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KF #9. Manages Conflict Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

610: How to Communicate with People Who Disagree with You with Dr. Tania Israel

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Dr. Tania Israel says: "If you actually listen... then they'll be more interested in what you have to say."

Dr. Tania Israel discusses the fundamental skills that help us have more empathic conversations.

You’ll Learn:

  1. One skill to make difficult conversations more manageable 
  2. How to stop seeing disagreement as a threat 
  3. The two fears that keep us from actively listening 

 

About Tania

Tania Israel is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Raised in Charlottesville, Virginia and educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State University, Dr. Israel is known for her work on dialogue across political lines, social justice, and LGBT psychology. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Tania Israel Transcript

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

Tania Israel
Thanks. I’m delighted to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m delighted to have you. And I think the first thing we need to hear about is your knack for writing, not just books, like Beyond Your Bubble, but also song lyrics. What’s the story here and could we hear a sample?

Tania Israel
Well, I have a quirky muse, and she writes lyrics but not the melody so I have to borrow the melodies from pop songs and showtunes and Christmas carols and all kinds of things. And I’m a lyricist but not a singer so I’m going to spare you. But if you want to hear my lyrics, I actually just started a podcast with a friend of mine who teaches about Buddhism, and then I write songs about the teachings, and a friend of mine who has the voice of an angel sings them, so that’s a much better way to hear my lyrics.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun. I remember, in college, taking a class about Buddhism and, man, sometimes there was head-scratching. There’d be a long Sanskrit word, like, Tathāgatagarbha is not a something but it’s also not not a something, it’s like, “Oh, man.” So, maybe bringing it to song will help clarify.

Tania Israel
It’s really something where the teachings can sometimes be murky but I can summarize it in a catchy tune, so there’s something for everyone.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a gift. Well, there are some murky stuff that I want to talk about and get your insight into. So, you’ve got a fresh book Beyond Your Bubble. Can you tell us, first of all, what’s the big idea here?

Tania Israel
So, the big idea is that it’s possible to have dialogue across political lines, and there are some skills that you can cultivate that are going to help you do so effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love it. And we love skills here and dialoguing across difficult lines, be they political, or the silos in organizations, or just your boss or teammate who just has the complete opposite view of yours, I think it’s so important. But you know better than I. Tell me, what really do we have to gain if we really master this skill? And what do we have to lose if we don’t?

Tania Israel
Sure. Well, this book all started because, after the 2016 election, it was pretty clear that we have some divisions in our country and that we weren’t communicating effectively across this divide. And this has been affecting us in terms of our relationships, our family relationships, our relationships with people in our communities, but also in the workplace. And so, this is one way that it really can make a difference in terms of work.

Employers are actually losing people’s time and energy to tensions on the political divide and the stress about the divide. So, it turns out that people are more stressed now about politics than they have been in the past. And so, really, this book is something that I wrote to try to help to remedy this problem so that we can both reduce our stress and also have more effective conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds great. And well, I’d love to get your take on this. To what extent is the stress, the fear, real versus imaginary? My perception is that it’s kind of real. I saw some startling stats about, and I forgot who did it, like the percentage of folks who don’t feel comfortable voicing their views, which I think was the majority politically, as well as the percentage of folks who said they might fire someone if they donated to the other side, which I found alarming. It almost made me think, “Well, maybe the smart professional choice is to not talk about it.” What do you think?

Tania Israel
Well, I think it is some real and it is some overblown in our minds. So, there’s certainly evidence that the country is more polarized politically than ever in recent history, and there’s also a lot of evidence that our perceptions of people on, what we would consider, the other side are distorted so we see that divide as being larger than it is.

So, if we’re imagining somebody who’s on a different political party than we’re in, we’re imagining the most extreme example of that that we’ve seen arguing on TV, and that they’re the spokespeople for that, and they’re super angry, and that’s not most people. Most people are somewhere in between there and that they can also be humanized a little bit so that they’re not these stereotypes that we have in our minds.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that’s dead-on when you said distortion. I’ve got Jonathan Haidt in my ear because I’d listened to his book The Righteous Mind, and he said, “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. And it blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” And that powerfully resonated. So, if we are distorted, if we are blind, how do we get undistorted and unblind?

Tania Israel
Well, I think that there are a number of things that we can do. I think the first is just to be curious about people who have different views than we have. And so, if we recognize that we don’t necessarily already know everything about them and the way they understand things, then it’s going to lead us to want to know more.

And I ask people their motivations for…before the book, I had actually created a workshop, a two-hour workshop, that was building skills for dialogue, and I would ask people, “Why are you coming to the workshop?” And there were a couple of things that were the primary motivations. One is that, “I have somebody in my life who we have different views politically but I want to keep that person in my life,” and so that was a big one.

Some people are like, “I just don’t understand people who have a different view.” Some people want to persuade, some people want to find common ground, but these are sort of the most common things that I heard. That piece of, “I just can’t understand other people,” what I always say is, “Well, okay, you have somebody in front of you who could actually help you to understand. Wouldn’t you want to know? Like, wouldn’t you want to try to find out more from them rather than just sort of putting your framework on who you think they are and what you think they believe?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s well-said to not sort of just ascribe things to people. And so then, can you sort of show us maybe how that works in action with that curiosity? I mean, what do you ask and what do you not ask?

Tania Israel
Absolutely. Sure. So, like I said, the book focuses on skills, the workshop focuses on skills, so I’ll just lay out the skills that seem most important. First of all, listening, and it’s what Stephen Covey calls “Listening to understand rather than listening to respond.” And in my field of psychology, we call it active listening. But it means that when somebody says something that rather than saying a thing that’s contrary to what they’ve said, instead we give them space to say it.

And then we do speak up, what we say is we reflect what they’ve just said to us so that we make sure that we understand and they feel heard, so we sort of summarize back what they said. So, that’s the key piece in listening. Also, managing our emotions is important. Just even imagining dialogue across political lines, people get so riled up. In fact, people have been telling me that, as they’re reading my book, it’s just decreasing their stress about the idea of having dialogue with somebody.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds great.

Tania Israel
I know, which I’m delighted to hear that, so that’s fantastic. And then how do we try to take somebody else’s perspective and put ourselves in their shoes? And then when we are going to share our views, how do we do that most effectively? So, these are really the pieces that I think are important for the puzzle of making things work well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, can we talk about each of those skills? How do we do each of those things well?

Tania Israel
Yes. So, I was thinking about this in terms of “What does this look like?” And in the book, I’ve got a bunch of examples, like, I’ve got a fictional set of cousins who are having conversations about a lot of different things. But let me just kind of bring an example to you. Right now, certainly, racial justice is in the cultural consciousness, and so this is something that people are really struggling with in terms of, “How do we have these conversations?”

I thought, “All right. What if you see a friend or a coworker wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and that’s not the perspective you’re coming from?” So, you could see that and you could say, “Well, I think all lives matter,” so that’s one way of responding, or you can say, like, “Tell me a little bit about what you believe. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to wear that T-shirt.” And the same is also true the other way that if somebody is wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and somebody comes up to them and says, “Well, I think all lives matter.” Then you can say, “Well, these are the reasons that I think Black Lives Matter,” or you can say, “Oh, tell me why you say that. Like, I’m curious about your perspective and I’d like to hear more.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That sounds simple enough. And so…

Tania Israel
It’s not.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Like, the words are not complex to formulate. But, I guess, it’s just sort of like, well, what happens next? Where do things get really interesting?

