How to Make Sure You’re Heard in a Difficult Conversation

I'm honored to host this excerpt from Amy Gallo's new book, HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work.  Amy is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and a wise woman. 


How to Make Sure You’re Heard in a Difficult Conversation

Your words matter.

A difficult conversation has to be a two-way street. You’re unlikely to come to a resolution if you don’t hear the other person out. But equally important when addressing a conflict is getting your message across. So after you’ve thoroughly listened to your counterpart, increase the likelihood that they will see things your way by doing the following.

Own your perspective

If you feel mistreated, you may be tempted to launch into your account of the events: “I want to talk about how horribly you treated me in that meeting.” But that’s unlikely to go over well.

Instead, treat your opinion like what it is: your opinion. Start sentences with “I,” not “you.” Say “I’m annoyed that this project is six months behind schedule,” rather than “You’ve missed every deadline we’ve set.” This will help the other person see your perspective and understand that you’re not trying to blame him.

Explain exactly what is bothering you and follow up by identifying what you hope will happen. You might say, “I appreciate your ideas, but I’m finding it hard to hear them because throughout this process, I’ve felt as if you didn’t respect my ideas. That’s my perception. I’m not saying that it’s your intention. I’d like to clear the air so that we can continue to work together to make the project a success.”

Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You, says that you should admit blame when appropriate. “It’s easy to demonize your colleague. But you’re almost certainly contributing to the dynamic in some way, as well,” Clark says. Admitting your faults will help set a tone of accountability for both of you, and your counterpart is more likely to own up to her missteps as well. If she doesn’t, and instead seizes on your confession and harps on it—“That’s exactly why we’re in this mess”—let it go.

Pay attention to your words

Sometimes, regardless of your good intentions, what you say can make the issue worse. Other times you might say the exact thing that helps the person go from boiling mad to cool as a cucumber. Here are some phrases that can help make sure you’re heard:

  • “Here’s what I’m thinking.”
  • “My perspective is based on the following assumptions . . .”
  • “I came to this conclusion because . . .”
  • “I’d love to hear your reaction to what I just said.”
  • “Do you see any flaws in my reasoning?
  • “Do you see the situation differently?”

There are some basic rules you can follow to keep from pushing your counterpart’s buttons. Of course you should avoid name-calling and finger-pointing.

Your language should be “simple, clear, direct, and neutral,” says Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate. Don’t apologize for your feelings, either. The worst thing you can do “is to ask your counterpart to have sympathy for you,” she says. Don’t say things like “I feel so bad about saying this” or “This is really hard for me to do,” because it takes the focus away from the problem and toward your own neediness. While this can be hard, this language can make your counterpart feel obligated to focus on making you feel better before moving on.

Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, provides two additional rules when it comes to what you say:

  • Say “and,” not “but.” “When you need to disagree with someone, express your contrary opinion as ‘and.’ It’s not necessary for someone else to be wrong for you to be right,” she says. When you’re surprised to hear something your counterpart has said, don’t interject with a “But that’s not right!” Just add your perspective. Davey suggests something like this: “You think we need to leave room in the budget for a customer event, and I’m concerned that we need that money for employee training. What are our options?” This will engage your colleague in problem solving, which is inherently collaborative instead of combative.
  • Use hypotheticals. Being contradicted doesn’t feel very good, so don’t try to counter each of your counterpart’s arguments. Instead, says Davey, use hypothetical situations to get him imagining. “Imagining is the opposite of defending, so it gets the brain out of a rut,” she says. She offers this example: “I hear your concern about getting the right salespeople to pull off this campaign. If we could get the right people . . . what could the campaign look like?”

Watch your body language

A lot of people unconsciously convey nonverbal messages. Are you slumping your shoulders? Rolling your eyes? Fidgeting with your pen? During your conversation, pay attention to your facial expression, arms, legs, and entire body, and take stock of the overall impression you’re giving.

Do the same for your counterpart. If her nonverbal cues are sending a different message than what she’s articulating, ask about it. For example, you might say, “I hear you saying that you’re fine with this approach, but it looks as if maybe you still have some concerns. Is that right? Should we talk those through?”

Change the tenor of the conversation

Sometimes, despite your best intentions and all of the time you put into preparing for the conversation, things veer off course. You can’t demand that your counterpart hold the discussion exactly the way you want.

