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800: How to Get Better at Asking for Help with Dr. Heidi Grant

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Dr. Heidi Grant reveals the secrets to asking for and getting the help you need.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why asking for help is beneficial for everyone involved 
  2. The do’s and don’ts of asking for help
  3. The telltale sign that you need to ask for help

About Heidi

Dr. Heidi Grant is a leadership, influence and motivation expert, who is ranked among the top management thinkers globally.  Her books include 9 Things Successful People Do Differently, and Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You.  She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and CBS Mornings, and her TED talk has been viewed more than 3 million times. 

 

 Resources Mentioned

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Dr. Heidi Grant Interview Transcript

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

Heidi Grant
Thank you so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m really excited to dig into your wisdom, and, first, I want to hear a little bit about you and science fiction.

Heidi Grant
Oh, I’m a huge science fiction nerd. It’s my favorite thing on the planet. Science fiction and fantasy. I’m one of those people that refuses to pick sides on the whole Star Wars-Star Trek debate because they’re both amazing, so it’s like choosing between children. You just can’t do it. And, also, Lord of the Rings, I think I remember I had a boyfriend in college who gave me a birthday card that was actually written in Elvish runes. He probably lasted longer than he would have normally. That was such a cool thing.

So, yeah, big science fiction nerd, big comic book nerd as well – Marvel, DC, all of those things. Those are the things that are sort of my brain candy where I do a lot of hard thinking during the day and the night. I relax by watching people in spaceships do cool things and meet aliens. That’s very relaxing to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. That’s good. Well, it’s funny, we’re talking about your book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You and I’m thinking about, right now, I read a book, this is my nerdiness, I read a book in college entitled Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Heidi Grant
Oh, that’s amazing. That’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think Captain Picard was great at getting people to help him.

Heidi Grant
Absolutely. Jean-Luc had so much to say. Absolutely. And he was a fantastic mediator as well so he could help you to choose sides. Both kind of come together over an issue. Very wise man. I’m sure that was an excellent book, actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really did enjoy it. Well, let’s talk about how one gets people to help you. Any particularly surprising and fascinating discoveries you made as you did your research here?

Heidi Grant
Yeah, I think you have to start from…and I wrote the book, this was a book I wrote because this was something I was so good at. In fact, the opposite is true. There’s a running joke amongst psychologists that all psychology is me-psychology because we, like most researchers, are either interested in things they are very good at or things they’re very bad at.

And this was one of those cases where I was interested in this topic because it was something that I, to this day, even I struggle with feeling comfortable asking other people to help me. And I couched in all these positive terms, “I’m very independent,” “I’m very self-reliant,” and that’s what we say to ourselves. When, really, what it is, it’s like, “I’m very deeply uncomfortable making myself vulnerable in that way.”

And so, I wanted to kind of understand it, and I had colleagues who, we were doing research at Columbia that we’re kind of digging into sort of the first piece of the puzzle, which is trying to understand why it is that we’re so uncomfortable with asking for help and why it is that we’re so wrong about the chances of actually getting help.

A colleague of mine did a ton of research that was really interesting, she’d bring people into the lab and she’d ask them to go out, and they would be paid to do this, they would be tasked with going and asking strangers for various forms of help, asking them if you could use their cellphone, if they would fill out a survey for you.

There was one where she had people go into the Columbia library and ask people who were in the library if they would write the word pickle on the inside of a library book, so the requests were odd, and everyone hated it. The minute when they found out what the study was about, they were just absolutely filled with dread because it’s, again, very human to be very uncomfortable with the idea of asking people for help, particularly strangers.

And she would ask them, “What are the odds you think people will help you? What percentage of people will say yes? Or, how many people will you have to ask before someone says yes?” They would go to like Penn Station or Grand Central, these are very public places, and just walk up to strangers and ask for help.

And what she found was that first of all, they were filled with dread, and then they would wildly underestimate the odds of actually getting help, that typically by a factor of, like, roughly 50%. So, people are at least twice as likely to say yes than we realize. And what was so interesting about this was that they would go out, and they would say, “Well, nobody is going to say yes to this,” and, in fact, a whole bunch of people said yes and were very helpful.

So, they would leave the lab full of dread that this was the thing they had to do, but then they would come back filled with this, like, warm glow of just how wonderful people turned out to be. Everyone had this experience of thinking, like, “Huh, human beings are a lot better than I thought they were.” And so, this was sort of one of these fundamental truths that one of the big obstacles we have to asking for help is that we tend to think we’re much more likely to get a rejection than we actually are.

And, of course, very few people, willingly walking to a situation where they think the odds of rejection are high. So, the beginning of the book is just sort of unpacking, like, actually, human beings are kind of wired to be helpful. It is our natural state. It’s one of the things all humans find most rewarding, or at least most humans who aren’t sociopaths, which is most of us.

They find most rewarding, and it is one of the strongest sources of self-esteem and wellbeing and life satisfaction to feel like you are doing things that have a positive impact on other people. So, people actually love to say yes, they love to help one another. And even though we each know this about ourselves, that we all like helping other people, somehow, when it comes to other people, we think, “Well, they don’t though and they’re going to probably reject me.”

So, part of it is it’s just kind of understanding that we’re often approaching asking for help kind of with the idea that we’re not going to get it, and that it turns out to largely not be the case.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s super helpful, and, yet, you say that, here, you’ve written the book on the subject and you still feel discomfort. So, knowing that is great, like, “Okay, cool. I have some logical, rational, sort of prefrontal cortex reassurance and reasons that it’s all good to ask for help, and people actually enjoy helping, and yet I still feel uncomfortable.” It sounds like that can take a while to master. But do you have any pro tips on how we can nudge it a little bit more there?

Heidi Grant
Sure. Get a little more. Well, I think, like anything else, practice makes perfect. And so, and certainly practice makes comfortable. Like, the more we do a thing and we realize we didn’t die, everything works out okay, the world didn’t open up and swallow us, then we get a little bit more comfortable with it.

I think it also helps to actually have, be armed with a few strategies that increase your chances of success. One of the things that I talk about in the book is, and I mean this in a very helpful way, is that if you aren’t getting the help and support that you need in your life, odds are good it’s kind of your fault. And it’s not something people want to hear.

Each of us runs around thinking that we’re not getting…very few of us, actually, I feel like, I think we’re getting the support and help that we could certainly benefit from. And a lot of times, we should have these stories in our heads about how that’s not, like, “Oh, it’s so terrible that I’m not getting the support, and other people should be giving it to me.”

So, one of the other things I talk about in the book is sort of what a potential helper needs in order to help you, and that very often we don’t give them those things so that’s why they don’t help us. So, it’s not that people get lots of help. It’s that when they don’t get it, it’s kind of because there’s something they’re not doing, or something they’re doing that’s actually kind of counterproductive.

So, in terms of the things you need to do, we can kind of start there, what you need to do in order to actually get help, your helper kind of needs four things, I talk about in the book. So, the first is to actually know that you need help. This is already, foundationally, one of the biggest problems and one of the reasons why we don’t each of us get the help, either personally or professionally, that we need. We feel like that our need for support is obvious to other people.

The psychologists call this particular bias the allusion of transparency. We feel like our thoughts and our feelings and our intentions and our needs are very obvious to other people because they’re obvious to us, “So, clearly, you must know that I need help.” Especially true, of course, or with the people that we’re around the most, so with our closest coworkers, with our partners, with our family, our closest friends. We think they know, like, “I need help and you can tell.”

In fact, there’s tons of research that shows that nothing could be farther from the truth. Even the people that know us well and are around us every day often actually just simply do not see that we are in need of help because each of us, ourselves very much included, is mostly focused on our own needs, and so we do not see everything there is to see, and it’s very easy to miss the fact that somebody actually could use your hand with something. It’s really easy to skip that.

And we don’t say anything. And we say things to ourselves, like, “Well, it should be obvious to you,” “It should go without saying that I need your help with that.” No. By the way, one of the expressions, as a person who studies communication and sort of social interaction for a living, I would tell you the most annoying phrase in the world is “It goes without saying,” because nothing goes without saying. Everything goes with saying, like everything all the time goes with saying.

So, I think the first piece is actually we have to say it. And nobody likes hearing that because we won’t want to live in a universe where our needs are obvious to other people so we don’t have to, again, make ourselves vulnerable by actually saying them out loud. But the very first step to getting help is actually asking for it, which actually solves the second problem as well, which is that even if someone happens to see that you need help, they don’t actually know that you want it.

And if you have ever tried to give help to someone who didn’t want your help, like I have teenagers and I see that they’re struggling with something, and I offer unsolicited help to them, and it does not always go well, and so, again, that need to ask for it so that people know that you need it and want it is just an unavoidable fact of the universe of support. We have to ask for help if we want it.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s really ringing true for me here is I’ve just sort of learned, like, I have a background in strategy consulting and coaching, and so I see all the time, it’s like, “Oh, you’re engaging in behaviors that are counterproductive to your stated goals.” It’s like, “But if I tell you about it, you’ll probably bite my head off, so I’m just going to hang back.”

Heidi Grant
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s like I’m just sort of made peace with it, and at first, it really bothered me, it’s like, “Oh, am I being selfish? Is this wrong?” But it’s like, “They didn’t ask.” And, actually, when people do ask, I’m delighted.

Heidi Grant
It’s the best, right?

Pete Mockaitis
And I’ve had some really cool experiences with folks that I had sort of good mentoring going on with them because they asked, it’s like, “I’m so glad you asked why I rejected you in an interview. I have much to tell you.” And they said, “Oh, wow, thanks. That’s really awesome. Thanks.” And then away they went.

Heidi Grant
It’s a wonderful gift when you actually ask for help because, very often, people, like I said, they see the need, like you could use some support, but it’s a terrible situation to be into to feel like that may not be welcomed. And, in fact, people generally like it is counterproductive, in fact, to give people help they didn’t ask for, nine times out of ten.

So, it’s a very real and legitimate concern, which means we do have to get past this reluctance to ask for it. And the other couple things that it’s good to bear in mind are that people need to know. So, they need to know you need help, they need to know you want it. They need to know that they, specifically, are the person you’re asking for help from. I cannot tell you how many times I see this, like, blanket emails go out to 20 people, or like BCC, which isn’t fooling anybody. We know there’s a ton of people on that email, saying, like, “Hey, could someone help me with this?”

And there’s a phenomenon in psychology called diffusion of responsibility. It’s a reason why, on an airplane, the flight attendant will say, “Is there a doctor on board?” because if you don’t say that, then there may be doctors on board but they won’t realize like they should do something. So, it’s that idea that you have to kind of say.

I always say to people, “Don’t send an email to 20 people. Send 20 emails to one, each one to one,” because then that person realizes, “Oh, you’re talking specifically to me.” Because what happens to the 20-person email is that we all sort of sit there, and we go, “Well, somebody else probably responded already,” and then we just kind of let it float down in our inbox.

So, make sure that they know that they are themselves the person you’re asking for help. And then the last thing, again, it’s something that’s wildly overlooked when we ask in this sort of realm of support-seeking, is you want to make sure the person feels like they can give you effective help. Nobody wants to give bad help. Nobody wants to be asked to do a thing and then fail at delivering on it. The amount of, like, guilt and shame you would feel is sort of staggering.

And so, one of the things I’ve noticed that people often do, a mistake we make when we ask for help, is that we don’t kind of enable the person to actually be effective. I can’t tell you how many requests I get to just like connect, like on LinkedIn, or an email, you’ll get something, like, “Hey, we’d love to just connect,” and it’s like, “Okay, you want something.” Very few actually just want to connect. There’s something.

Pete Mockaitis
With a total stranger, you know, not such a human need but, yeah.

Heidi Grant
Right, like, we’re hoping to achieve a thing, like we’re hoping to learn something, or we’re hoping to get an introduction to something, or get access to a resource. There’s always an agenda with human beings. Like, we always have some goal. And when you don’t tell me what it is, my discomfort immediately is, “Am I going to get into this conversation with you and then, in the conversation, you’re going to ask me for help that I can’t give for whatever reason, and I’m so uncomfortable, and I do this?”

“I’m so uncomfortable with the idea that you might ask me for help that I can’t give, that I don’t do the connecting because I don’t want to be put in that position where somebody asks me for something, and it’s like I’m the wrong person.” But I do say yes when people kind of reach out to me, and they say, “Hi, I want to connect because I’d like to learn X, because I’d like to know Y, because I know that you know this person and I’m hoping you’ll make an introduction.”

Okay, now I know what you want, so now I know whether or not I can be effective in giving you the help you’re seeking, so now I have a lot more confidence. People often shy away from giving support because they think they might fail. And so, we should always be thoughtful about being very explicit in helping the person understand how they can help us so that they have confidence going into it that it’s something they’re actually going to be able to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful stuff. Maybe you’re kinder than I am, Heidi.

Heidi Grant
Probably not.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m assuming if someone asks to connect with no context…we had a great conversation with Rene Rodriguez about stories and frames, and how we just need them. And if there’s not one provided, we just invent one, and I’m so guilty of this.

Heidi Grant
Oh, and it’s always…almost always negative.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I invent the frames, like, “You want to sell me something. It’s unclear what that is,” because I have been grateful…you know, I’ve been cold-approached on several occasions, bought the thing, and was delighted I bought the thing, was delighted I’ve had the cold approach. But I also know, statistically, hmm, less than a 1% chance, the cold approach to sell me a thing is the thing I happen to want to buy in that moment.

Heidi Grant
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I just assume, “You want to sell me a thing and that’s very likely I don’t want it. Therefore, I’m not interested in connecting.” So, I just invented that frame, may or may not be accurate, but if they told me, you’re right, something, like, “Hey, here’s a thing that I’d like your help with,” I’ve really gone into great detail talking to total stranger, “Oh, you want to start a podcast? Let me send you a huge email about how to do that.” And it’s like, “I don’t know you, and this just felt good. I thought you had a cool idea and I’d like to see it in the world, and if I could help a little bit, that feels awesome.”

Heidi Grant
It does feel awesome, and I think that is exactly the thing that a lot of times we shy away from being specific for all the wrong reasons. We sort of feel like, “Oh, well, ease the person into the request,” and it’s like, “No, no, no, you’re actually just scaring them away from even having the conversation with you.” Or, people will say, like, “Oh, it feels a little aggressive to just come out with what it is that I’m looking for,” and it’s like, “No, you’re creating clarity and certainty for people, which they really, people like. Human beings like certainty. We like to know what we’re getting ourselves into.”

And, like I said, there’s almost always an agenda, and people aren’t just looking to make new friends, generally, right? There’s something they’re seeking. And so, I think it’s a really super common mistake. I categorized this into sort of, I call this “You made it weird” things, where it’s like, “I would’ve helped you but you made it weird,” or, “I would’ve helped you but you were weirdly reticent to tell me what it was that you wanted help with, and so that was off-putting for me.” And certain kinds of rejections are quite painful, like if someone says, “Oh, I wanted to connect with you because I wanted a job on your team,” and it’s like, “But I’m not hiring, so this is going to be painful for everybody involved.”

So, it’s really, really good to be upfront and to create that clarity for people so they can be comfortable, or they can do something. If they can’t help you, maybe they can tell you. Like, I love it when people actually tell me what they’re looking for because sometimes I can’t help them but I know someone who can, and so I can kind of redirect you to the person who can actually help you, which also feels good.

So, that’s one of those “You made it weird” where it’s not kind of coming out with it what it is that you’re seeking. Another “You made it weird” that it is just absolutely tragic is when people apologize constantly when asking for help because it’s sort of ruins it. Giving help is very satisfying, innately satisfying to do things that benefit other people. But there’s a lot of research that shows that you can kind of spoil it by either kind of making people feel coerced, so making people feel like they didn’t have a choice but to help you. That’s never a good thing.

And then the other thing is by constantly apologizing because, when you think about it, people ask you for help, and they say things like, “Oh, I hate that I have to ask you for this. I feel so terrible. I’m just so embarrassed that I have to ask you for this support.” And it’s like, “How am I supposed to enjoy this now?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true, “You hate this and you’re embarrassed. This is real fun for me.”

Heidi Grant
Like, “If you hate having to ask me, if you feel terrible but I’m supposed to feel good.” So, a lot of times that’s another “You made it weird” where we were apologizing because we don’t want the person to think badly of us, but all we’re really doing is ruining it for them because they never thought badly about you in the first place.

Again, a common misconception that people will think less of you because you need support. Actually, if anything, the research suggests that people think more highly of people who are willing to ask for help and support because they feel like that’s a sign of confidence, where people are willing to be vulnerable in that way.

Like, we admire people who are authentic and vulnerable, and say, like, “Yeah, I’m not perfect. I could actually use…” or, “I have too much on my plate, and I need your support.” We admire people who do that. So, we tend to actually think more highly of them but we’re so convinced that people will think less of us that we get into this word apology game. And all of that is just based on, really, honestly, foundationally a failure of perspective-taking.

We do a very, very bad job at ima gining what the situation is like from the helper’s perspective. And if we could just pause and…but it’s weird because we are all helpers. So, if you just took a minute to say, “How would I feel being asked for this help? How would I feel about it? What would I think of this person?” then you have a pretty good gauge of what they think of you, and it’s pretty positive actually. But we just don’t do that perspective-taking and so we make it weird over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, the “You make it weird,” I’m also thinking about just that theme associated with destroying the opportunity for joy in that helping exchange. It’s like robbing them of that joy.

