Negotiation Expert Sheila Heen: Decoding Difficult Conversations – The Knowledge Project

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Key Takeaways

  • As we go about life, we often revert to negotiation strategies which proved to be effective for us as children
  • “We assume persuasion is about talking, but actually the most persuasive strategy you could take is to listen well”
  • There are MANY problems with email as a communication medium
    • Related: A HUGE mistake many of us make – writing back right away to an email that angered us, rather than taking the time to pause, reflect, and respond in an appropriate manner
  • “Your first negotiation is really with yourself”
    • In a difficult conversation, you have to shift your thinking away from being focused on what you’re right about, to trying to understand the other person’s point of view (even if you know they’re wrong)
  • In difficult conversations, it’s effective to state the emotions you’re feeling
    • This is different than being emotional (expressing frustration, rather than just stating you’re frustrated)
  • Anger is often a secondary feeling
    • Meaning – initially what we feel is something else (like hurt)
  • An important conversation skill – the ability to listen for the feelings beneath what your conversation partner is saying
  • “It’s not just that people have difficult conversations in their relationships, those conversations are the relationships”
    • If you handle them well – the relationship thrives
    • If you handle them poorly – the relationship starts to deteriorate
  • Instead of aiming to resolve conflict through conversation, aim to understand
    • This lowers the stakes – “Not figuring out a solution isn’t failing. Failing is not learning anything new about the other person.”

Books Mentioned

Intro

Sheila’s Background

  • Sheila did her undergrad in public policy (a mix of politics, philosophy, and economics) and then went onto law school
    • As part of her law school curriculum, she took a class in negotiation and fell in love with the subject

Kids Are the Best Negotiators

  • Why? – They pay attention to what works
    • As an adult, we don’t tend to pay much attention to what we’re rewarding (like giving in after a fourth or fifth ask, or a tantrum)
      • So in turn – kids are quick to repeat the behavior that works
  • Kids evolve, while parents are stuck in their ways
    • They’re always poking to discover the edges

Lessons on Parenting

  • It’s important to let kids find a way to negotiate with their siblings, even if it means them fighting a bit
  • Shane on negotiating with his kids – “It feels like a losing battle….I admire their resilience in the face of constant ‘nos'”
    • Shane’s kids are 8 and 9 (both boys)
    • Shane has a rule – If they want to download a new iPad app, he has them write down on a sheet of paper:
      • What the app is
      • Why they want to download it
      • And what the benefits are for Shane (this encourages them to think from a third-person point of view and consider his perspective)

A Unique Negotiation Exercise

  • On the first day of her class every semester at Harvard Law (Sheila lectures there on negotiation), Sheila has students write down what they learned to be effective negotiation tactics as kids
    • The recurring themes:
      • Often, as children, her students had the strategy of doing/being so “good” that when they did ask for something, it’d be hard for the parent to say no
      • Many students often made presentations/pitches for their parents based on what they wanted
      • Another strategy – splitting the parents (“Mom says this was okay!!”)
    • But the lesson – Later on in life, we often revert to negotiation strategies which proved to be effective for us as children

The Importance of Listening

  • A common negotiation skill people are lacking – the ability to listen well
    • “In life, we often treat listening as a strategy of last resort”
    • “We assume persuasion is about talking, but actually the most persuasive strategy you could take is to listen well”
    • Due to the principle of reciprocity, listening intently to someone means they’re more likely to do the same for you
  • Good listening is NOT just about paraphrasing what you just heard back to the person who said it
  • “Listening really matters when we’re stuck, and that’s the time when it’s actually hardest to listen”
    • When we’re frustrated, we as humans tend not to care what’s going on inside the brain of someone else
    • “When I least want to listen and when I’m most frustrated, I need to actually lean into the conflict to understand the other person’s perspective better, even if they don’t understand my perspective”
      • But this isn’t easy to do – it’s a skill you have to develop

Difficult Conversations

  • Conversation doesn’t just mean talking to someone else
    • The term also encompasses when people aren’t talking to one another (when a wife ignores her husband)
    • OR – when you’re withholding stuff , like an iceberg
      • The ice above the surface = what you say
      • What’s below the surface = your unexpressed thoughts, feelings, and emotions

The Problems With Email as a Conversation Medium

  • Email is really serial monologue, not dialogue
  • When you read email, you’re prone to have a reaction to early text that can alter your perception later text
    • Then you write back in a triggered state
  • If a conflict starts on email, it’s typically most difficult to solve via email
  • Email also tends to escalate the fastest
    • “With email and online comments, It’s easy to forget there’s a real human being on the other side of the screen”
    • When we feel frustrated internally, it tends to come out in our writing – the recipient then reacts to this proportionally 
  • A HUGE mistake many of us make – writing back right away to an email that angered us, rather than taking the time to pause, reflect, and respond in an appropriate manner

