Sheila Heen — How to Navigate Hard Conversations, the Subtle Art of Apologizing, and More | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "Sheila Heen — How to Navigate Hard Conversations, the Subtle Art of Apologizing, and More".
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Hey everyone, just a quick note. She listened to me a short audio note after our conversation, which I am going to share at the end of this episode with her permission. It has a 60-day challenge/experiment/mission for me and my girlfriend, and all of that will make sense after you listen to the interview. And my hope is that it will also help a lot of you listening to this conversation. So make sure to stick around after the end of the episode to listen to the details of that 60-day challenge. And without further ado, please enjoy. 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, this S-H-E-I-L-A-H-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 will end up exploring. But back to the bio. In the public sector, she has provided training for the New England Oregon Bank, the Singapore Supreme Court, the Obama White House, and theologians struggling with disagreement over the nature of truth in God. We will almost certainly come back to that. Sheila is co-author of the New York Times best-sellers, difficult conversations, subtitle, "How to Discuss What Matters Most," and thanks for the feedback. Subtitled, "The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well," and then "Printheses," even when it's off-base, "Unfair, Poorly Delivered," and "Frankly, You're Not in the Mood," and "Printheses." She has written for the Harvard Business Review in 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 linked in. Sheila, welcome to the show.
Sheila'S Approach To Difficult Conversations
How did Sheila enter the scene? (02:36)
I am so delighted to be here. I thought we would start with the forward of difficult conversations which is written by Roger Fisher. Could you please describe for us who Roger was? 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 theatres. He was actually a weatherman. So they would send up a plane. They didn't have weather satellites, right? So they send up a weather plane to check out the weather over Germany, and then that, were they 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. You would point to names and say, oh, this guy was so funny. And this guy was just the most generous person I had 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, maybe 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. That'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. So you mentioned entering the scene. How did you enter the scene with respect to negotiation and conflict resolution? Well, it was funny because 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 they didn't get into Yale, which is to have 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, you know, 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. What did you love about it? I think partly that it was so interdisciplinary. So when we're trying to understand something, we're reaching in all directions, right? 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. So when listeners hear the phrase difficult, or I suppose term, I'll put some 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.
Her writing the Harvard negotiation paper that became a third year requirement. (07:37)
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. Yeah, let's start there. Well, on the business side, I will say that difficult conversations come at you from every direction, right? They're with your subordinates, with your peers, with your boss, with your partners and vendors, etc. And often you see them coming down the pike or you're wondering whether to have them. But everyone saw how they ambush you kind of out of nowhere. And I think that's what happened to me that day in Los Angeles. So I, 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 I had to go 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, you know, we're all probably familiar with. And then I was, 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 upsetting and vile racist stuff. And my mind is completely blanked out on exactly what he said. But I do recall that I had never, you know, 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? 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 and thinking about it. It has stuck with me all these years. It wasn't aimed at me. Clearly, I'm white. And yet it stuck with me so viscerally that I ended up writing my third year paper about it. So to graduate from Harvard Law School, that time you needed to do a pretty big research paper during the 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? What was I? 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 TS 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 and wrestling with some of those same questions. So I want to bring in a third player, so to speak. There are many different types of difficult conversations.
The same underlying structure of difficult conversations, regardless of content. (12:34)
And then I'm going to ask about how to tie them together. Theologians struggling with disagreement over the nature of truth in 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 is the same underlying structure. What do you mean by that? What ties these things together? How are they similar? 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 truth, nature of truth and God. And I got that all figured out now. So nice, nice. I look forward to reading that book. Yeah, exactly. Well, I'm not going to tell you guys. I mean, come on. Yeah, I actually, I should pause there because there's one of the theologians, Dominic said something so profound in the nature, 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 1000 watt souls. But as human beings, we only have 40 watt bulbs that 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 in 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 respond to. Oh, 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. Yeah. Well, 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 like eight or 10 or 12 different types of difficult conversations, right? And 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 is probably a volume unto itself. And so we'll just figure out what those different types of conversations are. That implies conversations with your teenager. Fair enough. That is fair enough. So, or conversations where you're listening to anything you say, it's a one-sided conversation. So, we'll just figure out what those different types of conversations are and we'll have a chapter about each.
