Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Sheila Heen, a New York Times best-selling author, the 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.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is Sheila Heen, that’s S-H-E-I-L-A H-E-E-N. Sheila 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. I also have a lot of drama in my own life that perhaps we’ll end up exploring, but back to the bio. 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. We will almost certainly come back to that. Sheila is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers Difficult Conversations, subtitle, How to Discuss What Matters Most. And Thanks for the Feedback, subtitle, 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, NBC’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, a problem I look forward to having myself. And her website is Triad Consulting Group. You can find both Triad Consulting Group and Sheila Heen on LinkedIn. Sheila, welcome to the show.
Sheila Heen: I am so delighted to be here.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we would start with the foreword of Difficult Conversations, which is written by Roger Fisher. Could you please describe for us who Roger was?
Sheila Heen: Oh, golly! How can I capture for your listeners who Roger was? Roger was just an incredibly inspirational person. So he fought in World War II and he was in both the Atlantic and the Pacific theaters. He was actually a weatherman, so they would send up a plane, they didn’t have weather satellites, so they’d send up a weather plane to check out the weather over Germany. And then they’d radio back to say whether you should send out the mission. Being in the Air Force during World War II was not a super survivable place to be. And when Roger came back from the war he found that he had lost several college roommates, friends. He was the only one who came home in his immediate social circle. If you go to Memorial Church on the Harvard college campus, the walls are etched with names of Harvard students and graduates.
So some of them didn’t graduate before they died, who have died in service of our country. And it would be fascinating just to stand there and talk with him. He would point to names and say, “This guy was so funny, this guy was just the most generous person I’d ever met.” And I think that that experience really motivated the rest of his life. He came back and dedicated his life to trying to find better ways for us to manage conflict in the world. And his passion was international relations, right? So he would sit down and read the paper in the morning, the newspaper, of course, was how we got our news back even when I turned up on the scene in the ’90s, and he would find a conflict and he would just start working on it.
And then he would fax his advice off to the leaders involved, and they’d be getting these faxes from some guy named Roger who had some kind of interesting ideas. So every once in a while someone would call him back. And that’s how he got involved in border disputes between Peru and Ecuador. That’s how he got involved in South Africa with the ANC and the white government just before the constitutional talks. It’s how he got involved in Ireland. And it’s also how he came to write Getting to Yes, which is the negotiation book that really became a foundation book in the field of negotiation and conflict resolution.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned entering the scene. How did you enter the scene with respect to negotiation and conflict resolution?
Sheila Heen: I grew up in Iowa and Nebraska and, through a series of sort of serendipitous accidents, I ended up at Occidental College in California for college. And when I was applying to law school, ultimately I was trying to decide whether to go to Stanford or Harvard, because of course I didn’t get into Yale, which is true of almost every person who’s listening to this podcast. So we all have that in common. And one of my college advisors said to me, “‘Harvard is the bigger and kind of scarier choice,’ I hear you saying, but they have this negotiation thing and I just have an instinct that it might be up your alley.” And probably partly because it was the bigger and scarier thing, but also because I felt he knew me pretty well. I decided to come to Harvard, I didn’t know anybody. And of course he was right. I took negotiation my very first year of law school and just fell in love with the field. I just thought, “Wow! I could learn something new every day for the rest of my life.”
Tim Ferriss: What did you love about it?
Sheila Heen: I think partly that it was so interdisciplinary. So when we’re trying to understand something, we’re reaching in all directions. Behavioral economics, neuroscience, psychology, social psychology. You’re really reaching in all directions just to understand the human aspects of working relationships and problem solving and what gets in the way. And that means as each of those fields advances and we understand more in each of those fields, well, we get to capitalize on that to think well, how would this apply to how we manage the inevitable conflict in all of our relationships, well, professional relationships and personal relationships. So I’m learning every day not only because of my own shortcomings, which become sharper and clearer every day it seems, but also because I get to stand on the shoulders of so many people who are like, “Hey, this is really interesting.” And I think to myself, “Wow! That is really interesting I wonder how that applies.” And you’re off and running again.
Tim Ferriss: So when listeners hear the phrase difficult — or I suppose term, although it’s multi-words; I never know what to call something that’s two words a phrase or term in any case. Tomato, tomato. Difficult conversations, especially since I discuss business so much on this podcast and have guests on who specialize in business, they probably think of a certain siloed breed of difficult conversation. That may be the first thing that comes to mind. But I would love to hear you tell the story. I only got the skeleton overview of this in reading for this conversation of your trip to Los Angeles to renew your passport. I don’t know if that rings any bells, but if you wouldn’t mind filling in the color for that, we could start there.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, let’s start there. Well, on the business side, I will say that difficult conversations come at you from every direction. They’re with your subordinates, with your peers, with your boss, with your partners and vendors, et cetera. And often you see them coming down the pike or you’re wondering whether to have them. But every once in a while they ambush you kind of out of nowhere. And I think that’s what happened to me that day in Los Angeles. Where was I going? I guess I was going to Spain because we were going over to teach negotiation and I was still a student, but I had been invited to go and be part of the Harvard Negotiation Program that was teaching a week in Madrid. So we had to go over to renew my passport and I was working that summer in Los Angeles. So I went down to the Federal Building, which is near UCLA, and did whatever I did there that we’re all probably familiar with.
And then I got in the elevator to come down and I was on a pretty high floor and the elevator filled, packed. And on the way down to the lobby, a guy in the elevator just started ranting, saying the most just upsetting and vile, racist stuff. And my mind has completely blanked out on exactly what he said. But I do recall that I had never — I’m a sheltered kid from Nebraska. I had never heard even some of these things before and he was going on and on and on as we clicked slowly down the floors in a packed elevator of people from all over the world and it was silent.
And by the time the doors opened on the lobby and everyone sort of with relief spilled out of that confined space where you just felt trapped and unable to breathe. I was shaking and I was thinking, “Oh, my goodness! What could I have done? What should I have done?” I didn’t know what to do, and was I responsible for saying something or not? And what was interesting was that it has stuck with me. I’m like shaking now I’m thinking about it. It has stuck with me all these years. It wasn’t aimed at me clearly, I’m white.
Yet it stuck with me so viscerally that I ended up writing my third-year paper about it. To graduate from Harvard Law School at that time you needed to do a pretty big research paper during your third year. And I decided to do it on that interaction just to better understand what was it that was happening? What was I experiencing? What was I noticing? What were my diagnoses for what was going on? Should I have spoken up? Who was I trying to influence or persuade? Or even if I wasn’t going to persuade him of anything, was I speaking up on other people’s behalf or was I just speaking up for myself so that I could come out of that interaction with some sense of self-respect for sticking up for something? And what was I risking in any of those interactions? What would be my purpose and what might be at risk?
And I think I really see in that paper a few of the germs of what later became the book Difficult Conversations. Simultaneous to that, unbeknownst to me, I was writing that paper for Bruce Patton, who is a co-author on Getting to Yes and was supervising the paper. And unbeknownst to me at the time, he and Doug Stone were already themselves working on what were we learning about difficult conversations. So by the time I graduated and they offered me a full-time job to join them at the Negotiation Project, we were all kind of thinking about or wrestling with some of those same questions.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to bring in a third player, so to speak. There are many different types of difficult conversations. And then I’m going to ask about how to tie them together. Theologians struggling with disagreement over the nature of truth and God. Now, this seems like the type of disagreement that could go on, and maybe, in fact, has gone on for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. So it would seem also that there are clearly difficult conversations where not only is it incredibly hard to get to a right answer or a resolution. There may not even in fact be a right answer, so to speak. Now that could be very different from resolution, maybe there is a resolution, just no right answer. So my understanding is that you write and speak on how every difficult conversation has the same underlying structure. What do you mean by that? What ties these things together? How are they similar?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. Great question. By the way, I spent I think it was about 15 hours locked in a room with six theologians with disagreements over the nature of truth and God and I’ve got that all figured out now, so —
Tim Ferriss: Nice. Nice. I look forward to reading that book!
Sheila Heen: Yeah, exactly. Well, I’m not going to tell you guys. I should pause there because there’s one of the theologians, Dominic, said something so profound in the course of that conversation that it stuck with me all these years. Part of what emerged from the conversation was if we’re made in the image of God, what does that mean for each of us? What do we each think that means? And one of the things that came out was the idea that if our souls are partly the nature of God, maybe it’s that we have thousand-watt souls. But as human beings we only have 40-watt bulbs. We’re able to plug into that so we understand and show so little of the light that is possible there.
And that image really has stayed with me. That maybe part of the journey of getting better at difficult conversations and getting better at understanding humanity and our relationships with each other and our own limitations and understanding each other. And I think that learning happens between us, that the way that you learn about yourself, the way you might learn about God or the universe, or the nature of life is in that space between you and me. And that’s where the struggle often is. But you asked a more analytical question, which I will also, I will also respond to.
Tim Ferriss: I’m happy to go way far into the ether with the other types of questions. But we can also just get a toehold with the analytical if we want to start there.
Sheila Heen: And that’s been one of the things that’s been really fun about this field is that it is both incredibly, rigorously analytical. And it has to do with who we are and what we think the meaning of life is and the emotions that we carry into all of our conversations and relationships, whether we’re aware of them or not. So when we first started working on the book, Bruce and Doug and I, that became Difficult Conversations. The working title was actually The 10 Hardest Things to Say and How to Say Them because we figured, I don’t know, there’s probably eight or 10 or 12 different types of difficult conversations, right? And then a conversation with your boss would be different than a conversation with your partner or your spouse. And that’d be different than a conversation with your teenager, which has probably a volume unto itself. And so we’ll just figure out what those different types of conversations are.
Tim Ferriss: That implies conversations with your teenager.
