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834: How to End Micromanagement Once and For All with Lia Garvin

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Lia Garvin discusses how employees and managers can work together to put an end to micromanaging.

— YOU’LL LEARN — 
1) The three telltale signs of micromanaging.
2) How micromanaging makes everyone less effective.
3) How to expertly respond to a micromanager.

— ABOUT LIA GARVIN — 
Lia Garvin is the bestselling author of Unstuck, TEDx speaker and workplace strategist with experience leading team operations across Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Bank of America. As the Founder of the The Workplace Reframe organizational strategy firm, she equips innovative organizations of any size and industry with the tools to cultivate inclusive, motivated, high performing teams resulting in higher retention, more efficiency, and better business results. She is a sought after expert in the media, featured across Inc, FastCompany, ABC News, CNN Business, US News & World Report, HBR, and more.
• LinkedIn: Lia Garvin
• Website: LiaGarvin.com

— RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THE SHOW — 
• Tool: Otter.ai
• Study: Women in the Workplace study
• Book: Lead to Win: How to Be a Powerful, Impactful, Influential Leader in Any Environment by Carla Harris

— THANK YOU SPONSORS! — 
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Lia Garvin Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Lia, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Lia Garvin
Thank you so much for having me. So excited to be back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into what you’ve been up to lately, and I understand, in particular, you have developed a fascination with the topic of micromanagement. What’s the scoop here?

Lia Garvin
Yes, with micromanagement and how to end it once and for all, I would say.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, lay it on us, what’s the story?

Lia Garvin
Yeah. Since we last met, I actually ended up leaving my corporate job and launching an organizational consulting business really dedicated to bringing out the best in teams. And since we’ve all heard people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers, diving in and really making sure managers are equipped with the tools they need to be effective and empower their teams, that was one of the first places that I wanted to start. And then micromanaging was one of the biggest sorts of acute problems in that space.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, I’ve heard it many a time. So, maybe to kick it off, could you precisely define what is micromanagement? Because some folks will say, “Oh, no, no, that’s just management,” like if there’s a gray zone. Is there a bright dividing line between, “This is when you’ve gone too far, buddy”?

Lia Garvin
So, I think a lot does depend on the kind of job and the industry, so I’ll say that. I don’t think there are the hard and fast answer that applies to every situation, and I think that’s where it can get tricky because if we’re used to something in one environment, we may be bringing that to the next environment. Let’s say we’re in a sort of job where instructions need to be followed exactly one specific way. And if you deviate from that, it’s a real problem, maybe a safety issue.

Let’s say we bring that into a job that’s more about ideas and many paths to success, then you’re going to be in a real complex. So, I think the first thing to do before we dive into how to recognize if you’re micromanaging is if you’re a manager, to being open to adjusting, and saying, “Hey, what’s the right way to interact with my teams depending on what kind of the working norms are in this team?”

So, as I thought about it a lot, reflected on my own personal experience with many, many managers over the years and feedback that I heard from other colleagues, I think there was three real tells that I landed on around how to know when you’re a micromanager. And the first one is you are spending every waking moment in meetings.

So, this is a big problem that I think has gotten even worse with COVID and remote work and everything we do with a video conference but this is not an excuse to not reflect and say, “Hey, am I in the right meetings?” So, when a manager is in every single meeting, it’s a sign that they’re too far in the weeds, they’re too much in the details. And if you are finding yourself where you have no time to drink a glass of water, go to the bathroom, or eat lunch, there’s an opportunity to let your team members step up.

And so, I would suggest in that situation to take a look at your calendar and see, “Which meetings am I absolutely critical, critical to be at? Am I a decider? Am I approver?” And all the rest, which one of those could you delegate to somebody else to drive?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And what are the other two tells?

Lia Garvin
Number two is everybody’s coming to you for every single little decision, nobody is actually taking action, it’s always coming back to you. This is a sign that people either don’t feel empowered to make decisions, or they think that you want to be involved in making all the decisions. So, if you’re finding yourself where every single kind of question decision comes to you, this is a moment to have a conversation with your teams around what decisions you want to be and should be involved in, and which they’re empowered to run with on their own.

So, I think sometimes one thing I’ve suggested to managers is to classify the kinds of decisions, “Which ones are this category where they need leadership, discussion, and buy-in? And which ones can they push on the organization?” Because if everyone is coming to you, that means they’re responding to a signal you’ve probably sent them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And number three?

Lia Garvin
And the third one is if people are constantly telling you, “Hey, I have bandwidth. I’d like to take more things on,” kind of putting the line out there, and you’re not taking them up on it. It’s a sign that people are asking for you to let go a little bit, and in that moment, it’s important to reflect on, “Hey, am I taking them up on it?”

I think a lot of times we don’t realize how we’re coming across. When we’re at meetings…Oh, my gosh, did you hear that? That was a huge lightning and thunder.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, was that the scraping of the du-du there?

Lia Garvin
No, there’s a huge thunderstorm.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s actually in the environment. I thought, “Oh, hey, we bumped the mic.” It happens. Okay. Well, do you want to try again? The third thing…

Lia Garvin
So, the third thing is when people are continually coming to you and saying, “Hey, I have bandwidth. I want to take on more responsibilities,” or, “What can I help with?” and you’re not necessarily taking them up on it. And this is a sign that people are recognizing that you may be spread really thin as a manager, you’re not noticing it, or you’re holding on to too many things. And when people are actually asking you to let go, that’s a real moment to listen to them and think about that.

And if you’re finding that situation, it’s a moment where you can think about, “Well, what are all the tasks on my plate? What’s everything I have this week or this month? And what are the things I can let go of that are actually worthy for someone else to take on?” Delegating isn’t about giving people all the list of stuff you didn’t want to do, that nobody wants to do.

It’s about finding, “What are the high-impact activities that someone else can do that’s going to be worthwhile because it gives them visibility or development opportunity, or something in line with where they want to go in their career?” So, if we’re finding ourselves in those three places, too meetings, too much control over decision-making, and people are asking for more, that’s a sign, “Oops, I’m in too deep. Got to take a step back and let go a little bit.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s how we know when we’re there. And I’m curious, could we maybe zoom out a little bit on the macro scale, do you have any sense for just what’s the cost of micromanagement? And I don’t know if there’s a study, like billions of dollars, or attrition rates, or percentage of people who say they suffer it. What’s kind of the scope of things here?

Lia Garvin
Yes. So, there’s a lot of data coming out of the Gallup organization around employee engagement going down. And one of the big reasons that’s cited is a micromanager, or feeling your manager either doesn’t have the right sort to skills, is not invested in you, or is not managing effectively. And I think the cost of someone being a micromanager is pretty widespread.

So, first, for the manager themselves, they are so much more likely to reach a state of burnout because they are taking on too much. And so, I think if only it affected the managers, this is already really an expensive cost because people are getting burned out. They’re feeling like, “Okay, I can’t scale right now. Folks are having to do more with less, with layoffs and cutbacks.”

And so, it ends up putting so much more work on someone’s plate and creating more single points of failure. But it’s really detrimental to the broader team because when people can’t step up and own more, they often feel kind of disillusioned with the work. They start losing motivation. I think this is a real contributing factor to quiet quitting, people feeling like, “Well, I’m kind of giving it bare minimum and that’s about it because I’m not really empowered to do more.”

And, also, what can lead to so many people leaving the workforce because they’re not given the space to really grow, to demonstrate their strengths, to solve problems in their own way. So, micromanagement, I think, can really light the spark that starts to have someone questioning, “Do I have a future here on this team?”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And then I’d love to get your take, what’s your sense of…I’m going to trim that out. Okay, we’ll just see how this goes. All right, Lia, so we’re talking micromanagement. We’ve also had some guests speak about the concept of undermanagement, they’re kind of managers sort of checked out, not paying attention, not really aware of the stuff that folks are working on. Do you have a sense for which is more dangerous?

Lia Garvin
Ooh, I love that. I think it goes back to depending on the situation and, potentially, the level of seniority that you’re managing, the level of complexity of the work. But undermanaging is a serious issue especially for folks that are newer, if there’s no onboarding, if you kind of get hired, you’re working out a year, bedroom, you haven’t seen anybody in person, and you’re trying to figure out how to navigate life in a new company, and your manager said, “Okay, figure it out.”

This can drive that same sense of disconnection with the work and with the company than having someone with all the details because you feel like you’re left on an island and you have no idea what to do. So, I think they both have serious consequences but they both kind of have the same, I would say the issues at its core, of a manager not having potentially the right confidence or the right skillset around how to actually manage effectively.

So, there’s a real skill gap, and that’s what I love to dive in with teams, is just figuring out, “Well, here’s the sharing, the fundamental skills that will help bridge that gap, how someone can feel more comfortable assigning responsibilities, or reining it in a little bit, but finding that balance, finding your own authentic style, and then where to deploy these different tools and different situations.”

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a sense for, given the state of management these days, roughly what proportion of managers are micromanaging, managing about right, versus undermanaging? It may vary wildly by industry, by geography, but what’s your sense on the ground?

Lia Garvin
I got to say I think a lower number are managing just right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lia Garvin
I don’t know, I would say, the under and over. I think I know less about, like, the percentages-wise. I think what I would guess is they come as a pair. Micromanaging can often look like that helicopter managing, which you know we’ve all heard of helicopter parenting, where you’re really, really in it and you’re kind of out on the sidelines where I think it can look like both.

And for different people, I think, doing micromanaging and then being absent, that’s a reaction to needing a sense of control, or feeling stressed, or feeling overwhelmed. People sort of fall onto these different patterns. So, I think it could both be a personality type and situational, which is your tendency as a manager when you have this skill gap. But I think, like I said, the lowest, and I got to say I think the lowest percentage would be people that found that balance and are doing it just right.

And that is because, again in this Gallup data, most managers are in the position of a people manager because they’ve been in the company a long time, or they were a really, really strong individual contributor, or they have really strong technical skills, so they’re given a team, and it’s like, “Go for it.” And there are some stuff that’s got to happen between getting a team and leading a team effectively that, I think, not enough companies are investing in.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, let’s say we see some of ourselves in that description, we’ll go both sides, as the manager and the managee, or the person working with the manager, if we are the manager and we’re doing some micromanaging, how can we cut it out?

Lia Garvin
So, the first thing I think, one of the actually…I’d say redo.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lia Garvin
So, I think the biggest thing that managers can do is switch from problem solving to coaching because when managers take on the responsibility of, “A team member brought this up, so I need to solve it for them,” they are never going to teach that person how to fish, so to speak. They’re always going to be needed to solve that problem again and again.

And so, talking to your team members using a coaching mindset, using open-ended questions when someone comes to you, saying, “Hey, I can’t solve this problem,” you’re saying, “Here’s how I would’ve done it.” You jump right in with a solution. That person hears that and maybe they go in, take that solution, and they don’t deploy it exactly as you would, and then they’re still stuck. Or, they take the solution and they deploy it, and it works out well, but then that happens again. Now, they come back to you for another solution.

So, I think when folks come to us with a problem, one of the easiest reframes a manager can do is to ask some open-ended questions, “What do you think went wrong? What are some of the other factors we can consider here? What did you learn here that you want to try next time?” So, these different kinds of open-ended questions allow the problem to be kept in the sort of problem-bringer’s court so that they’re working through the solution.

There’s absolutely opportunity to course-correct, and say, “No, no, no, here are some of the things that I’ve seen go wrong in that situation,” or offer more support, but really keeping that in the other person’s court helps ensure that you’re not holding on to too much control over a problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Anything else?

Lia Garvin
Yeah, I think I mentioned the strategies of making sure you’re checking in with yourself continually. I think for managers, when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed or burned out, or you’re in too many things, to just check in. So, maybe you start and put in the calendar, “Every Friday, I’m going to do a gut track. What does my calendar look like?”

“What kind of questions did people bring me this week? Where does my delegating look like?” so that you’re not letting it get too far where it’s been six months and you realize, “Oh, gosh, I’m in it and I think people are starting to quit, and I didn’t even realize it.” So, I’d say, to really have a routine where you check in on those three tip-offs of being really too far in the weeds so that you can course-correct before it gets worse.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if we are the one being micromanaged, how do we speak up effectively? That could be tricky, that managing up discomfort.

Lia Garvin
Oh, it can be really tricky. And this is why I think sometimes we take the route of just quitting, and going, “Well, I’m going to look for someone because I don’t want to deal with it.” I think a lot of folks struggle with doing that managing up, as you call it out, and giving that feedback.

And so, I think a couple things that I’ve tried in my career, I’ve seen folks find in order to deal with this, are, first, have a conversation with your manager around skills and things that you want to develop so that, at least, you’ve put it out there on, “Hey, here are some projects I’m interested in taking on this year. Here are some different things that I want to be building. Here are some things I’m interested in.”

So, you, first, feel like, “Okay, I’ve done the first step of having the conversation, putting it out there,” to the extent that you feel comfortable. If you’re in a situation where your manager, let’s say, dives in and starts, like, line-editing an email you sent, or telling you who to add to all the invites to a meeting, or whatever is happening that feels a little bit heavy-handed, saying something like, “I’m really excited to take the lead on this and to try and demonstrate that I kind of got this and I’ve figured it out, so I’d love the opportunity to take the first step and then come back to you for feedback.”

I’ve tried this, something along those lines, and it’s been well-received because you’re not saying in an accusatory way. You’re framing it around the way that you’re wanting to learn, and a good manager wants you to be wanting to learn, so it’s a little bit of a win-win there, and you’re still offering them an opportunity to give feedback.

So, you’re not saying, “Get out of here. I got this,” but you’re saying, “Hey, I’d like to try this. And can we check in once I’ve done the first round of it so that I can learn and then you still have an opportunity to give feedback?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, now could you give us some stories, examples, case studies, with just…what’s the word I’m looking for? Let’s see. No pressure. Sometimes I just think…this happens to me a lot, this is where I am in interviewing these days. Sidebar. It’s like I can imagine a dream-come-true response, but just like asking that direct question directly feels invasive, like I’m putting someone on the spot and setting them up to fail. So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

So, here’s what I really want, Lia. Give me awesome stories and examples full of so much detail I can feel my skin crawling with dread in self-recognition of the profound discomfort of being in that micromanagement space. So, see, that’s a ton of pressure. It doesn’t feel great. So, like, how does I say that better? That’s what’s going on in my head when I pause, Lia.

Because I like what I said, when you said, like, the specific people to add onto the email, like, “Oh, I can see myself there. Laptop and someone over my shoulder, and pointing, and me being like, ‘I hate this.’” I love that. I love that visceral emotional juiciness, and I want more of it. So, I’m curious if you’ve got some clients or horror stories that you can share with us. And now I’ll just ask that question like a normal person.

Well, Lia, could you give us some really juicy stories of micromanagement and the uncomfortable details folks are living with and, hopefully, some happy endings for how they resolved those issues?

Lia Garvin
Yes, absolutely. So, one of the examples that comes up a lot is with writing and communication. I mentioned line-editing emails, and I worked with folks that have shared they’ve had managers where they had to…let’s say they had to send out an email that’s going to the whole team, maybe a couple hundred people, and the manager wants to read the draft of the email, give inputs, they have 95 iterations.

Then it goes from structure into word choices, then you have a really robust in the Google comments on the side, a discussion of “Do we even want to send this? Is this the right word?” you’re getting grammatical suggestions, you’re getting all sorts of things, another person is added to the chain, that person is removed, we go back to thinking, “Do we want to do this email?” when you’re just supposed to write one email that was going to not really be a big deal. It’s announcing, like, a lunch that’s happening next Friday.

And so, I think this is the kind of thing that happens, is someone either they’re feeling out of control and so they go in and they just go to town on you. Imagining if you’re that person, “I was just trying to send this email out,” and the amount of kind of time and energy being spent on picking apart your little insignificant trivial email, it starts to really feel yucky for that employee.

Pete Mockaitis
It does, indeed. And so then, in that world, do we do just the things you mentioned? How might we say that? Like, “Hey, I’d love to show you I got this. I’d love to demonstrate my skills. I’d like to take the first crack at it.” It sounds like there are multiple cracks taken in this story.

Lia Garvin
Right. Which of the cracks are we…? Well, I think in that situation I might ask, and again it always depends on the relationship with our manager. I want to caveat that because I know some people listening might say, “Well, I can’t say that to my manager.”

So, let’s say if you have a dialogue where you feel like you could say something on the lines of, “It’s looking like we’re spending a lot of time on this email, and I want to better understand which of the situations where we really want to roll up our sleeves and dive in with this level of involvement? Or, which are the ones I can kind of run with to just be done with and get off our list?”

So, I think it can sort of flag, like, “Hey, this is a little bit much,” and also giving opportunity for feedback by asking an open-ended question that doesn’t sound defensive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Could you give us some examples of these questions or key verbiage, sentences you love that can be really handy here?

Lia Garvin
Yes. So, I think a little phrase that’s really useful is “I want to better understand.” Another could be, “So we can all be successful, I’m eager to learn and give this a try on my own, to build up my own skills here.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “I want to better understand” is way better than “So, what’s your deal, dude?”

Lia Garvin
“What the hell, man?” Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Well, and that really does help you out because that’s, I think, what’s frustrating with the micromanaging situation, is that that’s how I felt, it’s like, “Am I missing something here because it seems like this isn’t that big of a deal? You know, the time and effort and iterations you’re putting on this would make it seem like it is a big deal. So, seriously, help me, like, genuinely, help me understand. Isn’t this just a fun lunch that we’re announcing? Does it matter if everyone goes or doesn’t go?”

And then maybe, sometimes you’ll get a great answer, it’s like, “Well, actually, the issues being discussed at this lunch are very sensitive from a legal and liability perspective, so it’s very important that we don’t say anything that, in the course of a discovery, should we be sued, is going to put…” It’s like, “Oh, I had no idea.”

Lia Garvin
“Well, now I know.” Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
“Well, thank you, that makes a lot of sense why we’re getting into it.” Or, maybe they’ll just chill out, it’s like, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry.”

Lia Garvin
Exactly, yeah. And the key here, I think, a couple things, is really it could be frustrating when you’re in that moment, it’s like, “Oh, my God, literally, what’s going on?” When you’re under the micromanagement wrath, it can be very frustrating. But to take a step back, to sort of let that subside, to remove the frustration from the way you’re communicating, and to not come across as defensive, offensive, whatever, whichever one is more appropriate, like to not come forward with that.

Because I think when someone on the counterpart feels accused, it just makes it…it throws the whole thing off, and that’s going to be, I think, someone could say, “Well, of course, it’s important.” Especially, if they had a real big reason, they could think, “How do you not know that? Are you not taking care in time?” So, I think really having the conversation when you’re not feeling defensive or frustrated, really having an open, with curiosity, “I’m genuinely curious around this level of oversight and involvement, I’d love to learn more, I’d love to better understand.”

And so, this might mean it should not be written in an email or a chat. Like, I think there’s so much open for misinterpretation in written communication that just walking up to your…if you’re in person, walking down to your boss’ desk, and saying, “Hey, got a second? I want to better understand,” or asking to have a quick five-minute meeting over video conference, I just think it’s going to spare so much further miscommunication to actually talk face to face or over the phone if needed.

Pete Mockaitis
And as I think about the times I’ve been micromanaged, it’s funny, I think sometimes it’s my own fault and it’s necessary, it’s like, “Hey, Pete, there were several errors last time that were problematic, so we’re going to take some time to make sure we go through those.” And, in a way, that really was coaching.

But it felt like, “You’re all up in my business and I don’t like it,” but the older, wiser Pete recognizes it was necessary at that time and that season and that piece of work in that context for them to be up in my business, even though it was unpleasant and I didn’t like it. So, I think those were kind of my takeaway.

Lia, is it fair to say, sometimes, like the boy who cried wolf, the colleague who cried micromanagement, it may, in fact, just be appropriate management that just is uncomfortable and unpleasant in the moment?