Heidi Grant
It is.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m reminded when I was in Prague, we were at a bar, and I had purchased a beer, and I was ready to give, leave the change type tip to the bartender. And so, she took the coin and she extended her hand toward me, and then brought it back, almost like a fishing reel, and said, “For me to keep?” And I was like, “Well, I was planning on doing that but, now, when you did this, I don’t feel as great about doing it,” but I’m not going to say, “No, no, not for you to keep.” I was like, “Okay, sure.” Whereas, before, I would’ve felt great, like, “Well, hey, that’s yours, and you should say thank you,” and then we would’ve had a fun moment.

Heidi Grant
So, here, this is one of those things. So, there are techniques, and people will always say, like, “Are there things you can do to get people to help you?” like kind of forced compliance. And, yes, there are, frankly. There’s all kinds of tricks you can use that make people more likely to say yes, that are also more likely to make them feel coerced. They make them feel like they didn’t have a choice.

So, what happens is they will say yes in that moment, and then the other thing that happens is they will never say yes again. So, it’s interesting. In the case of the bartender, did she get the tip? Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
She did, yeah.

Heidi Grant
But she might’ve gotten another one, like, later on. Like, if you were like, “Oh, I really love this bartender, and I’m here and I’m having another drink.” So, helping and support can delightfully build on itself and be reciprocal, or it can just happen the one time, and then that person is done with you because you made them feel coerced. So, that’s another thing, that’s a really common mistake people make.

If the one time is all that matters, fine. But if you really want to have an ongoing relationship that has mutual ongoing support in it, you really do want to use the techniques that I’m talking about which are the ones that make people feel really glad that they helped you, very satisfied, very effective in giving that help that really lands when they can imagine.

This is another thing, honestly. If someone helps you, one of the most impactful things you can do is go back and tell them about the impact they had, not as a gratitude per se, although gratitude is lovely, but, again, related to that effectiveness idea, like, “The help you gave me had these results.” Because if you do that, if you go back and you help people understand the impact that their help had, that is a well that you can turn to again and again because that person will love helping you in the future because you made them feel very, very effective as a helper. You really ramped up that warm glow. And I think that’s a mistake we often make.

I was a college professor for years. I wrote tons of letters of recommendation to medical school, graduate school, law school. Probably 5% of those students actually came back to tell me whether or not they actually got into the program. And, for me, that was the moment that was very rewarding, knowing that I had helped them to actually achieve the goal. But, too often, people don’t circle back, and you’re really missing an opportunity to create an ongoing supportive relationship with someone when you don’t do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool. So, then we’ve got some great principles in mind and some key don’ts as well. I’d love it if you could give us a demonstration or share any favorite phrases so we can make this come to life with actual verbiage.

Heidi Grant
The truth is there are not really sort of magical words to use about this because it really is just about candor. It’s that sort of taking a deep breath and saying, “Okay, I’m going to just be honest. This is the help that I need. I need it from you. This specifically is the thing that I’m looking for. And this is the reason why, this is the impact it’s going to have on my life if you do this. This is the impact it’s going to have.”

And it can be as simple as coming home to your partner, and saying, “I know that I’m usually the one that handles the recycling but I would really like it if you would chip in and maybe we could take turns because that would give me one last thing to do, and that would kind of make me feel a little bit more supported at home.” Okay, great. Like, it’s very specific.

If you come home to your partner, and you say, “I’d love you to do more around the house,” don’t expect anything to happen. First of all, if you say nothing, I promise you, nothing will happen. If you say nothing and you’re just going to passively-aggressively sigh a lot, your partner is not…

Pete Mockaitis
“She should know.”

Heidi Grant
Right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“She should know.”

Heidi Grant
Yeah, your partner is not going to pick up on that. If you do the only slightly better thing, which is, “I need your help around the house,” that’s probably not going to work either because, again, what specifically do you need? The more specific we are about exactly what it is we want the person to do, both the more effective they feel doing it and the more likely they are to actually do it because, again, it’s that allusion of transparency.

If say, “I need more help from you around the house,” and you fold some towels, you might feel like, “I have achieved what she wanted.” And it’s like, “I kind of was looking for something more than that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Mission accomplished.

Heidi Grant
Exactly, “I feel so satisfied.” So, it is that asking explicitly, being very, very clear about what it is you’re looking for. And then, by the way, when they do the thing, coming back and saying, like, “Wow, that really made a difference. I really thank you so much for making that effort. This made a huge difference in how I feel. Coming home, I feel so much more supported, etc.”

So, it’s just that simple and it’s really not complicated but we avoid it so much and we tell ourselves so many things that aren’t true. I think 90% of the obstacle is getting the myths out of the way, that people are going to say no, that they somehow intuitively know what it is we need them to do, that they know the impact they’ve had. Once you realize none of those things are true, then you really do know what to do differently.

And I will say that, to the extent that I don’t ask for help, it isn’t because I feel uncomfortable anymore. It’s more that I just sometimes forget to. You can get so used to operating as “independent” – I’m air-quoting right now. You can get so used to not asking for help that even when you’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of it, the challenge becomes breaking that habit of just doing everything on your own.

And so, I find nowadays, for me, I have very little problem asking for help, but I do find myself sometimes kind of full-speeding ahead on things and trying to do too much myself, and it’s just more that I didn’t recognize the moment where I should’ve asked for help. I should’ve stopped and said, “Hey, this is too much. I could use some help from somebody else.”

So, that’s another piece of it I’m realizing as a person who is kind of trying to change my habits about this, that it is a habit to not ask for help, and that, therefore, like any habit, it can be difficult to replace it with a better one and build that new muscle. So, that’s something that, since I’ve written the book, I’m in the process of doing, sort of rewiring my habits a little bit.

Before I am overwhelmed and exhausted, I ask for help instead of after I’m overwhelmed and exhausted, which used to be my cue to ask for help. So, being a little more proactive about that is part of what I’m currently working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. Thank you. Now, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite things. Favorite book?

Heidi Grant
Oh, a favorite book. Well, probably The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve read it a million times.

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

Heidi Grant
I’m still a Post-it person.

My desk right now is littered in Post-it notes, which I know is really old school, and I know that there’s apps that could do this for me, and also all kinds of programs, but I really love the tangible nature of a Post-it, and I really love how satisfying it is to cross things off a Post-it, and then throw it away. That’s the problem with files on a computer. You just can’t have that “I am done with you” moment, where you toss it because you’ve actually completed the task that was on the Post-it, so I do love, I love my Post-it notes very much.

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

Heidi Grant
Talking about growth mindset and this idea, the sort of background narrative that you have when you approach a task really changes how you approach it. So, growth mindset, basically, is saying, “The point of what I’m doing is to develop, is to improve.” And fixed mindset is really, “The point of what I’m doing is to prove myself, to prove that I’m already good at this thing.”

And how I orient myself, so when I catch myself in sort of a fixed mindset, and I’m approaching something as if the point is to prove myself, and I want to shift into growth mindset, the thing I say to myself, everybody has a thing they say, the thing I say is, “It’s not about being good. It’s about getting better.” And that’s my little mantra that I shift.

After 20 years of doing this stuff, I occasionally catch myself in the mindset I don’t want to be in, and to shift back, I say, “It’s not about being good. It’s about getting better.” And that has been one that people have repeated back to me or I see it tweeted a lot when I’m giving a talk on growth mindset, that it just sort of encapsulates.

I think one of the most powerfully things you can do for yourself motivationally is remember that in every particular moment that you’re in, it can be an opportunity to judge yourself or it can be an opportunity to develop yourself. And the more we can see what we do as opportunities to develop ourselves, the more resilient, creative, and high-performing we are.

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

Heidi Grant
Well, first, I would point them to my website, so it’s HeidiGrantPhD.com where there’s a ton of stuff, videos, articles that I’ve written and links to them. I write a lot for HBR so you can also find a lot of my blog posts there on various topics. But HeidiGrantPhD.com is a great place to start.

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

Heidi Grant
I think that idea that going to your job every day, looking for those opportunities to end up better at something than you were before, the more you can do that, and often we don’t think of our jobs that way. We think of our jobs as places where “I’m constantly proving myself.” What we don’t realize is that a lot of it is in your head.

That particular attitude, I try every day to look for ways, even in the tedious aspects of my job, that I feel like I can be better at something today than I was the day before. And the more we do that, the more it engages us, it sustains us, it makes us creative, it makes us feel effective, and it helps us to grow.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Heidi, thank you. This is great stuff. I wish you much luck and much health coming your way.

Heidi Grant
Thank you so much, Pete.

798: How to Have Difficult Conversations about Race with Kwame Christian

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Kwame Christian lays out his three-step framework for masterfully handling difficult conversations around race and other sensitive issues at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we struggle when discussing race 
  2. How discussing race enriches workplaces
  3. A powerful three-step framework for any difficult conversation 

About Kwame

Kwame Christian is a best-selling author, business lawyer and CEO of the American Negotiation Institute (ANI). Following the viral success of his TedxDayton talk, Kwame released his best-seller Finding Confidence in Conflict: How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life in 2018. He’s also a regular Contributor for Forbes and the host of the number one negotiation podcast in the world, Negotiate Anything – which currently has over 5 million downloads worldwide. Under Kwame’s leadership, ANI has coached and trained several Fortune 500 companies on applying the fundamentals of negotiation to corporate success. 

Kwame was the recipient of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs Young Alumni Achievement Award in 2020 and the Moritz College of Law Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award 2021. He is the only person in the history of The Ohio State University to win alumni awards in consecutive years from the law school and the masters of public affairs program. That said, Kwame’s proudest achievement is his family. He’s married to Dr. Whitney Christian, and they have two lovely sons, Kai and Dominic.

Resources Mentioned

Kwame Christian Interview Transcript

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

Kwame Christian
Hey, Pete, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be chatting with you here in this forum, although we go way back with Podcast Movement and mastermind grouping, some hijinx. So, I normally ask guests for a fun fact about them, but I want to ask you for a fun fact about us.

Kwame Christian
Yes. Everybody, I’m going to share some dirty laundry on Pete Mockaitis. So, I remember back at Podcast Movement which is the greatest podcasting conference, or perhaps the greatest conference in the world, we roomed together and, for me, Pete is like my big brother in podcasting, and so I realized that there are a lot of things that we do similarly and I realized something really interesting when we’re together.

When it comes to making decisions, Pete will put more research into that decision than I would ever contemplate in doing. So, whenever I need to make a decision or I need to buy something, first, I’ll go and see if Pete has bought that thing or made that decision, and then I just do whatever he did. That’s my decision-making process because he will research things to a point that I would never consider researching, and I said, “You know what, if it’s good enough for Pete Mockaitis, it’s good enough for Kwame Christian.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m honored by that. It’s funny, as we’re talking, I believe we’re using the same chair and same microphone right now.

Kwame Christian
Yup, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m flattered and honored, and I do over-research things and I think you might even call it a hobby at this point. It’s just fun for me as opposed to stressful. So, all right. Well, you’ve done a boatload of research. How’s that for segue? You did a boatload of research in your book How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race: Practical Tools for Necessary Change in the Workplace and Beyond.

And, boy, you’ve been having some really powerful conversations that have been getting a lot of traction here on LinkedIn and elsewhere. So, could you tell us, as you’ve lived this experience recently, engaging more folks about this stuff, any interesting themes or discoveries or surprises been popping up for you?

Kwame Christian
Yeah, Pete, I think that’s one of the most interesting things because, as you know, I do the negotiation and conflict resolution type of work with the American Negotiation Institute, and for me this is just an offshoot of that because we need to understand each other in order to connect on a deeper level. And when I think about difficult conversations about race and other sensitive topics, these are some of the most difficult conversations and negotiations out there. So, I want to create that resource.

And so, one of the things that’s so fascinating to me about this is that people all around the country and all around the world are struggling with this conversation for different reasons that have very core similarities. So, for example, in different countries, you’ll have different race-related issues, but at the core, we have two things that come to mind which trigger high levels of emotionality.

So, first, we have issues of identity, who I am as a person, and what somebody like me is supposed to do in this situation or what I perceive is supposed to do in this situation. And then the other one is morality, what it means to be a good or bad person, what is the right or wrong thing to do. And whenever we have conversations that touch on those two issues, that’s what triggers deeper levels of emotionality.

So, no matter where you are in the world, these conversations come up and they are typified by high levels of emotionality. And so, for me, as a former mediator and a lawyer and somebody who has a background in civil rights, it was really fascinating to take those negotiation and conflict resolution skills that are really familiar to me and bring it to this new space so we can have conversations on the sensitive topic that are constructive not destructive.

Pete Mockaitis
And those are two powerful principles right there – identity and morality. When you start to venture into that territory, yeah, it’s getting really personal. Identity is like who I am, and morality, “Am I good and behaving well and properly? Or am I doing evil?” It doesn’t get much more potentially heated than that when you’ve got those dynamics in play.

Kwame Christian
Absolutely. And, Pete, when you think about it, we all want to feel included, we all want to feel as though we belong. And whenever conversations like this go awry, you feel excluded for a core reason. Like, I can’t change my race, and so the rejection feels a lot more personal. And then I look at the document that you sent and I understand the demographics of your audience, and I was really glad to see that none of the people in your audience are people who get up in the morning, and say, “I’m excited to be evil today.”

Pete Mockaitis
We didn’t ask that question in the survey but maybe for the next one, just to be sure.

Kwame Christian
Listen, that was something that was coming through the data, and so I saw that. And so, that’s the thing, when we have these conversations, that issue of morality is triggered because you want to immediately defend yourself, “I am a good person.” And then that level of defensiveness comes up and it just leads to even more emotionality. So, that helps us to understand why these conversations are just so tough.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so your book is called How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race and so we’re going to dig into some of the how. But, first, I want to talk a little bit about the why because some folks might just put this category into the no-no zone right next to, “Hey, I don’t talk, especially at work, about money or sex or religion or politics. Let’s just go ahead and put race in there, too, because it feels too risky.”

So, can you comment a little bit on why to have those conversations and maybe when and where, sort of like the contextual landscape that makes this a great idea in time versus a, “Ooh, maybe a slightly different context would be a better time”?

Kwame Christian
Yeah, great question. And so, here’s the thing, you’d love this. I’ll give you a bit of a behind-the-scenes negotiation with my publisher.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Kwame Christian
In chapter one, I talk about why we should have these conversations. And chapter one was the only chapter in the book that I did not want to write. That was a specific request from my publisher. So, for me, as a practitioner, I wanted to essentially write the book like this, “Hi, I’m Kwame. Here are some tools and tactics and strategies,” and jump straight into it.

I want to go to where I feel comfortable but my publishers are saying, “Listen, we’re missing an important element. We need to discuss why it’s so important to have these conversations.” And, for me, and I think rooted in my own perception, it seemed obvious to me why we should have these conversations, but even though it seemed obvious, it was hard for me to articulate. And so, it took me a really long time to even begin writing that chapter, Pete, because I didn’t know what the answer was. I didn’t know what the words were. I had a feeling but I didn’t know how to articulate it.

And then I figured it out. It comes down to just one word, and it is the word care. We have these conversations because we care. We care about our colleagues. We care about society. We care about progress. We care about inclusion. We care about respect. That’s why we have these difficult conversations about race because we care at a deep level.

And now, when it comes to when we have these conversations, I’ll answer it in an unsatisfying way initially, like a typical lawyer – it depends. We need to have these conversations when it’s appropriate, when it’s a salient issue. And so, when I think about my legal background, one of the things that is critical for young lawyers to learn is how to issue-spot. What are the issues that are relevant in our problem-solving endeavor? And so, we need to figure out what’s relevant and what is irrelevant. So, let’s use something that’s a little bit more understood or appreciated or respected within the workplace.

So, within a workplace where we’re running a business, we understand that money is an issue. We have budgets, we have payroll, those types of things. And so, as people in the business world are making decisions, money is going to be an issue. It’s not always going to be an issue but it’s often going to be an issue, and sometimes it’s not the whole issue but it’s a partial issue. And sometimes, when it comes to race, race is often not the whole issue but race is a part of the issue.

Kwame Christian
And just like money, sometimes race is going to be an issue. It might not always be the whole issue, the conversation might not be completely about race, but it might be partially about race. And then, Pete, there are going to be some times where to one party in the conversation, race is an issue, and to another party in the conversation, race is not an issue. And then this becomes a difficult conversation about race because we have to talk about race in order to determine whether or not it is a relevant issue in this conversation.

And so, I think one of the things that happens in the business world is that race becomes a factor and people don’t see it coming, and it becomes a surprise. And if we’re not looking for it, we might not find it. And because of our lived experiences, we might not look for it, but somebody who’s a person of color, where that is a very salient part of their identity, it might be easier for them to see it because they are more primed to see it.

But, regardless, I think it’s important to have those conversations in order to make sure that everybody feels respected, and in order to make sure that we’re addressing the issues within the workplace to make sure that people feel respected and feel they are included and, again, just to solve problems and move the company forward.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, people feel respected, included – that’s huge. And I’m thinking about research associated with psychological safety and creativity and innovation, and so it’s not all about money. But, while we’re talking about the why, can you share with us some of the research or numbers or connection there is associated with organizations that are able to handle these sorts of conversations and diversity, equity, inclusion stuff well, and results, be they financially or retention or whatever numbers we got?