Sheila Heen: Fair enough. Or conversations where, yeah, where listening to anything you say, it’s a one-sided conversation. So we figured we’ll just figure out what those different types of conversations are and we’ll have a chapter about each. And this is great because people buy books with titles like that. This was a fabulous plan. We quickly ran into a little bit of trouble because we realized that we were wrong. That actually it didn’t matter who you are talking to and it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about. The same kinds of things show up in our internal voice in any difficult conversation, meaning the internal voices what we’re thinking and feeling but may not be saying to each other. And those fall into three categories. So the first is that we’re each thinking about what’s happening, what has happened, what is happening right now, and what should happen.
So this is sort of the story we tell about the facts, quote-unquote, facts, because it’s really an interpretation. And that includes what I’m right about, who’s right but usually what I’m right about. Whose fault it is that we’re having this problem? And also what your intentions or motivations or character, why are you being so impossible? Why are you being so stupid or difficult? And those are the three pieces of the story that I’m telling about you. But by the way you’re telling the same story about me. Well, a different story with the same elements. You’re focused on what you’re right about and whose fault it is, which is clearly yours, though you think it’s mine. And why the other person’s acting this way. So that’s one level of the conversation, but there are two more things going on beneath the surface.
The second is that by the time something becomes a difficult conversation we’re each usually struggling with a whole host of feelings of frustration, betrayal, confusion, guilt, shame, anxiety. And what do we do with those feelings? Often we don’t address them directly. They simply infuse the conversation, they’re the energy that drives the conversation and feelings get translated into blame and arguments and accusations. And if we don’t talk about them often we’re not getting to the heart of what’s going on because even in business, by the time something becomes a difficult conversation typically we’ve got at least two problems. One is the surface problem. Like is this timeline realistic? We’re arguing about that. Is this the right strategy going forward? Who’s right about that? But there’s a second problem beneath that which is how we each feel treated by the other. Which is that I’ve been telling you that these timelines aren’t realistic forever and yet you keep blaming me for missing them because you’re just not willing to listen.
And if we don’t address how we each feel treated, we might resolve the surface problem but the deeper problem is going to turn up in a different form next week or next month. So you’ve got the what happened conversation, we call it in the book. The second is the feelings conversation. And then at the deepest level is what we call the identity conversation. And the idea here is that if a conversation feels difficult, chances are there’s something the situation suggests about you that feels troubling or at stake. Or maybe a little bit true or maybe infuriatingly wrong. But it’s not just that we’re arguing about money, it’s always about more than money. It’s about whether I’m respected or competent or a good person or worthy of love even. And that’s part of why these conversations feel so high stakes.
Tim Ferriss: So the identity component, there’s the “What happened?” component, there’s the feelings conversation, as you mentioned. Then the identity is how it affects how we view ourselves, how others view us, or how we view others.
Sheila Heen: That’s right. And so here’s a simple example for people who have trouble saying no. Well, that doesn’t seem that hard to say no more often. You’ve probably gotten that advice a million times, right? But it’s not that you don’t know how to say the word no, it’s that chances are you think of yourself as somebody who is very loyal or generous or would never abandon a friend in need. Well, if that’s true then any time someone asks you for help turning them down for that help isn’t just saying the word no, it’s doing something that feels in conflict or intention with who you want to be in the world.
And someone letting you know that you let them down will be a much harder conversation for you than for someone who just doesn’t happen to have that identity story about themselves. The guy in the office next door has no trouble saying no to everybody, which is of course why everybody comes to you, because they know you’ll say yes. So that also helped us understand why is it that 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.
Tim Ferriss: And once you have an understanding of the three conversations, which is in a way it’s kind of a meta anatomy of each conversation, right?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. It’s like the underlying structure of any difficult conversation in the world.
Tim Ferriss: So once you have that x-ray vision and you’re able to look at conversations through the lens of these three conversations, does that then turn into a checklist or an approach? How do you translate that into thinking about how to address or prepare for a given conversation?
Sheila Heen: I think that that structure mostly serves as landmarks. So I think that the way that we often we’ll, well if you’re like me, prepare, quote-unquote, prepare for difficult conversations that we lie awake worrying about it. And maybe we turn on the light and jot down a few talking points. And then we think about how they’re going to react and then we think about our rebuttals to their reactions. And we’re sort of charting a path, like I’m going to say this, and then I know they’re going to say this, so I’ll respond with this, et cetera.
We’re charting a path through the woods to try to get to the other side. And by the way, then we turn out the light and realize yeah, I don’t know that this is worth even bringing up. And now we’re back at the beginning trying to decide whether it’s even worth trying. The problem though with the path charting is number one, it sets you up to do a lot of talking and very little listening. And the second is that if you’re wrong about anything, the minute that something surprising happens, you’re knocked off your path and you’re lost in the woods.
Tim Ferriss: Decision tree fallen.
Sheila Heen: Shit. You’re not following the script. And so I think the reason that understanding that the underlying structure helps is that it gives you some landmarks. So no matter where you get dropped into the woods, you can think, whether we’re saying it directly or not, we’re wrestling over blame and whose fault it is that we’re in this situation. So that’s the first reason that structure is helpful. The second reason it’s helpful is that the answer isn’t just to say everything you’re thinking, the more transparent and aligned you can be between your internal voice and your external voice, the better. However, that doesn’t mean you should just re-explain even louder why you’re right and why this is their fault. You don’t just dump that sort of toxic internal voice into the conversation. That’s not going to help. Instead, 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.
So I don’t have to pretend I don’t think I’m right, I still think I’m right. But given how obvious it is that I’m right, what the hell is going on with you that you don’t see it? That’s really interesting. If I can get curious about that, then it actually shifts my purpose in the conversation and the purpose of the conversation isn’t to hit you over the head with how red I am, it’s instead to understand why you see it so differently and why we see it so differently. So I need to show my part too.
Tim Ferriss: Could you offer some sample language or tell a story? Either one is fine, could be hypothetical or just provide some language for getting curious. Because there’s a spectrum of options to choose from. Some of which might be passive-aggressive, some might be aggressive-aggressive. And with the understanding that you’re not invalidating your conclusion, you’re just hitting suspend on voicing that conviction that you have of being right and getting curious. What might it sound like to get curious?
Sheila Heen: So one of the things that we work on in our negotiation course at Harvard is separating empathy and assertion and being high on both in any given conversation. So you both want to be high empathy and curious and you want to have skilled and clear assertion. Here’s how I see it, let me see if I can explain it in a way that is clear even to myself as I pull apart why I see it the way I do. The mistake that we make, and this is I think a little bit of what you’re alluding to, is that sometimes we conflate those two. So I’ll think to myself, “I know I’m supposed to ask a question, so I’ll phrase this as a question. ‘Why would you think that?'”
Which isn’t really a question. “Why would you think that? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” — with a question mark at the end. And so what happens is we ask quote-unquote questions that are really disguised assertions, thinly disguised assertions. And you’re much better off just saying, “Gosh, that seems crazy.” But what do you see that tells you that that’s true? And just naming that I actually don’t agree or I can’t imagine that pulls apart the assertion and just says it clearly. And then I can ask a genuine question, which is, “But, gosh! I mean, most of the time you’re a pretty smart guy, so why would you like, help me understand that?” And then my curiosity becomes more pure, more clean, actually. And so passive-aggressiveness is actually unspoken feelings, frustrations, or assertions that then leak through us pretending to be curious.
Tim Ferriss: So if everyone’s reasonably dysregulated, let’s just imagine —
Sheila Heen: Let’s just imagine a world?
Tim Ferriss: Let’s just imagine a world in which this calm surface that we all maintain at all times sometimes falters, and two people are getting heated. Maybe it’s the second or third time that they’ve had the same disagreement or argument. What can someone say to down regulate that and get to curiosity? You already gave perhaps a few examples, but any other thoughts on how to language that?
Sheila Heen: My guess is that you’re familiar with research by John Gottman up in Seattle?
Tim Ferriss: I have some familiarity, but please provide an overview.
Sheila Heen: An overview and just a connection to the question that you just asked. He invites married couples into his lab, and he invites them to talk about an issue that’s stressful between them, to have a difficult conversation, essentially. Hooks them up to heart monitors and videotapes and all of that. Then he says that he can watch for five minutes and predict with their different numbers based on his different studies, but 90-ish, 90, 92 percent accuracy, whether they’ll divorce within three or five years.
Part of the reason I name this is that, for me, it really says 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.
What Gottman is listening for are what are the indicators that he’s listening for that tell him which direction it’s going to go. One of them is that as a conversation gets heated and starts to escalate, one of the spouses will often make a joke, but the purpose of the joke is that it’s an invitation to step outside this argument and to see it for what it is, to see what’s happening, which is that this is the conversation we usually have and how it usually goes. So often it’s a little bit of an inside joke, but humor — by the way, I listened to your conversation with Anne Lamott, who I absolutely adore.
Tim Ferriss: She’s a treasure.
Sheila Heen: She is a treasure. And what does she call it? Laughter is carbonated —
Tim Ferriss: Holiness.
Sheila Heen: Holiness, yeah. So laughter also in the brain just gives us a little bit of instant perspective that we suddenly see the absurdity of our own behavior in many cases. So it’s an invitation to just name what’s happening. It’s like a meta move. For instance, with my husband, who also teaches negotiation, by the way —
Tim Ferriss: I’d love it to be a fly on the wall for some of those.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, you can imagine. So we fight about how we fight. That’s the fight we usually have.
Tim Ferriss: This is like my friends’ kids. My friends are therapists, and their kids are like, “Stop therapizing me.”
Sheila Heen: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: “Stop therapizing me.”
Sheila Heen: Exactly. So we’re like, “Yeah, you’re not listening. Oh, well, those difficult conversations, huh?” Yeah. So that’s the fight we have.
