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KF #9. Manages Conflict

383: Driving Adaptability in your Organization with Michael J. Arena

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GM’s Chief Talent Officer Michael J. Arena explores the idea of ambidextrous leadership to help lead your organization in its current state and in its future – at the same time.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Ways to positively disrupt the way you work
  2. Concrete ways to mine the ideas of your organization
  3. Why conflict is essential to the evolution of ideas

About Michael

Michael is the Chief Talent Officer for General Motors (GM), where he launched GM2020, a grass roots initiative designed to enable employees to positively disrupt the way they work, which was highlighted in Fast Company and Fortune. Michael is the author of the book Adaptive Space, which is based on a decade long research initiative that won the 2017 Walker Prize from People + Strategy.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael J. Arena Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Michael J Arena
Thanks Pete. I’m looking forward to this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh me too, me too. Well you’ve got what sounds to be to me like a pretty fun job as the chief talent officer at General Motors. Can you orient us a little bit to what does that mean in practice?

Michael J Arena
In essence it’s really about how do you optimize human capital across the overall corporation, so how do we bring in the best people possible. In short, I’d like to say, how do we bring in the best people possible and then bring the best out in those people. That’s all about human capital and how do we get those people positioned to be able to leverage what they know. Yeah, it’s quite fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Now in practice over the last few years you’ve been doing a lot of bringing out the best in people it sounds like. If you look at sort of the financial picture at General Motors in 2009, they’re filing for bankruptcy and now you’ve got some great profits. The business press would point to cultural shifts as being an essential part of making that transformation.

Could you give us a little bit of the behind-the-scenes or in-the-middle-of-things narrative for how this came to be and the human capital pieces play into it?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. Just to clarify, I joined the company in 2012, so I can tell you – I can describe that journey from that point forward and more precisely around this role here in HR. I do think it’s about culture. It’s certainly – it’s been quite the journey.

I can remember when Mary Barra took over as CEO. One of her very first quotes and comments was this industry is going to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50. What that means is you need to rethink everything you’re doing.

Culture is a core element of that. It’s not the only one. It is either an enabler or a stifler of what you want to do with things like business strategy and how you’re going to drive operational management, how you’re going to think about new consumers and new business models and all that sort of stuff. It’s been quite the comprehensive journey from that point to this with much of it still in front of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so could you give us a little bit of the particulars with regard to before the culture was more like this and now it’s more like that and here are some of the key things we did to bring about that shift?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, and again, I think it starts kind of with the industry. This was an organization and an industry that was all about driving execution, all about continuing to drive scale across the world. The game’s changed quite a bit. It’s now – we’ve got a – it’s now the future mobility.

We now need to think about what are customers demanding, what are customers – the best illustration I can give about that, then I’ll go back to the specifics of your question is people are moving to cities, just to put it in a real live external marketplace example. People are moving into cities and everyone’s becoming connected. The way you think about mobility inside of a city versus mobility in a suburban environment is very different.

We need to then get the business to start thinking about things differently. That certainly requires us to instill new sets of behaviors and to challenge everybody to think bigger than perhaps they had in the past. Again, to move faster as well because the world outside is moving super fast compared to what we’ve been used to.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, so it seems like we’re changing sort of the total focus in terms of what General Motors wants to be excellent at in order to succeed in a different environment with more people in cities and sort of car sharing and ride services, sort of a different landscape than it was in 2009. I’m curious to hear what does that look like in terms of day in/day out humans at GM interacting with other humans and how they’re doing it differently now?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, one of the big things we did to start to drive this transformation is we plugged in a program that we call Transformational Leadership. This was a partnership with Stanford. It’s a year-long cohort program with Stanford where we take the top of the organization, 35 people on an annual basis, go through this program.

The reason I call out that program is because it answers your question rather directly in that we’re not just shifting to the future, we’re thinking both about the current state of the business and the future state of the business in the same moment. We call that ambidextrous leadership if you will. That came out of that program.

Everything we talk about here is growth and core. We’ve got to be excellent at the core of the business. We’ve got to continue to be – operations, we have an operational excellence program. Operations have to be maniacally precise and everything we produce has to be durable and everything else, but at the same time, which is what makes it ambidextrous, we need to be thinking about the future. We need to be thinking about where is the customer tomorrow going to be and how can we get there sooner than anybody else.

There’s a lot of people talking about agility in the world today. The way I like to talk about it is most large organizations shouldn’t talk about themselves as being completely agile. They need to be agile in places. They need to be agile on the edge. They need to be agile in the growth side of the business because the growth side of the business is where the future is. They need to be disciplined and operationally excellent in the core.

In fact, one of the studies that I read recently that talks about this, and then I can share exactly how we’re doing that, was a Mackenzie study where they said organizations need to be both fast at times and stable at other times. About only 12% of the companies they reviewed were able to do those two things at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that makes a ton of sense with regard to boy, if you think about sort of any organization, sort of what it can handle well and what it can’t, I even think about customer service interactions in terms of it’s like if you want to check your credit card balance or sort of get some basic information and sort of – or get a replacement card or report a stolen card or do some fraud stuff or change the credit limit, it’s like that’s kind of very basic.

But if you sort of go out beyond the edges, suddenly it gets really I guess confusing for the people in terms of what they’re trying to do. It’s like we’re really built up and tooled up to do these dozen things very quickly and efficiently and systematically.

But now I’m trying to get my private mortgage insurance canceled with my new insurer – my new mortgage holder because they transferred them over as they do. It’s been rather challenging. It’s like, “No, no, no, I understand your policy, but in fact if you looked at the original text, the original mortgage, this is kind of how it’s supposed to work, so can we do that?” They’re just so flummoxed, like, “We’re going to have to look into this, sir.”

I think that’s intriguing to think about it. In some ways you want to just be high-scale, high-efficiency with doing that thing repeatedly with, frankly no innovation because it’s working great and other areas where you really got to adapt and see what’s new and what are people starting to really ask for.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, 100%. 100%. It’s funny that you mentioned banking as your example because I grew up in banking.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Michael J Arena
I remember that exact question coming to me at one point in time when I was asked by the president, the company I was working for, “Michael, how can we become more innovative?”

I told the same story you just did a moment ago. “Are you really sure you want to be innovative where you’re driving precision and you’ve built expectations for consumers and you want to be reliable and you want to create a consistent set of interactions or are you asking if you want to be innovative on the edges?”

At that point in time, this was before mobile banking, so it’s a great illustration. When it comes to something like mobile banking before it had existed, you have to be innovative there because no one’s ever done that at that point in time. No one had ever done that. You have to be agile. You have to think differently. You have to move, shift, flux, understand the consumer, shift with the market. You have to do that super fast.

That’s where we are now as a company on things like car sharing and what we’re doing with Maven, what we’re doing with electification, what we’re doing with self-driving vehicles. You have to be completely agile and you have to manage that side of the business with a whole different set of muscles while continuing to keep an eye on the core of the business and making sure that you’re doing that flawlessly.

My analogy for this is every organization is both a super tanker, which is critical to getting stuff done precisely and at scale and a set of speed boats that are being sort of tossed out into the white water so that they can move fast and agilely shift with the environment and then ultimately grow themselves into what the next core of the business is and should be.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you talk a little bit about sort of the people practices that bring that about? I’d be curious to hear if in the course of having meetings or interactions one-on-one, you’d say whereas before at GM people more so spoke or interacted or accepted or challenged these kinds of things, now it looks different in terms of their interactions.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, so the first thing to know is that in that model the era of one-size-fits-all solutions is inappropriate. You’ve got to use different solutions for the different parts of the model. Some of the practices are – we use a lot of design thinking on the growth side of the business. We’re out talking to consumers. We’re out engaging consumers in Manhattan and San Francisco and places that we might not interact with on a day-to-day basis traditionally.

Then we’re thinking about how do we bring those ideas back into the business and connect up with other parts of the business, build bridges, if you will, to do agile design and to move fast. Amazon calls them small two-pizza teams, very small teams that can first of all build something, like a minimum viable product or solution and then ultimately the reason the bridges matter later is scaling. That’s the growth side of the business.

Now on the core side of the business, you just incrementally have to ask yourself the question, how do we make this better every single day. How do we continue to get more nimble and more agile even in the core so that whenever the new growth part of the business comes to fruition, that the core is already ready to sort of cast it up onboard and take it on?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then in forming these teams, can you give us an example of something that you’re able to quickly react to and how it was done?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, so a couple different examples. The one that I can think of most notably off the top of my head is what we’ve been doing with Maven, which I’ve mentioned already. Maven is our car sharing platform. Maven by its very definition is access to a vehicle as opposed to ownership of it. We sell cars and in the core of the business we continue to and will continue to for quite some time.

But on the other hand just like there is Uber and Lyft, which are ride sharing applications, there’s a need to get from one point to the next inside the city. We found this sort of whitespace that no one was serving, which is how do get outside – how do you not own a vehicle, but maybe take that vehicle for longer durations than just from one of the end to the other end of the city.

Maybe you’ve got it for a couple hours. You’re driving it as opposed to someone picking you up and you’re actually deploying an asset – someone else’s asset – that may be sitting in the garage at some point in time.

This whole shared economy model, we went out – to be very precise – we went out and started interviewing people in the streets. It was in design thinking. What we found out was owning a vehicle inside of a city may be more of a burden than a benefit for some, but we can build a solution around that so that they still have access to a vehicle in such a way that they get the conveniences of it without the burdens of it. That’s where Maven really evolved from.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Now you were big in pushing a concept called GM 2020 throughout the organization. What does this mean?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, it’s, again, we’re now back in the core of the business. One of the things we want to do is we want to think about the core of the business in regards to how do we build the culture where people just can’t wait to show up to work the next day. People just really want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Back in 2014, we launched this, I’ll call it a movement. We launched this movement where we invited – and this was back when we were really trying to attract young people into the organization. We were really just starting to as corporations as a whole create different environments that were, at that point in time, I would say were more Millennial friendly. I don’t believe that any more. I think that’s true for anyone and all of us.

But we launched this initiate where we thought about okay, if we were to recreate the culture or rethink culture or rethink the workplace, why not invite the people in the room that will actually be living with those outputs in the year 2020.

Literally using some design thinking methodologies and inviting 30 people into a two-day event, we went out, we took them out on buses, and we went and looked at all these creative workplaces first across Detroit. That movement, those 30 people, ended up growing into a movement that we call GM 2020, how do we positively disrupt the way we work.

They continue to grow into a much larger body of people. It’s thousands now of people that show up into these events, constantly thinking about how we can get better and all volunteers, but constantly thinking about how we can organically get better on a day-to-day basis.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Then what have been some of the key adopted practices that have shown up in terms of doing work better and in a more enjoyable way?

Michael J Arena
The great part about this is that all kinds of ideas emerge out of this. One of the – perhaps my favorite story, there are plenty that I can share, but perhaps my favorite story was we were about ready to open up a new building.

It was a ten-floor building where generally what happens is you go in, you bring a facilities crew in. You bring in some architects. They look around the space and they decide what the footprint should look like. They plug in standard furniture and everything else. Well, rather than approaching it that way, what we decided was why not invite the people who are going to be working in that space into designing it.

We did what we called a two-day co-lab, kind of like a hack-a-thon, if you will, across two days. We invited in 35 people. We put them into teams of 5. We asked them to – we walked them through the space. We gave them the same parameters that any facilities team would have in regards to cost constraints and architectural barriers and all that sort of stuff.

We literally had these teams and teams of five build prototypes. After giving all those constraints and talking to individual users, which were their fellow employees, we actually had them build prototypes of what that space should look like. They competed against each other.

At the end of the – I said two days, it was actually 24 hours from beginning to end, from 12 o’clock to 1 o’clock the next day – at 12 o’clock the next day, they presented their working physical prototypes to a design team and the winning team actually created the design of the way that that building ultimately was created.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Then how did they like it?

Michael J Arena
Again, it was very different then perhaps what would have been designed for them. One of my favorite stories was the winning team actually cut a hole in the – they said if you want to collaborate, you need to be able to look up and down across multiple floors, so they actually cut a hole in the center of the building in their prototype three floors deep. They said “This is will be the collaboration zone. The two floors above that will be the concentration/deep work zone.”

Whenever they did that, well, of course they’re not architects, so they weren’t thinking about how sound this was, so there was all this push back on, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but architecturally that doesn’t stand up.” I’m thrilled to say that that team ended up becoming part of the overall design team.

They didn’t cut a hole in two floors, but they ended up – or in three floors, but they ended up cutting it in the two in order to make their solution work. They were thrilled, the short answer. They were thrilled at the end of the day with the new design.

That’s not a huge example, but there are all kinds of those everyday examples that I’m giving you now, like where people designed an onboarding app or people designed a learn and share so that they could do a career fair and all these little things that manifested throughout this community so that they’re able to move really fast and organically create these new solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. With the hole in the floor, you could – one person could stand on one floor, the other person stands on the floor above and they look down at each other?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
You could accidently – if you weren’t paying attention, walk into a hole and fall down.

Michael J Arena
No, no, it’s not quite that way. They had the railings and all that stuff up. But it was really much more to illustrate that we’re not separating ourselves from different groups. If we’re going to collaborate, we at least need to have this sort of proximity to one another as opposed to hitting our floor button and showing up.

It’s, again, a small thing, but as you engage people in making those decisions themselves, they become very, very proud about those outcomes and they figure out how to iterate on it and make it better over time.

Pete Mockaitis
So people don’t speak to each other through the floors? It’s more of a symbolic-

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. They see each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael J Arena
So they can certainly correspond back and forth. I guess I’m just sort of the dispelling the safety myth.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got you. The railings certainly, that makes sense. We’ve got the safety covered. They would in fact speak through the hole from one floor to another.

Michael J Arena
Completely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. That’s fun. Now, you’ve also got a book, Adaptive Space, that captures some of these principles that you put into practice. Can you sort of share with us kind of what’s the book all about?

Michael J Arena
I’ve talked around a lot of it already, but it’s this core concept of why are some organizations adaptive and are able to respond to the changing marketplace and the other organizations perhaps aren’t quite as adaptive.

As a researcher, this was even prior to my time I come into General Motors, as a researcher, four of us actually launched a research initiative, went out and studied 60 different companies, all Fortune, really, 100 companies, and asked that question, why are some adaptive and why are others not.

What we found, and this is the part that I talked around a bit already is that those were – every single organization had two things. They had these sort of core systems, we call them operational systems, which is the formality of how you get work done and they all had entrepreneurial pockets, even organizations that aren’t adaptive have innovative entrepreneurial activities happen within them.

What the adaptive ones had that the non-adaptive organizations didn’t have was what we ultimately called adaptive space, but basically it’s the bridge to get those ideas through the organization and pulled into the formal systems.

Think of it quite literally as how do you more intentionally mine the idea, everyday ideas throughout your organization, both big and small in such a way that it becomes part of the adaptive fabric of an organization that can respond differently to the outside market. That was a lot, but-

Pete Mockaitis
What are some of the – what was that?

Michael J Arena
No, I was just saying, so that was more than a mouthful for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh no, that’s cool. Then what are some of the practices associated with getting those bridges up and going in terms of these things make all the difference if you’ve got them versus don’t?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, yeah. The interesting part about this is it’s a social phenomenon. The interesting thing is the connections that you create inside an organization are more important than I think we ever believed they were before.

Think about it this way, we all want to think about who are the – how do we build a bigger network and how do we build our network inside of an organization. What we discovered was your network matters immensely, but your network needs to be different for different intentions.

I talk a lot about social capital. I’m in the talent space and spend a lot of my time talking about human capital, but I also talk about social capital. Human capital is what you know, social capital is how well positioned you are to leverage what you know. Remember, I said that every organization had entrepreneurial pockets, but not everybody was able to leverage that and that was because they weren’t connected appropriately.

A couple of the practices to get very precise with you is there are times where you need to create discovery networks. A discovery network is a network that’s actually going outside of the insular walls of an organization and finding out what the customers of tomorrow really need and want, like the Maven story I shared with you a few moments ago.

There are also times that ideas were too. Organizations, all organizations have lots of ideas. You’ve got to bring those ideas into the world. It’s important to have discovery connections because that’s how you stay relevant, that’s how you can move – you can keep pace with the outside market, but you’ve got to bring those ideas in and you’ve got to actually put them in the very small, tight, what Amazon calls two-pizza teams. We call that agile design in many organizations or scrum teams.

That requires a different set of connections. You want very trusted small groups of teams of maybe six that are taking ideas that were discovered and then bringing them into the world and iterating them, move them fast.

Then once they built a minimum viable product, this is where a lot of companies sort of fail, once you build a minimum viable product inside of a small pocket, you then have to start to think about how do I get that scaled on across the broader business. That requires yet a different set of connections that we call diffusion connections.

That’s – when you think about those different practices, it’s a different set of connections and a different set of practices for each of those steps, if you will, on any given product lifecycle or any given solution lifecycle into the business.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m really intrigued by the notion that you said that the ideas are a dime a dozen. There’s tons of them in a scaled organization. Boy, I imagine a critical lever that is really make or break here is effectively choosing, selecting, deciding which of these ideas are worthy of getting a two-pizza team to advance it and go after it a bit. What are some of the key ways that these decisions can be made optimally?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, you’ve got to be disciplined in that process. I’d say ideas are cheap. I say that somewhat tongue in cheek. They’re cheap if nothing’s done with them. If somebody just shares an idea and they don’t do anything with that idea to bring it to life, then who knows if that was a good idea or not.