If things get heated, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, mentally pop out of the conversation as if you’re a fly on the wall, and objectively look at what’s happening. You might even describe to yourself (in your head) what’s happening: “He keeps returning to the fact that I yelled at his team yesterday.” “When I try to move the conversation away from what’s gone wrong to what we can do going forward, he keeps shifting it back.” Then state what you’re observing in a calm tone. “It looks as if whenever the sales numbers come up, you raise your voice.” Suggest a different approach: “If we put our heads together, we could probably come up with a way to move past this. Do you have any ideas?”

If it seems as if you’ve entered into a power struggle in which you’re no longer discussing the substance of your conflict but battling over who is right, step back and either try one of the phrases or questions from the “Pay Attention to Your Words” section above or talk about what’s not working. Say, “We seem to be getting locked into our positions. Could we return to our goals and see if we can brainstorm together some new ideas that might meet both our objectives?” Here are some other phrases that help to productively move the conversation along:

  • “You may be right, but I’d like to understand more.”
  • “I have a completely different perspective, but clearly you think this is unfair, so how can we fix this?”
  •  “I’m not sure how this connects to what we’ve been talking about. Can you help me make the connection?”
  • “I’d like to give my reaction to what you’ve said so far and see what you think.”
  • “This may be more my perception than yours, but when you said ‘X,’ I felt . . .”
  • “Is there anything I can say or do that might convince you to consider other options here?”

You can’t force your counterpart to appreciate, understand, or even just hear your perspective. But using the tactics above increases the chances. Getting your point across, coupled with hearing your colleague out, is a necessity if you want to reach a resolution.

This article was adapted from HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work and How to Make Sure You're Heard in a Difficult Conversation.

Amy Gallo is the author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, a how-to guidebook on handling conflict professionally and productively. She is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, where she writes and develops ideas for the web, magazine, and press. She covers a range of topics with a focus on managing conflict, managing yourself, leading people, and building your career. Having worked with dozens of organizations and written about workplace dynamics for over a decade, Amy is particularly interested in situations in which relationships fall apart and how to repair them. Before working as a writer and editor, she was a consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a strategy and organization consulting firm based in New York (later acquired by Booz & Company, which is now Strategy&). She is a graduate of Yale University and has a master’s from Brown University. 

Can You Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven?

Everyone says we must be data-driven.  I have trouble with that phrase, as discussed before.   Too often, we're making decisions based on the data is.  We're not asking the hard questions behind the data.

When I was at Bell Labs, we used to ask, "How much did you pay for that data?"  You can get data to say whatever you wanted depending on how it is presented and calculated, on what you show and what you don't.  

Before you start making decisions on the data in front of you, ask why it is the way it is, what's driving those numbers, what was the context, the constraints, the demographics, the sample size, the timeframe and frequency, etc. 

For instance, a company says it promotes more of its people than its competitors,  but perhaps it's 50yrs older? Perhaps its twice as large so the overall numbers are bigger? Perhaps it hasn't  in the past 5 yrs but given the number it had the previous 30, the overall number is still big.  Perhaps, perhaps - if you don't ask, you won't know and you could make decisions that are yes, based on the data in front of you, but not on the story behind that data. 

"Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven"

I propose we start being data-discerning, not data-driven.... you may be surprised at what new insights you discover! 

Generation (I)nnovation: Why Today's Teens Instinctively Understand Disruption

I am honored to host Whitney Johnson's post as part of the launch of her new book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work

My teenage daughter is going to Korea for two weeks this summer. Which meant she needed to earn nearly $3,000. So she decided to become an entrepreneur, and started a baking business that is financing her trip to Korea — one $5 loaf of hot, homemade bread, and $12 fresh-out-of-the-oven pan of cinnamon rolls at a time.

This is different from the work my husband and I did as teens; I worked as a cashier at a Burger Pit in San Jose, Calif., and my husband worked on a pick-your-own berry farm in southern Maryland. But among my daughter’s peers, becoming an entrepreneur appears to be the rule, not the exception.

The abysmal job market for teens is forcing many of them to think differently about work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the teen employment rate from 1950-2000 hovered around 45%, but since then has steadily declined. As of 2011, only 26% of teens were employed. Certainly the reasons for this decline are multifaceted, from a struggling economy, to competition with older workers, to time conflicts, to the fact that many teens just don’t want traditional “teen jobs.”

