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KF #9. Manages Conflict

398: The Hidden Root of Much Workplace Conflict…And What to Do About It with Dr. Donna Hicks

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Conflict resolution expert Dr. Donna Hicks outlines the ten elements of dignity to provide a master framework for human treatment and mistreatment. She also reveals how such treatment impacts performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How violating another’s dignity is at the root of many conflicts
  2. Four everyday indignities people suffer at work
  3. Business reasons to honor dignity in a work environment

About Donna

Dr. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.  She facilitated dialogues in numerous unofficial diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Colombia, Cuba, Libya and Syria. She was a consultant to the BBC in Northern Ireland where she co-facilitated a television series, Facing the Truth, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.   She has taught courses in conflict resolution at Harvard, Clark, and Columbia Universities and conducts training seminars in the US and abroad on dignity leadership training and on the role dignity plays in resolving conflict.  She consults to corporations, schools, churches, and non-governmental organizations. Her book, Dignity:  It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, was published by Yale University Press in 2011.  Her second book, Leading with Dignity:  How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People, was published by Yale University Press in August 2018.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Donna Hicks Interview Transcript

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

Donna Hicks
Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. I understand that much of it comes from really the frontlines in terms of conflict resolution in work, where things can be kind of spooky. Can you maybe open us up by sharing a story of maybe when you were close to danger?

Donna Hicks
Well, there’s so many, but there’s a kind of funny one I’d like to share with you. That is that during the height of the conflict in Columbia in South America between the government and the rebel groups, I was asked to facilitate a workshop between – with members of the Columbian Army and different groups within the government.  I – “Yeah, sure. I’ll do this. This sounds really interesting.”

I’d been working in that conflict for quite a few years, but this was kind of special in the sense that it was in Cartagena. We were meeting at the Presidential Palace in Cartagena. I arrived a couple of days early just to kind of adjust and so on. I stayed in this lovely hotel right on the water right in the old city. Actually, it’s a beautiful old 15th century city, so it’s charming.

I’m a runner, so I decided gee, I’m going to get up really early the next day after I run. I’m going to go running along the wall of the old city. I did. I got up. I was really early – 6 o’clock. Out there right as the sun was rising.

All of the sudden, I turned around – I felt like somebody was following me. It sort of felt creepy. I turned around and there were two military guys with machine guns running with me because they didn’t think it was safe for me to be out there running on my own at 6 o’clock in the morning. But it never even occurred to me.

This is how naïve in some ways I was because I thought, “Oh, let’s just go out for a run.” Here I was in this conflict zone. Even though it was a very in some ways very safe city, but I didn’t even know they had assigned me bodyguards. That was the one of the funniest.

Another one I just have to share with you was when we were working – my partner and I were working in Sri Lanka during the time the war was really active there. We decided that we’re trying to bring the parties together for dialogues. We recognized that there was no way that we’re going to have a meaningful dialogue if we couldn’t get to the rebels and get the rebels.

These are people who are considered terrorists. They were on the terrorist list by the US government. My partner and I said, “We’ve just got to do this. We have to in order to do anything that’s going to contribute because if we don’t have the major parties at the table, who are you going to get to make decisions?”

Anyway, very long story short, we got this Catholic priest to take us up to where the rebels were staying in the rebel territory, which nobody could get into. But this Catholic priest got us in there. It was just one of those moments where I was – we were in a boat, in this tiny little boat, going across this lagoon at about 2 o’clock in the morning, so we wouldn’t be discovered.

I’m thinking, “Oh my God, my husband is going to kill me. What am I doing?” Here we had these machine guns surrounding us. But it all worked out in the end, Pete, because we really did – it did help our efforts to try to bring people because they gave their blessings to have certain people sitting at the table with us.

But, again, I don’t know – I guess when my number is up, my number is going to be up because I have been in so many perilous situations without even thinking about it. We were so determined to do the right thing and get the job done. We could spend the whole time talking about this, but I’m sure you want to talk about dignity.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. Well, that is exciting. Well, I think it just sort of lends credibility to everything you say in terms of “I’ve seen this work in situations where folks wanted to kill one another,” so I think that’s handy. Maybe you could I guess make the bridge for us in terms of how does your research on dignity in those kind of conflict environments really port over into the just normal workplace interactions?

Donna Hicks
Well, what happened was that I was working for all those years in different parts of the world on these intractable conflicts. It was really clear to me that there was a psychological dimension to these conflicts because these were people who we would bring together to try to come up with an agreement to have discussions about how to end the violence and end the conflict.

They were smart people. They weren’t people who didn’t understand how to actually sign an agreement. They knew exactly what they had to do, but for some reason something was stopping them. They couldn’t get to an agreement. I always said, “Look, there’s something else going on here. There’s some deep emotional aspects to this resistance to finding a way out of this.”

Again, to make a very long story short, what I finally realized was these people from both sides of the divide were feeling so angry and resentful for being treated the way they were being treated by the other side. If they could put words to it, they’d say something like, “How dare you treat us this way? Don’t you see we’re human beings?”

I thought this is what’s preventing them. They need to have a conversation about this, about how being treated as if they weren’t even human beings. Then I realized that at the end of the day, this was about their dignity. That was a big light bulb went off for me. It was a major insight that led to me thinking about how to have dignity discussions with these parties before we try to sign onto an agreement.

That’s basically what I did. Then I wrote about it. It was online. Somebody from the corporate world read this description of what I felt was really missing in our understanding of how to resolve conflicts and that is how to address these issues of dignity and these deep emotional resentments that they felt before they can go and resolve the conflict.

This one guy, consultant, called me up. He said, “I’ve been reading your stuff online and I think-“ he said, “I’ve been working for a major corporation for many years and we can’t figure out why we can’t come to an agreement with management and the employees.” He said, “Would you mind coming and talking to some of the senior VPs about your dignity approach to conflict resolution?”