An idea is nothing but an abstract, but if you actually take that idea and you build something around it and you go test that idea, which gets into your question, the best way to find out if an idea is worthy is to actually build some aspect of it, low-resolution prototype and get out and test it. Test it first with some friends inside the business, find out if some colleagues get excited about it. Then ultimately test it with consumers or would be consumers.

Then that’s not enough because it’s still this low resolution sort of fragment of an idea. It’s better than the idea itself I should say, but it’s still a fragment of a concept. You then have to decide, okay, what are the thresholds to know whether or not we can win with this idea or this is a real idea that would have real market impact or this an idea that’s worth our investment.

That’s a whole different series of practices and the only way to know that is to set up milestones around that concept or an idea and hold people accountable for getting to those milestones. If they don’t, you kind of decommission it and you say we can only take so many of these at a time.

Every organization has a finite set of resources, so you just simply decide how many people am I going to invest in this idea, how many people – what do they need to prove between now and the next milestone, whatever that is, and if they don’t prove it, do we have the courage to shut that idea down so that we can take those resources and reinvest them into something else.

In short, what you just heard me describe is there are parts of the organization where you need to act and think much like a startup.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I think that’s excellent in terms of having that discipline and those clear thresholds that you’re identifying. I guess I’m thinking about backing it up a little bit earlier in the process. I imagine GM has thousands of ideas emerging. Then you may only pilot test out dozens at a time. Why don’t we say 1 out of 80, little ratio, shows up and gets the minimum viable product treatment.

How do you decide what hits that initial threshold, like, “You know what? We are going to spend some time, money, resources six people on this one.”

Michael J Arena
This is where I think it truly is a social phenomenon. I think our inclination – when you or I have a new idea, our inclination is to go take it to a leader and to go get it formalized. That may be the worst idea possible. That may be the worst step forward possible because you don’t even know if that idea’s good at this stage.

What I’m – and we’ve done this very much in the GM 2020 community, where we basically say, “If you think you’ve got a great idea, go find a friend.” That first friend is really social proofing your idea. That first friend – somebody who you trust, somebody who you respect, somebody who you think would get this – is your first litmus test.

Once you share that idea with that friend, if they look at you like, “Michael, this is really stupid. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” well, you might just be wrong and you might just decide that it’s time to shut it down. But if they’re excited about it, then our next step, what we talk about a lot is, go follow the energy.

If I share this idea with you and you’re excited about the idea, then okay, so who else might be excited about this idea. At this point it becomes more than it’s Pete’s idea, Michael’s idea together and we go find a few more friends.

This, what I’m describing to you, is much more organic than mechanistic, which is how we want to tend to think about innovation inside of a company. It’s much more social than process driven.

At some point, you need formal support. At some point once you know you’ve created network buzz and people are excited about this idea and they believe in the beauty of this as it’s co-created and it’s no longer just my idea, it’s all of our ideas and we can all find ourselves in it, well then the likelihood of securing support and resources is amplified ten-fold.

That’s the way that you get these, as I stated it earlier, these entrepreneurial pockets fired up and linked up across the broader organization for grander success.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Awesome. Well, any other kind of key practices you think the typical professional needs to know or do you want to move ahead to hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, well I guess one thing – because I haven’t talked about one – there’s one thing that everybody who’s listening to this conversation is wondering. Okay, that’s all fine. That sounds great. But what about the resistance? What about when somebody doesn’t like my idea? Then what do I do?

One of the things that I like to talk about is conflict sometimes – charge into the conflict. The conflict later – once you believe your idea is good, once we’ve got a band of a half dozen or so of us, then the conflict is really critical to the evolution of that idea. The conflict is essential to getting it scaled.

One is take that conflict as a compliment because you’re probably not doing anything innovative if you haven’t created some disturbance. Charge into it and start to think about it. Oftentimes what I like to say is you can’t really have a breakthrough without something to break through. If you’re not expecting some degree of resistance or some degree of conflict, then you’re probably not being so bold.

A lot of people ask me, “Well, what do you do with conflict? What happens whenever the antibodies kick in?” What I say is, “That’s awesome.” It’s about how do you pivot in response that that, how do you bring them in to the process so that you can pressure test those ideas, you can morph them and you can challenge them in such a way that you make them bigger and more scalable both within the business, but far more importantly outside into the marketplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you.

Michael J Arena
I just would not want to underplay sort of the value of tension even more than conflict, I wouldn’t want to undervalue that, but what I will say is tension too early in the process actually prematurely kills ideas. Tension later in the process becomes almost like this pressure testing sort of amplifier, if you will, to get lift off sooner.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. Well now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael J Arena
You probably have noticed even though I live inside of a human capital job that social capital is an area that I spend a lot of my time.

One of my favorite quotes and this will get a little bit into the conflict thing is it’s a quote by Colonial Picq. This quote goes like this, “Five brave men, who do not know each other well, would not dare attack a lion.” I know that’s masculine, so I’ll pivot it in the next part of the quote. “But five lesser brave men or women would do so resolutely.” I think this is a team activity. What I’m talking about, you have to have friends. You have to find friends. You have to have people who are in it with you.

One of the things that I know is that if you try to do this alone and you try to take all the credit for yourself and you try to hold onto an idea, you try to hoard it – this idea can be anything, any kind of solution – you will not succeed. But if you find and enlist friends and you work together as a team, you’re chances of succeeding are amplified significantly.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite study, experiment or bit of research?

Michael J Arena
Again, this whole networking space, I studied a lot of network theory. I guess the one that just jumps out at me right off the bat is a professor over at University of Michigan, Wayne Baker, a good friend of mine, went out and studied – we didn’t even talk about this – but went out and studied energizers and people who bring energy into an organization, which is one of the core network roles that I talk a lot about.

What he found out was that high performing, agile adaptive organizations have three times as many energizers as average performing organizations. That’s a study, where in the HR space we talk a lot about engagement. My belief is we’re going to be talking much, much more about energy moving forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. How about a favorite book?

Michael J Arena
I guess in the last couple years books that I’ve read, the one that jumps out the most is Adam Grant’s Give and Take, like givers and takers. His whole philosophy, if you haven’t read it, is that long-term, givers, people who are constantly helping, supporting and lifting each other up are the winners in the long-term game. It’s a phenomenal book.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Michael J Arena
I think it’s easy to live inside of an organization and become somewhat inculturated. One of the disciplines – I don’t know if this is a habit – one of the disciplines that I have instilled for myself is to – I have, on my calendar I have, literally this is what it says, ‘critical distance day.’

Literally once every six weeks I have a day on my calendar where I have prescheduled, I’m getting out of the day-to-day business and I’m going to go do something very, very different. I’m going to talk to consumers. I’m going to go to a conference. I’m going to a university campus. But I’m going to do something to refresh myself to think differently than I would if I were just managing the daily business.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get quoted back to you frequently?

Michael J Arena
Yeah. I guess the one that I think of is we live in the era of disruption. We’re all talking about digital disruption these days. We want to talk about things like agile, but I personally believe that in the era of disruption, social is king. We’re going to be talking much more, much, much more about both energy and social capital as we move forward over the next decade.

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

Michael J Arena
The book, there’s a website for the book, AdaptiveSpace.net. They can certainly go on there. I’ve talked a little bit around some different network roles. There’s another website out there called NetworkRoles.com that they can actually go sort of take a self-assessment to better understand their own individual network role.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael J Arena
Stop talking about it and start doing it. Go find a friend. That first friend matters more than you can ever imagine. Find a first friend to partner with on whatever it is that you’re thinking about it is the first step forward. We oftentimes think of things and oftentimes don’t act on those.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Michael this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the good word. I wish you and GM lots of luck in all you’re up to.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

377: How to Disarm the Energy Vampires at Work with Dr. Judith Orloff

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New York Times bestselling author and psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff shines on light on highly sensitive people, how to connect with them, and how to defend against forces that drain your energy.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The difference between ordinary empathy, highly sensitive people, and empaths
  2. Two ways to avoid absorbing the emotions of your environment
  3. The important skills the rest of us can learn from highly sensitive people

About Judith

Dr. Judith Orloff is a New York Times bestselling author who specializes in treating sensitive people in her Los Angeles based private practice. Dr. Orloff is on the psychiatric clinical faculty at UCLA. Her work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, PBS, and in USA Today and The Oprah Magazine, and the Los Angeles times.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Judith Orloff Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Dr. Orloff, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Judith Orloff
You’re very welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into some of your wisdom and expertise here. Could you maybe tell us the story of your journey and how you came to understand the concept of sensitive people?

Judith Orloff
Well, I wrote The Empath Survival Guide because I’m a psychiatrist and an empath. Being an empath is being an emotional sponge. It’s being so sensitive that you literally can absorb the emotions and even the physical symptoms of other people into your own body.

I knew that I had this ability when I was a little girl. I couldn’t go into shopping malls or crowded places because I’d walk in feeling fine and walk out exhausted or with some ache or pain I didn’t have before. My mother who was a physician, my father also a physician – I have 25 physicians in my family – she would say, “Oh dear, you just don’t have a thick enough skin.”

I grew up believing there was something wrong with me in terms of my sensitivities rather than they’re a gift and they need to be managed in a positive way so that’s why I wanted to write the book was to give sensitive people and empath skills on how to be sensitive and open and caring without absorbing the stress of the world into your own body.

Now how do you do that? What skills do you need? As a little girl I knew that I had these abilities and then when I went through medical school, I went to USC. I went to UCLA. My empathic skills kind of went under. I became more immersed in the science of behavior and the science of the body and biological truths of what was going on. It wasn’t until I opened my private practice in psychiatry that I began to use them again.

In fact, I had a dream about a patient that she was going to – actually, it wasn’t a dream; it was a wakened intuition that she was going to be commit suicide. I didn’t see any evidence clinically for that, so I didn’t bring it up with her. I ignored the dream and she in fact overdosed on the pills that I prescribed for her and luckily she lived.

But that was my wakeup call as a physician that I had to listen to my sensitivities and my intuition because it could extremely affect my patients’ health and wellbeing if I didn’t. Since that point, which was a long time ago, I’ve really incorporated my own sensitivities and my empathy and my intuition into patient care and into my personal life.

[3:00]

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s a powerful story. When it comes to the terminology, I just want to make sure we’re on the same page. When you say empath, I guess I’m thinking of Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You don’t mean that you can read people’s thoughts, but rather that you’re sensitive. Are these interchangeable terms, empath and a highly sensitive person, or how would you think about it?

Judith Orloff
They’re a little different. There’s a spectrum of empathy. Whereas, ordinary empathy, which is so beautiful is when your heart goes out to somebody and you feel what they’re feeling in joy or in pain. That’s kind of the middle of the spectrum.

Then if you go up a little bit on the spectrum you have highly sensitive people. These are people who are overwhelmed by sight, smells, sounds, noises, scratchy clothes, and like to be quiet. They’re usually introverts. They’re very sensorally sensitive.

Then if you go up one more notch on the empathy spectrum, you get the empath, who have all the sensory components of sensitivity to light and sound, etcetera, but their poor systems tend to absorb other people’s positive and negative emotions and other feelings into their own bodies and physical symptoms.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Now, I had heard in a previous conversation that the highly sensitive person has a different nervous system. It’s like biochemically structures are in fact different than that of a quote/unquote typical or non-highly sensitive person. Is the empath also have a nervous system that’s differentiatable from that of the highly sensitive person?

Judith Orloff
Well, I think empaths – interesting research on this that empaths have hyperactive mirror neuron systems, which means their compassion neurons are working overtime. They can see somebody they don’t even know who is in pain and they feel it in their own bodies. It’s too much. It’s overkill. It’s not healthy for the empath to do that. But it’s thought that the mirror neurons are hyperactive.

It’s thought in terms of the dopamine system in the body. Dopamine is a pleasure hormone that empaths need less of it to feel satisfied. That’s why they’re happy at home reading a book, whereas other people, extroverts require much more of a dopamine rush, so they love going to stadiums and big football games and parties and lots of dopamine there.

But it’s thought that empaths don’t need to have that dopamine rush because they’re satisfied with much less, which accounts for more of the quiet behavior.

[6:00]

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. All right, so if you find yourself in that situation, like you’re highly sensitive or an empath, what are some of your top tips in terms of just – you’ve got the book called The Empaths Survival Guide – surviving, not getting the illness or getting bogged down in feeling blue because of what you’re picking up around you?

Judith Orloff
Right, good question. The first thing that sensitive people need to do is conscious breath, where the minute you feel like you’re picking up something from somebody else, whether it’s their anger or their depression or their low energy, you have to begin breathing it out.

The breath is sacred prana. It’s a purification system in the body. The more you breathe, the more you can begin to circulate whatever it is that you picked up. That’s important because many empaths hold their breath. They get afraid and they get overwhelmed. They get on sensory overload, which is very common for empaths, and they just hold their breath. The first thing you do is breathe.

Then the second thing, I always teach my empathy patients, is to learn how to set healthy boundaries as you have to learn that no is a complete sentence and that you have to be ready to say, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t go out tonight,” or, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t take on that project, I’m too booked already,” something like that because empaths are people pleasers.

They wear an invisible sign around them that says, “I can help you,” so people flock to empaths from far and wide just to tell you their life story.

I could be sitting in an airport minding my own business in my little bubble and somebody will sit next to me and start up with the most intimate things, which I’m not really open to at that point. I’ve learned to set limits and say something like, “This is my time to be quiet and do my work on my computer, so I’m not really open to talking.”

But empaths are not used to speaking that way to people. They feel like it’s impolite. They feel like they’re going to sacrifice themselves just so the other person would be happy. Empaths need to set healthy boundaries. It’s often a process, where you just have to set a small one and then a bigger one and a bigger one, so you get used to it because an empath who doesn’t set boundaries is going to be exhausted.

That’s the downside of being an empath is you take on so much. You’re tired, exhausted, on sensory overload, too much is coming in too fast, you don’t know what to do with it. It affects your relationship. It affects your health. Empaths get fibromyalgia, adrenal fatigue because their stress response is going constantly because they’re always taking in stimuli.

[9:00]

That’s just not healthy, so the setting of the boundaries really helps to say no and narrow what you take in via your ears or your eyes or who you communicate with or how long you talk on the phone. You don’t talk for two hours; you talk for three minutes. You begin to understand and work with these very practical issues so that you can have a healthier life, where empaths can thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve got the breathing and the setting of boundaries. I’m also curious to get your take on if we don’t find ourselves in the categories of sensitive people or empaths, what are some of the potential ways that we can kind of tap into some of the wisdom or perspective or super power, if you will, that our counterparts have?

Judith Orloff
All right, well the first thing I teach my patients who are non-empaths is to listen to their intuition rather than just stay in their head because if you stay in your head and you’re analyzing and thinking all the time, that’s stopping you from empathizing and feeling.

It’s important if you want to empathize and develop that, to have good eye contact, not intrusive eye contact, but just really look at somebody in the eyes rather than having your eyes darting around or checking your texts or whatever to take you out of your sense of presence. Listen from your heart.

If somebody starts sharing a lot of emotions – this happens with a lot of couples that I work with, where one is an empath and one is an intellectual. The intellectual has to learn how to listen from his or her heart and not try and get in there and fix things too quickly. That’s very irritating for an empath to have somebody do that.

Pete Mockaitis
In practice, how does one listen with your heart well?

Judith Orloff
Well, I call it holding space, where you can hold a space for somebody without judging them, without having to say anything, without intervening, just having a very loving countenance and sending loving energy from your heart and wishing the person well basically and not getting in there and doing anything other than holding a very positive energy for somebody and a loving look in your eyes.

It’s really liberating to have someone do that when you’re going – as an empath, I’ll just speak for myself, if I’m going through some intense emotion or if I’m going through something where I really need to be listened to and held and contained in a certain way with safety, just to have somebody hold a space like that, lovingly, makes all the difference.

Instead of reacting to me, instead of trying to fix me, instead of trying to solve the issue, just holding that space in the beginning is really helpful and calming.

[12:00]

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so in a way it’s more about what you’re not doing than what you are doing it sounds like in terms of it’s not so much that we need to access some profound sense of connectedness to the particular emotions as it is just kind of keep your mouth shut and pleasantly smile and listen and allow the conversation to unfold without judgment or rushing to fix, analyze, solve something.

Judith Orloff
Well, that’s certainly a good beginning.

Pete Mockaitis
Great, okay. That’s good stuff. Then I want to get your take on, you have in particular, listed out, enumerated five emotional or energy vampires. Could you identify what those are and particularly how they might pop up in the workplace and how we should go about defending against them?

Judith Orloff
Yeah. Well, I hope I pick the five that you’re speaking of. There are a lot of different kinds of energy vampires.

But one of them is the victim or the ‘poor me’ person, who everything is not their fault. Everything is the world’s fault. Everything is falling apart. His mother doesn’t understand me. My boyfriend just broke up with me. My boss is not appreciating my work.

They keep you on the phone for two hours complaining and when you try and put in a solution, they say, “Yes, but-“ “Yes, you’re right, but-“ and then they start up again.