These mental burdens exist at all levels of a difficult conversation (16:53)
And this is great because people buy books with titles like that. And so this is 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 voice is 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 our 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 are like, 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. No, 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. A second is that we're, by the time somebody 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 by the time even in business, by the time somebody 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 that deeper problem is going to turn up in a different form, right next week or next month. So you've got what happened in 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. 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. That's right. And so here's a simple example. For people who have trouble saying no, well, that doesn't seem that hard, just 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 all, you know, would never abandon a friend in need. Well, if that's true, then anytime 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, right? The guy in the office next door has no trouble saying no to everybody, which of course, why everybody comes to you? Because I 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. 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?
A gameplan for successful rethinking: Start by asking the right questions (22:02)
Yeah, it's like the underlying structure of any difficult conversation in the world. So once you have that extra 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? Yeah. So I think that they that structure mostly serves as landmarks. So I think that the way that we often will, well, if you're like me, prepare, quote unquote, prepare for a difficult conversation is that we lie awake worrying about it. And maybe we turn on the light and jot down a few talking points, right? And then we think about how they're going to react. And then we think about our rebuttals, right, 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, etc. 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, right? 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. Decision tree fallen. You're not following the script. And so I think the reason that landmarks, 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, oh, 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 an 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.
Good vs. bad questions. (25:15)
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? Yeah. 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. Like 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 is like, 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 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. So if everyone's reasonably dysregulated, let's just imagine. Just imagine a world. 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 sort of down regulate that and get to curiosity? And you already gave perhaps a few examples, but any other thoughts on how to language that? My guess is that you're familiar with the research by John Gottman up in Seattle. I have some familiarity. But please provide an overview. Yeah, well, an overview, just a connection to the question that you just asked. So 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, hook some up to heart monitors and video tapes and all of that. And 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% accuracy, whether they'll divorce within three or five years. So 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 a 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. So 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. And 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. And 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. She's a treasure. She is a treasure. And what is she called? Laughter is carbonated. Holiness. 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. And so it's an invitation to just name what's happening. It's like a meta move.
Humor as a deescalation hack and a chance to level-set. (30:36)
So for instance, with my husband, who also teaches negotiation, by the way, so. Love to be a fly on the wall for some of those. Yeah, you can imagine. So we fight about how we fight. Like, yeah, we usually have this is like my friends, kids, my friends are a therapist, and their kids are like, stop, they're advising me. Exactly. Exactly. So we're like, yeah, you're not listening. Oh, a little more difficult conversations. Yeah. So that's the fact we have. Let's stop putting your bat in my face. That's right. That's best alternative to negotiated agreement, folks, inside joke. Yes. Yeah, exactly. That was very nice inside baseball joke. Yeah, waving your bat around in a romantic relationship is not usually a successful strategy. You know, there are a lot of people who would find me very appealing. But 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, etc. So as things escalate, you're ability to just name that underlying dynamic sometimes makes the other person laugh, right? And you can step out of it for a moment. And 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 under like genuinely help me understand that. Or I'm not understanding what you're most worried about here. That often helps. And 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. So 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, right? But from where I sit, I can only see some of the pieces of the puzzle. You have the other pieces of the puzzle. And we don't really putting those pieces on the table for discussion is how we figure out what we have to work with. And 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. Can I just say, this is, 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. And 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, right? That is something that someone could copy and paste and use themselves.