Tania Israel
So, I think that the first thing is even to have that initial conversation and ask those questions, it’s helpful to have a connection with somebody, that that relationship with another person if you already have that. And people often do have that with their neighbors, and with their coworkers, and with their friends and family members. They’ve got already some kind of connection. And so, if you have a sort of trusting relationship, it’s easier to delve into that.

One of the challenges right now is that there’s so much conflict about politics that it’s harder for people to feel trusting. So, sometimes you have to lay some groundwork in terms of having some positive interactions with somebody, finding some things that you have in common that maybe don’t have to do with the conflictual issues, and that makes it easier to start that conversation.

But the other thing that comes up is just the emotional level of it because the things we’re talking about are political but they’re really also very personal that they get to people’s experiences and also their deeply-held beliefs, and so that can obviously trigger us in terms of our emotions. So, knowing how to manage our emotions, knowing how to breathe deeply when you start to feel yourself getting riled up, to notice when you’re feeling flushed and your heart is racing, and to know how to actually reduce that stress, can be really important in terms of persisting through a difficult conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, tell us, do you have any pro tips for how we do just that with the managing of emotions?

Tania Israel
Absolutely. Well, it turns out that breathing is something that we all do every day, and that is one of the most helpful things if you find yourself getting flushed and heart racing and shallow breathing. Taking some deep breaths can be very helpful to…basically, what happens when you feel a threat is that your body responds as if that threat is a saber-toothed tiger.

And so, even if that threat is somebody saying something that you disagree with, or that feels threatening to your beliefs, then your body is going to react in that same way. It’s the sympathetic nervous system. And so, what we can do to counteract that is we can breathe deeply. We can also do other things physically. We can pay attention to the feeling of the chair under us, of our feet on the ground. You can even touch your own hand to soothe yourself a little bit. And those things can actually help somebody to reduce that stress enough to continue on with the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, there’s much I want to dig into here. So, let’s talk about that breathing more deeply. Sometimes I worry that if I do that, it might come across as a sigh, like, “Oh, boy, here it is,” and I don’t want to make that impression. So, can we breathe deeply on the sly or how do we do that?

Tania Israel
It turns out that because you’re always breathing anyway, that you can still breathe, you can change a little bit of the pattern of your breathing, and nobody needs to know. Actually, the best thing to do is to practice all of these skills when you are not in the middle of one of these conversations. So, doing deep breathing, practicing listening just with somebody who you super-well get along with is a great thing to do before you practice some of these listening skills with somebody who you feel some conflict with.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to the listening, you mentioned that we’re listening not to respond but to understand. Are there any particular kind of internal cues or prompts or questions, or how do you run your brain optimally so that you’re listening really well?

Tania Israel
That’s a great question. And when I do the workshop, I spend about half of the workshop on listening, and people tell me that one of the things that they get out of the workshop is realizing how hard listening is and sometimes what bad listeners they are because they notice how difficult it is for them to just stay attentive to what somebody else is saying rather than what they want to say.

So, that’s really part of it, is, “How do you keep focused on the other person?” And if you know that what you’re going to need to say, when you have a chance to speak, is summarizing what they just said, you’re going to pay a lot more attention to it. So, if you really think, “All right, my goal is to be able to listen so that I can say back to them a summary of what they’ve just said,” that’s going to help to keep you focused because you’re really going to want to try to understand it.

I think, also, if you know that you’re going to have a chance to speak later, then it can be helpful. So, recognizing that the conversation doesn’t have to be, “They say what they think, you say what you think, they say what they think, you say what you think,” that if it’s, “They say what they think, you summarize that back to them,” they maybe go a little bit more deeply into what they think, maybe you ask them open-ended questions, and you can stay with that for a little while to really make sure you’re developing a deeper understanding.

And then you can switch, so then you get to talk about your view. And what you would want is for them then to be focused on understanding more about your views. So, it’s doing the same thing for them that you would want them to do for you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a great perspective there. It’s like there’s no obligation, it’s not a courtroom for you to put forth your viewpoint. I mean, sometimes maybe you’re in the middle of a meeting and the decision is being made in that meeting, okay, yes, we got to hear all the viewpoints. But it’s like totally fine if we maybe have a full conversation about Black Lives Matter, and then we just don’t get to my view, that’s okay. And maybe we’ll get to it later, or maybe they ask, and it’s like, “Oh, shucks, I’ve only got two minutes so maybe we’ll do this over lunch tomorrow.” And I think, in a way, it’s almost like a paradigm shift to just sort of be okay putting that aside, like, nothing bad will happen if you hear them and they don’t hear you.

Tania Israel
Right. Absolutely. And I’m going to tell you the fears that people have about doing just that because people tell me these things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Tania Israel
So, one of the fears is, “There’s a thing that will make all the difference if I just say it that…”

Pete Mockaitis
You think so.

Tania Israel
“…then they will understand things the way that I do, and that will change their minds, and they will come around to the right view.” And that is one of the things that I hear from people that they feel like they’ve just got to say this thing because it’s going to make all the difference. And so, here’s the thing I just want everyone to know – it’s not going to make a difference. That amazing thing that you think is going to change everything if you just can get it out of your mouth, it’s really not.

And so, I think take some of the pressure off of yourself to feel like, “Oh, I must say the brilliant, clever, smart, right thing, and it’ll change everything,” because it’ll probably won’t. And what has a better chance of changing things is if you actually listen and they feel like you care, and then they’ll actually be more interested in what you have to say. So, that’s one fear that if you don’t say that thing, then you’re missing that opportunity to change the world.

The other fear that I hear from people is actually, “What if I listened to their view, and what if it actually changes my mind?” and that’s a little scary for people because these are really deeply-held views. So, I came across this literature on something called intellectual humility, and there’s so much richness here because, really, what I think of it is how to be righteous without being self-righteous.

And so, being righteous is really about holding onto deeply-held values that feel in alignment for you. But you don’t have to then put down everybody else’s views, that’s when you get self-righteous when you feel like, “Mine are the only views that are worthy.” And so, if you have intellectual humility, you can actually have these deeply-held views and be curious about where somebody else is coming from, and help them feel humanized and valued even if you aren’t going to change your mind about that issue.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, there’s so much good stuff there. And I’m thinking about that listening in terms of your odds of persuading are better if you say very little or even nothing in that conversation because there will be another time in which your influence and receptivity has grown there by having done that listening. And I think that’s a powerful reframe as well just right there in terms of, “By saying less, I will achieve more in the influence that I seek, and it’s fine to have a breath there.”

I also want to dig into this notion that we perceive a threat like it’s a tiger coming at us when it’s really not. I mean, that’s kind of the human condition. But how can we establish more of a baseline level of chill when we go there so that this falsehood does not feel real to us, we’re not really under attack, it’s just another idea that we can try on for a second and see what happens?

Tania Israel
Absolutely. And I appreciate you’re sort of talking about the paradox there of listening versus talking, and what’s most powerful. And it does mean that we have to go into this in a particular emotional state to really be able to hear what somebody else has to say even if it does feel threatening to our beliefs. And I hear a lot from people saying, “Well, it’s not just my beliefs. Like, I feel like if that person holds certain views or attitudes about my group, about the type of person I am, then it feels threatening on a more existential level, on a more, ‘Am I going to be safe here?’ level too.”