If you identify with having people like that in your life, the key is to set limits with the amount of time you talk to them. Don’t enable them because a lot times people enable these victims by saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” and on, and on, and on. Then they call you the next night with the same story, and the next night, and then you’re screening your calls, and you don’t want to pick up the phone. It’s a vicious cycle.

You have to begin to speak up. It’s the victim is the first one. It’s very common in the workplace.

Also the drama queen, that’s another type of energy vampire. This is somebody who wears you out with off-the-chart dramas, where everything is a drama. The little spot on my arm is cancer. The world is falling apart. I’m going to be fired at any moment. This person-

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Or they invent like someone said something and they kind of infer from that all kinds of ill will and “Could you believe that they think that blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s like, “Well, they never really said that. You just kind of made that up. It might be accurate, but it might very well not be.”

[15:00]

Judith Orloff
Yeah, no, exactly. That’s a drama queen or king. It’s both sexes when they get into it. Most importantly don’t ask this person how they’re doing at work. You don’t want to – you see them coming, you just want to smile and not ask them because then they’ll start up.

Then you want to use the I’m-not-interested body language, where you just kind of subtly point your body in a different direction rather than looking deeply into their eyes or pointing directly at them and looking intensely at them as if you’re interested, which you’re probably not because you have your own work to do and you have other things happening. You don’t want to – you don’t have the time to take to listen to all this.

When you don’t give them juice, they go on to another victim. If you say, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you and I’ve got to get back to my work. I’ll hold good thoughts for you,” and you say it in a very matter-of-fact tone.

Now this is hard for empaths because they want to fix everybody. Coming from an empath soul, you see somebody who is in pain and you want to make them feel better. You just want to. You just can’t live that way. You can’t make everybody feel better. You can’t fix everyone.

Those of you who are sensitive people or empaths out there, if you notice you’re caretaker or you’re a fixer, you want to fix people, that’s something to really work on in yourself because you sacrifice your vital energy if you do that. You can certainly help family members who are in need or somebody who’s close to you, but not everybody. Empaths want to help everybody and then they end up exhausted in bed.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about the next vampire?

Judith Orloff
The next vampire is a narcissist. The narcissist is someone who’s me, me, me. Everything is about them. They can be charming and seductive and intelligent, but the minute you don’t do something according to their program, they become cold, withholding, punishing, judgmental or give you the silent treatment. That’s what happens with some couples that I work with, who one is the narcissist and he or she just gives them the silent treatment for weeks as a punishment.

Narcissists have what’s called empathy deficient disorder. What that means is they’re not capable of empathy as we know it.

But there’s a toxic attraction between empaths and narcissists. I go into this in depth in The Empath Survival Guide because I want to warn people away from these relationships. They’re extremely toxic and dangerous to sensitive people. The narcissist, it doesn’t hurt them much because nothing much hurts them.

[18:00]

It’s so hard for empaths to grasp that because they think that everybody feels like they do in terms of caring. It’s so hard to grasp that there can be a human being who actually doesn’t feel things in that way. They’re wired neurologically differently than other people with regular empathy or being an empath.

They have to lower their expectations of narcissists, not confide in them, don’t get triggered by them in terms of asking them to understand deep parts of you that they don’t really care to understand, and just see them as being crippled in a certain sense in their hearts because they care about themselves and they’ll care about you as long as you’re doing something that pleases them, but the minute you go against them, they’ll wage war. This isn’t a good partnership possibility.

If you’re stuck with a boss who’s a narcissist, which is very common. I work in Los Angeles and work with a lot of people in the entertainment industry and it’s a real challenge to work with narcissistic bosses.

Pete Mockaitis
Are there a couple narcissists in the entertainment industry per chance?

Judith Orloff
Yeah, a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
If you do have a boss, what are your key steps then?

Judith Orloff
Well, to lower your expectations. Go through the book and see the criteria for narcissists. The great thing is they fit the bill every time. They’re very easy to diagnose.

You have to be able to recognize them and not be prone to seduction because they can act like they have empathy, especially in romantic situations. They, “Oh, you’re so beautiful. Oh here, let’s go on a vacation. Let’s – you’re,” whatever they’re going to do to sweep you off your feet. But the minute they really have to be there in an intimate way, they’re not – it’s not possible. It’s a false front, which is so deceptive.

They do gaslighting when you’re in a relationship with them. Gaslighting is when they make you feel like you’re going crazy. Where you say, “Oh, the sky is so beautiful today. The blue is so pretty.” “What the sky is not blue. The sky’s magenta. What’s wrong with you?” That’s how they beat an empath’s self-esteem down in a relationship over many years.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. What’s the next vampire?

[21:00]

Judith Orloff
The next vampire is the judger or the blamer, the criticizer, where they cut you down by criticizing you and saying, “Oh, you’d be so beautiful if it wasn’t for your hair,” or, “You look like you’ve gained a little weight, haven’t you?” Those kinds of cutting comments. They put you down to raise themselves up.

Pete Mockaitis
If you’re dealing with that at work, how we respond?

Judith Orloff
Well, work is always the hardest thing, but it depends who it is also. If it’s somebody who is an equal and you can speak honestly with them, you can say, “That really hurt my feelings when you said that. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t comment about my shoes or my hair or my appearance.” That’s when you can be honest with somebody. You have to keep setting those kinds of limits too with people because they don’t learn all at once.

But if it’s let’s say a co-worker who’s criticizing you, number one, don’t be emotionally triggered by it. You have to work on your own self-esteem and shift the topic away from that to a solution. It just depends on how honest you can be with somebody.

There are people at work you just have to put up with. Your work is to work on your own self-esteem, to meditate, to center yourself. Don’t buy into it, whatever they’re saying about you because people have all kinds of opinions and as it is said, opinions are the lowest form of knowledge.

You have to really strengthen your own self esteem if you can’t honestly give people feedback. But if it’s family members, if it’s friends, you better give them feedback because that’s not acceptable in a friendship or in a loving relationship to be criticized all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, how about the final vampire?

Judith Orloff
The final vampire would be the passive aggressive. This is connected to the rage-aholic and the anger addict. It’s the flip side of it. The rage-aholic is one energy vampire, who cuts you down with anger and rage and dumps anger on you, which to empaths feels toxic and painful.

I personally have a no yelling rule in my house or around me because it’s just – I’m sensitive to sound first of all, so a yelling voice and somebody who’s dumping toxic energy all over me  is just not acceptable. I set that limit for myself. I teach my patients to do that.

The way to deal with anger is to make an appointment to talk about it. Make a request. Say, “Is now a good time?” “No.” “How about tomorrow morning?” “Yes.” “All right.”

Then stick to one cause of the anger. It’s called venting versus dumping. You say, “I’m angry that you left me sitting in the restaurant.” You talk about that. You don’t bring in the kitchen sink with it and everything else you’re angry with. There’s a skill to dealing with an anger addict.

[24:00]

A passive aggressive is somebody who is angry but with a smile. They don’t have the angry affect, but they say these god-awful things to you that sting and feel like you’re being poked with a smile. It’s just the passive form of anger.

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

Judith Orloff
Just that if you’re a sensitive person, you can deal with these energy vampires. I look at them as teachers. How can they teach you to learn how to set clear boundaries? How can they teach you to develop your self-esteem if you’re being triggered by them? How are they going to teach you to improve your communication skills?

Instead of feeling victimized, try and see what you can learn from them and choose people who are positive and loving and creative and supportive to be around you in your circle. Don’t choose these energy vampires.

If you have a choice, which you don’t always because sometimes they’re family members, choose to have the positive, loving people around you so you can get all that love, and the positivity, and the connection, and the fun because empaths feel that to an extreme as well.

It’s extremely pleasurable to have a good friend that you can trust or to have that level of connection with people that is so gratifying and fulfilling. You want to have positive people around you as much as possible and … that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Judith Orloff
Well, I love the Dalai Lama quote that “The most precious human quality is empathy.” It’s the most precious. Really think about that. The most – what is the most precious human quality is empathy.

Then also I love Emily Dickenson, “I am large. I contain multitudes,” just to remember how large we are and how multifaceted and vast our spirits are and how nothing can stop us and to feel that radiance in your spirit and the largeness of who you are and your connection to the universe. I’ve always loved that quote so much.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite study?

Judith Orloff
A favorite research study?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Judith Orloff
I love the study that was done on making intuitive choices. When you make a choice where you’re about to make a big choice like buying a car, buying a house, that this study has found – and it was done in Sweden – that when you sleep on the subject, you get better information and make a better choice than when you just make impulsive decisions.

[27:00]

What that means to me is that the dreaming process and the replenishment process that goes on during sleep can help with decision making and that we need to depend on that more than just our waking minds or in addition, as a companion to the waking mind when we make our decisions.

I’m a big believer in dreaming and remembering your dreams, writing your dreams down and using that information for your life. I have dream journals that I’ve kept since I was a little girl. I write a lot about dreams. In fact, there’s a type of empath called a dream empath. A dream empath is somebody who’s very attuned to their dreams and can remember them and seeks guidance from them and lets the dream time help to guide their lives.

This study is an elegant way of pointing to that in terms of framing it around decision making. It’s a wonderful study.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Judith Orloff
My favorite book – I have a lot of favorite books, but my favorite book was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Judith Orloff
I read that. That just saved me as a child because I’ve always been against conformity and I’ve always believed in the power of love, just – I don’t know if you saw the movie. Oprah actually made a movie out of it recently, where she was one of the magical female creatures that came to help the little boy find his father.

But anyways, they go to a planet where everything is censored basically. All the children have to bounce the ball at the same rate. Everybody has to look the same. Everybody has to do the same thing. That’s always terrified me. I always fought for originality and creativity. It’s a story about how you overcome that with the deep power of love and how you can reunite family and really create more love even when in the darkest of the dark situations. I love that book.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool?

Judith Orloff
A tool? You mean – what kind of a tool are you referring to?

Pete Mockaitis
Just something you use that helps you be awesome at your job.

Judith Orloff
A pen because I’m a writer.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular pen that you love?

Judith Orloff
I love the very thin Sharpies.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yes, me too.

[30:00]

Judith Orloff
Love the thin Sharpies. I take notes on everything, on napkins, on random pieces of paper. If I’m in the gym on the treadmill and I get an idea for my writing, I’ll stop and go get a piece of paper, write it, put it in my bra until later, and I’ll pull it out. I’m a big believer in writing, journaling, and having paper around and getting those dreams down, getting those ideas down.

I use the computer when I write. I use the computer way too much, but there’s something so elegant and wonderful about the written word and writing it with your hand, having a pen in hand. It‘s so archetypal. I would say those thin Sharpies. I have a bunch of them all over my house, and my office, and my car.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite habit?

Judith Orloff
Meditation. It’s a practice. I meditate first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening before I go to bed and hopefully during the day as well. It’s a way to center myself.

It’s a wonderful tool for empaths to decrease stimulation, to connect with your own heart, to quiet the stress response and all the adrenaline rushing through your system and to connect to a higher power, connect to spirit, however you want to define it by sitting and breathing and putting your hand on your heart and letting thoughts go by, not attaching to them.

As you reconnect to your heart, your breath, and your body, you can calm your whole system and you can begin to feel a sense of love that is sometimes hard when you’re just in your head, you’re thinking all the time. But you can feel a sense of love and connection, universal connection.

I have kind of an altar, which is very precious to me where I meditate. It has flowers and incense and fruit, candles, pictures of various spiritual teachers and Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion. It’s a place I love to go. I have cushions, so I sit and meditate. It’s very, very important to me, that ritual or habit as you call it.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect, resonate with folks and gets sort of quoted frequently about—from you?

Judith Orloff
Yeah, it’s a revelation to find out if you’re an empath. Ever since I’ve been discussing this I get so many emails and calls and workshop participants who are waking up to the fact that they are not crazy. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re not being neurotic. They’re just sensitive. Empaths have a wide open sensibility and sensitivity, which is empowering. There’s nothing wrong with you.

[33:00]

I think that’s the nugget. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something right with you. If you can awaken your intuition and your empathy, the deep empathy for yourself and other people and begin to learn strategies, some of which we’ve talked about to protect your energy from getting exhausted, worn out or from energy vampires, I think that’s the nugget.

This is a particular personality type. If you fit in, then if you go into therapy, you don’t want to go on medication right away. There’s other strategies to dealing with this. It changes everything when it comes to freeing yourself from exhaustion and fear, negativity. You can then get stronger, energetically and emotionally so that you’re not absorbing so much angst from the world.

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

Judith Orloff
You can go to my website. That’s www.DrJudithOrloff.com. I also have an Empath Survival Guide online course there that people can watch at their convenience. It’s a video course explaining different aspects of being an empath. I do videos for each lesson, which can be very helpful to explain how do you be an empath at work, how are you an empath in love relationships, empaths in health. There are different areas to really understand yourself in a much deeper level. That’s also at DrJudithOrloff.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call – let’s just try that again. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Judith Orloff
Dare to be empathic. Dare to care for people and not be self-absorbed with all of your own issues. Let your empathy and caring show. Tell someone, “You look great today,” just go out of your way for somebody else because everybody’s struggling with their own things. I can guarantee you that. When you just say a simple kind word to somebody or are empathic with them for just a moment, it can shift everything for them and it also, it gives back to you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Dr. Orloff, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the good word and good luck with all you’re up to.

Judith Orloff
Thank you very much.

375: How and Why to Communicate Mindfully with Oren Jay Sofer

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Meditation practitioner and author Oren Jay Sofer hashes out the tenets of mindful and non-violent communication to help get ot the heart of every interaction.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Key steps for getting what you want without causing defensiveness in others
  2. Two points of subtext to listen for when someone speaks
  3. How to gain emotional agility

About Oren

Oren Jay Sofer leads retreats and workshops on mindful communication throughout the United States. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he holds a degree in comparative religion from columbia University and is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication. Oren also creates mindfulness training programs for apps and organizations. He lives in Richmond, California.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Oren Jay Sofer Interview Transcript

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

Oren Jay Sofer
Great to be back, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into it. We heard a little bit more about your backstory and fun facts in a previous episode, which wasn’t too long ago. I want to dig right away into the goods of you’ve got a book, Say What You Mean, coming out. What’s it all about?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, so the subtitle of the book is How to Find Your Voice, Speak Your Truth & Listen Deeply. It’s about understanding ourselves more clearly so that we can have more meaningful relationships and more effective conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds helpful. So you’re using the term in the mix, “non-violent communication.” What does that phrase mean, precisely?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, that’s right. The full title, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication. What’s unique about this book and about what I do is that I bring together a few different worlds.

We’ve talked already about the power of mindfulness and the benefits of bringing more awareness and balance and groundedness into our life, into our work, and the kind of clarity and sustainability that comes from that. What’s neat is that mindfulness isn’t just an internal practice, but it actually has all kinds of benefits for our relationships and conversations.

Non-violent communication is a process of not only communicating, but also being aware of our thoughts and emotions, desires, and impulses in a way that lets us work with others more smoothly. The process of NVC, which is the shorthand for non-violent communication, is about using words in a way to create enough connection and understanding in our relationships to collaborate, to meet whatever needs are happening more easily.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe would you give an example of non-violent communication versus violent communication? Because when I think about violent communication, I think “I’ll kill you,” but I’m imagining there’s a whole range of subtle ways that we’re kind of aggressive in our communications.

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Pete. Maybe just a word or two of history to contextualize this and then I’ll give an example or two.

Non-violent communication was founded by a man named Marshall B. Rosenberg. He grew up in Detroit in the 40’s. He lived through the race riots there. There were about 40 people killed within a couple blocks of his house as a kid. This had a deep impact on him. It was a very powerful education into our world recognizing that people might want to kill you for the color of your skin.

Then when he went to school, he found out that people might want to do violence to you because of your last name. He was Jewish and experienced a lot of anti-Semitism. This had a very strong effect on him. But he also was exposed to people in his family, like his uncle—who would care for their grandmother, who was paralyzed—with so much joy and devotion and happiness.

He had this question that was burning in him from a young age of “what makes the difference between some people who are able to take a lot of joy in contributing to the well-being of others, whereas other folks, when they’re challenged, will resort to violence to meet their needs?”

What he found through his research and his work and his studies was that how we think and how we speak plays a big role in whether or not we see violence as a viable strategy when things aren’t working. As you recognized, violence isn’t just physical violence. One definition of violence is any avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs. When we think about that—

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll chew on that for a while.

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, yeah, so there’s a lot of violence in our world today, when you think about the level of human needs that aren’t being met.

How does this apply in our lives? Well, so if you and I are having a conflict, we’re having some kind of difference and I say, “Pete, you’re being really unprofessional and irresponsible.” In some way there’s a little bit of violence or aggression in my communication because I’m expressing what’s going on for me by blaming you.

In other words, one of the ways we’ve been conditioned to think about things, and this is so relevant for the workplace, is that when we don’t like what’s happening, when our needs aren’t being met, or some objective or goal that we have isn’t happening the way we would like it to, instead of being able to own that, to be conscious of it and say, “This is what I’m valuing. This is the objective I have and what I’d like to see happening. Here’s how what’s going on isn’t really matching with that. I’d like to talk about this.”

We make it about the other person being wrong or bad or somehow irresponsible or unprofessional or uncourteous, so we project our own unmet needs out on to others and blame them.