Lo and behold, I did that. We discovered that of course some of the underlying root causes of the differences between management and employees that they couldn’t get past were dignity-related.

That’s when the floodgates opened, Pete, because once I stated in that organization – I worked with this organization for about five years – I got calls from health care, from education, from all these different arenas who said “We think you’ve nailed our problem. We think that our people are feeling really upset about the way they’re being treated in the workplace. We think we need you.”

They say, “We think we need you to come and help us try to create a culture where people feel that their dignity is being honored.”

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love it if you could just maybe paint a little bit of a picture in terms of – in the workplace what are some ways that dignity is dishonored. I guess I’m thinking – I have all these ISIS videos playing in my head right now. We’re not doing-

Donna Hicks
You have all the what?

Pete Mockaitis
-dramatic torture or killing-

Donna Hicks
Right, right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
-in the workplace. What are the ways in which folks are feeling dishonored?

Donna Hicks
These are everyday indignities we’re talking about. We’re not talking about things where people break the law or we’re not talking about people out there fist fighting or anything like that.

We’re talking about ways in which people, especially employees in management-employee relationships where the people in positions of power – just first of all, let me just say we’re not talking about bad people here committing these acts of indignities towards their workers. That’s not the case whatsoever.

It’s just that people who don’t understand the sensitivity and the volatility around the way people are being treated – if you don’t get that, if you don’t understand the effect that you have on people – and most people don’t, by the way – you’re going to end up violating people’s dignity.

What would that look like in the workplace? Well, what that looks like – for example, oftentimes people will sort of unconsciously discriminate against one group or the other. For example, some leaders may have favorites in their direct reports. They may not even realize how often they’re choosing these favorites over some other, let’s say minority groups or women.

It’s so easy to have your identity violated and feel like you’re treated as less than simply because you’re a member of some group. This is the first element of dignity around people wanting their identity accepted.

Or you can be left out of a meeting that you feel – let’s say you worked on a project for three months and you aren’t asked to be a part of that meeting. People want a sense of belonging and inclusion especially on projects that they’ve worked on.

Or simply feel like they’re being treated unfairly, where one person gets more time and attention or one person gets paid a little bit more or less. Fairness is a really common violation of dignity.

But the one that’s the most astonishing that you might be surprised to learn, Pete, is that people – when I did my interviews with people – it doesn’t matter which organization it was because it was all the same – I would ask people to tell me ways in which they felt their dignity is being violated the most. The one element of dignity that people reported 80% of the time was the element of safety.

Now you might think, “Safety. What?” Well, it’s not physical safety. I would ask them to explain it to me, “What do you mean by safety?” They said, “Well, we don’t feel safe to speak up when something bad happens to us, especially when something bad happens when our employer/our boss treats us badly because we’re terrified we won’t get a good performance review if we speak up and say something that he or she doesn’t want to hear or feels this is a violation of their dignity.”

This idea of safety, needing to feel that you can’t speak up to your boss when she or he harms you in some way – I don’t know about you, but that one surprised me that that was the most violated element of dignity in every organization that I went into.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. This has really come up again and again on the show. I think about Google’s work with psychological safety as well. It’s a big one. I’d love to spend some more time on it. Let’s hear it. They think it’s not safe to speak up because there may be a retaliation. One format of that retaliation is a bad performance review. Can you share-

Donna Hicks
That’s one.

Pete Mockaitis
What are some of the others? Because I think there may be many managers who have got their hands in the air like, “What? What’s not safe about speaking up? I need your ideas. What’s going on?”

Donna Hicks
Sure. Sure. Well, but you know speaking up requires an openness on the part of the person that you’re speaking up to.

One of the things that I’ve discovered also in my research is that people don’t like getting feedback. People interpret it as criticism. Look, we all know this. None of us likes to get feedback saying what we’ve done wrong. It’s just an unpleasant experience.

But because many of the managers and people in positions of authority and leadership with whom I’ve worked, they’ve never had any experience with asking for feedback in a way that isn’t criticism, but feedback that is helpful because the person has a blind spot.

All of us have blind spots. Everybody has blind spots. The people work the closest to us and who are in our environment most of the time, they know what our blind spots are. We might not know, but you ask any of them and they’ll tell you what your blind spots are.

Being able to speak up and to say “Gee,” to your boss, “In that staff meeting the other day when you were making jokes about me and I was the only one who wasn’t laughing, that was a really embarrassing experience for me. You probably didn’t mean it. You probably didn’t understand the impact that it had on me, but the fact is it was really hurtful.” Can you imagine giving your boss that kind of feedback? It would be wonderful to be able to do that.

The safety, and the resistance to feedback, and the lack of openness to understanding what our blind spots are, all these things are psychological skills that really do have to be developed. Because, again, we don’t want to use feedback as a weapon; we want to use it as a helpful way to show someone the unintended consequences of his or her behavior. That’s a growth experience.

But I’m telling you, every time I went into an organization, very few managers and leaders were open to having this face-to-face feedback with their direct reports.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. This Harvard Business Review study has come up a few times that the majority of managers are just uncomfortable interacting with their workers on anything, which is striking. I’d love to hear a little bit more detail in terms of painting a picture for how does one exhibit openness versus closeness.

Donna Hicks
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Resistance to feedback versus a welcoming-ness to feedback. Because in a way you said, indeed, people don’t like getting feedback in which they’re learning what they’ve done wrong, but nonetheless we need it and we want to convey an openness and a non-resistance to it. How do you play that game?

Donna Hicks
I say, “Look, here’s the research. It’s clear that dignity is something really important to people.” Then I have some neuroscience research to show that when people’s dignity is violated, it actually shows up in the brain in the same area as a physical wound.

This isn’t just some touchy feely of how we’ve got to be nice to people. No, this is something where the harm that’s done with the dignity violation is, in the brain anyway, equivalent to the harm that people experience when they have a physical wound. This is really serious stuff.