Lia Garvin
Absolutely. And so, this is why one of the core programs and workshops that I offer for teams is how to give feedback effectively because, I think, feedback given ineffectively can feel like micromanagement. When you don’t have a strong relationship with your team, it can feel like micromanagement but, actually, we should be able to give feedback.

And I don’t want any manager listening to this to go, “Well, I can’t say anything to my team members.” It’s not that. It’s about, I think we said in the beginning of the conversation, getting to understand the style of communication that’s really the norm in the organization, in the company, in the team, and then meeting that, and if you’re really finding yourself hitting those kinds of tip-offs.

And that’s why the tip-offs weren’t people coming to you and saying, “Stop micromanaging.” It’s like, “What are the external signals that I’m too much in the weeds?” And so, that’s the difference there, is if we’re finding, then it’s a moment to check in. But giving feedback is critically important, and it’s one of the most important things you can do as a manager. And receiving feedback effectively is one of the most important things you can do as a non-manager because this is how you’re going to grow and develop.

So, I think feedback and micromanaging is very different. I typically see micromanaging as level of involvement, I think, in your direct reports or in your management chain beneath your business affairs day to day. And then if your level of involvement sort of could feel like you may think it’s feedback if it’s around some kind of deliverable.

But feedback, let’s say, on an email or on a presentation is reviewing it at a certain point maybe later on, not every second, and then giving some specific tips and waiting for someone to come back to you, as opposed to rolling up the sleeves and thinking you’re going to sit side by side and finish banging out the email together.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that expectation alignment is huge because, like, when it comes to decision rights or how that unfolds. I’m thinking other times I felt micromanaged, both of them I was like planning social stuff, and so I thought, “Okay, this is just for the kids,” if you will, the folks on the team who are in larger numbers, and there are relatively fewer sort of managers, directors above.

And, one, it was to say, “Okay, so what are going to do for the office-wide fun time?” And so, I did the survey, I put it out there, and I said, “Hey, what do you know, sailing is the thing they like the most out of the options. That is kind of cool.” And so, this director just kept digging into it, like, “Well, I’m curious if we really segment that data, my hypothesis is there’s a small subsegment of folks who are strongly in favor of this sailing, and many others…”

And it was like, “Okay, that is pretty convoluted, and, well, no, we could slice the data survey another way,” which we had, which is kind of ridiculous for a survey about the social stuff, it’s like, “Well, no, it still looks like this.” And then so what my takeaway was, “All right, dude, you just don’t want us to go sailing. It’d be nice if there were options that were totally unacceptable to you that you just let us know in advance, like, ‘For whatever reason, hey, sailing sounds really cool and fun but we can’t do that because of X, Y, Z. that’s going to be problematic for a large swath in our office who are seasick.’”

I was like, “Okay, fair enough. All right, you know what, we won’t even put it on the survey, and it’s good to know that upfront,” as opposed to, “We’re all stoned out sailing and then…”

Lia Garvin
And he said no, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Then to approve for these not great reasons in terms of, like, if we squint and sliced the data in such a way we can get there. And other times, there’s just a team event, like, “Hey, let’s go let’s do laser tag.” And I guess the manager who was in the room, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for that, like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s do it,” and he’s like, “You know, I don’t recall seeing a survey collecting the team input regarding the team activity.” I was like, “Oh, sorry. Well, we just got to talk about a few things, and this one was, by far, had the most energy and enthusiasm.”

And so, it was just sort of like…and then I was sort of shamed for inappropriately gathering incomplete feedback. It’s like I would just respect them so much, it’s like, “Dude, just say, ‘Hey, I want to participate, too. I know this is like for the kids or ‘whatever’ and I hate laser tag, and so I’d really appreciate it if you could find something else to include me.’” I guess maybe that’s too humble and vulnerable, or I don’t know, for them.

Lia Garvin
No, but I think that and then the example around the previous, where we’re talking about the email, what you’re saying is it’s transparency and context. Like, if there was a reason, say it upfront.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally, yeah.

Lia Garvin
Yeah. And I think you mentioned director in that, and that stood out to me as I think that’s a real…the level of seniority and the level of depth should match. And I think that’s another thing that can be frustrating, is when you have a VP or SVP or director that’s very in the details around planning something or orchestrating something that it just doesn’t feel like an appropriate match.

I think a senior leader, it’s really critically important to demonstrate interest and support for the team, this kind of stuff, but is it really necessary to be providing inputs on activity level beyond setting some expectations and constraints? Not really. Because what happens is that person, whether they mean to or not, will have veto power because they have the highest level of hierarchy, and then it throws off the whole dynamic.

So, I think for any senior leaders listening to this, I’d say recognize your own position in a company or a team, and think, “Hey, do I need to be in this conversation? Am I actually inadvertently throwing it off? Am I sharing my opinion and it’s carrying more weight because of my hierarchy, when it really shouldn’t?” and then taking a step back.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And just expectation, alignment, I guess I was thinking, like, “Hey, the senior leaders…” I guess the way I view the activities were, “These are primarily for us, because, one, we outnumber you, and, two, you make gobs of money, and then this is part of the recognition and appreciation for that.” So, anyway, maybe that’s an unfair view or characterization or expectation for the social activities. Wow, this is really…

Lia Garvin
Well, that’s interesting because I had that same observation working on my roles in tech or around team operations and establishing team process. And I always found that the recipients of process were actually very open to it. It was like other people that would say, “Oh, I don’t know about this,” other team operations or other managers, never the recipients of that thing.

And I think I understand what you’re saying because, like you said, the people that want it, they were going to engage in the activity, they’re all like downed with the laser and with the sailing. And so, that’s another question maybe to think about when you’re maybe shutting down an idea or giving feedback. When I talk about feedback, I always think I encourage people to ask, “Am I the right person to give that feedback?”

And so, in your situation, like, “Am I the right person?” is, “Am I even attending this event? Do I really care? And what’s my stake in this situation?” And I think, for the leaders in your situation, it’s like, “You know, I’m best suited just to support the activity, to pay the bill, and show up and welcome everybody, and like leave it at that.” So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And then, again, if they had a differing expectation, it’s totally cool to share that, it’s like, “Hey, you know what, this is a cool opportunity we have to really just flatten the hierarchy, in which the managers, directors, VPs, whatever, get to be silly and ridiculous right alongside, and it’s so stressful dealing with blah, blah, blah.”

Lia Garvin
Exactly. So, it’s setting that context up front.

Pete Mockaitis
“So, I know it might seem silly but we want to play, too.” And I would find that endearing, it’s like, “Okay, okay, director. Thank you. I understand. That’s cute. Let’s do this thing you like, too.”

Lia Garvin
Exactly. And so, like you said, it’s setting the context. I think with these team-related activities, there’s a lot of…I think it’s really important to be inclusive, make sure everybody can actually participate in the activities, that there’s not overtly focused on alcohol, or in they’re in the right times of day where people can participate if they have to be doing caretaking and pickup.

So, like there’s a lot of constraints, and I think sometimes, so it’s really important for leaders to set that context for folks so that they can then plan something that’s inclusive and appealing to everybody. So, there’s a lot to navigate, and it can be a trap for micromanagement, so a little bit of both.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it really can because I think it’s funny because, it’s like, “All right, let’s let the junior employees run with something.” It’s like, “This isn’t that important so you can just own it, but you don’t own it.”

Lia Garvin
Yeah, “But you don’t really own it.” And so, this is something when I talk about delegating that is so critically important, is there’s a lot of ways in delegating but saying, “What is the task? What does success look like? And then what is my expectation of involvement?” I think that’s the one thing that managers don’t always talk about.

They say, “Okay. Here, go run with this. This is what success looks like. We’re all good.” And then the manager is like, “Well, where we at with that?” And they want it to be regularly updated, they want to be in the loop, they want to know what’s going on at these different time periods. That goes in the conversation upfront.

So, if we say, “I want you to take on this status report that goes out every Friday,” if you really want a preview of that status report on Wednesday, you’re going to say that, not just show up Wednesday, like, “I need to see this today,” because someone thought they had till Friday, and then they’re going to feel like, “Oh, gosh, I had no idea that was coming.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Lia, tell me, anything else you want to make sure before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Lia Garvin
Yeah, I think there are so much opportunity right now with so much change in the workplace to really get right how teams are operating. And I think a lot of that comes down to, as we talked about today, really making sure our managers are set up for success, both for themselves so they’re not burning out, and for their team members so that they’re staying motivated, engaged, and enabled to do their work best.

So, I love working with teams, that is my focus, diving into figure out what’s really getting in the way of teams operating their best. So, if you want to learn more about that work or how to support your team, reach out at LiaGarvin.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Lia Garvin
Ooh, favorite quote. Oh, man, I’ve got to think about this in a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. No problem.

Lia Garvin
Oh, man. Ooh, okay. So, something that I’ve been finding inspiring is the quote, “Make the why bigger than the fear.” And this is something, I think, for any of us to think about that are doing something new. So, this was really motivating for me as I launched my own business and left the corporate world, was the thing that’s really fueling you to do it, let that be bigger than all the reasons that are telling you to stop and go back and keep it safe.

And I think, for teams, right now where there’s a lot going on, it’s really uncertain, people are cutting back, and so remembering, “Why are we here? What are we trying to create?” I think that can really help, especially if you’re a manager. Create a sense of certainty even when there’s so much uncertainty happening.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Lia Garvin
Yeah, my favorite study, I’d say, year over year, is the Lean In and McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace report. It’s a wealth of information around people’s experiences. They’ve added in the recent years the intersection of gender and race, and really deeply understanding the experiences of women, why women are leaving the corporate world in higher rates than ever.

This year, a lot of the information talked about lack of recognition and visibility. This is something that managers have so much control over, making sure people feel seen, like their work matters, making sure it’s getting the right level of visibility. So, that’s a study I go back to every single year as they put it out to really inform where I focus and some of the things that I can highlight for the teams I work with.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Lia Garvin
Favorite book, one book that I read over the holidays was I think “Expect to…” No, it’s “Lead to Win,” let me say that again. Let me make sure of my Audible super quick, make sure I got it so I don’t…okay. So, a book that I read over the holidays was Lead to Win by Carla Harris. And Carla Harris has these series of books around her pearls of wisdom. She was vice chairman at Morgan Stanley and has a ton of great insights around career, sponsorship, how to really build up your skills as a leader.

And this one specifically dives into how to build great teams, how to drive inclusion on teams, really kind of a playbook for managers trying to break through the next level. So, that’s something I’ve been really loving reading.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Lia Garvin
Tool, yes. Otter.ai, I believe, it’s called. It’s an app where you…it’s a voice notes app, but it does AI transcription, so it’s pretty flawless transcription. And whenever I have to write an email, now this is great if you’re, like, writing a cautious response to maybe some passive-aggressive behavior, or you’re trying to get your ideas out. I will speak out this email into the voice app, and then I have a great thing to copy and paste into my email.

I think a lot of times when we’re writing, we can get stuck on having the perfect wording. So, if I’m writing a bio for something, or, like I said, a difficult email, or something I’m just getting stuck on, grabbing the app, talking it out into there, and then copying and pasting, and taking the good parts, and having that be the written form is just a huge shortcut.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Lia Garvin
Favorite habit, I guess it’s called multitasking, but I have a walking desk, and I do work while I’m walking on the desk. So, I like to do two things at once that allow me to get two things done at the same time. Some call it multitasking. I would call it layering two activities.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Lia Garvin
Yes. When you’re feeling stuck, or you encounter rejection or failure, it’s not you. It’s your approach. And when you change your approach, you will change your outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Lia Garvin
Yeah, so I would say connect with me on LinkedIn. Wait, let me do that again. Sorry. Connect with me on LinkedIn. I’d love to hear from folks, especially what resonated from this episode, or reach out on my website at LiaGarvin.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Lia Garvin
Yeah, I think for folks, giving yourself a little bit of permission to be figuring it out right now. Right now, it’s a really, really hard time in the workplace. There’s so much uncertainty. And figuring out what do you need to be able to face every day feeling more optimistic or more supported. So, if that’s taking a walk, doing a meditation, whatever, making your favorite coffee, whatever it is, figuring what that thing is and building that into your routine so that you have a sense of, “I’m doing something for myself every day.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lia, thanks. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and little micromanagement.

Lia Garvin
Thank you so much.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

827: How to Make the Most of Conflict with Liane Davey

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Liane Davey discusses how to ease the friction of conflict to make way for more productive conversations.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why facts won’t solve a conflict—and what will
  2. How to productively respond to harsh criticism
  3. What most people get wrong about feedback

About Liane

Liane Davey is a New York Times Bestselling author. Her most recent book is The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track. She is a contributor to the Harvard Business Review and is called on by the media for her leadership, team effectiveness, and productivity expertise. As the co-founder of 3COze Inc., she has companies such as Amazon, RBC, Walmart, UNICEF, 3M, and SONY. Liane has a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology. 

Resources Mentioned

Liane Davey Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Liane, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Liane Davey
Thanks, Pete. I’m pretty excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your wisdom when it comes to conflict, and your work The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. This is a weird segue, but one time I had a consulting project where we had to get one of the world’s largest bakeries, a huge factory for cookies and crackers back on track. And I learned that you have a special love for factories. What’s the story here?

Liane Davey
Since I was a little kid, I used to watch this television show that they did factory tours of things like how do they make crayons, and that one has really stuck with me for 48 years, I think. And so, I just developed this lifelong fascination of how factories work. And not only do I watch the shows on TV, but now every chance I get, I will tour a factory.

And I have also been to a large industrial bakery and watched them make chocolate lava cakes. I have been to the factory where they make Ed shaving cream and Glade candles. And the best one, of course, the Mars chocolate bar factory. So, it’s just I love how the machines work. Industrial engineering just gets me really excited. I didn’t have any of the skills to study it or do it professionally, so I just hop on as a spectator whenever I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fun. And what’s the name of the show?

Liane Davey
So, “How It’s Made,” oh, when I was a little kid, it was called “Polka Dot Door.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Liane Davey
And I’m in Toronto, it was a local show here in Toronto. It was wonderful. They used to go through the polka dot in the door and open up to a video of a factory, but then “How It’s Made” as all of the mega machine type shows and extreme construction. There’s lots of them now, very popular.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is fun. I heard, I believe it was the I Love Marketing podcast, one of their hosts suggested that it’s a good exercise for marketing and business folks because it just gets…I don’t know, I find, I’ve only done it, like, four times, but I found when I did, there’s a bit of kind of like awe and inspiration that gets my mind noodling on, “Well, huh, what’s my podcast? How does that get baked? Where are the stuff? What are my bottlenecks? What can we improve?”

Liane Davey
When I learned that I wasn’t going to be good at engineering or building it, I started to think about the modern economy and what’s the equivalent of a factory or a machine in the modern economy. And, of course, the answer is it’s a team. In knowledge work, the team is the machine, and so I was like, “Oh, I can do psychology, that comes naturally.” So, that’s where I kind of still think of it as machinery, in a sense, but it’s just human machinery.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, Liane, you did the work of the trick of the segue for me because let’s talk about these machines, and sometimes things are not quite functioning properly in the realm of conflict. Could you share with us, what do most people get wrong about conflict? Or, what have you found supremely surprising and fascinating and counterintuitive in terms of your discoveries within this topic?

Liane Davey
Yup, teams don’t have enough conflict.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, not enough. I’ve heard that before. I think it was Pat Lencioni who mentioned it on the show. Please unpack that for us.

Liane Davey
Yes. So, conflict, which let me just define it because I think when there’s wars raging in the world and COVID mask-wearing fights on Facebook and everything else, I think conflict has got a bad rap, but conflict is just the struggle between incompatible or opposing needs, wishes, and demands. And by 10:00 o’clock every morning, if you work in an organization, you’ve faced many struggles between incompatible and opposing needs, wishes, and demands.

So, if we’re going to take a limited number of resources, a limited number of hours in the day, people who are overtaxed and overworked, and decide what’s the most valuable thing we can do be doing with their time, that’s going to require conflict because there are many things competing for their time and attention.

If we’re going to look at a plan and not just rubber stamp it but look at what are some of the assumptions, what are some of the risks, that takes conflict. If we’re going to give somebody feedback, that the way their work landed with us, or the way their behavior landed with us, is causing problems, that’s going to require conflict.

So, all day, every day, conflict is important, critical, to healthy organizations. And so, that’s what people are most surprised about. So, what we get wrong is that, as humans, we tend to run from conflict, particularly with our own groups. We believe that having conflict with those people is going to get us voted off the island, in some sense, and so we have far too little productive conflict.

And then we can also talk about, on the other hand, we tend to have far too much unhealthy, unproductive, harmful conflicts. So, we’re getting it wrong, we have too little of what I call tension, which is the kind of conflict that stretches us, and helps us grow and learn and optimize solutions, and we have too much friction, which is the kind of conflict that is about not listening, not budging, not learning that wears us down.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s very beautiful, Liane, the tension versus friction. Maybe it’s I don’t get enough kinesthetic metaphors in my life.

Liane Davey
So, the metaphor, if you want to take it further, so what I say is I use the word conflict, even though a lot of people ask me not to, I use it because I don’t ever want folks to have the expectation that it’s not going to be uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable. Even the healthiest most productive conflict is uncomfortable. But I always say tension is uncomfortable like yoga.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I was thinking weightlifting.

Liane Davey
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that one as well, right? But in both cases, weightlifting and yoga, the stretch of that tension is constructive. It builds muscle. It enhances flexibility. It makes us better. But, on the other hand, friction, if you want to play with the metaphor there, is like getting a blister. And there is nothing good to be said for a blister. It is that chaffing, agonizing, red raw kind of feeling. So, we want more tension, more that yoga-weightlifting stretch, and we want less friction.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Liane, I’d love it if you could zoom in and make this extra clear and real for us in terms of sharing a case study or success story of a team or a professional who had a whole lot of friction and how they converted that into useful tension.

Liane Davey
Yeah, absolutely. I’m working with a team right now where issues have built up, and what I refer to as conflict debt. So, just as we can get into debt by sort of charging things we can’t afford to our credit card, we get into conflict debt by just deciding we don’t have the energy or the time to address issues, and we just put them aside. And, unfortunately, the interest compounds, and we get ourselves into bigger and bigger trouble as that conflict debt piles up in a team.

So, I’m working with a team that’s in a considerable amount of conflict debt, and there’s a lot of friction. And the friction is being experienced as, “They’re arrogant. They don’t empathize,” and it’s all coming out as things that are very subjective. The behavior has now got to a point where “I’m not even responding to their emails. I don’t even want to talk to them.” And so, we’ve reached this stalemate where that’s where I got involved.

And so, the work is to say, “There is tension in here. There is something uncomfortable that we need to talk about, get into the open, so that we can do a better job of understanding the realities and the constraints for everybody involved.” But the problem right now is there’s no chance to resolve the tensions or kind of come up with a solution that optimizes because everyone is experiencing it as friction.

And so, one of the things that you can do is really take the way that you’re feeling. And so, if you’re feeling that is someone is arrogant, that’s a judgment. And arrogance is probably more about how you’re experiencing the other person’s behavior than about what the other person is intending. So, the first thing to do is to just notice that you’re making a judgment, and it’s not real or objective. It’s true that it’s your judgment, and so we don’t want to invalidate it, but we want to start by kind of saying, “What is making me feel that they’re arrogant? What is it that I’m seeing or hearing, or not seeing or hearing, that is leading me to that conclusion?”

And as a very first step, just interrogate your own judgments because those judgments are going to be a big, big source of friction. Once you can kind of interrogate the judgment, you want to, again, not invalidate it, not tell yourself that “I’m not allowed to feel that way” but, instead, to try and translate it into, “Okay, if I wanted to communicate that to the other person in hopes of changing the interaction, how can I say it in a way that is either useful feedback so I could determine what’s their behavior and how am I reacting to it?”