Tim Ferriss: “Stop putting your BATNA in my face!”
Sheila Heen: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: That’s the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, folks. Inside joke.
Sheila Heen: Exactly. That was very nice inside baseball joke. Yeah. Waving your BATNA around in a romantic relationship is not usually a successful strategy. You know, there are a lot of people who’d find me very appealing.
One of the jokes that he and I make when we have the wherewithal to do it is like, “Why will you not just admit I am good and you are bad? That is what this is about, right? It’s about who needs to apologize, whose fault this is, et cetera.” So as things escalate, your ability to just name that underlying dynamic sometimes makes the other person laugh, and you can step out of it for a moment. Then that gives you the opportunity to say, “Look, obviously we’ve had this conversation several times. I’m not understanding why,” fill in the blank. “I’m not understanding why what I’m suggesting doesn’t make sense. Help me, genuinely, help me understand that.” Or “I’m not understanding what you’re most worried about here.” That often helps.
It needs to be a genuine ask. You can’t say like, “What are you worried about?” Because that’s really a hot question. It’s like, you shouldn’t be worried about anything. Why are you being so stupid as to be worrying about something? As long as you can step outside, see, oh, I’m not being curious right now. And I don’t have to pretend that I agree to do it. I think that’s really the key. And I don’t have to say there’s no truth, but from where I sit, I can only see some of the pieces of the puzzle. You have the other pieces of the puzzle. Putting those pieces on the table for discussion is how we figure out what we have to work with. Then at the end of the day, we still might not agree about this, but it might open up new options for how we handle it.
Tim Ferriss: Can I just say, it’s rekindling this great interest in negotiating, but it’s not quite negotiating. I mean, it is negotiating, but it’s like negotiating reality through, in part, choice of language. I remember reading Getting to Yes. I remember reading Getting Past No, which I also really, really enjoyed. Then of course, Difficult Conversations, I think, provides very flexible framework and approach for engaging with many, many different situations, many different people, many different challenges, but just the phrasing that you used with the pieces of the puzzle, that is something that someone could copy and paste and use themselves.
I just took notes, because it’s a non-automatic pattern interrupt, if that makes sense. Whereas, and I’ll own it, I have a history of some degree of fire. Although I have worked on it for a very long time now, but I think I am prone to want to speak very directly, not waste calories, and just get to the point and, in doing so, I might ask a question like, “What are you most worried about?” Or “Why are you worried about this?” But the tone and the brevity of the question, everything about the delivery is —
Sheila Heen: Not a question.
Tim Ferriss: Like, “For fuck sake, why are we doing this again?” That is really what I’m saying.
Sheila Heen: I think that’s really, “What is wrong with you? Like, I have a list of possible things wrong with you that I’ve collected over the years, but I’m just curious which one it is this time.” Yeah, “I try to have a few questions in my back pocket to reach for, because in the moment, of course you don’t feel like being curious at all. So help me understand what you’re worried about, or what might be at risk here. What am I missing?” “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.
It reminds me, I sometimes tell this story about my eldest son. His name is Ben. He’s 22 now, but when he was about three, we were driving down the street. We stopped at a traffic light, and we were working on both colors and also traffic rules, because at the time we lived on kind of a busy street in Cambridge. So we’re stopped at the light. And I say, “Hey, Ben. What color is the light?” And he says, “It’s green.” I said, “Ben, we’re stopped at the light. What color is the light? Take a good look.” And he goes, “It’s green.” And when it turns, he says, “It’s red. Let’s go.”
Now, the kid seemed bright in most other ways. So I just thought like, what is going on with him? My first hypothesis is maybe he’s color blind, which then that would be my husband’s fault. At least I thought at the time, it’s my husband’s fault. I’ve since been informed it would have been my fault.
So I started collecting data. I’m running a little scientific experiment of my own. So I start asking him to identify red and green in other contexts, and he gets it right every time. And yet every time we come to a traffic light, he’s still giving me opposite answers, because I get a little obsessed with this.
My second hypothesis, by the way, is that he is screwing with me, which I certainly had some data to support. This went on for about three weeks. It wasn’t until maybe three weeks later, and I think my mother-in-law was in town. So I was in the back seat sitting next to Ben, and we stopped at a traffic light. And I suddenly realized that from where he sits in his car seat, he usually can’t see the light in front of us, because the headrest is in the way or it’s above the level of the windshield, windscreen as they say in Europe. So he’s looking out the side window at the cross traffic light.
Now just think about the conversation from his point of view. He’s looking at the light, it’s green; I’m insisting that it’s red, and he’s like, you know, my mother seems right in most other ways, but she’s just wrong about this. The reason that that experience has stuck with me all these years is that it’s such a great illustration of the fact that where you sit determines what you see. When you’re in the front seat in a position of leadership, and I’ve been driving for however many years at that point, I’ve never had an accident. I’ve got the resources, I’ve got the map, I’ve got the view of the road, and somebody in the backseat pipes up to say something that doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s just so easy to dismiss it and move on rather than to say, “Okay. It doesn’t make any sense. Help me at least understand what you’re looking at.”
Because often, people on the backseat can see something coming at you that’s going to sideswipe you, because they’re closer to the customer. They’re closer to suppliers, et cetera. I have to say that experience is also coming back to me these days, as I think about the conversations that we’re having about race. Because from where I sit as a white person in the United States, I see a lot, but there is a whole lot that I don’t see or that I don’t interpret the same way. The idea that I’ve been missing things all these years and not seen things that have been systematically unjust, violates my sense of identity, and I feel ashamed. Yet that shame shouldn’t keep me from learning more about what else I don’t see. And I think that’s one of the reasons those conversations are so hard and so important.
Tim Ferriss: In a situation, it could be any context, it could be race-related, it could be with a child, not necessarily in the car context, but in a situation where there seems to be a clear disconnect, in the sense that the two parties are seeing things not just differently, but perhaps seeing different things. Are there other tools or suggestions for how to sort of open the aperture so that both sides get a better understanding of what they are seeing completely or incompletely?
Sheila Heen: In chapter two, we talk about a tool that actually comes from colleagues of ours at the business school, at Harvard Business School and MIT. Don Schön and Chris Argyris created something called the Ladder of Inference, and it just maps the way that our brains take in and process information. At the bottom of the ladder is sort of all the data, all of the things we can directly experience. When I was telling the story about Ben, it’s partly that he has information I don’t have. It is actually available to me technically, it’s just that I wouldn’t tend to look there. So at the bottom of the ladder is what’s available to me and what’s available to others. Some data won’t be available. I wasn’t there when you had the conversation with a board member or whatever, so you have information I don’t.
At the first rung of the ladder up of the data available to us, we each select a tiny sliver of it to pay attention to. So we might be in the same meeting, but I’m listening for the things that affect me and are going to ruin my weekend. And that’s just not what you’re listening for. You’re listening for the things that are going to affect you and your weekend. So in some sense, we’re attending different meetings in terms of what we’re paying attention to and what we remember. And then one more rung up after data selection is interpretation. What do we make of it? How big a deal is it based on our past experiences, which probably are different. What does this represent? Or what do we predict about it? So we’re reasoning and interpreting about it. And then we come to conclusions.
Then when we get into a difficult conversation, we tend to trade conclusions. That was a great meeting versus that was a total waste of time. This is a good idea. That seems like a good idea, but we’ve tried it before and it’s never going to work. So part of the reason that curiosity and understanding why we see it differently helps is that it helps us to unpack the lower rungs of the ladder to understand where we diverge. Was it that we each noticed the same thing, but we have different predictions about how that’s going to go in the future based on, or how big a deal it is and whether it’s important enough that we have to address it right now. Those are interpretations.
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 pieces, puzzle pieces, on the table and try to fit them together, understanding that some of them just won’t fit, and that’s okay. That’s okay. But now I understand why, what you make of it.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know if this is an opportune time, but it’s not an inopportune time, to ask you what is meant by a statement against interest, speaking against interest? What is that? How does one potentially use it?
Sheila Heen: A statement against interest is telling you something, that if I was completely self-interested, I would not admit, like that last answer was a little bit rambling and confusing. But if you have the ladder and you can — if you have the illustration, it’s much easier to explain. It’s owning or admitting something that isn’t in your interest, it might hurt you. An apology is a statement against interest in many cases. The reason that statements against interest can be so powerful is that it’s the fastest way in the research, it’s the one of the fastest ways to build trust between people, because the other person thinks, well, I guess they must be being honest, because otherwise they wouldn’t say that.
We talked earlier about not just taking your internal voice that’s focused on blame and what you’re right about and dumping it into the conversation. The shift from I’m right to why do we see this differently should also be accompanied by a shift from blame to what we call joint contribution. Joint contribution assumes — like we each did things and they might’ve been totally reasonable things. Nobody did something wrong, but we each did things or failed to do some things that got us here. And it doesn’t have to be 50/50, but if I’m willing to own and be accountable for my contributions to this problem, that makes it more likely that you’ll be willing to do that as well. So a statement against interest is I might own my contribution up front: “Look, I think, Tim, we should have talked about this a while ago and I should have brought it up earlier, because it’s been bothering me for a while. So I apologize for that. But I wanted to talk about — fill in the blank.”
Owning my part of it up front, which is often avoiding or delaying a conversation, is like really common contribution to a problem that is festering. Signals. This isn’t about blaming. This is just about understanding what’s going on and trying to make it better.
Tim Ferriss: Are there other examples you might be able to share in doing homework for this conversation? You mentioned apologies. Certainly there are good and bad apologies.
Sheila Heen: Yes, there are.
Tim Ferriss: Helpful apologies. And I actually might want to come back to that. This is something I’m very much trying to get better at. I don’t think I’m the worst in the world, but I’m definitely not winning any gold medals at the moment in that department.
