Sheila HeenDifficult Conversations

Lesson 3: This GrowthTrack session will help you identify the ways your perceptions and assumptions color your understanding of the “facts” of a difficult conversation.

Materials Needed

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This session will focus on Sheila Heen’s insights into The What Happened? Conversation. In the What Happened? Conversation, people have sharp disagreements around perception of the facts of the situation. Coming to an agreement on what actually happened can be quite contentious.

To help untangle this conversation, Sheila suggests two key skills:

1. The ability to separate intention from impact

2. The ability to move from blame to contribution

Separating Intention From Impact

According to Sheila Heen, when we engage in a difficult conversation, we need to work hard not to attribute a motive to the other person. Instead, we should focus on the impact the other person’s actions had on us.

You say we often fail to disentangle intention from impact. Talk about that and how we can move past this roadblock.


Moving from Blame to Joint Contribution

Sheila Heen explains why the concept of joint contribution, not blame, is a more helpful construct to help resolve difficult conversations.

You say that focusing on blame inhibits our ability to understand the problem. Talk about how we can move toward an understanding of contribution.


Think about your difficult conversation and how you might clash with the other person in “The What Happened?” Conversation. Answer the questions below in your journal.

1. Sheila says, “The mere act of understanding someone else’s story doesn’t mean that you give up yours.” How can you hold to your own story, while at the same time entering into your conversation with a desire to understand the other person’s story?

2. One of Sheila’s key insights is that we need to separate intent from impact. Answer the three questions below.

A. How are you interpreting bad intentions from the other person, based on how their actions had an impact on you?

B. How is the other person interpreting bad intentions from you, based on how your actions had an impact on them?

C. How might you be able to share their impact on you, while holding your view of their intentions as a hypothesis (not fact)?


Meet with a trusted support person who can help you process your difficult conversation. Explain to them the situation you are entering into and the work you are doing to prepare.


1. What is working in the approach that I’m taking to this conversation?

2. What are some pitfalls in my approach that I’m not seeing?

3. What is the other person’s perception of how I manage conflict in general? What do I do well? What could I improve?

If it feels appropriate, pray together for the conversation you will be having soon.

  1. Daphne Keys
    Nov 16 2018 5PM
    Intentions seem to be “key” in many conversations. I’m hoping to convey better the impact of situations rather than the offense or personal interpretation I have of others actions or words. Maybe I just am missing their intentions? Maybe, I’m simply wrong….UGH! 🙂

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