165: How to Work with People You Dislike with Adam Kahane

By June 9, 2017Podcasts

 

 

Reos Partners cofounder Adam Kahane shares his expertise in dealing with conflicts and effectively collaborating with the enemy.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why conventional collaboration does not work anymore
  2. The three stretches required from collaboration
  3. What to do when you can’t collaborate

About Adam

Adam Kahane is a Director of Reos Partners, an international social enterprise that helps people move forward together on their most important and intractable issues. Adam is the author of four books on solving tough problems. His latest is Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Adam Kahane Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Adam, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Adam Kahane
It’s a pleasure, Pete. I’m looking forward to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I am too. And you have a really fun perspective having been in some interesting situations and challenges across the world. Could you maybe share with us a key anecdote? I was struck by the one about South African leaders in 1991.

Adam Kahane
Well, that was my first experience with the kind of work I’ve been doing for these past 25 years. I was happily working in Shell, in London, in their planning department, and the South Africans wanted to use the Shell planning methodology to think about the transition from apartheid to democracy, and asked for somebody to provide technological assistance or technical assistance.

And as I was the youngest and most expendable member of the Shell team I was dispatched. It really was my first experience working with people who’d been literally shooting at each other, people who’d been on opposite sides, and in prison, and in exile, and underground trying to change things, all of whom knew things couldn’t stay as they were but who didn’t all agree on what the problem was or what the solution was. And, for me, it was a very surprising experience to see if you approached it in a certain way even people in such disagreement could work together and find a way forward. It really blew me away.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, excellent. And so that experience has shaped some subsequent philosophies and work and approach. Can you tell us sort of how that’s played out in the rest of your life?

Adam Kahane
Well, the big impact was I was so impressed with what I saw there that I ended up quitting Shell and moving from England to South Africa and marrying the project organizer which had a pretty big impact on me. But beyond that I think the main thing I learned, which has never left me, is that it is possible, just to know that it is possible, even in the most stuck and complex and conflictual situations, it is possible.

It doesn’t mean it always works. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean it’s straightforward. It doesn’t mean it’s quick but it can be done and that’s what has inspired me ever since. The first trip I made to South Africa I heard a joke that perfectly encapsulates what I’ve been working on for 25 years. The joke is, “Faced with our unbelievably difficult problems we have two options: a practical option and a miraculous option.”

“The practical option is we all get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels come and sort this out for us. And the miraculous option is we continue to talk and argue and work together and figure it out ourselves.” And that’s the inspiration which has guided me for the past 25 years.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s excellent. Thank you. So then, now, you’ve shared a number of your learnings and perspectives and principles along the way in your book Collaborating with the Enemy. Can you share with us kind of what’s the main thesis or principle at work in this work?

Adam Kahane
Yeah, what I really reflect on this work I’ve been doing at all kinds of different levels in organizations, in cities, in countries, what I have concluded is that collaborating, working with other people, working with diverse others, people we don’t agree with, or like, or trust, is both increasingly necessary and, at the same time, increasingly difficult.

And what I realized in thinking back on my experience is that the conventional way of approaching such situations, conventional collaboration, is simply cannot work. And if we want to be able to deal with such situations, if we want to be able to work with people we don’t agree with or like or trust then we have to approach the work in an unconventional way, which I call stretched collaboration.

Pete Mockaitis
Now could you expand upon that a little bit? Conventional collaborations cannot work. Can you give us some examples of those collaborative approaches that are conventional and why they’re just not going to cut the mustard?

Adam Kahane
Well, there’s an approach to collaboration which is so common that most of us think it’s the only way. We imagine that collaborating means we’re all on the same team, we’re all trying to get to the same place, we figure out what or where we want to get to, what the goal is or the vision is, we agree where we are, we agree to plan to get from here to there and who needs to do what, and that’s it.

And the number of times we can do that is diminishing. The number of times or the situations where that will work where we really are on the same side, we really can agree to plan, we really can agree what everybody needs to do, that just doesn’t work very often anymore. People have their own ideas, they have their own interests, the situation is changing too quickly, people won’t do what other people tell them to do. And so that conventional approach sounds good but it works less and less of the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued. I imagine in the one context, I’m thinking on the international scene of conflict or development, we got NGOs or the United Nations and governments and business leaders all with their own vested interests and differing stakeholder preferences and needs and values and interests. I see that there. But you’re saying, “Hey, even inside, say, a team in a given company, that this, too, is dwindling.”

