hats to say, “Rather than me being frustrated what you don’t get about me, let me focus on what you’re frustrated I don’t get about you,” is where the conversation can happen.

Warwick F:
I almost remind… I think it was St. Francis of Assisi, he said something like, “Seek first to understand rather than be understood.”

Sheila H:
Yeah.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I think no matter how right we may be about whatever it is, if we would actually try to understand the other point of view, I think the world would be a better place. But it’s hard to do that.

Sheila H:
It’s hard to do that. And social media isn’t really dialogue, it’s serial monologue. And that makes it harder. So we’re all reacting to a conversation that we’re not even in, but it’s happening around us too as well.

Gary S:
Indeed.

Warwick F:
Well said.

Sheila H:
So… Yeah.

Gary S:
And I have been in the communications business long enough to know that that is the last word. And when the last word is spoken as well as that last word was spoken, it’s time to land the plane for sure. I won’t do that though. I would be remiss if I landed the plane before Sheila I gave you a chance to let listeners know how they can connect with you online, how they can learn more about you, your books and your services.

Sheila H:
So one of the gifts of having a very unique last name is that I’m easy to find. So Sheila Heen. You will find Triad Consulting very quickly. And we have a page called Help Yourself where there are resources. We also will have ready in November some kits that leaders can use quick prep to get ready to have more meaningful conversations with the people around them and a kit for team members to get the most out of their own review conversations. And like, “I got feedback, now what? What do I do with it?” And so those will be available through the Triad Consulting website. We also have a Facebook page of course, and I’m also on LinkedIn. So you can find me on any of those places.

Gary S:
Fabulous. Well, I’m going to do what I do at the end of every episode. And I’ve never said this before, but it’s always very… I feel inadequate because I’m trying to sum up a conversation with someone who graduated from Harvard Business School and someone who has taught at Harvard Law School. So here goes nothing. I think there’s three points listeners that you can pull from this very robust conversation that we had with Sheila Heen today about difficult conversations and the power of, and the difficulty of feedback, which is sort of a fourth kind of difficult conversation.

Gary S:
Point number one, your choices when it comes to difficult conversations are not simply to explain why you’re right and why the other person is wrong or avoiding it all together. Those aren’t your only two choices. There is a third way. In fact, there are multiple third ways. You can think of difficult conversations, which we call crucible conversations as an opportunity to listen, not talk. An opportunity to hear not just their audible voice, but their internal voice. Aim to understand in those difficult conversations first, not to persuade. Two focus not on blame but on contribution.

Gary S:
I’m going to say that again. Don’t focus in a difficult conversation on blame, who’s right, who’s wrong, but on contribution. Do not assume that one person is completely responsible for the problem you’re discussing, but that each of you is responsible for aspects of it. Owning your responsibility in the crisis frees up others to own their part as well. And a crisis can deescalate quickly, as Sheila pointed out, a crisis can deescalate quickly when that kind of breakthrough occurs. And then the third point on the subject of receiving feedback, and that’s to remember this, that receiving feedback is in and of itself a leadership skill.

Gary S:
Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. There’s three basic types, appreciation, coaching and evaluation. And here’s perhaps the best tip of all. Don’t ask for it all in one big lump, you can ask for things individually and you can ask with time in between them. Don’t overdo it because it can be difficult to receive. It’s difficult to give, it can be difficult to receive. So ask for it as it comes up, as it comes along. You don’t have to wait for annual evaluations. You can ask as time goes on.

Gary S:
Thank you listener for spending your time with us on this episode of Beyond The Crucible. Warwick and I have a little favor to ask you if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard here, if you’ve found our conversation with Sheila Heen helpful, please click subscribe on the podcast app you’re listening to this on right now. That will ensure that you will never miss a conversation. And we have one every week. That is just about as robust on all kinds of different subjects on how you can overcome your crucibles and find hope and healing.

Gary S:
And until the next time that we’re together, remember this about crucible experiences, that they are painful, they are traumatic, they are tragic sometimes, they do change the trajectory of your life. But here’s the good news, they’re not the end of your story. A crucible experience is not a period on a sentence that describes your life. It’s a comma. And you get to determine what you write next. And if you learn the lessons of your crucible, if you apply those lessons to your vision and you make that vision a reality, what comes after that comma can be the most rewarding chapter of your book and the most rewarding time of your life. Because where it ends up, the path it leads to, the road it puts you on is to a life of significance.

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