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Difficult Conversations and the Harvard Negotiation Project

Difficult Conversations and the Harvard Negotiation Project

When did the Harvard Negotiation Project begin focussing on the idea of difficult conversations?



Full Transcript

So, when I showed up there in 1990 – dating myself – we were teaching from ‘Getting to Yes.’ Roger Fisher was running the programme. People were coming and taking our courses from all over the word for the exec ed. as well as the regular graduate students.


Periodically they’d come back and they’d say, ‘Hey, I just want to tell you how I’m using this great approach and focusing on interests and creating options. Whether I’m a negotiator or I’m a mediator, this is incredibly helpful and let me tell you about the impact it’s having.’


But every once in a while, people would come back and say, ‘You know, your approach is very helpful in many ways, but there are some conversations I’m in where, when I try to use your approach, it’s not working. In fact, I think it might be making things worse.’


Harvard being Harvard, we had a reaction that I think was typical, which is, ‘Well, if our theory isn’t working for you, obviously there’s something wrong with you.’ [inaudible 00:06:49].


‘You probably need a remedial course or maybe you need to hire us as consultants and we’ll come and show you how it’s done.’ But eventually we kind of came to our senses and thought, ‘Maybe there’s something different about particularly challenging conversations.’


‘Getting to Yes’ talks about separating the people from the problem.


In these cases, it’s seems the people were the problem. Often, there’s a lot of history involved. We don’t trust each other enough to have an open conversation about interests. We feel like we’re really backed into a corner and it’s not my fault that I’m backed into a corner. It’s your fault because you’re impossible.


We just start inviting people to bring in their toughest conversations and we started to take them apart to understand, ‘Okay, so what’s getting people stuck and why is it so hard to make any progress?’ And what ‘Difficult Conversations’ captured, what we learned over the course of about ten years – it took us a very long time, very slow learners – to feel like we had it right or close enough to right that you could actually pick up that book and use the approach and it would help you get somewhere, in your own difficult conversations.

About the mediator

Sheila Heen Mediator Harvard

Sheila is an experienced negotiator and mediator and a Founder of Triad Consulting Group. Sheila is also a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and has spent the last twenty years with the Harvard Negotiation Project, developing negotiation theory and practice. She specializes in particularly difficult negotiations – where emotions run high and relationships become strained. Sheila is co-author of the New York Times Business Bestsellers Dif... View Mediator