Kwame Christian
Absolutely. So, McKinsey did a study, I believe, in 2019, where they showed that companies that have greater levels of diversity are able to produce more revenue as it relates to research and development. And there are a number of studies that talk about how companies that foster strong levels of inclusion and belonging have higher retention rates for people of color and other diverse classes of citizens too.

And I think one element that’s often missing in those studies is the fact that this only works if there’s a high level of cultural intelligence associated with the company. And so, think about this, if you have a really diverse organization, and then the people in the organization aren’t trained on how to connect with each other, they don’t understand each other, then you’re going to have retention issues and you’re going to have poor performance. You might as well have a monolithic organization at that point because it would actually be more effective if we don’t invest in, like, the skills that are required to avail ourselves to the true benefits of diversity.

And I think that’s where a lot of organizations fail because they say, “All right. Hey, we have diversity issues, and I see the studies. Diversity is good. Cool. Let me put some brown people in my company,” and then they think that’s going to solve the problem. But if we still have challenges with the culture and inclusion and belonging, it’s going to be a struggle.

Pete Mockaitis
I had a podcast guest who mentioned that it seems like some organizations, his words, felt like they were going for the clipart in terms of they want the stock photos to look awesome but he sort of shocked them when he said, “Okay, you guys have the clipart in terms of everybody being represented but there’s actually not a lick of diversity in this room because every time we came up to an issue where we had a difference of opinion, you said, ‘Oh, let’s table it. Let’s take it offline. Let’s cover that later,’ and we’re never actually able to engage and hear these great diverse perspectives that you’ve all got to hear them hashed out, and then be able to mine the goodness that can come from it.”

Kwame Christian
Exactly. Exactly. And that’s when it becomes performative too, so we have to really embrace these conversations, and not just embrace the conversations, but embrace the diverse perspectives. And I think, again, this is clearly very well related to race and gender, ethnicity, those types of things, but I think, in general, in the business world too, we have to do a better job of managing these difficult conversations because if we don’t, then we’re not able to truly connect and learn from each other and make better decisions, too.

And, for me, as a lawyer and negotiation expert, like I said, I look at everything through the lens of negotiation. And I define a negotiation as any time you’re having a conversation, and somebody in the conversation wants something. And so, that’s why I think it’s really helpful to look at these conversations through that lens because if we do, now we can really elevate the dialogue.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so I think we’ve built out the why. Let’s do it. Let’s talk about the how. Can you give us a feel for your overall approach or framework?

Kwame Christian
Absolutely. And do you hear the excitement, Pete? Now, we’re getting to where I love to be. And so, when I think about difficult conversations, in general, this is the overarching type of approach. With the American Negotiation Institute, we focus on Defuse, connect, persuade. Defuse, connect, persuade. So, first, in any conversation, there’s probably going to be an emotional element so we need to defuse that emotional challenge so we can have a more productive conversation.

Then we need to invest some time in connecting with the other person, building trust, building rapport, empathizing, those types of things. And then, last step is persuading. And if you handled the first two steps, diffusing the emotionality and connecting with the other person, sometimes persuasion happens organically by the increased level of mutual understanding, but sometimes it doesn’t. But even if it doesn’t, we make persuasion last because we want to avoid unnecessary barriers to success in these conversations. So, I think it’s important to sequence things effectively.

And when it comes to the actual process of how to defuse these conversations, we have the compassionate curiosity framework. And so, it is a three-step framework that’s designed to make your difficult conversations a little bit easier, and it’s all about emotional intelligence, managing those emotions and creating that connection.

So, step number one is, acknowledge and validate emotions. Step number two is get curious with compassion. And step number three is joint problem-solving. And it’s a flexible framework that allows you to know what to say and when to say it for maximum impact because sometimes emotions might not be an issue. Okay, then we’re going to go to number two, getting curious with compassion. I’m going to ask open-ended questions with a compassionate tone.

Then, after I gather that information, I transition to joint problem-solving. But then, during joint problem-solving, the other person might have an emotional response. Okay, I know exactly what to do. I’m going to acknowledge and validate the emotions. So, it’s a flexible approach to help you know what to do and what to say at what time.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you said validate emotions, I love that stuff. I’m thinking about Michael Sorensen we had on the podcast. I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships is his book, and I love it, and my wife is glad I read it. Can you tell us what validating emotions sounds like in practice?

Kwame Christian
Yes. Oh, and I’m glad you said sounds like. So, I like to keep it simple, Pete. I’m a simple man. I don’t want to overcomplicate things here because the reality is that during these difficult conversations, we’re probably going to be emotional too. And so, if I give you a 13-step program to apply during this conversation, you’re not going to be able to use it because you’re under emotional distress.

So, again, what I want to do is I’ll say, “It sounds like…” “It seems like…” or if it’s a really obvious emotional response, “I can tell that…” So, “It sounds like this was a really hurtful situation for you,” or, “It seems like this had a significant impact on you,” or, “I can tell that you really care about this,” and so I’m going to label that emotion and it’s going to help them to calm down, they’ll decompress, they’ll share.

And it’s important to understand that, at this point, when somebody’s emoting in some kind of way, this is not the time for us to try to force our beliefs on them. This is not the time to let them know that you’re right and they’re wrong because we have to understand that there’s a difference between facts and feelings, but in the moment, it might feel the same to the person.

And so, if we start contending with the facts at this time, their emotionality won’t allow them to fully appreciate what you’re trying to say.

So, in these conversations, sometimes we have to make a strategic choice between being right and being persuasive, the difference between being right and being persuasive.

So, they might be factually incorrect, and I might want to correct them because I have the appropriate fact for that situation, but that might not be the most persuasive choice to make in that conversation. And so, sticking to that framework helps us to be a little bit more disciplined during the conversation and steer the conversation in a more productive direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, when we label an emotion, I think this was a hang-up for me but I don’t think it actually matters. We don’t actually have to name the emotion perfectly in order for people to appreciate the attempted validation, I’ve learned. So, I’m just going to be a little whacky, like, “Well, it sounds like you were really enraged.” Like, “No, I mean, I was just kind of frustrated.” Even if you’re sort of way off, like enraged is much more intense than frustrated, people still seem to appreciate the attempt to understand where they’re coming from emotionally.

Kwame Christian
Absolutely. And that’s the thing, Pete, because people don’t like being mislabeled, and so they will correct you, thus labeling themselves. So, I’ll give a couple of examples, I’ll give a pretty benign example and then I’ll give a more dramatic example. So, I remember one time, I was in a negotiation when I was practicing law, and the person was really frustrated, it was two CEOs whose relationship devolved into sending aggressive emails to each other. It was really bad.

And so, I heard the person’s complaint, and I said, “Well, hey, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you were pretty offended by what was in the email.” And he stopped and he looked up, and he’s like, “Nah, I wasn’t offended but I was more taken aback.” “Oh, okay, I wasn’t going to shoot my shot at taken aback. Never would’ve thought that one.” But he started to calm down once he labeled it himself and he started to explain.

And then there was another time, I like to use frustrated because it’s a safe guess. And I remember in a mediation one time, there was a woman who was very stoic. It was a really tough situation for her. Everybody knew it wasn’t her fault but she was still stuck with the legal liability, so it was just a really tough situation but she wasn’t giving me the information I needed to try to solve her problems.

And so, I said, “You know what, this is probably an emotional response. She’s stonewalling me. Let me try to break down those barriers by acknowledging and validating the emotion.” So, I said, “Hey, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like this situation was pretty frustrating for you.” And then she got quiet, and then she glared at me, and she said, “Oh, no, no, Kwame, I am not frustrated. I’m angry. And I’m angry for this reason, for that reason, and this reason.”

And I said, “Listen, I apologize. It makes sense that you’re angry. Can you tell me a bit more about what’s making you angry?” And then she went on, she decompressed, she gave me a lot more information, and I was able to use that information productively for the rest of the conversation.

And I think one of the things that’s really challenging about this is that when you’re in the face of high-level emotions, like very volatile or strong emotions, it’s scary, and we think we’re doing something wrong and we want to step back, but, really, what we have to do is we have to have the confidence in our skills and confidence in the framework to sit in that emotionality and trust that we have the skills to navigate through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, we talked about defuse and compassionate curiosity. Can we hear about connect?

Kwame Christian
Yeah. And so, this is all about creating connection with the other side. We want to try to create a trusting connection. And one of the things that we need to understand is, “What are those things that destroy connection?” And so, one of the things I talk about in the book is the shame-based strategies. And so, when you think about Brene Brown and vulnerability, she has a lock on the vulnerability market. I have no intention of trying to encroach on her territory, Pete.

But one of the things that she talks about is shame and the impact of shame. It causes people to pull away. They recoil from the interaction. They say, “Listen, I try to be vulnerable and I was attacked. I don’t feel safe. I’m not going to engage.” And, remember, this is a free country. You don’t have to speak if you don’t want to but I can’t have a difficult conversation or a conversation of any sort if the other person is unwilling to engage.

And so, one of the things that we do that breaks connection is use shame-based strategy that vilify people for their beliefs or what they think. And so, my response always has to be using this framework, being curious to get a better understanding of where they’re coming from. And so, one of the things I like to do is try to not vilify other people if we disagree, but use it as an opportunity. I always say conflict is an opportunity. So, what’s the opportunity? We can learn from each other.

So, if somebody says something that I disagree with, or they believe something that I disagree with, I’ll say, “Oh, that’s really interesting. Now, I’m curious. I want to learn more.” And so, I want to give them the space to share, and then after they’ve shared, they’re more likely to reciprocate, and then that gives me an opportunity to share my knowledge with them or my perspective with them.

And so, I think connection really comes from that empathy, being willing to take the time to understand how the other person is seeing the situation, understanding how they feel about the situation, and understanding how they think about the situation, and not judging them for those beliefs.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And, tell me, are there any nonverbal indicators that we might be judging, that we should watch out for, or check ourselves out on the video camera?

Kwame Christian
Yes, eyerolls are not helpful, Pete. Keep your eyes locked in. No, I think, really, it is very important to realize those nonverbals, and I think it’s just a good exercise to pay attention to how your body responds under certain circumstances.

And so, we all have our little tells that we have from time to time. And when the conversation gets tough for me, one of the things that I like to do to kind of get a little bit more control of my responses so those tells don’t come through is take some notes. It’s one of the easiest things you can do.

Your vision is now fixed. Your hands are now focused. It controls a little bit more of your body. So, whenever I start to feel a response that might indicate some negative emotionality toward the person. I’d use that as an opportunity to take a few notes and it doesn’t come off as negative. So, that’s a really great question. Paying attention to those nonverbals, your own, that’s really important.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, let’s talk about persuade.

Kwame Christian
Yes. And so, this is where everybody wants to jump to. They want to start the conversation at persuade, and that is often problematic because, again, we are inviting resistance because the way that I see it, Pete, I feel like we have to earn the right to be able to disagree, and here’s what I mean. A lot of times early in the conversation, we are so quick to tell somebody that they’re wrong but it’s inappropriate because we don’t even have a full understanding of where they’re coming from.

Now, they might be wrong, they might be very wrong but I want to make sure that I have a holistic understanding of where they’re coming from before I try to change their perspective. And people are going to be resistant to your attempts to change their perspective if they don’t believe that you have a full understanding of their perspective because they’re going to say to themselves, “How can you say I’m wrong? You don’t even know what I believe. You haven’t heard me.”

And so, it’s important to sequence it this way and have persuasion as the last step. And I talk about the parable of the blind man and the elephant in the book, and it goes like this. There’s an elephant in the room – ha, ha, elephant in the room – and they have five blind men, and they say, “Hey, I want you to feel this elephant, and I want you to describe the elephant.”

And so, one man touches the tusk, and says, “An elephant is like a spear.” Another man touches the leg, and says, “The elephant must be like a big strong column.” Another person touches the elephant’s ear, and says, “The elephant is like a thin fan,” and then they start to argue who’s right, who’s wrong. Well, they’re all right and all wrong at the same time. And a lot of times when we have disagreements, it’s not necessarily that somebody is completely right or completely wrong. It’s that we’re looking at very different parts of the elephant.

And so, I think one of the best ways and most subtle ways to persuade is to help people to see the rest of the elephant. I want to take time to give them the space to describe what it is that they’re feeling, “What is it that they feel? What is it that they think? What do they believe? And where does that come from?” and be genuinely curious about that, not judgmental. And then I want to say, “Okay, now I can understand where you’re coming from. Let me share what I’m seeing. Let me share the piece of the elephant that I’m seeing that you might not see,” and then I share.

And so, we’re really helping each other learn and grow through the interaction. And a lot of times, that might be enough to persuade but, regardless, I think that’s an important first step.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, let’s jump into some particulars when it comes to race. As I’ve listened to your stuff, a few things I found super useful, and one of them is you discussed that there are actually two totally different operational definitions or camps or schools of thought when it comes to the very definition of the word racism or racist, and it makes all the difference in terms of understanding where people are coming from. Can you unpack that for us?

Kwame Christian
Yeah. And, again, definitions are so important. I have a whole section in the book called semantic arguments, how people will get stuck on different terms and what they mean. And so, it’s not so much what the dictionary says a term means. It’s more so what the person understands it to mean in that particular interaction.

And one thing that I’ve realized is that the term racism is something that’s thrown around a lot, and a lot of times it’s accurate. And when I think about these conversations, I want to approach these conversations in the most persuasive way possible, and I want to always focus on my goal. What is the goal that I want to achieve and how best should I go about trying to achieve that?

And so, one of the things that we’re going to run into a lot of times in these difficult conversations about race is that people are going to be very defensive if they feel as though they’re being accused of something so terrible as racism because sometimes people say racism is acting with malicious intent. And sometimes, other people say racism is anything that leads to a negative impact that hurts people of color more so than whites, something like that, right?

And, really, what definition matters the most, the definition that the person is using in their mind in the conversation. And so, for me, I very rarely come to the point in a conversation where I accuse the person in front of me or the situation as being racist because I know what’s going to come next, Pete. I know exactly what’s going to come next, “No, I’m not racist,” “No, they’re not racist,” “No, this is not racist.” Now we’re having a semantic argument about what racist, what it means to be racist. I find that to be, a lot of times, unproductive in this conversation.

We might not agree that what it means to be racist, but if I stay very objective on the facts, we might be able to agree on the fact that the behavior, though well-intentioned, had a negative impact to a specific race or group. People could say, “Yes, I do agree with that,” and now we can move forward with solving the problem.

And so, I think just having a very specific and targeted approach with our language can help us to avoid a lot of these unproductive conversations where we get stuck, where somebody is being accused or feeling as though they’re being accused, and then the other person trying to accuse.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so powerful because I think folks can just wildly misunderstand each other right there in terms of if folks say, “The SAT is racist.” If you have a different version of what that word means, you’re like, “Like, that sounds insane. What are you…? A standardized test is not a human being with emotions. What are you even saying?” So, that just will not connect.

And if you’re operating from the other sort of definition, in which malicious intent is not all necessary, to call someone racist is, in a way, not that severe – tell me if this feels accurate to you – not that severe of a charge in terms of it’s like, “Are you a sinner? Are you a person who makes mistakes? Yes, and yes?” It’s like, “Do you have somewhere in your brain a series of associations that lead you to have a touch of a bias on certain issues about certain groups?” I imagine that we all do even if they’re innocuous, like, “Lithuanian love their ice cubes.”

I’m Lithuanian. My buddy, Connor, always quotes that “Malcolm in the Middle” although I actually do have a portable ice cube machine that I got here for the office because my refrigerator is…it’s not that important but…So, would that be fair to say that if we’re using the broader definition of racist, then everybody is one? Is that fair?

Kwame Christian
One hundred percent. And so, I’ll refer to one of the most popular books out there in the field, and it’s How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi. And one of the things that he talks about is his definition of racist is pretty ubiquitous. And he says, like, “There was a time where I was racist and there are times where I act in a racist way.” He owns it, and he says and he defines racist as, like I said before, anything that could have a potential negative racist impact.

And I know listeners who are big fans of Kendi, they will say, “That is not precisely what he said,” and I am not citing him precisely. So, I want to be very, very clear on that. But I think the core of what he says is that the term racist for him is merely descriptive. I know I have that part right. He says it’s merely descriptive. It’s not a value judgment. It is just a simple observation.

And now let’s accept that as true. That doesn’t mean that it will not have a predictable emotional response in the minds of the other person, and that’s one of the things that we have to recognize. Emotions don’t play by our rules. And so, whether or not we believe that somebody is entitled to feel the way that they feel, does not change the way that they feel the way that they feel.

And the way that they feel will have an impact on the conversations that we’d try to have with them, so we have to wrestle with the reality of their emotional response. And, for me, as a negotiation expert, as a strategist, I want to be very intentional about the way I navigate through these conversations to avoid that rejection, that reflexive rejection that comes with these types of accusations because there are very few people in the world who would say, “You know what, you called me racist, you’re right. I’m racist,” because that will come with significant social consequences in today’s society.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Although, if we clearly precisely defined the terms, I can imagine a group of heads nodding in a seminar, like, “Okay, yeah, fair enough. I guess, in a way, we are all somewhat, in some regards, racist. Okay.” So, in a way, it defangs it.