So, I could say something like, “When, in the last three decisions we’ve made, we’ve gone with your recommendation over my recommendation, I feel like my ideas aren’t valuable. I feel like they’re not getting a fair shake.” So, we can sort of take what was judgment about arrogance and translate it into behaviors, “You selecting your ideas over mine, or somebody else’s over mine.”

Or, we can make a request. We can say, “What I would really love is if when you go with a decision other than the one I recommended, could you help all of us understand how you took my input, how you used it, how you mitigated the risks that I mentioned, even if we’re going with the other decision?” So, that’s really a big thing.

When you have friction, when you get into a hole, when you get into that conflict debt, you’ll tend to have a lot of judgment about other people. So, listen to it, interrogate it, and then translate it into something that is constructive, something that is positive tension and move forward from there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, as I put myself into that situation, I’m imagining the person on the other side saying something you really don’t want to hear, which may be the unpleasant truth, which is, “Well, the input that you have provided historically has been inaccurate and risky,” and I guess, here, we’re doing some more labeling or judging.

Liane Davey
That is what’s most likely to happen, right, so keep going, keep roleplaying that and I’ll answer it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. “Well, Liane, I appreciate you being able to articulate this to me. I guess the challenge we’re facing is that in those three examples that we’ve explored there, your input was inaccurate, and risky, and showed a basic lack of understanding about the core issues that we’re dealing with here.”

Liane Davey
“Wow, that’s pretty unpleasant to hear, a lack of understanding, and risky. That’s certainly not my intention. What do you see as the things I wasn’t paying enough attention to? Or, what else do you think I need to understand to be in a position to offer more valuable advice or suggestions in the future?” So, what you want to do is not allow people to throw judgment back at you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Liane Davey
So, I do think it’s the way you roleplayed it is very true. People will often say “Well, you were risky, or ill-informed, or…” that’s what they’ll give you, so be prepared for that. But the key thing in that situation, so what I was trying to show is it’s okay to say that that just felt like a sucker punch. It’s okay to be human.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I’m sorry, Liane. Even though it was a roleplay, it felt hard saying it.

Liane Davey
Right. And so, it’s okay to say, “That’s really hard to hear. Like, I’ve never had that feedback before.” So, it’s okay to react for a moment, to just buy yourself a little time, or even, with some folks, I just recommend don’t even worry about getting a lot of words out. Just say something like, “Ow,” and then give yourself a moment to then say, “Okay.”

And you can either, in the moment, say, “What does risky look like? Could you share with me what I was missing, what made my recommendations risky? Or, what else do you think I need to understand, or learn, or appreciate to…” and so you can go right after then. Or, you can say, “Ow,” and say, “I’m going to need to reflect on that for a bit. Can I follow up with you on this later? Or, could I ask that we have another time where you help me understand what risky looks like and what it means, and where we go from here?”

So, first of all, don’t let someone judge you. I think that’s a key piece of advice. Make them do the hard work of giving you something objective because you did the hard work to be objective with them. And then don’t be afraid to let people know that you are human and it can be hurtful when somebody judges you.

And then, finally, lead on whether you would like to have that conversation now, or whether you need a little bit of time, but do come back to a place where you can find out both what happened that didn’t work the first time, and what could look differently so that it goes better the next time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really excellent. And as I’m imagining the conversation playing out, I guess you’ll realize that, again, doing more labeling and judging, it’s like, there’s a chance, I imagine it’s slim, Liane, maybe you’ve got the data, that you are dealing with just a full-on sociopath or a total jerkface who just has no…

Liane Davey
Five percent.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, 5% – who has little regard for your feelings or whatever. But I guess, more likely, you’ll hear something which is useful or on its way to being useful in terms of, “Well, Liane, you failed to consider just how sensitive issues X, Y, and Z are for stakeholders A, B, and C. And those are really hot-button issues, and it’s pretty cavalier to just mention them in this flippant context which could really set them off and make our team look bad.” And it’s like, “Oh, I had no idea that those were hot-button issues for those stakeholders, and now I know.”

Or, it’s like, “Your proposals seem to overlook the fundamental fact that a key part of our valuation is the Wall Street perception of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s like, “Oh, you’re right. I thought all that mattered was cashflow or profitability.” Like, “Okay, hmm.” So, that could, indeed, unlock some insight, or often that’s a problem with feedback is that it remains into this fuzzy land in terms of…

Liane Davey
Right, it’s not feedback.

Pete Mockaitis
“You just need to be more of a team player, Liane.”

Liane Davey
Right. So, let’s stop on feedback for a moment because I feel really passionately about this one. What the vast majority of people called giving feedback is actually making evaluations. It’s not feedback at all. So, feedback, true feedback is to give the other person new insight about how their behavior is impacting you. So, I could say, “Hey, Pete, when you sent me information to prepare for this conversation,” so that’s totally objective. It’s immediate.

Pete Mockaitis
That happened. For the record.

Liane Davey
I say, “I felt like you really take this podcast seriously, like I was excited to be on a podcast that is so professional.” That’s feedback. So, the feedback is not novel information about you or your behavior. It’s novel information about me or the impact of your behavior. And what we do most of the time is we just walk around flinging in judgment at people. And in this case, it’s positive and so people think it’s okay, “Hey, Pete, you’re so professional.”

Pete Mockaitis
Hey, you’re right, I don’t mind that at all.

Liane Davey
Right. But I encourage people, I call that praise. It is unconstructive positive messages. And I encourage people to practice on the positive because if you practice on the positive and get it wrong, you’re not going to get in much trouble. When you move to the more constructive or negative feedback, it becomes more dangerous and higher stakes, so you want to practice on the positive.

But what you’re doing is when you’re giving somebody feedback, if you tell them what they think, if you tell them how they feel, if you tell them who they are, that denies somebody’s personal sovereignty and it’s likely to lead to a really unhealthy conflict. It’s not going anywhere good. If you describe their behavior as objectively as possible in a way that you go, “You’re right, I did send a four-page document about how to be prepared for this podcast.”

You’re going to be nodding and saying yes, and then so I might’ve given you it as constructive feedback, “I was pretty overwhelmed, I was nervous that I’m not ready to be on this podcast, or I’m not good enough.” I could’ve given it as constructive. But, again, the key thing is that your behavior is not something you’re going to debate or disagree with in my feedback. What you’re going to be surprised by and learn from is, “Oh, I didn’t intend to intimidate a guest. I was trying to help you feel prepared.”

So, getting feedback right and actually delivering feedback, giving people the gift of candor, what I would say is candor, for me, is me being willing to be uncomfortable for your benefit. So, it’s uncomfortable if I had…it’s, of course, not true because I felt very positively about the preparation for the podcast, but if I had felt intimidated, being vulnerable and saying, “That was intimidating,” opens me up to saying, “I’m not as professional as your other guests.”

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re not committed. You’re not willing to do the work, Liane.”

Liane Davey
Right. So, candor is me being willing to be personally uncomfortable for your benefit. But I’d like you to know, just in case there are other guests in the future, or in case your intent was not to intimidate the guests, or those sorts of things. So, if we could just get that one thing fixed up, if we could start giving proper feedback, and stop evaluating and judging, like feedback most of the time is just evaluation and judgment in sheep’s clothing. So, if we could stop that, we would deal with a lot of the friction that’s going on at the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh, Liane, this is a lot of good insightful stuff. And I’m thinking about that notion of, in my consulting brain sees a two-by-two matrix, in terms of constructive-unconstructive, like, “You’re very professional.” It’s like that feels good but it doesn’t help me. And now I’m thinking about Russ Laraway who talks about continue coaching is like praise or comparable.

And so, I guess, the constructive point might be just something like, “Hey, I really recommend you make sure you keep doing that. Like, if you switch calendar software providers, make sure people still get that thing because it’s so good.”

Liane Davey
Right. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.”

Liane Davey
Yeah, exactly. Or, I could ask a question, like, “What’s one new insight you’ve had in the last month and not incorporated into the document yet?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure, yeah.

Liane Davey
I could ask you something like that to help you more deeply process something you’re doing well. So, yeah, the two-by-two is, “Is it constructive or unconstructive?” And, “Is it behavior I want you to do more of or do less of?” So, that would be what people tend to call positive or negative feedback but I don’t like that term but it’s, “Do I want more of the behavior?” so coaching forward. Or, “Do I want less of the behavior?” and so that’s the two-by-two.

So, praise is everywhere. So, praise like, “Good job.” And if you want a fun research tidbit, Dr. Nick Morgan, so, yeah, Nick is a great friend, and Nick cited some research, so I’m going to get the stats wrong. But it’s something like 60% of folks who receive a text or an email or a comment that’s just “Good job,” about 60% of them interpret that as sarcasm. So, you think you’re praising someone, you think you’re being nice, and they’re like, “Oh, oh, well, fine,” they experience it as sarcasm.

So, that’s all the more reason to not praise people, which is that unconstructive, “I want more of this,” and instead to go to the effort that we’re talking about of giving positive feedback, “So, when you sent out that document, I felt so prepared, I felt confident signing on today, I’m really interested. Are there any new things you’ve realized that you haven’t added to the document yet?”

Handing that baton back to you to process it a little bit more deeply, one of the things that’s good about that is lots of people don’t like getting that positive feedback. They’re a little squeamish or awkward or uncomfortable about it, so they just kind of let it kind of float away. So, by asking you a question, like, “What’s one insight you haven’t incorporated yet?” it forces you to process that positive feedback to work with it, to internalize it a little more so it makes it stickier.

On the behavior we’re trying to get less of, asking the question is really…so, in the case of, where we’re talking about being less arrogant, saying something like, “How do you want to be perceived by your colleagues in operations?” would be a way of forcing the person to process, “Oh, okay, if you’re telling me that the way this lands as I’m smarter than everybody else, processing the question of ‘How do I want to be perceived’ forces me to work with that information,’” again, making it stickier.

So, yeah, so the great pieces of good feedback are sort of orient the person to the situation, describe their behavior, then give them an insight about you, and then pivot the conversation to processing it more deeply, and, “What am I going to do with that information?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so much good stuff, Liane. Well, I’ve got all these questions I want to ask, like, how do we work to the emotion of conflict? And it sounds like we hit it right there. But were there more?

Liane Davey
Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy. Okay.

Liane Davey
Oh, yes. Okay, emotion is a big, big, big, big, big important topic for me. We’re not good at it and a lot of our conflict debt is because we don’t want to broach the topic because we fear triggering an emotional reaction, and sometimes that’s a very positive thing, it’s like, “I don’t want to hurt these people. I care about them,” and sometimes it’s a bit of a selfish thing, “I don’t want them to not like me anymore,” or, “I don’t want them to yell at me because that would scare me.”

So, one of the things we need to understand is that, I say this all the time, facts don’t solve fights. Period. And if wearing masks debated on Facebook is not the perfect evidence that facts don’t solve fights, I don’t know what is. But you coming up with some examples of where two people were wearing masks and they both got COVID, and, therefore, isn’t it clear that masks don’t work. And me posting back some article from science magazine showing respiratory droplets, you know, nobody is changing their mind based on that fight with facts.

Instead, we need to understand that fights are about values and beliefs and things that matter. And so, emotions are simply clues that we…I always talk about this. If the dragon starts to breathe fire, you know it’s protecting treasure. So, facts are just the wall of the castle, they’re very unimportant. But if the dragon is breathing fire, yelling, crying, getting angry, pounding the table, then that’s your clue, emotions are very, very helpful clue, that there is something going wrong that there is a value that they hold dear that feels at risk, feels threatened, and that’s why you’re getting the fight that you’re getting.

So, emotions are one of the most important datasets we get in organizations, and emotions don’t always come out as yelling or tears. One way emotions often come out is people start to dial up their language. So, all of a sudden, their sentences are including, “You always…” and, “We never…” and, “Every single…” we start to use absolutes, we start to see sarcasm pop in to people’s comments.

So, all of these things, whether it be tears or sarcasm or any of these other examples, are just signs that there’s emotion present, which means there are values at play in this conversation. And so, trying to put more facts or try to take facts out of the brick wall is not going to help. What you need to do is try and get the brave knight to lower the drawbridge so you can come in and you can find out what’s actually going on.

So, I think emotions are…and a different metaphor, if you don’t like the fire-breathing dragon metaphor, a different metaphor is emotions in the workplace are a lot like pain, not something you want very often but very useful if there’s an injury because they tell you to slow down and stop and pay attention, and it gives you the opportunity to figure out what’s actually going wrong.

So, I find we treat emotions as something to push through as quickly as we can, to suppress, to invalidate, to just say, “Well, this is business, not personal,” or, “Suck it up, buttercup,” when emotions are one of the most valuable datasets that we have in an organization, and it’s so important that we use those data to figure out what is this fight actually about.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when we talk about values, well, I’ve seen long list of values, and I guess I’m also thinking about fundamental human needs in my head is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication talking about, “I felt like my need for respect wasn’t being met and so I felt angry.” And so, when you say values, are you thinking about a short list on a menu, or are you thinking about it could be hundreds of things?

Liane Davey
Yeah, I think it can be hundreds of things. So, I was working with an organization, a high-tech computer organization, and we were debating about whether they needed to do a layoff or not. And the CEO was advocating pretty strongly against it, while the general manager of the unit that was in the red was advocating pretty strongly for it, and they really…there was a lot of friction. It wasn’t a constructive conversation.

And so, one of the ways to get values on the table in business is to ask the question, “Okay, what are the criteria for making a good decision here? Because it’s kind of cold, and people think that’s an okay thing to say in the world, where, “What do you value?” just doesn’t feel like…” So, when I said that, the general manager said, “Well, I really value performance. I am here on behalf of the shareholders to make sure this business is profitable, and I wear that responsibility very heavily.”

And then the CEO, interestingly, said, “Well, you know what, for me, I feel like tech companies have mojo, and if you lose that mojo, that’s worth more than a couple of quarters in the red. You don’t get it back, and so I’m thinking about that.” And so, those…

Pete Mockaitis
Now, Liane, if I could time out for just a moment.

Liane Davey
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Mojo could be defined a few ways. Could you unpack that a smidge?

Liane Davey
Yeah, absolutely. So, Silicon Valley companies, and actually this is a great time to be saying that, their valuations, both in the stock market but also in the eyes of potential employees or users, they are often quite disconnected from reality. They are not about how much revenue or profit the company makes. There’s just something more about brand, more about hype, more about excitement. Some companies have momentum behind them and some don’t.

And this was a company that had a lot of momentum. It was seen as a cool company, a company people wanted to invest in, a company people wanted to work for, and so the CEO’s concern was that, “If we do our first layoffs, then the big risk is that we lose that and we never get it back. We never go back to being a company that’s never let a single person go.”

So, this was a few years ago now, and it was just so helpful to have that on the table and to be able to talk that through because he’d never articulated it. The general manager couldn’t figure out why the heck the CEO was willing to have his business be unprofitable. And so, once we could talk about that as, “These are all legitimate things. Now, how do we balance them? How do we make tradeoffs among them? How do we decide which way to go?”

And, actually, what was really cool about it is then we got away from the friction and into a really powerful conversation with really good tensions that led to a completely different option, which was, “We have other business units that are quite profitable at the moment. Could we move some of the folks, the really key talent, over to the other unit for a while, make some real progress there, never have to let go people who would be very hard to replace but also give the other business a little bit of a chance to recover, cut its costs.”

So, once we got to everybody feeling heard, everybody feeling that the things that mattered to them were part of the equation for the solution, then they just got so much more creative, then they got out of this adversarial scenario and into, “Let’s really think about this together. If we’re trying to solve for profitability of the business, if we’re trying to solve for keeping the mojo of the company,” others then sort of started to add.

The chief technology officer was the one who raised the issues that, “These are people with specialty skills that we’ve been training for 10 years. If we lose those, we don’t get them back.” So, his addition in things he values to the criteria conversation is what unlocked this possibility of, “Could we secund them into a different part of the organization?”

So, when we feel heard, when we feel understood, when we feel like our treasure matters to other people as well, then we settle into, “All right, now we’re smart people trying to figure out how do we balance these things.” So, it’s a very, very useful and constructive productive conflict technique.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Liane, before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things, I’d love to hear if there’s any super quick and powerful tips and tricks that make a world of difference?

Liane Davey
Yeah, there really is. And the one sort of magic trick of all of this is that most of the time we walk around the world working so hard to have people understand our experience. As Stephen Covey used to call it, we sort of strive to be understood instead of seeking to understand. So, there’s a technique I call validation, which is just when someone says something you disagree with or you think is a dumb idea, pause for a moment, and, instead of shooting down their idea or telling them why it will never work, validate them by saying, “Okay, so you think we should host a customer event in Q1.”

So, all you’ve done is reflect. And then be curious. Ask, try and understand, that’s coming from somewhere, something they value, and just ask a big open-ended question, “What do you see is the big advantages of that? Tell me your thought process. What got you there?” something of a big question. And then listen and ask and reflect until you feel confident that you can kind of get their truth out of your mouth.

Then you might say, “Okay, so for you, you’re worried that our marketing launch didn’t bring the benefits of this new approach to life for our customers. And until they feel it in a different way, until they can maybe put their hands on the new product, you don’t think sales are going to go up, so that’s why doing an event in person feels like the right solution for you.”

What you’ll find is when you speak their truth, their truth, even more importantly, when their truth comes out of your mouth before your truth does, it will be an entirely different conversation. It will shift to truly a conversation, a dialogue, and it won’t be a fight. Then what’s cool about humans is we work on reciprocity.

So, when you’ve taken the time to understand their truth and listen and validate them, they will be highly likely, unless we’re with the 5% of sociopaths, but if we’re with 95% of the population, and then you say, “The way I was thinking about it was that before we talk to our customers, we need to do another round of training with our sales staff. I’m not sure they’re ready to tell the message in a compelling way. So, I was thinking that that was the issue. How do we get the right balance between our sales team and going directly to our clients?” or you can ask whatever other question.

But when you’ve spoken their truth first, when you’ve added your truth, not as something more right or more worthy, but you’ve added it as a second truth, and then you’ve kind of pivoted to, “Hmm, okay, what are our options here? How do we deal with this?” you will find, you avoid, you neutralize 80% of conflicts in your team.

And the one thing, I know you have a young one at home, I have a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old daughter, and this method, it got me through the entire teenage years. If you validate a teenager, if you make them feel heard, if you’re curious about why that’s true for them, and you get their truth out of your mouth first, they actually will hear you out. They will let you coach them. They will stay with you.

So, this technique, my guess is every single person listening will be able to use this technique today at some point because we tend to do the opposite. We invalidate people, we push for our truth, or why our idea is smarter or all of these things first. And if we flip the order, and said, “Okay, let me make sure I know your truth. And as soon as we both know that I know your truth, then I’ll add mine.” It changes everything.


Pete Mockaitis
Thank you, Liane. Well, I’m curious, any particularly memorable exchanges with a teenager that you could share with us as an illustration, like, “Oh, that’s how it’s done”?

Liane Davey
Well, the first, I’m going to first tell you how not to do it because it’s memorable because I did it wrong. When the elder one was in Grade 10, she was taking music because she loved music, and she came home one day and proclaimed that she hated her music teacher, and I blew it. I kind of looked at her, I don’t like the word hate, and I definitely don’t like it aimed at a teacher.

So, my response was, “You don’t hate your music teacher,” which, if you remember, we were talking about this sort of cardinal rules of respecting someone’s sovereignty, and telling somebody else how they feel is not cool, not allowed. And so, I blew that. So, it took me about three weeks to earn back the right to talk to her about this.

Pete Mockaitis
And what did she say, “I do, too. You don’t understand, mom. Shut up”?