If we just kind of pause and step back and think about it for a moment, if I want somebody to do something differently, if I want somebody to help me out with something, change their behavior in some way that’s going to contribute to my life or my work in a better way, how useful of a strategy is it to blame them and tell them what’s wrong with them?

Has that ever worked? Does that ever inspire joyful giving and spontaneous change. “Oh sure you’re right. Let me do this differently.”

Non-violent is about understanding – part of it is about understanding this conditioning and learning not only to speak, the words are actually the last thing. What’s most important is where we’re coming from inside and learning to see situations differently so that we can communicate in ways that other people can hear and understand without getting defensive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, excellent. Well, so then, that’s a handy sort of backdrop there in terms of digging into the contents of your book. I’d like to get your view on first of all, with the title, Say What You Mean, what are some kind of key ways or categories that we fall short of saying what you mean and how is that detrimental?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah. I think a lot of the time we don’t know what we really mean to say. One of the things I talk about in the book in terms of the relevance of mindfulness is that to say what we mean, we have to know first what we mean and to know what we mean, we have to be able to look inside a little bit and be clear.

Instead of asking yourself, “What do I want to say?” you can recognize that whenever we speak, pretty much all of the time – most of the time if not all of the time, we’re speaking because we want somebody else to listen, we want somebody else to understand something. We’re trying to get some message across.

Instead of just focusing on what I want to say, it’s more useful to think about, “Okay, what do I want this person to understand? What do I want them to know or hear?”

When we only focus on what it is that I want to say or I want to blow off steam or I want to tell you this, without really placing our attention on, “Yeah, but what’s the effect I’m trying to have?” and “What is the information that I want you to really take in?” we end up wasting our energy.

When we fail to actually be aware of our purpose in communication and what we’re trying to really transmit to the other person, not only do we waste our energy and time and the other person, but we end up getting entangled often in things that don’t really matter.

How many times have you had an argument with somebody where you say something and then they get reactive and start responding to something that you don’t even mean? You’re like, “No, no, no, that’s not what I meant.” Now we’ve got to take ten minutes to kind of unravel this whole thing that is, isn’t even relevant.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. That definitely happens. I’d love it if you can maybe bring this to life a little bit in terms of making that switch from “what do I want to say?” toward “what do I want them to know or understand or to pick up from that message can make all the difference? Can you bring that to life for us?”

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, absolutely. Let’s take an example of something at work. Let’s say that your first impulse is to say, “You’re micromanaging me.” That’s not exactly saying what we mean. That’s just moving out of habit.

If we pause for a moment and think, “Okay, what’s the effect of this going to be?” Okay the other person is probably going to get defensive. “I’m not micromanaging me. You’re not a team player. You don’t know how to work with others.” Now we’re wasting our time arguing.

“You’re micromanaging me,” what do I really mean by that? We can use the steps that I lay out in the book to understand more clearly what’s happening.

First, we want to say, okay, what am I referring to? What’s actually happened? I’m not just making this up. This person has done or said something, perhaps several things that didn’t work for me.

We try to make some sort of a clear observation that the other person will recognize without getting defensive or arguing, like, “I noticed that last week you asked me to take care of this task by Friday and then on Wednesday you emailed me again asking if I had finished it,” so that’s what happened.

“You told me the deadline of Friday, but then on Wednesday, they were asking me if I had it done,” so there’s nothing to argue about there. It’s just like, “Hey, you emailed me, asked me to do this, and then you did that.”

Then the next thing we want to be clear about is what’s the impact this has on me? What’s the impact it has and why? What matters to me? What is it that I’m actually valuing in this situation? We can say, “I felt a little confused and slightly frustrated.” That’s different from saying I felt pressured. I felt blamed, which is again about putting the focus on the other person.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s them.

Oren Jay Sofer
Right, I’m taking responsibility for my part. I’m saying, “Look, I felt a little bit confused and slightly frustrated.” What is it I want? “Well, I really want to be able to work together in a way that we’re each doing our own piece and really supporting each other’s work with a lot of trust and collaboration.” That’s really clear. Those are values that we can get – that we can both agree on.

Then the last part is now I want to know, if I just stop there, the other person is like, “Well, okay. What do you want me to do about that?” or “Oh, I’m sorry, I guess.” We want to give the other person some kind of suggestion about what would be helpful. This is what we call a request, which is a suggestion or a proposal or some kind of indication of the direction we can go from here.

We might just want more information. We might just want to ask, “Could you tell me a little bit more about what your flow was? What was your process here because in my mind I was just expecting that I would email the report on Friday? I want to understand more where you’re coming from.”

Then when we find out, then we might start a move to making some agreements about, “Great, well next time I wonder if you ask me for something on Friday, but you actually need it sooner, could you tell me that so that I can kind of plan accordingly and we can work it out?”

Pete Mockaitis
So then the request phase seemed like you were kind of collecting more information and then sort of the agreement phase comes after the request phase?

Oren Jay Sofer
That’s right. Yeah. The more understanding we can establish between one another, the easier it is to make agreements and the more robust and reliable they’re going to be.

One of the things that we tend to get tripped up with in conversations and negotiations, particularly at work, is that we want the answer. We want to cut to the chase and get to the solution, but what that means is that we often don’t take enough time to really build the criteria for the solution.

What’s actually important here? What are we trying to accomplish and why? What are the goals the solution needs to meet and what are all of the concerns and considerations on the table? Let’s really suss that out and make sure that we all understand the full landscape as much as possible.

Whether it’s kind of a team decision, a project decision or an interpersonal situation, if we’ve established a really solid base of mutual understanding, it’s a lot easier to come up with an agreement because we both can see things from one another’s point of view. Then there’s more buy in for any agreement or solution we come up with.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s really cool. The first step is to sort of state that clear observation. The second is – well, the impact that that observation has on me.

Oren Jay Sofer
Mm-hm.

Pete Mockaitis
The third is declaring what you want for us in the collaboration. The fourth is kind of getting request or suggestion for some more information, understanding and then leading to ultimately an agreement in terms of how we’re going to operate a bit differently going forward. That sounds like it makes great sense in terms of being low probability of triggering hostility and defensiveness.

Oren Jay Sofer
That’s right. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, do you have any other thoughts when it comes to communicating to minimize the risk of the other person feeling like you’re attacking them or that you’re offensive in some way?

Oren Jay Sofer
You know, it’s a great question, Pete. I think that one of the things I emphasize over and over and over again when I teach is that communication is not about what we say. So much of our communication, so much of our relationships is in our body language, our tone of voice. It’s about where we’re coming from inside.

There’s a whole section on my book devoted to this, to the intention behind where we’re coming from because we can say things in really nice, pretty ways, we can use fancy words and whatever kind of communication technique you want to lay on top of it.

But if inside we’re actually saying in our mind, “You’re such a jerk and you’ve got to get your act together and I can’t stand working with you,” if that’s what we’re actually feeling and thinking and believing, they’re going to know that. They’re going to pick up on it.

The work in terms of taking that bite out and reducing the risk of getting embroiled in that kind of situation or just adding more tension to a workplace conflict that’s already uncomfortable is actually doing the work internally of transforming our own way of viewing the situation. This is why mindfulness is so essential for communication because you can’t do that.

You can’t really take apart your own emotions and perceptions and blame without some kind of tool to get in there and really say, “Okay, what’s going on here? Why am I getting so upset over this? Where is this getting me?” and start to actually understand more like, “Oh, okay, I see. I was wanting to be consulted in this decision and it feels like I’m not being valued enough,” or “I want clearer definitions of roles at work and it feels like this other person keeps doing my job. Oh, that’s what I need.”

Then it’s much easier to talk about. It’s not like you’re out to get me, it’s like, “Listen, I really want to make sure that we’re not stepping on each other’s feet here. Can we sit down and talk a little bit about what both of our roles are so that we’re both working toward the same end and not getting into these situations where we find ourselves locking heads?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, excellent. That’s good. Then when it comes to the intention, you talk about the work and the internal nature of it. I guess what that consists of is just really kind of thinking through clearly what do I want and I guess – I guess sometimes that can take a few loops or iterations to get yourself past “I want you to stop being such a jerk.”

Oren Jay Sofer
Exactly. Well, there’s a great tool we can use here. A couple of things. First, the single most powerful and transformative ingredient in dialogue is the intention to understand. When in doubt, just try to understand because that’s what communication is about. Even when we’re trying to just get something done, we rely upon mutual understanding. We need to be able to hear one another.

When in doubt, we can always come back to just the baseline intention of wanting to understand. “Let me see if I can understand you.” Just that phrase, just that phrase, ‘let me see if I’m understanding you,’ that in and of itself can start to change the tone of a whole relationship because the other person starts to feel our interest like, “Oh wow, you’re actually making an effort. You’re not just interested in getting your way.” Then they can stop trying to defend themselves and get about working together.

I said there were two things. Let’s see if I remember if I remember what the second one was. Intention. Okay, so the second one, so there’s a tool we can use to help us transform those knee jerk reactions and intentions to just blast the person or “Just stop being a jerk,” or “Get off my back.”

This comes from Marshall Rosenberg, who was as I said, the founder of non-violent communication. He suggested that when we want somebody to do something, that we ask ourselves two questions.

The first question most of ask, which is ‘what would I like this person to do?’ Now, if we stop there, if that’s the only question we ask, then we might go about all kinds of strategies to get them to do it. We might coerce them. We might threaten them. We might be passive-aggressive. We might manipulate them.

Now, some of those strategies can produce results, but they come at a cost. When I use my power to force someone to do something, I lose some of their trust and goodwill. This is huge, particularly for managers. Every time we get somebody to do something because we have more power than they do, we lose their goodwill. We lose that energy, that creative willingness to really engage in work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so true. I’ve been on the receiving end. It’s like, “All right, well, I’m just going to give you what you asked for and—“

Oren Jay Sofer
And nothing more.

Pete Mockaitis
“—keep all my brilliant creativity to myself since you don’t seem to care for it.”

Oren Jay Sofer
Exactly, yeah. We take away one of the things that’s the most meaningful, which is our opportunity to contribute and give. We don’t just start by asking “What do I want this person to do?”

We need to ask the second question, which is “What do I want their reasons to be for doing it? Why? Why would I like this person to do this? Not just because they fear me or they want to keep their job. No, I want them to do this because they understand its value, because they see how this is going to contribute to the project, to the company, to the bottom line.”

When we ask that second question, now we’re going to approach the whole situation differently because now we’re not just trying to get the person to get to point B, we’re actually trying to change their mind. We’re actually trying to help them to see things in a different way.

That’s where that intention to understand comes from is saying, “Look, I think I’m seeing things in a different way than you are and I want to see if we can learn from each other here. Tell me how you’re seeing this because maybe you’re seeing something that I’m not aware of that’s important. And there might be something that I’m seeing that you’re not aware of,” so now we’re actually having a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is a handy question in terms of what you’re seeing and then it covers a multitude of issues in which you’re just like, “What’s this idiot’s problem?” It’s like, “Oh, well, they may very well know something I don’t.” Then all of the sudden all sorts of things make a whole lot more sense when you go there.

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, yeah. The other thing, all of us have to work with people who it’s just like, “What’s your problem? Why-“ just people are grumpy or they’re short. There I think what’s helpful with these communication tools and the mindfulness tools is learning how to genuinely have that feeling inside of we’re all just doing the best we can.

You know what? Maybe they had a fight with their wife or their husband. Maybe their kids got a really rough diagnosis. We just don’t know where people are coming from.

When someone is really rubbing us the wrong way, even if it’s not around a work-related issue, when we can shift out of that perception and that way of thinking in terms of blaming the other person and what’s wrong with them and why are they such a jerk, we can say, “Wow, maybe they’re having a really hard time. Maybe they’re really lonely. Maybe they’re really angry. Maybe they’ve been carrying anger around for years. God, that must be so hard.”

Two things happen there that are really important. The first is one, we release ourselves from the burden of resentment and pettiness and judgment, which is just not a pleasant state of mind to be in. The other thing that happens is we start relating to the other person in a more humane way.

What I’ve seen again and again in my own life is when I relate to people with respect and kindness and patience, it has an effect. It might not be instantaneous, but over time if I consistently come from that place, they come around.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really cool. Then I’d to get your take then in terms of, since we touched on that a little bit, where sort of in the other side of the equation, where we’re doing the listening, how can we do that and even if someone is kind of short or accusatory, how can we do the job of listening without feeling that feeling of being attacked, offended, getting defensive, bubbling up in ourselves?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, that’s the other side of it. It’s such an important skill. This is – actually this is one of the most powerful tools that we can develop is the ability to listen to what someone really means regardless of what they’re actually saying. Yeah.

I’m finding myself talking about Marshall a lot on this – on our call today, but that’s for a good reason. He was a very wise man. One of the other things that he said that I love is he said, “I suggest you never listen to what people think about you. You’ll live longer and enjoy your life more.”

What he means by that is don’t listen to the blame and the judgments and the criticism that are coming out of people’s minds. Try to hear what’s in their heart.

We can actually train our attention to listen beneath the words to two things. One, how someone’s feeling. In the workplace, that’s generally going to be more of a silent awareness. We’re just like, “Oh wow, this person seems” – whether they’re pissed or frustrated or hurt or upset or confused or irritated or annoyed or stressed.

We can kind of pick up on okay, what’s going on for this person on the emotional level. Then that creates a little bit of a sense of empathy. We can feel where they’re at as a human being. Okay.

Then the next part, which is where the real transformation occurs is, “what matters?” What’s important to this person underneath what they’re saying, whether they’re blaming me or complaining about someone else, what do they really value here, what are they needing. That’s where we can start to listen to somebody and deescalate a situation without taking it personally.

For example, someone says, “God, you’re so critical. Why are you so critical all the time? All that comes out of you is just judgment and negative stuff?”

I can hear that. I can hear that. It’s probably going to take me a moment because I’ve got to do this little aikido move, where I don’t absorb that energy, I just kind of sidestep it, let it go past me and say, “All right, what’s going on for this person. Maybe they’re wanting a little bit more recognition, a little more appreciation for what they’re bringing forward.

I might ask, I might say, “I’m hearing that some of the ways that I relate or express myself don’t really work for you. Thank you, I’m glad you’re telling me that. It’s not my intention. I want to check. It sounds like you’re wanting some more appreciation or acknowledgement for how hard you’ve worked on this and the contributions that you’re making or is there something else that – is it something else?”

I’m actually trying to understand you. I’m not taking on that story. I’m just really listening for what’s important for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, interesting. Well said, sidestepping and not taking on that story. It really kind of sparks a visual in terms of there’s a whole lot of – I don’t know. I’m always … to think someone’s got a bucket of tar and they’re just sort of going to shove it such that it flies out of the bucket and in your direction.

You’re saying, no, no rather than get the tar and say, “How dare you? I’m a mess.” We’re just going to sidestep it and say, “how interesting that this person thought that that was something that they needed to do.” Let’s kind of – I don’t want to call it fun, but let’s – or enjoyment, but it’s sort of like – it’s a bit of a puzzle.

That’s kind of how I’m relating to it is you can get interested and engaged in that thing on a different level of “Oh, I’m trying to kind of get to the bottom of this,” as opposed to “I’m trying to conquer and overcome and win and be right within in this.”

Oren Jay Sofer
Right, yeah, yeah. There are two levels to this. One is understanding that when people are blaming and judging us, they have some unmet need. That blame and judgment is just a tragic and counterproductive expression of our own unmet needs.

When we really understand that we we don’t have to take on the blame or the story. We can just, “Oh, what’s going on for you? Something’s not working. Let me see if I can understand it.” That’s one level.

There’s another level here, which is kind of a meta level on the conversation, which is how are we talking to each other and what kind of workplace culture do we have? That’s something that we can address, but that it’s better to address outside of the actual moment.

We have the conversation. We deescalate things. We hear what’s important for them. We offer some understanding. Maybe we make some agreements or if we contributed in some way, we apologize, say, “Hey, I’m sorry, wasn’t where I meant to come from, but I can see how that had that impact on you.”

But then we can also have a conversation saying, “Listen I wanted to just – I wanted to just talk a little bit about how things came out when you said that I’m so critical and judgmental and I’m always nitpicking and I never care about or appreciate anyone else. That was kind of hard to hear. I’d just love to find a way that we can both express ourselves with a sense of care and respect for one another.”

We can actually address the way we’re talking to one another, but it’s best to do that outside of the moment. We’ve got to handle the situation that’s happening first.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that’s well said. I did want to dig into your take on sort of the best practices for how does one ask for what you need in an optimal kind of a fashion? It seems like we’ve already got a few kind of principles and processes to work through, but do you have any extra things to point out when you’re making a request?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, absolutely. Requests are tricky because a lot of us have been conditioned to think it’s selfish to ask for things from other people. Some of this falls around gender lines and how we’ve been conditioned or what our social location is, so based on our conditioning, we may feel more or less comfortable or willing to speak up and ask for what we need. A certain part of it is some of that internal work of just checking, “do I feel okay asking others to do things or help out or contribute to me?”

One of the keys there, because a lot of us have stories that, “I should be able to do it on my own. I’m selfish if I ask for something. I don’t want to be needy or dependent,” all of these kinds of junk that we pick up along the way in life.