Pete Mockaitis
Before you till all that mental soil, such that everyone is ready to understand what we mean by those specific definitions, then, yeah, you’re going to get a strong response to that. I also loved what you had to say, is that sometimes that we should avoid unnecessary barriers, and sometimes semantics do just that.

So, if you use the term white allergies, white fragility, white privilege, systemic racism, there is a subset of the population that will hear those and just, like, shut down or they won’t take kindly to those terms because they have some association and baggage associated with it. Yet, when you explain, what you really mean by those things, they’d say, “Okay, yeah, I understand. That’s a thing that happens. Sure.”

Kwame Christian
Absolutely. And, Pete, in the book, I break that down to I have actual sample conversations. So, we actually talk about the tools or the tactics or the strategies, and then we have sample conversations. And we have sample conversations on each of those terms that you just addressed. And let me tell you a story.

So, I was in Brazil earlier this year, and I started texting some of my Brazilian friends, and I started to get some weird texts because a lot of them kept on sending me the text that said, “KKK.” I said, “Why are you sending me that because, to me, growing up in America, KKK means the Ku Klux Klan, which is one of the most horrendous terrorist organizations in American history, race related? Very racist.” But people kept on sending it to me, so I started Googling what is happening here. And so, for them, KKK is the equivalent of LOL, so it’s the laughing sound, like “KKK.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I get it. “K, K, K.”

Kwame Christian
Yeah, exactly. So, when they’re laughing, they say, “KKK.” Now, I understand that. I definitely understand that but that does not change the fact that it will, essentially, always have a little bit of an abrasive response for me because that is not how I’ve known the word. For the last over three decades, it has been associated with something very bad. I can’t just instantly say, “Oh, now this is playful laughing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Now it’s just humorous.

Kwame Christian
Yeah, I can’t do that. Same thing with these words. There’s always going to be some baggage associated with these words, so that’s why it’s important for me to recognize whether or not there is resistance associated with specific terms. And if there’s specific terms where there’s resistance, then I’m going to use the definition rather than the term.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the way I was trying to remember this tip from you, I’m making mnemonics for myself of other people’s material. It’s like, “Oh, so, if semantics are creating an unnecessary barrier, S, U, B, I can substitute it with a definition.” That’s how I remembered your tip.

Kwame Christian
Wow, second edition.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m going to use that but your stuff is probably way better than mine already, so it’s like, “Thanks, Pete. That was lame. I got way better stuff.”

Kwame Christian
No, that’s going in the second edition. I like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m flattered. Okay. Well, I loved what you had to say about focus on the goal and how to best achieve that, and maybe you do need to substitute some semantics that are creating unnecessary barriers. And I’m thinking about two stories in which I think, so some groups were trying to have some conversations about race, and I’m pretty sure they failed to meet their desired goals based on how they’re being received.

And I’m going to throw some scenarios at you, and you don’t know what went down. But I’m going to ask for you to do your best to speculate as, “When I see that kind of thing, it’s usually because they failed to do this, or they should’ve done that, most likely.” So, here we go.

Scenario one. A buddy of mine said he was at church and they were having a series of dialogues about some race issues to learn how to do better on these matters, pick up some skills, hear about perspectives. And then there was a white girl in her 20s who was chatting with my buddy, and she said, “Boy, after hearing all this stuff, I guess I just realized how bad and racist I am, and how I just totally don’t understand what people from the other side are saying, and I really have no right to discuss it. So, I guess I have nothing to offer and I should just keep my mouth shut.” And she proceeded to not come to any of the other meetings.

And so, my buddy is also a speaker-author dude, and he said, “Wow, never in any of my programming has the goal been to have someone feel totally disempowered and to feel the need to withdraw.” So, that’s a thing that can happen sometimes during the course of engaging in these conversations. Any pro tips on having that not happen for people?

Kwame Christian
Yeah, so let’s approach it from two different perspectives. So, let’s first approach it from the person’s perspective who said, “You know what, I’m out. This is too much.” And so, fear can masquerade in different forms, and oftentimes, it will take the form that is most persuasive to you. And so, I was talking to somebody earlier today, and she was saying, “Listen, I feel overwhelmed, I feel ill-equipped to have these conversations so I’m just not having to have these conversations.”

And I said, “See, you’re an intelligent person, and what you’re doing is you’re overintellectualizing the situation and saying, ‘I need to study more. I need to study more,’ and you keep on moving the goalpost just in order to make sure that you never put yourself in a position where you’re obligated to have the conversation, or you feel worthy of having the conversation.” And so, what this person is probably doing is saying, “Wow, I’m seeing the risks. This is scary. I am going to back out.” And backing out does nothing but protect her from her own emotional discomfort. And so, we have to look into it and see how fear will operate in these situations.

And then for the person who might see this happening, we use compassionate curiosity, and so we might say, “Hey, I noticed you stopped coming to the meetings. What happened?” “Well, I didn’t feel comfortable coming to the meetings.” “Okay, so it sounds like you were a little bit uncomfortable and maybe a little bit afraid of making a mistake?” “Yeah, that’s how I’m feeling,” and then they explain.

And then we move to getting curious with compassion, “Well, what is making you so afraid?” “Well, I’m afraid of making a mistake.” “Okay, tell me more.” “Well, I also feel a little bit overwhelmed because I should’ve been doing more but I haven’t been doing more.” Okay. Now, let’s get joint problem-solving, So, it seems like, based on what you said, you want to do more. Well, what are the things you can do that can make you feel as though you’re doing more?” “Well, I could start coming back to these meetings.”

Right. That’s it. Simple. Exactly how the conversation could go. But I wanted to kind of flow through how the compassionate-curiosity framework could work in that situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Thank you. And I guess I’m thinking, so that’s from her perspective. I guess, also, the people coordinating the thing could share some of the comforting words that you’ve been sharing, like, “Hey, this is tricky for people. It’s challenging. There are some risks. It’s going to feel uncomfortable, and that’s just how it’s going to be. We have different associations. There are some complexities.” And they’ll go, “Oh, okay. Huh, this is hard for everybody, and that’s okay.”

Kwame Christian
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Okay. Well, here’s another scenario. This was at a Fortune 500 company, and they had a huge meeting in which they announced, “Henceforth, the goal is by…” I don’t know, 2027 or some couple years away date, “….X percent of the positions above level five…” I don’t know in their system, like direct duration above, they had sort of a numbering system for sort of executive seniority power. You know what I’m saying?

So, “X percent of these positions will be filled by black people.” And so then, on the chat, there’s a whole lot of muttering going on, and everyone’s saying, “Oh, I see. Well, what percent is going to be Asians, and women, and disabilities, and elderly folks, and LatinX?” “Oh, okay.” So, they’re kind of miffed about this and maybe they didn’t feel included.

There’s just sort of like they felt like this is just being thrown upon them or they don’t understand what’s at it, or they think maybe there’s not, I don’t know, structural fairness. I don’t know precisely what their beef is but that is a response that can happen when there is a fiat, and saying, “This is how it is with regard to race, everybody,” and then the murmuring begins. Any pro tips on dealing with that better?

Kwame Christian
Yeah. So, it’s funny, Pete, when you said that, I had the immediate response, I said, “Oh, okay. Well, we’re opening up Pandora’s box here because there are many other races that are underrepresented there too, right?” And I think this is a really great example of the ubiquitous nature of these conversations because we can talk about the book title in terms of how to have difficult conversations about race, but, really, we could substitute any sensitive topic.

And so, we think about age discrimination, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, all of that type of stuff. The same underlying frameworks can apply to those situations. And so, I think it really comes down to having a conversation about, first of all, “What’s the problem that we want to solve?” And then figuring out, “What other problems do we want to solve at the same time?” because the choice did cause some murmuring. We cannot ignore that murmuring and pretend it doesn’t exist.

And so, it’s important for us to lean into that conversation and have it at a high level and be open and transparent about it just to make sure that everybody feels seen and appreciated.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Well, Kwame, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear about a few more of your favorite things?

Kwame Christian
At the end of the day, really, what we have to do is we have to have these conversations. If there’s anything that I want your listeners to take from this is that we have to keep this simple. Have the conversations and use the framework, and that’s better than the alternative.

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

Kwame Christian
“The best things in life are on the other side of difficult conversations.” That’s the motto of the American Negotiation Institute, and that’s really the ethos that I tried to bring into each of the books, the podcast, and the trainings that we do.

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

Kwame Christian
One of the things that a lot of communication experts like to talk about is the importance of empathy, and I’m not different. I talk about it, too, but I think one thing that people have to appreciate is the fact that empathy is very, very difficult for some specific reasons.

When you look at the studies related to in-group versus out-group bias, it is much easier for us to empathize with people who are like us. So, think about a non-race-related example. Imagine you’re watching a football game, and somebody gets hurt from your team. Let’s say they hurt their knee. You will reflexively reach down and, like, almost grab your knee. You’ll wince. You’ll feel their pain. That happens automatically.

But if somebody else from the other team gets hurt, you don’t have that type of sympathetic response. You might actually cheer. That’s the tribal nature of humanity. But on a deep subconscious psychological level, it’s easier for us to empathize with people who see us as one of them, as part of their tribe, as part of the group.

And so, I think a couple of things that we need to realize is, number one, empathy takes effort especially when the other person is different from you. And, number two, we can trigger a little bit more automatic empathy in our direction by being mindful of how we can mobilize biases in our favor. So, an example of that is affinity bias, “I like people who are like me.”

So, at the beginning of every conversation, my goal is to approach this rapport-building stage from the perspective of getting the other person to see me as one of them. We are on the same team. We might look different, we might have different perspectives, but when it all comes down to it, we’re on the same team. And just taking the time to really pull that together, helps us to trigger more of that automatic empathy and makes the conversations a lot easier.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Kwame Christian
Well, my favorite book used to be “Finding Confidence in Conflict” and now my favorite book is “How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race.” Is that too self-serving, Pete?

Kwame Christian
But I will say, I did find particular joy in reading “How to Not Lose Your…” stuff, I’ll edit it, How to Not Lose Stuff with Your Kids. So, talking about emotional regulation for parents. And so, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite book because I try to read a book a week, and so, usually, it’s the one that is closer, like most recent to me that registers the most, like recency bias, ha, ha, bias is everywhere. So, I’ll give a shoutout to that book as a recommendation for all the parents out there.

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

Kwame Christian
LinkedIn. It has to be LinkedIn. I am addicted to LinkedIn. I post every day, and it’s been really rewarding connecting with people on LinkedIn. So, if you use LinkedIn, make sure to connect with me, follow me. I always try to be really generous with content on that platform.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Kwame Christian
Going to the gym in the morning, I’d say. I’m realizing more and more that this is, I guess, what Charles Duhigg would call a keystone habit because a lot of good habits come from that because it’s tied to my meditation routine, it’s tied to my gratitude journal in the morning. So, working out in the morning is happening, then I know a lot of other good things are happening too.

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

Kwame Christian
So, check out the podcast Negotiate Anything, and also our other podcast Negotiate Real Change, which is about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, but using negotiation and conflict resolution as a tool to promote it. But for general leadership, conflict resolution, negotiation, sales, that type of interpersonal communication, check out Negotiate Anything. And then, also, reach out to me on our website the AmericanNegotiationInstitute.com. And if you’re interested in trainings, workshops, coaching, all of that type of stuff, you can reach out to us there.

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

Kwame Christian
Yes, everybody, the challenge is this. Use the framework. Use compassionate curiosity. If you have the opportunity to interact with a human being within the next 24 hours, I guarantee you, you’ll have an opportunity to put these skills into action. So, whenever you have that opportunity, remember, acknowledge and validate emotions, get curious with compassion, and use joint problem-solving, and just get into the habit of using that and it’ll be your best friend in those dark times when you’re having those tough conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kwame, this has been a treat. I wish you much good things on the other side of difficult conversations.

Kwame Christian
I appreciate it, my friend. Thanks for having me on.

792: How to Handle Negotiations and Difficult Conversations Like an Expert Hostage Negotiator with Scott Tillema

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Scott Tillema shares powerful wisdom on handling emotional and tense conversations with ease and finesse.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two powerful skills to help you connect with anyone 
  2. A handy strategy to get people to listen in closely
  3. What people want to hear during emotional conversations 

About Scott

Scott Tillema is a top communication keynote speaker, FBI trained hostage negotiator, and senior associate with The Negotiations Collective.  

He is a nationally recognized leader in the field of crisis and hostage negotiations, training thousands of negotiators across the country. Scott has developed a model for hostage negotiation, which is now being adapted by those in the private sector for use in sales, marketing, communication, and leadership.

Resources Mentioned

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Scott Tillema Interview Transcript

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

Scott Tillema
Hi, Pete. Thanks for having me today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, my pleasure. I’m so excited to hear some of your negotiation wisdom. But I think, first, we have to hear a thrilling tale of crisis and/or hostage negotiation. Bring it home for us, Scott. No pressure.

Scott Tillema
Yeah, there’s all kinds of thrilling tales. And I think all of us are engaged in difficult conversations. And although not many of us will rise to the level of doing a hostage or crisis negotiations, we’re all having difficult conversations where we want influence. And one of the ones that sticks out in my mind, I was having a conversation with a man, who is holding a gun to his head, and saying that he wanted to kill himself.

And in these moments, you realize how critical this dialogue is going to be, and the words that you say and how you say them really, really are impactful. And I learned a big lesson in this conversation with him because I was trying to persuade him, I was trying to be influential in getting him to do what I wanted him to do, and that is put the gun down so we could have a very safe resolution to this incident.

And, unfortunately, after many hours of conversation, this man chose to pull the trigger, and that was probably one of the most impactful moments in my negotiations career where I really had to reflect upon the outcome of that incident, and say, “What could I have done better so during my conversation with him, he would’ve put that gun down and reached a safe outcome?”

And moments like this really drive me to be excellent at what I do and to be a great negotiator. So, that’s the moment that sticks out, to say, I can do better, I need to do better. And the challenge to everybody I work with and everybody I teach and train, to say, “If this is the level of consequence in my conversations, what’s the hesitation for you? Why not go out and be a great leader and be a courageous person in sales and marketing, and do these things and take these chances, and find the influence and be great at what you do?” because the outcome probably is not going to be as consequential as something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, or certainly it’s highly unlikely most of our conversations will be as immediately consequential as in a person dies. Although, I think it’s quite possible that the conversations that we have, and the extent at which we are effectively engaged in them, can, over years or generations, reshape history for thousands, and not necessarily for like super CEOs but just like our children, our children’s children, or our colleagues and those they, in turn, touch. It might be a lower amount of change for one person, but with the ripples and multiplications, it may be quite substantial.

Scott Tillema
Very substantial. And I don’t want to diminish the work that people do in any field because you’re in a leadership role, you need to be having difficult conversations with the people that you work with and the people that you coach and develop. Because if they don’t succeed at their job, they’re going to be without a job.

And think about how impactful that is to that person, and the people that they support and their family. So, we know that the power of influence in conversations is really a life-impacting piece here that all of us, who work in the field of influence, and that’s many of us, I think that everybody out there wants to be more influential.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you reflected on that encounter, and you said, “What could I have done differently?” I’m intrigued, did you have a lot of training and experience? What did you conclude and that you could’ve done differently?

Scott Tillema
That’s a great question. And in 2007, I was trained by the FBI, and one of the cornerstones of FBI crisis negotiation training is active listening, being a great listener, and they teach the eight skills of active listening, and this is foundational. Most people in negotiations know or should know these eight skills, and this isn’t classified stuff. There are books written out there about this. This is stuff that anybody can learn.

But what I kind of took away from this is we have to be a little bit more broad in communication than just being great listeners because the reality is what we see is what we believe, and sometimes we have this side bias that we believe what we see and we can disregard the conversation if we see something to the contrary.

So, in my trainings, we do exercises that show that we believe what we see. So, as communication has evolved, we’re getting away from just this telephone conversation. And now, in 2022, moving forward, it’s very commonplace for us to engage in Zoom conversations or Skype or any type of conversations where we can see each other and experience each other, so it’s more than just being a great listener that we communicate through gestures and facial expressions and body language, and how we’re dressed, and what people can see in the backgrounds of our virtual conversations, and this all matters.

This is all very impactful to what people think and what people believe, and, ultimately, what they choose to move forward on. So, in addition to being a great listener, I really press people that we have to understand body language, we have to understand the expressions, and we’re putting on a show, essentially, to allow people to experience us through the visual in addition to being great listeners and having a great conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, can you share some of the eight skills of listening, some tidbits that can be advantageous to your everyday professional?

Scott Tillema
Sure. The acronym to remember this is MORE PIES, and we could probably go into a five-day class on these eight skills of active listening, but just to touch on a couple that I think are really the most impactful – asking open-ended questions. And this seems so simple and so basic but when I tell people, “I want you to ask questions and engage,” we almost default to closed-ended questions because we’re interested in gathering factual information.

And our goal in these critical conversations needs to be dialogue. And I challenge people, “I want you to do this in three or four sentences, and then pass the baton back to your negotiation partner, and allow them to speak, and allow them to be heard. And we do that by asking great questions. And that’s a great one.