Once people get that, once people recognize, “Oh my gosh, this is serious stuff. You’re right, Donna, I have not been thinking about the effect that I have on other people.”

It’s not, as I said, because they’re bad people. It’s because they just simply have not been exposed to this kind of education. My first job is to educate, just give people what I know about dignity. Then once they have that awareness and they have that knowledge – then people say to me, “Oh Donna, this is common sense. Of course this is all true.” I say to them, “Yes, it’s common sense, but it’s not common knowledge.” We do have to learn this.

Once they develop that sensitivity about how people actually flourish when they’re treated well and they suffer when they’re treated badly. This is a real simple truth we’re talking about here. This isn’t something you have to get a PhD from Harvard in order to understand. Little kids understand this.

Once we get that and they understand, “Gee, maybe it is important for me to get feedback from my people.” It’s not important because I want to treat my people well. That is important. But the other personal – for personal development, it’s important because you don’t want to walk around the world violating people’s dignity unknowingly, because the fact is, you’re probably violating the dignity of people in your family and people who are close to you.

This just doesn’t begin and end in the workplace. This is a life skill that we’re trying to help people with. Just being open to some feedback to say, “Gee,” Again, it’s the way it’s delivered. We want people to also learn how to deliver that feedback in addition to how to accept it.

On the other hand, on the other side of this, I work with the employees and help them figure out how to give this feedback in a way where people don’t feel threatened, don’t feel criticized, and don’t feel that this is something that they want to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
A few things there. When it comes to the particular behaviors associated with conveying the openness and nonresistance, what does that look like?

Donna Hicks
First of all, the hope is when you want to create a culture of dignity, the hope is that your people know. You announce to them when you hire  them and when you work with them that you really want to know if there are times when he – let’s say it’s a he in this case – that when your boss says something that’s hurtful, you have to tell them, “I want to know this. This is for my own growth and development. I certainly don’t want to be treating you badly.”

There are ways of saying this to your people. You have to be explicit about it. You have to say, “I want this feedback. I certainly don’t want you to be afraid of me or not feel safe in my environment.” It goes something like that.

Then you also have to be willing to actually carry through and do it. It’s all about making yourself vulnerable, Pete, as a leader. It’s about making yourself vulnerable so that you’re not trying to cover up your mistakes or you’re not trying to push people away when they are approaching you with some feedback. It looks like what vulnerability feels like. Let’s put it that way.

You have to create that sense of safety for them to say, “Yeah, I know this is going to be hard for you,” because you’re fighting resistance. Because one of the other things that we have that’s sort of a biological reality inside us is we resist confrontation. We don’t like going to somebody with feedback.

We’ve got a double resistance, a sort of double blind problem here because there’s blindness and there’s resistance on both sides. It’s hard.

It’s hard, but I’ll tell you what, with practice I have seen people do this in such a way that by the end of a session where, let’s just say there’s one employee and a manager having a problem, what I have seen many times once they become skilled in asking for feedback and they become skilled in giving feedback, that the people end up feeling really closer to each other than they did before, even before there was a problem.

When you make that vulnerable, the intimacy that gets created in that space is just lovely.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious then, when folks share the things and they’re not fun to hear and you think the other person is mistaken, shall we say, in what they’re sharing, kind of emotionally internally how do you kind of deal with your own resistance to vulnerability or tendency toward defensiveness? How do you manage yourself?

Donna Hicks
Well, this is where a good coach comes into the picture or what I call a dignity buddy. One of the things that I ask people to do is to get someone with them – to invite someone to become your dignity partner as it were. Let’s just say it’s somebody at work whom you really trust – say you and I are both managers and we have made a commitment to try to be more open and be more vulnerable with our people and ask for feedback.

If I feel that resistance coming up – because we all know what it feels like – and if I’m not being as open as I’m sort of aspiring to be with this dignity training, then I turn to my dignity partner and I say, “Help me with this. I’m fighting this. Is there any truth?” Because you can always check out what the feedback is with your trusted partner.

It takes some brave people to corroborate that evidence, but this is what we need. This is what we need to be doing for each other. It is hard to do this on our own and to walk away from that and feeling so embarrassed and feeling like, “Oh my gosh, did I really make that person feel that way? Did she really – was I that insulting?” All of that is really hard until you get used to it. It’s like developing a muscle really. You try to normalize this process.

These resistances, we have so many of these resistances. Resistance to feedback is just one. We have to fight these things if we want to lead with dignity. That’s just the way it is. This isn’t easy.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to zoom out a little bit. When you talk about the education in terms of there’s a lot of ignorance and we’ve got a lot of sensitivity to the ways that we are having our dignity violated, could you share a couple of those gems in terms of the research that is particularly striking and shocking for folks?

We heard that the neuroscience shows that when folks have their dignity violated, it’s experienced in the brain like a physical wound. That’s kind of wild. Do you have any other little gems like that as well as the proof points that point to, “Hey, folks really do flourish when treated well and suffer when treated badly?”

Donna Hicks
Yeah. There’s lot of research out there in terms of how people respond. One of the pretty amazing pieces of research that I came across was, you probably already know it, but when – this is largely done by business ethicists, this research. I’m connected with several different groups of business ethicists around these issues of dignity in the workplace.

What they discovered is that when people feel that their dignity is honored in the work environment, several things happen. Number one people are much more willing to give discretionary energy. Their loyalty increases, their productivity increases, employee engagement increases, all of these factors that are always so volatile within the workplace.

Lo and behold, at the end of the day – and I don’t even like to use this as the first bit of evidence, but profits actually increase when people feel treated well. To me this is the most cost-effective way of doing business.