Asking questions (33:59)
I mean, I just took notes because it's a non automatic sort of pattern interrupt, if that makes sense. Whereas, and I'll own it, I have a history of some degree of fire. Although I've 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? Right. But the tone and the brevity of the question, everything about the delivery is not a question. Like, for fuck's sake, why are we doing this again? That is really what I'm saying. What is wrong with you? That is 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. So, 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. I mean, 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 and 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's the light?" And he says, "It's green." I said, "Well, Ben, we're stopped at the light. What color's 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 kids seemed bright in most other ways. So I just thought, what is going on with him? My first hypothesis is maybe he's colorblind, which then that would be my husband's fault. At least I thought at the time it was my husband's fault. I since went informed. It would have been my fault. So I start collecting data. I'm running a little scientific experiment of my own. So I started 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. But it wasn't until this one 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 backseat 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, the windshield, right? Windscreen. So 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 bright in most other ways, but she's just wrong about this." And 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. And 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 doesn't make any sense at all. It's just so easy to dismiss it and move on rather than to say, "Oh, okay, that 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 side swipe you because they're closer to the customer. They're closer to suppliers, etc. And 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. And the idea that I've been missing things all these years and not seen things that have been systematically unjust, like violates my sense of identity. And I feel ashamed. And 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. Now in a situation, whether it's, I mean, it could be any context, right? 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.
Mapping the ladder of inference (39:02)
Yes. Yeah. 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? Yeah. Yeah. In chapter two, we talk about a tool that actually comes from colleagues of ours at the business school, at Harvard Business School, so an MIT, Don Schern and Chris Argers, criticism and called the latter of inference. And it just maps the way that our brains take in and process information. So at the bottom of the latter is sort of all the data, all of the things we can directly experience. And so 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 latter is what's available to me and what's available to others. And some data won't be available. I wasn't there when you had the conversation with a board member or whatever. Right. So you have information I don't. At the first rung of the latter up, it's of the data available to us, we each select a tiny sliver of it to pay attention to. And 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. And 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. And 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 latter 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. So 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? And then that tells me why it helps me to put those 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.
A statement against interest and joint contribution. (42:39)
I don't know if this is an opportunity time. It's not an in-opportunity time to ask you what is meant by a statement against interest? Statement against interest? What is that? And how does one potentially use it? So a statement against interest is telling you something that if I was completely self-interested, I would not admit that that last answer was a little bit rambly and confusing. But if you have the latter and you can, if you have the illustration, it's much easier to explain. So 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 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. And joint contribution assumes, look, we each did things and they might have 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. And so a statement against interest is I might own my contribution upfront. 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 upfront, which is often avoiding or delaying a conversation is a 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. Are there other examples you might be able to share in doing homework for this conversation?
Why apologies often fail to hit the mark. (45:03)
You mentioned apologies. Certainly there are good and bad apologies. Yes, there are. 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 that I'm definitely not winning any gold medals at the moment. Well, can we dig into that? Yeah, sure. Now you're sorry. You brought it up, aren't you? Tell me more about how you think about apologies and what makes one good or bad, effective or actually ineffective. Well, obviously this is timely for me. So 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. My apologies are amazing. They're fucking amazing. I didn't want to be too strong. You should be much more appreciative of how good that apology was. Right. I'd like to thank the Academy. So I think I'm honestly simply not seeing what in this case my partner is seeing. And 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 does have a certain intensity or volume that the words really just don't matter. So there is some just regulation that I think needs training on my side. So the message is not that you're sorry. It's that will this apology make this end? 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. It means we can be done. If we can just move on to something else and stop this particular conversation. Oh, that's such a great insight. Yeah, I and, yeah, I'm not totally knuckle-dragger about it. I do think after reading all these books and 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 maybe we both view as an issue, if that makes any sense. Yeah. Yeah. I just generally don't operate with that as my primary lens. So those are some of the things that contribute. Sometimes I use it, right? 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. We are all in the remedial class, honestly. But I was just sort of chuckling to myself because your frame was the apology works. 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. Yeah. 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? Yeah. 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, 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. And 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 contribute 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. And maybe those are the two key elements to an effective apology. If you were to give me the crutches and walk me through this, any suggestions for wording and languaging this and also if I'm reflecting on everything we're talking about, 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 dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, which is the sort of counterpunch of, or not counterpunch, or justification, or this is why I think this is ever 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 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 where I get, 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.