A quick poll of my peers revealed that about 60% of them had traditional “teen” jobs; flipping burgers, waiting tables, and the catchall “office work” — typing, filing, and reception. But when I asked what their children do to earn money, only 12% of them had jobs that I would describe as traditional teen jobs. A whopping 70% had jobs that are best described as self-employed; ranging from owner/operator of Diva Day Care to selling on eBay to teaching piano lessons. Today’s teens are getting a completely different work experience than I did – and it’s better preparing them to be innovators.

The media is playing an important role in this shift. Shows like “Shark Tank,” featuring young entrepreneurs, and local and national media covering feel good stories about successful teens have changed the way our youth view work. In fact, according to a Gallup poll, 8 out of 10 kids want to be their own boss, and 4 out of 10 want to start their own business.

There’s also a groundswell of support from parents and adults, generally. I saw this with my daughter’s business. Our friends and neighbors could just as easily have bought their bread and cinnamon rolls at the grocery store, but when they saw that my daughter was willing to get up at 5AM on Saturday to make fresh baked bread they were inclined to support her.

In addition to the ho-hum job market, and changing cultural zeitgeist, technology is changing where, when and how early we begin to work. Take, for example, Calum Brannan, a British teen who started, a social networking site for clubbers, 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, an Australian app developer who sold his company Summly, that summarizes the news, to Yahoo for $30 million. Or Adora Svitak, an American writer, speaker and advocate who was introduced to the world at the age of six and whose 2010 TED talk “What Adults Can Learn From Kids” has over 3 million views. For these teens, the expanse of their network is not limited to their physical location. Because of technology, their “lemonade stand” can be on any street corner of any city in the world.  

And don't forget the competitive college admissions market.  In order to get into the best colleges, teens must differentiate themselves.  This means excelling academically as well as participating in evening and weekend extracurriculars.  Not only does this leave little time for the kind of work their parents did after school, those part-time jobs to most admissions committees simply aren't impressive enough. It's no longer sufficient to be civic-minded by showing up for a town cleanup, you need to organize the cleanup and run it for several years.  You can't tell the college that you love journalism and then only write 2-3 articles for the school paper. You need to write dozens of articles and then publish them in multiple sources.  Or better yet, start your own newspaper - online. The need to be different is forcing them to innovate and diversify in ways that previous generations never did. 

This unique confluence of circumstances - a touch economy, increasingly competitive college market, expanding networks and shifts in technology - is creating a culture of innovators.  Needing to, and having the opportunity to, shape themselves into something quite different than their parents, the rising generation instinctively understand personal disruption. Some people call post-millennials Generation Z, but I think a more appropriate moniker would be Generation (I)nnovation. 


The article was co-authored with Roger Johnson, who holds a PhD in microbiology from Columbia University, and is former Assistant Professor at UMass Medical School. He is the lead parent of our bread-baking, headed-to-Korea, daughter.


Originally published on 5/25/2015 at

Whitney Johnson is the author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, and Dare, Dream, Do. Additionally, she is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review.  Learn more about her at or connect with her on Twitter



The High Art of Designing Scaffolding

By Ian Gonsher (republished with permission)

Vasari tells us, that in preparing to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a debate arose between Bramante and Michelangelo about how to design the scaffolding necessary to proceed with the project:

The pope ordered Bramante to build the scaffolding in order to paint it [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel]; Bramante did so by piercing the ceiling and hanging everything from ropes; upon seeing this, Michelangelo asked Bramante how, once the painting had been completed, he would be able to fill the holes; and Bramante replied, ‘We’ll worry about that later’, and added that there was no other way to do it. Michelangelo then realized that either Bramante knew little about it or he was not much of a friend, and he went to the pope and told him that this scaffolding was unsatisfactory and that Bramante had not understood how to build it; in Bramante’s presence, the pope replied that he should build one in his own way. And so Michelangelo ordered scaffolding built on poles which did not touch the wall, the method for fitting out vaults he later taught to Bramante and others, and with which many fine works were executed.[1]

A modern variation of a similar design used in the recent restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.[2]

A modern variation of a similar design used in the recent restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.[2]

Often, the most difficult part of any creative process is just getting started; preparing for the tasks at hand by putting the necessary structures in place that will bring the project to fruition. But scaffolding of this kind not only gives structure to the process; it demands a consideration of the tools, knowledge, and resources that are necessary for crafting novel and uncommon things.

Scaffolding can take many different forms, but in the narrowest sense, it is a tool. Woodworkers, for example and by comparison, will often design jigs to position a part in relation to a tool in order to augment the function of that tool. Like the scaffolding that Vasari describes, which was designed to bring the body of the artist into close physical proximity with the work, a jig allows the craftsperson to adapt his/her tools to act on a given material in a precise, repeatable fashion. When designing an effective jig, consideration must be given to the path through which the bit or blade will pass, and how the piece is fixed, but it must also do so in a safe manner. The design of a jig can sometimes be as interesting as the design of the piece itself.