Liane Davey
Well, she started and then she just stormed off, the heavy thumps up the stairs and the dramatic slamming of the door, and she was right to do that. I had really overstepped. I had blown it. And so, when I tried again, do-over, you have to do do-overs with teenagers, when I did the do-over, I just said, “Hey, I want to go back to this, and it must really suck to hate your music teacher because you got an hour and 20 minutes of that every single day, and I know you love music.”

And even just me saying that, me just validating that that must be rough, changed her entire body language. And so, then I said, “What’s going on?” And I, being a horrible person, had assumed that this was the teacher who’d finally figured out that she never practices, but that wasn’t it at all. I’m so bad. It turned out that this teacher, there was a kid in the class, probably a neurodiverse kid would be my guess, sitting still, not fidgeting was a challenge for him.

And this old-school teacher just would have no part of it, and she was leaving him, bullying him, my daughter said, and leaving him in the hall for the majority of almost all classes, and that’s why she was so upset. It wasn’t on her own behalf. It was because somebody else was being wronged, and my kid is a social justice crusader.

And so, I said, I could then speak her truth, “So, you’re really worried that Ms. T is quite unfair to Gibby, you’re worried how this is affecting him. Okay.” And, first of all, I was proud of her for feeling all those things. And then I could say, “Okay, now what I’m thinking about is how do we make sure you don’t lose your love of music? How do we make sure this doesn’t affect your grade? Can we find you other outlets for your love of music outside of the classroom?”

And she was totally willing to entertain those things once I had been clear that this was about the injustice and the teacher’s behavior in the classroom. So, invalidating her cost me three weeks, and that was extremely costly, and it was modeling terrible behavior, and I had really blown it. But when I came back to it, and I said, “Look, I’m sorry about that. I blew that and I really want to understand and I want to hear you.”

And when I was open and listened and reflected her experience of the situation, then she was so keen to talk with me about, “What can I do? And what are my other options?” And those were really, really powerful. And she’s a junior in college now, and we have great conversations about hard things now because I finally figured out that this validation technique, which just takes a little practice, completely changes the tone of all of our conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you, Liane. Well, now, if we could hear a bit about your favorite things. Could you start us with a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Liane Davey
“When everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Liane Davey
So, we’ve been talking so much about cameras on and cameras off, and Zoom and all those sorts of things. New piece of research that when we’re having these hard conversations, when we’re trying to understand values and emotions and those sorts of things, it turns out the telephone is much, much better at promoting what they call empathic accuracy than these web calls.

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

Liane Davey
So, if you really need to connect with someone, if you’re in conflict, if you need to understand where they’re at, and if you want to be more accurate in empathizing, go for a walk, put in your earbuds and talk on the phone.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Liane, that’s so fascinating and counterintuitive. It seems like aren’t we missing out on all these facial expression indicators with the phone? Do we have hypotheses as to what the mechanism is by which that is so?

Liane Davey
Yeah, so it’s new research. So, first of all, we get a lot more information from voice than we think. So, like, here’s my mini experiment for you. If you close your eyes, I’m going to talk, and, at some point in talking, I’m going to start smiling. Could you hear it? Did you hear the difference between? So, right now I’m not smiling, and now I’m smiling.

So, what happens is when you pull up the muscles in your face to smile, it lifts up your soft palate, changes the shape of the resonant chamber of your mouth, and it’s absolutely something that we can pick up on. So, there’s more data in the voice than we think or know. And new studies are saying that we take up a lot of bandwidth, cognitive bandwidth, in trying to process people’s facial expressions and body language, and we’re not always very accurate about it.

So, what you’re doing in going to the phone is you’re getting rid of all of the energy it takes to process and misprocess that facial information, and you’re really keying in on what is actually quite high-fidelity data coming from pitch and tone and words and all those sorts of things. So, yeah, really fun, exciting, new research coming out.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. Thank you. And a favorite book?

Liane Davey
Well, I guess if you want relative to this topic, I would say Chris Voss’ Never Split the Difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Liane Davey
A former FBI hostage negotiator, and it’s just full of many fascinating stories and insights. And I know that, thankfully for most of us, the stakes are not as high as hostage negotiations in most of our collaborations. But there are many things to be learned from Chris’ stories and examples.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Liane Davey
So, I am a big fan, so my PhD is organizational psychology, so I am coming to every conversation with the understanding that while we want to have one-size-fits-all, and we want to have the perfect advice, that individual differences play far bigger of a role than we yet appreciate on teams. So, I use a tool called The Birkman. It’s a very deep and insightful psychological assessment tool, and I don’t leave home without it. I don’t work with any teams without having that understanding, deep understanding, of the individual. So, Birkman would be my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Liane Davey
This is not a productive habit, but I am so in love with, you know the Wordle craze?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Liane Davey
I did Wordle. I’m not a big fan of Wordle because some days I get stuck and it makes me feel dumb. But it’s expanded and it’s had babies. It’s gone to Quardle, so it’s four words at a time, and now Octordle, which is eight words at a time. And so, every morning, I do the Octordle, which sounds ridiculous, and I then text my results to my 89-year-old mom who lives far away, and she texts me back hers. And that habit, which is just a little tiny moment of connection to start my day, feels really great.

Pete Mockaitis

And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Liane Davey
That facts don’t solve fights one does come back to me a lot. Maybe another one, since I’ve already said that one, is communication comes from the Latin root commune, which is to make common. And so, in this email-Slack kind of world, I always say, “You can’t make common as one person. So, you can’t communicate to someone. You can’t communicate at someone. You can only communicate with someone.”

So, communication cannot be accomplished on your own. You cannot send an email and check off, “I have communicated.” You only communicate when it’s actually been a two-way process, and you have made something common. And in conflict, I think we communicate with each other far too seldom, so that might be another thought that is helpful to folks. Who have you communicated at that you need to communicate with?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Liane Davey
So, if you want come and interact with me, I always talk about LinkedIn as my couch. Come and sit on my LinkedIn couch and let’s talk about interesting things about making teams happier, healthier, and more productive. And if you want to dive into the treasure trove that is about 500 articles and free resources, that’d be my website LianeDavey.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Liane Davey
Yeah. So, this is a big one because I think the vast majority of us are conflict-averse, we don’t like it, we get into conflict debt, we avoid it. So, my call to action is that some things are worth fighting for.

Pete Mockaitis
Liane, this has been such a treat. I wish you much fun and productive conflict in your interactions.

Liane Davey
Thanks so much, Pete. I have had a blast.


821: How to Keep Calm and Defuse Tensions in Conflict with Hesha Abrams

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Master attorney mediator Hesha Abrams shares her tried-and-tested strategies for navigating conflict with ease.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to actually calm people down in an argument 
  2. The four part process to defuse any situation
  3. The magic phrases that help any conflict 

About Hesha

Hesha Abrams is an internationally acclaimed master attorney mediator, with a unique talent to manage big egos and strong personalities and a keen ability to create synergy amongst the most diverse personality types, driving them toward agreement. Specializing in crafting innovative solutions for complex or difficult matters, Hesha has resolved thousands of cases in every conceivable area during her career including over the secret recipe for Pepsi. She coaches executives in politically difficult situations to prevent conflict and speed resolution.

Resources Mentioned

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Hesha Abrams Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Hesha, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Hesha Abrams
My pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to hear some of your wisdom about Holding the Calm: The Secret to Resolving Conflict and Defusing Tension. Could you start us with one of the most tense situations, negotiations, mediations you found yourself plunged into, and tell us the juicy dramatic details of the story?

Hesha Abrams
Oh, goodness. I have so many, it’s hard to choose. But the one that people seem to like the most is that I mediated over the secret recipe for Pepsi.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, do you know the secret recipe for Pepsi?

Hesha Abrams
I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Hesha Abrams
I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it just carbonated water and high fructose corn syrup?

Hesha Abrams
No, I’m sworn to secrecy. I’m sworn to secrecy. But what’s interesting is that the recipe is different in different parts of our country and in different parts of the world. So, what it really is, is a trademark for Pepsi, Coke, things like that. It’s really their trademark that they have to protect so they can’t allow anybody to use a recipe and then change the trademark and be, let’s say, “Pakistani Poopsi tastes like Pepsi.” And that would be disastrous.

And so, that was a very juicy, very interesting case. But I’ve done cases for Google, and Facebook, and Verizon, and Yahoo, and Nvidia, and IBM, and Microsoft, and all the major players, and then tens of thousands of individuals trying to find some level of justice. And that’s why I joke when you said, “Share your wisdom.” What I want to say is it’s battle-tested.

I have been boots not only on the ground but in the trenches of human conflict with blood and guts on my boots. And there’s lots of good books out there that talk about theory and philosophy and ideas about resolving conflict but I wanted to write a tool book, “What do I do with my idiot brother-in-law?” “What do I do with this horrible boss?” “What do I do with this terrible neighbor, or friend, or supplier, or client?” fill in the blank. What are the things you can do right now to improve the situation?

And, literally, that’s why I wrote the book. This shouldn’t be for professionals only. This should be for everybody.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful stuff. And, Hesha, we can edit this out if we need to, but am I to understand you’ve literally had human entrails on your boots in a wartime scenario?

Hesha Abrams
No, I’m being very overly literal, and I like it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, there’s a dramatic story. I think that’s the one maybe that we needed to…all right. We’ll see.

Hesha Abrams
We should not edit that out. That’s terrific. But I have had people spit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

Hesha Abrams
I’ve had people get into a fistfight. I had two oilmen once that were both billionaires fighting over, whatever it was, I don’t know, $10, $20 million, which is pocket change to them, want to come to blows, and I literally put my body in between them. So, things get pretty intense when you’re dealing with amygdalas being triggered and bumper kart egos, and, “Mine, and you’re not going to take mine.” Well, we act at our most cavemen/cavewoman best, is what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Hesha Abrams
And it’s normal. Every single one of us. You poke on amygdala enough; people are going to roar. And so, the question is, “What do you do when someone’s poking you? What do you do when you want to poke someone else? How do you get out of it?” That’s the thing, is how do you freaking get out of it? And I have easy tools, easy ways to do it, and I’m so glad your listeners are listening so we can talk about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m glad, too. So, tell us, is there anything that’s particularly counterintuitive or that most of us get wrong in our conception of conflict?

Hesha Abrams
Yes, and that’s a great question. So, let me give you an analogy that I use. Spaghetti sauce. You drop it on the counter, you take a wet sponge, you wipe it right off. No big deal. You leave it overnight; you’re scraping it off with a spatula. You leave it three or four months, it’s old and moldy and nasty. And that, my friends, is conflict.

And so, why don’t we just wipe it up when it’s wet? That would be so easy. Well, we don’t because we’re afraid, we don’t know how. We’re afraid it will get worse, we’re afraid to know how to handle it, and so we close our eyes kind of ostrich-like, and just hope it’ll go away, and hope it’ll get better. And I’m here to tell you it doesn’t get better. It just gets old and moldy and nasty, and it finds a way to erupt at the most inopportune times because all conflicts, 100% of it starts with tension. Every single one.

Even if it’s the silent, “Mm-hmm” thing. We just don’t notice it because we’re not trained, we’re not taught, we don’t have these Holding the Calm tools to know how to wipe the spaghetti sauce off when it’s wet, so it’s harder, it’s older, and nastier and harder. And to stay with the analogies, sometimes people pee in their own bathtub, and you can’t get it out. You got to drain the whole tub. So, how can you avoid it and then how can you drain the tub when you actually need to? So, those are analogies between spaghetti sauce and peeing in the bathtub people aren’t going to forget.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, just to be really clear here. I’m getting the message associated with the spaghetti sauce in terms of addressing it quickly. Now, the peeing in the tub, what are we saying there? It’s like that seems another metaphor. I’m thinking it’s like, “Oh, I shot myself in the foot,” but maybe you’re getting at it’s hard to separate urine from bathwater once they’re intermingled.

Hesha Abrams
Correct.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very visceral imagery. Thank you. Okay.

Hesha Abrams
Which means we won’t forget it. You’ll think about it now. We can always say, “Oh, don’t put your foot in your mouth,” right? But we all do, we’re all humans, and we do. What do we do to get out of it? How do we get out of the doghouse? How do we avoid getting in the doghouse to begin with? That’s what this Holding the Calm stuff is about. And it works with giant CEOs of giant Fortune 100 companies, global conglomerates.

Why? Because those guys and gals have egos just like the rest of us, and they want to win, and they want to not lose, and they want to look good just like if we’re fighting over a hundred bucks or a hundred million. It’s honestly the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then, maybe before we go into some of the detail tools, is it a general principle, like the spaghetti sauce, you recommend we go ahead and address stuff quickly before it becomes extra, like it will have a tendency to grow nastier and more vitriolic over time? Is that the general pattern you see over and over again?

Hesha Abrams
Well, it depends. Yes, often that is the case, but a lot of times, just again, I give so many analogies because people will remember the analogies of what we talked about. Let’s say there’s a bomb in the town square. That guy waddles out his Michelin soup. He doesn’t just start cutting wires. He looks. He diagnoses it. Is it pressure switch? Is it chemical switch? What is it?

And what tends to happen is that we react, we don’t diagnose. We don’t take a step back. If I’m in conflict with an extrovert, that is going to be a different set of tools than when I’m in conflict with an introvert. Just that simple thing right there. Also, what if somebody is a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner? That’s easy. It’s just one, two, three. And if I can give you a list, there’s an example of that. It’s paying attention to the verbs.

“So, I see what you’re saying. That looks good to me,” somebody is a visual learner, I’m going to use visual cues with them. “I hear what you’re saying. That sounds right to me,” they’re an auditory learner, I’m going to speak auditory words to them. Kinesthetic means that you touch and you feel, and they’re going to say, “I don’t get it,” or, “That doesn’t feel right to me,” or, “It’s not good in my gut.” All right, that’s a kinesthetic learner.

So, when I’m talking to them, it’s just like, a Samsung versus an iPhone. They’re both smartphones but completely different operating systems. So, when you’re interacting with someone, the first thing you do, like the bomb detector, is you look at them, you listen to them, you let them talk for a minute. And while they’re talking, you’re listening to content, of course, but I’m going to say to myself, “Are they introvert or extrovert? And are they a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner?” That’s it.

Now, I have a wealth of knowledge. Which tool am I going to use? Am I going to use a scalpel or am I going to use a sledgehammer? Am I going to delay or am I going to push? Am I going to deal with feelings and emotions or am I going to deal with tasks, process? It’s not hard once you know to look for that, and that’s what I go over in Holding the Calm is the easy simple ways to be able to do that, and sentence them so that you can just simply ask, and then people will reveal themselves to you easily.

And then when you respond to them in their own operating system, they’re not going to say, “Oh, thank you for noticing that I’m a visual learner and speaking to me in visual words.” No, they’re just going to go, “He gets me,” “She gets it,” “I feel heard. I can trust her,” “I can believe in him. He’s got integrity.” That’s what they’re going to say.

And all it is is that you met them where they were. You hit them with their frequency, and you resonated with them. And all it takes is a few moments of holding the calm, stepping back, and diagnosing. And it’s incredibly simple. And that’s what some of the things that I lay out in Holding the Calm.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so we take a step back, we listen, we diagnose, we see, “Are they introverted, extroverted? Are they visual, auditory, or kinesthetic?” And then we just use those types of words or visually words versus auditory words? And just like that we have an extra degree of rapport in the room?

Hesha Abrams
Indeed.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that sounds easy.

Hesha Abrams
Indeed. It honestly is.

So, there’s a corollary story that I wanted to add here. I heard this on NPR’s Hidden Brain. There was a couch company that sold bespoke customized couches, $20,000 and $30,000 for a couch, custom arms, custom piping, custom fabric, blah, blah. People will go through the process, and a huge percentage of them at the point of sale would not complete the sale. Well, the company was very frustrated.

So, what do we normally do when we have a problem? I joked that we have flat foreheads because we smash our heads against the wall all the time. So, you usually have gas in the car or you have a brake. And what we usually do is we do gas, we push forward. So, the company did more sales, more promotion, more discount, more marketing, and it didn’t do anything.

Finally, they put on the brake. Remember the bomb detector analogy I gave everybody, stepping back and diagnosing? And they had somebody call all the people that didn’t complete the point of sale, the vast, vast majority. Do you know why they didn’t buy this $20,000 couch? Because they didn’t know what to do with the old couch.

So, the solution now is obvious. “When you buy the new one, we take away the old one,” but it didn’t dawn on them because they hadn’t taken the time to diagnose and to find out and to put the brakes on. That’s a huge beautiful example of holding the calm.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re a pro.

Hesha Abrams
So, one of the things, the way I designed the book is I didn’t want to make 15 volumes. I’ve got 35 years, like I said, in the trenches of doing this. What would be immediately accessible for people? So, I wrote 20 tools in 20 chapters, each one with stories and anecdotes. And I’m going to give some of them today on our talk, and I give them away to people. I say, “Take my stories. These are battle tested. They work. Use them with other people.”

Just imagine what happens. Somebody says something, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to school you. We’re going to tell you where you’re wrong, how you analyze it incorrectly. We’re going to bring you additional data. And everything we’re doing is like that finger-in-the-air schoolmarm going, “You’re not right.” And what does the person do? He just shuts down, not listening to a doggone thing you say because no one, even if they are wrong, responds to that. It’s just not going to happen.

So, what you do is you build some kind of rapport, and you can do it with, “Oh, well, you’re a golfer, I’m a golfer,” “We both like to bake.” But then the person has to be self-revealing to tell you stuff about themselves, and in conflict, they’re not going to. So, all you have to do is listen, like that bomb detector in the town square, and as they’re talking, you’re going to hear these things. So, now, I know how to speak to you. Now, you feel listened to and heard. Your amygdala calms the heck down because never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.

And they actually train cops and police officers in that. You don’t walk into a volatile situation and say, “Calm down. Calm down.” All you’re saying to somebody is, “Whoa, you’re out of control. You don’t know what you’re doing. I do. I’m going to take power and control from you,” which just freaks them out more. So, you back off, let the person breathe, lets you breathe, and, now all of a sudden, you’re an ally instead of an enemy, and all kinds of magical cool stuff can happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds beautiful. Can we dig into some of these 20 tools? Are there a few that leap to mind in terms of having a really good bang for the buck in terms of, “Oh, this is not very hard, and yet it makes a world of difference in these situations”?

Hesha Abrams
Indeed. So, chapter one is speaking to the ears that are hearing you, and that we just talked about and there’s more, obviously, than what I can do right here, but that’s at least giving you a start. Let me give you an advanced technique that’s not as easy. It takes a little more effort but not very much, and everyone is going to laugh when I say this. If you’re dealing with somebody difficult, VUC them. I was going to with…

Pete Mockaitis
With a V.

Hesha Abrams
Yeah, “What did she just say?” I’m going to say, yeah, you VUC them because they can’t VUC themselves. And it’s V-U-C-S, and I came up with that purposely because everyone knows what they’re thinking they thought I said. Now, you won’t forget it. So, V-U-C-S. The V is validate, the U is understand, the C is clarify, the S is summarize.

It’s a four-part process to defuse anything. And when I say anything, I’m not using hyperbole. Anything. I’ve mediated multibillion-dollar cases. And late at night, you know what we’re talking about? The CEO is asking me about his idiot brother-in-law that he’s got to deal with, or a problem at work, or a problem with his private school kid’s coach, a Lacrosse team or something like that, and how does he handle that. That’s what we’re talking about.

So, this is a human being thing. It works for all of us. And that V of the validate is the number one. It’s the WD40 of interpersonal relations. But where it gets hard is that if you can validate, sure, go ahead, “I see your point of view. I can understand why you’re so upset. What happened to you was wrong,” blah, blah, blah. But let’s do the advanced class. Let’s say you can’t do that because you think the other person is wrong or an idiot or arrogant, self-righteous, stubborn, misguided, I mean, fill in the blank with whatever you want. How do you validate then?