Yes, you have to learn it. You have to make a commitment to how to lead with dignity, but if you’re in a work environment and that work environment is toxic and your people are breathing that toxic energy, they’re not going to give discretionary energy. They’re not going to be loyal. They’re going to be dreading coming into the workplace. It seems to me a no-brainer, just let’s figure this out as leaders of our organizations.

If we can figure out how to create these cultures where people are feeling like they’re being seen, they’re being heard, they’re being recognized, they’re being responded to, they’re feeling valued, why not? There’s just so much evidence that this works. I don’t know. I don’t know what the argument would be against it.

Pete Mockaitis
I think most of the arguments against it as I hear them, they seem not so rigorous like, “Oh come on, it’s called work for a reason. Toughen up.”

Donna Hicks
Right, right. Get a thick skin ….

Pete Mockaitis
“Life isn’t going to hand it to you on a silver platter, so get tougher.” I’m intrigued. You mentioned that there are many ways that we can unknowingly violate others’ dignity. I’d love it if you can give us kind of a checklist of what not to do.

Donna Hicks
Well, let me just share with you about what my research has uncovered about how people want to be treated. I’ve got something called the Ten Elements of Dignity because the flip side of them is what you don’t want to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Donna Hicks
Let me just run through this really quickly, the central elements of dignity. This research I did with people all over the world. I asked them questions about times when their dignity was violated, when their dignity was honored.

The interesting thing that happened in this research was that no matter where I was in the world, even though the context of the stories that they told were different, but at the end of the day, the emotional impact of what happened was exactly the same. I created these ten patterns that came out of this, these ten elements rather, that came out of these patterns of responses from all over, all over the world.

First of all, people want to have their identity accepted no matter who they are. No matter their race, their religion, their ethnicity, sexual orientation, people just want to be accepted.

The other thing is they want recognition. When they’ve done a really good job, when they’ve done something well, people want to be, I guess praised for that, is a good word to use, but they want recognition for what they’ve contributed.

Acknowledgement is another fundamental element of dignity. That simply is that people want to be acknowledged for the suffering that they’ve endured. People want to have somebody say to them, “Oh gosh, Pete, you went through that. That’s terrible. It’s just no human being should have had to go through that.” We all want that. We want acknowledgement of the suffering that we’ve endured.

We want a sense of belonging and inclusion. I mean there are programs all over the world around diversity and inclusion. Is it any wonder? Everybody wants to be included.

Safety, we talked about that element. Again, I’m not so much talking about physical safety, but it’s certainly a part of it, but more like psychological safety.

Fairness, we talked about that one.

Independence. What I found is that people don’t like to be micromanaged. They want to feel empowered to act on their own behalf. Especially in the workplace, they just don’t want somebody breathing down their necks. They want to be in control of their jobs and in a large sense in control of their lives.

People want to be understood. This element of understanding is really important because if you think about how quickly we rush to judgment about people with so little data. We do this automatically. People want to have an opportunity to talk about what’s going on with them from their perspective instead of being judged and stereotyped.

Benefit of the doubt, people want to be treated as if they were trustworthy. Finally, the last element of dignity is accountability. When something bad happens to somebody, they want an apology. They want the person who did the wrong to come to them and say, “Look, I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry.”

These ten things, those are the positive ways of doing it, but if you want to turn them over to the other side, well, if you want to violate somebody’s dignity, don’t apologize, don’t treat them as if they are – don’t treat them fairly or don’t include them in something or don’t give them recognition. You see how these you flip them over and this is what you want to avoid. You want to avoid all these things.

But I like to say them more in the positive because that really – it’s the way that we can actually put these into practice. Accept people’s identity. Don’t judge them because of their race, their religion. Treat them fairly, safely. Give them a sense of safety, all these things. Again, once you hear them, Pete, you say, “Oh, these are common sense,” but they are not common knowledge. We just have to put them to work for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to dig into just a couple of them. When it comes to accept identity, you mentioned judging for race or gender. It’s not like, “I do not accept that you are a woman,” or, “I do not accept that you’re Black,” but it’s rather I impute some characteristic upon you based upon your identity markers. Is that what you mean by not accepting an identity?

Donna Hicks
Well, I’m talking more about being discriminated against because of something to do with our identity. We never really talked yet about what dignity is. My very simple definition of dignity is that it’s our inherent value and our inherent worth and that we were born with this dignity. This is something that each and every one of us as we come into this world, we are born equal in dignity.

Now, I don’t think we’re born equal in status. That’s for sure. In the workplace, we’re certainly – there’s a hierarchical structure in the workplace. We may not have equal status in some – we have to look up to the people. They’re our bosses and we have to do what they say. But the fact is that we’re all equal in dignity.

When people feel like they’re not treated as if they’re equal in dignity because they’re this, that or the other thing or because of their religion, that’s when they feel violated, that they’re being singled out simply because they’re a man or a woman or Black or they’re from an ethnic group that is different from yours. It’s more that, Pete, that people just don’t want to be treated as less than because of something about their identity.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Donna Hicks
That they can do nothing about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said, well said, not treated less than. I’m with you. When it comes to being understood, could you share a little bit more about some of the best practices for doing that well with regard to listening or whatever is there?

Donna Hicks
Yeah, well, being understood, it seems like it’s a simple thing, but the fact is especially when we get into a little tiff with somebody, a little conflict – because all these things I’ve discovered in that context – larger conflict context – and what happens is that the minute you start getting into an argument with someone or you don’t agree with them, whatever, what goes first is your curiosity about why that person feels the way she does.

Being understood means that if you want to practice this element of dignity, you want to seek deeper understanding, especially under those circumstances where you’re feeling riled up by this person. But, you see, it’s all going against our biology. It’s going against our instincts because our instincts want us to fight.

But when we feel those impulses coming up inside us, the most important thing is to try to push the pause button and try to figure out what’s going on with this person, develop some curiosity about why she’s so upset, and say, “Look, I don’t really understand what’s happening here. I have a feeling something more is going on with you. Can you explain to me what you’re experiencing right now,” or something like that.