But if we turn the tables around for a minute and we just think about if a friend or a coworker came to me and said, “Hey, I could really use some help. Do you have a few minutes?” If someone’s sincere and we have the time, we’re more than happy to help. We’re like, “Yeah, totally. What’s up?” That feels good. It feels good to lend a hand to someone when we can.

If we contemplate that, then we can recognize if I can ask in a way that’s inviting, I’m actually giving the other person something beautiful. I’m giving them an opportunity to contribute in a way that feels good.

That’s kind of the key behind making requests. It’s one, finding that place inside where we’re not demanding that somebody do something, which takes all the joy out of giving and helping, but we’re inviting them. It’s an open door.

One of the things that makes that the most possible is letting them know how it’s going to contribute to us. We need to let someone know why we’re asking. How will this actually help me? What’s the reason behind my asking? Then that gives the person a reason to want to help.

The other part is really making sure that we’re clear that there’s no obligation or demand here. This is a suggestion. I’m just saying, “How about this? If this doesn’t work for you, I’d love to see if we can find another way that this could happen.” Then, again, it becomes a dialogue. It becomes a collaboration.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. You’ve got another term I want to hear and touch about because it sounds like something I want. What is emotional agility and how can we get some more of that?

Oren Jay Sofer
Oh, grasshopper. Yes, emotional agility is essential in life. Emotional agility is that ability to be aware of what we’re feeling and have the strength and the capacity to manage it without it dictating our actions or our words. This takes practice, but it’s completely feasible. There are a few steps to it.

The first step is learning to be aware of our emotions, just using mindfulness to identify how we’re feeling and finding a way to experience our emotions with some degree of balance, so we don’t get swept away in the tide of thinking and reacting and sinking in the emotion or lashing out or the other extreme, which is suppressing and avoiding our emotions.

We find that middle ground, where we can just feel the way we feel and stay balanced with it. That’s a lot of the work of mindfulness.

Then the next kind of phase is starting to actually understand our emotions and the function that they play in our life, in our relationships. Emotions are there for a reason. If we feel something, it’s because there’s something that matters to us. We don’t feel emotions if there’s nothing that matters to us in a situation.

Emotions are sending signals. They’re sending signals either that our needs were met. Pleasant feelings: things are going well, my values and needs are being confirmed or met in some way. Unpleasant emotions: it’s a message, it’s a signal that there’s something not working for me here, there’s some need I have that isn’t being met.

What’s essential in understanding emotions is connecting them back to what actually matters to us and being able to identify, “What am I actually wanting here? What’s important to me?” When we can understand that, when we can really see it clearly, there’s a settling that happens inside because the message has been received. The emotion has actually served its purpose. Now we can go about figuring out how to meet that need. What action is necessary here?

Then the last aspect of emotional agility – so we’ve got being aware of our emotions and staying balanced. Then we’ve got understanding our emotions, “What message is this sending? What’s actually important to me here?”

The last part is learning how to communicate them constructively, how to hear other’s emotions and how to express our own emotions in a way that’s helpful. This is really where that training and non-violent communication comes in where we’re able to be aware of how we feel on the inside instead of those stories of blame, “I feel ignored. I feel attacked. I feel judged,” which are all pointing the finger at you.

Instead, being able to talk about, “You know? I felt a little bit sad when I heard that I wasn’t invited.” To be able to own how we actually feel instead of “I feel dismissed,” which is again, telling you what you’re doing to me. Being able to state our emotions in a way that’s about us and then connect them to our needs, to why.

“I really wanted to be included,” or “I really value being a part of the team,” or “I really enjoy your company and want to be able to build our relationship,” so linking our emotions and feelings back to our needs. That’s the kind of overview, the snapshot of developing emotional agility. I go into that a lot more in Say What You Mean, in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, one of the things when I heard the term emotional agility that I got to thinking about is how often I am in one emotional state, let’s just call it irritated. There’s a distracting noise that a laundry machine keeps making a bunch of noise and vibration that is drawing my attention away and I don’t like it.

But then the emotion that would be most kind of constructive might be in a conversation could be, maybe curiosity or interest or compassion. Do you have any thoughts for how can we – I know we’re not robots that can sort of flip a switch and execute new emotion instantly, but—do you have some pro tips for when we kind of need to access a different side of ourselves to rise to an occasion? How do we do that quickly?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, how do we do it quickly? I think it takes practice. It’s not something that happens overnight. If we want to be able to come from that place of curiosity or more genuine care or compassion, we need to actually practice it. We need to cultivate those kinds of emotions and intentions in our self.

Then when we do, when we’ve actually trained our heart or our mind to know how to find goodwill, how to find curiosity, then in the heat of the moment, it’s there for us and then we can come back to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly.

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, I think one other key there – I appreciate the question – one other key there is one of the central perspectives to non-violent communication, which we’ve been dancing around, but I haven’t stated explicitly, which is a particular view or perspective on human behavior, which is at the heart of humanistic psychology going all the way back to Abraham Maslow and Mendel and Carl Rogers, which is that all human behavior can be seen as an attempt to meet some kind of basic needs.

When we view things in that way, we can always ask our self the question, ‘What does this person need? What matters to this person?’ That’s a way to get curious even if we’re reactive, to remember that sense of “Okay, human beings do stuff because there’s something that matters to them. What matters to this person?”

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Any final things you care to share before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Oren Jay Sofer
No, it’s been great talking. I’m really happy to share all these tools with you and your audience. I just hope they’re helpful for folks in their life and at their work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve given a few already on the show, but I’ll share one more. This really points to an essential communication tool. “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I like that. Thank you.

Oren Jay Sofer
It’s that simple skill that a lot of times we do over email. We’ll say, “Let me know that you got this,” but we can do that during conversation too.

We can actually check, especially when we say something important or meaningful to us or it feels like someone else is saying something important or meaningful, we can check. We say, “I want to make sure I’m still with you. Let me just tell you back what I’m hearing and you tell me if I got it right.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, thank you. How about a favorite book?

Oren Jay Sofer
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild is phenomenal take on culture, society and nature. It’s just a beautiful collection of essays that bring together a lot of wonderful ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
A favorite tool?

Oren Jay Sofer
A favorite tool, say more my friend. Do you mean a physical tool or a-?

Pete Mockaitis
It could by physical tool, it could be a piece of software, it could be a framework of thought.

Oren Jay Sofer
Great, yeah. Piece of software. I have a screen app that I use called Time Out that I can set it to different intervals and it reminds me to take a pause while I’m working at my computer for my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Is there a particular nugget you’ve been sharing from the book that really seems to connect and resonate and get folks nodding their heads?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, one of the main steps that I encourage people to do in communication practice is to focus on what matters. That’s skill we can develop to keep coming back to that question of what really matters here in myself, in another person, in a situation and to get underneath the layers of the stories, and the judgments, and the what-if’s, and the who-did, and when, and why into okay, what really matters here. Focus on what matters.

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

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, there’s a great way to get in touch, which is through my website, www.orenjaysofer.com.

If folks want to learn more from me, I have a free gift to give away six guided meditations when you join my newsletter. The way to sign up for that is to text the word ‘guided’ G-U-I-D-E-D, like guided meditation, to 44222. You’ll get six guided meditations and then every month I send a free guided meditation or an article or a link to a free online event that I’m doing, so it’s a great way to stay in touch and also get some more teaching and tools.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, absolutely. Take this on as a practice. Communication is a learnable skill. It’s not just something that some people are good at and other people aren’t. You can improve your communication if you set an intention to work with it. Bring more awareness and presence into your communication and focus on what matters. If you want to learn more, you can check out my book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Oren, this has been a treat once again. Thank you. I wish you tons of luck with the book, Say What You Mean, and all you’re up to.

Oren Jay Sofer
Thanks so much, Pete. It’s been great being back on the show.

325: Managing Difficult Conversations (with yourself and others) with Lauren Zander

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Unabashed life coach Lauren Zander explains why you should have difficult conversations and how you can take charge of them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to separate yourself from your recurring mental patterns
  2. The best communication approach during a worst-case scenario
  3. The ways you lie and what they cost you

About Lauren

Lauren Handel Zander is the Co-Founder and Chairwoman of Handel Group®, an international corporate consulting and life coaching company. Her coaching methodology, The Handel Method®, is taught in over 35 universities and institutes of learning around the world, including MIT, Stanford Graduate School of Business, NYU, and the New York City Public School System. Lauren is also the author of Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap, Face Your Fears, Love Your Life (Published by Hachette Book Group, April 2017), a no-nonsense, practical manual that helps readers figure out not just what they want out of life, but how to actually get there. She has spent over 20 years coaching thousands of private and corporate clients, including executives at Vogue, BASF, and AOL. Lauren has been a featured expert in The New York Times, BBC, Forbes, Women’s Health, Dr. Oz, and Marie Claire and she is a regular contributor to Businessweek and the Huffington Post.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Lauren Zander Interview Transcript

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

Lauren Zander
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun in this conversation. I wanted to get started, you unabashedly refer to yourself as a life coach in your bios. Sometimes that has a bad rap or a jab associated with it.

I’d love it if maybe you can orient us, you’ve probably heard it all. What are some jokes or stereotypes or razzes you’ve gotten and how do you think about it and how do you break the stereotype?

Lauren Zander
First of all, I have been offered or recommended many, many times to bail from the name life coach.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh right.

Lauren Zander
Completely. The amount of companies over the 15 years that have been like, “Leave.” Right, so …. I … I decided I was still going to lead the way. I feel like I help lead the way. Sometimes the lines start to roll out. Something has to be hard. It’s okay that there’s a lot of different quality of everything. Everything is not created equal. Neither is this field.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Lauren Zander
You wouldn’t go to all chiropractors. Once upon the time there were the ones that were remarkable that made people understand it was a worthy way to deal with your body. It’s pioneering. It’s a pain in the butt.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I’m with you. I’ll tell you, even when I was looking at your publicity piece, I was like, “Oh, oh, but there’s really a lot of substance here,” not that I should be surprised.

You’re right. It’s a mixed bag. I’ve had coaches and done coaching. It’s been extraordinarily transformationally wonderful. There have been other instances where it’s just sort of like, “Really? What?”

Lauren Zander
Right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s sort of like lawyers I guess can have a reputation, there are so many lawyer jokes out there.

Lauren Zander
Yes.

[3:00]

Pete Mockaitis
Like what do you call 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. Ha ha ha. Are there life coach jokes? I don’t know if I’ve heard any explicitly articulated.

Lauren Zander
No, there’s digs, like, “Oh yes, they did a weekend and now they’re a life coach. Yeah, she’s 24. She’s a life coach.” Can someone explain how that age could have a life enough to coach one? I don’t think anyone’s trying to be funny.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I hear you. It’s all hard elbows.

Lauren Zander
It’s sharp and potentially accurate.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Anyway, you bring the goods. One really cool thing about you is so you have the Handel method.

Lauren Zander
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And you even from that emerge a ‘Design Your Life’ course that has been smashingly popular and effective over at MIT. Could you just share a little bit of that story for what is the Handel method and how did this story unfold?

Lauren Zander
I’ve been a coach since I was 28 – 29. Now I’m 48, so it’s been a really long time. I started having many client and then repeat, perform – like what am I doing? And then I needed to understand what I was doing, and then I wanted to be able to teach it to someone else, like if I really had something. I wasn’t just this unicorn, if that makes sense, like some weird animal that was a one hit – like I could do it, but nobody else could.

It was very important to me to figure out how to turn it into material that anyone could understand and tools and conversations and philosophy. It had to have all of that in order for it to be something that could exist

It needs to be able to be reproduced and it has to be engaging and great and work. It has to be amazing.

Because I had a relationship with a professor who I coached and I coached him to get into MIT, I’m like, “Let me prove I exist. Let me show you what I do.” Then can I do it there and I really want to turn it into a methodology.

It’s even true that I developed it at MIT and they own … percent because I did all the development of the actual content there even though I had been doing it for years already before I started there.

Pete Mockaitis
What percent do they own?

Lauren Zander
One percent. They already signed it back. It’s like on some level they – it’s one percent.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got you.

Lauren Zander
It’s adorable.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s adorable.

Lauren Zander
And I’m very proud to be in business.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good language for a contract term. It’s adorable.

Lauren Zander
it was like one of my very early wins, like someone wants to own what I’m doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well that’s cool.

Lauren Zander
Yes, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m imagining it’s a whole course, so there’s a lot behind it, but could you give us a little bit of sort of the high points for the foundational elements. I’ve got a sheet of paper with everything I want out of life. If I’m designing my life, I imagine that’s a step in it. What else do I do there?

Lauren Zander
Basically I am changing the framework of how to think about life and answer questions or figure out your answers, what you really want in your life, along with a variety of other things. It’s not just that.

The first section of the homework and then … a whole philosophy off of each of the three main sections is I break life out into 12 different areas and I teach you and tell you to write a dream in each of the 12. MIT was hysterical because they’re like, “I never thought of these other areas of life. There’s only three in my life.” It was like-

Pete Mockaitis
There’s research and-

Lauren Zander
Right. They eat, they get laid, and they work, and they have a family. That was kind of it. That was it.

The concept that you should have a vision and an understanding of your whole life or desires for your whole life through … area of your life, like if you haven’t sat down and really thought about it and really figured out what you want, how are you at all anywhere near getting it? I can’t even coach you until you really start to deal with what you want.

What I have people do is I have them rate their life against that dream currently. Then explain why they gave it that rating. Then explain what they think is between them and fulfilling on that dream like it was a nine or a ten.

it’s profound because I lay it out that way, a person then is writing all their drama out of their head, like, “I can’t have it because,” “This has to happen first,” all of their logic, … their drama, all the stories that they tell themselves, I swear to bejesus ends a brilliant laid out like a map you can fix.

That’s just the first section. The second section – do you want to hear all these?

Pete Mockaitis
No, no, that’s good. That’s good. The 12 areas are self, body, love, spirituality, career, money, time, home, family, friends, fun and adventure, and community contribution.

Lauren Zander
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that feels pretty thorough in terms of covering the gamut of life. You map it out. You get a score and then what comes next?

Lauren Zander
There’s two more sections to just kind of pull up everything. But if you were just working on that section, the next thing you would do is I would teach you some concepts, like some important concepts.

One, most people never write good dreams. Most dreams are, “I finally meet a man I can trust.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Lauren Zander
You can hear in every sentence their cavities.

Pete Mockaitis
Cavities.

Lauren Zander
I’ll do a little sidebar. When I explain what I do for a living in a funny, kind of my sort of way, I say, “Oh, I’m a spiritual accountant. I’m coming to do your ….” After I’m a spiritual accountant, I’m then a spiritual lawyer. I will put you in the right contracts so that you really fulfill on the life you want.

Then from time to time I need to be a spiritual dentist. You … cavities. Or “Oh my God, you need a root canal on that thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
And nobody’s flossing.

Lauren Zander
No, everyone’s just building up more of whatever is the same, that they do that in that area. Other areas, great. Then other areas not so great.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lauren Zander
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
You dream and you dream well.

Lauren Zander
You dream, yes and you rate yourself. Then you start to say everything that you think is between you and your success. What you will find riddled in all of your language are theories that you have, “I can’t have this until I have that.” “I can’t-“ “ the reason the relationship I have with my father is this way is because-“ All of the problems are laid out really well there.

Then … a whole bunch of process work to do, step-by-step on how to figure out where you’re either being … about something, where you’re absolutely a coward. You made it up in your head. You’re scared of them. You won’t tell them the truth, blah, blah. There’s a reason that it is that way and it’s fear-based.

Especially when I was teaching at MIT, everyone … up to their …. Everyone was – they were so behind. They didn’t know what – there were people that were too scared to have any conversations … truth about what was going on.

Fear and then you live in your head and then you turn the other person into a bully. That’s a lot of what’s happening in people’s – there’s a chicken running loose.

The other one is a brat. You think you know yourself and you can’t top eating junk food at night. You can’t go to bed early or you can’t go to the gym. All of the ways you go, you can’t. You’ve always been this way. You’ve never been good at. That pretty much is the voice of the brat in your head.

If I made you stop, which I do in the book or in the method, and actually write down your inner dialogue and really start to hear it like it’s not you, it’s the voice in your head, it’s the brat, it’s the chicken, you start to separate from your patterns.

You start to hear them and see them and see how you fall for them and see how they get you a cookie and … bed, and don’t go for that job or don’t come home and really meditate. This is all how you break into your mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lauren Zander
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Then your book, Maybe It’s You, you are sort of unpacking this. Tell us what’s behind the title here.

Lauren Zander
What happened is … client is every time I had a revelation right before I had the revelation, I had … point happen, “Maybe it’s me.”

The tagline ‘Maybe It’s Me’ changes everything. It changed everything for me. It’s been my joke for when something good happens that I take credit for, “Maybe it’s me,” or when something terrible is happening, “Maybe it’s me.” Then the joke is, “Maybe.” Then, “It’s me.” Then from that moment forward you can do something about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m with you. I’d love to dig in precisely in the zone of career and work. What do you think are some of the tools or takeaways from the book that are most helpful and applicable for folks who want to be awesome at their jobs?

Lauren Zander
I do it an incredible amount in my career in executive coaching and being in company, so I know plenty, but what I – most people will – so many people are … difficult conversations.