Here’s the trick. You name the emotion. That’s all you got to do, “Wow, you sound angry.” “I’m not angry, I’m frustrated.” “Okay, you’re frustrated.” Now, I got data, don’t I? “Okay, help me see that. I want to understand.” Now, I’m going to say, “Help me see that,” if they’re a visual person; “I want to hear more about that,” if they’re an auditory person; “I want to understand that more,” if they’re a kinesthetic person.

And I’m just listening to them, and then using verbs. Literally, verbs. And someone may say listening to us, “Ugh, that sounds a lot of work. That’s too much.” Really? I can do it in two minutes. Or, you can spend the next hour fighting with somebody. What’s less work? And by starting with just the V, validate if you can, and if you can’t, just name the emotion, hear what they’re saying, let them talk. Then the U is the understanding part.

Unless someone is completely psychotic, really ridiculously psychotic, they have a point. You may not agree, you may not understand it, but they have a perspective and they have a point. So, dismissing them as, “Well, you’re just an idiot,” or, “You’re stupid,” or, “You’re misguided,” or blah, blah, blah, and, unless again, they’re psychotic, they’ve got a point I want to understand so I’m going to ask some questions.

And I have all kinds of sentence stems in the book that I tell people, write them down on a Post-it note and stick it by your phone or your computer, or put it in a note in your phone so you have it at the ready when something like this happens. And they’re wonderful because they just let people start to talk, and that’s the U for understand. Because when you do that for somebody, they’re going to feel understood.

Then the C is to clarify, just ask questions, “Okay, how would that work? Under what circumstances would that happen? Does that always happen?” those kinds of questions. Then, at the end, you can summarize, “Okay, so what you’re concerned about is this, and you feel like it’s unfair, or you don’t like the way this happened, and you’re looking for this kind of a response.”

In a complicated situation, that’ll take me 40, 45 minutes. In a more simple situation, 15, literally. Or, you can spend the next two days fighting with somebody.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, the whole V-U-C-S taking 15 to 45?

Hesha Abrams
It depends on the complexity of the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Hesha Abrams
And how well you do it, quite frankly. The better you do it, the quicker and easier it is. And the bonus is, at the end, the person is not going to hate you, they’re not going to think you’re awful, or you’re dismissive, or you’re disrespectful, or you’re offensive, or all the other things that people think when they’re not listened to. They’re going to feel like, “You get it.”

And often the position will soften because someone is actually listening to them. And people will start to say things, like, “I know I said that but, you know, it’s not really that bad,” only because you defused the tension. You wiped the spaghetti sauce up when it’s wet. You off-gassed the tank so that it wouldn’t explode. Just that simple stuff is wet-spaghetti-sauce wiping, which maybe should be the title of the next book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, perhaps. And can you give us some examples of these stems?

Hesha Abrams
It depends on the situation. That’s why I have them divided throughout the book because it depends on the situation. So, let’s say you’re having to deal with somebody that is just obnoxious, or all of these DEI stuff we’re talking about these days. You think he’s racist, or sexist, or homophobic, and they’re just saying stuff, and you’re taken aback. You don’t know what to say or how to say it.

You can say, “Did you intend to offend me with that statement?” You will see backpedaling like you don’t want to know. No one’s going to answer, “Yes, I intended to offend you,” right? And if they are, then I’m going to VUC them, I’m going to say, “Well, you’re really passionate about that. I want to understand why.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Hesha Abrams
Now, all of a sudden, I have another tool that I can use. And let me give your listeners what to do at the Thanksgiving table or the Christmas dinner table with that one relative that just always says nasty stupid stuff, either because they really mean it or because they just like to get your goat, and you know that happens at the table.

A great one is to turn to them and say, “Do you know what I admire about you?” Freeze. Everybody pauses. That guy will pause, ears, boing, are going to open, and then you can say anything you want, “Your passion, your curiosity, your ability to hear both sides of an issue,” whatever you want to say, there’s no retort to that, there’s no answer to that, so it stops and everyone else around the table will smile and nod, and say, “Thank you for shutting that down,” and then you go back to eating turkey.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m thinking if it’s the person who just says stuff, it could just be, “Your courage. I would feel sheepish and embarrassed to spout the things that you’re saying.” I guess you don’t say it that way. But I guess that is something I would admire in terms of I tend not to say things that will trouble people willy-nilly because I’m scared.

Hesha Abrams
But that’s the whole reason why I wrote Holding the Calm for everybody because that’s the wet spaghetti sauce. We don’t say anything because we’re scared and we don’t know how to do it. But if you say to somebody, “You know what I admire about you?” how is that bad? It stops the conversation immediately.

And then find something to fill it in with, “That you’re so passionate,” or, “That you’re so punctual, you’re always on time,” or, “You always dress so well,” or, “You bring the best potato casserole,” or, or, or, whatever you can actually say. You can make it harder and firmer or you can make it gentle and easy, but either way, it stops because nobody is going to say, “Oh, I don’t want to hear the rest of that sentence.” “What I admire about you,” “What I respect about you,” “What I like about you,” nobody is going to say, “Eh, don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it doesn’t need to be at all related, it doesn’t need to be at all directly related to what they’ve just mentioned?

Hesha Abrams
Exactly, isn’t that great?

Pete Mockaitis
You could just absolutely, “You’ve got great taste in earrings.” Okay.

Hesha Abrams
And it shuts it down because, let’s say it’s something weird like that, “You have great taste in earrings.” How do you respond to that? What are you suppose to say? It just stops the conversation. So, holding the calm is pragmatic. It’s not Kumbaya, “Let’s hold hands and walk through the meadow together.” We live in a jungle, there’s predators out there, there’s real-world stuff we have to deal with.

So, I wanted to make this book extremely practical for real-world stuff. So, sometimes all I want to do is get you to stop because that’s all I can do. Sometimes I want to get you to understand. Sometimes I want to get to make a cold peace with you. Sometimes I want to get to make a warm peace with you. I want correct a misunderstanding, repair a relationship, move us forward. That’s sort of the spectrum.

You choose whatever it is you want to do, whatever your courage wants to do, whatever your need is. Maybe you only see this person once a year at the holiday dinner, or you don’t have to see your boss very much, or your neighbor, or, let’s say, your spouse, those kinds of things. You figure out what it is you want and then apply it however you want.

And then what you’ll find is it’s so easy that the more you do it, you’ll say, “Oh, hot darn, those were like magic beans. They worked. All right, I’m going to try something else. Oh, look at that.” That’s how it actually happens. I got 30 years of doing this, and I’m telling you the same techniques I’m teaching all of you. I walk into a conference room, and one guys says, “Give me $100 million,” and the other guy says, “Here’s $100,000, hands down.” How do I solve that?

Everyone’s got fancy schmancy lawyers, they went to Ivy League schools, that are everyone smart, and they’re arguing over all kinds of stuff. How do I get that settled? With all the stuff I’m telling you, because it’s human beings, whether you’re wearing a T-shirt or a $5,000 suit. It’s exactly the same.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then it sounds like, in that particular scenario that you highlighted, in terms of there’s a huge gap associated with the financials that people are willing to go for, you’re not so much, it sounds like, getting into the particulars of how one arrives in an appropriate dollar amount technically, financially speaking, so much as the human emotional side of things. Is that fair to say?

Hesha Abrams
Again, I hate to keep saying it depends on the circumstances. That’s why I go through that in the book so that it’s not one-size-fits-all. Let me give you another example. There’s a guy named Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and they were psychologists. And before them, Adam Smith’s rational man was the way economics was built. Human beings are rational, we make rational decisions, it’s all databased. And those of us in the social sciences know that’s just not true. It’s just not true.

Well, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proved it mathematically and scientifically, and they won a Nobel Prize in economics for proving that. And it’s absolutely brilliant how they do it, and so I’ll give you a quick short example. Bananas, 25 cents each. I’d buy a couple. I’m going to make a banana bread. Bananas, four for a dollar, 35% boost in sales.

Now, that’s just dumb. Why would it make any difference at all, and you want an extra 10% boost in sales? Limit two. That guys is going to knock at my bananas. I may have two bananas that rot and get all brown and nasty, and I got to throw them away. But look at that, how it works on the human brain. And people that are trying to sell us, the data people, the retailers, they know this stuff. That’s why you see price points the way you do.

It used to be that 4.99, people will see it as $4 not $5. $499, they will see it as $400 not $500. Even at 4,000 versus 5,000, that’s how the human brain works. Now, we can say, “Oh, you wouldn’t fool me with that. I look at 499 and I know it’s 500 bucks. I get that.” Not your brain, not the part of your brain that makes decisions. It will see it as, “Ah, that’s pretty reasonable, it’s about 400 bucks.” No, it’s not. It’s 500.

But that’s why they keep doing it that way because they know how we think. And you know who are masters at this kind of stuff? Casino owners. Do you ever notice in a casino, there’s no clocks, there’s no windows? They want to have people not know what time it is and not have anything about the outside world. They want them completely total captive audiences, and the drinks flow freely. That’s not because they’re being generous.

They want to keep you at the table because they know the odds are they, of course, are going to win, and they’ve absolutely figured out mathematically how often the slot machines need to ching, ching, ching, ching, ching and have somebody win, and how little they can have the win before it will hit the dopamine receptors in their brain like a chicken in a pen hitting that pellet to get that pellet out, they know it mathematically. That’s how amazing it is because we take human beings, and we put electrodes all over their heads, and shove them in MRIs. We know all kinds of stuff about the human brain works.

Scientifically, it’s just that normal people haven’t been able to catch up to how it is so we still think, “All right, you know, bananas, four for a dollar, that’s a good deal, even though I only need two.” So, to understand how human beings think, honestly, is a way to serve them better. Now, of course, people can manipulate, a fork can be used to eat or stab you, so every tool can be used different ways.

What I try to do in Holding the Calm is it’s very ethical and there’s high integrity to it, and the basis of it is service, “How can I serve you better by understanding you, by being on the same wavelength as you?” It’s better for a negotiation, it’s better for problem-solving, it’s better for team building. This kind of stuff is used for all of that. All of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’d also love to hear a little bit more about some particular words and phrases. We’ve heard some about matching the visual versus auditory versus kinesthetic. We heard saying “Calm down” never does the trick. And we’ve heard “You know what I admire about you…” is magic. Any other magical words, phrases that you love or really hate?

Hesha Abrams
So, I have a whole chapter on percentages which I find so interesting. People will speak in superlatives or in generalities, “We always do this. We never do that.” And 20 years ago, I’ve done a lot of…I probably made 10,000 speeches in my life, and I’ve consulted and trained all over the world. I’ve done a lot of this stuff. And I would have big groups, and I could guinea pig and try different new things and see how they would work.

And so, one day, I just thought of that. And so, I had a large group, and I said, “What percentage of the time does always mean?” And then I had people write it down, and then we facilitated up in the front on a big flipchart. Always goes from 100% down to like 65. Now, the people that say always is a 100 think the 65-ers are idiots. And the 65-ers think the 100s are extreme.

How about with never? You think never is zero? Au contraire, monsieur. It is not. To a lot of people, never is 20%, maybe even 25%. The same with rarely and a lot. So, I have a whole thing in there where I call it “Always Never, Rarely A Lot.” People will use those four words all the time. And by all the time, I mean 100% of the time.

So, if somebody is being adamant with you, “We never do that,” let’s say you want to return something, you just practice easy negotiation, and you go return something at a store, “We never do that.” “Oh, what percentage of the time is never?” “Well, it’s like 80%.” “Oh, so what are the exceptions that fall into the 20%?” Bing, bing, bing, bing. Now, I got information. Now, I got data.

People will say that, “Oh, we never do salary raises,” or, “We always do salary raises, or salary evaluations at the end of the year.” “What percentage of the time is always?” Now, if you get 100%, okay, now, you have information and you can feel comfortable, “Right, it’s happening at the end of the year. Well, I think 75 or 80% of the time.” “Oh, so what do we do the other percentage of the time? What would be the reasons for that?”

Now, it’s a pathway in and you have information. And look at all you did. You asked a clarifying question, “What percentage of the time is always, never, rarely, a lot?” and you’ll like it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s so funny, Hesha, well, one, that’s eye-opening, like, “Wow, I never would’ve guessed,” so that’s insightful and powerful right there. Thank you. I guess I’m thinking I am in the camp that always does mean 100% and never does mean zero percent. And if you asked me the clarifier, “What percentage is always?” I’m almost insulted, like, “Well, of course, it’s 100%. That’s why I said always. Otherwise, I would’ve said often or frequently or most of the time.”

Hesha Abrams
Isn’t that great?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, now I’m intrigued. That question doesn’t rub people the wrong way or do you have alternative variations you recommend?

Hesha Abrams
Well, what’s interesting is sometimes it does. And then let say it does, “Really?” and then you ask somebody else, “What percentage is always to you?” And, guaranteed, even with CPAs, even with accountants who are very numbers-oriented, it will vary. And then somebody else will say it. So, if you’re afraid you’ve got somebody like that, you ask a couple people in a room.

And it’s a technique that I use often if I have to do large groups or if I’m meeting with a board, for example, and I’ve got a bunch of people. I don’t want to say to people, “You know, we all have different perspectives, and we all think about things differently, and we have to be open to blah, blah, blah” That’s like nauseous. No one wants to hear that kind of garbage.

But I say, “You know what, who wants to do a fun little exercise?” No one’s going to say no, and I do this little exercise. And you can do it on one of the words. I would do it on at least two or you can do all four. And then as people go around the room, and they say different percentages, then somebody like you, Pete, will go, “Huh? What? No. You think that always is 80%? How can you think that?” “How can you not think that?”

And then, all of a sudden, a new interesting conversation opens up. And it’s a way of having people see for themselves we are very different. We think very differently. It’s not just a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, introvert, extrovert. Baskin and Robins have 32 flavors for a reason. There’s a lot of different things that people want.

And even something silly. Let’s say I’m in a more casual group and I want to do an icebreaker thing. I may say, “Okay, choose, salty or sweet?” And sometimes people go, “Huh? What?” “If you had to choose, potato chips, French fries, or cake cookies?” You will see people divide up instantly into their salty-sweet teams. Instantly.

And then you know what kind of happens? “That other guy across the room who I hate, he’s a salty and I’m a salty, he’s a sweet, I’m a sweet, are you kidding me? How can I have anything in common with that guy? And what if we’re the only two in the room that both think that? Oh, God, now I got commonality with that guy?” It begins to bridge some of that.

I’ll give one more thing just because I’ve done so much of this. I experiment and then I come up with new ways of trying to make these points because people will get it better if they can get it themselves. It’s the whole “teach them to fish, don’t give them a fish” thing. So, I once did this just on a lark, literally on a lark. I was on a big Zoom conference call probably 10 years ago. I was doing Zoom a long time ago, and I had all these people and they looked super bored and disinterested, and, “Okay, I’ve got to get these people attached.”

So, I said, “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” And everyone went through it, and, all of a sudden, people started having conversations because, “Ooh, the vanillas are purist,” or, “The chocolates like it to be decadent,” or some of them wanted the gooey, chocolatey, ribbony, nutty, rocky road-y thing. And then people couldn’t stop talking and it created this commonality between people.

And at the end of the training, when they did the evaluations and they’re all saying, “Oh, it was so great.” “What was your favorite part of it?” A huge percentage said the stupid little ice cream exercise that I literally made up on-the-fly. And that’s because it was so personal to them, “This is me. See me. Hear me. Validate me. And now let me bond with you. I don’t care what I bond over. It’s ice cream.” It’s a sports team, it’s a politician, it’s a food restaurant.

Human beings have this clannish desire to bond and connect with each other. And when you create and foster ways for that to happen, I’m telling you, barriers fall down, things break down. It doesn’t have to be this big huge fancy schmancy stuff. In fact, the big huge fancy schmancy stuff doesn’t really work. It’s too big. It’s really the small.

I have a whole chapter in the book that I call “Small Winnable Victories,” that you don’t solve problems with big huge things. You solve them brick by brick, stone by stone. You dissolve problems from the outside so that they melt in. You create commonalities to where, “You know, I really thought I hated you and you were an idiot. But it turns out you’re not so bad, you know.”

And I’ll give your listeners a quick easy, easy way to deal with somebody you absolutely dislike or despise, and you got to deal with them. Look at them, ask yourself one question, “Would they pull my kid out of a burning car?” And if the answer to that is yes, which 95% of the time it will be, they’re not so bad. There’s something redemptive.

And if, in fact, they did pull your kid out of a burning car, you’d have a very different relationship with them. So, we start from that place, and it just lets walls start to come down so solutions can be found, team building can happen. This stuff works, I’m telling you. It works.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s so funny, it’s like as I think about that question and folks I might be at odds with, it’s sort of like my bias is tilting or slanting me so it’s just like, “Okay, statistically, yeah, maybe 95% is probably the overall view. It’s like, but I’m really not so sure about this guy.”

Hesha Abrams
That’s marvelous. That’s marvelous because it means that you’re demonizing him or her unless and until they do something redemptive, and they may not, so you pretend. And if you can pretend, it’s like the placebo effect for your mind. If you pretend that they actually did do something redemptive, all it does is give you more avenues and ways to deal with them because in Alcoholics Anonymous, they have this great saying that says, and I’m not sure if they originated it or not but I’ve been told that, that, “Resentment is poison that you drink but expect the other guy to die.”

Think about how amazing that is. Poison that you drink but expect the other guy to die. And what happens with this paradigm-shifting technique I’m teaching you is it stops the poison, and you get to a point where, “You know, you’re still a jackass but you don’t bother me anymore, you don’t affect me anymore, you can’t harm me anymore.” There’s tremendous freedom and power in that. Tremendous. Tremendous.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. Well, Hesha, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Hesha Abrams
Well, I wanted to remind people I created a website HoldingTheCalm.com. And my goal with this is to just get this out into the world because I feel like we were all cavemen, cavewomen shoving food in our face, and I want to give people a fork, a knife, a spoon, chopsticks so we have better ways to handle things.

So, I put all my podcasts on there. I’m doing webinars. And I’m just putting everything free. Just download it and take it. And I’m doing this little one-minute videos. So, people don’t have time, and we’re all so busy, so it’s a quick one little minute video on a little topic with one of these techniques or one of these ideas that you can like or forward it onto someone else, and say, “Hey, this might be good for you, too.”

So, I have that, and I have a discussion guide in the back of the book. And, originally, the folks wanted me to sell that as a separate workbook, and I refused. I said, “No, I’m giving this away for free, and I want it in the back of the book,” so that if you’re an organization, or a company, or a church, or a homeowners’ association, or a family, any group of people, and everyone gets the book, you can go through the discussion guide which is like five pages, so it’s nothing.

And you just start asking questions of each other, then it makes it real, and it makes it to be, “What percentage is always for you? What percentage is it for the other guy? Really? How can you think always is 80%? I don’t understand that.” Then you’ll learn something about them. They’ll learn something about you. It creates this team-building bonding thing that actually creates a little bit of Teflon against conflict, which is really pretty magical.

So, that’s why I did it that way because my goal is to just get it out there and help people learn to do this better because we don’t teach this in school. We’ve got people running around shooting people because they’re so angry and mad, and write nasty things on social media because there’s no off-casting valve. So, anyway, this is my little tiny contribution within my sphere of influence to try to help make the world a little bit more harmonious, so that’s my message. And if it resonates with you guys, please, take it, use it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Hesha Abrams
Well, I’m a major Trekkie, so I love Captain Jean-Luc Picard, he said, “Only impossible until it’s not.” And I like that. And I would tell you, I have one more that I put in the book, actually, both of those are in the book. My husband has a friend who’s a Navy Seal, and Navy Seals, as part of their training, have to tread water for, like, ever, and they’re supposed to do it until they die is the concept.

And so, my husband asked this guy, “So, how long can you tread water?” He said, “I don’t know, I’m not dead yet.” And I think about that, at least for myself and for everyone else, “How big can I get? How smart can I get? How loving can I get? How forgiving can I get? How graceful can I get? I don’t know, I’m not dead yet.”