And when you couple that with emotion labeling, which I think is another really, really important step of active listening, now we don’t have to default to saying, “Pete, I understand.” The reality is I don’t understand. I haven’t lived your life, I haven’t done your work, I haven’t had your experiences, so, for me to say to you, “You know what, I understand,” that’s almost dismissive, and I would say it’s a bit disrespectful because how can I possibly understand you when we’ve only been having a conversation for a short period of time?

So, instead, let’s maybe go to an emotional label, and say, “You sound frustrated.” So, we label what I’m hearing with an emotion, “You sound really excited,” and then we couple that with an open-ended question, “Tell me more,” and allow you to continue that conversation so, now, not only am I connecting with the content of what you’re saying but I’m connecting with the emotion of how you’re saying it.

And that’s when people start to sense that, “Hey, I really get you. I really have an appreciation for what you’re saying, and the emotions that are generated by your situation.” So, that’s, I think, two of the most important pieces of active listening, but there are other great ones. Reflecting or mirroring back the actual words that somebody says. Somebody says whatever they say and they get to the end of whatever they’re saying, and we just repeat back the last two or three words, and that’s reflecting.

Pete Mockaitis
The last two or three words.

Scott Tillema
You got it. You’re a pro. Perfect. And what the amateur is going to do is going to say, “Yes, that’s exactly that.” And, if you do it with an upward inflection, we’re asking a question with a downward inflection, we’re affirming that statement, and then we’re going to go to silence, which is another skill of active listening, which I think is probably the hardest for people to master because we’re uncomfortable in silence.

So, I’m just going to let it be silent for a moment, and allow you to take in that moment and keep speaking, and give you the floor because negotiation is not about being right. It’s not about ego. It’s about reaching an agreement. That doesn’t mean I have to like you. It doesn’t mean that I have to trust you. It’s we’re going to reach an agreement that’s satisfactory for both of us, and that’s how we’d go about doing it, by being great listeners and engaging in some excellent dialogue.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, there’s some tidbits about listening. And then how do we become more influential? You talked about verbal influence. How do we develop that?

Scott Tillema
Yeah. So, understanding the first step, I see this as having four steps in being a great negotiator. And, for me, I see our goal is to create a bond with somebody. And so often, we have a goal, “I want to sell them this,” “I want them to do this,” “I want them to drop the gun,” and I challenge people, I say, “Your goal needs to be to build a bond with this person. And once you start thinking about connection, now we can start having a mental map of how to get there.”

And I see that through four principles working together in a circle. And some people see negotiations as a stairway that we’re working our way up, and I don’t see it like that. I see it as a circle that we’re going around and around, and these four principles are the influence and the bond that we are creating. And the first one is understanding, and we do that through listening, and we do that through studying body language and gestures, and make sure I have an understanding of what’s going on.

And so often, we get stuck on that, especially as high performers and the work that we do, we say, “Okay, I think I get it so now I’m going to go right into solving the problem.” And I think that’s the step that most people skip, especially if you’re really good at what you do, is, “I skip the understanding piece,” not that you don’t know how to be a good listener. It’s just that, “I think I know what the problem is. I think I know what the issue is, so I’m going to move on quickly.”

So, the second principle that I use is timing, knowing when to deliver your message. And I found this to be the strategy piece in these conversations and these negotiations, to say, “Okay, I have an understanding of what’s going on, but I want to quickly say whatever I need to say and give my pitch,” and sometimes we get this wrong.

And by getting your timing wrong, we can really miss an opportunity or, worse, put ourselves in a more difficult situation if we try to jump the gun and start selling too soon, or try to persuade somebody too soon. So, the second step is having great timing to what it is we’re going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And next?

Scott Tillema
Next is delivery. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Most people should be preparing for their negotiations, for their difficult conversation. And if you’re not preparing, let’s start there. But the people who do prepare, spend a lot of time focusing on the content of what they’re going to say, “So, I’m so worried. Here’s my talking points, bullets A, B, C, D, and I’m going to get through this, and this is what I’m going to say.”

But how often does somebody going into a really consequential conversation take time to practice their delivery, not what they’re going to say but how they are going to say it? And I’m convinced that this is much more important than the words we actually say. Now, I don’t want anyone to listen to this, and say, “Hey, I was just listening to a podcast with Scott Tillema who said I can say anything I want as long as I say it nicely, it’s cool.” And that’s not the case at all because words matter.

Words are how we frame the conversation so I don’t want to dismiss that piece at all. Words are really critical, but how we deliver them, and I’m talking about the rate, the rhythm, the pressure, the volume, the tone, all these different ways that we can manipulate our verbal delivery. This is really, really important on how people experience us. So, that’s a third big piece, is delivery. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Pete Mockaitis
Scott, I love the way you listed several key variables there. Can you share with us some demonstrations and the impact of saying the rate, fast versus slow, or different rhythm patterns, and what kind of influence that makes on the listener?

Scott Tillema
Of course. When we get nervous, when we get excited, our rate starts to notch up and we start speaking quickly. And it’s been shown that people who speak really quickly are perceived as less trustworthy than people who slow down that rate. Now, we don’t want to speak too slowly because we’re going to lose people’s attention. And we have found that the attention span has shrunk significantly over many, many years, as we’re surrounded and bombarded with distractions and social media and everything else that we’re attending to.

So, when I do a negotiation in a crisis or a hostage negotiation context, I have a coach that’s working with me in real time, so they can sit here and analyze what I’m saying and tell me, “Hey, let’s slow it down a little bit,” and kind of give me that hand signal, “Let’s slow that down and allow the person some time to process what we’re saying.” And if we can slow down just a little bit, we’re going to be a little bit more trustworthy and maybe even a little bit more likable. So, that’s the rate.

Pete Mockaitis
Okie-dokie. And then, so next step, we talk about rhythm. What are the key rhythm patterns that we can look to and what are the impacts of them?

Scott Tillema
Yeah, everything I say feels the same way. You get into the groove, it’s going to feel really smooth, you don’t have to rhyme, but we want everything to be right here. So, when you are engaging with me, you have an expectation that you’re not going to get yelled at, that I’m not going to be getting excited, and now we’re going really, really…Everything is kind of right in this groove, and it’s not too loud, it’s not too soft, it’s paced just right, so you can feel comfortable opening up to me.

And I think that this is the same reason that there is a couch in the therapist’s office so you get comfortable. We’re creating a bit of psychological safety for you to say, “Let’s really discuss the important issues here,” because sometimes we disguise the important stuff with other nonsense, and we’re willing to talk about the things that are easy to discuss.

But, really, sometimes we need to get into the more difficult conversations, and I’m really not going to open up with somebody if there’s a chance I’m going to get yelled at, or if a chance that they’re going to just quickly dismiss me and move on. Everything is right in this zone here and I want you to get comfortable having this conversation that’s going to open up pieces of information, which goes back to our first principle of understanding.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we talked about rhythm and volume, we mentioned not shouting. Any other volume insights?

Scott Tillema
I think that if you’ve listened to Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, she talks about how we can use the body to influence the mind. So, taking this to the volume of what we say, if I become a little bit more quiet in what I say, it is going to force you to physically work harder to hear me. And it’s not very often that we find ourselves physically working really hard to hear someone. It’s only at the times that we’re listening intently, and those are the times that something is very important.

So, sometimes I’ll take the volume down a little bit, and that doesn’t mean speaking weakly or speaking without power. It’s going to force someone to listen very hard to what you’re saying. And now their brain may be convinced that this is something important, and now we’re getting into influence pieces because now they’re intently listening to what I have to say.

And we think the opposite when we want to be heard. We get loud, we scream, we get the bullhorn and we make sure that everybody can hear us, but this is intimate conversations. We’re one-on-one with people, trying to get them to go in the direction that we want them to go. So, I challenge people in coaching sessions, “Let’s take the volume down. Let’s come a little bit closer and see if we can engage them in a soft, intimate, intense conversation.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so we talked about a few components of delivery and we’ve got that four-part building of a bond with the understanding, the timing, the delivery. And what’s next?

Scott Tillema
The last one is respect, that I think you can do everything right. But if we don’t come in with respect, none of the other pieces work. So, you can’t get an agreement on respect alone. On respect alone, you can learn to be really nice, and you can get walked on. You’re going to lose a lot of negotiations, lose some opportunities. But without this respect piece, you are not going to have this influence and this bond that you need.

And I think that this makes sense to most people, and say, “Yeah, I get that. I was raised to be respectful, the ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, Ma’am,’ ‘Yes, please,’ ‘No, thank you,’” and that’s all really good, and that’s something that I want. But I think that respect is about emotion and connecting with people’s emotion and their emotional triggers.

And we see such the opposite of this. If you check on Twitter or a lot of social media where people are just disrespectful of each other, and that’s emotional triggers for people. So, I talk about, within respect, I talk about pieces like fairness and autonomy. Are we being treated fairly? How do they see this? How do they see this conversation? What is the issue that they see? Because I know that I see it one way, but can I see it the way they see it? Are they being treated fairly? And that’s a huge trigger for people.

And I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks, to say, “You know, I may not be able to get you what you want but I can assure you that you’re going to be treated fairly,” and people really like to hear that. And sometimes there can be a sticking point because how I see fairness might be a little bit different from how you see fairness, and we can have that discussion.

But the second piece of this is the autonomy, “Are you giving me the opportunity to choose the outcome here?” And I think that I could probably pressure people into making the decision I want them to make, but, ultimately, I want them to carry out that commitment. It’s not just getting me to say yes, to get me to say yes. I need you to do whatever happens next.

And I’m going to try to guide them toward making the right conversation, but, ultimately, I want them to choose, “This is what I want, this is the outcome, this is the agreement that I’m going to enter into.” And if we can be respectful of fairness and autonomy, and have sprinkle in some empathy in here, we’re really going to be someone, who this, your negotiation partner, your conversation partner is going to look to, and say, “Yes, this is someone I want to agree with. This is someone I like. This is someone who I believe in. This is someone who I’m going to enter into an agreement with.”

And that’s the piece of negotiation where we find success, to say, “We’re going through understanding, timing, delivery, respect,” and this is how we build the bond. We’re going around the circle. We’re making this connection. We don’t listen to strangers. We don’t care what strangers have to say. But now that we’ve formed this relationship and this connection, maybe I can have a little bit of influence and nudge you in the direction that we need you to go.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so zooming out across the broad expanse of this topic domain, could you share with us some of your top do’s and don’ts that are particularly applicable for professionals? Are there any key words or phrases? Is there any way we could accidentally threaten someone’s autonomy or trigger them there, even though we didn’t mean to?

Scott Tillema
Of course. And when we do that, if we do that, again, we’re watching for changes in behavior. Are they pulling away? Are we seeing things outside of the baseline? Are we losing that dialogue? And let’s not be afraid to go back to that, to say, “Hey, I’m doing my best here. I sense that there’s a little bit of disengagement here. Is there something I said or didn’t say that maybe doesn’t sit quite right with you?”

And this is an important piece, especially with these high performers, to say, “What if I’m wrong? What if you see it differently from the way I see it?” And I think this is the importance of having diverse teams and diversity and all kinds of different ways because I want a lot of different pieces of input from people who think differently from me, to say, “Hey, maybe we have to take a different approach. Maybe this approach is wrong.”

And to approach someone and say, “If I did something wrong, let me apologize for how I just presented this. I sense that this was really unsettling to you or upsetting to you.” Or just inquire, “Is there something that happened that we need to go back and address?” That’s a great, great piece. And so often, we have this ego that gets in the way, to say, “Well, I’m not going to apologize to anybody,” “Well, I’m not going to be the one who’s wrong here.” That’s not what this conversation is about.

This conversation is about reaching an agreement with somebody, so let’s set the ego aside. It’s not about ego. Be willing to be curious. What another big takeaway, that so often we are so worried about talking about us, “And what I know and what I can do.” People aren’t impressed by that. They just aren’t. People are more happy to tell you about themselves and their work and their product, so be much more willing to listen than being eager to talk. Another important takeaway to be influential and do great things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Scott Tillema
I think that negotiation is probably one of the most important skills that people need to have to be successful in life because negotiation, really, it’s an umbrella for other skills like communication and influence persuasion, and all these things. And we have an inflated sense that we are really good at this because we communicate with people all the time, and we can point to examples in our life where we have found success.

But the people who are really good at this are humble to say, “I need to learn more, I need to be willing to examine myself and do better at this.”

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

Scott Tillema
So, I don’t know if this is a quote verbatim, but one of the professors at Harvard, Michael Wheeler, he’s a long-time negotiation trainer, he talks about flexibility and adaptability. That we can’t say, “This is the way. This is the only way.”

So, be willing to step out of our comfort zone, be willing to take on styles that are uncomfortable to us, and learn things outside of what we already know because you might need that technique, you might need that tactic, so I really find the work of Michael Wheeler to be very impactful.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Scott Tillema
I’ve got a number of books that I like on negotiation and influence. I think one of the older ones, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini outlines six principles of influence, and that is a cornerstone for anybody who’s in the business of influence or persuasion. We need to understand that. But another one is Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate by Dan Shapiro. He talks about five core concerns that trigger our emotions, and that we can use to trigger other people’s emotions.

Beyond Reason is a great book to pick up, cheap, easy read but really foundational for people who are engaging in meaningful conversations with others that really want to take the next step and understand the impact that emotions have in driving our thinking and decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Scott Tillema
Favorite habit is probably practicing my active listening skills. And I’ve been doing this for a long time, and that doesn’t mean that I’m good at it forever. It’s something that we can forget, and something that we can lose. And people ask me all the time in training, “Hey, Scott, how can I practice the eight skills of active listening?”

And the next time that you get a spam call, one of these people that’s trying to get you to do whatever, give them money and steal your credit card, I want you to practice the eight skills of active listening. Write down what these eight skills are, have them handy, and in three or four minutes, you should be able to get through each one.

And if you’re doing it with purpose and true intent, like you aren’t just going through a checklist, this person is going to engage you and you’ll get through the eight skills of active listening, give yourself a pat on the back, and then you can hang up the call and wait for the next spam caller in a few minutes, and do it all over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with listeners; they tweet it out and quote it back to you?

Scott Tillema
“It’s not about trying to get somebody to do something. It’s about creating a bond.” And that’s what I hear back from people the most because that’s not what we’ve ever been taught before. We’ve been taught to sell them this thing, or convince them of this thing, or get them to do what I’m telling them to do, and it just reframes the mind. It reshapes the mind to say our goal, our focus is on creating a bond.

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

Scott Tillema
Excellent. If they would like to hear a little bit more on these principles, I invite your listeners to check out my TED Talk, it’s “The Secrets of Hostage Negotiators.” You type in hostage negotiator on YouTube, it’ll be one of the first talks that come up. It’s 18 more minutes of what we’ve been talking about here today, with a few more stories and a few more examples. They can visit my website at ScottTillema.com or my business site at NegotiationsCollective.com to learn about me and what I do and the services that we offer.

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

Scott Tillema
I would say that it’s important for us to realize that this is a difficult time for many people, that all of us have experienced anxiety, and loss, and trauma over the last two years. And I’m not sure that that’s going to change immediately. So, being mindful that there are people around us who are struggling, use these principles, use this approach and try to connect with somebody today.

And it’s not maybe in a professional level where you’re trying to sell something or try to make money. It’s being a thoughtful connecting human being with somebody else, and you’ll be surprised how impactful this approach can be, and that with all the struggles with mental health and suicide in the world, that being a great connector, being a great negotiator, being a great communicator, this can go a long way, and you are going to connect with somebody who will later reflect to you how impactful you were at a really critical moment in their life.

So, let’s be mindful that there are people out there who are struggling and we can use these techniques to connect with them and really lighten up what can be a difficult time in a lot of people’s lives.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Scott, thank you. I wish you much luck in all your negotiations.

Scott Tillema
Thanks, Pete, for having me on. A pleasure chatting with you today.

786: How to (Really) Strengthen Your Relationships with Eric Barker

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Eric Barker shares science-based wisdom on how to make your relationships flourish.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The two critical elements of trust-building 
  2. The secret to dealing with difficult people
  3. How to navigate difficult conversation

About Eric

Eric Barker is the author of The Wall Street Journal bestseller Barking Up the Wrong Tree, which has sold over half a million copies and been translated into 19 languages. It was even the subject of a question on “Jeopardy!” Over 500,000 people have subscribed to his weekly newsletter. His work has been covered by The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Financial Times, and others. Eric is also a sought-after speaker, having given talks at MIT, Yale, Google, the United States Military Central Command (CENTCOM), and the Olympic Training Center. His new book, Plays Well with Others, will be released by HarperCollins in May of 2022. 

Resources Mentioned

Eric Barker Interview Transcript

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

Eric Barker
It’s great to be here, man.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong. And I got a kick out of your dedication page, it is “To the relationships that you’ve screwed up.” Can you tell us a key story there about a screwup and some principles learned?

Eric Barker
It’s never been my specialty at all. One of the five factors that psychologists use to determine someone’s personality, one of them is agreeableness, and out of a possible score of a hundred, I scored a four. So, disagreeable, probably not helping there. One of the things that led me to write the book was that I’m not a specialist with relationships but then, actually, two weeks after I closed the deal to write the book, California lockdown for the pandemic, and I realized, “Maybe I wasn’t the only one who was going to be needing a little relationship-defibrillator after all this was over.”

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. So, low on agreeableness, and so can you tell us a tale of how that got you into some trouble once?