Adam Kahane
Well, the only time this works or the basic assumption behind conventional collaboration is that you can be in control. So if you’re in a situation where you can control or the boss can control what people think is important, and what they’re going to do, and what the goal is, and what the plan is, then this will work. But I think, more often than not, even in a team people have their own ideas, they have their own understandings, they have their own interests, they have things that are important to them, they have affiliations, connections.

And they’ll say yes but that doesn’t mean… they’ll pretend to go along but I don’t think it works very often and it certainly doesn’t work in rapidly-changing situations where people have a choice. You need people to be creative, you need people to be committed. They’re not robots. You can pretend they’re robots but they’re not.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, this is kind of spooky and I think you’re really hitting on something here. They’ll pretend to go along. And so I see that pop up in terms of people pretending to go along. What’s that look like in practice?

Adam Kahane
Well, what it looks like in practice is that I say yes even though it doesn’t make much sense to me and I don’t have much energy for it and I just don’t do it. Or I do it, I drag my feet, I say, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what we agreed to.”

Pete Mockaitis
Or maybe like a minimum level of compliance. Like, “I technically gave you the thing that you asked for from me,” but it’s not really done-done or valuable enough to meet the needs that was the intention behind doing it in the first place.

Adam Kahane
Or, “Yes, I’ll do it. We agreed even though I don’t actually think it makes much sense and if you don’t want my view about what would really work here, and if you’re not going to allow me to try it out then I’ll go along but it doesn’t mean we’re going to get where we want to go.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Well, so then, what’s the answer? How can we make the best of the situation?

Adam Kahane
Well, I think the answer is to abandon the illusion of control. We can’t control other people, we can’t control the situation, we can’t control what’s going to work and so pretending we can is not helpful. So what does it mean to abandon control? It means three things or three stretches. It’s three ways of stretching beyond this contracted constricted place of robotic place.

The first stretch is to realize that there’s going to be conflict. There’s going to be differences in ideas and interests and what’s important, what we think is important and what group we really feel part of, to just recognize that these conflict are inevitable and abandon this dream or this fantasy of harmony, and accept that working with diverse others, people who know their mind, people who got rights, people who got their own views is going to involve connection, yes, but it’s going to involve conflict, and accept that and enjoy it. So that’s the first stretch.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Adam Kahane
So stretching beyond harmony and the illusion of oneness. It’s like in a marriage, a marriage you’re one but you’re also two. That’s just a fact. You’re not one instead of two, and you’re not two instead of one. They’re both true. You’re together and you’re separate and it’s like that everywhere. So that’s the first stretch.

The second stretch is to abandon the notion that we can figure this all out before we start. We don’t know what’s going to work in anything but the simplest situations. And so we’re just going to have to try out what we think will work, do an experiment and see and take it one step at a time, feel our way forward or experiment our way forward. So abandon this illusion that we can plan all the whole thing out and then just execute it from what we thought at the beginning. It never works like that. Again, people can pretend it works like that but it never does.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Adam Kahane
I think it was Mike Tyson said, “No strategy survives the first time you’re punched in the nose.”

Pete Mockaitis
I was just talking about that yesterday.

Adam Kahane
So you can think you know what’s going to happen but you don’t know. Nobody knows, right? So you’ve got to just take it one step at a time, feel your way forward.

And the third stretch I think it’s the most fundamental one. What I realized, when I thought about my own experience with working with diverse others, is I spent an awful lot of time thinking about what other people ought to be doing, what my colleagues ought to be doing, what my clients ought to be doing, what my suppliers ought to be doing, what my family ought to be doing, what my neighbors ought to be doing.

It’s kind of an entertaining way to spend your time. It requires me to be doing nothing. But it’s actually a complete and total waste of time. Spending your time thinking about what other people ought to be doing is a complete waste of time. And so the third stretch is to abandon this idea you can get other people to do things, and focus only on one thing, “What am I going to do next?” That’s the only thing worth worrying about, “What am I going to do next?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I love this. It’s clearly coming from the voice of experience with some years and years and many, many clients and situations and those realizations, and it’s humbling and powerful at the same time. So I want to dig into each of them with a bit more detail. In terms of the first one, when it comes to embracing conflict and connection, “Accept it and enjoy it.” Tell me, if someone is not a fan of conflict and they find it uncomfortable, they feel it on the back of their neck or in their belly, “Oh, conflict.” It’s not also that they enjoy. How could folks begin to appreciate what’s going on here?