Sheila Heen: Can we dig into that?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, sure.
Sheila Heen: Now you’re sorry you brought it up, aren’t you?
Tim Ferriss: Ruh-roh.
Sheila Heen: Tell me more about how you think about apologies and what makes one good or bad, effective or actually ineffective.
Tim Ferriss: Well, this is timely for me. I think part of the reason I’ve been looking forward to asking you about this, is that coming back to the ladder of inference, I think that perhaps I am not paying attention to the right elements of apologies, because my self-assessment is that my apologies are pretty good.
Sheila Heen: “My apologies are amazing!”
Tim Ferriss: “They’re fucking amazing! I didn’t want to be too strong.”
Sheila Heen: “You should be much more appreciative of how good that apology was, yes!”
Tim Ferriss: “I’d like to thank the Academy.” I think I’m honestly simply not seeing what in this case my partner is seeing. What I’ve noticed is that content almost doesn’t matter, or the content matters, but if my tone is implying I don’t have a lot of time for this, and is of a certain intensity or volume, that the words really just don’t matter. So there is some dysregulation that I think needs training on my side.
Sheila Heen: So the message is not that you’re sorry, it’s that will this apology make this end?
Tim Ferriss: I think probably, that’s probably right. I’m like, okay, I see this could drag on for a while. I’m willing to suspend the conversation of who is right and who is wrong, and I’m willing to apologize if this just terminates —
Sheila Heen: Means we can be done. Yes..
Tim Ferriss: If we can just move on to something else and stop this particular conversation.
Sheila Heen: Oh, that’s such a great insight.
Tim Ferriss: I’m not totally a knuckle-dragger about it. You’d think after reading all these books, so on, that I would be acing this, but I think that also, I often jump from — I think my girlfriend wants me to feel how she feels more than she wants me to understand in some analytical way what is causing what I view or what maybe we both view as an issue, if that makes any sense. And I just in the world generally don’t operate with that as my primary lens. Those are some of the things that contribute. Sometimes I ace it. Sometimes the apology works, but it’s not consistent. So I’m looking for some rules, some guidelines, some language, anything that can help me get out of the remedial class and into the more consistent, normal class.
Sheila Heen: We are all in the remedial class, honestly, but I was just sort of chuckling to myself because your frame was: the apology works.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Yeah.
Sheila Heen: And that suddenly made me think, oh, that’s actually probably a piece of it, which is if I’m apologizing for my own purposes, to accomplish my own purposes, maybe that’s antithetical to an apology. Because we could probably make a really cool list of the different things that make an apology less than apologetic, or less than satisfying. So one might be, it’s really, “Can this be over yet?” Another that I often make the mistake of doing myself is, “Look, I’m sorry you felt that way.” Which is basically, “You shouldn’t have felt that way, and what I did was completely reasonable, so the problem is still you and your oversensitivity.”
I think that part of what makes an apology meaningful is that you are genuine in owning something that you’ve contributed to the problem, and that you’re acknowledging the impact that it had on them. So that third piece of the what happened story is about why are you acting this way, and the advice, the shift in that category, is from — hold on a sec.
And the shift in that category is from, I know why you’re doing what you’re doing, or the flaws in your character that are problematic, to separating intentions and impact, which is that it’s quite possible, and most of the time we had good intentions, or we had no intention, we just weren’t thinking about it, and it had a bad impact. I think that when someone feels we owe them an apology, maybe they want two things. Maybe they want us to sort of own and take responsibility for whatever we contributed to the problem, and they also want us to really see and care about the impact that it had on them, like to really fully understand it, rather than to explain it away or continue to believe that it was their problem. Maybe those are the two key elements to an effective apology.
Tim Ferriss: If you were to give me the crutches and walk me through this, any suggestions for wording, languaging this? Also, if I’m reflecting on everything we’re talking about, I think another weakness of mine is almost certainly that I, in some cases, provide an apology that checks both of those boxes. And then within 10 seconds, I say, “and…” which is the sort of counterpunch. Not counterpunch, or justification, or this is why it’s — yeah, I think this is an over-sensitive reaction. So I have the apology, but then I can’t leave good enough alone, and then I add some type of rebuttal or a kind of light body shot to it, and that just completely removes any benefit of, or most of the benefit of the apology. I think that’s probably something that I also do. I get some of the first part, and then I just keep talking when I should shut the fuck up for at least 15 minutes.
Sheila Heen: And the 15 minutes maybe gives you perspective on whether you need to say it. But I don’t want to actually accept that you don’t need to say it. Maybe you do.
Tim Ferriss: Tell me more.
Sheila Heen: Because if you’re still feeling unsatisfied, like there’s more here that is at the heart of it for me that doesn’t feel like it’s been acknowledged. You might’ve done a great job of acknowledging her or the impact on her, finally, as she would say. And there’s something that feels unfinished for you. So sometimes it’s that from an identity point of view, you want her to understand that you had good intentions and weren’t trying to hurt her or upset her or whatever.
It might be that you feel she also contributed to this and you don’t feel like she’s taken responsibility for her part of it. And in ongoing relationships, personal or professional, “Part of what’s hard is that you know this drives me crazy, and you did it again, even though you just apologized for it a week ago. So maybe your apology isn’t real, because you’re still doing the same thing.” That’s the wrestling. John Gottman in his marriage studies suggests that two-thirds of what we argue about today, we’re still going to be arguing about five years from now. And for those of us who have been in really long, we were arguing about them five years ago and 10 years ago. So it’s more about the ways in which we’re different and how we manage that. And so if you’re feeling like, “Oh, I’ve got to add something,” it may be that you feel one of those two things. Either the impact on you isn’t acknowledged. Maybe three things. Impact on you doesn’t feel like it’s acknowledged. You don’t feel like she’s owning her part, her contribution to the problem. And, or you just want to know that she knows that you had good intentions, that you weren’t trying to be a jerk, because that would be against the story you tell about who you want to be in the world and in the relationship. I don’t know. What do you think about all of that?
Tim Ferriss: I think those are all pieces of it, and I’ll give you a little bit more of the script.
Sheila Heen: Okay. Awesome.
Tim Ferriss: So, if you were like, “Tim, give me your script for a very uncomfortable evening right before bed, what’s the perfect recipe?”
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I’ll give you a bit of the play-by-play and then we can go from there. So the way this often manifests is my partner, it’s very important to my partner that she can speak truthfully, and not people please. And I support that. I think that’s very important. Sometimes how that shows up is I feel like I can’t share my truth. And if I do, she feels compelled to apologize, and then feels resentful that she was looking for an apology and ended up apologizing herself. Does that make sense?
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So she’ll speak truth. I will often apologize. I’m not saying I do it well, but I will apologize. And then I’ll say, “And I don’t feel complete for these following reasons. And if you have the right to share your truth, I feel also that I should have the same right. Here’s my truth.” And then she feels the need to apologize for that. And that sits very poorly because she’s like, “Well, wait a second. I was feeling X. I came to you. I just wanted a clean resolution or some demonstration that you’re curious and interested in my experience, and then possibly an apology.” Now I ended up apologizing. And then just to complete this nightmare fairytale — it’s not a nightmare. I’m being dramatic, but then I will say, “I don’t need, nor am I asking for an apology.” Right? “So that’s not on me.”
Sheila Heen: Okay, wait, wait.
Tim Ferriss: This may or may not have happened recently. So it’s very fresh in the mind.
Sheila Heen: Yes. Yes. So, wait, wait. Rather than telling us about it, would you be willing to play both roles? Say what she says.
Tim Ferriss: I can try.
Sheila Heen: Say what she says, and then switch roles and say what you say back, because this will give us the rhythm of it even better than the analysis. So how does it start?
Tim Ferriss: She’s actually very diplomatic and has, generally speaking, incredible emotional regulation. So she will — when it goes well, or when it goes better, I would say she will ask something like, “Could we set a time to talk for a little bit?” And then we set a time.
Sheila Heen: Okay. So hold on. When she says, I’ll be her, “Can we set a time to talk?”
Tim Ferriss: And I’ll say, “Sure.”
Sheila Heen: Yeah, right. You say, “Sure.” What are you thinking to yourself and feeling?
Tim Ferriss: “Oh, shit. Here we go again.”
Sheila Heen: Yeah, exactly. Good.
Tim Ferriss: “But that’s okay.”
Sheila Heen: But that’s fair enough.
Tim Ferriss: That’s okay.
Sheila Heen: No, I’m not saying that that’s bad.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: It’s just that, yes of course, and you’re already worried about it is part of what we’re exploring.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: So keep going.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I mean, I think I’m avoidant in that way, or I’m just like, “God, life is busy enough. I don’t want to deal with this right now.” But I’ll set a time or we’ll set a time. We’ll figure out a time. And in those cases, when I know there’s an end time, also, this is very important for me, and I know I’m still on the analytical side, but like if a conversation erupts spontaneously, and I’m like, “This could go for three hours, if this doesn’t end,” right?
Sheila Heen: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: This could go indefinitely. I get very agitated, or I could, just to own it, I make myself very agitated just to own the state. Okay. If it comes up spontaneously, then I’m already looking for the exits.
Sheila Heen: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: Okay. And then she’ll very often say something like, “When X, Y, and Z happened, I make up the following story. I’m not saying it’s true. I’m not saying you’re wrong. But the story I make up,” she’s very good about this, which really removes a lot of the defensiveness from me, at least. “The story I make up is A, B, and C,” whatever A, B, and C might be.
Sheila Heen: Is that you fill in the blank, because you wanted, or couldn’t stand blank, blank, blank. Is that what the story sounds like?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Or I mean, “You did X, Y, and Z because you don’t think about me and you make unilateral decisions about these types of things, and that my input isn’t important.” I’m making that up, but it could be real.
