Sheila Heen, Founder of the Triad Consulting Group, is a professor of practice at Harvard Law School where she leads a negotiation program. She is the co-author of the New York Times bestsellers, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.

Sheila Heen, founder of the Triad Consulting Group

Nonprofit organizations often face unique challenges when it comes to communication. With their benign missions, there is a prevailing culture of being  “nice” and avoiding conflict. The passionate nature of the work, coupled with the desire to maintain a harmonious environment, can sometimes create a  communication barrier where tough and candid conversations are avoided. Sheila  Heen, a renowned authority in negotiation and difficult conversations, offers insightful perspectives that are highly valuable for those serving in the nonprofit sector. 

Learning from the Young Negotiators
Sheila Heen points out the innate negotiation skills of children, who she observes are “negotiating all day, every day.” This insight from Heen prompts us to realize that the honest and straightforward way children engage can be a model for nonprofits. The sector, often wrapped in diplomacy, can benefit from adopting the forthrightness and tenacity of children in pursuit of their mission. As Heen implies,  perhaps nonprofits can be both kind and clear without the fear of being seen as aggressive. 

Listening Actively, Engaging Compassionately
Heen captures the essence of listening, emphasizing that “Listening is anything but passive. Good listening is a vigorous activity.” This is especially poignant in the nonprofit sector. Listening actively to the communities served, donors, and colleagues not only garners vital information but builds trust and respect. Heen’s perspective serves as a reminder that in our pursuit of service, it is not only the words but also the emotions and context that matter. 

Inner Negotiation for Meaningful Dialogue
Heen’s perspective on the internal negotiation that precedes conversations is particularly resonant for nonprofits. She shares, “The first negotiation really is with  yourself.” In a setting where conflict can sometimes be shied away from, Heen’s wisdom urges us to introspect before engaging. By aligning personal values with the mission, and seeing the conversation as an opportunity for shared growth,  nonprofits can navigate internal conversations more constructively. 

Harnessing Feedback to Foster Growth
Heen highlights that “Feedback sits at the junction of two human needs: our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance.” In the context of nonprofits, this insight is profound. There is a constant drive to make a difference, and Heen’s words remind us that feedback is integral to this journey. By cultivating a culture that sees feedback as a stepping stone for betterment rather than criticism, nonprofits can nurture a learning environment, and in turn, increase their impact. 

Conclusion: Nurturing a Transparent Communication Culture
Through Sheila Heen’s discerning insights, nonprofit organizations have an opportunity to reflect and reorient their communication culture. By embracing the tenacity of children, actively listening, engaging in internal negotiation, and harnessing the power of feedback, nonprofits can build a foundation of honest and constructive dialogue. Heen’s perspectives encourage not just communication, but connection – a connection with the mission, the team, and the larger community, which is instrumental in creating lasting change.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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