But it’s not our first impulse to do that. Our first impulse is to just not listen and not care about what’s going on and to seek deeper understanding.

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

Donna Hicks
Well, I think what I really want to impart and I do this every time I give a talk is for people to just be open to learning about this because it’s something that each and every human being wants. We all want to be treated with dignity. In fact, I think it’s our highest common denominator as human beings.

If we can make a commitment to trying to understand what the dignity narrative is of this person I’m interacting with, find out a little bit more about how this person has been treated in the past. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, you want to know what some of their sensitivities are. This stuff is all so helpful.

Just learning about our own sensitivities, probably more important, Pete, because if we’re going to be in leadership positions and we’re going to get triggered every second by someone of our employees, that’s not good either. We want to understand our own dignity past and how we got where we are.

Like you said, there’s so many people that just say, “Oh, the heck with this. Just toughen up. You can – anybody can do this. You just have to get tough.” You know this mentality. But the fact is you get so much farther with people, you bring about the best in people when you treat them well. Learning how to do that, it doesn’t take that much. It really doesn’t. But it does take a commitment.

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

Donna Hicks
This one quote I found – I can’t even remember, it was so long ago – but I use it every single time I give a talk about dignity, every single time. It’s my opening slide. It says “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” This is John Naisbitt, by the way.

The reason why this struck me so is because dignity is at the core of what it means to be human. As I told you earlier, the ignorance around it is encyclopedic. The gap in our understanding of this part of our humanity is so enormous that I think he nailed this whole idea.

I connected it with dignity because if we don’t understand this basic fundamental aspect of our shared humanity, you’re going to continue to see all the conflicts that are raging around the world, not to mention in our own country and in our families, in our communities, in our workplace. This is a core component of what it means to be human.

I just think John Naisbitt just said it beautifully. Technology is not going to get us there, but a deeper understanding of what our own humanity is and the humanity that we share with others. Love that one.

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

Donna Hicks
Well, honestly, the best research that I came across was this neuroscience research, the social neuroscience by the people out in UCLA, Matt Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger. They’re doing astonishing research on the emotions that we all share just by virtue of being human and how to be in connecting, loving connections with other people.

I think their neuroscience research is so important because it’s giving us some hard data to show – things in the past used to be just kind of psychological. People would call them, as I said earlier, touchy feely. But now we have this evidence that it really does matter how we connect with other people and it does matter how we treat people. This launched much of my whole development of my methodology was that research.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Donna Hicks
Well, actually I’m thinking of a novel. I’m thinking of Doctor Zhivago. I just loved that book.
Yeah, yeah. I just loved that story.
Most recently there’s a book by George Vaillant. It’s a book about spirituality and human development and how at the end of the day, we are deeply spiritual beings and we really need connections with other people.

Because he did this lifelong research. He’s a doctor here at the Harvard Medical School. He did this lifelong research to show what people need in order to feel fulfilled. He has a combination of a very deep spiritual sense and he has the science to back it up. Triumph of Experience I think was what that book was called, the recent one. He’s written several, but I think it’s called The Triumph of Experience.

My other favorite author of course is E O. Wilson. He’s written several books. The latest one that he wrote that I really love is called The Meaning of Life. He is an evolutionary biologist. Any book of his that you all can get your hands on, that stuff is great. It’s a great read, if you want to understand what it means to be human, by the way. That’s the core concern.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Donna Hicks
All right, I’ll tell you what my favorite tool is. Story telling because I realized that when I started writing about dignity, I realized I had to put my Harvard academic hat away and talk to people about how I discovered this issue and why I felt it was so important.

Just like you opened with a story asking me a question about my conflict resolution work, I always use examples, stories to illustrate the most important points that I want to impart to people because people respond to stories much more than boring research, the data and the graphs and the this and that. If I tell them a compelling story, that really gets my point across.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Donna Hicks
Habit. Well, I love to exercise. I’m a sort of fitness – well, I just love everything related to health and wellbeing. I’m really trying. I was sick for a while. I had a very serious illness of cancer. I got through that I think by just continuing all my exercise regime and eating well. I think it’s just my favorite habit is trying to live a good, fulfilled life.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, and we’re glad you’re still here, so congrats.

Donna Hicks
Thank you. Me too.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a particular nugget, something you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your audience or listeners or readers?

Donna Hicks
Yeah. I mentioned this in a different context earlier, but I always share what I call the most simple truth that I’ve discovered with my dignity research. The simple truth is that when we’re treated badly, we suffer and when we’re treated well, we flourish. That simple truth – that was Tweeted out the other day. You can’t imagine how many retweets and likes I got. I didn’t even do it. Someone was quoting me.

That just simply touches a nerve with people. Treat people well and they’ll flourish; treat people badly and they’ll suffer. What do you want to do? How do you want to live your life? You want to live your life treating people well or badly, making them suffer or making them flourish? I just think that’s pretty basic.

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

Donna Hicks
Yeah, my website is lowercase dr – D – R – DrDonnaHicks.com. I am on Twitter. What else? I think that’s about it.

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

Donna Hicks
Oh, just I think, again, it’s really try to understand how powerful this concept of dignity is. Try to make it work for you, try to make it work for your relationships because I have to say, it’s one of those things that once you get it into your head and you understand it and you use it as a lens to look through things that are complicated in your life and problems in your life, if you look at it through a dignity lens, I think you’re going to see the solution really quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Donna, thank you. This has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you all the best as you spread the good word about dignity and all that you’re up to.

Donna Hicks
Thank you. And you too, thank you for this opportunity.