If you still feel unsatisfied after 15 minutes, you might need this... (52:21)
Well, 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. Okay. Maybe you do, 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, is not just, you might have done a great job of acknowledging her or the impact on her, finally, 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, right? It might be that you feel she also contributed to this, and you haven't, you don't feel like she's taken responsibly 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. And that's the wrestling. I mean, John Gottman and his marriage studies suggest 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, I 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. The 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 her, 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 sort of 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?
Navigating Difficult Personal Conversations
The script for the very uncomfortable evening right before bed. (54:30)
I think those are all pieces of it. And I'll give you a little bit more of the script. So if you were like, Tim, give me your script for the very uncomfortable evening right before bed. Like, what's the perfect recipe? 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? Yes. 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 you know, I don't feel complete for these following reasons. And if 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 fairy tale is not a nightmare being dramatic. But then I will say I don't need nor am I asking for an apology. Right. So like, that's not on me. Okay, wait, wait, this this may or may not have happened recently. So it's very fresh in the mind. Yes. So wait, wait, tell rather than telling us about it, would you be willing to play both roles? Say what she says. I can try. 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? She's actually very, very diplomatic and has generally speaking incredible emotional regulation. So she will, when it goes well, I would or when it is when it goes better, I would say she will ask something like, could we have could we set a time to talk for a little bit? And then we set a time. Okay, so hold on. When she says I'll be her, can we set a time to talk? And then what do you yet right? You say sure, what are you thinking to yourself and feeling? Oh, shit. Here we go. Yeah, exactly. Good. But but but but that's that's okay. That's okay. No, I'm not saying that that's bad. Yeah. It's just that yes, of course, and then you're already worried about it is part of what we're exploring. So yeah, I mean, I think I'm but I think I'm avoidant in that way. Or I'm just like, God, life is busy enough. Like, I don't I don't want to deal with this right now. But but I'll set a time and we will set a time we'll figure out a time.
Thoughts on winding down conversations in Tim's love life (58:00)
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? Like this this could go indefinitely. I get very agitated. Yeah. Or I make myself very agitated just to own the state. Okay. If it comes up spontaneously, then I'm already kind of looking for the exits. 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. Is that you fill in the blank because you wanted or couldn't stand blank, blank, blank, is that what the story sounds like? Yeah. Or you 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 my input isn't important. I'm making that up. But that's the general template. Yep. Yeah. Could be a real example. And what do you feel when she says that? It depends on the instance. So I would say that there are sometimes when I immediately feel badly and I recognize that she's right. Totally. Totally. I was just a dink. I was like, I was busy or over caffeinated, under slept. Who knows? Maybe all of the above. 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, like I gotta, I gotta like nip this in the bud with this camp go on for an hour and a half. Yeah, exactly. Where I will. Let's see. What would I say? I might say something like, I'll tell you what's going through my head just to give you a window into it. Let's go out. So what I'm, 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 like, I made myself agitated. Right? Yeah. Because there are people, friends of mine, for instance, like my friend Matt Mullenweg, who's he's like the Buddha sitting on a lotus flower in the middle of a hail storm at any given time. Like he's so calm. I don't think he would respond the way that I did. So I want to own that there are probably choices and maybe some genetics, but involved. So 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 that came off as A/B or C. I'll say something like that. And if I just stopped there, it would probably be fine. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you can't quite leave well enough alone. Because what feels unfinished? Well, what feels unfinished is I generally operate in a world with people who have 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 you are very, most of my closest friends are very thick skin. 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 like a 20 second conversation into 20 minute conversation. And fatigue is something that I have grappled with my whole life. I can 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've 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 and Helen Hendricks and Mago 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, light touch. Like actually, I heard what I wanted to say. Yeah. If you thought what I said was harsh, it was much less harsh than what I wanted to say. Yeah. That's sort of the script. Totally. 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. Like that's not what I'm saying. No. But I am convinced that these exchanges very often end up feeling unfinished and presenting sort of a bitter aftertaste for us with some regularity. It's not all the time. Like I think overall, we're doing a really good job as a couple and doing all the stuff. But we're kind of meeting things head on and I don't think we're avoiding much. Nonetheless, these exchanges I find very draining. Yeah. So. Well, I can imagine any words of wisdom would be most appreciated. And because like one option is if I just want to preserve the piece, if I just want to, if I just want her to feel better, then I won't share my side. Right. But then I just sit there see things. I'm like, Hey, why the fuck do we do this right before bed? B. Now I get to sit here. And like 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 like self censoring in that way is just it's not an option for me. Yeah, it's very corrosive. So that's that being example. Yeah, that's a great example. Compan out. There's so much.