And I feel like if we all sort of be continuous learners, which everyone has to be listening to your podcast, they’re continuous learners, and they’re committed awesome people or they wouldn’t be listening to this kind of podcast, how big is big? I don’t know, I’m not dead yet. So, let’s get big, everybody. That’s the goal. That’s my little inspirational speech for the day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Hesha Abrams
Well, I love the Daniel Kahneman-Amos Tversky thing. I love there’s a chapter in the book I have on politeness and stability matters because there was a study done in England, literally, scientifically, about “Does politeness actually get you anything? Can it actually work?” And it does. And they figured out, neuroscientists have found that there’s 187 cognitive biases in our brains, and one of them is called the bias of reciprocity.

And, again, unless you’re a sociopath, and you’re just like a normal person, which is the vast majority of us, if I do something for you, you kind of feel compelled to do something back for me. You get invited into someone’s house for dinner, you bring a bottle of wine or flowers. There’s this, “I don’t want to be in debt to you. I want to do that.” That’s what politeness does. Simply being polite and civil in engenders politeness and civility back. And I love that study.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite book?

Hesha Abrams
Oh, God, I have to many. Should I be a dork and talk about my Star Trek books that I read like candy? I consume the right candy.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intrigued. What’s the dorkiest Star Trek book you own?

Hesha Abrams
Oh, God, they’re all marvelous. I just got done finished reading one on Kathryn Janeway called Mosaic by Jeri Taylor that was just fantastic. I really like that one. But I read a lot of neuroscience stuff. I just got done with Erik Barker’s Plays Well with Others which was just fantastic, really marvelous. I read – what was that other book about – Influence by Robert Cialdini, of course, is marvelous, the Ken Blanchard books are always good because they’re trying to make the world a better place. So, I have the nonfiction stuff that I enjoy, and then I have my guilty pleasures.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Hesha Abrams
HoldingTheCalm.com, it’s got everything you need.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Hesha Abrams
Oh, what a great question that is. The Navy Seal analogy. I would suggest that what you do is write down on a piece of paper why you’re good at your job. What is it that makes you good at your job? And then, tomorrow, do it better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Hesha, thanks. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun in your conflict resolving.

Hesha Abrams
Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

819: How to Stop Avoiding Conflict with Sarah Noll Wilson

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Sarah Noll Wilson shows how avoidance harms work and relationships.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The many consequences of avoiding conflict
  2. The key to overcoming avoidance
  3. How to train your body’s fight-or-flight response

About Scott

Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah Noll Wilson helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching, Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health. 

With 15+ years in leadership development, Sarah earned a Master’s Degree from Drake University in Leadership Development and a BA from the University of Northern Iowa in Theatre Performance and Theatre Education. When she isn’t helping people build and rebuild relationships, she enjoys playing games with her husband Nick and cuddling with their fur baby, Sally.

Resources Mentioned

Sarah Noll Wilson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Sarah, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thanks for having me. I’m really excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, I’m excited to hear about Don’t Feed the Elephants!: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Relationships. But, first, we need to hear about you and your fondness for accordions.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Some people picked up baking during the pandemic, I picked up playing and collecting accordions.

Pete Mockaitis
Collecting. How many do you have?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Eight.

Pete Mockaitis
How much space does that take up in the home?

Sarah Noll Wilson
A lot because they’re not small, and they come in these big suitcases. I didn’t intend to buy eight. Three of them are actually broken, so I need to find homes because accordions are quite fragile.

Pete Mockaitis
Who would even like a broken accordion? Any takers?

Sarah Noll Wilson
There’s a market for accordion pieces. But, yeah, I had my grandpa’s accordion, and I always wanted to learn it, and then never had the opportunity. And this is actually the story, I wanted to cheer up my young neighbor whose birthday party got cancelled when everything shut down, and so I serenaded him from his front yard. The six-year-old was not into it. He was just like, “What’s my weird neighbor doing?”

And then, through a random chance on the internet, I got connected with one of the world’s best accordion players. He gave me some lessons during the pandemic, and then I got a frozen shoulder, I couldn’t play for a year and a half, and now I’m back.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. Okay. Kudos. And so, what makes the accordion special and fun when you’re playing it?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, that’s a really beautiful question. The instrument is incredibly complicated because you have three different components you’re thinking about. You have the keyboard on the one side, you have the base notes which are organized in a different order, it’s chromatic or by frets, and then you have the bellows. And so, one thing that I love about playing is somebody with ADHD, it’s really hard. And as a business owner, there’s very few tasks I can do where my brain can totally focus on one thing. And because of the complexity, it’s very much a point of self-care for me.

Also, it’s just fun and quirky, and people don’t expect you to pull out the accordion. And the other thing is it became a place where my parents and I bonded virtually, so they loved to hear me play. And so, when I play, I think about them, so there’s like an emotional component to it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a lot to that notion associated. It has sufficient complexity to completely absorb your thoughts, and, thusly, it’s self-care. And I’ve been seeing a lot of people saying things, because I got so into this at Chess.com and cheating allegations, like, “What’s this Chess.com all about?”

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it just sucked me into this whole world. And that seemed to be a theme for a lot of people in the pandemic, was with chess, it’s like, “Oh, well, this absorbs all my thoughts and I’m not worried about all this stuff because I’m thinking about, ‘How the heck can I checkmate this guy in three moves? Is that even possible?’ Wait, let’s try this. Let’s try this.” And then the brain is completely consumed with the puzzle.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I like to think of it as a snow globe that finally gets to settle, and you just get to focus on one thing. And the problem is, as I’ve actually gotten better because I’m taking lessons from somebody who knows how to teach a beginner because my friend, who I met, was like teaching me music theory on the second session. I was like, “I just want to know what to do with these buttons.”

But, one night, I was playing, and I was playing a song, and I stopped, and I looked over at my husband and I was like, “Hey, you know, I was thinking about something with the business X, Y, Z.” He’s like, “Oops, time out. Time out. You’re not playing complicated enough music if you’re thinking about business at the same time.” And he’s like, “I just want to make that observation.” But I can see that with chess because that’s not just as simple as, “I’m making a move and now I’m waiting.” You’re looking at all the possibilities.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. All right. Well, let’s talk about your book Don’t Feed the Elephants! Tell me, did you make any particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries about conflict and avoidance when you were digging into this?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I love that question. When I started out on this path, I always lovingly say I’m a card-carrying member of the conflict avoidance club. I grew up in the Midwest, I grew up from families of conflict avoidance, and I was really interested in, “How do we have the conversation?” and there are so many great books out there about things you can say and things you can do.

And the thing that I started to notice in my journey of experimenting and trying to figure this out is that there wasn’t a lot about, “How do we name and notice the avoidance?” Because what I was seeing is that there were people who had, even when they had the tools of how to have the conversation, they were still avoiding it.

And so, that took me on this trajectory of, “How do we get really curious about the avoidance so that we can push through that and then have the conversation?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, I want to talk, absolutely, about how that’s done. Maybe we could start with a little bit of why. Is avoidance okay?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it working for us?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
How do we decode that? Like, what’s at stake here?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, sometimes it is appropriate. And we have to understand that if we’re avoiding, whether we’re conscious of it or not, it’s because we’re coming from a place of protection. We’re protecting ourselves, maybe we’re protecting others, which is still protecting ourselves. Maybe we’re protecting our power. Maybe we’re in a place of protection.

And one way I like to think of avoidance is through sort of the lens of there’s aggressive passive-aggressive avoidance where I’m stonewalling, where I’m throwing the grenade as I leave the room. And in those situations, it’s like power over the situation. I’m trying to cause a reaction and then leave. Then there’s fearful avoidance. I’m afraid to be hurt. I’m afraid I’m going to be retaliated against. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt someone’s feelings. And then what does that mean about me?

But then the third one that I like to frame it up is this conscious avoidance or disengagement. And maybe I might avoid a situation if I truly know that I’m not safe. I might avoid a situation because, I mean, we’ve all had moments where we go, “That’s just not a battle I want to pick right now.” Maybe my energy is spent somewhere else. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s not as important to me, and I go, “You know what, it’s just…”

But the difference is conscious avoidance, from my perspective, is if aggressive avoidance is power over, fearful avoidance is feeling powerless, conscious avoidance is like power from within that I’m making the choice not to engage, and I’m coming from a place of acceptance rather than fear or resignation. And so, I think that’s important because sometimes, when people are getting excited about this work or other people’s bodies of work of, “How do we have the conversation?” they’re like, “Got to have the conversation. Got to free the elephant,” and they get really aggressive about it, but sometimes it might actually be safer and better for us to not. But I wanted to come from a place of choice instead of a default.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense, as oppose to, “That’s just too much. I’m overwhelmed. This is scary. Avoid. Eject. Evacuate,” instead of that just being like exactly automatically where we go. That is one of several options at our disposal, and we will thoughtfully conscientiously choose what works best for us. So, now, tell us, what is at stake or what do we stand to lose if our default setting is to avoid conflict? Like, we are chronically consistently avoiding conflict, what will be the implications, consequences for us?

Sarah Noll Wilson
So much. There are implications of our connections with others won’t be as deep or as authentic. We can cause harm to relationships that we won’t realize. One of the ways I think about it is that the comfort we gain in the short term doesn’t always outweigh the damage in the long term. I’ve seen organizations where when they are a culture of “harmony” or “niceness,” a lot of problems are underneath the surface.

Actually, I just had a client recently who said, “You know, when we don’t speak it out, we always act it out.” I loved how he said that. And so, that could be relationships, high-quality, deep-trusting relationships, that can be from an organization perspective. We can be losing out on creativity and innovation and better ideas, that psychological safety, but also on a personal level if we’re avoiding.

For some people, we also could be sacrificing ourselves in the process of not setting boundaries, of not being clear about what we need, not being able to communicate that. And that can erode your relationship with yourself and your relationship with other people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, plenty is at stake there. Then tell us, how do we overcome that avoidance? How do we find the courage? What’s the process?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. So, the tools that we’ve put together, the framework we use, and I always say this as a disclaimer, if you will, that humans are complex, and relationships are complex, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Even if you and I have a really great relationship, maybe you’re stressed about something, like you’re in a different headspace, or you’re “hangry”, or you’re focused on something else.

So, I always say it’s all about, “How many tools can we have at the ready so that we can bring it out?” So, one of the things that I recognize in the conversations and all the work that I was doing with individuals, and even in my own experience, is that a lot of times, the reason, one of the reasons we were avoiding is because we’re thinking of the conversation as a confrontation.

And I think that, “How do we prepare people and how can we think about this situation differently so we can diffuse the heat for us?” So, what I lay out in the book, and what I firmly believe in, is that one of the ways that we can approach these conversations so that we can have more courage is through curiosity.

And the reason that curiosity is so important is a couple of things. So, one of the things I noticed as a pattern is that when people were frustrated in a situation, they often just say frustrated and didn’t really understand exactly why they were frustrated. And what we know about relationships is that if there is a conflict, if there’s a disagreement or tension, it’s usually because a value of ours is being stepped on or a need is not being met. And so, people weren’t going to that level.

The other thing that I observed is that people would rarely get curious about the other person. They’re just busy being mad at them and not considering their perspective. And then, finally, because we’re talking about multiple humans and relationship with each other, it was really hard for people to get curious about the role that they played.

And one of the things we know also about curiosity is that in order for us to be curious, that activates our higher-functioning part of our brain, which calms down that primitive amygdala brain that will get triggered when we’re feeling threatened in a situation. So, our approach is we call it the curiosity first approach.

And so, it starts with getting curious with yourself, and that could be asking questions, like, “What am I feeling? What do I need in this situation? What information do I have, don’t I have?” When we’re talking about work in particular, and we’re struggling with someone, this comes up a lot when we’re working with managers, is, “Is it a preference issue or is it a performance issue?” because sometimes we confuse the two, that, “I think you’re not performing well because you’re not doing it how I would want to do it.”

And so, it’s just taking a little bit of time to slow down to unpack, and go, “What am I actually feeling? And why am I feeling that way?” And so, here’s what it can look like in practice. I was working with somebody. This is like a classic story that I think just demonstrates it so beautifully. He was a manager, and one of his team members would interrupt anytime he’d have a conversation with someone in the area.

So, she would shout over the cubicle walls and interrupt, and it just drove him nuts, and he’s like, “I have to tell her to stop.” And I said, “Yes, you do. But, like, what is it about that? Like, what value of yours is being stepped on when she’s doing that?” And he thought about it for a moment, and he went, “I think it’s disrespectful.” And then I invited him to get curious about her, because I said, “Clearly, she doesn’t think she’s being disrespectful.” I said, “What value of hers do you think she’s honoring in this moment?” And he was like right away, “Oh, shoot, she thinks she’s being helpful.”

And so, now they can have a very different conversation around needs instead of just, “Don’t do that.” So, phase one is get curious with yourself, and then it’s get curious about the other when it makes sense. And the reason I say it like that is because we always say curiosity is an invitation, not a prescription.

For example, I’m not going to ask somebody who’s experienced harassment to get curious about their harasser. Like, that’s not going to be the ask. And then when we’re going into the conversation, “How can we approach it from being curious with them?” And there are some strategies we lay out there. So, it’s very much anchored in, “How do we get clear about what’s going on, get clear about what I’m feeling, get clear about what’s the impact I want to make on this conversation?” And then enter into it as a conversation instead of a confrontation. That’s a lot of information I just summed up for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. And I like it that it’s, okay, curious, curious, curious in terms of the running thread through it all. And so, that’s easy to remember as opposed to, “There’s nine key principles, Pete.” And I guess I’m wondering, even before we can get to that place of higher-order emotional, intellectual, wise, calm processing…

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thoughtful, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
If we’re just angry, it hurts. Like, is there sort of like a stop, drop, and roll, or CPR, or First Aid before we get into these wise thoughts just to be able to get a grip to be able to go there?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yes. And for us, it’s being able to notice and name in the moment when we’ve been triggered, and to build up that muscle to be like, “Oh, I am frustrated right now.” Because, you’re right, you can’t jump to that when that amygdala is triggered. We’re not getting curious. And so, for us, that’s why a lot of our work is on helping people understand our biological stress reaction so we can start to see those in the moment, so then we can name it, because I firmly believe in what I’ve observed is when we can see something and name it, then we can choose to change it.

And so, some strategies. One, when you notice you’re getting emotionally triggered is deep breathing is really effective. And I always love to explain why because we know breathing is helpful in a stressful situation, but it’s literally because our organs are massaging the vagus nerve, it’s the longest nerve in our body. And when we can massage that, that actually kicks off chemicals to calm down that sympathetic nervous system response, that fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flock response, and so deep breathing is really powerful. And what I love about breathing is it’s free. And if we’re lucky, it’s always with us.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I am a subscriber to the Breathwrk app, so I like all kinds of breathing things. Tell me, any finer points when it comes to deep breathing in terms of nose, mouth, counting, pace, diaphragm, or just any kind of deep breathing is just fine?

Sarah Noll Wilson
I think any kind of deep breathing is fine, but if you’re noticing you’re particularly emotionally triggered, for me, personally, I love the four-four-four just because it’s really simple. I’m going to breathe in for four counts, I’m going to hold it for four counts, and then I’m going to exhale for four counts. And, again, we can’t get to that higher thinking if we don’t realize that our brain has been flooded, and that can be tricky in the moment.

Because the thing, sometimes when we hear people, it’s like, “I want to be able to have these conversations and not react,” or, “I want to be able to have these conversations and not have the other person react,” and it’s really important for us to understand that that stress reaction happens so fast. Our amygdala can flood our brain in 0.07 seconds. It happens so fast. So, the goal isn’t to remove the reaction. The goal is how quickly can we notice it so then we can work to try to recover, so we can show up more intentionally.

I can go on and on about the amygdala. It’s my favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. Well, 0.07 seconds, whenever we have a precise number, it makes me think you know what you’re talking about, Sarah.

Sarah Noll Wilson
You want a couple others, right? Like, the chemicals will peak in 18 minutes but it actually can take up to 24 hours for cortisol, adrenaline to be metabolized, which is why I’m not a fan of, like, “We have this tough conversation. Let’s figure out the solution.” I’m like, “Nope. My brain isn’t there yet.” I’m very pro go-to-bed mad, which, like, bucks every piece of advice you get on your wedding day. But to go to bed consciously, intentionally, to say, “I’m not in the headspace right now. I need to give this some time for this to clear up. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, we talked about sort of First Aid or CPR as the deep breathing in the moment. I’m curious, any prudent self-care strategies during the 24 hours following the flooding?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I think that that looks different for different people. So, I’m a big, big believer in figure out your personal manual, if you will. So, for me, I know that going for walks and getting physically active is really helpful in helping me, like, settle that brain a bit so that I can access the higher-functioning parts of our brain.

And, again, I’m just speaking from my experience, so physical activity can really be valuable. Depending on your situation, some kind of physical touch can be really valuable and calming. And one of the things that I wanted to just, like, talk about for a moment, because I think meetings after the meetings get a bad rap. We’re all like, “Oh, we got meetings after the meetings.”

But, biologically, typically the first stress response we have is what we call a flock response. We flock to another human to be like, “Am I crazy? Did that just happen?” And sometimes that can be unproductive. If I’m just coming to you to vent and to ruminate, that can be unhealthy and unproductive. But sometimes it can be a healthy response, to say, “I need to talk to someone else about this to get perspective, to help me kind of navigate my emotion so I can get to a place on the other side.” So, if you have people with whom you can talk to, that can be really powerful, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, we talked about the self-care, and we talked about the deep breathing. And when it comes to these levels of curiosity, are there any super questions you find to be particularly effective in surfacing that positive curious mojo?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. I think, for yourself, one of the most important questions is, “What do I need in this moment?” We don’t often, and this has been my experience with the work that we get an opportunity, I feel like we get a front-row view of humans and teams, that we don’t often think about it. We’re just mad, or we’re just frustrated, or we’re just scared, or whatever the case might be. But, like, “What do I need in this moment?”

So, that, one, it takes the pointing of the fingers away from someone else, to, like, “What do I need?” So, when I think about getting curious with yourself, I think that’s a really important question. I think a hard question that is equally important is, “What role am I playing or did I play?” And there might not be an answer to it, but a lot of times we likely have contributed to a situation, and so that’s valuable.

When I think about the question that I would want to ask about someone else, and when I talk about getting curious about someone, the goal isn’t to fill in their story or to make assumptions. It’s just to remind ourselves that they have a story, that they have a perspective on this. And so, I love the question, “What makes sense to them?” because sometimes what can happen is, when we are emotionally triggered and put into that protective state, we can jump to judgment, like, “They’re an idiot. I don’t understand why they would do that.” But we all are walking around behaving in ways that make sense to ourselves.

And then when I think about getting curious with, I think, again, one of the questions that we don’t often think about, we’re just like, we ramp up for this conversation, we’re feeling the apprehension or the nerves, or maybe we’re feeling the fight, whatever it might be, is to ask yourself, “What impact do I want to make with this conversation? What’s the impact I want to make on you, on our relationship, on this moment, for me? Because maybe my impact is I want to set a boundary, which means that in order for me to do that, I need to be maybe more courageous. Maybe I want to repair so I need to be more empathetic.”

And I think that we kind of just like go into the conversation and we don’t think about, “What’s the impact I want to make?” Not that you can totally control it. You can’t. The other person gets to decide the impact, ultimately, but it can calm us down. And what I love about that question is that, at the end of the day, I can’t control you and your reaction but I can control how I’m going to show up.

And so, for me, if I’m going into a particularly heated conversation, and I’m talking about this, like, I’ll calm but, let’s be real, my heart races and I’m stressed the night before and thinking about it. But sometimes, even if the result isn’t what I hoped for, I always want to leave knowing I did my best and I showed up as intentionally as I could.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Sarah Noll Wilson
So, those would be the three questions.

