Sheila Heen of The Harvard Negotiation Project — How to Navigate Hard Conversations, the Subtle Art of Apologizing, and a Powerful 60-Day Challenge (#532)

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“The first negotiation is really a negotiation with yourself to move from being focused on what I’m right about and you’re wrong about, to getting curious about why we see this so differently.”

— Sheila Heen

Sheila Heen is a New York Times best-selling author, founder of Triad Consulting Group, and a deputy director of the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School, where she has been a member of the faculty for 25 years. Sheila specializes in particularly difficult negotiations, where emotions run high and relationships become strained. She often works with executive teams, helping them to resolve conflict, repair professional relationships, and make sound decisions together. In the public sector, she has provided training for the New England Organ Bank, the Singapore Supreme Court, the Obama White House, and theologians struggling with disagreement over the nature of truth and God.

Sheila is co-author of the New York Times bestsellers Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it’s off base, unfair, poorly delivered and, frankly, you’re not in the mood). She has written for the Harvard Business Review and the New York Times—as a guest expert and contributor to the “Modern Love” column—and she has appeared on NPR, Fox News, CNBC’s Power Lunch, and shows as diverse as Oprah and The G. Gordon Liddy Show. She has spoken at the Global Leadership Summit, the Nordic Business Forum, the Smithsonian, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Sheila is a graduate of Occidental College and Harvard Law School. She is schooled in negotiation daily by her three children.

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear another episode with someone who understands the value of resisting the victim mindset? Listen to my conversation with Jim Dethmer, in which we discuss coping with stressful and disturbing thoughts, avoiding drama-based conflict in close relationships, becoming emotionally literate, accepting radical responsibility, cocommitment over codependence, and much more.


  • Connect with Sheila Heen:



  • Who was Roger Fisher? [06:35]
  • How did Sheila enter the scene with respect to negotiation and conflict resolution, and what did she love about it? [09:13]
  • Sheila shares the story about the time she went to renew her passport in Los Angeles and how it informed her contribution to Difficult Conversations. [11:28]
  • What are the three categories of difficult conversations, and what is the underlying structure they have in common? [16:13]
  • How understanding the underlying structure of these three conversations helps you find your way if one doesn’t go as planned. [25:36]
  • How can we convey genuine curiosity in these conversations without unintentionally coming off as condescending? What if this isn’t the first time this conversation has happened and it’s getting heated? [28:25]
  • Sometimes the person with whom you’re conversing is just seeing things from a vastly different perspective. Sheila shares a personal story. [38:13]
  • When a disconnect like this seems evident, how can each party come to a better understanding of where the other is coming from? [41:45]
  • What is a statement against interest, and how can it be used? [46:28]
  • A good apology versus a bad apology: what’s the difference? [48:37]
  • Rewriting the scripts for bad apologies — particularly when each party has very different ideas about conflict resolution and resilience. [58:00]
  • What does it mean to “give voice to the parts?” [1:15:39]
  • What are first, second, and third position skills, and what does it mean to step into the third position? [1:16:51]
  • The importance of setting expectations about — and learning over time — how the people in your life behave (this includes you). [1:21:22]
  • What would Sheila’s best self say to her business partner and co-author in the midst of collaborating on a book’s third edition after a flare-up? [1:22:35]
  • In personal and professional relationships, we often have feedback for the other about how we think they need to change. But what if we present obstacles as shared problems? [1:28:09]
  • Blame-absorbers versus blame-shifters. [1:30:05]
  • Heroes, villains, and victims. [1:34:21]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:43:08]
  • Additional post-game thoughts from Sheila about the question that plays like background music to many difficult conversations, how to avoid making every difficult conversation a spring cleaning when your relationship simply needs some light spot-dusting, and a 60-day experiment. [1:46:27]


“Some people have trouble with some conversations and the same conversation is easy for someone else. And it’s partly because of whatever the story is that you tell about yourself and who you are trying to be.” 
— Sheila Heen

“The first negotiation is really a negotiation with yourself to move from being focused on what I’m right about and you’re wrong about, to getting curious about why we see this so differently.” 
— Sheila Heen

“Part of what I’m listening for in a difficult conversation is I’m just trying to understand what do you see and how do you interpret it? We each have implicit rules about how the world is supposed to work. Do we have different implicit rules here? Then it helps me to put those puzzle pieces on the table and try to fit them together, understanding that some of them just won’t fit — and that’s okay.” 
— Sheila Heen

“It’s not just that we have difficult conversations in our most important relationships. Those conversations are the relationship. That if we find a way to have them productively or constructively, then the relationship will thrive, whether it’s a personal or professional relationship, and/or is where we start to disengage because you just don’t get it and you won’t listen, and the relationship starts to fray.” 
— Sheila Heen

“‘What am I missing?’ is actually a great question, partly because they’re going to be so thrilled to be able to tell you. They’re going to take that invitation, but genuinely they can see things that you can’t.”
— Sheila Heen


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