Sheila Heen: But that’s the general template. Yep.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It could be a real example. And —
Sheila Heen: And what do you feel when she says that?
Tim Ferriss: It depends on the instance. So I would say that there are some times when I immediately feel badly and I recognize that she’s right, right?
Sheila Heen: Yeah, yeah. Totally.
Tim Ferriss: It’s totally on point.
Sheila Heen: Me too, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I was just a dick. I’m sorry. I was busy or over-caffeinated, underslept, who knows? Maybe all of the above. And so there are times I’m like, “You’re totally right.” And then there are other times where I think I’m often so concerned, especially if it’s right before bed, I’m like, “Oh, God, I’ve got to nip this in the bud. This can’t go on for an hour and a half.”
Sheila Heen: Because I won’t be able to sleep. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Where I will — let’s see, what would I say? I might say something like — think for a second. I’ll tell you what’s going through my head just to give you a window into it. Let’s go ahead. So what I’m trying to verbalize, which maybe you can do a better job of, because you’ve had front row seats to so much of this. I am very hesitant to say, “I’m sorry I made you feel X,” because I don’t believe we ever make someone else feel a given way. And I think that’s a very disempowering phrasing to use with yourself or anyone else, which is why I said, “I made myself agitated,” right?
Sheila Heen: Yep.
Tim Ferriss: Because there are people, friends of mine, for instance, like my friend, Matt Mullenweg. He’s like the Buddha sitting on a lotus flower in the middle of a hailstorm at any given time. He’s so calm. I don’t think he would respond the way that I did. So I want to own that there were probably choices and maybe some genetics involved. So I’m very — I don’t want to say, “I’m sorry for making you feel X.” So usually I’ll say something like, “I’m sorry if I wasn’t thinking, if I wasn’t choosing my words carefully enough. And I said something in a way that came off as A, B, or C.” And I’ll say something like that. And if I just stopped there, it would probably be fine.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. But you can’t leave well enough alone, because what feels unfinished?
Tim Ferriss: Well, what feels unfinished is I generally operate in a world with people who have a very high degree of toughness and resilience and grit. And I’m not saying she doesn’t have those things. She does, but the people I spend a lot of time with are very, most of my closest friends are very thick-skinned. And so I don’t feel like I have to be delicate around them or walk on eggshells. And I resent when I have to do that, because it turns a 20-second conversation into a 20-minute conversation. And fatigue is something that I have grappled with my whole life, extreme chronic fatigue. And I think it could have something to do with having had Lyme disease twice growing up on Long Island and East Coast, how that works. But who knows? I have no idea what the reasons are, but I’m very sensitive to that.
So I’ll say something like that. And then I’ll very often ask something like, “Is there more?” Right? Which is from Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Imago work and so on. You can see we’ve done a fair number of workshops and read a fair number of books. So I’ll say, “Is there more?” And we’ll do that for a bit. And then I will usually feel tension in my body, because I feel like the exchange is completely one-sided. And I have my own perspective on what happened and maybe why it was reasonable. Maybe why, in fact, it was really generous and charitable and super light, like touch. Actually —
Sheila Heen: “You should have heard what I wanted to say.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Sheila Heen: “If you thought what I said was harsh, it was much less harsh than what I wanted to say.” Yes.
Tim Ferriss: So that’s the script.
Sheila Heen: Totally.
Tim Ferriss: That would be an example of how it unfolds. And I should say, I’m not convinced that I am right and she is wrong. That’s not what I’m saying.
Sheila Heen: No.
Tim Ferriss: But I am convinced that these exchanges very often end up feeling unfinished and presenting a bitter aftertaste for us with some regularity, right?
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It’s not all the time. I think overall, we’re doing a really good job as a couple, and doing all the stuff, right? But we’re meeting things head on and I don’t think we’re avoiding much. Nonetheless, these exchanges, I find very draining.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. Well, I can imagine.
Tim Ferriss: So any words of wisdom, recommendations would be most appreciated, because one option is if I just want to preserve the peace, if I just want her to feel better, then I won’t share my side.
Sheila Heen: Right.
Tim Ferriss: But then I just sit there seething, I’m like, “A, why the fuck do we do this right before bed? B, now I get to sit here, and one of us gets to share our truth.” And then I get to censor myself which, for a lot of reasons, from childhood experience, and trauma, and all this stuff we don’t necessarily have to get into, self-censoring in that way is just — it’s not an option for me. It’s very corrosive.
Sheila Heen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: So that’d be an example of —
Sheila Heen: Yeah, that’s a great example.
Tim Ferriss: — how things can pan out.
Sheila Heen: There’s so much. There’s so much there that we can unpack. One observation is, and I’m speaking partly from my own experience, being married to someone where we have very different norms for how harsh or direct to be. And so, the fight for us, and I hear it a little bit in what you’re describing is, the fight is a little bit about what is the normal level of sensitivity or insensitivity? How thick should your skin be, or my skin be? And you’re struggling a little bit about the norms and the meaning you each make of them. And also, in that moment of like, “Do I just shut up and try to sleep?” But the problem is that my internal voice is saying like, “Oh, I can’t believe you brought this up right before bed. I’m not a bad person. You were totally overreacting. My friends would not be upset by this.” And so the exchange is all empathy on your part and no assertiveness.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: And then, but you know from experience that if you share the assertiveness part, you’re back in for the next four rounds, which is exhausting. And if I were you, I would be flooded that whole time, just emotionally, adrenaline, cortisol, et cetera, which is not helpful right before bed.
Tim Ferriss: Not helpful.
Sheila Heen: And is hard. So your looking for the exits is totally understandable. Particularly given your childhood experience to just find a way out that feels safer in terms of how you feel. And you know analytically, you’re not unsafe, but emotionally it’s all there. Actually, [bleep], who I adore, she and I had a really interesting conversation last year about growing up in households where there is yelling, criticism, et cetera, being really hard, and also we were talking about the fact that getting yelled at doesn’t tend to phase her. So she has the tolerance to stay in a situation for quite a while because she loves and adores her dad, but he was tough. He was harsh. And she learned — the meaning she makes of it is like, “Oh, well, I can survive this. This is okay. I don’t feel unrespected or unloved in the personal context here. And I can put up with it because I have experience getting to the other side of it in exchanges with him.” And that that has built — well, or grown her a thicker skin. And I don’t know if that feels true for you also, which, given what you’ve endured, I don’t have the time to get upset by smaller things.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think with just athletic coaching and general feedback, not so much from my parents, but —
Sheila Heen: Coaches can be tough. Yep.
Tim Ferriss: — most of the training that I’ve done, I actually, not just tolerate, but do really well with from coaching. Not abusive, but I like direct because it’s fast.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And I’m sure I also like positive reinforcement more than I might recognize, but it’s never been a — soft and positive has never been my default.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. So the meaning — yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Both in receiving feedback.
Sheila Heen: So the meaning that you each make of a tough, harsh, curt, whatever exchange is really, really different.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: And this is true by the way, it’s true with my husband who, years ago, when we were first married, my sister, my youngest sister lived with us for six or seven months. And when she would leave a dish out, he would grab the dish and go to the bottom of the stairs, was three floors, so a condo, tall condo. And he would yell up the stairs, “Hey, Stinkbug.” That’s what he called my sister, Stacy. “Stinkbug, get down here and take care of your damn dish.” And that was so not my reaction. My reaction is pick up the dish, feel resentful, put it in the dishwasher, and seethe.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Sheila Heen: Because in my household there wasn’t a lot of open conflict. My parents would think for a long time before they would come, and then we would have a conversation, and I might get spanked, by the way. My grandmother gave my mother a board of education paddle. But it would never be done in anger. It would be done as a very deliberate choice, right? To teach you something. And so there wasn’t a lot of open conflict or harsh harshness. My husband grew up just in a very different household where there was yelling and sometimes harshness. And so, like you and your girlfriend, we make very different meaning out of those two things.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, so where do you go from there?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. Well, so maybe I’ll make an observation about her startup and then an observation, maybe an option for your decision point. So her startup is so skilled. This is the story I make up.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, she’s very good at it. Yeah.
Sheila Heen: Really good at it. And with that, she’s buying space to dump her internal voice into the conversation, because she’s saying why you’re doing what you’re doing, it sounds like is part of it usually. You don’t care. You made unilateral decisions, because you don’t think about me.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Sheila Heen: And I might suggest that, if she focused more on the impact on her, rather than your why you were doing what you were doing, even though she says this is a story makeup, this is a story to make up about why you’re a horrible person.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Sheila Heen: If you want to escalate a conversation, speculating about why the other person did what they did is one of the most reliable ways to make them defensive and angry.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right.
Sheila Heen: So she’s doing a good job of caveating it to say, “I know that I’m just making this up.” And at the same time hearing it can’t be easy. So just, the story I make up maybe is helpful, but she might get further with you if she just said, “Look, you made that decision without consulting me at all. And I was both surprised by it, dismayed. I wondered whether you thought I had nothing else I needed to do, or why you did that, especially since you know that that bothers me.” That might be easier to respond to, because she’s not speculating about your intentions, which are actually invisible to her.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s a good point.