Adam Kahane
Well, everything I’m saying here, everything I’m writing about, everything I’ve learned is from having tried it another way and fallen on my face. So, yeah, you might not like conflict, you also might not like the winter living in Montreal but that’s the situation. That’s the reality of the situation. So if you don’t like dealing with different people, I don’t know, you could move somewhere where everybody agrees with you. I don’t know where that would be. Or you could work on your own in a little cubicle somewhere or in a monastery.

But my point is that avoiding the conflict doesn’t make it go away. It’s there. The differences are there. They’re ubiquitous. So learn to deal with it. My big learning about conflict, speaking of somebody who’s very conflict-averse, my big learning about conflict is when you get into it, it’s never as bad as you imagine it’s going to be. You’re not going to die if somebody disagrees with you. You’re not going to die if you have an argument. You’re going to actually feel liberated because this thing that you knew was there and you’re pretending wasn’t there can be acknowledged and worked with.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so when you say accept it and enjoy it that’s kind of what you’re talking about. It’s kind of a relief or release type enjoyment.

Adam Kahane
Yeah, and the creativity and the innovation and the change that can come from difference and friction, and being able to make your way forward in spite of the fact that you don’t all agree with each other. It’s called dealing with the reality.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. And so, then, when you talk about experimenting the way forward, sort of that second stretch there, what are some practical ways that one can sort of put forward experiments and get a sense for how things might work out or what the reception of an idea or proposal or product or plan or something is going to be in sort of a lower risk and high learning, high information coming back sort of a way?

Adam Kahane
Well, let me give a simple example of this which I use all the time, which is what I call suspending my assumptions or suspending my ideas. I’ve got an idea about something, I’ve got something I think is right, or I think will work, or I think we ought to do. And rather than just arguing it, saying, “This is the truth,” I suspend it like it’s on a string in front of me, and I say, “This is my idea. I think this is a good idea. What do you all think, my colleagues or my clients?”

So I release this tight hold that, “This just has to work. This has just to be the truth. You have to agree with me. We have to do this,” and to say, “This is my thinking about this. What do you think? Can it work? Let’s try it. What’s the feedback?” And this curiosity that comes from suspending your ideas rather than holding them in this iron grip, and the chance to learn early on what makes sense and doesn’t make sense, what works and doesn’t work, what people will go along with and not go along with, rather than forcing it through and then having a much bigger and more expensive problem some weeks or months down the road.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So that’s very simple. It’s just a matter of getting other people’s input upfront and so you’re able to suspend it in the sense that it is not you.

Adam Kahane
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
If someone says, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, Adam,” you’re not thinking, “Oh, I’m so small and worthless.”

Adam Kahane
Right. Now that’s exactly it. Part of suspending is allowing people to object to it without objecting to me but also it’s to hear that feedback early on rather than telling everybody to just shut up and go along with it and only find out later that this thing doesn’t work actually. So it’s this curiosity and willing to try stuff out, whether it’s try an idea or an innovation or a customer offering or a way of approaching things.

You try it out small and you listen, “What’s the feedback? What are clients or colleagues or partners saying? How can I improve it? What can I do next? How can I feel my way forward one step at a time not knowing what’s going to work out?” We just don’t know what’s going to work so how can we be more tentative, more humble, more attentive to what’s the world telling us about this thing we want to try out?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And you have a fun turn of a phrase I enjoyed. Can you share what you mean by listen for a possibility?

Adam Kahane
Well, what you’re trying to do in these complex and conflictual situations, you’re trying to find a way forward. What typically happens in these situations, what happens more often than not is we feel confused and frustrated and stuck. So we’re looking for an opening, a possibility, a crack that we can try, “Huh, I wonder if we tried this whether it would work. Well, not really. What about this? What about this? What about this?”