We can further extend our definition of scaffolding to include the skills and knowledge necessary for operating the tools that advance the project, as well as to the critical engagement that is fundamental to the creative process in general. In this way, scaffolding is a form of learning. It gives structure to what we know and how we know it. Every new project comes with a new set of questions, a new set of constraints, that require new skills, and new approaches for creative problem solving.

The words we use inform the ideas in play, and those ideas give form to what is produced. Developing new language is sometimes necessary for scaffolding our understanding and communicating those insights to others. Neologisms and provisional project titles, for example, create space where new ideas can emerge.

We live in an age of abundant knowledge, where so many resources are a mouse click away. This too is a kind of scaffolding; an augmented intelligence. What are the books, tutorials, and courses necessary for mastering the appropriate skills (or at least becoming familiar enough with them to satisfy the task at hand)? Who are the mentors, experts, and partners that can help us navigate challenges as they arise? What do we need to know to make what we want to make? These are all ways we scaffold our understanding of projects.

This kind of scaffolding is nested within another, even more extensive kind of scaffolding; that of the institutions in which we operate and with which we participate. The structures of institutions dictate how we relate to one another, how we collaborate, how resources are allocated, and the kinds of spaces available for projects. Every institution structures these relationships differently, each with its own affordances and constraints, each with its own culture and values. We tend to gravitate towards institutions with which we have an affinity, and whose culture and values we are sympathetic to. But sometimes we should question these assumptions and eschew the formulas they produce. We should attempt to expand the territory of possibility and the creative dialectic in play. Like Michelangelo in Vasari’s telling, sometimes we recognize that it is necessary to dismantle inadequate scaffolding in order to design a better one, one that is more appropriate to the project at hand.

There are many ways to solve a problem or ask a question. There are many ways to structure a project. It is for these reasons, and others, that in addition to thinking of scaffolding as something that occurs prior to the task at hand, we should also consider scaffolding as something that occurs throughout the creative process, and which might require edits and adaptations as that process moves forward. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in the awkward situation of filling holes in the ceiling.

[1] Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.  The unpainted portion where the scaffolding met the wall is still visible just above the lunettes, although it is not easily seen from the floor below. It is also noteworthy that the recent restoration employed a system not dissimilar to the one employed by Michelangelo.

[2] Boswell, Victor. “Sistine Chapel”. Boswell, Victor. National Geographic. December 1989.

The Hope & Serendipity of #RCUS

The highlight of the year - BIF.  It's the embodiment of my definition of innovation ~ the Network + Serendipity - through Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS). It's the place to renew your mind and soul - to see what can and is being done to positively change our world by people of all ages, ethnicities, experiences, industries, sectors, geographies.  This will be my 6th BIF and every year I think it can't get any better... and every year it does.  Why? Because the human desire, passion and spirit to do good is everlasting.  Despite the misery and pain we see in the world around us, there is always hope - hope being realized by action.  That's why I can't miss a BIF - it renews your hope in mankind.

The Hedgehogs' Dilemma


The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is a metaphor for the problems we have developing relationships. Look around our professional and personal lives; examples are everywhere.  My friend and colleague, Ian Gonsher, uses design thinking to solve the dilemma with applications for humans of all ages.  I bet you can think of ways to make it apply to you – at work and elsewhere.

Ian Gonsher does research and teaches at Brown University focused on the design process and creative practice, including Design Studio and Entrepreneurship Engineering Design projects in the School of Engineering and Designing Humanity-Centered Robots in Computer Science with Michael Littman where Legos are prototyping tools.  Ian was instrumental in the development and expansion of Brown Design Workshop and several cross-disciplinary projects spanning the humanities, sciences, Medical School and RISD such as The Creative Scholar’s Project and the Creative Mind Initiative.  Some of his very cool projects have been in Make Magazine, he’s been published in Harvard Business Review and is the co-founder of Critical Designs-Critical Futures on how design thinking and activism can spur social innovation.

3 Simple Words to Revolutionize the World

2.5 weeks til the magic of BIF2015.  I am blessed with the gift of my network and can't wait to see my students and clients and friends and friends-to-be. Thank you Nicha Ratana-Apiromyakij & Saul Kaplan for this honor from TIME magazine. 

