Building State Capability Podcast

Episode 10: Managing Difficult Conversations Effectively

Episode Summary

Solving complex problems often involves engaging in difficult conversations. The most important steps to managing these difficult conversations effectively are inquiring, listening, and empathizing with those around you. Inquiring about other’s point of view, rather than advocating for your own, signals a genuine interest in understanding your counterpart. Active listening then allows you to focus on the other person and make them feel heard in the conversation. This feeling gets us to empathy, where we put ourselves in their shoes to understand exactly where they are coming from. The process of inquiring, listening, and empathizing helps to facilitate resolution in difficult conversations. In this BSC podcast, Salimah Samji interviews Professor Robert Wilkinson, Lecturer in Public Policy & Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Rob shares his insights and guidance on managing difficult conversations effectively and provides examples from his work in development contexts.

Episode Notes

Learn about our Implementing Public Policy Executive Education course and apply today:

Find more information on the Harvard Project on Negotiation:

About Prof. Robert Wilkinson: Robert Wilkinson teaches courses on negotiation and leadership, specializing in team and group dynamics.  He is on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and was previously a faculty member of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Rob successfully supports numerous Fortune 500 companies, major government agencies, international organizations, and charities, helping them to build their negotiation, leadership and team management skills, and to increase their overall effectiveness. He has more than 25 years of experience, in over 50 countries, across the public, private and not-profit sectors.

Non-profit and public sector clients include the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Wildlife Fund, National Urban League, US Postal Service, CARE International, the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the White House, where he trained Presidential Appointees in negotiation, management and leadership.

Corporate clients include companies such as Deloitte, Chevron, IBM, Merck, Fidelity Investments, ExxonMobil, Johnson & Johnson, Bank of America, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thermo Fisher Scientific and many others.

Previously, Rob worked overseas for 15 years, on a variety of international negotiation projects. This included spending three years in Rwanda working with Hutu and Tutsi communities, two years working with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Angola, and 18 months in Laos, consulting on a variety of community development programs. He began his overseas work in Nicaragua, in both Sandinista and Contra areas. His most recent publication is a teaching case based on his work supporting a negotiating team in the Paris Climate Accords.

Rob earned his Masters of Science (MS) from Stanford University, and Bachelors of Science (BS) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Case reference:

Episode Transcription

Managing Difficult Conversations Effectively

Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Building State Capability at Harvard University's podcast series. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:00:12] Solving complex problems often involves engaging in difficult conversations. The most important steps to managing these difficult conversations effectively are inquiring, listening and empathizing with those around you. Inquiring about other's point of view, rather than advocating for your own, signals a genuine interest in understanding your counterpart. Active listening then allows you to focus on the other person and make them feel heard in the conversation. This feeling gets us to empathy where we put ourselves in their shoes to understand exactly where they're coming from. The process of inquiring, listening, and empathizing helps to facilitate resolution in difficult conversations. 

Robert Wilkinson [00:00:52] Influence is really all about starting with understanding the person that you're trying to influence or the group that you're trying to influence. Where are they? How did they think about the issue? What are their experiences and their concerns? 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:01:05] In this BSC podcast, Salimah Samji interviews Professor Robert Wilkinson, Lecturer in Public Policy and Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Rob shares his insights and guidance on managing difficult conversations effectively and provides examples from his work in development contexts. 

Salimah Samji [00:01:24] Welcome, Rob. We're really excited to have you on our podcast. 

Robert Wilkinson [00:01:27] Thank you. Great to be here. 

Salimah Samji [00:01:29] So, Rob, you teach in our Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program, and you teach about difficult conversations. I was wondering if you can share with our listeners - how do you effectively influence people? Right. These are people who are working in implementation. They have to have difficult conversations. How do they think about influence? 

Robert Wilkinson [00:01:50] Great question. And this is something that my colleagues have been looking at for years here at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard. And one of the things they have uncovered with their research is that we all have this tendency to influence other people by trying to convince them why our argument is the best argument. And we're good at marshaling all the data and all the evidence, and we've been rewarded throughout our lives for pushing information at people in the hopes that it will win them over. The research shows it turns out to be one of the least effective strategies. People don't like to be told this is what you should think. So influencing is really all about starting with understanding the person that you're trying to influence or the group that you're trying to influence. Where are they? How do they think about the issue? What are their experiences and their concerns? And once we spend time doing that, only then can we craft a message that has a better chance of actually working for them. So the starting point is not focusing on us in our own case that we're trying to make, but focusing on the people we're trying to influence and understanding them better, which is not our natural way of going about it. 

Salimah Samji [00:02:52] But that's hard! 

Robert Wilkinson [00:02:52] Well, it's really hard, and especially when you deeply disagree about something. It's the hardest thing to do to listen to someone when they're saying things that you think are totally wrong and you can't wait for them to finally stop talking so you can tell them why they're wrong and you're right. 