So, I think, in addition to the physiological ways that we can ground ourselves that help to manage emotions, having a clear understanding of those people who are on the other side can be really helpful. And that’s where recognizing where we might have distortions and stereotypes of people, I think, can help. So, some of those things that we can do cognitively just to recognize that people are not necessarily the extreme that we would think that they are. So, I think just knowing that is useful.

I think the other piece is that the more we listen, the more we know that. The more we really hear somebody, the more we hear their humanity and the complexity of their perspectives, and the harder it is to stereotype them. So, I think that knowing some things before we go in, and then really just paying attention to somebody and being curious, can help to make that person less threatening.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about growing the empathy over time then so you get a better understanding of where they’re coming from and how they might feel that way or conclude those things. Do you have any additional tips on how we can just have the empathy skill be stronger always?

Tania Israel
So, people have a lot of different approaches to building that empathy skill, and a lot of people actually find things in their faith traditions or in the field of psychology. I would say that these are some of the places that people turn to for developing more empathy and more compassion.

And so, I think if you have a faith tradition that gives some practice for that then that’s helpful. We’re talking about Buddhism earlier, if you have a loving kindness meditation that you do; if you’re Christian there are some teachings based on the “Love thy neighbor” kind of perspective; Quakers talk about holding people in the light. There are different kinds of things that people do for that that can help them to keep their heart open to other folks. So, I think if you already have something, that’s a tool.

And the thing I would say with that, and with any of the skills, is that practice is really helpful. So, always coming back to that and not necessarily thinking that in the first interaction you’re going to have with somebody, you will understand them and feel that empathy completely.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, I also want to zoom in, are there any particular phrases or scripts that you just love here? So, I don’t know, if it’s sort of, “Tell me more about that,” or, “I’m curious about this,” or, “When did you first believe this?” I’m just wondering, are there any things that you found, boy, again and again and again, they tend to open things up and be super helpful?

Tania Israel
Sure. One of the phrases that I like is “I’d love to hear more about that,” and just leave that open for somebody. One of the things that we don’t always do well is we don’t always allow a question to just be out there and then just for us to stop talking. Ask the question and then give them space to respond, because sometimes we’ll ask a question, like, “I’d like to hear more about that.” They don’t have a set response to that because it’s not what we usually do. We don’t usually sort of delve in more deeply. So, just putting that out there, “I’d love to hear more about that,” and then stop.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe let’s back it up even before words start getting exchanged. So, use the example of a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, so maybe it’s that or a red Make America Great Again hat, it’s like a garment or a something gives you an indicator of what someone thinks about something, and you don’t care for that viewpoint. What do you recommend doing just like internally before we even start a conversation? Because I think it’s quite possible for the mind to leap to assumption, prejudice, judgment. It can be harsh, and it can be unfair, and it can be intense. How do you recommend we address that in ourselves if that’s there?

Tania Israel
Oh, that’s a great question. I think that it’s so important that we start with what’s going on internally for us. I think that the first thing is to notice that, to notice that that’s coming up for us, that we’re making these assumptions about that person, and maybe to start to get curious inside. Maybe you see somebody wearing a Make America Great Again hat, and you go, “Huh, I wonder why they made that choice? I wonder what their experiences are that led them to want to adopt that perspective?” And so, I think starting that curiosity internally, asking questions, rather than the sort of statements that we might be making to ourselves about that person can be a good start.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting, when you have that curiosity, and maybe this is a little bit too flippant or playful, but there could be any number of reasons that don’t even mean they love Donald Trump. Like they have lice and this is the hat they have available, it was a joke, it was a bet. They’re trying to develop these skills associated with having difficult conversations, they thought this would draw people to them. I mean, none of these are particularly likely but they’re all possible. And when you have that curiosity as opposed to assumption, it seems like it can take a lot of the intensity out of things from the get-go.

Tania Israel
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s true, like very likely someone is wearing that hat because they believe that, because there’s something about that that resonates for them, and don’t you want to know what it is? Don’t you want to know more about that? And I always think that that’s the most curious thing is that people say, “Well, I just can’t understand,” but when they’re given an opportunity to understand, they shy away from it, or not just shy, like forcefully push away from it.

And that’s actually probably the thing that I learned most from doing this work is that people have these motivations that bring them to it, that bring them to want to have dialogue but that’s not the only want that they have. They want to maintain this relationship but they also want to vent, and they want to feel validated in their own beliefs. And so, I think that having multiple wants is really important for us to really know about ourselves because if we think, “Oh, you know, I really want to have this dialogue but I can’t because the other side is not going to want to have this conversation.” I hear that from people a lot.

And what I know also is that, ah, people have a lot of reluctance to do it themselves because there’s another motivation that they have that either is stronger or, at least, is in conflict with that desire to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m thinking a little bit about defensiveness now. We talked about some of the work we can do internally in terms of being curious and watching yourself and checking the assumptions that you might be leaping to, and not sort of being really eager to ensure you put out your viewpoint. Do you have any other perspectives on how we can sort of preempt defensiveness? Because I think some people get defensive quickly, and some people are defensive only when they think you’re really coming after them. So, what’s the best way to minimize this impact?

Tania Israel
So, it’s really helpful to get to know people outside of the political conflict. Sometimes there are things we have in common. People can relate a lot to other people who are trying to raise children in the middle of a pandemic. Like, okay, maybe that’s something you have in common. Maybe you both coach soccer. Maybe there are things that you have in common that you can talk about. You don’t have to start with the thing that’s most conflictual. You can build some connection.

In other ways, I mean, if you just see a stranger who’s wearing a hat or a T-shirt, sure, you might not want to go up and have that conversation with them, and so you can or not do that. But there are people who might be closer into your life and into your community or your workplace, and then maybe you’ve got an opportunity because maybe you’ve already got some foundation with them, and then you can venture into these conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now let’s maybe shift gears a bit away from explicitly political stuff. So, let’s say you’re working with a boss or a manager of another department who’ve kind of inferred that, or they’ve explicitly said that they’d like you or your department to no longer exist, like downsizing or outsourcing, or something that also just kind of hits you where it counts in terms of “What I have to contribute does not seem valued.”

Now, that may be a fair or unfair characterization, but if you’re in that place, well, you still need to consider their viewpoint and collaborate and get to great decisions together. Are there any additional things that you’d highlight here?

Tania Israel
Sure. Well, there’s a lot wrapped up in that. One is that if there’s a power differential between yourself and somebody else, so you’re talking about like a manager, that can really affect things because that feels more threatening, and it feels like you may not be as comfortable expressing a view, or even asking more questions about it. So, I think that’s another piece that we have to take into consideration with these conversations is, “Are there power differentials that are affecting things?”

Okay, I’m going to get to your question in a moment, but I’ll just share that I was listening to one woman who was interested in dialogue and, partially, because she was trapped in a car with her supervisor driving somewhere, and her supervisor was just like going on and on about his political views, and not something that she agrees with, and she didn’t feel like she could get out of it. So, I want to speak to the managers for a minute.

This is something to know is that you’ve got a lot of power, and putting somebody in a situation where they’ve got to hear your perspective can feel really vulnerable for that employee. And so, I think really being aware of how that might be affecting people in the workplace is really important. So, that’s if you’re coming from the manager side, and that’s, again, about politics. So, let me move back to your scenario then.