They don’t know how to frame them, they don’t know how to address upsets, they don’t know how to really move through a conversation in a way that doesn’t scare the poopy out of them, so they avoid doing it, like whoever is above them or even being able to have a difficult conversation with someone you’re managing.

If you go where’s my secret sauce in the book for people in corporations or in a business setting, you really need to figure out how to step-by-step go through having very difficult conversations. I show examples. I think that’s incredibly helpful because people get stuck in their lives and their relationships and they really think they just … do workarounds.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lauren Zander
“I’ll just get over that.” “I just won’t talk to them about that.” “I just can’t-“ “Oh I have this-“

Pete Mockaitis
“I’ll just leave this job.”

Lauren Zander
“Or I’ll-“ yes … the job. No one bets on – no one understands that having a great conversation is really like changes the odds of your doomed theory. It instantly goes – I can convince a person it’s 50/50, it could go either way. They were going it was 100% a disaster. Just even recognizing that it goes to 50/50.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lauren Zander
Then you start to think about how important are you? What is really the matter? What are you trying to fix? Is this in the best interest of the business? Is anyone …. that’s all the chicken, all the reasons we won’t have a conversation because we think we know what the other person’s going to do or say.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. That’s great. Bumping your odds up from, “I’m certain this will be terrible,” to “Eh, flip a coin. It might be terrible.” That’s a huge upgrade right there in moments.

Lauren Zander
Right. Then starting to build the courage to have any conversation is leadership, where you’re – then if you see how I teach you how to frame it. You don’t come accusing. You come in saying what your thoughts are and where you’re stuck.

It’s so easy to change a dynamic and leave someone else happy to tell you what they think versus mortified you said that. There’s dynamics as you … in the book, you’ll  read all the real conversations, scary ones, that I made people have. They really had them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s talk about the framing and the step-by-step for how one engages in this and builds the courage/capacity to do it repeatedly.

Lauren Zander
Yes. So what happens is there’s usually true skinny, like

“I don’t want to – I don’t want to tell my boss that when he’s late for these things and then he still expects me to hand them in on time it really screws me up. He never apologizes. He never says anything about it. He doesn’t even seem like he notices and then I have to work on the weekend. He’s done this to me three times. He never says thank you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lauren Zander
Okay. That’s a good one. The issue … “I don’t feel acknowledged or appreciated and he takes advantage of my time and doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.” Okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Lauren Zander
Okay, that’s-

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. It’s funny, the fear always … – well, not always, it’s already popping up.

I imagine myself in that scenario, experiencing that, imagining the prospect of having this conversation and then all the terrible ways it can go in terms of, “Hey Pete, it’s called work for a reason. Everyone’s working hard. Sometimes there are things outside our control. I need you to put on your big boy pants and deal with it and be a team player here.”

Lauren Zander
Yup.

Pete Mockaitis
Sort of like, “I will be changing nothing. Thank you very much.”

Lauren Zander
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is sort of what I initially fear is going to be how it’s received on the other side.

Lauren Zander
Yes, everyone thinks – one of the things I have people really confront in the book is how much they’re running a puppet show, where you’re in your head, you’re running conversations and you don’t even realize you’re answering their answers and then you keep strategizing with as like – and you never understand that that’s insane.

That’s actually not true. It’s Barbies. You’re playing Barbies in your head and you think you know other people. How could you possibly have a real experience with that person if you really are always running a Barbie relationship with them in your head? You leave them and you start quarterbacking. You call your two friends. You have a discussion about … thought the discussion was.

We are running puppet shows. It’s so much better to actually have a real relationship with someone, where you are authentic and actually share what’s going on in that head of yours.

As long as you’re not combative and act accusatory, where it puts the other person on defense, you’d be amazed that that’s the beginning of actually … personalities, different needs, different work relationships. Most people really want good working relationships.

Or to go, “That’s not happening. Let’s create a workaround. I am that person. You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s going to be that way. Okay, what do you need then?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah.

Lauren Zander
Everything can get resolved because everybody’s already living with the worst case scenario. It’s only getting better from here.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s nice. There you go.

Lauren Zander
Right. That’s the ultimate truth is it’s only going to get better. Okay, what this – what I would have this person do is figure out that.
“I have to talk about something. I – I’m scared to tell you.” You admit your feelings. You would admit – like, “I’m scared to tell you and I really want this to go well. I just wanted to say that. I’m a little nervous to tell you this.

Okay, and the reason I’m nervous is because I’ve been a bit upset about something and I haven’t mentioned it to you. One, I’m sorry I didn’t bring it up when it first happened, so you didn’t have a chance at all to fix it with me and/or to even know. I’m really telling on myself that I was … about something and it’s a few happened a few times and now I’m having the courage to come clean.”

Pete Mockaitis
What’s really cool about that is that already if I’m on the receiving end of that I’m like, “Uh oh, what have I done. I really did something terrible.” and there’s suspense, so then when you release it, it’s like, “Oh, okay, well we can work with that.”

Lauren Zander
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s not so terrifying.

Lauren Zander
Yes and you also want to be a good guy, like I set you up to want to take care of me.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Lauren Zander
See that. Like oh – I’m already calling myself a jerk, not you, but me. “I didn’t tell you, so you couldn’t have done anything about it. I should have said something.” The issue is not that it happened. It’s that I didn’t say something or address it when it happened and I’m putting all responsibility on me.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like it.

Lauren Zander
Then the next part is, “So there’s this thing that’s happened a couple times, which is you know that report I own on Mondays? It’s due on Thursdays and you get it to me usually around 3:30 on Friday so that I don’t get to work on it until the weekend or – so it ends up putting me – because I totally want to hand it into you at 9 AM on Mondays, but because you get it to me late, it’s messing my time up.

I never said anything. I just want … you happy and I still want to keep you happy. … solutions if you want.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Lauren Zander
“Here’s the thing, if you want to hand it – if you’re giving it to me on 3:30 on Friday, I would like to be able to get it to you by 1:00 on Monday or 4 o’clock on Monday,” whatever is actually the right answer, whatever based on that.

“… we switch the timeline? Or if you want it on that time can I get it no later than 3. I need it on Thursday. How can I help you get …? What should we do? This is everything I haven’t been saying. This is why I haven’t said it, but I have to do something about it, so what do you think?” Then just flip the ball back to the boss and the boss will fix it and take care of you and is set up to take care of you.

Every conversations – there’s … what you need to take …, like what could I have done differently. I’m not a victim of this person. I’m having a full-blown relationship with them. I can do anything in this relationship. There’s no power where I’m not allowed to talk or ask or say something or bring up a deadline or wonder about something.

People are really cowards when it comes to power. Then they’ll have that one example where someone yelled at them or that someone got mad. Then they’ll use that to always remind them … the full truth.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Lauren Zander
There’s a lot of ways to learn how to communicate better that we teach. It’s … awesome. It’s a Wild West.

Pete Mockaitis
If you do get the worst case scenario, what then?

Lauren Zander
You eat crow. You take it. If the worst case scenario is, “I cannot believe you’re coming in here and discussing what you do on the weekend and what it takes for you to get your job done. You’re not going to talk to me about when I get you that report. Are you kidding? You’ll do your job and you’ll have it to me Monday at 9. I don’t want to hear about this again.”

“Okay. All right. That will never happen again. I got it. I am to work and whenever you … to me, I will get it done. I’m sorry if this offended you. It seems like I offended you in some way. I got it. Thank you.” You always address if someone’s angry or off too. It – not to go, “Are you … at me?” Like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess this upset you.”

That you’re like – you just always take – you absorb what’s going on in the room. You always acknowledge it. “Is somebody unhappy in here?” When you call out the space, the space can shift. All of these things are dynamics amongst people, learning how to interact better with understanding what’s going on and how to use the truth and your personality well.

Pete Mockaitis
With that understanding, you’re now actually in a better place even though you may feel like, “Uh oh, I’ve lost some status or respect,” or whatever with the boss. You’re in a better place because you now have some wisdom.

It’s like, “Okay, well this is where it stands. Now I can make an informed decision in terms of all right, weekends. Just how critical are they to me and is this the right role for me – it’s pretty clearly defined what this expectation is and now I’m going to think through if that’s optimal and workable for me given all my options.”

Lauren Zander
Exactly, what a person should always be doing. Then whatever values you have about work. It has to be fun. It has to give me my lifestyle. People need to also figure out their serious criteria for an experience at work just like you would want in your love life. People are always compromising in ways that are really soul crushing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lauren Zander
Soul crushing and then they don’t believe they can change, like really make a plan and get out. That’s another thing … famous for is it helps you make a real plan, so you’re designing your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, okay. In your book you had a few other concepts that were intriguing. Can you share with us, what do you mean by our emotional DNA?

Lauren Zander
I study lineage. In science they’ve been calling it epigenetics. The way I make you get it is you don’t just have your father’s blue eyes; you have his wandering blue eyes, so your father was a cheater of some sort.

Your emotional DNA is just as built in as your physical DNA, which is a radical thing to – because we would … to go, “Oh, my dad was an addict. No wonder I have an addict tendency.” It kind of just explains some things.

Genetics explain physical. The only emotional … they’re starting – they do go … bipolar, maybe that’s why you are.

But the world of all – that’s the only places they look, like mental illness a little. But what if all of your behaviors are … not just – they’re genetically and behaviorally impacting you because of how you were raised and because of your parents and because of your lineage and because of the two divorces your mom had and because of your father’s money issues.

The more you understand your parents, the more you understand the lineage, the depth and the culture, like male/female, all those dynamics are … shaping you. What happens in the method is you literally start … your parents and see yourself through … of all … parents …. Does that make ….

Pete Mockaitis
Mm hm. Got you.

Lauren Zander
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
So knowing that, what do you do?

Lauren Zander
When you figure out, so for example, my father was a – he still is a lawyer. But he’s a high-powered, … law firm, 30-year-old running a big law firm in Manhattan kind of a guy. Really young …. I think I sound like my father.

Then if you go in a little deeper, my father could be incredibly stubborn because … his better lines. Then you get a kiddo at the end. One of my … my way, my way …. I’m not allowed to do that. … married to that person? Do you want to be married to that person? My husband does not.

For example, …. I have promises about – that I’m just not allowed to do that at all. I could – I teach promise … very funny consequences around my whole family about rules I need so that I’m not bossy mommy at all. I’m not.

It’s so much fun when we don’t want to be that trait, like your father’s or your mother’s or any of those things, you can liberate yourself by knowing it or making fun of it. A sense of humor is … and coming up with a promise that really does counteract it.

Pete Mockaitis
You talk a lot about keeping promises to yourself. What are some of the best practices to do that with great consistency?

Lauren Zander
People can keep … to people much easier because … in it if you don’t … promise, the authority inherent in the relationship. But when it comes to keeping promises … self, we suck because … blew off the gym, the … it just doesn’t influence you the same way. … picking up … as you would blow off going to the gym.

Pete Mockaitis
Now Lauren, in the book you also mention how we often don’t keep our promises to ourselves. How does that work and how can we do it better?

Lauren Zander
We’re good at keeping promises to others or much better usually. Then the places where you’re having any difficulty, you’re not great. Most people are not good at keeping promises to themselves. For a variety of reasons.

But so you want to break out and what you’re really developing is what I call personal integrity, an ability to keep a promise to yourself that you want to keep. But if you’re already not keeping it that’s hard to keep, you will need, what I put right in, is a promise plus a consequence and not in your little head. It has to be public, someone knows about it, so you even have a buddy or someone’s holding you accountable.

How this works, for example, is I wanted to take on a meditation practice. There is no way I was going to – unless I had a consequence, me meditating twice a day was just never going to happen. It almost was comical.

But the minute I go – before I get my coffee in the morning, I have to meditate and before I get any screens at night, I have to meditate, or no screens or no coffee. Very simple. Will I die if I don’t get coffee? I might get a headache, but I will not die. Will I die if I don’t get screens at night? Not even a little.

A consequence is actually going after one of your vices. You’re – it’s literally making your dark work for good. Then if I really want to keep a promise, I need a consequence. I need a timeline and I need someone who benefits, like will follow up with me and make sure I’m really keeping my promise.

I owe them money. I always do money. I never like to part with 20 bucks to someone, so if I want to make sure I do something, I’m like I’ll give you 20 bucks if I don’t go by Tuesday because I – I’m not taking my shoes to get fixed except I really want my shoes fixed. But I will blow that off. I’ll closer throw out the shoes than just go take them and get them fixed. I need promises from my lazy behaviors.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That seems like a simple way to do it. Cool.

Lauren Zander
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Furthermore, you say that we lie to ourselves or to others in many different shades even if we don’t think we do. How does that work?

Lauren Zander
One of the most important things that happens throughout the homework through the method is really sorting out how we lie, ways we lie, why we lie, what we’re lying about, who we’re lying to, why we’re lying to them, why we think we have to keep lying. Then of course, do you think other people are always telling you the truth.

If you start to go deeply into trusting people and being honest and what that gets you, what happens is that people think it’s very scary territory because the truth can be ugly, yours or theirs. Makes sense?

Starting to face the people and types and brands of how you lie, and why you lie, and what that’s costing you because most people don’t really understand what it’s costing them. Science even backs how much it’s costing people …, happiness, it creates …, it makes health issues. It’s so serious to lie and to live an imposter syndrome in your own life with your kids, with your own husband, with your own job.

There’s seven different ways we lie that I pull out and make people do lists on.

One of the most popular one, what’s the worst one no one wants to deal with? Is they explain they’re bad at confrontation. “I’m very bad at confrontation. I really am just this person who needs to keep everybody happy. I’m a people pleaser. I know that’s my problem. I’m a people pleaser.”

I go, “Oh people pleaser, you. You understand what a people pleaser sounds like to me?” “What?” “A really serious liar.” If you’re keeping everybody happy, that doesn’t mean you’re telling the truth, does it? Everything you’re not allowed to say to someone because you’re pleasing them and want to avoid confrontation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, what you’re saying that withholding itself is a form of dishonesty.

Lauren Zander
Yeah, I make a whole case for all different types of lying. Withholding information that someone thinks they should know, but I didn’t figure out to ask, does that mean you’re not lying?

If I go, “Oh, I hope you had a great day at work,” and you didn’t really go to work and I just walked out of the room, I didn’t say …. I just was like you didn’t bring it up again. I never said no. But that would be weird because it’s misrepresenting it. You know that the person thinks you went to work, but you’re not telling, but that’s – I explain how all these ways are – these are ways to lie.

It’s really important to understand because that’s how – remember that puppet show I was talking about? This is how the puppets work. This is how you never be authentic in your life, never find your voice, never deal with yourself, never get relationships to work.

Leave, leave. This will have you never leave and stay really sedated in your happiness, like, “Oh I accepted this.” You call it acceptance, but it’s not acceptance. It’s resignation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got it.

Lauren Zander
Charming, right?

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

Lauren Zander
My method is not for the light-hearted, for someone who wants to not go deep. This goes deep and it means to go deep. I keep you laughing and doing very scary things that will change your life forever and they don’t revert, if you actually learn them.

When you need it, it’s right there. Hard core.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Good to know. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Lauren Zander
One of my favorite quotes is “You’re never too old to have a good childhood.” Tom Robbins.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Lauren Zander
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Lauren Zander
The epigenetics one is my favorite, all about how – it’s a whole story on – it’s too long – on the rats. There’s a whole rat story of – around that prove epigenetics in the – right in the babies, next generation, right there, they can prove it exists and that evolution is happening right like that. It’s profound.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite book?

Lauren Zander
I would say Tom Robbins wins, which it’s Still Life with Woodpecker.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Lauren Zander
A favorite tool. I am a painter. I make dots actually. I dot and I have this perfect little – I have all different sizes, but a dotter. That’s my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite habit?

Lauren Zander
Painting.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect or resonate with folks when you’re coaching or speaking?

Lauren Zander
That they’ve never taken over managing their mind. That those thoughts in there – that whatever that mind of yours is doing, you just don’t leave things to just see how they grow. You save your legs.

If you edit things, you’re like – the amount of no work people are doing on the inside of that mind of theirs, you’ve got to break in. It’s so easy to get a person to go, “I have no idea what my mind is really, really doing for a living. I know I’m its bitch, but boy oh boy, it would be nice to not be.”

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

Lauren Zander
To my website, the Handel Group. Maybe It’s You, you can find anywhere, Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I’m sure they would appreciate you buy a copy.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Lauren Zander
I dare you to have one difficult conversation and figure out how to be a leader about that. One day or one conversation, one thing you’re avoiding, that you’re upset about that you should fix and really come clean and clear it up with the person. One – come on you. The odds that you don’t have one are impossible. You do. Unless you work alone and then you should do it with yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Lauren, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the goods. I wish you lots of luck with the book and all you’re up to here.

Lauren Zander
Thank you. Thank you for everything you’re doing. I really, really, really appreciate the network and team that’s forming of people really supporting each other and being great.