Salimah Samji [00:03:07] Exactly.

Robert Wilkinson [00:03:08] But I ask people, even in the IPP program, you know, think about when has that worked for you? When have you ever been in a really tough conversation, where they don't see your perspective and you keep hammering away and at some point they say, "You know what, I'm totally wrong. You're totally right." When does that ever happen? And we don't have that experience because that's not how people are persuaded. So the starting point is it takes a little effort but to try and have the discipline to hold on and listen and understand the other side first before making your case. 

Salimah Samji [00:03:36] Are there any tips or tools or ways in which one could do that? 

Robert Wilkinson [00:03:41] Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, one of the things that we talk about in this sort of work is something that we call the distinction between advocacy, which is making statements and telling people things versus inquiry, which is asking questions, genuine curiosity based questions to understand where they're coming from. And we even do some activities we've done with some of the participants about influencing exercise they try to do in the classroom. And afterwards we go back and look at how they manage to try and influence somebody. And almost everywhere I've done this in lots of different countries and different cultures, people's default is advocacy. They make statement after statement after statement. Rarely, though, there's some people who are less common, but they all their starting point is, "Help me understand. What do you mean by that? Say more about that. What are you looking at that I'm not looking at?" Just questions to uncover the perspective of the person they're trying to influence first. And then if you think about it, you know, how else would it work if you were just making statements to persuade someone to do something? You don't know why they're not doing it. You don't know what they're afraid of. Maybe they have a really good reason why they can't do the thing you're asking them to do. So you'll waste their time and your time pushing them to do something instead of first figuring out what their concerns are. And that's just a discipline we have to build up. And we sometimes even have people coach. Let's say you're my coach, Salimah, and I'm in a meeting and I"m going to say, "Listen, why don't you watch how I handle this meeting" and afterwards you tell me, "Listen, you know, Rob, you didn't ask a single question. Why do you think people are going to get on board with you if all you do is tell them your idea is the best idea, you know." So really focusing in on that distinction between making statements and asking questions.

Salimah Samji [00:05:22] Great. I really like that advocacy versus inquiry. Can you share some tips or tools of how do you listen to people? You know, because it's very easy to say I listen and someone may think they're listening, but they're really not listening. How do you listen? 

Robert Wilkinson [00:05:36] That's a great question also. There are lots of courses and books and trainings out there on active listening. And I think from the way we look at it, it's not a set of tricks that you can just teach somebody. You know, some of the more tactical things out there would tell you about leaning forward and nodding at the right time and saying the right time. And, you know, used to be on the edge of your seat. And those are technical, like physical things that are not really what we're talking about when we say listening. Listening, for us, is demonstrating you're making an effort to get to the point where you could explain their argument as well as they can. That's the test that we kind of use, especially when you totally disagree with them. We're not saying that you should give in on your perspective. We're not saying in any way, shape or form you should abandon your principles or values or what you stand for. We're simply saying that people will not respond well typically if they don't believe they've actually been heard by you. And so the good thing about that is if you don't quite get the right words and formulate the question perfectly. If your deeper intention is just to make sure I can understand their argument so I can explain as well as they can. People pick that up. They can see. Whereas if you're asking a question just to look like you're listening, people also pick that up. So it's more of a mental shift than it is a behavioral shift. A mental shift in that step numer one has to be deeply understanding the other person. It's interesting, we have a colleague named Chris Voss. He was the former lead FBI hostage negotiator, and he now teaches negotiation and difficult conversations. And one of the things he said that they're trained in at the academy, I guess in Quantico, is the first thing is listening and understanding. And they don't teach you, "Say these words. Exactly." It's a mindset shift that if I don't know where the mind of the person is, I'm trying to persuade, I'm not going to be able to persuade them. And he actually said something really interesting. He said that he noticed over the years as he was doing a better job of really demonstrating that he was listening, he noticed that hostage takers would say instead of saying, "That's right." They would say, "You're right." So if you're saying like, "If I understand you correctly, is it this, this and this that you're asking for?" And the hostage taker says, "Yeah, that's right. That's right." And he sort of felt like, I'm not really getting there. And they he'd say "So, let me try this again. Are you saying this, that, and the other?" And he'd say, "Yes, you're right." Now he's like, "I got him. He now knows that I understand him." It's not about, you know, how could you disagree with anyone more as a hostage negotiator than a hostage taker? Right? You totally disagree. You're not going to get anywhere until they know that you're working really hard to understand where they're coming from. 

Salimah Samji [00:08:12] Right. It's validating what it is that they're feeling, whether you agree with what it is or not, but at least hearing them. 