Listening is still really helpful. Somebody says, “Wow, I don’t really know that we need the kind of work that your department is doing.” You can argue back and say, “Well, yes, you do.” But don’t you, first, want to know how they came to that conclusion because you’re not going to actually be able to make an effective argument to them if you don’t know how they got there. So, “Oh, why do you say that?” or, “I’d love to hear more about that. I’d love to hear more about what a bad job you think I’m doing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Tania Israel
But, really, just asking, “I’m really interested to know how you got to that conclusion,” and then you actually got to be really interested to know.

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

Tania Israel
The one other thing that I’ll add, because I talked about listening and reflecting and summarizing with somebody says, and I think that’s really important for people to know, is you don’t have to actually be able to create in your head a transcript of what somebody had said and say it all back to them. The way I would describe this is what you want to do is you want to nugget-ized what they said. You want to get the nugget of something really important. And so, just know that if you’re listening to somebody, that’s the key thing, it’s like, “What’s the nugget of what they’re saying that’s most meaningful and important to them?”

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

Tania Israel
Sure. Lisa Slavid, who’s the fabulous cartoonist of Peadoodles and also did a drawing for my book, I first heard this from her, “With relationship comes grace.” So, in other words, the stronger our bond with somebody, the more forgiving they are when we stumble.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m going to chew on that for a while. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Tania Israel
I find myself referring a lot to the Hidden Tribes study that grouped people in terms of a lot of different factors related to political beliefs. And this actually helps with that, what we were talking about, which is that even though we think most people are at the extremes, they found that most people are in what they call the exhausted majority.

Pete Mockaitis
Exhausted majority. Yeah, that’s good. And how about a favorite book?

Tania Israel
Memoir is my favorite genre, and I just listened to Chanel Miller reading her own story in Know My Name, and it is absolutely stunning.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Tania Israel
I love the Pomodoro Method. And something that helped me to write the book was doing Pomodoro with colleagues on Zoom.

Pete Mockaitis
So, just like accountability there.

Tania Israel
Not just accountability but having company in it. So, yeah, that really helped me to stay on track and get the book written.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Tania Israel
I will sometimes record myself talking about something, and then I’ve been using Temi to digitally transcribe that, and that also helps me with my writing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And speaking of nugget-izing, do you have a particular resonant nugget that you share that seems to really connect and resonate and get quoted back to you often?

Tania Israel
Some people seem to love this thing that I created that I called the flowchart that will resolve all political conflict in our country.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s quite a claim. It sounds like there’s lots of love there.

Tania Israel
Yes, it’s sort of nugget-izing my book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Where do we find that?

Tania Israel
You can find that, and all my other stuff, on TaniaIsrael.com.

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

Tania Israel
Be curious about people who are different from you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Tania, this has been fun. I wish you much luck with your book Beyond Your Bubble and all your interesting conversations.

Tania Israel
Thank you so much. It’s been great to be here.

587: Finding the Beauty in Conflict with CrisMarie Campbell

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ChrisMarie Campbell says: "Do you want to be relational or do you want to be right?"

CrisMarie Campbell discusses how to get comfortable with handling disagreements.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make conflict productive 
  2. The magic question for when you reach an impasse 
  3. A handy script for when you need to disagree with your boss 

 

About ChrisMarie

CrisMarie Campbell is a former Olympic and World Championship rower. She has also previously worked at Boeing as an engineer and helped initiate a groundbreaking cross-functional team approach for how Boeing designs and builds airplanes.

CrisMarie, together with her partner Susan Clarke, founded Thrive!–a coaching and consulting firm that specializes in helping individuals, leaders, teams and entire companies learn how to deal with differences to ignite creativity and innovation.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

CrisMarie Campbell Interview Transcript

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

CrisMarie Campbell
I’m excited to be here, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your wisdom. You have had adventures in Olympic rowing, Boeing engineering, and now speaker, author, thought leader in the realm of conflict stuff. So, could you just give us a snippet, an anecdote, a tale, from your adventures in Olympic rowing?

CrisMarie Campbell
Yes. Well, first, you have to know I did not pop out of the womb being, “Woo, conflict.” Definitely, I was a professional conflict avoider. And I rowed at the University of Washington, go Huskies, and then went on to the Olympic team, and the National team really, and I had two boats that were very different. So, high-caliber athletes, both teams, but one team, I call it the tale of two boats because one team shouldn’t have performed, and we did, and the other team, we should’ve performed and we didn’t.

And what happened is, in the year before the Olympic Games, I was on the National team, and we had a group of people, I was wet behind the ears, I’d never been really on the world stage. I could’ve stroked the boat, which is the leader of the boat, the first person that everybody follows and sets a rhythm, but because I hadn’t raced at a national level, that we had this conversation and we picked a more senior person who had been at the Olympics before to row.

And so, that boat, we trusted each other, we dealt with conflict, we had each other’s backs. And when we came to the World Championships, we hadn’t beaten the Russians in like 15 years, and the Russians, they were so dominant. They were on lane one which is smooth water on the inside lane. We were all the way across the course on the outside lane, lane six, choppy water. And the start of the race happened, the Russians just took off, and we were rowing in the pack. And then halfway through the race, the cox then said, “We’re moving on the Russians.” And, you know, our boat just sparked alive and we picked up.

In the end, Romania won gold, we won silver, but we’re also happy to topple the mighty Russians. There was this big Romanian woman, and when we came to the docks, she had this big white hair, she picked me up in her arms, she picked another U.S. rower in her arms, “We beat the mighty Russians!” It was so cool. But that boat, we were able to deal with conflict and we trusted each other.

Now, the Olympic year, we had the same caliber of people. My story was I was injured and so I was off the water for three months before the games. I had to climb my way back in. I had made it into the boat, but that boat, we had factions, we had egos, and when it came, a month before, so bad, strategic decision, a month before the games, we made a last-minute decision to use an experimental boat. And I tell you, in that conversation, I didn’t speak up. I couldn’t row the boat, but I was like, “Who am I to say anything? I’m the last one in. I’m not going to speak up.”

And at the Olympic Games, we came in a disappointing sixth, and it was really heartbreaking, and that boat was never rowed again. It was scrapped because it was built on a computer. It was designed. But that team, I think we were more brittle because we didn’t have conflict, we didn’t speak up, I didn’t speak up. And so, I think that happens all the time in business where there’s egos, factions, people say, “Well, it’s not my place to speak up,” and then you don’t get good results.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is a tale of two boats, and handy in the illustration there. So, your book is called The Beauty of Conflict. Tell us, can you make your pitch for why, in fact, conflict is beautiful?

CrisMarie Campbell
Yeah, and I never would’ve believed it. I think conflict is beautiful because when people are willing to hang in there and hold for the tension of conflict, because conflict is when you have different opinions, passion, and you’re focused on a goal, and you bump into each other’s, well, different opinions, and we’re not comfortable with that tension, so we tend to opt out, and, “I’ll just do it myself,” or, “Wait a second. I just want to make sure you’re okay with me,” or, “I’m just going to focus on something else, not this problem,” and so we don’t hold for that tension. And that tension is potential energy. That conflict, that discomfort, that none of us like is pure potential creativity.