"How many people end business meetings with an “I love you” and a hug? Venture capitalist and former AT&T Labs scientist Deb Mills-Scofield does.  To Mills-Scofield, to do business is to negotiate diverse personalities to get things done — and she has the gift for it. “The broader, deeper, and more diverse your network, the bigger the impact you can make on the world,” she says." Read on...

The Perks of Being an Amateur

Another fabulous post by Caitie Whelan of Lightening Notes

I like knowing stuff

I like knowing the ropes, talking shop, having the answers.

I like being right.

I also like Ray Bradbury.

Mr. Bradbury didn’t go to college. He never got an MFA in writing. Never lived in the literary metropolis of New York City

He went to Los Angeles High School. And he went to the library. He loved libraries. Loved reading: L. Frank Baum. Edgar Allen Poe.

“The library,” he told The Paris Review, “has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”

And it was through his interpretations, his discoveries that he brought Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes into the world.

On paper, Mr. Bradbury didn’t do the right things to be a writer: He didn’t have the pedigree, didn’t know the ropes, didn’t talk shop.

But off paper and in person - the dimension that matters most - he had conviction unconstrained by convention.

It’s one of the perks of being an amateur. And it’s easy to forget when we’re thinking about plunging into something new.

We can sit on the diving board, looking at all the swimmers. And we can think, “No way can I stay afloat in this pool. I don’t have their know-how, their credentials.”

That may be true. But it’s not the only truth at the pool yard.

Because what got us to the diving board, what got us peeking out into the unknown are a curiosity and a desire to know more of the world than we know now. It’s the same thing that got Mr. Bradbury to the library.

And that curiosity, that desire is just as true as all the swimmers and all their know-how.

So, when we find ourselves on the diving board, we must choose the truth we answer to: The conventional narrative saying, “No way. No how. You have no clue how to do this.” Or that still, small voice in us saying, “Go. Do it.”

That voice will upend and unsettle our status quo (which Deb encourages us to question anyway). It will hurl us beyond the world that we know. Hurl us out where we don’t know the ropes or the answers. Out where we’ll be wrong more than we’ll be right.

But if we listen to that voice, we will have chosen to take the shape of our lives into our own hands. Rather than let society shape it for us

We will fumble. And we will fail. Such is the amateur’s territory. But we will earn our fumbles and our failures knowing, as Joan Didion knew, that “people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes.” And self-respect is one of the finest perks of  being an amatuer.

I carry Mr. Bradbury’s story close. To remind me of the person I want to be.

I know what it’s like to walk away from the diving board. To walk away from that still, small voice. To disqualify myself because I’m inexperienced and uncredentialed.

Walking away takes me back to where I know the ropes and right answers. Back where it’s nice and safe.

But to take a page from poet John Shedd: “A ship is safe in harbor. But that’s not what ships are for.”

We hold too much in us, we have too much to give to spend our life kicking around the same old docks gathering the same old barnacles.

We were meant to go out and get some wind in our sails. To cast out into unknown, perhaps uncharted waters. To see what the world has to hold, to give what we have to give. To, as Deb says, rush to discover it all.

Which brings me to the last - though by no means final - perk of being an amateur.

It forces us to grow.

When we don’t know the waters, we can get torn open by vulnerability, the rawness of being out of our nest.

And growth, that uncomfortable, incredible force where we rebuild our torn selves anew, is how we move ourselves and how we move our world forward.

Life’s a whole lot bigger than having answers and being right.

Life - real big life - is about living with conviction unconstrained by convention. It’s about self-respect. And kindness. It’s about growing every bit of our brains and our heart that we can grow. And life is about being an amateur again and again and again.

On this subject, Mr. Bradbury gets the final word:

“Jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”

Twitter  ~  Facebook  ~  Get Flashy


Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking ideas and great stories to remind us that we matter and improving the world is our matter.  Prior to The Lightning Notes, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Caitie is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. 

5 Reasons these 3 Steps Will Get You Those Top 4 Results

The Wizard of Oz © Turner Entertainment Co.

We love lists. If we do these 3 things, everything will be alright: our customers will shower us with accolades, our employees will ooze engagement and innovation and we will be profitable beyond belief. 

It doesn't work that way.  The path is not linear. It's not a set of prescribed turns to get to your destination. It's circuitous, it's emergent, and it requires thought.  So stop with the lists and start with the thinking...

If you want to lead, think... if you want to manage, keep reading those lists.