Robert Wilkinson [00:08:19] Exactly. Yeah. And you know, when people repeat themselves in a difficult conversation, they keep saying the same thing again and again. And part of you is thinking, you know, I heard you the first 10 times, why do you keep telling me this? The reason often is they don't believe that they have been heard. They know you're sitting there in front of them as they're speaking, but we're not demonstrating to them that we genuinely have heard them, which is why that active listening from a mindset shift is so powerful as opposed to behavioral tricks that people teach you sometimes. 

Salimah Samji [00:08:45] Absolutely. So when one feels heard, what does that do for this difficult conversation? 

Robert Wilkinson [00:08:51] So that's exactly the right question. We're moving into the next step of the process, which is empathy. And so the asking questions instead of making statements leads us into the ability to demonstrate where genuinely working to listen. And that is what gets us to genuine empathy. And empathy is not the same as sympathy. When we say sympathy, you know, "I sympathize with them." We often mean that we share their goals. And, you know, we feel the pain like they would. Aparent sympathizes with their child. Empathy is different - where you could, again, disagree with them, and nevertheless, see the world from their perspective. And until they know that you're trying to see the world from their perspective, they're much less open to hearing your perspective. So this inquiry leading to genuine listening, finally culminating hopefully in genuine empathy. The beauty of the concept of empathy is that human beings and brain science has demonstrated that we know on some level it's impossible to succeed with that task. You cannot succeed totally at empathizing because the only way to fully see the world as they see it would be to be them, to be in their head physically. And we can't do that. So they're looking for the sincere effort of you trying to be in their head. And that's where you achieve empathy, where, you know, sometimes we say, well, when do I get to talk? People ask me, when do I get to talk? When do I get to make my point. Well, the best way for them to hear your point is to finish that full process of deeply listening to their point. So they know you're trying to empathize with them. Guess what they're ready to do now - listen to your point of view, but they are less likely to if you haven't done all that work. One other thing I would just add to that is that we do have a phrase we often use in influence and difficult conversations called "false inquiry." False inquiry is a question that isn't really a question. I think, you know, you've heard that before in your life. You know, we all do this when you say, "Wouldn't it be better if we just did this?" Yeah, it has a question mark at the end, grammatically speaking. But it's not really a question. It's a statement masked as a question. Or, you know, "Can't we all just agree that dot, dot, dot. Surely you can see that data?" They have question marks, but they're not really questions. So I think we can blow it on the empathy front if we try to like trap people and ask leading questions and questions, you already know the answer to. So if it starts and ends with a sense of in the end, can they say that they believe I understand their perspective, then that's where you're most likely to make the breakthrough. 

Salimah Samji [00:11:20] Great. Thank you very much. You speak a lot about identity. What do you mean by identity? 

Robert Wilkinson [00:11:27] Yeah. Identity turns out to be at the heart of almost all difficult conversations. And what we mean by identity is the way that you see yourself in the world. Like every day you come into work or wherever you go, every day, you know, you have a story you tell yourself in your head about who you are in the world. And we have certain values we attach to our identity. Some people believe whatever else about themselves, they're loyal or they're trustworthy or they're hardworking or they're diligent or they're, you know, whatever it is. And then in a conversation that's ostensibly about work or some technical issue or you're back trying to push your policy agenda through your institution, somebody says something or does something that implies that you're exactly the opposite of one of those words. It triggers our identity. It's saying, "Well, wait, you're saying I'm not the person that I put a lot of effort into every day to be? I'm an honest, hardworking, trustworthy person." So if you imply, "I know you said you sent out the message to everybody, but they didn't get it." The implication they're smuggling in with that comment is, "So you are actually not as trustworthy as you claim to be." Right. I was working with a group of scientists. Their identity is wrapped up in technical brilliance and excellence. And so one of the senior researchers told me a little while ago that someone else said in a meeting to him, just send me the raw data. And that comment for someone who is not a scientist, you think, "Oh, you want data? I'll just send it to." But if you're a scientist and they say that, it means, "Thank you very much. I don't trust your intellects to be able to reason through this data. So just send it to me and I'll do the work. The real work." It was a deep identity hit for this scientist because that's everything they stand for - rigor and integrity. So I think we first all have to just recognize we have certain definitions of our own identity, which we don't often stop and think about, to be honest. But once we do, we realize, "Wow, yeah, there's a core set of values that I attach myself to deeply." And then recognize that that's a trigger for all of us if we're gonna go into a difficult conversation. And the temperature is just reduced a little bit, thinking about that in advance. Number one. 

Robert Wilkinson [00:13:27] Number two, recognizing that we all have complex identities. We sometimes like to say, "Nobody is always anything." So if I say, "I'm honest and hardworking and trustworthy, " that's true. Whatever the words you would pick, you are, you know. But does that mean because I'm hard working, that I've never been lazy, you know, in my life. Have I ever watched Netflix or whatever instead of doing the thing I'm supposed to do? We all at times are a little bit like the opposite of that word that we define ourselves as. And that is a massive trigger point for us if we hear it, but we have to just complexify our identity and recognize sometimes we're a little bit of behaviors that add up to a lot of identities and values, and that's normal and that's human and we shouldn't be so all-or-nothing about it in our mind. That's identity. 