And what I’ve seen time and time again is when people can develop enough trust on a team or in a relationship to hold for that, what happens is new ideas emerge. That’s not your idea, Pete, or my idea, but something else percolates up because we’re holding that tension. And this happens all the time when we work with teams. We’ll do a two-day offsite when we could meet in person. We’re doing it virtually now, but that we develop trust, people get to know each other, they clear up some differences, and then we start talking about their business ideas.

If they had started right at first in the morning talking about it, they’d be grinding away. But when they’ve learned something to hold for that tension, new ideas percolate, and they have so many innovative and creative solutions that emerge. It’s really powerful. So, that’s what I think the beauty of conflict is.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then it’s intriguing. And you say that it’s uncomfortable for everybody.

CrisMarie Campbell
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I think that’s handy to understand that it’s not…is it fair to say that it’s not so much that once we just understand the theory about why conflict is beautiful, then we no longer feel those feelings? I guess that’s what I want to hear. So, I’ve done some training in Myers-Briggs workshops, and thinkers versus feelers. What’s really fun is that I’m a feeler myself.

CrisMarie Campbell
Me too, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I will talk about conflict, and then I’ll ask, “Hey, if you get this weird sensation of discomfort, like crawling on the back of your neck, raise your hand.” And, usually, it’s mostly feelers and no thinkers who raise their hand, and it’s sort of a fun aha moment, like, “Oh, we are getting mutual understanding. Thanks, Pete. You’re great.” Anyway, that’s where I’m going for. And so, for those who are feelers, and still have this uncomfortable and unpleasant icky feeling like we still would prefer to avoid the conflict. Well, how can you encourage us and give us hope?

CrisMarie Campbell
Yeah, you know, it is tough. And I think thinkers, because Susan is also a T and I’m an F in the Myers-Briggs, but it looks like they enjoy it. They like debate but only kind of on their terms. If they get threatened enough in their ideas, it’s uncomfortable for them, I think, as well. My story, I could be wrong. But I do think… so your question was how to actually get comfortable with it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so yeah, maybe and maybe we never will. But if you could give us a little something so that we can feel better when we’re in the midst of it.

CrisMarie Campbell
Right. Well, there are things that I actually do to help settle and I teach people to do this, just help settle the nervous system. Because, really, if you ask anybody, “What did you learn about conflict growing up?” That’s a great team conversation because I grew up with an Army colonel dad who was pretty angry at dinner times, pretty consistently, but you never knew what was going to set him off. And my older sister liked to press his buttons, so every night at dinner I was like, “Oh, my gosh, don’t get him upset.” And so, I’d change the subject, I’d rephrase what my sister said, I’d do anything to kind of try to diffuse the energy of conflict. So, that’s how I became a professional conflict avoider, an accommodator.

And I think what I learned is that was wired into my nervous system so I’ve had to actually do things to help settle me in the midst of conflict. And one of the things that I do is I actually bring my awareness down to my feet because usually in conflict, my energy is up and out. I’m trying to manage and calm everything down, “Please.” And if I actually bring my energy in and down, I cultivate a sense of safety in my own skin. I can also notice…

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re just thinking about your feet and how they feel? This is what you’re doing then?

CrisMarie Campbell
So, you can do this right now. Like, wiggle your toes, swipe your feet, and just imagine, you could feel your feet getting heavier, and you could even visualize like you’ve got roots coming out of the soles or cement blocks on them. And when I do that, because I’ve done that enough…

Pete Mockaitis
I’m waiting for you to insult me now, it’s like, “Okay, I’m ready. Bring it on, CrisMarie.”

CrisMarie Campbell
Often what happens is I take a deeper breath because, usually, when I don’t feel safe inside my own skin in conflict, I think, “Oh, my gosh, you’re going to get mad at me, or you’re going to attack my idea, or you’re going to leave.” So, we have these two basic things. Either somebody is going to attack me or somebody is going to abandon me at the core root of who we are as humans. And that’s the fear that comes up. So, when I can cultivate a sense of safety in my own body, it expands my ability to tolerate the tension out there if you’re upset at me. Does that make sense, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And it’s interesting, I think I buy it as I’m doing it right now. And I guess I used to, when I was getting nervous when I was an interview candidate, you know, job hunting, I would just try to plant my feet on the floor, like, “We’re grounded here.” And so, it seems like you’re really kicking this up a notch in terms of imagining cement blocks and weights and rooted firmness, and sort of take it to the next level, so I think that would be just as good or better.

CrisMarie Campbell
Well, yeah, you can do feel your feet and also your seat. So, you can feel the weight of your bum in the chair, and just relax into it. Because, again, I’m up and out trying to like protect, “He’s leaning back.”

Pete Mockaitis
Adjust the mic stand.

CrisMarie Campbell
It usually helps me settle down. And if I’m really stressed out, okay, let’s say I’m really stressed out and I need to take a break, I actually go to the bathroom and I do a sound called voo, and this is from Peter Levine. And what it does is it vibrates your vagus nerve which is the second largest nerve in your body beside your spinal column, and that goes into your rest and digest.

And anything you can do to turn on your rest and digest, which it actually, it floods your brain back with more blood so you’re thinking more clearly. When you’re in that, “What’s going to happen here?” we’re in flight or fight, or freeze, or faint, whatever it is, and our brain is not online so you’re not going to be saying the best things or your eyes get very narrow like, “There’s the enemy over there,” versus opening up your eyesight, and even turning your head sideways. That’s another thing you can do. And I would suggest doing it slowly, and then picking an object and noticing it, and then turning slowly again.

And it gets you out of that, “Oh, my God, somebody is going to attack me over there,” which is the beady-eyed narrow focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that and I experienced that when I’ve done some keynotes in terms of if I’m sort of doing this scan. I just somehow feel more powerful in terms of, “I’m surveying my dominion,” as opposed to, “Uh-oh, that guy thinks I suck.”

CrisMarie Campbell
I can so relate to that.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say voo, is that it?

CrisMarie Campbell
Yeah, it would be a big inhale and a vooooo. I’d keep doing it, like a long exhale, and that’s the vibrating. And you could even…

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like a lower tone, too, as opposed to…

CrisMarie Campbell
I like to do it lower, yeah. And if you purse your lips tight enough, you’ll vibrate your lips which, by the way, even if you were in a meeting and you couldn’t do the voo, you can touch your lips, and that actually accesses your vagus nerve which, again, goes to your parasympathetic rest and digest. So, even in meetings, if you can’t get out and go voo, because who wants to do that, you can just rub your lips like you’re thinking, like, “Yeah, hmm. Tsk, I wonder.” And that’s why kissing actually makes us feel better because it’s accessing your parasympathetic nervous system. That’s one reason, yeah. It activates a lot but…

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, CrisMarie, this is the good stuff in terms of it’s simple, it’s actionable, it’s tactical, and I have heard it before, so that’s why I love to hear it. Thank you.

CrisMarie Campbell
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, there we have some comforting approaches when you’re in the heat of the moment, so that’s really handy. Thank you. Well, then let’s discuss maybe the actual content of the conflict in terms of what makes it come about and how do we engage it well in terms of actual maybe word choice or do’s and don’ts?