Sheila Heen: Then when you’re on the — so you’re basically flooded, and her story about you is the worst possible version. At least it is when it’s me.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: Selfish, and a jerk, and don’t care about me. On the backend, I wonder whether the Internal Family Systems, IFS, work might be helpful. It’s related to the And Stance, which we talk about in difficult conversations, which is, look, there’s a part of me that just wants to go to sleep, and thinks you’re right that I should have consulted you, knows that you’re right. And there’s a part of me that feels like I do want to stick up for myself a little bit.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: And I wonder whether you understand whatever it is you need to say. I wonder whether you see me this way, because that would be upsetting. Or whether it’s just what you worry about. And so I think you can use that language of a part of me just wants to go to sleep. And a part of me feels like if I stay silent, I’m replicating the silence I had to hold as a kid sometimes. And that doesn’t feel good for us either. Where there’s a part of me that wonders whether this is going to work, because I don’t know if I — I do feel like I’m walking on eggshells. And I think we got to figure that out.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: So whatever it is that’s the part that won’t let you sleep.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The giving voice to the parts is a good suggestion. And for people who don’t understand the reference, just quickly.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, IFS, Internal Family Systems, founded by Richard Schwartz. He may be Dick Schwartz.
Sheila Heen: Dick Schwartz, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The podcast notes, I’ve had him on the podcast, is a framework for not just interpersonal communications, but also therapy and trauma work, where you identify different aspects of the self. That’s the Internal Family part, that’s the reference. And it’s very, very powerful for trauma work. That’s where I have the most familiarity. So for people who want more on that, they can just search my name, or IFS at tim.blog/podcast. That’s a good idea to name it, because it also buys a little bit of time, and it provides a window into the felt experience without leaping directly to an argument.
Sheila Heen: That’s right, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It’s kind of announcing the players on the stage before the players start talking.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. There’s a way in which you’re stepping into what we would call the third position, to a balcony to name what’s going on.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Could you say more about that, third position?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. So we talk about really skilled communicators and negotiators developing first position skills, second position skills, and third position skills. So first position skills are how self aware are you of what’s going on for you, what meaning you’re making of things, different emotions you’re bringing to the table or identity issues, et cetera. And can you share them clearly and skillfully? Second position skills are how good are you at stepping into someone else’s shoes and imagining the world as they see it and finding a way to get yourself to genuine curiosity? If I can get from, “That’s crazy,” to, “I wonder why you think something like that, which feels crazy.” Well, that’s at least a step in the right direction. So those are empathy skills. And also letting them know that you understand, or that you’re working to understand it anyway.
And third position skills are, “Can I step up above the fray and name what’s happening?” That’s what the couples are doing in the Gottman work, which is to just admit, “I am good and you are bad. That’s what’s really going on here.” You’re naming our usual escalation pattern. So in the book we talk about stepping to the third position, starting a conversation from the third position, which is, “I know that you and I struggle with a difference, or I know we feel differently about how we talk to each other,” for instance. Or, “I know that it makes me crazy when the dishes are not done before everyone goes to bed and food sits on the table, which I think is disgusting. And I know that after dinner, you just want to relax. And so when it’s your turn to do the dishes, the food does sit. And I wonder what we should do about that.”
So you’re naming my — there’s a difference between how I prefer things and how you prefer things. And the conversation is about just better understanding that and what we should do about it. That’s a promising way to start a conversation. It’s also related to what we call the And Stance. And there are a couple of different kinds of ands. There’s what we call the You Me And. “I know you prefer it this way and I prefer it another way. I know that you find it hard when I’m harsh, or direct, or make unilateral decisions. And I find it hard when you accuse me of being selfish when I do that since I don’t think that’s really what’s going on. What should we do about that? I know you feel upset and betrayed and let down by me. And I feel wrongly accused and upset and betrayed that you would think that of me, that we can both be upset at the same time.” So that’s the You Me And.
Then there’s another thing called a Me Me And, and this is much more what Dick Schwartz, I think, is talking about, which is that, “I love you and admire how skillfully you’ve brought this up and care that I have, once again, upset or hurt you. And I’m also mad at you for bringing it up now, and I’m worried and frustrated that I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep. And I feel partly wrongly accused or misunderstood at least. And so I feel conflicted.” And the feelings, if we’re going to step into the feelings conversation part of Difficult Conversations, often there’s a headline feeling, or there’s a feeling I think I’m supposed to have right now, but underneath that are a whole bundle of conflicting and mixed feelings, and sometimes sorting them out. And I think this is part of what Dick Schwartz is helping people do with IFS, which is to sort out the parts of them that feel differently. “I love you and I’m mad at you right now.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So it’s not just a soupy, murky mess.
Sheila Heen: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. We sometimes give people two chairs, and put the positive feelings here. And in this other chair, put the negative feelings there, say what you want to say to them. And when you move between chairs, you need to spend time in each chair, and when you move between chairs, use the word and, not but, because usually we’ll say, “I love you, but you’re driving me crazy.” And —
Tim Ferriss: It negates the first statement.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. They say, “But is the great eraser.” So it feels like the first part is just easing in. The second part is what this is really about. When in fact often both things are equally true, which is why and helps.
Tim Ferriss: So I have to ask, and this is not meant to provide myself with supporting evidence for my lesser behaviors —
Sheila Heen: But if it happens to, that wouldn’t be terrible.
Tim Ferriss: But if it incidentally had that effect, I wouldn’t cry about it. Did the, “Hey, Stinkbug, come down here and clean your dishes,” did that work?
Sheila Heen: Yes, it did because John’s reputation in my family is, and with most people who know him, is he’s got some rough edges. He likes to be a little bit provocative. Once you get to know him and understand his really beautiful, generous heart, and there’s a little bit of a persona that he puts on for his own entertainment, as well as hopefully others, you really adore him. And so they hear it and make meaning of it as it is actually intended.
Tim Ferriss: So you’re saying set expectations. This is important.
Sheila Heen: Maybe set expectations, but also learn over time. So actually it’s interesting because I’m on the more sensitive side with my husband, so he’s harsher than I am much of the time because of just the families we grew up in. I stand on the other side, vis-a-vis my co-author and business partner, his name is Doug Stone, Doug is much more sensitive than I am. And so I have the fun of feeling frustrated at how sensitive he is sometimes. And I mean, we’ve been very close friends and collaborators for 28 years or something, probably coming up on 30 years now, more than 30 years, since 1991, 30 years. So every once in a while we’ll have an argument or really be frustrated, genuinely frustrated with each other. And what he says happens when that happens is that he basically goes home and thinks like, “Well, it was a great friendship, but I guess it’s over.”
Like, “I’m going to erase you from my speed dial, favorites. And I guess I’m going to have to figure out how to move on and find someone else to collaborate with.” Because for him an argument, it would have to be so bad to get it out in the open. And for someone to be frustrated with him is a huge identity issue for him. So from his perspective, it’s over. And then, an hour later I’ll call him and he’s like, “Why are you calling me? We’re not friends anymore.”
Tim Ferriss: You’re like, “It’s just Tuesday again. I know we do this once a week.”
Sheila Heen: I mean, it actually is relatively rare, but I’m still thinking like, “What are you talking about? Of course we’re frustrated with each other, that’s normal and we’ll figure it out. I probably am not really seeing what you’re trying to tell me or why this makes sense.” So the meaning I make of it is, good friends can talk it through. And the meaning he makes of it is, good friends don’t have fights.
Tim Ferriss: So what do you say? And you’ve known each other for so long —
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: — maybe you skip the formalities, but what do you say after one of these flare ups? What would your best self say?
Sheila Heen: My best self wouldn’t have called an hour later, I would have waited a little longer so that I can see my part of it. My best self, when she shows up, tend to start with what I think I’ve contributed to the problem.
Tim Ferriss: And how do you introduce that?
Sheila Heen: Which is often that when I get frustrated, the place I tend to go is bossy, dictatorial, like, “Look, we don’t have time for this. This is what we’re going to do.” And as an oldest sister, it’s really a strength of mine to be bossy. When people say I’m bossy, I’m like, “Well, if you would listen to me, your life would be going so much better, so I don’t see what the problem is.” But I think I see my own patterns and I’m willing to own them. Like, “Look, I know that I am feeling maybe freaked out or anxious that we’re not going to finish this on time.” Let’s imagine we’re working on a chapter that isn’t working, And by the way, we’re reworking Difficult Conversations now, as we speak, we’re doing a third edition. So I’ve got my book here with all my notes and markups and —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah, look at that.
Sheila Heen: What have we learned since, what didn’t we include, what’s missing, et cetera. So when we’re writing together, Doug is really good at taking things apart and letting them be messy for a while, because he has a sense, or we both have a sense like, this isn’t quite right, but we can’t figure out what’s wrong with it. He’s really good at taking it apart, and taking it apart and letting it be messy again, where we don’t see the way out from a writing point of view, it makes me very anxious.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I know the feeling, when you’ve taken everything out of your closet, off the hangers and put it in the middle of the floor and you’re like, “Well, now what the fuck do we do?”
Sheila Heen: Exactly. It’s like, “Look, the chapter had 10 things that were really working about it, and one or two that we sensed were not quite right, so why did we have to throw out the 10?” But sometimes you’ve got to throw the 10, you’ve got to kill your darlings because otherwise you’re not going to see what it is that’s wrong, you’ve got to rebuild it. And he’s really good at being more comfortable with the rebuilding, the tearing down, especially. And so, I’ll maybe start with, “Look, I know that part of what’s driving me is I just am incredibly anxious, I’m totally freaked out that we’re not going to figure this out.” So I’ll just own what are the feelings that are driving me to be so insistent about what we need to do. So there is some first position, like self-reflection and what am I contributing to the problems, stuff going on, that I’ll be willing to own. And that usually people — one of the strongest norms in the research literature is reciprocity, so if I attack you, you’re going to attack me back.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.Sheila Heen: And if I am willing to own my part of this, I make it easier for you to be willing to own yours. If you don’t, how do you bring up someone else’s contribution? Sometimes you can do it as a request, “Hey, I don’t know if this would be possible, but would you be able to fill in the blank?” Implicitly, I’m asking you to change something, because what you’re doing now isn’t helping from my point of view, but I’m framing it not as a, “Would you knock it off?” But instead, “Would you be willing to do something different?” And that sometimes helps, especially when you’re talking up in hierarchy, “Hey, boss, if you could give me a heads up before the meeting, I could probably be better prepared to answer your questions in the meeting. Would that be possible, rather than ambushing me?” But you don’t add the last, “Rather than ambushing me,” part. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: One approach that I’ve read about, this is also, I think a weakness of mine, is presenting things as a shared problem, not immediately offering or asking for a particular solution. Could you speak to that and maybe give an example or just elaborate?