Pete Mockaitis
I like it. And if it’s not us but someone else who’s avoiding conflict and we really do have to have that conversation, or so it seems to us, any pro tips for engaging that person optimally?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. So, when I hear that, I think, like, a situation where, “You two clearly need to talk, like you need to stop talking to me.” But then I want to talk about how you could bring it up in a team. So, I’m a big fan of, “It sounds like you need to have a conversation with this person. What can I do to help?” And then leading them through. That’s what I love about the curiosity first approach, is you can use it for yourself or for someone else.

So, if they’re coming to you and they’re all fired up, “Yeah, like I can see you’re mad. What’s the need that you have right now that’s not being met? Yeah, I can see that. What information do you think they’re missing that might be valuable?” or whatever the case might be, but encouraging. And there are times when, and I’ve had situations, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty. I’ve been guilty of this, but there are times where maybe someone’s talking to you about a situation, and it’s the third or fourth time. And at some point, that’s when there’s, from my standpoint, a loving push of, “I can see this is still bothering you. This is the third time you’ve brought it up with me. I’m actually not the one that can change this situation.”

And so, one of the practices that I love that’s from Marshall Goldsmith’s work in his book Triggers is in any situation, we can accept it, we can adjust it, or we can avoid it, and so navigating that. If it’s a situation where I feel like I’m sensing, like, “I think we need to talk about this,” then I’ll just approach that, “Hey, can we talk about that meeting and what happened?”

I’m a big fan, especially if it’s one to one, of coming at it from a place of, “I want to hear your perspective, and I’d like to share with you mine,” because I wanted it to be an invitation for a conversation instead of just, “Hey, I want to tell you how terrible you were, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But to just say, “Hey, would you be open,” I also love that language, “Would you be open to talking about that meeting? I’d like to hear your perspective, and I want to share with you mine.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you used one of my favorite phrases when you talked about, you said you liked that language. And I would like to hear some of your favorite words and phrases in the course of these conversations that seem to be really handy, and maybe some words and phrases that are troubling and ought to be avoided.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Anything that’s always, never.

Pete Mockaitis
Always, never, should, but.

Sarah Noll Wilson
To avoid, yeah. Any you, “You do this,” and “You always do this.”

Pete Mockaitis
“You always should never…”

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, those are juicy. Some phrases that I like to have, and it depends on the situation. Okay, so let’s talk. One of my favorite phrases to use when someone is getting heated, because, again, there are times when I will fight, and there are times when I will get into a full freeze mode. I love the practice of honor the emotion but coach the behavior.

And what that looks like is, “Hey, Pete, it’s okay that you’re upset right now. What’s not okay is you keep interrupting me.” So, you honor the other person’s emotions, but you’re setting some boundaries on what’s appropriate for us to talk about. You know, I’m also just a big fan of “Tell me more.” I think that, so often, I don’t think, I know this from, like, observing conversations day in, day out, is that sometimes we think we know what the other person means, and just like double-clicking, or that’s such a corporate phrase.

But just getting curious about, “Okay, when you said transparency, what did that mean to you? Or, how would you define that? Or, what would that look like in our relationship?” Because a lot of times, you know, there’s Judith E. Glaser, she’s a researcher that built a body of work, Conversational Intelligence, and there’s a study that she referenced that it’s something like nine out of ten conversations miss the mark.

And some of that is because we think we understand each other, “Oh, yeah, you said this, and I said this, and I know what that means to me, but I don’t actually clarify what that means to you.” When I’m working on a team, I love using language of observation and then an invitation, “I want to make an observation. I feel like we’re dancing around X. What do other people think?”

“I’m on the balcony right now,” that’s language we use, “I’m on the balcony right now, and I want to make an observation that we haven’t heard from half the group, and I’m curious about what we’re missing out on because we’re not hearing those voices.” So, I love an observation because it’s not as strong as just an accusation, and it invites people into the conversation in a safe way.

Something that’s a practice that I wish I would love to see happen more. Oh, wait. I have two more. I’ve got like a whole slew of them. This actually comes from my colleague Gilmara Vila Nova-Mitchell, and it’s asking for a do-over. So, when a conversation doesn’t go well, and you know it, you just go, “Oh, I, like, stuck my foot in my mouth, and I want to repair it.” Sometimes we’ll just leave it and linger and hope it goes away, and we pretend that it didn’t happen.

But she uses the language of, “I’d like to do a do-over. And a do-over isn’t so I can reiterate my point of view into over so I can show up more intentionally.” And I think that can be really, really powerful when you’re trying to repair, because courage isn’t just when things are in conflict. We need courage when we’re trying to repair or heal a relationship. I think one of the hardest things to do is to really honestly apologize when you’ve hurt somebody. That can be really, really hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Sarah, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I think the thing that people are so much more capable than I think we give ourselves credit to be able to hold steady. And so, what I always lovingly say is practice won’t make it easy but it might make it easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I was about to ask for a favorite quote. That might be one. You got another?

Sarah Noll Wilson
I do. I do. That’s not mine. That’s my quote. My favorite quote is from the author, Minda Harts, and she wrote the book Right Within, The Memo, and the quote is “Nobody will benefit from your caution, but many can benefit from your courage.” That is on my mind and heart every single day in my work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Dr. Tasha Eurich, her book Insight, I love the study on self-awareness that they did that basically showed that roughly 90% of people think they’re highly self-aware and only about 10-15% are. And I think that’s valuable for us. I like to think, instead of thinking, “I’m self-aware.” Now I think, “How might I not be?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And a favorite book?

Sarah Noll Wilson
The Waymakers by Tara Jaye Frank, and it’s clearing a path to equity with competence and confidence. I think it’s a really excellent book that offers tangible practices on how we can show up differently for those of us who are committed to pursue equity and inclusion.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Sarah Noll Wilson
A tool that I like in my conversations, and this comes from the work of Conversational Intelligence, is understanding that all conversations dance in the space of transactional, positional, or transformational. And once I understood that, I could show up very differently of knowing what the moment and the relationship needed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I know what transactional is. What’s positional and what’s transformational?

Sarah Noll Wilson
So, positional. So, if transactional is an exchange of information, telling, selling, yelling; positional is advocating and inquiring; and then transformational is sharing and discovering.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s good. And a favorite habit?

Sarah Noll Wilson
The one I’m working on building is sleep because it’s the domino that everything else falls from. So, for me, it’s doing things to have really good sleep, and playing the accordion. That’s also one of my favorite habits.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I recently became aware of Crescent Health, does sleep coaching. That exists now. Fun fact.

Sarah Noll Wilson
That’s so interesting. Love that. Can I add that to my list? It’s the linchpin of mental health for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Two. “People don’t fear change, they fear loss.” And the second one is, “You don’t get to decide if you’re trustworthy. The other person does.” Those are the two that I hear the most.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, they can come to our website SarahNollWilson.com. My name is on the site but the team is behind it. Or, if you want to connect personally, my DMs are always open, so I’m very active on Twitter and LinkedIn, and I’d love, love to hear from folks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. Notice. See if you can notice and name the emotion or reaction. See if you can do the CPR we were talking about, and take a deep breath and to then make an intentional choice. So, see if you can catch the amygdala flooding, or hijack, sometime this week.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sarah, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck with “Don’t Feed the Elephants!” and all your adventures.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thank you.

815: How to Get Along with Anyone at Work with Amy Gallo

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Amy Gallo shares how to constructively deal with difficult people at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The massive costs of bad relationships at work
  2. How to build your immunity to criticism
  3. How to work well with eight key types of difficult people

About Amy

Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. She is the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict and Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone, and a cohost of HBR’s Women at Work podcast. Her articles have been collected in dozens of books on emotional intelligence, giving and receiving feedback, time management, and leadership. As a sought-after speaker and facilitator, Gallo has helped thousands of leaders deal with conflict more effectively and navigate complicated workplace dynamics. She is a graduate of Yale University and holds a master’s from Brown University.

Resources Mentioned

Amy Gallo Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Amy, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Amy Gallo
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you for being here. I’m excited to chat. And we’re going to learn, at last, how to get along with anyone at work. Impressive.

Amy Gallo
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
But, first, we need to hear a little bit about you and karaoke. What’s the story here?

Amy Gallo
Oh, my gosh. Okay, so I have a terrible voice. Like, I feel like I could be the definition of tone deaf but I love to sing, so karaoke is where I thrive. And it’s funny, my husband knows how much I love karaoke, he knows how my voice sounds, but when we go to karaoke with new people, and I start singing, there’s a moment where, like, their eyes go wide, and they’re like, “Wait, what’s happening?” because I think it’s probably pretty terrible but I make up for it in enthusiasm. Because I think they’re just sort of like, “Wow, she’s really having a great time, and it sounds terrible.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, in a way, I think there’s a certain beauty to that. I don’t know what virtue I’d pin it on but it’s something good. It says something good about you, Amy. Zest for life, hunk humility, fun lovingness.

Amy Gallo
Yeah. And I think confidence, too, of just like, “You know what, it sounds terrible but I’m having fun, so have fun with me.” And my favorite karaoke song is Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, which can be sung as a duet, and oftentimes I’ve gotten strangers to sing the duet with me, but these were pre-COVID times. I haven’t done karaoke in a long time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I hope that you get some soon.

Amy Gallo
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds like a hoot. All right. Well, let’s talk about your latest here, Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). That’s a nice promise of a title inside that book. Can you tell us, maybe for starters, just to get the juices flowing, any particularly surprising, counterintuitive, extra fascinating discoveries you’ve made along the way in doing your research and assembling this book here?

Amy Gallo
Yeah. Actually, I’ll share two things. One is something I found out in writing the book and something that I found out since writing the book. So, the first one I would say, I knew that social connections were important at work, and I knew that having fractured relationships or stressful relationships or tense relationships with your co-workers was not good, but the depth of research on the impact of social connections, positive social connections, on us as, both in terms of our wellbeing but also in terms of our performance.

There’s this amazing study that showed from a team of professors at Rutgers that showed that people who identify as friends at work have better performance review ratings. So, the whole idea that this is sort of soft, and, “Oh, it would be nice to have a friend at work,” it’s not. This was actually really about productivity and performance.

And then, on the flipside, the research around how terrible stressful relationships are, or animosity in our relationships, both for our productivity, creativity, but also for our health, there are studies that show that having an incompetent manager, for example, raises the likelihood that you’ll have a heart disease. Or, there are studies that show that people who have animosity in their relationships had wounds that were less slow to heal, or were slower to heal.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Amy Gallo
So, it’s actually having a physical impact on us.


Pete Mockaitis
That makes a lot of sense. I think that when it comes to the stress and the cortisol, or whatever sort of your biochemical mediators of that, it seems like more and more research are showing up that when there’s a chronic stress situation and not good healthy outlets, such as sleep, exercise, friends, social support, bad things happen in the body.

Amy Gallo
Yeah, and I think, for years, we thought the way we interact with co-workers, our relationships with them, were sort of icing on the cake. And I think just tremendous amount of research that shows the impact of those relationships make it clear that it is the cake. This is how we get work done, whether or not we’re successful, whether we achieve our goals, is largely dependent on the quality of our relationships with the people we work with. And I think it’s just so clear on the research.

Now, the second insight I’ve had I wanted to share, which has been since I wrote the book, and this is a little bit of insider baseball on the writing of the book, is each chapter. So, the book is around archetypes of difficult people, and each of those chapters included a section of what if you are this person, what if you are the insecure manager, or the know-it-all, what you should do. And the manuscript was way too long, so, with my editor, we agreed to cut those sections out.

And part of the thinking of doing that was that we didn’t think people would actually have the self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
“Surely, not I, Amy.”

Amy Gallo
Exactly. Like, who would get to that section, and be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s me,” right? But I cannot tell you how many people have LinkedIn-message me, tweeted at me, called me, my friends have texted me, and said, “I’m reading your book, and I’ve seen myself in that archetype, or I’m seeing myself in many of the archetypes.”

Which is so encouraging because that’s one of the themes of the book, is that we’re all the difficult person at times, and it can be hard to recognize that, it can be even harder to admit it, but the more we do that, the easier these interactions and resolving some of the conflicts we have with people we work with will be.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds like a thesis right there. Well, I was about going to ask, what’s the big idea behind the book. It sounds like we hit it. Anything else you want to mention in terms of a core thesis?

Amy Gallo
Well, I think the other thing is we often feel subjected to these relationships, especially if the person we’re having difficulty with is a manager or someone we can’t stop working with because they’re a critical member of our team. And I think one of the other core themes is this is in your control, not that you can change that other person.

I don’t have to explain to people that that’s not going to work. You can’t actually set out making your colleague a different person but you can control your thoughts, your feelings, your reactions, your behavior in a way that changes the dynamic so you don’t have to feel stuck in these challenging relationships. You actually can do something about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a very inspiring and encouraging, so cool stuff. I don’t have to change someone else. I have some areas or things I can control that will make an impact.

Amy Gallo
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s really cool. Could you maybe kick us off with an inspiring story of someone who there was a co-worker, “Wow, they weren’t feeling it,” and then they saw a transformation and some cool results?

Amy Gallo
Yeah, so I actually will share a personal story. It’s a story I open the book with, and it’s not transformational in that, all of a sudden, this person became, like, my best friend. It just got easier, and I’ll explain. So, I had this boss earlier in my career who was just a chronic micromanager, gossiped about people in the office with me, which made me believe she was probably gossiping about me to others.

She would assign work and then, the next day, assign, like, three more projects. And when you said, “Whoa, what about these other things?” she’s like, “Why are you even focused on that?” It was I really never knew where I stood, and it was stressful. It was just incredibly stressful. And I found myself, about three months into the job, thinking about her constantly.

I would be walking the dog thinking about what I was going to say to her in an email response. I’d be at a birthday party I’ve taken my daughter to, finding myself going over conversations we’d had, and I was like, “Okay, I got to quit. This is not worth it.” And instead of quitting, and I’m not sure what made me do this, but instead of quitting, I was like, “Wait, let me see if I can just change the way I feel about her, and let her stop taking up so much room in my psyche.”

And by sort of re-appraising the situation, seeing it instead of being stuck working with this person, see it as an opportunity to keep this job, which I actually really like, and can I learn something from it, can I learn about the kind of manager I want to be, can I learn about how I handle stressful situations. I stayed in that job for 18 months. She did not change. I want to make that clear. It’s not that she behaved differently. I just changed the way I thought about it, and the amount of investment I put into making that relationship better, because I was so…

Part of what was so hard is that I was set on…I really thought if I could just…well, how do I want to say this? Like, I just thought if I could transform this relationship, if I could show her the way that her behavior was impacting others. And I had a friend who said, “I don’t know she cares.” And so then, I thought, “Okay. Well, she doesn’t care, or I don’t know if she cares or not, so I’m not going to focus on priding myself on being able to reform this woman. Instead, I’m going to focus on priding myself on reforming myself.”

And it really became the beginning of this work that led to this book of just observing relationships, looking into the research around, “How do we deal with stressful relationships?” and what works and what doesn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s a lot of good stuff. And you’ve mapped out eight archetypes, and I want to have a little bit of time on each of them. But it sounds like you’ve got a master key right here that would be applicable to all eight of them, so let’s hit that first. How do we control our thoughts, our feelings, and do a re-appraisal? Are there some super powerful questions, or breathing techniques? Or, what are some of all your favorite tools that can take us from, “Aargh, I want to strangle this person” to, “Oh, okay, that’s alright”?

Amy Gallo
Yup, so a couple things. Number one, I think that there’s a mindset shift we have to make, which is that instead of believing that this relationship is indicative of who we are and what we’re capable of, because that was the problem with my boss is that I was struggling with her, and I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m not good at relationships with co-workers. I guess I’m not good at managing up. Maybe I’m not even good at my job because she seems to be questioning how good I am at that.”

So, rather than thinking of this interaction, this one relationship as indicative of who you are, remember that you probably have many, many more relationships with co-workers, people outside work, that are positive, and let those be a reflection. So, I think that’s the one mindset shift you want to make right at the beginning, is right-size this person’s influence on you, that it’s just one relationship, remind yourself of that, and you’ve got many more that are probably very positive.

The second thing I would say is that you really want to observe your reactions. So, make an effort to really pay attention. When you’re in an unpleasant interaction with a co-worker, think about how do you react. So, for me, sometimes I’d blame the other person, “This is all their fault.” Or, I might blame myself, “What have I done wrong?” Or, I try to completely disengage and just shut down, “This isn’t worth my time,” and I’d dismiss it all.

All of those reactions are perfectly valid in that they’re probably not true but they’re perfectly valid in that they’re your thoughts and feelings. And I really learned this from a professor named Sigal Barsade. She was a professor at Wharton, and unfortunately passed away a few years ago. But she talks about emotions being data not noise. So, rather than trying to get rid of those emotions; pay attention to them and what are they telling you about what you care about.

And then another tool I would really say is try to re-appraise, and that’s really what I was describing what I did with my boss, was instead of saying, “This is a vexing situation I’m never going to get out of. Wow, this feels like a threat,” because, many times, these conflicts or difficult interactions with people can feel like a threat, “What’s the opportunity here? What can I learn from this situation?”

And I don’t mean to put on rose-colored glasses and be naïve while someone’s mistreating you over and over, but I do mean to think, “Maybe there’s an opportunity here for me while I work on improving this relationship. Maybe there’s an opportunity for me to learn something.” And learning might be interpersonal resilience, the development of the skill to bounce back from stressful situations when we’re in them, or bounce back more quickly when we have them, but also to feel less stressed when we’re in them.

Pete Mockaitis
You know what comes to mind here is as you’re talking about a set of skills, boy, any professional could benefit from them and I would like more of myself. And I’m thinking about Dr. David Burns who wrote Feeling Good, Feeling Great, and more, so I’m thinking of those books. And he had a phrase about becoming immune to criticism. That sounds like a nice thing to have going for you. And so, I’d like that, and it sounds like a nice positive, optimistic vibe, to say, “Ooh, this is cool. I have an opportunity to learn some resilience and maybe to become immune from criticism.”

Are there any other kind of facets or angles or slants you want to put on the learning growth development opportunity? I find, when I’m feeling cranky, which might happen in such a context, I’m not as jazzed about the idea of learning, it’s like, “Oh, Amy said I can do some learning to be more resilient,” or, “Pete said I can learn to become immune to criticism, so that’s pretty snazzy.” I don’t feel excited about the learning even though I love learning most of the time. So, any pro tips on maybe just getting a jolt to the system to steer into that happier place?

Amy Gallo
Absolutely. And I will tell you, I’m the same way. It took me months to change this relationship, or change my view of this relationship with my boss. It’s not as if you’re in the middle of being yelled at by a tormentor, or you just had credit for your project taken by a political operator, and you’re like, “What can I learn here?” Of course, you’re going to be angry, upset. That’s where those sort of observing those reactions comes in because you’re going to give yourself some space.

The other thing is you do need to make sure you allow yourself to feel those feelings, and maybe even find someone to vent them to, to sort of get that out a little bit. And just remember, the one thing I do try to remember in the moment when I am so mad, that our brains are mini-making machines. So, they’re going to try to make…create a story around what’s happening. And the story typically paints you as the hero and the other person as the villain. It’s usually not an entirely true story, so allow yourself to feel the feelings, observe what your brain is telling you, and then ask yourself.

One of my favorite things to do is to ask myself, “Okay, how do I know that’s true? Is that true? What if I’m wrong?” And just start to challenge yourself. And that’s going to bring down the threat response or what emotional intelligence experts call amygdala hijack, which is where, when you sense a threat, even if it’s just a threat to the harmony you experience with others in the workplace, we go into that stress response. The amygdala takes sort of precedence over the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our rational thinking.