CrisMarie Campbell
Well, I think, Pete, most of us sometimes we’re not aware we just bumped into conflict. Like, if you’re upset about something I’ve said, I may not be aware of it, that, “Oh, my gosh, we’re, all of a sudden, in conflict.” So, to be aware and checking what are the signs and signals that somebody is upset. A feeler is probably hyper-aware, could be, scanning, “Are you okay with me?” that sort of thing. And if you are, let’s say, somebody gets defensive when you’re saying something, and you’re kind of taken off guard, the key that I usually suggest is rather than respond or apologize, is actually just reflect back what you’re hearing them say, like, “Oh, so it sounds like you think I don’t like your idea and I’m actually trying to put you down. Is that what you’re thinking right now?”

Because, one, if I take the time to reflect back, I’m buying myself time if I’m escalated or heightened. I’m also letting this person know that I hear them and see them and that they matter. I’m not agreeing with them. I’m just reflecting back what they’ve heard. And that, I know when somebody does it to me, I often settle down, and go, “Yeah, that is what I think is happening,” if I’m brave enough to acknowledge that. And then that’s a place of starting if you do bump into defensiveness. Or even if you’re defensive, you can reflect back what somebody else is saying as a way of buying yourself time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s a handy tip right there. And is there anything else that you recommend in terms of particular, I don’t know, scripts or specific words that seem to really help out frequently?

CrisMarie Campbell
Well, reflecting back is good. And then, also, usually, the heat comes up inside of me if I think you’ve said something that I take as like disrespect. That’s how it lands over here and that’s when I get upset. So, rather than just assuming that’s what you meant to do, is actually stepping back and asking, “So, I heard you say the Olympics were dumb. I’m wondering, was it your intention to insult me and my Olympic background? I just want to check.” So, I’m pulling something.

Pete Mockaitis
Has anybody said, “Yes. Yes, CrisMarie, I’m trying to stick it to you”?

CrisMarie Campbell
But you’re usually not trying to stick it to me. You’re usually just being you, but I take offense to it. And if I can say, rather than just react, like, “Pete, stop acting that way. You’re such a jerk,” which often people do. Rather than doing that to just, “Wait a minute, is that what your intention was because that’s how it’s landing over here?” And often you can say, “Well, yeah, I was in a snarky mood. I was trying to give it to you.” And then there’s something we can talk about, “Well, I don’t like that.” Or you can say, “Well, no, I was just teasing you,” or whatever is happening for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That is helpful. And then tell us what not to do. Those are some top things you recommend we do do. And what should we not do?

CrisMarie Campbell
Well, a lot of times what happens is we take in information through our senses, what we see and hear, and then it goes through our own personal filter. And this is all our historic significant emotional events, our gender, our culture, our race, what’s ever happened to us. And we have this giant data table in our head that says, “This is good and this is bad,” and out pops our story. And the problem that most people have is we think our story is right or fact.

“And so, it’s clear you don’t respect me,” that might be something that I lead with. We’re like, “No, no, no, don’t lead with your story.” Actually, break it down and say, “Well, I heard you say this. My story is you disrespect me but I want to actually check it out and find out what is going on with you right now.” So, one, break it down, and, two, check it out. That’s another language thing.

So, you’re not saying, “Am I right or not?” You’re just saying, “What fits and what doesn’t fit?” so it creates room for dialogue in this whole interchange. So, what you don’t want to do is assume your story is right. What you do want to do is break it down, check it out, and come to the conversation with some vulnerability and realness, and also curiosity about maybe, just maybe, you aren’t right about how this person is responding to you in that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really handy in terms of I guess this entangling honest misunderstandings and I think that really does cover a lot because most people most of the time are not trying to stick it to you. Can you share then when we think about healthy conflict versus unhealthy conflict, are there a couple sort of principles or guidelines that you recommend that just sort of all professionals follow all the time?

CrisMarie Campbell
Well, there’s no one right way to be. Like, even teams, different collections of people have different things that they think is okay. Like, you can work with a team in New York and they’re into really hardnose teasing, and then somebody, a team in L.A. and they’re all very polite and nice. Those could be any two spots. So, each collection of people has to figure out what fits for them and in relationships.

I think if I could give kind of…when you’re stuck in a spot, do you want to be relational or do you want to be right? And, quite often, we get stuck trying to be right because that’s what we’re trained to do in school is get the right answer. That’s what got us the good grades. And that is just never going to be an influential relationship tool. If I proved that I’m right to you, what does that make you?

Pete Mockaitis
Wrong.

CrisMarie Campbell
Yeah. Who wants to be wrong? So I would say notice, if you’re trying to be right, or do you want to be relational? And can you actually bring some curiosity even if you think that…Like, we were dealing with a group and we work a lot with teams of people. That’s often what we come in and do. And so, my examples are related to that.

But we had a team, it was an executive team in China, and we had done kind of a one day of healthy how to get along, deal with tough conversations, and then we’re dealing with their business strategy. And they were coming up to something, and everybody was kind of agreeing except for this one woman and she had a differing agree. Well, they got so mad at her. It was almost like they were going to back her into a corner like, “No, you have to agree with us.”

And we said, “Time out. Wait a minute. Do you remember any of those tools that we taught you?” And so, one person said, “Okay, I want to see if I can do this.” At first, he went over and sat next to her, so not right across from her, but next to her, and said, “Okay,” and this is a magic question we suggest you ask in your relationships at work when you’re at really big odds and you can’t get through, is, “Tell me, why is this so important to you?” And he said, “You keep pounding on this one idea. None of us agree with you. Tell me, why is this so important to you?”

And she started to talk, and he was reflecting back, he was doing that really well. And then, all of a sudden, you saw that, like, we’re going through interpreters. But, all of a sudden, you could tell like lightbulbs started going off in his head because he had slowed down the conversation enough to get what was underneath the strategy. So, they were all fighting over strategies, but he said, “Why is this so important to you?” And she was talking about how to grow the business in a whole different way, and then the whole room lit up, and they totally took in her idea and changed their strategy to incorporate it only because he was willing to slow down enough to try to understand what was going on with her.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is powerful and I think a lot of times, we just sort of assume that the other side is aware of these strategic implications, and we’re just sort of ticked off, like, “What’s wrong with these people? Why on earth would you be advocating these things which are diametrically opposed to what we obviously need to be doing?” And then they say, “Oh, yeah, we actually kind of forgot about that thing that we said we were supposed to be doing. Oh, I do kind of see.” So, that’s excellent.

And I’m curious. Like, I know that a lot of times, we want to move quickly and we want to have something close-ish to consensus and we find that holdout irritating. Like, “You’re slowing us down and being difficult. Now, cut it out.” But I think most of the time we don’t say it like that. But what are some like maybe the words or phrases that, if we hear ourselves saying them or hear someone else say them, we should be on the lookout, like, “Ooh, watch out. It sounds like you’re quashing dissent or destroying psychological safety to get the benefit of those holdouts”?

CrisMarie Campbell
Yeah, I think it is like, “Could you just…? Like, what is your problem?” That would probably be one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
“Is this fun for you to slow all of us down and be annoying?”

CrisMarie Campbell
Because, again, usually people are just…they are putting the world together very differently, and so, yeah, “Could you just stop being a problem? You’re always the naysayer. Why are you such a pain? We just all need to agree.” And we don’t actually believe in consensus. We believe in having each person, kind of as adults, we don’t need to get our way but we do need to feel heard and considered.