Eric Barker
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a specific time, but, it’s funny, the same trait that has harmed me in my relationships actually helps me in my writing because I tend to always challenge things, debate things, to not easily go with the flow, I want to test things, play myth-busters, and that’s basically how my book is structured. Like, taking the maxims that we all kind of assume are true about relationships, and wanting to say, “Wait a second. Is that really true? Shall I look up the evidence here?” So, there is a silver lining.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, as I’m thinking about my relationships, I’ve got a friend, I’m thinking of my buddy Avon, in particular. He seems to love to take the other view every time, and I don’t even know if he really believes what he’s saying or if he’s just trying to rass me or he finds it fun. And it’s interesting, it’s like some people love that and some people hate that, like, “Oh, what an interesting thing we’re exploring. Hmm, we’ll do a little bit of banter, a little back and forth, volley, exploring.” And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, like, just can it, Eric.” Is that your experience as well, some love it, some hate it?

Eric Barker
Oh, no, absolutely. That’s the kind of thing where, like I said, after a day of working hard writing the book, I kind of have to tell myself, “Okay, turn it off, turn it off. Don’t need to test and question everything anymore. It works out really well with the writing, not so much as well with other people.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, could you kick us off with a particularly surprising or fascinating discovery you’ve made about relationships while you’re researching and writing this book?

Eric Barker
Yeah, one thing that really blew me away was the research on loneliness. Like, Faye Alberti is a historian at the University of York, and she basically found that before the 19th century, loneliness pretty much didn’t exist. It sounds crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Eric Barker
But basically, we were all embedded in religions, nations, tribes, groups. We always felt like we were connected to other people. And what’s really interesting is that aligns with some of the scientific psychological research on loneliness, which is that lonely people don’t spend any less time with others than non-lonely people do.

Again, it sounds crazy but we’ve all had that feeling of being lonely in a crowd. Just because you’re on the subway or in the middle of Times Square, you can be surrounded by people and that doesn’t mean you feel connected to them. What John Cacioppo, the leading researcher on loneliness, found is that loneliness is how you feel about your relationships.

If you have good relationships, strong connections, and you go on a business trip, you don’t feel desperately lonely. You know that there are people who care about you, they’re just not near you or by you. But if you don’t feel strong connections to people, you can be surrounded by others. You could be at a sporting event and you’re not going to feel that great. Loneliness is, again, how you feel about your relationships.

So, in the past, we had these deep kinds of near-tribal connections to others. We were always part of a group. And these days, we saw, basically post-19th century, the rise of individualism, and so we don’t feel those strong connections. Loneliness is an issue of perception. When we aren’t near others but we feel we have strong connections, that solitude, that’s a positive, that’s me time. It’s like, that feels good. You know that people are there but you get a little time to yourself.

Well, when we don’t feel those strong connections, neuroscience actually shows that our brain scans for threats twice as fast, which, from our ancestral environment, makes sense. If you don’t think help is coming, you need to be on the lookout for danger, but that’s not terribly conducive to happiness.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I guess we’re getting into it. Tell us, Eric, what is to be done if we are feeling not so great about our relationships and we got some loneliness cooking?

Eric Barker
It’s really an issue of deepening our relationships. The first thing I did when I…in the section of the book on friendships, the first thing I did was look at Dale Carnegie because that’s the book everybody knows, How to Win Friends & Influence People, and that book was written before the advent of social science research, it’s all anecdotal.

But the crazy thing is that the primary pillars of Carnegie’s book all proved true. They’ve all been verified, except for one, and that is he says to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. And research shows we’re actually pretty bad at that. But everything else, finding similarity, paying people compliments, listening, these are all positives. The thing is Carnegie’s book is written mostly for developing business contacts, so it’s kind of at the more shallow end of the pool.

But for deepening relationships, what I found is that the research seems to point towards two things, and that is time and vulnerability. Time is really critical. It is the thing that research shows friends fight about the most. And time is a powerful costly signal. You spend time with people, we only got 24 hours in a day. You keep spending time with somebody, it shows you care.

And vulnerability is opening up. That’s telling people what’s on your mind, your stresses, your challenges. We’re usually afraid to do this but this is what really creates trust. By talking about the things we’re afraid of, we tell the other person that we trust them, otherwise we wouldn’t say it, and that leads people to reciprocate, and that’s how you build trust.

So, it’s really critical for us to go past the small talk, and very often we can feel stuck in the small talk, and it’s time and vulnerability that will deepen relationships, make us feel closer to others, and help us beat loneliness.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny, I moved about a year ago from Chicago to the Nashville area, and I am more distant from many of my close friends than I used to be. And so, I’ve been thinking a bit about how one forms great friendships, particularly as it’s a little bit of a different ballgame being 38 with two kids and a wife than being 24 and “Woo,” just out and about for many nights in a given week. So, tell me, is there a…I guess it’d be hard to precisely quantify this with all the variability in humanity. But, like, what kind of time are we talking about here, Eric?

Eric Barker
What’s really interesting is Jeff Hall did some research on how much time it takes to go from just meeting someone to being like a good friend or a best friend, and it’s some pretty depressing research. It could take hundreds of hours to get to, like, closer best friend. But on the flipside, it is a matter of how we handle it and what we do.

Arthur Aron did research, and by giving people a series of questions to get them, like, opening up and talking, he managed to get people, in a laboratory setting, to feel like lifelong friends in only 45 minutes. In fact, two of his research assistants who were working on the project with him, actually fell in love and got married because of working on this.

So, it’s really that issue of vulnerability, of opening up. Usually, when we first meet somebody, we’re often tempted to try to impress them but the literature shows that signaling high status, while it might impress people and it might be good in maybe a sales or a business context, on a personal level, it tends to distance people. They don’t feel related to you. They feel like you’re above them or something.

Meanwhile, expressing yourself as a peer or actually showing human-relatable flaws, that’s the thing that makes us understand, relate, connect with people because we all have those insecurities. And when you express them, it’s like we get that, “Whew” feeling where we can relax, where we can relate. So, that’s the thing we really need to keep in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, when it comes to vulnerability, that sounds like sharing the stresses, the problems, the worries. To what extent is there also connected value in sharing the joys?

Eric Barker
Sharing joys is really positive, there’s no doubt about that. The literature points to this, something called capitalization, and that is when your friends or your spouse talk about something positive that happened to them, it’s really important to ask questions, it’s really important to be happy for them. In fact, it was Shelly Gable that did research at UCSB, and she found that actually celebrating those positive moments, how you handle the positive moments was actually more predictive of romantic relationship success than how you handle the difficult moments.

It sounds crazy because we’re always so focused on fixing things, on trying to resolve the problems in a romantic relationship but John Gottman found that 69% of the ongoing problems in a romantic relationship never get resolved. It’s like you’re not going to fix all of these things. You’re not going to fix most of these things. It’s about the regulation of conflict, not the resolution of conflict.

But on the flipside, you want to be a supporter, you want to be a cheerleader, you want to share your positives, you want them to feel good for you, to be curious about it, and you want to do the same for them. This is a positive relationship tip you can use anywhere, especially in a romantic relationship, is to really look for those positive things, be supportive, be the cheerleader. This is a huge thing that we often forget about because we’re usually trying to bring the bottom up rather than trying to raise the roof. And it’s really important to celebrate those positive moments.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Any pro tips on how that’s done in practice? I just watched the show Devs, and somebody kept mentioning if they wanted a champagne bath. So, I guess that’s one tactic, is to bring a bottle of champagne with you to splatter people when they’re excited, though they might not receive that so well in real life, like, “I’m all wet now and sticky.” So, any other more practical recommendations for celebrations? I guess what we don’t want to do is say, “Okay, that’s nice,” and just, boom, brush aside. But, yeah, like what that sounds like in practice?

Eric Barker
What some of the advices that they give romantic couples is pretty straightforward. At the end of every day, you say the best thing that happened to you that day, and your spouse says the best thing that happened to them that day. And again, like you said, you don’t want to be dismissive, you don’t want to just nod your head and acknowledge it. It’s, like, you want to be happy for them. You want to ask questions. You want to be just listening and be supportive and be excited. It’s about that emotional back and forth, so it’s just consistently.

It almost sounds weird but even with your friends, it’s like, “Hey, what good things have happened lately?” It’s not something we usually do but it’s not too crazy a question, and I think most people are pretty happy to talk about the positives that are going on. You’re basically letting them brag. That feels good and if they’re somebody you care about, it’s going to feel good for you, too, and it can have very positive effects for the relationship.

Pete Mockaitis
I remember a motivational speaker once mentioned that he had someone, I think it was at work, and that was just sort of like their go-to line when they started talking, and say, “Tell me something good,” and everyone liked that person. It’s like, “Oh, that’s what Marty says, and I like Marty,” because, go figure, people are telling him something good all the time, and he’s getting the goods and celebrating with them.

Eric Barker
Well, it’s a funny thing because, like I said, very often, especially in romantic relationships, we’re usually focused on fixing the negative, but it’s like if you feel step back for a second and think about that, if all you’re doing is fixing the negative then, really, ceteris paribus, that means you’re going to get to neutral. Even if everything worked, if the 69% of long-term issues could be resolved, you just get to neutral, and, “I have a not negative relationship with every stranger on this planet.” It’s, like, that’s not love. It’s, like, you don’t want to get to neutral. You want to be beyond that. You want to be supportive.

That’s why one of the other things I talk about, at least specific for romantic relationships, is doing exciting stuff together because the thing is that there’s a psychological principle called emotional contagion. And basically, what that means is we tend to associate the feeling that we’re having in any context, we associate it with the people we’re with.

So, if you’re doing fun stuff, you associate that with your partner, and that keeps the relationship alive. It keeps things exciting. And so, we need to do more of that. Too much Netflix and pizza on the couch, we actually need to get out more and do more exciting fun things so we can keep those positive feelings flowing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, we went deep on loneliness and friendship and forming bonds. Maybe we can zoom out a bit. And could you share with us what’s sort of like the main big idea or thesis behind the book Plays Well with Others?

Eric Barker
Well, one theme that I found throughout all the aspects that I was looking at is that relationships really do come down to stories, stories in your head. The first section of the book, I talk about the issue, like, they say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and I kind of tested that. I went and looked at the research on body language and communication and reading people.

And what happens is, as soon as we meet somebody for the first time, or even if we’re seeing somebody we’ve known for a while, our brains are immediately telling us a story about who this person is, and we kind of can’t help it. We start making assumptions in milliseconds. And it’s an issue of revising that story but that story is going to be there.

And in a romantic relationship, John Gottman, I mentioned earlier, he’s the leading researcher on love and marriage, and his claim to fame is that he can predict whether a couple would be divorced in five years just by talking to them for a few minutes. And he can do this with about 90 plus percent accuracy. And how he does that is simply asking the couple, each member of the couple, “Tell me your story.”

And when he listens to that story, if it’s this story of overcoming challenges and that’s really something, celebrating those difficulties and getting past it, that’s a really positive sign but it’s not about the facts and details because we forget most of the facts and details. We kind of congeal them into this story, and if that story is positive, things are really good.

And past that, the final section, I talk about, I test “No man is an island. Is that true?” And it’s this issue of communities, have a story, a story they tell about who the members are, “’What is important to us? What do we value?” And that story is what draws us together. So, it’s this really critical element of understanding the stories of how we perceive others, how we’re connected to others, the community that we’re a part of. This is kind of the subtext, the element that undergirds everything that goes on between human relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting about that is you could just change your story about a relationship you have with somebody without interacting with them in any subsequent way. So, you could just choose to reinterpret and reformulate your story about your relationship with them in your head, could you not?

Eric Barker
Oh, absolutely. And that can be a positive thing and that can be a negative thing. We can reflect on it and we can look at different aspects, and we can say, “You know what, I’ve been judging them too harshly. Like, I forgot there were those few times where that person really went out of their way to help me, and I kind of dismissed that.” Or, on the flipside, something that’s common with long-term relationships and marriages is that people sometimes they don’t want to fight, they don’t want to argue, so they don’t raise issues. And when you don’t raise issues, they can’t get resolved.

And so, instead of people having a conversation about their spouse about an issue, they start having conversations with themselves, and that doesn’t always go so well because you start making assumptions about what they believe, where they stand, why they did what they did, and this can be really problematic because now we’re not actually getting insight from them; we’re making it up ourselves and that can quickly turn negative because what a lot of people don’t realize is that, yes, you don’t want to fight but the truth is, yelling and screaming, only 40% of the time does that result in divorce.

What is more likely to result in divorce is when a couple stops talking. You yell and scream because you care. When you stop caring, you stop interacting. And that’s what more often precedes divorce is when couples start living parallel lives where they’re not communicating, they’re not connecting, they’re not arguing, they’re not resolving problems. They’re just going, “It’s not worth it,” and kind of living their own life. That’s what usually precedes divorce.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And if we sort of shift the focus into the workplace and professionals and those looking to be awesome at their job, what are some of the best takeaways for folks looking to have strong relationships with their boss, their peers, their clients, their suppliers, etc.?

Eric Barker
Well, like I said, in terms of friendship, those are some of the really key things, is trying to deepen those relationships. Like I said, time, vulnerability, but another thing we deal with in the workplace is that, with our friendships, the interesting thing about friendships in our personal lives is that you can leave whenever you want.

In the workplace, you’re going to deal with some people that maybe you don’t like so much. That’s the tricky part about it because of the role. And what the research has shown is that the people who cause us the most stress aren’t actually our enemies, because enemies, like we know where we stand, we don’t like them, they don’t like us. The people that drive us most crazy are those ambivalent relationships. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. It’s that unpredictability. And Julianne Holt-Lunstad at BYU has found that that’s what drives our blood pressure up, it’s these people who we don’t know how they’re going to behave, whether they’re going to be nice or difficult this time.

So, in terms of dealing with difficult people, what we need to keep in mind is emphasizing three things: emphasizing similarity, emphasizing vulnerability, and emphasizing community, because these are the things that can sort of activate the empathy muscles in someone else. Maybe if they’re a little narcissistic, maybe if they’re difficult, when we express our similarity to them, when we talk about a vulnerability, weaknesses, when we express community, that we’re a part of something, that can trigger those empathy muscles that can help us deal with them a little bit better, help them understand us a little bit better. That’s truly key to dealing with those difficult people in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, what does that sound like in practice to convey similarity, like, “Boy, Eric, you and I, we both love a good microphone, don’t we?”

Eric Barker
Again, we take those things for granted but that’s usually how many relationships start, is you’re both into a particular sport, a particular sports team, you’re both Star Wars fans, you’ve got something you relate to. And with those people that we haven’t taken the time to find something that we can both relate to and care about, that kind of acts like a medium for us to work through.

So, finding out a little bit more about somebody and finding that connection, research shows this is really powerful in terms of us feeling like we are connected, we’re part of the same group. In that way, community-wise, again, feeling like we’re a part of something, we’re both working toward similar goals. The research shows that a great way to get people who don’t like each other very much to cooperate and feel connected is to have them work on a project together, it’s when they have to rely on one another.

So, it’s really critical, it sounds a little silly in the abstract, but finding those similar things, asking them enough questions to realize, like, “Hey, we’re both into this,” it can make a surprising difference.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And I’m also thinking about some research. I read about it in Bob Cialdini’s books about moving and/or singing or dancing or marching in unison has a powerful effect there.

Eric Barker
Anything like that, again, builds that kind of similarity, like that’s in the physical realm is that we’re doing the same things, we’re coordinated, we’re working together. That means you’re a part of something. You’re connected. What’s really powerful, I think, from Cialdini’s, he has Influence which is like he’s masterwork, but his other books are excellent as well, Pre-Suasion where he talks about how so much of what helps negotiations and conflict resolution isn’t the tactics that you huse in the middle of it. It’s those things that you set up beforehand.

And that’s where similarity falls in. Once you feel, like, “Hey, we’re connected in this way. We both care about this same thing,” you’re more disposed to want to help someone. It’s like if a stranger asks you for a favor, that’s very different than when a friend asks you for a favor. You have something that connects you beforehand.

One of the researchers at Harvard Business School talked about salary negotiations, and, again, it wasn’t necessarily the specific tactics used during the negotiation. The number one thing that he said was they have to like you, was beforehand making sure that they like you, they appreciate you, they feel connected to you, because, again, it’s one thing dealing with a stranger, to another thing dealing with a friend. You’re much more disposed to give them the benefit of the doubt, to say, “Hey, sure, we don’t mind covering that expense. We don’t mind doing this.”

We think about these kinds of like really nuanced tactics in the middle, but if you can think about the beginning ahead of time, and say, “How can I really connect with this person emotionally so that they’re disposed to want to help me?” that’s much more powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, with that connection now, those principles then of the similarity, vulnerability and community there?

Eric Barker
Yeah, first and foremost, like I said, that similarity, that’s something that we’ve all had that moment where we’re trying to connect with somebody, trying to go from acquaintance to friend, and similarity can really help. It gives you something to talk about. It gives you something that you connect on. And then that vulnerability aspect, where it’s like we all have our little jerk radar where we don’t want to be dealing with somebody who’s a pain.