256: Science-based Solutions for Delivering Tough Truth at Work with Mark Murphy

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Author & trainer Mark Murphy explores the intersections of diplomacy, truthfulness, and difficult conversations at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Top reasons why people don’t tell the truth at work
  2. Common phrases that create defensiveness
  3. Why having a difficult conversation is better than just fixing the problem yourself

About Mark 

Mark Murphy is a New York Times bestselling author, weekly contributor to Forbes, ranked as a Top 30 Leadership Guru and the Founder of Leadership IQ. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, the Clinton Foundation, Microsoft, MasterCard, SHRM, and hundreds more organizations. He has written several award-winning books on leadership and been featured in many premiere media outlets.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Mark Murphy Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Mark, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Mark Murphy
Oh, Pete, thanks so much for having me. I’m excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, I am intrigued by so much of what you have to say here, so I think this will be a great one. And I wanted to start, though, I learned a bit about you that you once addressed the United Nations. What’s that story?

Mark Murphy
Well, yeah, that was a pretty cool experience. So, for several years, I was a faculty at the UN. They essentially developed an academy to develop leaders within the UN, and so their focus is on really teaching all the people that are working in diplomacy how to, (a) lead more effectively, but, (b) how to communicate, how to be diplomatic, how to deal with difficult conversations, tough situations. And it was part of a program that they have put together to really develop the leaders within the United Nations.

And so, it’s a pretty exceptional program they had going, and they would bring in experts, like myself, to come in and talk about particular aspects. So, I talked to them about different kinds of tough conversations and why people resist tough messages. And you can imagine, given the kinds of situations we face across the globe, that, yeah, the United Nations has a little bit of experience in dealing with tough conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s awesome. Yeah. Well, I was a loyal Model United Nations Secretary General when I was in college so I keep a little bit of an eye as to what’s going on with the real one. And so, I guess, now I’m thinking, if you are teaching diplomats how to be more diplomatic, well, you must be quite a master diplomacy yourself.

Mark Murphy
Well, you know one of the things I have discovered that it’s not always perfect, right?  We can go into conversations with the best of intentions, and that’s part of handling tough conversations and difficult situations is, (a) knowing what to do but then, (b) making sure that you have some handy reminders in place that you can pull on it any moment, because the reality is that most difficult conversations don’t take place on your schedule.

Most of the time, whey they happen, you get blindsided and that’s it’s so important, no matter how sophisticated your methods are, to have something that you can fall back on quickly. And that’s really one of the essential lessons, is distill it down, get something you can fall back on because that difficult conversation is not going to come most of the time when you’re fresh and you’ve just had a nice cup of coffee. It’s usually going to come at the end of a long day when you’re wiped out and this is the last conversation you want to have.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay. Cool. Well, I’m excited to dig into some of these. And it’s so funny that we talk about diplomacy and difficult conversations, I have this weirdest temptation just to be super rude to you to see how you’ll respond, but I’m going to reel it in because that’s not how I am. It’s just a kind of a silly cartoon-like fantasy of mine which I’m going to put it aside for now. You jerk. Okay, that’s it. That’s it.

Okay. So, then, now you lay out some of these things to fall back on in your book Truth at Work. So, tell us, what’s that about? And kind of what’s the alternative? Are we all just lying at work?

Mark Murphy
So, one of the things that I found in doing research for this and some of my own studies is that it’s not so much that we lie in that we walk in every day and are telling blatant falsehoods, but rather we’re avoiding telling the truth. When I ask leaders or employees, “Do you avoid having difficult conversations with people?” And somewhere between eight out of ten, or nine out of ten, depending on who you ask, of people, say, “Yeah, I avoid telling my boss tough things. I avoid telling my colleagues tough things. I avoid telling my employees because I’m just afraid of how they’re going to react.”

And that’s the real reason we avoid difficult conversations. It’s not so much that we are afraid of letting the words come out of our mouths, rather we’re afraid what’s going to happen when this person hears what it is we have to say. And that’s the coming up with techniques for mitigating some of those bad reactions and calming people down, and creating conversations rather than confrontations is ultimately what we’re after in this.

And that’s really what the book is about, how to tone down some of those negative reactions and deliver messages that would, otherwise, be tough to hear in a way that the recipient will actually engage with you and talk to you about this stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so I want to dig into these tactics and your great acronyms and such to those ends. But, first, I’m thinking, when it comes to that fear, we’re concerned about how the other person is going to react and what will become of it, I’d love if we could sort of take a bull’s eye aim at that one right up front. And, say, when it comes to the fear what are some perspectives that folks should bear in mind in terms of managing that right before we even begin to say a word?

Mark Murphy
So, there’s a number of things. So, one of the things we discovered is that there’s these things we call truth killers, and they’re really the reasons why people resist the truth. And there are four big ones that we really identified in this and there’s a thousand reasons why people won’t listen to tough messages. But if you kind of clump them all together – the big four. Number one, there’s what I call confident unawareness. Sometimes it’s known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

And what this means is, essentially, people think they’re right, they think they know what they’re doing, they think they know what they’re talking about, but in reality they’re absolutely clueless. So, I think about it like this, if I grew up on an island with no other humans around me, I might think that I’m a fast runner. I might run across the beach on this little deserted desert island and think, “Wow, I’m really fast,” because I’ve never seen another fast runner.

But that’s not my life, and I’m married to a woman who is a significantly better runner than me, I’m incredibly slow. And so, I watch her run and now I don’t have confident unawareness. I watch her run, and I say, “Oh, yeah, that’s what fast looks like. Oh, I’m really slow.” But there are lots of people walking around the planet who think that they’re really fast, or think that they’re really smart, or think that they have high emotional intelligence.

And if you’ve ever seen somebody that talks with great confidence that they know exactly what they’re doing, and in reality they’re an idiot, that would be confident unawareness. And that’s a tough one to overcome. And sometimes when you give somebody feedback, like, “Listen, you’re not doing such a great job with our customers over there. You’re not doing such a great job advancing your career.” They’re like, “I’m awesome. I’m fantastic.” “Well, okay, we’ve got to…” That’s a tough one to overcome.

Another reason that people resist hearing tough messages is what we call psychological resistance. And this one of the things that happens when you have a tough conversation with somebody whether it’s a friend, a spouse, a colleague, a boss, whoever. Oftentimes you’re telling them something that is at odds with their self-image, with how they view themselves.

If you came to me, Pete, and said, “You know, Mark, I think you’re kind of dumb and I think you’re not a very nice person,” well, that’s at odds with my self-image and so I’m likely to turn around and attack you, or attack your message, “Well, Pete doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Pete, how does he know that? He didn’t hear that last conversation I had before I hopped on the phone with him. What does he know? He’s a jerk. I’ll bet you he’s real nasty in his life.”

And it’s this, whenever somebody tells us something that is at odds with our self-image, it is just by human nature it’s going to engender what’s either psychological resistance or cognitive dissonance. It causes us to attack the message and the messenger.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s powerful. And so, you zeroed in on it there. It’s like, what is it that’s likely to trip a wire or an explosion versus not, and I think that’s interesting when it comes to the running. It’s like I think folks could criticize any number of things about me, like, “Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I don’t know anything about that. Yeah, you’re true, true, true, true, true.” And then there are a few things, it’s like, “Hold up right there, sir.” And so, it’ll spark a different reaction.

So, I loved it when you talked about, you have zeroed in, in fact, on seven key phrases that are sort of actual scripts or verbiage that create defensiveness within people. So, could you lay those out for us in terms of what are some of those phrases that we should not say? And what do we say instead of those?

Mark Murphy
So, one of the things that was interesting is that when we talk about having difficult conversations is that oftentimes having a tough conversation is as much about listening as it is talking. And a lot of conversations go off the rails before we ever say anything, we issue a command, a directive or anything like that. It begins with how we listen or rather don’t listen.

So, a friend of ours comes up and says, “Oh, I’m having such a tough time at work. My boss is such a jerk and I think there might be layoffs at the company.” And when they say that, what we’re trying to do, if we do it correctly in that moment, is build some empathy. Take their perspective so that we can give them some guidance, we can just listen, we can be empathic, we can do whatever we need to do.

But there’s seven things that humans generally say to each other that basically tell this other person, “No, I don’t really want to help you out here.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Perfect.

Mark Murphy
So, things like, “Well, you know, listen, griping about it is not going to make it any better.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Mark Murphy
Or, “You know, you just need to suck it up,” or one of my favorites, “Well, life is unfair. You know, sometimes crap happens. It’s just bad stuff,” or one that we’ve been seeing a lot more lately is, “Well, you know what, maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Maybe this is all for the best. There’s a reason for everything and you don’t worry about it. It’s just that all those concerns, they’re not important. This is all going to work out just great.”

Then there are the classics, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get over it,” or, “Well, you think you’ve got problems. Let me stop listening to you and tell you about what’s going on in my life because mine is a lot worse than yours is,” and it becomes a competition of who’s got it worse. And then, of course, there’s the classic, “Well, yeah, but.”

And it’s funny because the word “but” gets used constantly but – there it is – it’s an absolute conversation killer when it’s used in this kind of a scenario, in a difficult situation where somebody is opening up, they either want a sounding board, they want somebody to listen to them, maybe, down the road, want somebody to give them some guidance.

But these are all phrases – and you can come up with a hundred variations on these – that people say that just tell, whoever you’re talking to, “I don’t want to hear any more. What you said is stupid. I’m not really paying attention to you and, you know what, I don’t want to listen to you. I want to talk. I just want to tell you stuff.” And that’s a quick way to end any conversation, let alone a difficult one.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I like that. Okay. So, quit griping, suck it up, life is not fair, stuff happens, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, don’t worry, you’ll get over it, you think you got problems, well, yeah, but. And so that is the theme, it’s like any of these is just sort of like dismissive, like, “Okay. Well, yeah, no need to really hear any more of what you have to say. We’re moving on.” And it sort of conveys, “What you’ve said is not really consequential or does not really matter to me. I don’t take it all that seriously or it doesn’t have much weight or importance to me.”

So, I could see that theme coming clear. And it’s funny, I’m thinking about my wife right now. I’ve said a couple of times what I thought was reassuring, that’s really what my intention was in my heart, it’s like, “Oh, honey, we’re going to make it through this just fine.” And so, she interpreted it in that kind of a way which is, “I don’t care to talk more about this. I am sort of not proactively encouraging you to tell me more about what you think and feel with regard to this scenario in so far as I’m trying to kind of move on.”

And I wasn’t trying to move on, I’m in big belief that we were going to get through it just fine, and I thought a show of confidence and support would be the thing, but it wasn’t the thing in that moment.

Mark Murphy
It happens a lot. And there are kind of two things I think go on with this a lot whether it’s at home or at work, is that, one, we’re taught to be solution-oriented, so, “Just solve it. I don’t want problem-bringers around me. I want problem-solvers. Just solve it. Just get right to it.” And, too often, what happens is, in trying to skip to the solving stage, we basically kill off the empathy stage which is a problem.

The other thing that happens, and this is a fairly recent phenomenon, is that you think about social media, and what social media is training us to do; social media is not encouraging us to respond with additional questions, it does not encourage us to respond with empathy. It basically says, whenever somebody shares an issue, what does Facebook want? What does Twitter want? They want reactions. They want you to jump in.

And if somebody says they give a little soliloquy, they want you to match that with a soliloquy, and they want it emotional, intense, and everything else. They don’t want dialogue because that’s calming and that takes longer. What they want is quick reactions because that’s what gets eyeballs. And it’s interesting that social media has essentially trained us to respond the exact wrong way to difficult conversations.

And the next time one of your friends post something a little sketchy on Facebook, and you’re tempted to jump in with what I would call reciprocated diatribe, that is one person makes a speech and you make a speech back. Instead, try just asking a question, “Well, tell me more about that. I’m interested as to how you came to that conclusion. Tell me what data backs that up. I’m just looking. Or are there any facts that underlie your assertion here?” Something that engages them in more conversation rather than shutting down the debate instantly.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. Reciprocated diatribe is a great turn of a phrase. Is this a Mark Murphy original?

Mark Murphy
It’s one that I came up with and then as I was doing research, I discovered that it had actually been coined about 30 years ago, and so I actually can’t take ownership. Yeah, there were some sociologists actually talking about it about 30 years ago, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, those sociologists had no idea the amount of reciprocated diatribe that was to be unleashed in the decades to come.

Mark Murphy
Oh, yeah, they had no idea what was headed our way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so now, I’m thinking a little bit now and talk about don’t do reciprocated diatribe, and you have a couple other kind of tools or techniques. One is called de-layering a conversation into multiple parts. Can you walk us through what’s that about, what’s the value of doing so, and how is it done?

Mark Murphy
So, this I think is actually probably the most important part of having difficult conversations. So, if you think about it, most conversations have really four components to them, there are four layers to them. There are facts, that’s sort of the initial objective reality; somebody said something or somebody did something. You could videotape it, you could audiotape it, that’s a fact, it’s verifiable.

But that’s not what gets us into trouble. What gets us into trouble is that based on that fact we, then, make an interpretation. The human brain is very much an interpretation engine. We do not look outside our window, and say, “My, isn’t that interesting? Today the weather is 39 degrees and 60% cloudy.” No, we look outside the window and say, “Ugh, I’m so sick of it being gray. Oh, my gosh, it’s so cold outside.”

And we’re making a judgment about it. We’re interpreting it. The fact is it’s 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Our interpretation though is, “That’s cold,” or, “That’s hot,” or, “That’s better than I thought,” or, “That’s worse than I thought.” Based on that interpretation we then have an emotional reaction, “I’m happy to go outside,” “I’m disappointed,” “I’m feeling depressed now because I haven’t seen the sun in a few days.” And then based on that emotional reaction we have this desired end. We want something to happen, “I want to move to Hawaii. That’ll be so much better.”

And so, I think of this as this four-part model. I call it the FIRE model; it’s facts, interpretations, reactions, and ends. Now, here’s the thing, when we’re having a difficult conversation, it is the first step, before we do anything else, the first thing we want to do is strip away anything that is not a fact. So, let’s say, for example, that one of my colleagues, I asked them to work on part of a report, and they bring me the report, and I noticed there’s a couple of typos and a mis-formatted chart.

And so, if I’m dealing just with the facts, I might look at this and say, “Hmm, isn’t that interesting? There’s three typos on the first page, and there’s a chart that’s incorrectly formatted.” Now, my natural human reaction is to say, is to interpret that, and say, “You know what, it’s like they didn’t listen to anything I asked them to do.” Now, my emotional reaction is, “You know, that’s just so irritating. Like, I can’t trust you.”

And now my desired end is, “You know what, I’m not going to ask you to do anything in the future. I’m just going to avoid you entirely. I’m going to ask Bob or Sally instead because you clearly can’t do this correctly.” So, that’s my normal kind of human reaction. So, what I want to do is, as soon as I feel myself starting to head down that path, what I like to do is literally write a little “T” on a piece of paper. Just make myself a little grid, and basically four boxes, right? So, put an “F” in one, an “I” and an “R” and an “E”, and I write down everything I want to say.

What I want to say is, “There’s two typos in the memo,” or, “Three typos in this thing and the chart is not formatted.” Now, my interpretation is that, “You didn’t listen to anything I asked you to do.” My emotional reaction is, “I’m irritated and angry.” And my desired end is, “I don’t want to give you any more work to do.”

What I’m going to do is, after I write these all down and put everything into its respective little box, I then want to draw a big “X” through the “I”, the “R”, and the “E” because essentially, if I go into a conversation and I start out with, “You know, Pete, I just have to say I’m pretty disappointed in the work I got back from you because it’s like you didn’t listen to anything I said. And when you don’t pay attention to my request, it makes me feel like you’re disrespecting me, and that makes me feel like I don’t want to work with you anymore.”

That’s the worst conversation we can have because two things have happened.

Pete Mockaitis
I was hoping that was the bad example because, I don’t know, he’s using a lot of “I” statements and emotions, so I felt it was bad because it feels very bad to me. Okay. Good. We’re on the same page.

Mark Murphy
Yeah, exactly. And two things, two big things happened. One is we are now going to have a conversation about hurt feelings and judgments, and judgments that could easily be wrong, and so we’re completely into this ugly emotional hard-to-manage territory. But the other thing that happens is that we’re no longer talking about the typos. I mean, honestly, all we want to get fixed here is we just want a memo without typos and a good-looking chart. That’s it. There’s nothing else we really need to discuss at the moment.

And that’s the very first thing that I encourage people to think about when they’re going into a difficult conversation, is before you open your mouth, strip out all of this stuff that is going to cause you problems in this conversation. And that stuff is the interpretations, reactions, and ends. You want to talk about the facts; those are safe. We can problem-solve like grownup adults and without ever having a raised voice if we talk about the facts.

But the whole “I” statement and “making me feel like this,” oh, there’s two bad “F” words in tough conversations. One is the obvious one, but the other bad “F” word is feel. If you’re saying the word “feel” in a difficult conversation, we’ve probably gotten off track because now we’re not talking about stuff that we can easily fix. Now we’re into a deep emotional ripping off some scabs, and that’s just not going to help us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Excellent. Thank you. And so, now I’m thinking a little bit about, okay, the fact, interpretation, reaction, and ends, I just want to make sure I get this dead on in terms of distinctions amongst them. So, fact is the thing that happened, we could all agree, we can see this; interpretation is the meaning I affix to it, like, “You are lazy”; and then reaction is my emotion about it, like, “I am enraged at this person who’s ignoring me,”; and then ends is the desired outcome or decisions, like, “Therefore, I plan to no longer assign any important work to him.”