Communicating across different sensitivity thresholds (01:05:00)
There's so much that we could 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 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, like how 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 up 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, I can't believe you brought this up right for 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. Yeah. But you know from experience that if you share the assertiveness part, you're back in for the next four rounds, yeah, which is exhausting. And if I were you, I would be flooded that whole time just emotionally, like adrenaline, cortisol, etc, which is not helpful right before bed. Not helpful. And it's hard. So you're 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, who I adore, she and I had a really interesting conversation last year about growing up in households where there is yelling and criticism, etc, 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.
Constructing positive meaning from negative experiences (01:07:12)
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 experienced games 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 time to get upset by smaller things. Yeah, I think with just athletic coaching and general feedback, not so much for my parents, but most of the training that I've done, I actually not just tolerate, but do really well with firm coaching. Like I, I, not abusive, but like I like direct because it's fast. Yeah. 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. Yeah. So the meaning, yeah.
Receiving feedback (01:08:37)
Yeah, both in receiving feedback. So the meaning that you each make of a tough, harsh, curt, whatever exchange is really, really different. Yeah. And this is true, by the way, it's true with my husband who, when 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, it was three floors. So like a condo, tall condo. And he would yell at the stairs, "Hey, stink bug." That's what he called my sister Stacy. Stink bug. Get down here and take care of your damn dish. And like, that was so not my reaction. My reaction is pick up the dish, feel resentful, put it in the dishwasher and sieve. So 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. So, 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. Yeah. So, where do you go from there? 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, like this is the story I make up. Yeah, she's very good at it. Yeah. Really good at it. And with that, she's buying space to dump her internal voices of the conversation. Yeah. She's saying why you're doing what you're doing. It sounds like as part of it, usually. You don't care. You made a lot of decisions, because you don't think about me. Right. And I might suggest that if she focused more on the impact on her, rather than why you were doing what you were doing, even though she says this is a story I make up, this is a story I make up about why you're a horrible person. Right. 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.
Where meaning creation may be derailing their conversation (01:10:54)
Yeah. Right. So, she's doing a good job of caveatting it to say like, 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. Yeah, it's a good point. So, you're basically flooded and her story about you is sort of the worst possible version. At least it is when it's me. You're selfish and a jerk and don't care about me. On the back end, 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. Yeah. 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. Or there's a part of me that wonders whether this is going to work because I don't know if I can, I do feel like I'm walking on eggshells. And like, I think we got to figure that out. Yeah. So whatever it is, that's the part that won't let you sleep. Yeah, the giving voice to the heart is a good suggestion. And for people who don't understand the reference just quickly, so IFS internal family systems founded by Richard Schwartz. He may be Dick Schwartz. Dick Schwartz, yeah. 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 Don't 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.
Strategies For Positioning In Conversations
First second and third positioning (01:14:18)
It's kind of announcing the players on the stage before the players start talking. Yeah, there's a way in which you're stepping to what we would call the third position, like to a balcony to name what's going on. Can you say more about that? Third position? 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, etc. 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 above the fray and name what's happening? Like 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. Like 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'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 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 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 different kinds of ands.