So this idea of feeling your way forward, because we rarely – well, almost never – have this situation where we see the whole way forward in front of us, what it’s going to look like for the next year, two years, and we just can decide and plow on. Most situations aren’t like that. So how can we take a step, get the feedback, what’s the next step and approach it like that?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And when it comes to the third stretch here of stepping into the game and putting zero mental effort or attention on thinking about what others should do, and all about what’s your next action, do you have any key principles or sub-questions or rules of thumb you use to kind of prioritize and determine what is your optimal next action?

Adam Kahane
Well, for me, the key rule of thumb is to notice when I am wasting my time with thinking or arguing or admonishing or trying to force people, other people, to do what I want them to do. And when I became alert to this, I noticed, “Wow, you can spend many hours every day doing that.” I think it’s a very typical reflex because when I do that I’m off the hook, “If only those other people would do this.”

I learned this, I was once involved in a very, very complicated project, lots of stakeholders who was in India or something you do with malnutrition, and a very complicated project. And I got totally confused and I asked a friend of mine in total frustration, I said, “What are we doing here?” And he gave me a very good answer that has stuck with me, he said, “Look, Adam, whenever there’s a complicated situation with lots of different people involved and you bring them all into a room, a 100% of the people enter the room figuring, ‘If only those other people would change we’d be fine. Now, if we’re all here, it’s not possible that it’s all somebody else’s fault.’”

And so he said, “What are we really doing? We’re getting to the point where people see what they need to do differently.” So that’s the key thing. The key thing is to notice when I’m wasting my time focusing on what I wish other people would do, and to ask the difficult question, and sometimes very challenging question, “What do I have to change in how I’m looking at this or how I’m approaching it or how I’m doing things or relating to people? What can I do differently that would allow me to see a possibility and to find a way forward?”

The good news is, when I make that switch, suddenly I’ve got all this energy and I’m not frustrated and I’m not waiting for other people. I’m now in control. I’m in control of what I do next. So it’s a wonderful energizing liberating realization but it takes some discipline because the conventional thing about bossing other people around is so ingrained.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you talk about, “What is it that I can do next?” I just want to make sure we’re clear here, is it cheating or violating the spirit of the rule here to determine, “Well, what I can do next is present this different persuasive argument”? It’s kind of like you’re saying, “Well, no, you can’t make one do things so it’s just a matter of changing your perspective or finding new opportunities for common ground.”

Adam Kahane
No, I don’t think that’s cheating. Sometimes what I need to do next is find a different way of working with that other person and a more effective way of convincing them. So sometimes it’s like that but it’s really not usually the case that if I just explained it again more slowly in words of one syllable or with a louder voice that they’d say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a great idea.” Sometimes that’ll happen but not much of the time.

So the question is, “Aside from trying to berate my colleagues on other time or force them to do something, what could I do differently? How could I approach it? How could I explain it? What could I try? What could I do on my own? What allies could I find? What’s a way to experiment? What can I do next?”

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, so now, I’d love to think about this from the perspective up close and personal in a workplace. Are there any sort of nuances or quick tips or tools or tactics or scripts or things that you think would put some of this into play if you’re dealing with a difficult boss or colleague who is frustrating you in these kinds of ways? It’s the person that you don’t agree with, like or trust, what would you say would be kind of some of your very first steps in addressing the situation?

Adam Kahane
Well, what I argue is that the very first step is to figure out whether you want to collaborate, whether that’s actually what you need to do. And I argue actually you’ve always got three or four options. You can collaborate, which is what we’ve been talking about this last 15 minutes, and it involves all the things we’ve been talking about, but it’s really important to realize that that’s not the only choice. And so you have two or three of the following other choices, and you need to be clear-headed and not romantic about this.

So, one choice, which you have some of the time, is you can try to just force things to be the way you want them to be. Not always. Sometimes you don’t have the power to do that. But sometimes with cajoling and threatening and pushing you can get things to be the way you want them to be. So that’s the first alternative – forcing. You don’t always have that option. But I want to articulate that option because that’s actually what most people do if they can. They may do it in a nice way, they may do it in a sweet way but basically they’re just trying to get other people to do what they think ought to be done. So that’s the first alternative.

The second alternative is to do adapt, to say, “I can’t collaborate with this person. I can’t make them do what I want them to do. I don’t have the power to do that. I don’t have the capacity to do that so I can adapt. I can go along to get along. I can try to make things as good as they can be in this situation. I have to adapt to winter in Montreal. There’s not much I can do about it. I’ve got to have a warm parka and I’ve got to walk carefully on the ice. That’s all there is to it.”