And when somebody opens up and says, “Hey, you know what, I actually struggle with this. I’m not that great at it,” or, “Hey, this actually scares me,” that makes…humanizes somebody. They’re not trying to act like they’re above you or better than you. In community, it’s like we’re connected. It’s like, sometimes we don’t always love our in-laws but we still behave, we still do favors for them, we still do things because we recognize that we’re connected, we’re a part of something, and that shifts our perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
It sure does. And I also want to talk a bit about the digital side of things. Social media, how do we use that well such that we don’t create more bitterness, division, self-esteem problems, jealousy? Any pro tips there?

Eric Barker
Absolutely. You see research back and forth that social media is the devil, social media is not the devil, and there are some stuff back and forth, but the key thing we want to be thinking about when it comes to social media is time. And that is that you only have 24 hours in a day. Some of that is going to be sleep, some of that is going to be work. You only have so much of a budget for social time. And if too much of that is being used for social media, then it’s not being used for deeper richer connections, like face to face.

We just want to make sure that social media is not cannibalizing it. You don’t want to be replacing kind of the rich sumptuous meal of face-to-face contact for the junk food of social media. If you’re using social media to reach out to somebody who’s far away, hey, that could be really positive. If you’re using it to communicate with somebody who’s nearby and you’re using it to plan a face-to-face get-together, hey, it’s an alley of positive.

But if we end up, consciously or unconsciously, using it to replace real relationships, that’s when it gets problematic. And when it’s eating up too much of the buddy budget, the social time, just on Instagram, that’s really where it’s quite clear that we’re not treating our relationships as well as we could.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear that. And I’m also thinking about sort of the nature of what you choose to post on social media. And I found, for me, what makes me more favorably disposed to someone is they share something and it seems like it really is a means of spreading delight and goodness and positivity, as oppose to a post which says, “Look how awesome I am,” like, “Oh, just getting some sushi in Tokyo at the top sushi place ever.” It’s like, “Okay. Well, good for you, guy. That’s fun. I guess I’m supposed to think that your life is awesome.”

As opposed to, I’m thinking about my buddy Patrick, he once posted, “When my wife and I are cooking together and sharing instructions or collaborating, we respond to each other by saying, ‘Yes, chef,’ and it makes cooking so much more fun.” And I think of that because that is awesome and I do that now, too, and it really is fun and it spreads joy. And in both contexts, we’re talking about doing some food stuff and yet one post, I think, well, it makes me think more of Patrick, like, “This guy is awesome,” and not because he’s high status but that he’s just putting out joy into the world.

Eric Barker
Absolutely. I totally agree. This is something we’re kind of touching on earlier, where it’s like often when we first meet somebody, people often try to brag, they often try to signal high status, and it’s exactly what you said. When you see social media posts where clearly the person is bragging, and saying, “Look how awesome I am,” that doesn’t make us like them more, that doesn’t make us feel more warmly connected to them, so that’s probably not conducive to positive long-term relationships.

But when somebody posts a funny anecdote or if somebody is kind of like poking fun but it’s at themselves, then we do feel positively disposed to them. If somebody puts a warm positive moment, we react better to that. And these are the kind of things we definitely need to be thinking about because I think we’ve turned a lot of things. I think, by its very nature, social media often tends towards turning things into this kind of social competition because we’ve got quantification of likes.

You have a direct quantification of how much people like this post. That has this kind of almost competitive element to it. And I think, to your point, we need to resist the urge to kind of one-up people in that status competition, and another way is to rely on being a little bit more human.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Eric, tell me, any other top do’s and don’ts for us looking to improve our relationships?

Eric Barker
Yeah, one thing from the romantic relationship research, but I think it’s applicable in pretty much any relationship context, is John Gottman, that relationship researcher, he found that just by listening to the first three minutes of a conflict discussion between a couple, he could predict the ending 94% of the time.

And the takeaway from that is if it starts negative, it’s going to end negative. If you have to bring up a difficult topic with your spouse, or frankly with anybody, if we go in there firing both barrels, the research is pretty clear, if it starts negative, it’s going to end negative. So, if we present it in a more constructive way, we take a deep breath, we step back, we don’t launch into it in this very kind of antagonistic attacking mode, it can be a lot more productive.

Even though we feel like we deserve this, “I’ve been victimized. I need to…” that’s not going to get you the end result you want 94% percent of the time. That’s a very high number, so take a deep breath, think constructively, don’t point fingers, don’t personalize it. Anytime you have to have a conflict discussion, whether it’s at home or in the office, don’t discuss the other person’s character. Talk about the specific issue you had and stick to the facts.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, Eric, I’d love to hear some of your favorite things. How about a favorite quote?

Eric Barker
Oh, yeah. Well, this is a quote that meant a lot to me when I was writing both my books because I was thinking about, like, testing these maxims and all these issues we have around both success and relationships. It’s from William Gibson, he said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

And that really resonated with me because I looked at the research and there’s a lot of answers to the questions we already have. It’s just tied up in all this ivory tower academic research. And so, my focus was trying to take that and make it accessible to people because the answers are already here, to many of our problems. It’s just not evenly distributed.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. That’s why I love doing interview podcasts, it’s like, “Hey, I don’t have to figure all this out. I’d just get Eric to share the goods.” Cool. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Eric Barker
This isn’t necessarily practical. It might make people feel a little bit better but one of my favorite pieces of research is there was one study done on ethics professors and ethicists, and it found that they weren’t any more moral than the average person.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Eric Barker
So, if you feel like, maybe you haven’t been behaving that well, even experts in the field, hey, they’re not necessarily all that better, so don’t beat yourself up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Eric Barker
Favorite book, oh, God, there’s so, so, so many. I have to say one of my favorite books recently is my David Epstein wrote a book called Range, which is not only really useful, really smart. It also made me feel much better because it talks about how generalists can thrive, and how generalists often do very well because I’ve always been a generalist. And anything that helps me rationalize my decisions is amazing and wonderful.

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

Eric Barker
I have got to say that I remember many years ago, my friend Drew got these Bose noise-cancelling headphones. They were pretty pricey, and I was like, “Why?” And I’m not a big music guy. I listen to podcasts, but I got to tell you, noise-cancelling headphones literally changed my life. It’s like when you’re on planes, when you’re trying to block out noise, you got loud neighbors, it’s something silly, I didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal, but, man, I can’t live without them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love them and sometimes I will put in earplugs and then put on noise-cancelling headphones. I’m just really into that cone of silence.

Eric Barker
Okay, you’re playing on serious mode now.

Pete Mockaitis
I am. And it does send a message. It’s sort of like a ritual. It’s like, “All right. No messing around. We’re seriously dialing into this.”

Eric Barker
Oh, yeah. You’re putting on the Batman costume. Like, “This is it. We’re going to war.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I need a montage I need to play during this.

Eric Barker
Yeah, with some John Williams music. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. And a favorite habit?

Eric Barker
Favorite habit is reading. There’s no doubt, my first instinct when I have extra time is to fire up the old Kindle app. And, typically, you think, “That person is going to call me back in five minutes,” or, “Oh, this is only going to take this long,” or, “The internet will fix itself and work,” “My Wi-Fi will be working again.” You know what, sometimes it takes longer than you think. Often, it takes longer than you think. So, I get myself reading and the time flies by.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they highlight it in the Kindle book version of your works, or they re-tweet it a lot?

Eric Barker
I think the key thing was, in the new book as well as with others, there’s the Grant study which has been going on for nearly a century at Harvard. They’ve been following a group of men, basically, their entire lives. I think most of the men are in their 80s or 90s, and so it’s interesting, rather than some two-week study or six-week study to see what happens across a person’s entire life.

And, as you can imagine, multiple people have led this study because it’s taken nearly a century. And when they asked George Vaillant, who was probably the guy who led the study for the longest time, they said, “Look, what have you learned?” and, as you can imagine, the amount of information they’ve collected could fill a warehouse, but he replied with only one sentence. And he said that your relationships to other people are the only thing that matters.

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

Eric Barker
They can go to my blog at EricBarker.org, E-R-I-C-B-A-R-K-E-R.O-R-G. And the best thing to follow the insights and tips that I’m finding from the research is to sign up for my weekly newsletter.

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

Eric Barker
Yeah, the key thing I would say is, and I talked about this in my first book, was sit down with your boss and ask them what you can do to make their life easier. Ask them what you could be doing, point blank, to be better at your job and to be a better contributor. There are two benefits here. Number one, you are basically getting the answers to the test. They are going to tell you what you need to be doing.

And, number two, just in terms of signaling and relationship, how would you feel if you were boss if an employee came to you, and said, “How can I make your life easier? What do I need to be doing to be a better contributor?” That is a very, very positive signal, and it is going to tell you what you need to be focusing on. It’s a simple little thing and it can be a gamechanger.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that absolutely can be. And we had Mary Abbajay on the podcast talking about how to manage your manager, and that was one of her very top tips. And she said that she frequently will ask audiences, like, “Who’s done this?” and it’s generally less than 1% of professionals have done that. But, yeah, it’s powerful on both sides.

Eric Barker
And then for advanced mode, every week, sum up what you’ve been up, what you’ve accomplished, and send a quick bullet point email to your boss, and make sure to be focused on that thing that they told you, that you are making progress towards what they said was most important. This is extremely valuable. Your boss is busy. They’re not watching everything you’re doing.

So, to be telling them, “Hey, here’s what I’ve been up to,” makes them relaxed, makes them like and appreciate you. You’re basically doing a highlight reel. And if things don’t work out at that job, you can go back to every Friday email you’ve sent through all the weeks, and you know how to update your resume because you basically have a long list of all the things you’ve accomplished while you were there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Eric, thank you. It’s been a lot of fun. I wish you much luck with the book Plays Well with Others and all your adventures and relationships.

Eric Barker
Thank you so much. It was fantastic to be here.

768: How to Embrace Generational Differences and Resolve Conflict with Chris De Santis

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Chris De Santis shares helpful insights about each generation and how to work more effectively across ages.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to turn generational friction into an opportunity 
  2. How to give feedback that works for every generation
  3. How to motivate people from every generation 

About Chris

Chris De Santis is a speaker, author, consultant, and most recently podcaster specializing in Management and Organizational Development issues and interventions. He specializes in assisting individuals or groups in identifying and overcoming obstacles to effectiveness. He brings with him thirty-eight years of experience in training and development. He has an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Notre Dame, a graduate degree in Organizational Development from Loyola University in Chicago, an MBA from the University of Denver, and previous work experience in manufacturing, professional services, and not-for-profit environments.  

His book, Why I Find you Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work, will be available in May 2022 but until then you can listen to his advice podcast, “Cubicle Confidential” along with his co-host, Mary Abbajay. He resides in a quiet corner of Lincoln Park in Chicago. 

Resources Mentioned

Chris De Santis Interview Transcript

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

Chris De Santis
Thanks, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, first, I think we need to understand you and your history with improv classes. What’s the story here?

Chris De Santis
Yes, yes, yes. I moved to Chicago probably…I live in Chicago, if anybody’s interested, and I moved into an area called Old Town about, oh, 30 some years ago, and I had some friends in the city. And Old Town is the heartland of Second City, and so I was told, actually, a good way to make friends was to take improv classes.

And the other reason was I’m a little bit of a…I have a bit of stage fright issue, and so I was told this might help me with that. I ended up taking improv classes from Paul Sills. And if anybody’s listening, Paul Sills is the son of Viola Spolin. And if anybody knows who that is, Viola Spolin wrote improv in the theater, and that’s sort of the basis for Second City.

So, I had access to one of the gurus of the time, although I never quite leveraged it to the degree he did, but I ended up teaching a while at a local theater here, too, so it was a very fun experience. I recommend it to anyone who’s introverted.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun. I did a Second City five-day intensive improv class once, and it was a lot of fun. And I remember saying, telling my friends, “Oh, it’s nice. I feel like it loosened me up.” And my friends said, “Did you need to be loosened?” Well, compared to my…

Chris De Santis
Did you do a show? Did you do a show afterwards?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, well, not like with a big old audience but it was just sort of I think, the dozen of us doing our thing.

Chris De Santis
The games.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Chris De Santis
I love the games. Really fun.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s fun. Well, now, I want to hear a bit about your book Why I Find You Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work. What’s the big idea here?

Chris De Santis
Well, the whole point of this book is really to understand the differences between us. And so, in that sense, in fact, the title’s curious because I had submitted 37 titles to the publisher.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow. I love it. That’s what we do.

Chris De Santis
And this is the one they liked.

Pete Mockaitis
We get tons of title options and they choose the best one every time. Thank you.

Chris De Santis
And so, they liked this because I think it really makes the point that we are, in some way, irritated with others across one difference that we recognize, this is one of those difference that we readily recognize, and we ascribe it to them as if they’re at fault and we, of course, are not, meaning that we’re the objective view of reality. And so, what my book goes on to talk about where this comes from and the repercussions of this, and then what to do about it in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Excellent. Well, so we’re talking about generational friction, and this is always a delicate matter because I think, Chris, there’s probably no way around it. We’re going to be making some generalizations here. Is that fair to say?

Chris De Santis
Yes. Well, that’s part of what I talk about in the book, but humans do that, humans generalize.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess, first of all, how do we define the generations? And are we coming at it from a US-centric base here or is it kind of global in applicability?

Chris De Santis
Now, you’re making some very good points because when I speak to this topic, I have to go through a whole series of caveats, to your point. The first one being you generalize or I generalize, and I’m not describing humanity. I’m describing some actions of a normative group in the middle class in the United States of America who conform to certain experiences at certain times that sort of shape a perception.

So, in that sense, it is a smaller subset. It is not global even though, it’s interesting, I’ve spoken around the world on this, oddly enough. I’m always amazed I’m invited anywhere but I had talked about it. And so, when you talk about it globally, you have to say some of these things but, still, even having done that, they still see differences that correspond to the American experience, which I think is interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Chris, so we’re going to do some generalizing. First, we need to define some terms. Generations, how do we name them these days and what is roughly the median age of a person representing each generation, say, in summer 2022 as we record this?

Chris De Santis
Yes. So, if we go with Boomers, you know where that came from “baby boom,” so everyone knows that one. There was a great number of us born in that window of time after the war, and that would be that 65 or 67-year-old today in the median group, and we’re retiring out, about half of us are retired. Gen X got its name from the book. There was simply just one book written about them. They fly below the radar quite a bit, and, of course, their median age, according to what we’re playing here, is around 45 to 47.

Then the next crowd, Millennials, had a different name. They were originally in the literature for a while. They were Gen Y because Gen X, Gen Y but that never caught on. And I think that they responded much better to, or it was foisted upon them, the idea of a Millennial simply because of the turning of the century, the millennium.

And now, we have Gen Z, which were called Zoomers or the Zoom generation, but I think that fizzled as well by virtue of the fact of Zoom. And so now they’ve gotten the Gen Z moniker, again, because they’re going in sequence. And the next generation, interestingly, these new kids, they’re calling Gen Alpha because they’re starting it again, but I don’t think they’ll have a name until they define who they are, and then we’ll lay a label on them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, Gen Z would be about 18-ish to 22.

Chris De Santis
18-ish, right.

Pete Mockaitis
Your fresh recruits.

Chris De Santis
Exactly right. They are in the workplace right now. They’ve just entered.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, there we go, four generations. And so, you say…well, I guess, we’ll go into particulars in terms of frictions but maybe just to cue us up with some intrigue, is there a particularly surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made as you dug into all this stuff associated with generational friction?

Chris De Santis
Well, what I came to, not necessarily conclusion, but one of the things I did notice that I thought was really a shaping aspect of this is, it’s not just the flashbulb memories that you have that sort of shape you, it’s also the parenting model. It’s how you were parented affects how you interact with others. So, I’m a product, as a Boomer, I’m a product of sort of a permissive authoritarian parent so I sort of had to get in line with things.

And so, if we think about of a Gen Xer, these are those latchkey kids. And so, they had more of a permissive sort of a sensibility about how they interacted because they basically are far more independent on their own. Millennials are part of what would be concerted cultivation in terms of how they were raised, and I will call that an engaged-discuss model. They’re always engaged in discussions as to what they should or need to do.

Gen Z has a variation of that model called co-piloting. The point being here is that those needs or the expectation of dialogue is what they bring into the office. Yet, in the office, they are not necessarily expected to engage in dialogue but, rather, to be subject to the authority of the people that are in charge. And the people in charge often view this as a challenge when they say, “Well, what about this?” and you’re going, “Whoa, I just told you what to do.”

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, there we go, we’re getting into the meat of it – an expectation of dialogue. Sometimes the younger generations may expect some more and the older generations think that’s not necessary, “I’ve already told you that,” and so that can create some friction on both sides.

Chris De Santis
That’s exactly right because the other thing about the young is interesting, to a great degree, and if you’re around parents, and I try to observe parents sort of surreptitiously when I’m with people, is that they negotiate more with their children as opposed to demand they do something. So, there’s a discussion, of course, that’s inherent in the negotiation.

And I think the young now are excellent negotiators and they bring that to any conversation they have, and we, in management, or if you’re in a management position, you’re not open to a negotiation when you’re telling somebody to do something but it comes off very strangely in terms of my expectation. If I’m a young person, my expectation, “Why wouldn’t I have this dialogue?” Conversely, “Why are we having a dialogue?”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And that’s so funny, I think, because I’ve got a three-year-old and a four-year-old right now…

Chris De Santis
You have young children, yes?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I really go…I guess I go both ways in terms of like I don’t like to yell.