394: De-Stressing Work with Better Language and Requests with Andrea Goeglein

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Workplace psychologist Andrea Goeglein shares how language impacts workplace stress and how to successfully ask for help from others.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The key causes of workplace stress
  2. Two verbal habits that exacerbate workplace stress
  3. How to ask for help optimally

About Andrea

Often called a “Success Sherpa,” Andrea prides herself on carrying the information that nourishes her clients careers and personal success. She’s the Creator of the trademarked “Don’t Die” book series, which is licensed to the renowned publisher Hay House and served as Chairperson of Speaker Selection for TEDxUNLV.

Not only does Andrea Goeglein have the scientific knowledge that helps business leaders thrive, she has owned and operated several successful companies herself, including Evening Star Holdings, a hospitality operating business with $4 million in revenue and 60+ employees. Andrea also Founded the CEO Forum in Las Vegas, a senior executive think tank and boutique consulting practice.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Andrea Goeglein Interview Transcript

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

Andrea Goeglein
Thank you. I’m pleased to be here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to hear the story first of all about you were working in a Wall Street brokerage when you were 14 years old. How did that happen and what was it like for you?

Andrea Goeglein
Well, how it happened was a friend of one of my brothers called to offer him a few-day job during an Easter break. My brother wasn’t available. I said, “I can come in.” He said, “Well, just don’t tell them that you’re 14. Tell them that you’re 18,” so I did.

At the end of the few days everybody else was let go, but they asked me if I was interested in staying and working the rest of the break. Then offered me a summer job to which I said yes, except I had to tell them the truth. They said to me if I could get working papers, they would allow me to do the job because it was filing for a brokerage firm. I went and got working papers, which hang in my office today. I am as proud of that piece of paper as I am any master’s degrees or PhD that I have.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I wasn’t aware the process associated with the 14-year-old acquiring working papers. How does that happen?

Andrea Goeglein
I was born and raised in Queens, New York. At the time, now remember this is 1970, as you went to – in order to get a social security card, they would give you a social security card, but for you to actually be employable, you could only work in certain categories. You couldn’t work with dangerous machinery and things of that nature. Filing punch cards at a brokerage firm wasn’t in the category of dangerous jobs, so I got to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, that’s cool.

Andrea Goeglein
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’ve been working hard ever since.

Andrea Goeglein
And liking it. Everyone has their thing that becomes the thing that allows them to propel forward and to overcome various life adversities. For me it has always been being involved in business or working for a company, working with people. It has always been my joy.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. I also want to talk about some things that may not be as joyful that is the stress that shows up at work. You’ve done quite a bit of research and writing on this subject. I’d love to get your take when it comes to stress, first of all, what are sort of like the top causes, the top culprits to pinpoint that make stress appear?

Andrea Goeglein
Well, if you ask those in workplaces, they will always give you a name of someone. What’s causing stress? There’s always a name associated with it.

But generally what it is, is a combination of the expectations we put on ourselves, what we think about those expectations, and then how we respond to the people that we are working for and with in our organizations. You put that whole little pile together and add commutes and family responsibilities and community responsibilities.

If you’re the owner of the business, the financial burden whether or not you will have a successful business but the fact that all of these people who are feeling stressed are actually your responsibility to make sure that their lives and their financial lives are in order. There’s a combination, but it really has to do with how we think and how we speak about the situation that really starts the ball of stress rolling.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us some examples of ways we think of and speak of stress that make it proliferate versus keep it under control?

Andrea Goeglein
Sure. I call certain things talking in overwhelm. There’s a terminology that I stay away from known as crazy busy. You’ll meet someone and they are so proud of how crazy busy they are. Eh, not the best way to identify how you’re spending your days.

Why can’t you be happy busy? Why can’t you associate the fact that you are actually progressing and have lots of involvement to do with a word that is positive versus something that may be not so – that you may be seeing as a negative, that I’m crazy. If you speak overwhelm, you will be overwhelmed.

One of the very quick things to catch about the people around you is how they like to dramatize how many hours they’re working.

There was a time in my career where I worked for telecom companies and they were actually proud of the fact that they had maxed out their 100 message voice mail systems. I would go into meetings and people would be announcing the fact that – someone would say to someone, “Oh, I went to leave you a voice message and your voice box was full.” Then they would proceed to be really proud of how full that voice message was.

Pete Mockaitis
You just never clear it and you’ll fill it up no problem.

Andrea Goeglein
Thank you. And but it is also, it speaks to the culture of the organization and all of these little things that seem totally unrelated build a culture of mental stress because stress actually doesn’t exist until we put a name to it. It’s a response. It doesn’t exist until we create it. We create it with how we speak.

When you think about all the different ways that an organization and people within the organization do it, it starts with trying to stand out.

In a construction firm I was once associated with, people were proud of – there was like – I used to call it a game, but who made the coffee. They would start saying “Well, I was here at 4:30,” or “I was here at 5 o’clock.” Then I would have to put the damn towel and say “Did you achieve the goals? Did you meet the customer’s needs? Was the project brought in on time? That’s what you’re actually supposed to be measuring, not who makes the coffee first.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s intriguing view then. You’re saying that stress is not sort of an intrinsic reality. It’s like I’ve got a lot of expectations and responsibilities and I don’t know if I have the resources to accomplish them. You’re saying that’s not what produces stress, but it’s how we respond to that state of affairs.

Andrea Goeglein
I would clarify that a bit. Those things exist. The things that we mentally speak about as causing us stress do exist. We are asked to do a lot more with a lot less. When you go into an organization, when you are creating a company – it happens across the board.

I just heard Elon Musk talk about how when the company within the last year was at a point when no one believed they could make the production of their lower-end Tesla, their engineers thought of creating a tent-like system and set up a production line under this huge tent.

During that period of time when the environment has turned against you and you still have a problem to solve, it is real. You are losing sleep. How you respond to that either allows you to be highly creative or crash and burn.