The You-Me-Me-Me (01:16:31)
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 you know lateral 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 which 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 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 our whole bundle of conflicting and mixed feelings and sometimes sorting them out and I think this is part of what Dick Schwartz is is helping people do with IFS which is to sort out the parts of them that feel differently so it's not just a soupy murky mess yes I love you and I'm mad at you right now yeah yeah we sometimes give people two chairs and like 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 you know that negates the first statement yeah they say that is the greater racer so it feels like the first part is just easing in the second part is what this is really about when in fact often it both things are equally true which is why and helps so I have to ask and this is not meant to provide myself with supporting evidence for my lesser behaviors but if it happens to that wouldn't be terrible but if it incidentally had that effect I wouldn't cry about it did the hey stink bug get come down here and clean your dishes did that work um yes it did because john's reputation in my family is like and and with most people who know him is you know he's got some rough edges he likes to be a little bit provocative you once you get to know him and understand his like really beautiful generous heart and that'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 sort of hear it and make meaning of it as it is actually intended so you're saying set expectations this is important 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 who grew up in i stand on the other side vis-a-vis my co-author and business partner um his name is Doug Stone Doug is much more sensitive than i am
Marcys Dynamics with Dough Stone (01:20:04)
and so i have the fun of feeling frustrated at house density sometimes and we've been i mean we've been very close friends and collaborators um 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 just gonna i'm going to erase you from my favorites 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 like it would have to be so bad to get it out on 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 you know like an hour later i'll call him and he's like why are you calling me we're not friends anymore um i'm like what are you you're like it's just Tuesday again i know we do this once a week i mean it actually is relatively rare but but i'm still thinking like what are you talking about like of course we're frustrated with each other that's normal and we'll figure it out like 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 like good friends can be can talk it through and the meaning he makes it of it is good friends don't have fights so what do you say what do you and you've known each other for so long maybe maybe you skip the pleasantries uh the the formalities but what do you what do you say after one of these flare-ups what would your best self say my best self 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 um my best self when she shows up does tend to start with what i think i've contributed to the problem and how do you introduce that which is often that i get when i get frustrated i the place i tend to go
How to own emotional reactions (01:22:15)
is like bossy dictatorial like look this is just we don't time for this this is what we're going to do and as a oldest sister it's really a strength of mine to be bossy when people say i'm boss 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 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 um and by the way we're we're reworking difficult conversations now like as we speak um we're doing a third edition so i've got my my book here with all my notes and markups and look at that what have we learned since what didn't we include what's missing etc 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 making letting it be messy again where we don't see the way out from a writing point of view makes me very anxious 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 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 got to throw out the 10 you 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 of 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 problem stuff going on that i'll be willing to own and that usually one of the strongest norms in the literature the research literature is is reciprocity so if i attack you you're going to attack me back yeah 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 uh 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 uh with that be possible rather than ambushing me but you don't add the last rather than ambushing me part one approach that i've read about this is 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 maybe give an example or just elaborate yeah yeah i think that that's and actually we dig into this a little bit more in the feedback book the feedback book has a chapter on relationship for the feedback 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 is 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 yeah it's there is no target that can become defensive right it's objectified in a way 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 hmm could you speak to blame absorbers versus blame shifters and maybe there are some other categories i don't know but those two yeah so our one of our observations is that if when you make the shift from blame to
Blame absorbers vs. blame shifters (01:27:42)
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 quote unquote wrong and therefore the question is how should they be punished and you know occasionally punishment is formal like they're fired but more often punishment is informal who's in the dog house who has to make it up to who who has to apologize and if we're going to so it's 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 the problem 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 went on a little bit of a tangent which is background for your original question you want to state your question well i was just going to ask if a sort of perverse maybe that's a strong word but an exaggeration of that is the blame absorber 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 fingers at themselves like i should have 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 you know my kid wouldn't put their shoes on because zoom wasn't working correctly etc 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 the 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 yeah 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 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 my my i don't think you were really responsible for the weather although she told me recently we were talking about this and she said oh i'm 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 and takes responsibility and being the bad guy and so it's a stable system until it's not yeah 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 if you can't fix this by yourself you can't be the hero and fix something by yourself you 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 and i think this is related to those roles of hero villain victim yeah yeah for sure do you want to speak to that yeah i was just in the back of my mind i was thinking about the ways that these two things overlap which i have a thing about recently because the hero is often an absorber who says you know i'm