And so, most people know this as the fight or flight. So, of course, when you’re in fight or flight, there’s no opportunity to learn. Your brain is like, “Protect, protect, protect,” or, “Defend, defend, defend,” and so you have to figure out how to sort of bring that down. Challenging the story that you’re telling yourself, sometimes going and having food, or deciding, “I’m not going to think about this today. Like, I’ll give myself 15 minutes to think about how mad I am at my boss, or mad I am at my colleague, then I’m going to stop, and then I’ll say how I feel about it tomorrow.”

And I think that I can remember, thinking about being immune to criticism, I actually don’t know. I don’t know that book and I don’t know the author, but I don’t know if we want to be immune to it. I just think we want to be immune to the sort of shame or embarrassment that comes along with it, because we want to be able to hear criticism and learn from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it. I think immune from the disease, symptoms, if you will, of that, is how I interpret it, as opposed to, “I am oblivious to all feedback always from here on out.” Okay.

Amy Gallo
That’s right. Exactly, “Don’t hear you. Thank you very much.” And I actually had this experience. I remember someone sent me a piece of criticism, actually ten pieces. I remember there’s a list of ten things sent via email.

Pete Mockaitis
“Amy, here’s all the things you’re doing wrong. I’ve done you the favor of consolidating them into a single document.”

Amy Gallo
Well, it’s actually even worse than it sounds because it was after I had done a very visible project. I was actually on video, this live video event, and it came into my inbox, I think, half an hour after the event ended, and it was like, “Great event. Here are ten things you should do differently next time.” And I was so mad, I was red in the face. I can remember, I was shaking, like as if I hadn’t eaten for a day.

I was like just feeling woozy from my emotional response, and I said, “Okay, just close it. I can’t process this in this mode, and so I’m just going to close it.” I went and had lunch. I cried. I’m pretty sure I cried, and then I came back to it, and I was like, “Huh, okay. Like, three of the ten are very valid. Another four probably have some truth to them, and then there’s three I don’t believe. And so, let me, with that frame of mind, actually react to what was said.” And you know what? It made the next one better. It really did.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You’re bringing back memories of the time I…one my early days of speaking, I didn’t know what I was doing, I was like, “I want to be a speaker,” and follow your passion, right? And so, I did an all-school assembly, and it was my first one, and I learned the hard way that that’s a very different audience than the students at a leadership conference. It’s wildly different. And so, I just missed the mark, and the principal sent a note that was brutal. It’s like I heard nothing but negative things.

And so, I chatted over with a good mentor, Mawi, from Episode number 1. Great guy. Mawi Asgedom. And it was so, in that perspective, it’s perfect when he says, “Whenever you get feedback, it’s never completely true and it’s never completely false.

And I found that that’s been a really valuable perspective here on out is whenever you have feedback, some of it, just as you ran down with those ten points, some of it is dead-on, some of it is just bonkers, and some of it is, hmm, we have to dig in and investigate and see some nuance and context for how it applies.

Amy Gallo
Yeah. You know, it’s funny, I’m glad we’re talking about feedback because it is such a core part of interacting with people that we find difficult, which is that, oftentimes, they’re either giving us feedback, either verbally or in an email, like the two that we received, or it’s implicit, they’re not agreeing with the way we’re doing something, or we don’t agree with the way that they’re doing something. So, feedback is such a critical part of both how we deliver it and how we receive it, of navigating these tricky relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s great. Well, now, let’s dig into the eight archetypes. I bet, boy, we could talk forever, like, “Oh, I know someone like this.” But could you maybe give us the name of the archetype, a quick maybe sentence or two for “This is what that looks, sounds, feels like,” and then a quick sentence or two, “And if you’re seeing this, here’s what I recommend you do”?

Amy Gallo
Yeah, okay. So, let’s start with insecure manager, first one, insecure boss. This is someone, and my boss, actually, that I described earlier probably fit into this category, who isn’t entirely confident in their position, and, therefore, will micromanage, will maybe make it impossible for you to do your job by withholding information, or not letting you interact with people in another department, for example, someone who basically is defending their ego through their actions and behaviors.

So, one of the things to remember about the insecure manager is we all have some level of insecurity, it’s a normal thing. If you don’t, you’re in that nice tiny little group of people called psychopaths. So, we all have some self-doubt. What the research shows around insecure managers is that one of the things that works, and I don’t love giving this advice because it’s not fun to do, but is that you really have to help calm their ego.

And that may include giving them some genuine compliments, pointing out things that they do well, I imagine there’s something, because that helps to calm the ego and you help can form an alliance with them in terms of, “How do we actually do this work? How do we move forward? How do you get what you want?”

Okay, so then there’s the pessimist. I think that’s pretty clear that someone who’s just overly negative, shoots down ideas left and right. One of the things that you need to remember with the pessimist is, again, this is not necessarily malicious behavior. It often feels like they’re trying to take you down, and that’s possible. But, more often than not, it’s sort of a disposition, sort of how we view the world. There are people who just are what researchers call prevention-focused. They’re focused on preventing bad things from happening.

And one tip with them is to really make sure that they have a sense of agency, because pessimism isn’t necessarily bad if they’re pointing out important risks that we need to see. But what’s bad is if they feel like they can’t do anything about it. So, you might ask a question when they say, “Well, that will never work,” say, “Okay. Well, what would work?” or, “Okay, I hear you,” and you don’t want to polarize with a pessimist because they think optimists are idiots.

And so, if you’re like, “No, everything is good,” they’re like, “Oh,” they’re just rolling their eyes at you. So, you want to validate that their perspective is…you hear their perspective, and then ask them, “Okay. Well, what can we do to change that? Or, if you had all the resources in the world, what would you do?” Just sort of give them a sense of, “You have power in this situation.”

The victim is the third archetype, and that’s sort of a flavor of the pessimist. This is someone who also thinks things are going to go terribly wrong but they think they’re going to go wrong to them. They’re very focused on how they’re being mistreated. You have to watch out because sometimes people are, indeed, being mistreated, and are, indeed, a victim in the workplace. So, be careful in using this label, and any of these labels when you’re thinking about your colleague because you want to make sure you’re not blaming someone for a mistreatment that they’re on the receiving end of.

One of the main tactics with victim is similar to the pessimist which is to ask them to reframe. So, when they say, “I never get what I want.” Ask, “Well, what’s a time that you have gotten something you wanted?” because the chances are they may see these things as sweeping generalizations, the behavior or the treatment they feel like they’re receiving, but chances are, there’s a time in which they had the agency, had the ability to change something. You want to remind them that they have that in them, and that can really help.

Then there’s one of my favorites, the passive-aggressive peer, and this is someone who says one thing, does another. They don’t feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings in a straightforward manner. This is the question I get asked all the time, “How do you deal with these people?” One of the things you can do is to really focus on the underlying message.

So, they may wrap their comment in a snarky message but they actually have an underlying thought or feeling. And if you can figure out what that is, either by asking some questions, or just by paying attention and focus on that, then you can sort of give them…you’re actually giving them permission to be a little bit more straightforward.

Passive-aggression is often motivated by fear of rejection, failure, an avoidance of conflict. So, if you can make it safe for them to actually say what they believe, then, hopefully, you can nudge them to be a little bit more direct, or, at least, you’re addressing the underlying business issue with them. Even if they’re going to continue to be passive-aggressive, you’ve gotten to the underlying message.

So the know-it-all is the one I identify most with because it’s the one I think I am more often than the others. Someone who confidently says what they believe sometimes without any data to back it up. And this also the mansplainer, the person who talks over you, maybe interrupts. And the know-it-all, I think one of the things that really works is asking for those facts and data.

So, if they’re saying, “This product will never succeed,” or, “Our customers don’t want that from us,” is just say, “Huh, that’s interesting. I don’t have the same understanding. What are you basing that on? What assumptions have you made? Here’s the data I’m working with. Can you share the data you’re working with?”

And what I like about that tactic is it can be confrontational. A lot of the tactics in the book are both subtle, and then there are some that are very subtle and some that are very direct. And this is one of the more direct ones because I think it also puts the know-it-all on notice, like, “We’re not just going to let you do this. We’re not just going to let you proclaim…” and while also engaging them in a conversation about the topic that they’re being a know-it-all about.

And then, sometimes, I think, also, you need a group of allies to help you combat that behavior, especially if it’s interrupting or if they’re targeting specific people. We often hear about, there’s lots of studies, actually, that show that men interrupt women more often than they interrupt other men, for example.

So, then forming a coalition with folks and who you work with to say, “Well, we’re going to call out that behavior when we see it.” And someone might say, “Amy didn’t finish her point. Can you please let her continue, and then we’d love to hear from you?” Something like that so that it’s not just on you to completely combat the know-it-all behavior.

Then you have the biased co-worker, and this is someone who commits microaggressions toward you, exhibits bias in their comments or behaviors. This is an incredibly difficult one to combat, although there’s lots and lots of books and articles and research about how best to handle this. And I will say that the one thing that I think works well with biased is assuming the person has done it unknowingly, which we know a lot of these microaggressions often people aren’t trying to exclude someone.

They aren’t trying to offend someone even if maybe they don’t care, or it may be that they just aren’t aware that what they’ve said is inappropriate or has the impact of being exclusive, or excluding rather, to the person who was on the receiving end, is to ask a question. When someone makes an inappropriate comment, to say, “What did you mean by that?” or even, “Oh, could you repeat that?” because sometimes even making them say it again helps them reflect on, “Oh, wait. How is this actually being heard?”

That’s not 100% successful tactic. And, in fact, none of the tactics, I would say, will be 100% successful all the time. But, oftentimes, that does encourage them to reflect on their own behavior and how it’s being received by others. And now we’ve got the tormentor, and that’s someone who you expect to be a mentor but then ends up trying to make your life miserable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, clever. Tormentor.

Amy Gallo
Exactly. And I have to tell you, I didn’t know what to call this archetype for a while, even though I had heard tons of stories about this type of behavior. And I went to LinkedIn and asked someone in my network, Mike Gut, and I have to give him credit, he said, “That should be called the tormentor,” and it was perfect.

And that’s someone maybe who assigns you needless work, talks about all the sacrifices they’ve made, clearly think you should make the same kind of sacrifices. And research shows that we actually tend to have, this was very surprising research that we’ve published in Harvard Business Review, that when we see someone going through something difficult that we’ve been through ourselves, where we’re maybe working full time while raising kids or going through a divorce, we have less empathy for them.

And that’s because we either have a little bit of, well, I should say the researchers posit that it’s probably because we have a little bit amnesia about the situation, which is, “Oh, that’s in the past.” And, relatedly, we think, “Well, I got through it. What’s wrong with them? They can do it. Like, I knuckled my way through it. Why can’t they do that too?” And that really informs the tormentor’s behavior.

And, again, this is one that, oftentimes, and a lot of the people I talk to for the book who were working with a tormentor, chose to quit. And I don’t give that advice to leave your job lightly, but I think the tormentor can have a real impact on your psyche. If you’re interested in having a better relationship with them, and maybe you can’t leave your job, then you might think about how you can form an alliance with them.

Give them some sympathy for the sacrifices they went through. Giving someone empathy when they’re tormenting you is the last thing you want to do, but instead of seeing it as generous to them, see it as generous to yourself, which is that, “I’m trying…” this is a strategic move to try to transform the relationship.

The other thing is there’s really great research showing with abusive supervisors, which is what I put the tormentor, that’s the category I had put them in, is that if you can show that they need you, either you have a specific type of knowledge, or you play a critical role on the team. If you can make them aware that they will be dependent on you for something, you can switch the power dynamic a little bit, and that can really help to change the dynamic between you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Amy Gallo
And then, lastly, we’ve got the political operator, and that is someone who…we all play office politics, but this is someone who plays that game really only to benefit themselves, and often at the detriment of others. So, they might take credit for your ideas, they, again, might be someone who interrupts. They’re constantly trying to sort of boost their visibility, their ego, often at the expense of others.

And one of my favorite tactics with these folks is to ask them for advice. It’s a bit of a strange tactic and sometimes can backfire, but to say to them, “You know, you’re really good at being visible or promoting yourself,” or you might even say playing office politics, “What could you teach me about doing that?” And what’s helpful about that tactic is it gets them to reflect on the way they do it, and no one, as far as I know, and when I’ve seen this tactic used, this has never happened. But as far as I know, no one is going to be like, “Oh, well, you have to step on others every moment.” They don’t give you the bad version.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’ve read this great book by Machiavelli, it’s called The Prince, it’s my operating manual. I think you’d love it.”

Amy Gallo
That’s right. They’d say, “Here’s a copy for you to follow as well.” Yeah, no, they don’t do that. Instead, they reflect on, “Hmm, okay. What do I do that’s positive?” And, again, it’s sort of a subtle way to show, “I’m paying attention to the way you’re behaving. You’re about to tell me the good way to do this. Let’s hope you continue to do that.”

The other thing about asking anyone advice, what several studies have shown, is that when you ask someone for advice and they give it to you, they’re much more invested in your success partly because of their own ego because they’re like, “I want to see my advice actually work.” And so, with any of the archetypes, any type of difficult person, sometimes asking for their advice gets them to be a little bit more invested in you and takes down the animosity a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, Amy, this is a lovely rundown. Well, not so lovely to live it but very useful rundown.

Amy Gallo
A menu of monsters at work. Here you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell me, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Amy Gallo
Sure. So, the one other thing I want to mention, there is a chapter in the book that’s principles to get along with anyone. Meaning, if someone fits into all the archetypes, I hope that’s not the case, or maybe defies categorization altogether. And one of the principles is one that I return to over and over myself, and I’ve seen really worked with my coaching clients and with the people I consult with, which is to treat any of this, the tactics I’ve just shared, for example, or any of the other tactics in the book, treat it as an experiment.

You’re not going to have ten steps to reforming a passive-aggressive peer. It’s never that simple and distrust anyone who tells you they’ve got the failsafe solution. Instead, choose the tactics you want to try out, try them out for a short period of time, two weeks, three weeks, take notes, see what works. Okay, tweak and try again.

You have to have that sort of scientist mindset both to sort of keep your spirits up while you’re doing this because it’s hard work but also just to figure out what will work for you and your unique situation because it’s always this is a big “It depends” kind of advice area. The advice that’s going to work for one person dealing with a know-it-all is not going to work with someone else dealing with a know-it-all.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Amy Gallo
So, F. Scott Fitzgerald, this is a quote I’ve always found really interesting, and he says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and still keep the ability to function.” And I think what I really like about that is that it is hard to hold conflicting thoughts in your head, especially when you’re navigating difficult relationships because, at the same time, you’re like, “I want to be done with this person. I have no interest.” You might even think, “I hate them.”

And, at the same time, you need to remember, “Well, okay, wait. In order to do well at my job, or in order to survive this week, I need to get along with them.” And so, you’re going to need to hold conflicting thoughts in your head in order to actually survive and thrive in these relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Amy Gallo
So, one of my favorite researchers is Julia Minson, who’s at Harvard Kennedy School, and she actually does a lot of work around conflict and difficult conversations with another professor at Harvard Business School named Francesca Gino. And they found, this is actually one of my favorites, they found that more than three quarters of people who were about to go into a debate with someone about a controversial issue, so just in a conversation, not a formal debate, but were going to have a conversation with someone about some contentious concept or idea.

Three quarters of those people predicted that they would win the conversation, which, of course, is mathematically impossible, which just shows you sort of the arrogance and confidence we go into these conversations where we really believe that our view will prevail. And I think it’s important to remember that’s really not the case. You’re going to…

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, inand my brain goes to…I’m perhaps a collaborator, to a fault, “Now, let’s think win-win if we’re going to have a creative solution in which we can, as best as possible, meet as many of our respective needs as one can do by enlarging the pie and whatever.”

So, in a way, I don’t even think about so much as winning and losing. It’s like, “We’re going to go in there and we’re going to do our darndest, and I’m hoping I walk away with this really important deal point, or whatever, and we’ll see what we can do.”

Amy Gallo
Yeah, that is the right mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you.

Amy Gallo
Yeah, absolutely. Well done. Great. Because if you see it as win-lose, like if you go in with the goal of proving that you’re right and the other person is wrong, you have nowhere to go in that debate. Because if the other person shows up the same way, like, what are you going to learn? Where are you going to get to? It’s a simple concept sort of but you don’t want to treat these relationships or these conversations as win-lose. And it’s doesn’t have to necessarily be win-win, but I’d rather go in with, like, “Well, what can I learn?” Curiosity, “What’s going to happen at the end of this?”

Julia and Francesca also did this other study about conversational receptiveness, which I think you actually probably would rate very high on, and it’s the use of language to communicate one’s willingness to thoughtfully engage with opposing views. They studied this quite a bit. And one of the things I really like is that they actually have found in their research that women tend to naturally exhibit conversational receptiveness.

And the reason I like it is because, I’m a co-host of the podcast Women at Work, I look a lot at gender research, and most of it is very depressing and very negative on the experience of what the penalties we incur at work, the behavior we’re allowed to exhibit, but I love that this research shows that we’re just naturally better at this. And their conclusion is if you want to improve the way people at work interact, you don’t put women in charge of some of these difficult conversations. And if you want to train people to be better at conversational receptiveness, focus on men.

So, anyway, that’s one of my other favorite findings.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Amy Gallo
I’m a big fiction reader, and I have lots of favorite books over the year. But one of the ones I read recently was a collection of short stories by a woman named Danielle Evans, and it’s called The Office of Historical Corrections. And what I like about it, as someone who thinks about conflict and relationships all the time, is that every story, ultimately, and most stories have a point of conflict, but these really are about conflict over interpersonal issues but also how political issues play into those personal issues.

And I really read it with that lens of, “How do relationships fall apart?” and then “How do they come back together?” or, “How do they not come together because people can’t actually repair them?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Amy Gallo
My Notes app on my phone. I used to have, like, a photographic memory when I was a kid.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Amy Gallo
Yeah, my Spanish teacher in high school, when we did vocab test for extra credit, I would write the page number that the vocab word was on because that’s how I remember that, and I would picture the page. My memory now is so terrible. I think it’s age, stress, there’s just too much that’s happened in my brain for it to recall those sorts of details.

So, my Notes app has become my memory. And it’s funny, I actually like it because it helps me capture ideas. I actually, sometimes, write the beginning of articles in there because I have a phone with me all the time, but it’s also just funny to look through. Like, I have over, I think, 1500 notes at this point. And sometimes it’s just like a random word, I’m like, “I don’t know what this means.” And so, it’s also entertaining to just go through and look at. So, it’s productive and entertaining.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share, something that really connects and resonates with folks, and they quote back to you often?

Amy Gallo
Yeah, I did a TEDx Talk, and at the end I shared this mantra about conflict. And it’s the thing when someone will say, “Oh, I saw your TED Talk,” and they’ll repeat it back to me, and it’s, “Sometimes people are going to be mad at you, and that’s okay.” And just sort of accepting that rupture in relationship is not only normal but sometimes it’s helpful. It helps you either repair that relationship and make it stronger, or you can learn something about yourself in that in those disagreements.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Amy Gallo
They should go to my website which is AmyEGallo.com. I actually have a monthly newsletter I send out with advice about relationships at work, conflict, communication. You can sign up for my newsletter there. And also, you can find my book Getting Along and my previous book as well, which is the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict.

And if people are interested in gender, women at work, I also co-host that podcast I mentioned, Women at Work, which is put out by Harvard Business Review which you can find wherever you listen to podcasts.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Amy Gallo
Yes. Remember that your relationships matter, and don’t shortchange them. And I mean that not just about repairing the relationships that are causing you grief, strife, but also be appreciative of the relationships that fill your cup. I think sometimes we take those relationships more for granted. Thank your friends at work. Send them a thank you note. Send them an email or a fax message, just saying that, “You know what, I’m so glad for our connection.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Amy, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and much getting along with different folks at work.

Amy Gallo
Thank you, Pete. Thanks for having me.