Be Purposeful, Not Reactive

  • It’s difficult. but we need to do our best not to react in moments of conversational stress, but instead act with purpose, aimed to get the conversation where we want it to go
    • For example, if a younger and older brother are fighting, and the older brother pushes the younger
      • Option A: The younger can slap the older (reactive)
      • Option B: The younger can remain calm, and mitigate the conflict (purposeful)

The 3 Layers of Difficult Conversations

  • Any difficult conversation has 3 things going on (think of them as layers)
    • The “what happened” conversation (blame)
      • This is the story about what’s happening, what has happened, and what should happen next
        • That story has 3 key components
          • It answers the questions – “Who’s right?”, “Who’s fault is it?”, and “Why are they acting this way?”
      • This is key – “Your first negotiation is really with yourself”
        • In a difficult conversation, you have to shift your thinking away from being focused on what you’re right about, to why you’re seeing things from a different point of view (think – “I wonder why I see this differently?”
        • You’re moving from blame to joint contribution (think – “What did we both do wrong here?”)
    • The feelings layer (like fear, mistrust, betrayal, frustration, anger, and hurt etc.)
      • A difficult conversation usually has two problems:
        • The surface issue (what the conversation is about/the disagreement)
        • The underlying issue of how each person feels treated by the other
      • An important point – how you think changes how you feel, and how you feel changes how you think
      • Interests are feelings
        • What people care about, what they worry about etc. – these are all related to emotion
      • The takeaway – state your emotions
        • This is different than being emotional – which means expressing frustration, rather than just stating you’re frustrated
    • The identity layer
      • This is the conversation you’re having with yourself about yourself – it’s what the situation suggests about you as a person, which you internalize
      • For example – If you’re quitting a job, you might think to yourself:
        • “I’m a quitter,” while at the same time thinking, “I’m not the type of person to waste their life at a shitty job” 
      • Another example – if a client is texting you on the weekend
        • One strain of thought might be – “I’m the type of person who’s a hard worker who responds to clients in an urgent manner”
        • And another – “I’m not the type of person to do work on the weekends”

Anger is Often a Secondary Feeling

  • Meaning – initially what we feel is something else (like hurt)

Listen For the Feelings Beneath

  • An important conversation skill – the ability to “listen for” the feelings beneath what your conversation partner is saying
    • So if your partner is yelling at you, “listen for” how they feel – see past the yelling. then respond to that feeling, not the yelling.

What should children know about having good conversations?

  • “I want my kids to be able to see someone else’s point of view even when they feel strongly the other way”
  • “I want my kids to be able to take ownership of what they contribute to problems and to be able to apologize”
    • But in order for this to happen, you have to be a good model, and apologize to your kids when you react disproportionately to problems

Relationship Lessons From John Gottman‘s Research

  • A few things Sheila has learned from John:
    • 2/3rds of thing things you’re fighting about today with your partner you’ll be fighting about in 5 years from now, and you were probably fighting about them 5 years ago
      • Why?
        • Most of what you fight about in a relationship isn’t solvable, it just reflects differences between you and your partner
        • 1/3 of the things you fight about are transitory (temporary)
    • Eye rolling is a huge sign that you’re not actually listening
    • A good sign for relationships – if you tend to diffuse arguments with humor
    • Gottman has also done research related to positive and negative interactions within a relationship
      • The optimal ratio is 5 to 1 (no greater, no less)
        • If it’s greater, typically one of the partners is holding something back and not bringing up topics  that they should
      • To add – a negative response is better than no response (which would be you’re being ignored)
  • “It’s not just that people have difficult conversations in their relationships, those conversations are the relationships”
    • If you handle them well – the relationship thrives
    • If you handle them poorly – the relationship starts to deteriorate

Wrapping Up

  • Go have a difficult conversation with your partner
  • Instead of aiming to resolve conflict through conversation, aim to understand
    • This lowers the stakes – “Not figuring out a solution isn’t failing. Failing is not learning anything new about the other person.”

Random

  • Check out the book Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio
    • One of the key points – In split-brain patients, the emotional part of the brain is severed from the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that we think of as rational/decision-making brain)
      • So these people quite literally can’t access their emotions
      • But what was found – these people can’t make decisions…at all 
        • So the point – you have to be able to access feelings to know what you care about

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

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