Sheila Heen on Difficult Conversations

Learn How to Discuss What Matters Most from a Harvard Law Professor and Bestselling Author

Course Details

  • Price: $100 $45 
  • Availability: On Demand
  • Duration: 2 hours
  • Access: Unlimited

What You’ll Learn:

  • Identify the 3 layers that characterize any difficult conversation
  • Productively navigate emotions and issues of identity that surface in difficult conversations
  • Apply the tactic of "starting from a third story" to neutralize a difficult conversation
  • Map the "joint contribution system" that characterizes challenging situations to shift away from a stance of blame
  • Engage more productively in the difficult--but necessary--conversations that surface in our everyday lives


Whether we’re dealing with an under-performing employee, disagreeing with our partner, or negotiating with a difficult client, we attempt or avoid difficult conversations every day. No matter how competent or experienced we are, we all have conversations that cause anxiety and frustration.

This is particularly true for people working in the social sector. They’re often faced with situations where they need to untangle differing perspectives, advocate for those who are underserved, or simply manage their employees and volunteers while facing resource constraints.

In this course, you’ll learn practical strategies to handle difficult conversations with grace and agility while achieving productive results. Taught by Sheila Heen, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback, this course will introduce you to actionable insights to understand the 3 layers of every difficult conversation. You’ll learn how to authentically shift from a stance of blame and certainty to one of learning and openness. You’ll also practice tactics like “starting from the third story” to help neutralize the toxic dynamics of difficult conversations and achieve more productive results. Finally, you’ll understand how and why emotions and issues of identity frequently come up in these challenging dialogues—and how you can address them preemptively and professionally while being authentic and empathetic.

This course is for anyone who needs to work together with other people—in their personal or professional lives—to achieve something tough but meaningful together.

Format and Timing

  • Individual Course: This course is a series of videos and exercises you can work through on your own.
  • Platform: Udemy (+Acumen developed this course. We host this course on the Udemy platform.)
  • Timing: You can work through the materials at your own pace. There are no required times for you to log in. Your access does not end.
Section 1: Introduction to the Course
  • Video: Introduction from Sheila Heen
  • Exercise: Introduce Yourself to the Course Community
  • Video: What is a Difficult Conversation?
  • Video: Why Do Difficult Conversations Matter
  • Video: Shift from a Message Delivery Stance to a Learning Conversation
  • Video: Unpacking the 3 Layers of Any Difficult Conversation
  • Exercise: Frame Your Difficult Conversation
  • Video: How to Negotiate with Your Internal Voice
Section 2: The “What Happened” Layer: How to Avoid Blame
  • Video: Difficult Conversation Case Study 1
  • Video: Coaching in Action: Shifting from the What Happened Conversation
  • Video: How to Shift Away from Blame
  • Video: Difficult Conversation Case Study #2
  • Video Coaching in Action: How to Handle this Difficult Conversation
  • Exercise: Map Your Joint Contribution System
Section 3: The "Feelings" Layer: How to Name Emotions without Getting Emotional
  • Video: Dealing with Feelings
  • Exercise: Prepare to Address the Feelings Layer
Section 4:The Identity Layer: How to Grapple with the Identities of Participants
  • Video: Why Identity Matters in Difficult Conversations
  • Video: How to Grapple with Identity in Difficult Conversations
  • Exercise: Prepare to Address the Identity Layer
Section 5: The Learning Conversation
  • Video: Identify Your Purpose for the Conversation
  • Exercise: Identify Your Purpose for the Conversation
  • Video: Begin from the Third Story
  • Video: How to Listen in a Difficult Conversation
  • Video: How to Speak for Yourself
Section 6: Putting it All Together: Preparing For Your Own Difficult Conversation
  • Video: Final Words of Advice
  • Exercise: Prepare for Your Own Difficult Conversation
The course already started. Can I still enroll?
You can enroll up to 2 weeks after the start date of the course.
When will the next course be offered?
We offer our courses a few times a year. Sign up for our emails to be notified of the next time the course will be offered.
Do I get a certificate for this course?
You will earn a Statement of Accomplishment if you complete 5 of 6 assignments, including the final assignment, by the last day of the course.
How do teams work?
We recommend you find friends or colleagues for your team that you can meet with in person each week. Each team member should register for the course individually. You’ll then be able to form your team on the NovoEd platform once the course begins.
Do I have to complete the course with a team?
While we believe taking the course with a team will give you the best experience and chance of completing the course, it is possible to complete the course individually if you wish.
What should I expect from the assignments?
You will create a Life Map, develop your own personal story, integrate it into a larger presentation, and record your presentation for feedback from your classmates. You should allocate at least one hour a week to complete each assignment.

Supported By

Sheila Heen is the co-author of Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback. She is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, a faculty member for the Harvard Negotiation Project, and a Founder of Triad Consulting Group.

What People Are Saying

LOVED this course. It is a fantastic, succinct class that cuts to the chase right away, gives real world advice and then backs it up with examples of scenarios and sample language to use in those scenarios. I completed the entire course in a long afternoon, as I stopped to take 11 pages of notes along the way. Time well spent to get a straight shot of immediately actionable wisdom quickly."

Cris G.