Chris De Santis
No, and you won’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Because they get sensitive and really sad really fast, I was like, “Oh, I was just trying to make myself heard because you seem to be sort of in your own world over there. Now, I feel like I’ve overdone it because you’re getting all sniffly.” So, yeah, but at the time it’s sort of like, “There’s no need for us to be discussing. You do what I say.” And other times, at the same time, I want them to be kind of creative and free and expressive.

So, it’s funny, here I am, I guess a Millennial, in this schema, and I am in the midst of it right there in terms of when I say, “Get in the car right now, Johnny,” versus like, “Well, hey, it’s getting to be about that time, you know.”

Chris De Santis
Yes, you are biased towards suggestion than demand. And I’ll tell you another thing that you probably do quite a bit, Pete, that you may not notice that you do is you explain why you do what you do. You explain why you’re doing this. You don’t assume that they’re going to understand that this is a command but rather, “This is why I have to say this to you to do this.” And that’s part and parcel to the expectation that they have in the workplace, too, this whole idea of, what’s his name, Sinek’s book, Start with Why. That’s really what they’re asking, to a great degree, is why.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chris De Santis
You did this, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, that’s one point of friction is expectation of dialogue. How about another one?

Chris De Santis
Well, again, a lot of this just depends on with whom we are talking about. For instance, this notion of loyalty, which is very interesting. The accusation that we, a Boomer, is far more loyal in our disposition than those who follow. That, of course, I outline in the book, is really about the movement from the company-man experience to a transactional workplace.

And the company-man experience was really one of the assumptions that, “You will work here for the duration. And as a consequence, I will reward you, deferred reward, and that will be rewarded as a pension to some degree.” So, the inference is, “You have this job for life if you do what I want and the way I need it.” Now, what we have done is we’ve moved transactionally, and now it’s a negotiation a minute.

For instance, one of the things that most annoys some Boomers is that when they interview, the young will ask, “Well, what are the benefits? What’s the vacation time here? So, what do I get for this?” And, in my day, that would’ve been seen as “What? Why? I’m offering you a job and you deign to ask me all of these things about the benefits? You’re getting a job.” But they’re saying, “This is a transaction. I’m going to be doing something for you. I expect something in return.” So, it becomes more marketplace-driven.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny because, in some ways, I resist being generalized.

Chris De Santis
No, no, I understand.

Pete Mockaitis
And yet I completely…I, 100%, am down with the transactional vibe. It’s just like, “No, the wealth structures and pensions do not exist, and it is a competitive marketplace, and it’s just economic fact that I have many opportunities available to me, and you have many opportunities of people you can hire. And so, we’re going to see if we have something that works for both of us in terms of this is a role that I think is swell and meaningful and a compensation package that works, and you think I’ve got the skills and knowledge, skills, abilities to deliver the value that you need delivered, and either one of us will walk.”

And so, it’s sort of like, “I don’t think you owe me anything and you don’t seem to…” you being the employer here in this dialogue. I think it’s just a reality we know that an employer will cut us loose at any moment that they feel that it would be more profitable for them to do so and, thusly, I have no…I’ve been self-employed for a long time but I guess that’s sort of…

Chris De Santis
By the way, that’s interesting. I can talk to that as well in a moment, but you’ve said the key here is that this is the new reality. It wasn’t the old reality.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Chris De Santis
Exactly right. So, the new reality has shifted in terms of what you expect in this transaction.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, so my thought is like, I don’t know, when people talk about what’s right or wrong, or sometimes they say, “Oh, we know nothing is right or wrong. It’s just different expectations and generations and how we were brought up.” And I’m thinking, “Well, no, it would be foolish, it would be unwise to operate in a false reality. It’s like one thing doesn’t exists to you so don’t make decisions as though it does or you may get the rug pulled out from under you.”

And I guess I’m a little paranoid about this, Chris, I don’t know. That’s why I went into strategy consulting, I was like, “Develop an amazing skillset so that you can do anything.” And then How to be Awesome at Your Job, it’s like, “Okay, all the listeners, develop an incredible universal skillset so that you’re fine. No matter what the robots do, no matter what your jerk boss does, you are bulletproof because you’re like Liam Neeson with a particular set of skills that make you extremely valuable in any work environment.” You got me on a hot soapbox, Chris.

Chris De Santis
Well, this is the point, one of the points you’re making, the new reality, to your point, Pete, supports this idea of employability, “Look, I have to be employable.” The key. And in defense of the notion of loyalty in the young, they are more likely to be loyal to you, “If you treat me in a way that recognizes how I make the contributions I make, and what I do on your behalf,” and they’re less loyal to the organization which is an abstraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay, cool. So, there’s expectation of dialogue, loyalty. Maybe give us one more thing where people differ significantly.

Chris De Santis
Another. Oh, well, I think, actually, as a consequence of the pandemic, one obvious thing where we are differing or we’re furthering apart is where senior management believes everyone should come back, and everyone else believes, “I think I like it at home,” and so we have a huge rift. It’s almost the opposites of each other. When you have senior management, 77% say, “We want them all back,” and the people, basically, young employees in particular who have now experienced this freedom, want to stay free relative to that.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Chris De Santis
You also had said something interesting, Pete, because it’s been bubbling up in each generation, it’s doing a little bit more of this, is that each one is more entrepreneurial than the generation that preceded it. You are creating in your own children the desire to have an independent life. And part of the messaging, you will never say that out loud, you don’t have to say that, but you behave in a way that says, “You can create your own destiny.” And we are really pushing the envelope on individualism and the creation of these independent people. I think we’ll, eventually, all be freelancers.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so here we are, we’ve got some points of friction and that show up across generations. What do we do? What’s the best way to navigate them and work peacefully and effectively across generations then?

Chris De Santis
Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, part of it has to do is be very clear on your expectations. I think that’s one of the things we don’t do. You see, I’m used to a world of ambiguity. I was raised with guessing right. And if you guess right, you move forward. Nobody actually told me the whys and the whats of things, but rather I’ll know it when I see it, which was a common refrain in management at one point in time.

And so, the young, to a great degree, want to know, really, what the rules are to achieve, “How do I navigate this environment?” I think I kind of use the analogy of video games. They want to know how to get to the next level, “How do you get to next level? How do you do this? How do you play the game?” So, I think it’s very important to share the expectations of how you operate with the people who are making you successful.

So, if I’m a manager, I should be telling you, “This is how I manage. This is what I would expect from you. What do you need from me to achieve here? How do we stay in touch?” those kinds of things. If I may give you a point of contention that’s very trivial but it’s one that comes up is that, “How do we stay in touch?”

I have a person I work with who I’ve used to make videos, and he will only contact me through a text. He will never pick up his phone, and I like it when people talk to me. In fact, I like it when they sort of see me. But, in this case, his mode of connection is a text. It’s not that he’s not willing to talk to me. It’s just how he’s more comfortable connecting with me. So, I think part of this is we have to get aligned who we are to each other, and how do we stay connected.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say we’ve got a younger person, say a Millennial, who is the manager of a Boomer. So, that happens. Any pro tips when it’s sort of moving in a direction which might be different than what we’re imagining?

Chris De Santis
I think one of the challenges with that is it’s not just the Millennial-Boomer difference, it’s a stage of life difference, meaning that, “Look, I have 35 years of experience under my belt,” let’s say. “You, young whipper-snapper, have only been doing this for three years, and you’re managing me.” I think there’s an ego that steps in here that says, “Oh, my gosh, is this affecting my ego?” through the lens of the Boomer.

I think it’s prudent for the Millennial to draw from the more experienced person’s experiences as much as they can to say, “Here’s what I’d like to do. What do you think on how to do that?” It doesn’t mean that they’re foregoing the decision that they own, but rather they’re drawing from the other person some level of commitment by allowing them to tell them what they do know about this area that could be useful, and then I will fold that in. You see, it’s almost being some kind of combination between deferential and respectful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, gotcha. Okay. Well, bring it on some more, Chris. Any more tips and tricks, do’s and don’ts in this new generational world? Yeah, we’re collaborating, like watchouts and best practices, I dig it, being clear on expectations. What else?

Chris De Santis
Well, this idea of how we connect. Our methodology of connection, I think, is interesting. One of those is, I’m a Boomer so my methodology of connection is I like seeing you, I’d like to meet you, we’ll meet. This is our idea of networking. Let’s go meet people. Let’s join things. Now, we know that from bowling alone that people aren’t joining anymore. So, in that sense, the methodology of connection for a Gen Xer is not so much that I know you as the person, but I know that you are competent in what you do.

You see, when you’re dealing with somebody in that category, who is I will call a little more private in their revealing of who they are, they reveal more slowly over time. They’re sort of like unfold over time, and they will reveal themselves as the competency of the relationship becomes more solidified, meaning that, “You show me you’re good at something, I’ll show who I am.”

And so, as it relates to that, the young are more open again. The Millennial is, you’ve heard this expression, they share too much?

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-huh, I’ve heard this.

Chris De Santis
Well, I don’t know if they do share too much. I think what we often hear from them is that…or, actually, so there’s commenting about them, saying they share too much. When, in fact, they’re not oversharing; they’re just in the habit of sharing who they are with others, and their methodology of connection is to self-reveal. For instance, you talk to your kids on a daily basis, I would imagine, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right, yeah.

Chris De Santis
Right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Chris De Santis
So, if you do, when you talk to your kids on a daily basis, you probably ask them each day, “What did you do today? What did you today?” Do they share that?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s hit or miss.

Chris De Santis
Well, that’s interesting because, normally, and a lot of times, because I overhear…again, remember I talked about I observe these parents, is that they’ll tell what they did today. And I think that gets in the habit of how they reveal who they are to others, and so they’re not necessarily oversharing. They’re finding a way to connect with another, and then their expectation is implicit reciprocity, “I’ve told you who I am. Tell me a little bit about more of you.” So, they’re open to the discourse between us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. Cool. What else in terms of do’s and don’ts here?

Chris De Santis
Okay. I was thinking, “Should I go uphill or downhill with this?” It’s so interesting. I do think that, again, going back to some of this, how we are different, I think one of the things that’s going to be very important going forward is how we decide to mentor. The young want to be mentored in a more deliberate capacity where it used to be more of an organic experience, meaning that I just discover you, and I say, “Oh, you seem to be a young version of me.”

And if we’re going to live in a world that embraces greater diversity, we have to be more deliberate in how we mentor people. But my problem with that is, and here’s where the friction lies, when you use a term like, “I’m assigning you to be my mentee,” Pete, it infers intimacy that we don’t have. And so, in that sense, we should start more from the backend here, just have an advisor to each other that allows us to open up more slowly because I think intimacy is something that is earned as opposed to assumed.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. I hear you. That checks out, like, “This is your protégé, this is your mentor.” It’s like, “Oh, really?” They do tend to, in my experience….

Chris De Santis
And then, again, the other problem I have with that is that they tend to assume that, “Now that you’re my mentor, you are also my sponsor.” And, again, we don’t define these things very well. And a sponsor is different than a mentor. A sponsor, of course, is somebody who’s going to look out for you and get you promoted. A mentor is really someone who’s going to give you advice on what they’ve learned in certain areas where you might seem to have some issues that you want to share in terms of solving problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. And, tell me, if we do find ourselves in maybe a heated exchange, like we got some real tension, intergenerationally, do you have some tips on how we might navigate that smoothly or cool things down a bit?

Chris De Santis
Yeah, because I think a heated exchange is typically in the area, in my view, because one of the myths about the young is, in general, that they’re very sensitive to feedback. I think that people will say, “I’m not convinced that they are sensitive to feedback. I’m convinced that all people are sensitive to feedback.” And so, in that sense, I think sometimes we give feedback as a conclusion as opposed to the behaviors.

And so, I have no problem with somebody saying, “Okay, Pete, hey, you’re not really doing a great job being a team player.” That’s the headline but you can’t stop there. You can’t just expect the young person say, “Okay, I’ll be a better team player.” Well, what does that mean? So, I think what we have to do is we have to be more explanatory. We have to say what are the behaviors.

And then, because, again, these are children of dialogue, as it were, we should be willing to have a discussion about, “Well, what does that look like? And what are the ways to shape that behavior, or change that behavior? And how do I support that effort? And how do I know it happened?” So, again, we have to move away from just a pure tell model to more of a dialogue model because that’s an expectation, and, quite frankly, it has greater stickiness when you’re in dialogue with somebody.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then I’d also like to get your view when it comes to just sort of motivation, in terms of we hear listeners say, “Oh, you know what, my peers,” or direct reports, or others, “are just not motivated. They’re kind of phoning it in.” Do you have any pro tips, in terms of are there different carrots and/or sticks or drivers that tend to be more compelling for each of the generations?

Chris De Santis
Well, I think part of the key here is that this is where we’re moving beyond the generational differences into more the stage of life, “Where are you in your life? And what might you want then?” And so, for instance, the young are still probably, to some degree, deciding, “Who I will become?” And so, what motivates me is, “What do I want to develop in terms of my skillsets? So, where are my skills? And where do I want to hone those skills?”

So, part of the motivation is, again, this goes back to engaging people, is to find out, well, what they’re interested in doing better, or more of, and trying to find circumstances that you can supply that. That becomes the carrot, as it were. So, I think that works very well. Now, some people want promotions, which I am not convinced everyone wants promotions anymore.

I think, going to your point, Pete, they want to be employable, and they want to develop their skills. The only problem with that is, “When I make you more employable and develop your skills,” people fear that, “Oh, then I’ll lose them to the marketplace.” Well, wasn’t that Ford who said, “Well, the only thing worse than not training your people,” or, “training your people and they leave, is not training your people and they stay”? So, I think we have an obligation.

Now, the other thing interesting about in my generation, motivating us, is to say, to some degree, is, “What experiences do we want to have?” because I don’t know if promotions are part of the package anymore at this stage, but rather also I think we’re in a legacy phase, “What can we give back to others?” We should create circumstances where we can teach those who follow.

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

Chris De Santis
At this point, no. I think we’ve covered this. I like what you’re asking about some of these, the differences between us, and I like your point earlier that, look, you cannot generalize about a whole group. You have to say what group we are alluding to. And this notion of, “What are the norms within that group?” What are the norms we observed?

I think part of the trouble with being young is that the headlines about Millennials are negative. They are the Florida Man of generations because anytime you see Florida Man in a headline, it’s some tragedy that, you know, “Florida Man found starving to death in his own refrigerator.” So, you have these tragedies, and then we start to see these Millennial headlines, and we start to associate that with them, and that becomes self-fulfilling in our perception of them, which is not an accurate reflection of who they are.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that resonates in that, I guess, I don’t even like being called a Millennial.

Chris De Santis
No, it’s unfair.

Pete Mockaitis
Even though I guess, technically, that’s where I’d land, and that’s like I don’t care for that.

Chris De Santis
Well, because, again, how they have labeled you. This is interesting, too, because one of the things about each generation, we’re all a disappointment. We’re not just a disappointment at the same time. Gen Xers were slackers, we were hippies, so in that sense, everyone is a disappointment, and then we outgrow it. The only problem that Millennials have is Gen Z hasn’t stepped in to be a disappointment yet so that you can get some space.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, got that to look forward to.

Chris De Santis
Exactly.

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

Chris De Santis
Yeah, one of my favorites is “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are,” and that’s why this is such a perceptual issue. This was, I think, I can’t think of…how do you pronounce her name? Anais Nin, she wrote the Delta of Venus. Lovely book, by the way.

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

Chris De Santis
My favorite bit of research is a book by a man named Hofstede, and he wrote Cultures and Organizations. And what he did, it was from an IBM study, I think, originally in the ‘70s, and he extrapolated that or expanded that into the different dimensions across national cultures. That was super enlightening because now I see why the French are the French, or Mexico is Mexico, and US is US. Very enlightening.

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

Chris De Santis
I like it when I get free notebooks, you know, those ones you can write in, like that swag. They give you a gift. Because I use those, sort of, to take notes and then I just have a stack of these things.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. And a favorite habit?

Chris De Santis
Habit is reading. I’m a reader. I would have to believe you are as well, to some degree, to do so many of these episodes, but I do try to read a book a week.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how do you manage that volume? Do you listen? Do you read while doing other things, like exercise? Or how do you…?

Chris De Santis
Well, exercising, actually, I do that while I’m on the bike, but, typically, though I dedicate at least two to three hours a day to read something.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Chris De Santis
I’m okay with that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Chris De Santis
You have little kids. You can’t do that.

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?

Chris De Santis
Yeah. When I talk about this, because you said it right at the beginning, is, look, when you generalize, the only real truth in what I say, and in my book, is that what is true about…you said it yourself. The thing that is true about you, personally, is what’s true. Everything else I say is really fodder for the conversation or the discussion or the discovery you can make in an exchange with another.

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

Chris De Santis
They can get in touch with me at my website at CPDeSantis.com.

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

Chris De Santis
Yeah, I think I would say this, that, look, next time you see somebody acting strangely, in a way that you will judge them, imagine for a moment that this person is as rational as you are, and what might they be doing that is rational to them. And so, I would just simply say give people the benefit of the doubt.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Chris, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and peace as you’re navigating generational frictions.

Chris De Santis
Thank you, Pete. And good luck with the kids there.