So, if you have that naysayer who contend to be a scapegoat or the black sheep, if you can slow down and see how are you putting the world together, because this happens all the time with Susan and I, we work together. And she puts the world together so differently. And I have to admit, my first impulse is, “You’re just dumb. No way.” I have my arrogance about me because it’s so clear to me. And I have been confronted with, when I actually slow down and listen to her, it’s that same aha like, “Oh, wow, I did not think about that.”

And this is so important with what we’re going through today in our divides because it’s like we all collect our different pieces of data differently and put a story around it. Most of us want health and safety and success, economic, and all these things, but we’re almost too afraid to talk about it because we’re talking about that topline, like, “You’re right,” “You’re wrong,” versus, “Wait a minute. How did you come to that conclusion?” That would be another good question, like, “Help me understand how you came to your conclusion,” and slow down and don’t interrupt how they’re putting the pieces together so you can see what’s underneath that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it when someone shares a magic question, which you did, “Why is this so important to you or what makes that so important to you?” Any other magic questions that we should all know?

CrisMarie Campbell
Yeah, “Help me understand how you put the world together, how you put these pieces together.” That’s one. Like, “Help me connect the dots.” And then the other is, “Why is this so important to you?” Because what happens, this is a really good one in couples because we also work with couples. And often, “You want to save money, I want to spend money,” we’re focusing on that. But when we slow it down, and couples usually want to get to a solution, work teams want to get to a solution, and so a lot of this is about slowing down and having the conversation, which seems like such a timewaster in the moment but it’ll save you so much rework in the end.

And you ask, “Why is this so important to you?” You’re going to get to people talking about what their values are, and why this matters, and what they’re really trying to get at. And that’s really the influence piece. This is a neat little tool that you can use this at home, you can use it with a coworker, if you are really stuck in loggerheads. It’s usually best done one-on-one, it’s called the 5-5-5, where, let’s say, you have a topic, let’s say you and your business partner are talking about expanding, and one agrees and one doesn’t.

And so, this 5-5-5 is you take the first five minutes and person A just talks about their position on that topic. There’s no interrupting, B is just listening and letting it in and letting it soak in, and A has enough time, five minutes could feel like forever. You don’t have to fill that whole space but it’s kind of like your space, your block of time to kind of, “Hmm. Well, I think this is why it’s really important to me. And, wow, I haven’t thought about that.” And so, what happens is the person is thinking out loud a bit more and they’re connecting the dots, and B is witnessing. And you use a timer, at the end of five minutes, then you flip, and B talks and A listens. Again, uninterrupted, not with a lot of reactions or theatrics, just kind of taking it in. You don’t have to take notes. You’re just kind of letting it wash over you.

And the last five minutes is a dialogue where that’s where you can ask clarifying questions, or, “Wait a minute. Did you just say that because I disagree?” You can have more of the dialogue. But at the end of the 15 minutes, you stop talking about it. It’s not a 5-5-45, it’s a 5-5-5. And what happens is the idea is not to come to solution. It’s more this investigative process. And if you have a stuck issue and you did this like once a week, or once a day, or whatever it was the right rhythm, you will find a much better solution and you’ll at least know you’ll have so much more clarity about what’s going on with each of you and what you want to do in that situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, what I really love about that is that, in a way, so it’s time-bound, so that’s great, it’s not going to carry on forever so you feel a bit more maybe safe or comfortable going there, it’s like, “Oh, boy, this is such a mess. I don’t even want to start.” It’s like, “Well, hey, no, we’ll do it in 15 minutes.” And, in a way, the fact that it’s likely incomplete after the 15 minutes, almost creates an improved condition to have great ideas in terms of like, “Hey, I know some stuff I didn’t know before, you know some stuff you didn’t know before, and now as we live our lives, we go to sleep, we wake up, we’re in the shower, like new ideas can come to life over the interim period before the next conversation pops up.”

CrisMarie Campbell
That’s true and I love that. And what you’re describing is what we think happens in the brain. Your brain keeps working on it in the gap, and that’s the same thing when you hold for the tension and you don’t run to a solution or opt out of the conflict. Like the energy is held and things start to percolate that’s why new ideas emerge with a group or a pair of you versus just the same thing that happens in your brain happens in the system, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, tell me, I’m also curious, if it’s someone more senior, like your boss or your boss’ boss, how do you play that game? If you have a difference of opinion and you’re extra uncomfortable about bringing it up, what do you recommend?

CrisMarie Campbell
There was a study, it wasn’t done by us, it was where this organizational development group, they would do a survey, you know, they did their regular company surveys, and they said, “Hey, can we tack on a question just for our own research when we’re doing your survey?” And they said, “Sure.” And the question they added on is, “Who’s most influential in your company?” And if the name showed up three or five times, no big deal. But 30 times, they ask if they could shadow that person.

And what they found is, first, all the influential person weren’t the VPs. They were scattered all around in the organization. And what they found is that those people were most influential when…they were pretty average performers, not too stellar, but 5% of the time, when there was a difficult conversation, they showed up differently. And what they did is rather than let it go by or assume they couldn’t speak to a person in power is they would actually basically check out their story and say, “Hey, I heard you say this. I’m thinking this,” so they’re saying, “I’m thinking, I’m making up this story. My assumption is, my theory is, the story I’m telling myself is blank, but I want to check it out with you. Do you agree or disagree?”

And that simple model of, “I heard you say this,” or, “I saw you do this, so my story is blank, but I want to check it out with you,” is a very, “I’m speaking tentatively. I’m not attacking. I’m not assuming.” That was so powerful in shifting the dynamics of the discussion that they were influential in specific situations, powerful situations.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s beautiful because, I mean, anyone can do that and to know that that can get you on the most influential list with one little trick. It takes such courage I think to do it but it’s nice to know that there’s a framework. And it’s very hard to imagine the person on the other end saying, “How dare you?” So, it’s like, “Oh, well, no, that’s not what I meant.” Or, I guess the worst-case scenario is like, “Yeah, you’re darn right that’s what I meant. If you don’t like it, you can get out.” It’s like, “Oh, okay. Well, I guess I know now where we stand and, in a way, that’s helpful too.”

CrisMarie Campbell
Right. That’s clarity. I really appreciate that, Pete. You’re exactly right. Do you really want to be working for that type of person in that sort of situation? And it does take courage. And we say courage is vulnerability and curiosity. We call those the two magic ingredients – vulnerability and curiosity. The willingness to share, “This is how I’m putting the world together,” and most people just want to ask a question, like, “Do you really agree?” whatever it is. They don’t want to reveal themselves. But you are more influential when you do speak up, and say, “Hey, this is what I saw, or this is what I heard, and so this is the impact over here, the story I’m telling myself but I want to check it out.”

And nine times out of ten, when people don’t take those times to speak up, they start to feel smaller, like a victim, and resentful in the situation if they have to take on more work or things like that. And even if I do speak up to you, you’re in a position of power and I speak up and it doesn’t go well, or I don’t get what I want, you don’t change, you’re my boss and you still give me this same amount of workload, you’re right, at least I have that clarity, and I also have my own back. I spoke up for myself. And that’s often what I am coaching.