Pete Mockaitis
So one piece is language, that you’re not crazy busy or happy busy or thrilled busy, excited busy. How else do you think and speak about it in a way that will put you in a better place?

Andrea Goeglein
Okay. One of the things – when things aren’t going well, taking the drama out of whatever trauma has occurred within the company.

A company that I admire their product was Chipotle, a fast-food restaurant that I have observed. I’ve only been an observer of this company in the media for the last few years because I feel that as a corporation external things have happened to them.

I don’t know what the impact of romaine lettuce was on their production, but I know they used romaine lettuce and that was after a whole series. Well, when they come together in that organization, if the conversation is about how everything and everyone is against them – now I don’t know that to be true, but let’s just play it out – they’re actually not going to get to solve the problem.

They have to take the drama of what has occurred out of the conversation so that when they go in meetings, the frontal lobe kicks in and they can make the clearest conversations. That becomes very critical. Language keeps touching and correcting, pivoting how you make decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
How does one take the drama out?

Andrea Goeglein
It’s a pausing. It’s that taking the breath and catching – hearing what you’re saying. It really is amazing how many times we will dramatize a situation in order to get attention without even knowing it.

How many times have you sat in a meeting and someone arrives late and instead of quietly sitting down and joining the meeting and contributing at the appropriate moment, the next amount of X minutes is why they’re late. It’s a discipline to manage that for yourself.

All the things I speak about are disciplines that as an individual, if you contribute them to your workplace, you will not only be reducing stress for yourself, but also for those around you because if you are not the person who overdramatizes, if you are not the person who comes into the meeting and then has to have all the attention put on you, which when you think about it, do I really want to reinforce with everyone and cement in everyone’s mind that I was late or do I want to quietly sit down and contribute when it is productive?

Pete Mockaitis
Very good.

Andrea Goeglein
Okay. These are the things that we – I work very much at the individual level. That is the greatest point of control. When everything is out of control in your workplace, the one thing you can still control is how you speak and how you think.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed, indeed. All right. Then we’re controlling how you think and how you speak. You also have some perspective on asking for help and conquering the fear and resistance associated with doing that. When is the best time to ask and how should you do it?

Andrea Goeglein
I’m going to put that actually ahead of the other two things. I want to put that in intentional relationship building because I work in the area of positive psychology where everything is about PERMA and how do you flourish, how do you actually go from place to place wherever you go and actually be able to flourish no matter what is going on in the external.

One of the components is relationship building. Well, relationship building should actually start long before you need the help on that project that crashed and burned on you. That happens by you paying attention to the people around you.

See who actually has a more emotionally mature way of explaining situations. Befriend people who you admire what they contribute to the organization. Enter into the conversations before you need the help and it is amazing what will happen when you do need the help.

Pete Mockaitis
How do you recommend going about doing that befriending in a great way?

Andrea Goeglein
Okay. One of the things in the workplace is always to offer help before it’s needed. When you hear someone explaining a situation of something they’re working on and if you truly believe you can be a contributor, offer that. Do something that allows the person to know that there is a resource if they want it because that allows you to stay at their front of their mind. I’m talking whether this is a peer, whether this is a superior.

You want to be the person who in fact observes what others is happening and then be able to offer if it’s appropriate. I stress that a lot. Make sure you are not – this is the difference between – I know what the slang term is, but you don’t want to kiss someone’s butt. This is not what I’m teaching. I knew what the slang term for that was, but I needed the podcast version of that.

You don’t want to be seen as the person that’s kind of kissing up. What you do want to be seen is a person who is a resource and a level-headed resource so that as in these rapidly changing environments that we all live in across all organizational structures that we participate in, that in fact you can be a contributor and someone to come to, sometimes is just that calm sea. Someone may just want to come because they know you will not overreact if they tell you what they’re facing.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Andrea Goeglein
That’s a resource. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Then you’ve built up some good relationships, you’ve proactively offered help, got some reciprocity working for you. Then when it comes to making the actual request, how do you recommend we go about doing that?

Andrea Goeglein
Okay, again, watch your words. People don’t like to help victims, especially in the work place. If you need help, if you realize that doing it alone or you’ve really done it alone and realized you’re not getting the best result, be really clear when you approach someone. Actually use the words, “I need some assistance,” or “I need your knowledge. Are you willing to work with me on this?”

Actually acknowledge that the person has something that in fact could be helpful and you’re making a request. Human beings like to help other human beings contrary to a lot of – as long as you stay off Twitter, you’ll believe that’s true. There’s only certain things I can control. That’s one of them.

Use language that shows that you are not a victim, but attempting to really be a victor and you’d like to take others with you. Also make sure that others know that if it’s appropriate they will be acknowledged. Acknowledging others is a way of showing your appreciation, but you have to do it very specifically. When I got stuck on this project, I went to them and just having this conversation helped me to think clearer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so acknowledge their particular expertise or knowledge or value or perspective that’s valuable. Then you say the words, “I need the help.” What else?

Andrea Goeglein
Well, it depends on the situation. I want to take the opposite side. When not – how not to ask because that’s actually something that as humans we fall into, especially if we’re upset. The same way we’re crazy busy.

If you were in a meeting and someone inappropriately – and I will say inappropriately – decided to call you out on how bad the report you did was. You leave that meeting and the first thing you do is find people to complain about how bad a manager that human being is. You have to remember that if you’re talking to that person about the other one, they’re going to know that someday you may talk about them that way too.

You want to take responsibility as quickly as possible. People look for that very quickly. It is the thing that people unknowingly – are you talking about someone else or are you taking responsibility?

If you leave a meeting and say – and be very honest, “Gosh, I did not think that that was that bad. I wish he had not responded that way, but I hear clearly that I didn’t give her what she wanted. Can you help me think through this better?”

That allows the person to really step up and not get into a conversation – If you come at them and say, “Can you believe what that woman did? No manager should be allowed to speak to anyone that way.” The whole conversation will be about her behavior, the executive’s behavior. What you really need in that moment is a better report and a better outcome.