Mark Murphy
Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, I got that clear. And so, then, all right, noted. So, if that’s the wrong way to go in terms of just laying it out there, in terms of your feelings and what you think all of this means, what is the model pathway to engage in that conversation well?

Mark Murphy
So, once we’ve stripped away all the other stuff and we’re left with the facts, so now I want to go talk to you about these three typos, let’s say. So, I have essentially two approaches. If, let’s say we worked together for 20 years and we have a good relationship, I could walk up to you and go, “Hey, Pete, two typos.” And then you’d go, “Okay. Oh, dang it, all right. All right, man. I missed those but let me go fix those.” And that’s, honestly, all we need to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Facts alone. That does it.

Mark Murphy
Exactly. It’s there, pretty easy to take. Now, that’s not always the case, right? That’s not always the case, you’re having this conversation with a buddy, and you can just go up and say the facts and call it a day. So, when we need to do a little bit more, we created what’s called, what we call the idea script. And it’s essentially five parts that it takes about 12 seconds to do and it’s essentially a preamble to having a tough conversation.

And it goes like this. Step one, just invite them to partner, so basically that means just say, “Hey, Pete, would you be willing to have a conversation with me about that memo you wrote the other day?” That’s step one.

Pete Mockaitis
“No, Mark. You’re not my real dad.” I don’t know. How can you say no? Okay.

Mark Murphy
Exactly. That’s the thing, you know, people will say, “Well, what happens if somebody says no?” If, in once in a blue moon, somebody will, when they say no you just say, “Well, do you mind if I ask why?” And now we’re going to get to the heart of why they don’t want to talk to us but most of the time people will go, “Okay, fine.”

And then, step two, I’m just going to disarm myself, I’m just going to throw the guns down, raise my hands and say, “Listen, I just want to review this situation, make sure I’m on the same page as you.” Step three, I’m going to say, “And if we have different perspectives, well, we can talk about those and figure out a plan for moving forward.” Step four, I’m going to say, “Does that sound okay?” And then, step five, “Do you want to talk now or do you want to talk this afternoon?”

So, in essence, what I’m doing is a couple of things. Number one, I’m coming to them in a gentler way. I’m opening the door to talk about whatever these facts are, but what I’m communicating to this person is that I want an honest-to-goodness conversation. And, here’s the thing, most conversations have a mix of statements and questions.

And so, just in this little quick script, “Would you be willing to have a conversation with me about that memo you wrote yesterday? I’d just like to review the situation, make sure I’m on the same page as you. And, listen, if we have different perspectives, we can talk about those and figure out a plan for moving forward. Does that sound okay?”

Essentially, I’ve got two questions, two statements, so I got a good 50-50 mix, and in doing that, what I’m communicating to them, is, “This is not a me talking to you like you’re a child. I’m not coming to yell at you. I’m not looking for a fight because they only way we’re ultimately going to solve this is if we come to this as equals and hash this out, and both get to some level of agreement about how we’re going to move forward and fix this issue.”

Because if all I do is say to you, “You know, Pete, the memo stunk. Fix it.” Well, you may go fix it but our relationship, even if it’s subtle, has just taken a little bit of a hit because, now, you’re buy-in isn’t all that high. You’re walking away at some level thinking, “Ah, boy, he’s kind of a jerk. He could’ve said that nicer, and disrespected me a little bit. I have taken away some of your agency.”

But if, instead, I come to you, one adult to another, and I say, “Hey, would you be willing to talk with me about this?” Well, now, you’re going to have to ante up and actually participate in this. And that’s what I’m after.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I like it. And so, then, thinking through the framework again, I was following with, okay, we invite, that’s the “I”; we discern, or disarm the self, “D”; and the last one, I guess, is schedule, “S.” But the “E” and the “A” what are the words you’re using for those?

Mark Murphy
So, it’s invite them to partner, eliminate blame is the “E” and is, “I just want to review,” and then affirming their choices. So, that’s basically the, “Does that sound okay to you?” And, again, some of this is incredibly subtle in that I want them, because even if they begrudgingly say, “Yeah, okay,” I’ve at least gotten them to say, “Yeah, okay.”

I’ve gotten them at some level to agree to participate in this with me. And, one of the models I think about it is if you have a, let’s take a football example, if you have a superstar coach and a superstar quarterback. If the quarterback makes a bad throw, throws an intersection, comes over to the sideline, the coach and the quarterback, the coach does not come over to the superstar quarterback and say, “Hey, that was a really stupid throw,” because the quarterback is going to go, “Yeah, I know. I saw it.” “Well, no, I mean, I need to make sure you know that was a stupid throw.” “No, I get it. That was a stupid throw.”

Instead, what they do is, it may be a little terse, but they’re going into a conversation of the form, “All right, how do we fix this? How do we not do that again? What needs to change?” And they’re actually having a dialogue because the thing that they’ve each realized is they can’t solve the problem without the other person. The coach cannot win the game without the quarterback, and the quarterback cannot win the game without the coach.

And, in this case, if we apply this to work case, or a relationship with our spouses, I can’t fix this issue if, let’s say, you know, one of our kids is doing something, I can’t do this without my wife. We have to, even if we have different perspectives on this at first, it’s going to take both of us to figure out what to do next. If I have a problem with that memo you wrote, I can’t fix the memo without you.

And one of the big kind of a-ha moments about difficult conversations is that it’s not something you can fix by yelling at people. These are not issues where one person can fix it. It takes both parties to actually have a dialogue come together and hash it out to come up with a workable solution. Otherwise, I’m just yelling at you, and that’s not going to get us anywhere.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I want to address, if any listener is challenging that in his or her own mind, like, “Well, I could just fix their mistake for them, and just do it myself.” What’s your reply to that?

Mark Murphy
You can. And the problem is you haven’t actually resolved the issue. You’ve just taken their issue over and put it on yourself. And, listen, if you do that, ultimately what’s going to end up happening is you’re going to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders, and that’s problem one. Problem two is that the people around you aren’t growing and developing.

So, imagine if every time your kid has an issue, you jump in and solve it for them. Okay, well, that may get them through this week’s problem. But what happens – not to get morbid here – when you’re dead? Now, all of a sudden, we have a kid who is ill-equipped to live on their own, to go out and survive the world.

We’ve taught them nothing because every time this happens, even if it’s an employee, if every time one of my employees has an issue, say, and I jump in and I do it for them, I’ve pretty much guaranteed that they will never grow and develop beyond where they’re at. And whether it’s my role as a parent, or my role as a leader, or just in my role as a friend, I haven’t helped this person. And so, it’s not until they own 50% of this issue, and partner with me on it, it’s not until they do that have I actually given them some real tools to do better out in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Appreciated. That makes sense. You talked a lot about how to say things but you said a huge part of this game is the listening so I want to make sure we give a little bit of airtime to that. Tell us about your take on structured listening.

Mark Murphy
So, the first part of, of course, structured listening is basically not to say all those things we talked about earlier, the “suck it up” “life is unfair.” That’s the what-not-to-do. The what-to-do, structured listening, think of it as a step beyond what we were all taught years ago as active listening. And active listening sort of became a bit of a cliché where you nod your head and go, “Mm-hmm,” and, “Oh,” “Yes,” “Oh, wow,” “Mm-hmm, interesting.” You know, we grunt a little bit and we furrow our brow, and that’s supposed to mean we’re there.

And what we found is that that’s just insufficient. So, structured listening really involves, e-listening, so encouraging this person to talk so saying something to them like, “Well, I’d really like to understand your perspective here. Can we just review this and I’d like to learn more so I can get on the same page as you?”

And so, when I talk about Facebook, when one of your friends says something a little bit provocative, going back to them and say, “Well, I’d like to understand your perspective a bit more. I’m not sure I totally get it. Would you share a little bit more about them?” Get them to reveal where their head is at, that’s step one of listening.

Step two of listening is to actually just listen. Now, one of the things that we have found is when people sit there and they furrow their brow, that’s usually insufficient to make them truly present. And while it is a dying art, honest to goodness, especially, and it sounds weird. I know this sounds hokey, but when you’re having a tough conversation, even with your spouse, saying something to them, like, “Listen, do you mind if I just jot some notes down? Because I want to make sure I actually get everything you’re saying.”

And what’s interesting about this is not only does jotting some notes down, and again I know it sounds weird if you’re like talking to your wife about X, Y, Z, “Like, do you mind if I take some notes?” It sounds weird. But it puts you in the moment, because when you take notes it forces you to pay more attention than just sitting there does.

The second thing that happens, though, is, even though it’s weird, it communicates to the other person, “I, honest to goodness, want to understand your perspective here because I’m paying attention. I’m paying so much attention that I actually want to write this stuff down. That’s how important what you have to say to me is.”

And then the third step is to confirm. And confirming means we want to spit back to them what they said. Now, this is a little bit different than the old paraphrasing that we used to be taught, “So, what you’re really saying is…” No, no, I don’t want to do that. Because if I do that I run the risk that I’ve completely miss the point.

So, I want to go back to my little FIRE model, and what I want to say to them is, “Okay, I just want to make sure I got this. The facts as you saw them are this. You, then, interpreted that to mean blah, blah, blah. Based on that you had the following emotional reaction, and because of that you now want this outcome, this desired end. Did I get that right?”

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s so good. It’s like even as you’re saying this, I imagine if someone says something just like outrageous, and you like play it back for them, they may very well say, “You know, I’m sorry, Mark. Never mind, it’s fine.”

Mark Murphy
And, honestly, Pete, that is a huge part of it, and that’s where structure comes from. Because when you spit this back to somebody, and you force them to listen, so many people do not listen to the words that come out of their mouth. When you spit it back to them, and you’re not passing any judgment, you’re just restating it with a little bit of structure, half the time they look and they go, “Ugh, that doesn’t sound good. That’s, yeah, no. As you say, I’m sorry. No, let me retract. Just forget I said anything.”

And, it’s funny, so much of these difficult conversations are about holding a mirror up to the person who sparked this in the first place. Now, if we have a legit disagreement maybe about the typos, we disagree on phrasing, whatever, okay, well, let’s just, like adults, come together and hash that out. But if something does something where it’s nasty or it was emotional, and in the heat of anger they said something bad, when we hold up the mirror we’re essentially saying, “This is what you just said. Is this what you want to go with?”

And quite oftentimes when they look at it, they go, “Ah, no. Nope, I would rather not have that on the record because I can see that that was just bad.” And just the repeating back solves half the issues with this.

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

Mark Murphy
The one other thing that I would just share in the context of difficult conversations is whenever you’re going into it, it is always a good idea to pause for a second and ask yourself one simple question, “What do I really want to accomplish with this?” And I tell you that a lot of people go into difficult conversations, and what they want to have happen is they want people to apologize, they want people to feel bad for what they said.

And I can tell you that in looking at these conversations, all the research I’ve done on this, that that almost never ends well. That the real goal of a difficult conversation, of a true talk, is to create some change, to come to some resolution so we can both move forward into a better place. And if my goal is to just make you feel terrible for that thing you said, all of it is going to end up as hurt feelings on both sides. Whereas, I don’t care if you apologize or don’t apologize. What I do care is that we’re able to move together, move forward together better.

And if we can do that, eh, I don’t want to make anybody lose face by having to give an apology because that’s just going to make them angry and drag this thing out. Let’s just fix it and life gets better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. Thank you. Well, so now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Mark Murphy
You know, there are a number of things that I have found incredibly helpful as going through this. And I should back up for a second because one of the things, one of the books that was an influence on me early on was Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive, and this is an old, old book, this is 40 years. And one of the things that came out of this book is that some of the simplest things are the things that make us most successful.

Things like, “Where does my time go?” and, “How am I spending my life?” and, “What am I doing?” and, “Who should I be talking to?” And when I think about this, sometimes there is a tendency to overcomplicate everything. And, honestly, that is a big a problem in difficult conversations as it is anywhere else.

And one of the things that we’re trying to help people do is essentially simplify it, is just say, “Listen, you know what, this doesn’t have to be super complicated. If we just focus on some basic issues, if we focus on some simple things, let’s talk about facts. Let’s not muddle this up.” One of the things that I found is that a lot of people seem to make their career off of making things more complicated than they need to be.

And, you know what, honestly, if we can avoid doing that, we’re going to be in much better shape. So, in terms of where some of the inspiration for this, Peter Drucker died years ago, but that was one of the great things he did for anybody that we’re essentially we’re trying to have any kind of conversation or be a better person, be a better leader, whatever, is just focus on some of the simple things. So, that’s a very long answer to your question.

But given all of that, one of my favorite quotes is actually not even a leadership quote. So, Peter Drucker has a million and one great concepts, but there’s another one that actually comes from Kurt Vonnegut, and he said – I’m trying to get this right – he said, “We are what we pretend to be, so you need to be careful about what you pretend to be.”

And I may have missed that slightly, but, in essence, it’s, listen, you turn into what you’re pretending, so be careful about what you’re pretending. So, going back to the Peter Drucker concept for a second, where you put your time, how you talk to people, all of it ultimately informs who you really are. So, if you have jerky conversations, it’s not just a jerky conversation, that’s actually turning you into a jerk. If you’re spending your time all day not actually helping people become better, well, you’re turning into somebody who’s not helping other people become better.

And this idea that the words that come out of your mouth, they turn you into who you are. The actions you take on a daily basis, they turn you into what you are. I think the Vonnegut quote is sort of a cautionary message for all of us that, at the end of the day, and I’d mentioned this with having difficult conversations, if I’m somebody that goes into a tough conversation and I just want to make you feel bad, well, I’m becoming somebody who just makes other people feel bad.

If I’m somebody who goes into a conversation to try and make the world better for both of us, well, then I start to turn into that. And these words, these actions, where we spend our time, how we have conversations, all of this ultimately turns us into what we are, and they’re not separate things. The words you say and who you are, they’re not separate. They ultimately become the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Awesome. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Mark Murphy
So, there’s a number, but it’d probably be the one that is the single most effective, the one that I do no matter what day of the week it is. It’s, one, I don’t check my email before I do this. So, technology stays off until I’ve done this one thing. And the one thing is I ask myself the question, every morning, “What do I need to accomplish today for this to be a successful day?”

And the reason I ask that question is my to-do list can become a mess, but my to-do list is not necessarily a barometer of what drives my success. My success is going to be driven by one or two things. At any given day there’s one or two areas where I can really make a difference. Now, I may do 30 other things, but those are, eh, they’re not giant inflection points, they’re not bending the curve, they’re not making me more or less successful; they’re just kind of checking things off a list.

But asking that one question, not only does it help me focus my energy for the day but, I will tell you, if you’ve ever had that experience of waking up in the morning and the first thought you have is all the work you didn’t get done yesterday, and you know how awful that feeling is, I hate that feeling. By asking myself, “What’s the thing I need to do today for this to be a successful day?” I do that one thing and, even if I didn’t kill off the rest of my to-do list, I can still go to bed with a feeling of accomplishment that, “You know what, I did that one thing today. That, I got that done.”

And that allows me to sleep better at night and wake up in the morning, and my first thought is not, “Ugh, I didn’t get so many things done yesterday. Yesterday was such a waste.” I don’t have that feeling because I know that, yeah, I may have 30 other things I still got to do today, but I did the big one. I did that one thing and so yesterday was a successful day because of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. And is there a particular nugget that you share that you tend to hear back often as being super helpful and transformational for folks?

Mark Murphy
One of the big ones actually is the FIRE model, the idea that just strip out the interpretations, reactions, and ends, write it all down. That’s fine. Get it out on paper. Make yourself feel better. But then draw a big giant “X” through it and say, “I am not allowed to say that stuff because it is going to cause me problems.” It forces us to dial down our conversations, to de-layer them so that anytime you speak, you’re speaking factually.

And not only does it reduce angst, and anger, and vitriol in conversations but, from a career perspective, man, it makes you look smart because you’re somebody that isn’t walking around making hairbrained interpretations and saying stupid things because you’re forcing yourself to be calmer and more rational and more factual.

It ends up building up your expert power, and you become more of a person that people turn to simply because not only do you sound more intelligent but you end up becoming more intelligent because you’re forcing yourself to stay away from all of the stupid rush to judgments that humans generally make.

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

Mark Murphy
Our website is one big place at LeadershipIQ.com. And there’s a section on our website called Quizzes and Research, and there are a whole bunch of free tests and quizzes on this and other leadership topics, and a whole bunch of research, over a hundred articles there. It’s a good source where we’ve stuffed a lot of tools and expansion on all of these topics we’ve discussed today.

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

Mark Murphy
The one big challenge would be to identify a conversation that you’ve been putting off, and map it out for yourself. Think of what we talked about today, take that FIRE model, write down what you want to say to this person, and challenge yourself. Listen, I’m not saying you have to do it the day before a major holiday, but force yourself, within the next week or two, to actually sit down and have that conversation.

Pretty much every one of us has a conversation that we’ve been postponing because we don’t feel comfortable that we can pull it off successfully, but we need to. Make yourself have that conversation and simplify it. As I said, keep it simple, just focus on the facts and see if you can’t start a dialogue with this person. It doesn’t have to be a confrontation, just a conversation about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Mark, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing this wisdom. I wish you tons of luck with all your conversations, tough and fun, and anything in between.

Mark Murphy
Pete, thank you so much. This was a blast.