Salimah Samji [00:14:19] You work a lot in international development. And I was wondering if you can share some experiences of actually doing this in real time with people with high stakes and what that might have looked like. 

Robert Wilkinson [00:14:32] Absolutely. Yeah. As you said, it comes up every day in individual face to face interactions through groups, through big organizations. We've kind of seen it all. One interesting example was a colleague of ours who was working for the World Health Organization in Nigeria. And what they were trying to do was implement a vaccine campaign to vaccinate children against various illnesses. And they came across a problem because there was a community in Nigeria, it was Muslim dominated community that was very skeptical of him and his presence. And they didn't trust what they were trying to do. And they thought, in fact, at one point they were saying, you know, "There's some Americans that are trying to make us take basically poison." Is the way this translated, this vaccine. At first they tried what I said before, they just pushed more information. "Let me share the data with you, prove that it's trustworthy and whatever." I said to my colleague that, you know, "Understanding what their fear was all about would be the key, not just pushing more information." To make a long story short, after lots and lots of discussions, they realized it was really the source of the information that was the thing they distrusted. So nothing they would say would be persuasive. If they heard it from a different person, they would be persuaded. So they actually went around and met with lots of different groups and they met with the Imam of the region who was completely persuaded. And when he issued a fatwa that said, "You have to be vaccinated if you want to go to Mecca on a pilgrimage," everyone said, "Oh, we'll do that. No problem." As long as he was the messenger, they bought into it. And it was an interesting example of - First, they're resisting us. So second, let's push information at them. Third, wait a minute. That's not going to work. Let's listen to them. And then fourth, based on what they told us, which is they have to hear from a trustworthy source, they changed their strategy and got where they wanted to go in the end. So that was just one example of one region. Another one I would share with you is a really interesting one with The World Wildlife Fund, WWF. I was called and asked if I could help them on a project in the run up to the Paris climate talks. So I worked with this team of people who runs the Forest and Climate Program. Most people don't know that most carbon emissions in the air come from deforestation, actually.More than all the cars and trains and planes combined globaly puts less carbon in the air than actually just destruction of rainforest. And so this team that worked on that question, about 20 people, was blown away by the fact that this wasn't even on the agenda at the Paris Climate Talks. Can you believe that it was everything else, but not forests or rainforests. So this is a dispersed team. It was headquartered in Washington by a young woman named Josephina Brunello, and she was a former Mexican government forest negotiator, who moved to the nonprofit world. So they set up a strategy to try and get forest protection on the agenda at the Paris climate talks. To make a long story short, they used a lot of the principles we just talked about. Going into Paris, not just pushing at everybody as much information as they could about why forests were so important, but trying to first take an inquiry approach. They just asked all of these different groups, different coalitions, "What do you care about? What are you worried about?" And there was a lot of things that they weren't expecting that emerged, including ways to manage the information. Others said, "You know, we would want to take this on. We don't know how we would even manage the information. We have information overload. We don't know how to incorporate it into strategy." So they realized, they could turn themselves into consultants to advise the decision-makers on how to manage their information, their thinking, their processes. And they got so well received for that that they got a seat at the table. And at one point, she had a seat at the table with Prince Charles, who funds a lot of this work. And it was so persuasive and demonstrating that she'd thought about everyone else's perspectives as well, not just her own, that they ended up winning the day and getting not only forests in the final agreement of the Paris Climate Accords, but the 80 page summary of the thousands of pages in the final document, the 80 page summary, they got it on that. And then the five page communique of the overall summary of Paris, they managed to log forests in that claim using basically all the approaches we're talking about. 

Salimah Samji [00:18:30] That's incredible. From not even being on the table to making it through to the five pages. That's really an incredible story.

Robert Wilkinson [00:18:36] And it's worth pointing out, some of our students here think, "Well we look at cases of CEOs and heads of state and whatever." She wasn't even one of most senior people in one nonprofit of the World Wildlife Fund and still had a massive influence. So I like that story because maybe we don't have heads of state and Four-Star Generals always. It's sometimes just someone who's in a team try to do something important. And you don't have to be the highest point of the organigram to have a massive influence across the organization. 

Salimah Samji [00:19:03] That's a really, really important point - that it doesn't matter where you are. You can have influence. 

Robert Wilkinson [00:19:08] We think of leadership as exerting influence from any level. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. 

Salimah Samji [00:19:13] Great. Thank you so much, Rob. This has been a real delight. 

Robert Wilkinson [00:19:16] Thank you so much for having me. Great to chat with you. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:19:20] To learn more about the Building State Capability Program, visit