November 04, 1999
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'That Is Not What I Meant At All': Negotiation Project researchers ease difficult everyday conversations

By Alvin Powell
Gazette Staff

Harvard Negotiation Project researchers (from left) Sheila Heen, Bruce Patton, and Douglas Stone are experts in negotiation. Photo by Jon Chase.

As a species, we’re not very skilled at talking about tough topics.

Sure, we can gather our courage and blurt out what’s been bothering us for weeks, months, or even years. We get it out, unload, and move on, leaving hurt feelings and the seeds of another misunderstanding in our wake.

Part of the problem, Harvard researchers say, is that we approach such confrontations thinking that we not only understand our own point of view, but we also believe we know for sure what the other person did, said, and thought on the subject. And we think our view is right.

But in fact, they say, we’re usually wrong, which explains why these kinds of talks often go so badly.

"When we get into difficult interpersonal conflicts, it’s not very natural for us to see the conflict from the other person’s point of view," said Douglas Stone, associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project. "But it’s a skill that is crucial to learn."

Stone and other Project researchers have come up with a better way to have what they dub "difficult conversations." Though there is some merit to "getting things out in the open," they counsel a more considered and balanced approach than just taking a deep breath and "letting ’em have it."

In fact, the way most of us broach difficult topics dooms the conversation from the start, they say. Openings such as "I think we should discuss why you’ve been so inconsiderate lately," immediately put the other person on the defensive and leads to an "I have not been inconsiderate" response rather than a talk about why he or she has been getting in at 1 a.m. and waking you up by playing the stereo.

Instead of venting your opinion, the researchers say, you should do at least as much learning about the other person’s point of view as you do talking about your own. Perhaps the person is playing music so late because he or she works two jobs to make ends meet and this is the only time available to study for a history of music course.

Without asking, you’ll never know.

"Go in and remember to inquire as much as you tell your story," said Bruce Patton, the Negotiation Project’s deputy director.

The Harvard Negotiation Project is one of several research projects under the umbrella of the Program on Negotiation at the Law School. The Program on Negotiation is a dispute resolution research center involving Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, and other area schools.

Negotiation Project instructors teach a variety of courses and workshops at Harvard Law School, including a semester-long class on negotiation, weeklong workshops on negotiation and on dispute resolution, and a variety of executive seminars for working business leaders.

"We’re trying to develop theory for practitioners," said Roger Fisher, Negotiation Project director and Samuel Williston Professor of Law Emeritus. "We’re trying to treat negotiations not as a battle, but as a way to settle problems effectively."

The theory behind handling tough conversations is outlined in a book published by Viking Penguin this year on the topic. Called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the book takes readers step-by-step through what the authors – Stone, Patton and Negotiation Project Associate Sheila Heen – believe is a better way to handle such talks.

The subject matter is drawn from the authors’ teaching experience as well as their real-world work resolving disputes in such troubled places as South Africa, Cyprus, and The Citadel, the formerly all-male South Carolina military college that became co-ed in recent years.

The book isn’t the first to come out of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Difficult Conversations complements the 1981 national bestseller Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. The book, by Fisher, William Ury, associate director of the Program on Negotiation, and Patton, has sold more than 2 million copies and is required reading in many law and business schools.

How it Works

Though the problem-solving approach in Getting to YES makes sense to many people, some still shift back to a confrontational stance in certain situations. In examining why, Patton said, Negotiation Project researchers realized that some situations touch a deeper chord within a negotiator, affecting the person’s view of themselves as, for example, "someone who gets things done," or "someone who doesn’t hurt other people."

In those cases, researchers realized, it is helpful for people to draw back and ask themselves why this subject roils their emotions.

As the researchers dug deeper, they began to see patterns and developed a theory for what was happening as well as guidelines on how to handle it.

"If there’s one underlying skill, it’s the ability to see the conflict clearly from our own perspective, clearly from the other person’s perspective, and from the point of view of a third party," Heen said, adding that a "fundamental mistake" we make is drawing conclusions about the other person’s intentions. For example, if the other person says something that hurts our feelings, we conclude that they said it in order to hurt our feelings.

The authors found that a difficult conversation breaks into three parts: the "What Happened" conversation, which deals with facts; the "Feelings" conversation, which deals with the parties’ emotions; and the "Identity" conversation, which deals with how the conversation affects our sense of who we are in the world.

Another bit of advice – don’t aim for perfection. Difficult conversations are tough for a reason, Patton said. Aim for gradual improvement.

"At first, perhaps all you can do is debrief yourself afterward and decide what went wrong," Patton said. "Maybe you shouldn’t so much study [the methods] as practice them."

Tips 1. Approach each conversation as an opportunity to learn about the other person’s point of view. Think "I wonder why they keep doing that?" instead of "I’m sick of them doing that and I’m finally going to tell them so!"

2. Assume that you don’t know what the other person’s motivations are, because chances are, you don’t.

3. Keep facts separate; don’t mix them up with feelings.

4. Discuss your feelings, but without mixing them with intentions or facts. "What you did made me angry," is better than "Why are you contantly trying to upset me?"

5. Look for solutions, not blame.

6. Be honest to yourself about your own motivations and feelings. Ask yourself why you find this conversation difficult. Is it because of similar conversations or situations that went badly in the past?

7. Realize difficult conversations are part of life. They aren’t going to go away, but they can become easier and more constructive.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College