Sheila Heen: I think that that’s — and actually, we dig into this a little bit more in The Feedback book.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sheila Heen: The Feedback book has a chapter on relationship systems —
Tim Ferriss: Thanks for the Feedback.
Sheila Heen: Thanks for the Feedback. It has a chapter on relationship systems, and the way that in relationships, working relationships or personal relationships, often we each have feedback for the other about how we think the other person needs to change, like, “You have feedback for me? That’s hilarious because the problem here is clearly you.” And obviously that’s part of what’s happening here as well.
Because the problem isn’t that there’s something wrong with me or something wrong with you, it’s that the combination of the two of us is a little bit of a struggle on some front. So that’s a shared problem for us to figure out if we’re going to continue to collaborate, live together, be in a relationship, what should we do about that? And I do think that a lot of difficult conversations are about the argument, who’s the problem here? And if instead it’s the combination of us is, part of what we’re each struggling with, that’s a much better frame.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, there is no target that can become defensive, right? It’s objectified in a way.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. And it’s each of us standing on one side with the problem in front of us, rather than standing across from each other, pointing to each other as the problem.
Tim Ferriss: Could you speak to blame absorbers versus blame shifters, and maybe there are some other categories, I don’t know, but those two?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. So one of our observations is that, when you make the shift from blame to thinking about things in terms of contribution, it’s not just that you’re using a nicer word, blame assumes that somebody did something, what they did didn’t measure up on some yardstick of what was appropriate, what was professional, what was expected, what a good person would do, right? And so they fell short in some way or did something, “wrong.” And therefore the question is, how should they be punished? And occasionally punishment is formal, like they’re fired, but more often punishment is informal, who’s in the doghouse? Who has to make it up to who? Who has to apologize? So it’s no surprise that people try to avoid being tagged with the blame, but they also try to avoid being tagged with the blame because in most situations, “It wasn’t just me, I was reacting to what you were doing.”
And so contribution shifts, to come from a really different assumption, which is that, “Wherever we’re at right now, which is a problem, we each did or failed to do some things that got us here. And that going forward, if we want to improve that, understanding what we each contributed is the way to actually change things and improve them.” So I think that looking for, “What am I contributing to this problem?” is part of what empowers me to know what I could change or try to do differently. Now this, I want a little bit of a tangent, which is background for your original question. You want to state your —
Tim Ferriss: Yep.
Sheila Heen: — question, because then we’ll —
Tim Ferriss: Well, I was just going to ask if a perverse, maybe that’s a strong word, but an exaggeration of that is the blame absorber?
Sheila Heen: Yes. So if we’re talking about, “What do we each contribute to this?” I think that each of us leans in a particular direction. Blame-absorbers are quick to see what they have screwed up. So the first place they’re going to point the finger is at themselves, like, “I should’ve seen this coming. I should have said something earlier. I can’t believe I let myself get into this situation again.” And blame shifters are the opposite, they’re going to see everybody else’s contribution first, like, “I’m late because the traffic was terrible. Because my kid wouldn’t put their shoes on. Because Zoom wasn’t working correctly,” et cetera. So their first instinct is to point a finger away from themselves, either to the situation or to other people. And you would think, “Gosh, it’d be great to be a shifter because nothing is ever your fault.” But the experience of being a shifter is basically an experience of being victimized by the world and everybody else in it because you don’t see your part. And so it’s actually very disabling.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: If you’re an absorber, I think we’re all taught to be absorbers, particularly as leaders, like, “Take responsibility, the buck stops here.” The problem is that if you’re a true absorber, in doing so often you let other people off the hook, you take responsibility for everything. Like my mother tends to be an absorber. Like if there’s an argument at dinner, she’ll think, “Oh, I should have served something else.” Or, “I’m sorry.” She apologizes when the weather is bad, when I visit. It’s like, “Mom, I don’t think you were really responsible for the weather.” Oh, she told me recently, we were talking about this, and she said, “Oh, I’m not really an absorber, I’m just a social absorber. I know that’s what I’m supposed to say, but inside we both know it’s your fault.”
So absorbers and shifters often will find each other in relationships or in the workplace because it’s the perfect relationship, right? We both agree it’s the absorber’s fault. But over time, what happens is the absorber gets fed up and tired of being the one who always apologizes and tries to fix things and takes responsibility and being the bad guy. And so it’s a stable system until it’s not. So part of the reason that this is all important is just to reflect on your own pattern, what you see first, and contribution balances whatever you see. If you see your own part first, well remember, it’s not all you, if you can’t fix this by yourself, you can’t be the hero and fix something by yourself, you need to think about what would other people need to change if we’re really going to have change, and vice versa of course. I think this is related to those roles of hero, villain, victim.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure. Do you want to speak to that?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. In the back of my mind I was thinking about the ways that these two things overlap, which I have been thinking about recently, because the hero is often of an absorber who says, “I’m going to come in and save the day. If I change this — and I’m a good leader who takes responsibility.” Now, it could also be that the hero is a shifter, nothing’s ever their fault because they’re only a good guy, this is related to identity. So it’d be interesting to hear how you think about that. The villain role nobody wants. And when people attribute negative intentions to you, or that you’re the problem, nobody wants to play that role in the conversation. That’s why starting from the third position helps, like, “This is just the difference between us, nobody is the villain here, or nobody’s the problem.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And for people who want more context on this, one option might be a podcast episode I did with Jim Dethmer, D-E-T-H-M-E-R. And I think he likely refers to this from someone else, I can’t remember the originator, maybe you do, but the Drama Triangle.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, the Drama Triangle.
Tim Ferriss: And puts these three perspectives into practice for problem solving. And his website is, I think it’s conscious.is or something along those lines. But if you look up the Conscious Leadership Group and Jim Dethmer, I am pretty sure they have PDFs on their website that people can find related to the Drama Triangle, which I do find interesting. I find practicing that where sometimes you’re instructed to stand in each spot and verbalize each of those perspectives to be very challenging. I do not have much of a flare, at least not intentionally for the theatrical, but my girlfriend would probably disagree, but I find it very difficult — intellectually, I find it useful to think about and journal on, but to actually practice live by standing onto those spots in front of someone like a therapist, I find it incredibly hard, find it really challenging.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, it can be really hard. It’s interesting for me because when I listen — when you are a third party, like in this conversation and you were describing your conversations with your girlfriend, I’m a third party listening to that. Any of us, when we’re a third party listening to someone else’s conflicts, it’s easier to hear in it, like, “Oh, I see what they each think that they’re right about. I see what they’re each contributing to the problem. I can hear the ways in which they each feel accused of being a bad person or having bad intentions. And they’re each really wanting the other to understand the impact that this has had on them. And they’re each full of frustration and hurt and confusion and anxiety and adrenaline.” And maybe they’re wondering, “Am I a good partner? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love? Am I broken in some way that needs to be fixed? I hear the other person wanting to me to fix myself. It’s not just they want to fix me, they think I should fix myself.”
As a third party, you can hear all of that, and you can also hear, “Ph, I hear someone playing the victim role here,” that in storytelling, human storytelling, often those three roles show up. Any Disney movie is going to have a hero, a villain and a victim, or set of victims.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: And we each can fall into those roles in how we tell our own stories as well. If you want to get better at this, often listening to other people’s stories and asking them questions about, “Well, what do you feel like you contributed? Or what do you feel you’re right about? And what does the other person think they’re right about?” The most common pattern is actually, “We each actually might be right, we’re just talking past each other.” Right? Your girlfriend might be right —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: — that she, well clearly she’s right, that she felt hurt or overlooked, or this isn’t how she would like to be, whatever, talked to, et cetera. You’re right that you didn’t do it on purpose, and that it wasn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of life. And —
Tim Ferriss: For me, right?
Sheila Heen: For you. And that if you’re going to be in relationship with her, it actually is a big deal for you guys to figure out how to navigate, right? So if the problem is between us, it’s a shared problem of how we will figure this out.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: So I think the challenge is that, in our own conflicts, it can be so much harder to see.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: Like when you’re standing in that place describing to a therapist, it’s really hard to see our own patterns. And that’s the challenge of getting better at difficult conversations.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned the Disney movie having all three, which is so true. And I can’t remember the source, but I remember listening to someone and they were talking about how we create drama in our own lives, because we want our lives to be the most interesting movie imaginable, no one wants it just to be a snoozer. So we create these stories and figures and so on. And I was just thinking to myself, “Maybe all of our stories have hero, villain, victim. And if you can’t find one, that’s who you are, that’s the role that you play.” And maybe that’s a way of backing into it.
Sheila Heen: Oh, that’s beautiful. I also find it sometimes that useful if I think, “How in the world do they tell this story? Can I tell their perspective, putting them in the hero role?”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sheila Heen: Because they do feel like they’re the hero of their own story in most cases.
Tim Ferriss: Have you ever seen, it’s an old movie, it’s an Akira Kurosawa film, Rashomon?
Sheila Heen: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Rashomon. Yes, if —
Sheila Heen: It’s wonderful.
Tim Ferriss: If anyone listening has not seen Rashomon — I want to go see that again, it is an entire film where the same events are told through the eyes and perspectives of different people in the film. It’s a beautiful film.
Sheila Heen: It’s a beautiful film. I’ll add one more film if you’re curious about hero, villain, victim —
Tim Ferriss: Please.
