Sheila HeenDecoding Difficult Conversations

Lesson 2: In this session of the Difficult Conversations GrowthTrack, you will learn how to understand the structures that all difficult conversations have in common.

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Read the excerpt from Heen’s book1, below. Then go through the reflection questions.

Decoding the Structure of Difficult Conversations

By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen

Surprisingly, despite what appear to be infinite variations, all difficult conversations share a common structure.

When you’re caught up in the details and anxiety of a particularly difficult conversation, this structure is hard to see. But understanding the structure is essential to improving how you handle your most challenging conversations.


Sheila Heen Quote: Joint contribution is the fuel for learning.


1. The “What Happened” Conversation.

Most difficult conversations involve disagreement about what has happened or what should happen. Who said what? Who did what? Who’s right? Who meant what? Who’s to blame?

2. The Feelings Conversation.

Every difficult conversation also asks and answers questions about feelings. Are my feelings valid? Appropriate? Should I acknowledge or deny them, put them on the table or check them at the door? What do I do about the other person’s feelings? What if they are angry or hurt?

3. The Identity Conversation.

This is the conversation we each have with ourselves about what this situation means to us. We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, our future and our well-being? Our answers to these questions determine in large part whether we feel “balanced” during the conversation, or whether we feel off-center and anxious.

Every difficult conversation involves grappling with these Three Conversations, so engaging successfully requires learning to operate effectively in each of these three realms. Managing all three simultaneously may seem hard, but it’s easier than facing the consequences of blindly engaging in a difficult conversation.

Managing all three simultaneously may seem hard, but it’s easier than facing the consequences of blindly engaging in a difficult conversation.

What we can change is the way we respond to each of these challenges. Typically, instead of exploring what information the other person might have that we don’t, we assume we know all we need to know to understand and explain things. Instead of working to manage our feelings constructively, we either try to hide them, or we let loose in ways that we later regret. Instead of explaining the identity issues that may be deeply at stake for us (or them), we proceed with the conversation as if it says nothing about us—and never come to grips with what is at the heart of our anxiety.

By understanding these errors and the havoc they wreak, we can begin to craft better approaches.


1Excerpt(s) from DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS: HOW TO DISCUSS WHAT MATTERS MOST by Douglas Stone, Bruce M. Patton, and Sheila Heen, copyright © 1999 by Douglas Stone, Bruce M. Patton, and Sheila Heen. Used permission of Biking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.


1. How does understanding the three underlying conversations help you gain a better perspective on your difficult conversation?

2. You cannot change the emotional challenges of a difficult conversation, but you can change the way you choose to respond. In what specific ways can you try to change the way you respond in your difficult conversation?

3. What would it look like for you to view your difficult conversation as a learning conversation?


The goal of this GrowthTrack is to prepare you to enter into the difficult conversation you identified in Lesson 1. Take the following steps this week to prepare:

1. Calendar it. Select a target date for your Difficult Conversation. Ideally, the date will be after you have completed Lesson 4 of this GrowthTrack.

2. Contact the other person to schedule a date and time. Let them know you are doing some work to understand the challenges you are facing—and your hopes for being able to move forward.

  1. Anonymous
    Sep 10 2018 12AM
    The most important element I believe in a difficult conversation is to listen to what the other person is saying. Don’t assume you know what they are going to say or try to translate what they are trying to say. But listen, and if I don’t quite understand than ask a question and explain how and why you don’t understand. I learned how to listen well when I do work with the homeless. Thanks

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