32. Prepping for Difficult Conversations

Greetings from Kim Leary and Mike Wheeler, co-hosts of Agility at Work. And for our latest episode, we’re co-authors of this description of our latest episode.

It’s Kim here at the top, introducing our guest Sheila Heen, who teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School, and offers training and consulting through Triad Consulting Group. This is an encore appearance with us for Sheila. Last year she joined us to discuss her book Thanks for the Feedback!, co-authored with Doug Stone.

This time she describes an exercise—a very imaginative one—that she’s developed to help her students to prepare for difficult conversations. Running the numbers and reading the small print is important, of course, but it’s not nearly enough. You have to be emotionally ready, too.

What strikes me is how this exercise could be easily adapted for use in prepping for tough conversations in the real world. I’ll pass the authorial baton over to Mike, as he knows about this firsthand. (Sheila recruited him to play the cranky, impatient, thin-skinned, distracted guy.)

Mike here. Thanks for the intro, Kim. You were kind not to say that I was well cast for the role.

I’ve been teaching negotiation for a long time, but Sheila’s exercise taught me a lot about making experiential learning really stick. First, as you’ll hear, Sheila had her students converse with someone other than a classmate. I’m sure that made the experience more realistic—and more of a challenge.

Second, she staged it in an office of sorts, sitting behind a desk that served as a formidable barrier, between me and the trainees. Plus she provided me with a backstory that explained why the character I was playing was in such a foul mood.

Third, she videoed the conversations so that students could review their performance and get coaching. They also got to observe other students struggling with the challenges I put forth.

You’ll hear more in this episode. Does it take time and effort to pull together something like this? Yep. But where the stakes are high and a relationship is strained, investing in emotional preparation is well worth it.