Sheila Heen: — which is Shattered Glass.
Tim Ferriss: Never heard of it.
Sheila Heen: So it’s about Stephen Glass, who made up those articles. He wrote for The New Republic, was that it?
Tim Ferriss: I can’t recall.
Sheila Heen: I keep forgetting. And so it’s a —
Tim Ferriss: Big scandal.
Sheila Heen: — big scandal. And Hayden Christiansen, was he the guy who played Anakin?
Tim Ferriss: I’m more of an Episode IV kind of guy. So it could very well be, but that actor —
Sheila Heen: That actor — of course I brought up a movie that now I can’t remember clearly to describe, but the point of it is that he, Stephen Glass in real life, was so good at playing the victim that he had colleagues and friends stepping into cover for him when people got suspicious, who would say to the editor in chief, like, “Why are you being so mean? Why are you doubting him? Of course this is true. Why are you coming down on him so hard? He’s very sensitive.” And he was so good at playing the victim that he had other people enlisted as heroes who would intervene to help cover for him. And it’s a fascinating and beautifully done movie.
Tim Ferriss: Shattered Glass.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Do you come away feeling depressed? Is it a beautiful, but downer of a movie? What should people be emotionally prepared for?
Sheila Heen: I came away feeling fascinated.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Sheila Heen: I came away feeling fascinated with the way in which he so effectively managed those conversations for so long. And the way that he cast the editor who started to be suspicious and ask harder questions and demand to see his notes and, “Tell me when this happened,” they cast him as the bad guy. And so it’s been also helpful for me when I feel like I’m being the bad guy, because I’m being too harsh or demanding or suspicious or something, is that just the story that’s being told, are my questions and concerns justified? Because I can be very vulnerable to not wanting to be the bad guy. Yeah. And it causes me to not want to have conversations sometimes.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Well, Sheila, if you’d be interested, I think we will probably need to do, or I would like to do a round two at some point, we have many more things we could speak about.
Sheila Heen: Oh, yes, for sure.
Tim Ferriss: And we’ve only covered a small percentage of the terrain. Difficult Conversations is the book that has come up many times in this conversation, how to discuss what matters most. And then the book that we spent a little bit of time poking at from oblique angles is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. Your consulting group is Triad Consulting Group, which people can find a triadconsultinggroup.com. Is there anything else that you would like to say, any closing comments, requests of the audience, anything at all that you would like to add before we close this round one?
Sheila Heen: Oh, gosh. Maybe just if you’re having difficult conversations in your life, with yourself and with the people around you, that you’re not alone. And that they’re part of being human and being in relationships, but they also are an indicator that you care a lot about what you’re doing and you care about the people that you’re doing it with. And so in many ways it’s a sign of health. And so for me, that’s been part of what’s been so rewarding about this work, is that you meet someone and you get to know them pretty well very quickly, because we go straight to the edge of what they’re coping with and not sure how to handle and struggling with. And for someone who’s naturally pretty shy myself, I have found that such a beautiful and rewarding open door.
So for you, Tim, just in this conversation and also for everybody that I’ve had the privilege of working with over the last 30 years, it’s like they let me into part of their life that really matters, and the conversations that matter to them. And if that’s where we live together in our relationship, I’m there, I’m totally there.
Tim Ferriss: Well, Sheila, this has been so much fun and very helpful. I took a lot of notes and there are many things I’ll be following up on, and maybe some lines that I’ll rehearse later in the mirror before I go on stage.
Sheila Heen: Yes, this evening.
Tim Ferriss: Into this evening.
Sheila Heen: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And this has been tremendously helpful. I hope we have another opportunity to continue the conversation. And what a gift to be able to spend time together, so thank you so much.
Sheila Heen: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, as always, we will have links in the show notes to everything that we discussed, all the books, all the films, all of the everything, any particular concepts, any names, at tim.blog/podcast. So you can just search Heen, H-E-E-N, and this episode will pop right up. And until next time, measure twice, cut once with those harsh words, do some thinking —
Sheila Heen: Nice.
Tim Ferriss: — try to take the third position. And thanks for tuning in.
ADDENDUM — SHEILA HEEN
Sheila Heen: Hi, Tim. It’s Sheila. As I thought about our conversation afterwards, of course, I thought of all the things I wish I would have asked, or had insights I wish I would have thought of at the time. And that’s normal. The good news and the bad news of difficult conversations is that they’re usually happening in ongoing relationships over time. And so it’s not so much about having exactly the perfect script or thing to say in the moment, as much as it is about having an ongoing conversation.
So, in the spirit of an ongoing conversation, I thought I would offer a couple of thoughts I had afterwards, just in case they might be helpful to you. So the first is that one of the questions that sits underneath many, many difficult conversations, it’s sort of the background music to the conversation, or maybe a low hum, ominous hum, below the surface is the question, “Is this going to be okay? Are we going to be okay? Is this conflict going to mean consequences? Or even the end of the relationship?”
When someone raises something important to them with someone else, part of what they’re asking is, “Is this the kind of thing that we can talk about, talk through, and resolve together?” Particularly, given Gottman’s research about two-thirds of our conflicts in long-term relationships are not really resolvable, the task isn’t to resolve them once and for all, it’s to figure out a way to handle them or navigate them and manage them together that feels okay and good.
And I think part of what might be happening when your girlfriend comes and says, “Hey, can we talk?” is she’s saying, “I want to raise something that’s happening that’s actually not okay with me.” And if I were in your shoes, and maybe if I was in her shoes, I would be thinking, “And what does this mean for us? Is this going to work? Are we going to be able to figure out how to navigate this together?”
And you might be feeling like, “Gosh, what you’re asking me to do is to be perfect, and I have already demonstrated that that is not going to happen. So if I continue to, sometimes, misstep or be an asshole, is that going to be okay?” And so I think that’s going to raise the stakes for both of you in the conversation. And I wonder whether there’s a way to turn down the heat or maybe the volume on that question, at least for a while.
A second thing — and I have a thought about how to do that, but let me add a second thing that I have been thinking about that is related, which is, when she comes and says, “Hey, can we talk?” the implicit topic or purpose of that conversation is singular. It’s about her topic. And when you ask the question, “Is there more?” — which, by the way, is a fantastic question and it may unintentionally reinforce that the whole purpose of this conversation is about your concern or feeling hurt or impacted by me. And, in addition, “Is there more?” is like it’s putting everything on the table all at once, like leave no stone unturned. It’s like you’re doing spring cleaning every evening that you have this conversation rather than just a light spot-dusting in the relationship. And I’m not sure you need to do a spring cleaning every evening.
And so I wonder whether we can do a couple of things. One is, reassure each other that that question, “Are we going to be okay?” is answered: “Yes, we are going to be okay. And we’re going to figure out how to handle this,” to sort of turn down the power on that conversation or the heat.
A second is, can we expand the frame on what your conversation is about beyond just her topic? Because if it’s just her topic, then when you can’t help yourself and you add your perspective, it feels disruptive or off-topic. I think, actually, the frame of the conversation should be, “Hey, I noticed something today that I want to talk about that’s one of those places where we have some rub or some friction, and I want to tell you about it.” And can we expand it to say, “Oh, great. I’m really interested. And then I would love to share what was going on with me in that moment.”
So the purpose of our conversation isn’t just hearing you out so that you can speak up and not people-please, which I totally support — I love that about how you support that with her — but also, “And then I’ll add what was going on for me and we can kind of figure it out together.” So it’s framing the purpose of the conversation as just understanding. Maybe there’ll be an apology in one direction or another, but maybe it’s just about, “Ooh. Cool. This is one of those moments. Let’s just unpack it a little bit and notice what is happening and talk about, if neither of us changes a whole lot, what could make this better? What small things might be able to make this better?”
And so you might do a 60-day experiment that when she comes and says, “Hey, can we find a time to talk?” Your automatic response should be, “Ooh. Yes. Awesome. I can’t wait. And I can’t wait to hear what you have noticed. And I’ll add what I noticed in that moment. And maybe we’ll better understand this.”
And that actually, hopefully, lowers the stakes and changes the frame to be a little bit more inclusive and also treats it a little bit more like a spot-dusting, I suppose, if we’re going to keep that metaphor. And at the end of 60 days, just see whether the tenor of these conversations has changed.
The last thing that I will say is, of course, the timing of when you’re having the conversations, as we talked about a little bit, is kind of disastrous for you. And I’m sure that when she says, “Can we find a time to talk?” You’re picking the end of the day because, obviously, you both have a ton of other stuff to do during the day. But I wonder whether that’s exactly the wrong time.
I know it’s always the wrong time for me. So often I hear the advice from long-partnered people like, “Don’t go to bed mad,” or “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” is something my grandmother would have said. And that seems like good advice except that, in practice, it’s horrible advice because the end of the day is exactly the time, especially if we’re irritated with each other, it’s exactly the time when like, “I’ve been carrying around and adding to the list of my partner’s flaws and problems. And I’m tired. I’m irritable. I have exactly zero energy or patience to do the hard work of listening.”
And it is hard work to listen to someone tell you something that you’ve done that has upset them or to feel misunderstood, and to try to properly, accurately, understand each other. That’s actually hard work. So the last thing I would add to your 60-day experiment, should you decide to accept this mission, this mini-mission, would be not to have them at bedtime, but just to find a time maybe when you’re each at your best in terms of energy, and to treat them as like quicker check-ins earlier in the day to try to understand for each of you, what’s going on there. And over time, to start noticing those patterns. At the end of 60 days, if you like, we can get together and talk about feedback and we’ll see how it went.
Anyway, Tim, thank you so much for the conversation. I so enjoyed it, and I can’t wait to hear what happens next. Good luck.
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