Bridging the divide, one conflict at a time

by Karina Coombs

Sheila Heen
(Photo by Karina Coombs)

We spend much of our lives navigating conflict, worrying about a difficult conversation we need to have with a co-worker or ending a relationship. Maybe it is giving or receiving a performance review or the process of buying a house or car. The need to negotiate these conflicts is constant. And while it sometimes involves finding commonality within a large organization or even between warring factions, it can also simply be about helping parents find a different way of looking at a child’s report card. 

A career in negotiation

Carlisle resident Sheila Heen has been involved in the area of negotiation for over 20 years, as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, a Senior Affiliate of the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP), a Founder of Triad Consulting Group and co-author of the 1999 book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, which went on to become a New York Times Business Bestseller. 

In March, Heen and her Difficult Conversations co-author Douglas Stone released 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). The book recently went into reprint for the hardcover edition, with the paperback edition due in March. “I get notes from people a few times per week,” says Heen of the new book. “It’s also been really well received by clients.” 

Where it began

Heen grew up in Iowa and Nebraska and attended college in California before making her way to Cambridge for Harvard Law School. From the beginning she was interested in negotiation and chose Harvard specifically for its program—an interuniversity consortium that includes MIT, Tufts and Harvard University. 

As a relatively young discipline, negotiation and conflict resolution became a specialized field during the 1950s and the Cold War as scholars looked to find peaceful resolutions to escalating conflicts. The field continued to grow, taking off in the 1970s and ‘80s as more colleges and universities, businesses, government agencies and non-government organizations looked to the discipline. 

Roger Fisher

Heen was hooked after taking the negotiation class taught by one of the preeminent scholars on the subject, Roger Fisher, co-author of the 1981 bestseller Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. “I just fell in love,” says Heen of the class. “I could do this every day for the rest of my life and learn something new every day.” 

The following year, she became a teaching assistant in the program where she met her husband John Richardson, who is also a consultant and instructor on negotiation as well as a member of the Carlisle Fire Department. Heen is quick to add that Town Moderator Wayne Davis was also a member of the program and is a “fellow Rogerite.” “We’re in good hands [with Wayne].”

Harvard Negotiation Project

At graduation Heen was offered a full time role in the HNP. While the pay was dramatically different from that of a law firm, she took the position without hesitation. “Roger was an incredibly inspirational person. If you were working with [him], you were working on whatever was in the newspaper [that day],” Heen explains. “[He] believed you should have one foot in the real world helping people with real problems and one foot in academia to step back and really reflect on what you’re learning.”

At the HPN, Heen became involved in its Interpersonal Skill Exercise or IPS. Students and Executive Education participants were invited to bring in real conflicts and skills they wanted to improve through role-playing. Working in triads, students had the opportunity to play each of the various roles and employ different strategies throughout. The exercise was recorded and played back, allowing the students to see themselves saying or doing things they would not normally do and changing their perception of a given scenario.

Difficult Conversations 

and Triad Consulting

After working with thousands of people from all over the world, and with a variety of conflicts, Heen and her HNP colleague Stone began noticing patterns—where people got stuck in the exercise and what helped get them through it. That became the core of Difficult Conversations, which they spent seven years working on while also teaching the theories and seeing “what was getting traction.”

Heen and Stone also formed Triad Consulting Group and now have nine core team members and 20 consultants staffed on various projects across a wide range of industries and organizations. The group offers keynotes, workshops or whatever a client wants to address— issues such as communication within an organization or improving how managers work together. 

“I have to learn the vocabulary and context of where I go,” says Heen of working in different industries. “But everybody says, ‘Our organization is completely unique.’ And then about 80 to 90% of it is the same because you also employ humans and those are some predictable conflicts. At the heart of it, human beings have the same triggers and reactions. Cultural differences can shift in terms of what’s appropriate to do about them, but the internal voice tends to be pretty stable in terms of what upsets people,”

Thanks for the Feedback13bKC-FeedbackCover

Heen can attest this is true even with rocket scientists, having recently been invited to NASA’s Goddard Flight Center to work on material from her new book. “Feedback is a real challenge,” she explains. “I haven’t yet met an organization that says they don’t have trouble with [it]. And the usual approach is to teach givers how to give. [The new book] came out of years of doing that stuff and realizing we’re totally going at this backwards.”

As with the earlier book, the theories behind Thanks for the Feedback were developed over three or four years as Heen and Stone observed patterns. The book explains that the real problem with feedback is how it is received, reflecting a central conflict between the human desire to learn and develop, and also the desire to be accepted for how you are now. 

This Catch 22 creates a level of discomfort with feedback suggesting we are not okay the way we are. “The hardest thing about being human is actually receiving feedback in your personal and professional life. It also explains why feedback from your spouse is so upsetting because it’s exactly the person who matters most,” adds Heen. 

Helping writers write

The pair wrote the book over 18 months, with each writing a chapter and passing it to the other for editing. With a goal of simply making each page better, Heen and Stone ignored editing notation and instead made the changes they felt improved the work, even if that meant rewriting substantial portions of chapters written by the other—a breeding ground for feedback conflict. For her part, Heen did most of her writing at the Gleason Library. “The staff are fantastic [and] the easy chairs are really nice. I’ve watched the seasons go by in those chairs.” 

With the success of their two books, Heen and Stone are now planning on offering a Business Book Boot Camp in February to help other writers and academics express their ideas to a lay audience. “So many people who are trying to write books or do write books have come to talk to me about how you write books that people read,” says Heen, who has made a choice to focus on writing for a broad audience instead of academia.

Negotiation and parenting

With Heen and Richardson experts in the field, negotiation is bound to play a role in parenting. And conflict resolution is particularly beneficial when trying to resolve arguments among their three children, with both parents teaching the kids to shift from blame to contribution—asking each child to offer what he or she may have contributed to the situation before it escalated. They then apologize for the contribution. “And then they use it on you. ‘Mom, let’s talk about what you contributed to this by being late,’” laughs Heen. “You have to be willing to live by it.”

When it comes to report cards, Heen has started incorporating Thanks for the Feedback insights. For example, instead of looking at the reports as an evaluation, she now looks at them as coaching information. “I’ve been trying to ask, ‘What is this grade trying to tell you about what you want to change about how you’re approaching [a subject]?’ That’s really lowered the stakes of having those conversations,” says Heen. 

“I guess if I can give my kids anything it would be to see challenge and failure as an opportunity to learn something. [Then] you don’t have to be afraid of it. It’s just giving you information.” ∆