I would put, again, that ahead, checking how you – what happens when something goes wrong and how you speak about it because that adds to your stress in the moment. You have to actually build your own courage back up.

That’s the whole thing about this asking for help and the stress. It has a lot to do with feeling incredibly vulnerable. Our jobs also dictate whether or not we eat most of the time. It dictates whether or not we have homes and our children get educated. It’s just not a job. It’s just not a report. There is a lot behind how all that goes down and why it feels stressful.

Cleaning up your language and being very careful if you have bad habits today, how to clean that up, will help you move forward in an easier way. I can’t stop how fast everything’s changing. I can’t stop organizations doing really well or really poorly and causing stress. I just can’t do it. I can help you guide your language.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really interesting when you mention that the job is more than just the job. It’s sort of like the livelihood. There’s kind of high stakes there, which can naturally give rise to some stress. That makes me wonder in terms of the stress alleviating impact of just having a real clear set of what are your options. If the worst case scenario goes down, they can, you are fired, that you know you’re going to be just fine.

Andrea Goeglein
Yes, you know Pete, any time I work with someone literally within the first meeting we have a conversation of what I call the low water mark. I ask them – and it’s very interesting as a business coach that this is one of the first things I do.

I need to know what your financial situation is. One, to know whether or not you’re aware of it and two, to make sure that as we talk about options – if you want to tell me how bad the organization is and that you’re putting up with all of this horrible conduct, there has – there’s reasons why you’re doing it. Some of them may be behavioral. Some of them may be financial and we need to know that fast.

That is one of the things that I ask. No one has to give me absolute numbers. I can deal in percentages. Do you know what your monthly nut is? How close to that do you get in income? How much are you over? How much are you over? We speak in percentages. Once we have built trust, we speak in absolute numbers.

But I need you to focus on that so you can’t use it as an excuse as to why you’re staying in a place that is actually not one that you’re able to rebound from because that’s – a stressful situation is only stressful through my eyes. It may not be stressful through your eyes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting with regard to the numbers. I guess with that still I think some people feel a sense of stress even if they say, “Hey, I’ve got ten years of assets. Ten years of living expenses stashed away in assets no problem.” They’re still worried about the impact of losing a job.

Andrea Goeglein
There’s a lot of different pieces of PERMA. One of them is achievement. We have different things that drive us at different times. There’s combinations of them.

Achievement, sometimes you’re so devoted to why you joined the organization and the project you were involved in, that you don’t want to walk away from it until you see it to a completion because you have certain attributes, whether they be behavioral or through character strengths, that in fact go against you walking away. There’s actually more stress if you walk away because of the lack of completeness.

That’s all the kinds of things you find out at an individual level. When we talk globally, the things that cause stress within organizations, I would say language, language, language. How you speak about the place you are and the people you are with, start your day and end your day, you better make a good decision.

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

Andrea Goeglein
Okay. I would say that’s the most important thing. Wake up and know that in fact from the first thought you have, words are coming out of your mouth, put a check on them. If they are not positive, begin the recrafting process as you’re brushing your teeth. It will matter and it will change your day.

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

Andrea Goeglein
One of my most favorite quotes has – I just in fact it was so funny that I looked at it because I like to – being trained academically, one of the things that I was always required to do was attribute. You must attribute very clearly where a work comes from. I’m going to tell you the quote and tell you where it was attributed, but know that there’s many.

The quote is this, “Watch your thoughts for they become your words. Watch your words for they become your actions. Watch your actions for they become your habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. Watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.”

That version I just read was attributed to Margaret Thatcher. In fact, it has been attributed to so many different people.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite study?

Andrea Goeglein
Oh, the marshmallow study. It’s the one about self-control. Because one, I believe I would have failed it if I was one of the children and two, delaying gratification is so important to success.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. How about a favorite book?

Andrea Goeglein
So many, but the one that I use the most is Return to Love.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Andrea Goeglein
It’s three in one: reading, writing, and reflection. Every day and every way, if you start that way, everything in your life will be different.

Pete Mockaitis
Are there particular questions you ask with the reflection?

Andrea Goeglein
It changes, but one of the things – one of the fun ones is “If today was to be extraordinary, what would happen?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is fun. Thank you. How about a favorite habit?

Andrea Goeglein
Again, I’m a little anal. Of the reading, writing, and reflection, daily writing is my favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you write at a particular time of day?

Andrea Goeglein
Yes, I write every morning. Well, I write for my work. There’s that portion of it. But I write every morning. I use one of the main things of positive psychology, which is gratitude. I start each day listing five things from the day before that I was grateful for. Some of them can be negative, such as “I am grateful that I lost that client. It helped me to look at what I need to improve in my work.”

But I find that using that helps put those things on paper and you put it away. It’s one of the reasons why we tell people to write down goals and aspirations because it stops the mind from wandering, looping back to them. I use that within the gratitude process because gratitude is the one human strength that we teach that if you do not have it, you should learn it because it builds on your resilience to keep moving forward, so things like stress are easier to handle.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?

Andrea Goeglein
If you believed and truly lived that you had a choice of every thought that you had, your life would be the best it could ever be.

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

Andrea Goeglein
I would point them to my website at ServingSuccess.com. That’s S-E-R-V-I-N-G-S-U-C-C-E-S-S.com. There is a whole list of videos. There is actually the reading, writing, reflection videos are there under the free courses. I would love to have that be a gift to all of your listeners.

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

Andrea Goeglein
First thing tomorrow when you walk into work, make eye contact with someone, smile and say, “Today is going to be a great day.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Andrea, thanks so much for sharing the goods and good luck in all your adventures.

Andrea Goeglein
Thank you so much Pete. I appreciated the opportunity.

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.