And there’s another option which is also worth articulating – I can exit. I cannot work on the project. I can get a divorce. I can move to Florida. I can quit my job. So we always have these four options: collaborating, forcing, adapting and exiting. So what do you want to do? And I’m not saying you always have to collaborate. I’m saying the very first step is to figure out, “What are my options here? And what do I think will work?”

What I’m trying to do with this book is if you want to collaborate, if you think you need to collaborate, and I’m arguing this is true more and more of the time, how can you do it effectively?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, Adam, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

[INSERT SPONSOR HERE]

Adam Kahane
No, let’s go. I’m up for it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Adam Kahane
Well, I read an article a few years ago where somebody was interviewing the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, and they were questioning him the way he was approaching China which is very controversial. And he had a wonderful answer which I really lived by, he said, “Holistic understanding brings wise action.”

So that’s what I think we’re dealing with here. If we can understand better what’s really going on, we can have a wiser idea about what to do about it. And that’s what a lot of this is about, “How can I have a wise idea about what I need to do?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite study whether it’s an experiment or a piece of research?

Adam Kahane
Well, I’m a bit unusual in that I really learn just by walking into brick walls.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Adam Kahane
So almost everything I’ve learned is not from figuring it out or not from reading in a book but trying something I thought and it doesn’t work. And then I pick myself up and I say, “What happened here? What was I doing wrong?” So this book is written, it’s basically just a litany of failures, all the things I thought were one way and found were another way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Adam Kahane
Well, early on in my corporate career I was very inspired by a book written by Art Kleiner, it’s called The Heretics. And it’s a wonderful history of people in organizations who tried to make a difference, and he calls them heretics rather than apostates. In the church, an apostate is somebody who rejects the church and walks away, but a heretic is somebody who’s loyal to the church but wants to change it. And it’s really a very inspiring book about what it means to be loyal and to try to make things work from inside the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

Adam Kahane
Well, my favorite tool is suspending. This idea of, “I’m going to tell you what I think and I’m going to state it as clearly as I can but I’m not wedded to it. I want to hear your feedback on it. I’m willing to change my idea. But I’m going to put it out there. I’m not going to hide it. I’m not going to pretend I don’t have an idea but I’m going to take the risk of showing you what I think and what I want so that I can get feedback and learn.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s see, so that was a thinking tool. How about a habit, a personal practice? I guess that’s also a habit.

Adam Kahane
Well, the tool, my favorite tool that I use so often, that I’m often accused of having some kind of financial interest in the 3M Company. My favorite tool is Post-it Notes, rectangular yellow Post-it Notes because it’s a great tool for suspending. It’s a great tool. You write down your idea and you slap it on the wall, and you say, “This is what I think. Now, how is it related to what you think and what’s other ways?”

So this using Post-it Notes to make the thinking visible, that’s what I use more than anything. And making the thinking visible whether it’s clip charts or Post-it Notes or Lego bricks, this is so much more effective than just putting words into the air.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about is there a particular nugget or articulation of your message that seems to really get people nodding their heads, taking notes, resonating with what you’re saying?

Adam Kahane
Well, I’ve relied a lot on this quote, one of the final speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. before he was assassinated. He said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive. And love without power is sentimental and anemic.” And, for me, this really summarizes a crucial thing. We can’t just push for what we want, the result is reckless and abusive, but nor can we just say, “We’re all one,” when we’re not simply all one. It’s sentimental and anemic. And how do you constantly use both, both power and love?

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch where would you recommend they go?

Adam Kahane
Well, I have a website, as part of our company website, you go to AdamKahane.com. It’s got how to contact me, it’s got free downloads, it’s got my different books, it’s got links to the work my colleagues and I are doing using these methods. So get in touch, I’d love to get your feedback.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Adam Kahane
Yeah, it’s that you can do more than you think you could do and, in particular, it is possible. It really is. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It is possible to work with people you don’t agree with, or like, or trust. But it requires you to stretch. It requires you to stretch beyond what’s habitual and comfortable but you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish if you do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Adam, thanks so much for taking this time. It’s been a blast.

Adam Kahane
Thanks, Pete. Thanks very much.

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