The drop-off on the pyramid (01:32:42)
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 you know the 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 the difference between us nobody is the villain here or nobody's the problem yeah and for people who want more context on this one option might be a podcast episode i did with Jim Detmer d t h m e r and i think i'm sh he likely refers to this from someone else i can't remember the originator maybe you do but the drama triangle yeah the drama triangle and puts these three perspectives into practice for problem solving and his website is i think it's conscious dot is or something along those lines but if you look up the conscious leadership group and Jim Detmer i'm 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 don't i i do not have much of a flair at least not intentionally for the theatrical my girlfriend would probably disagree yeah yeah but 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 therapist i find it incredibly hard yeah it can be really hard it's 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 of that this is 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 um as a third party you can hear all of that and you can also hear oh i hear someone playing the victim role here that in storytelling human storytelling often those three roles show up right any disney movie is going to have a hero a villain and a victim we're set of victims yeah and we each can fall into those roles and how we tell our own stories as well so if you want to get better at this often listening to other people's stories and asking them questions about well what 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 patterns actually we each actually might be right we're just talking past each other right your girlfriend might be right that she well clearly she's right that she felt hurt or overlooked or this isn't how she would like to be whatever talk to etc 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 for me 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 yeah so i think the challenges that in our own conflicts it can be so much harder to see yeah 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 yeah 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 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 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 oh that's beautiful yeah i also find it sometimes useful that useful if i think how in the world did they tell this story can i tell their perspective putting them in the hero role yeah because they do feel like they're the hero of their own story in most cases
Closing Remarks And Additional Insights
Rashomon and Shattered Glass (01:38:22)
have you ever seen that's an old movie it's an Akira Kurosau film raschomon yes it's wonderful if anyone listening has not seen raschomon 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 it's a beautiful beautiful film it's a beautiful film i'll add one more film if you're curious about hero villain victims which is please shattered glass never heard of it so it's about steven glass who made up those articles he wrote for the new republic was that it i can't recall so it's always a big scandal and Hayden christianson was he the guy who played anakin might remember my more of an episode four kind of guy so it could very well be but that actor the actor that actor of course i brought up a movie that now i can't remember clearly to describe but the the point of it is that he steven 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 don't why are you being so mean why are you doubting him of course this is true you know 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 shattered glass do you come away feeling depressed is it a beautiful but downer of a movie what should people be emotionally prepared for i came away feeling fascinated got it 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 was who started to be suspicious and ask harder questions and demand to see his notes and why weren't you know tell me when this happened they cast him as the bad guy huh 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
Parting thoughts (01:41:17)
the bad guy yeah and it causes me to not want to have conversations sometimes well 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 uh we have many more things we could speak about oh yes yes for sure 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 kind of poking at from it's at oblique angles thanks for the feedback the science and art of receiving feedback well your consulting group is triad consulting group which people can find at triad consulting group.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 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 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 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 such a beautiful and rewarding open door so for everybody that 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 if that's if that's where we live together in our relationship like I'm there I'm totally there well Sheila this has been so much fun and very helpful I took a lot of notes there are many things I'll be following up on and maybe some some lines that I'll rehearse later in the
Closing thoughts (01:43:37)
mirror like before I go on stage into this evening 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 thank you 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 in that episode this episode will pop right up and until next time measure twice cut once with those harsh words do some thinking nice try to take the third position and thanks for tuning in hi tim it's Sheila you know 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 you know 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
Sheilas extra insights (01:44:47)
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 and you know particularly given Gottman's research about you know 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 like 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 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 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 when 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 and I'm really interested and then I would love to you know 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 is totally I totally support I love that about how you support that with her but also and then I'll add like 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 oh 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 oh yes awesome I can't wait and 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 we're going to keep that metaphor and at the end of 60 days to 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
Timing In Relationship Talks
Timing your relationship talks (01:51:01)
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 six-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 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 you you you you