I typically coach women leaders who are successful. They’re smart even assertive but struggle speaking up to power in those 5% of the times to actually create the influence that they want and, I mean, because that was me. I remember my boss, I was working at Arthur Andersen for a big project and I was leading a team of six and we mapped out the strategy. And my manager came in, a senior partner, and he said, “No, you’re not going to do that, you’re going to do all this.” And he changed the whole thing. And I thought, “That’s not going to solve the client’s problem.” But I didn’t say that. I just asked a question, I said, “Do you think that’s going to solve the client’s problem?” And he barked at me, “Yes! Get back to work.” And I was catapulted back to the colonel, my dad’s dinner table, and I shut up.

We got to the end of the project, we did it his way, it didn’t solve the client’s problem. And, of course, we wanted to have more work at this client so all the partners came in, they invited the vice president in, and all the project managers were sitting around the sides of the room, you know, the peons. And they said, “So, how have we been doing?” And he goes…this is a humiliating experience. He actually pointed to me and he goes, “Well, you know that project, CrisMarie ran? That’s a disaster. Complete disaster.”

Now, my manager was sitting in the room, he didn’t say, “Oh, no, she followed my strategy.” I took the blame for it, and I was like, “Okay, I got to figure out how to speak up because this is career-limiting.” And it often is when we don’t learn how to speak up to power and especially bully-type power. We wind up feeling marginalized and less than, and we energetically shrink and take less risks, which I think is horrible.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you have to finish the story now, CrisMarie. So, then what did you do in the moment?

CrisMarie Campbell
I did not know. I did not know. I actually met Susan like in a few months, and I saw her deal with a group of people, this is why I probably thought of the bully. She was facilitating this group, and this guy was just being not very…I don’t want to say anything bad on your podcast. He just wasn’t being a nice guy. And she said, “Hold on a minute.” And she went toe-to-toe to him, and he backed down, and the rest of the group took a sigh of relief, and I thought, “I want to know what she does.”

And so, that actually was the start of our working relationship because I wanted to work with her, and that was 20 years ago. I brought her into a project, a different project than Arthur Andersen, and she just was willing to stand up to people in power in a way that was strong and worked. And I thought…and so that’s how I solved it. I changed my whole career.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is this sort of using the tools that you’ve spoken about here? It’s like…

CrisMarie Campbell
It’s using the tools and it’s also really, Pete, I had to go through my own un-programming of my nervous system based on my upbringing with the colonel, the dad, because I basically was terrified. But that wasn’t because of what was happening in the room right now. It was actually because of how I grew up. And so, when I realized, “Wow, this is just like…” how you know it’s an old pattern is it happens every time, you feel the same way. That grip on your shoulders. Mine was like, “Ugh.”

I remember I was in a situation where I recognized it. I looked down, my shoulders curled…I couldn’t breathe, and I went to the bathroom, and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m terrified of conflict,” and I was shaking. And I came out and I said, “You guys…” this was with a group of friends and they were debating, and I said, “I can’t…I need you to stop.” And they were actually more curious but it was the start of me unraveling this pattern from before.

And once I did that, you know, you can have all the tools but unless you do kind of that discovery work, and it’s often in the body in the nervous system, that is what really creates the free…the courage, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
This is lovely. Thank you. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

CrisMarie Campbell
Yes. “It’s not what you do, it’s what you do next,” and that’s from Susan Clarke who I work with. And she’s a great believer in, “Hey, if you say something, and somebody across from you is like looking hurt or upset, it’s not not to say it, but then to be interested.” Like, “Whoa, okay, something I just said landed over there the way I didn’t intend. Tell me what’s going on,” and to be interested. So, “It’s not what you do, it’s what you do next.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

CrisMarie Campbell
Currently I am reading Permission to Feel, and it is a book about how emotions are so important and we try to pretend they’re not there, and it’s really harmful for us. And so, how to actually deal with your own emotions as a tool to help you make better decisions and have a happier life.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

CrisMarie Campbell
It’s going to be feeling my feet and my seat because I probably do that 20 times a day. It seems simple but it’s something that brings me back inside of myself versus trying to please or achieve, and it helps me settle down and make better decisions. It’s free.

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

CrisMarie Campbell
A lot of people like “Do I want to be relational or do I want to be right?” They think about that in their primary relationships because we so often want to be right when with our spouse, and that seems to really resonate for them. Ask yourself that in the midst of a tense situation.

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

CrisMarie Campbell
You can check out our website which is ThriveInc.com and I’m also CrisMarieCampbell on LinkedIn and Facebook, there’s not too many of those that spell their name like I do.

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

CrisMarie Campbell
I would say slow down and ask the people around you, “Why is this so important to you?” to really find out how they’re putting their world together. And while you’re doing that, especially if you’re getting triggered, feel your feet and your seat so you can keep coming back to yourself and not worry about changing them or agreeing or thinking you have to do something different because that’s usually when we get ourselves upset.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. CrisMarie, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck in all of your conflict situations.

CrisMarie Campbell
Thank you, Pete. I appreciate that. You, too.

550: How to Free Yourself from Conflict with Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler

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Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler shares what to do when your attempts to resolve conflict fail.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The simplest way to stop conflict from overwhelming you
  2. How to untangle the complex web of recurring conflict
  3. The smartest thing to do when a conflict goes nowhere

About Jennifer:

Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler is founder and CEO of Alignment Strategies Group, the New York-based consulting firm that counsels CEOs and their executive teams on how to optimize organizational health and growth. Author of OPTIMAL OUTCOMES: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life (HarperBusiness, Feb. 25, 2020), she is a keynote speaker at Fortune 500 companies, public institutions and innovative, fast-growing startups, where she inspires audiences of all kinds, including those at Google, Harvard and TEDx, and in her popular course at Columbia. A former counterterrorism research fellow with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she is a graduate of Tufts University and holds a Ph.D. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler Interview Transcript

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

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Pete, thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig in. First, I understand that you hiked the Appalachian Trail. And did you do the whole thing or what’s the story here?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
I did not do the whole thing, although that’s a nice goal. I’ve been on many parts of it but the part that I write about in the book is four days in the New Hampshire White Mountains part of the Appalachian Trail.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Cool. And so, can you tell us any key lessons learned or what inspired you to get out there?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, what inspired me to get out there is two things. One, on the personal level, I just love being outdoors. I find connecting to nature to be just spiritually grounding and nurturing and fun, so that’s one piece of what inspired me. And then the other piece is what I write about in the book, is I was in the middle of writing the chapter on emotions when I decided to go on the trip. And I decided that what I would do was experiment with feeling each of my emotions as they arose and just noticing them and naming them, identifying them, and then seeing if I could just be with them and let them go.

And that is exactly what I did. And it was a very rainy few days on the trail, and I began to notice that the emotions were really, like the Buddha say, like the weather. They came and they went just like the rain came down heavier and then came down lighter, and then sometimes went away, and the sun came out. And so, it was great learning about what it was like to really feel the emotions as they come because there were so few distractions on the trail like there are in the big city.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, so that’s intriguing right there. So, what is the implication for professionals or folks dealing with conflict that that is how it works with emotions, they come and go like the weather? What does that mean for us?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, first of all, it means we do not all need to go hiking on a trail for four days.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, fast forward, it’s just you.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Or even hours, right. What it means is it can be important to just pause. That might mean 30 seconds of pausing while you’re on the commuter train, and you look up from your phone and look out the window at the view, or that might mean in the middle of switching computer applications, taking a deep breath and standing up and then sitting back down and keep on going. But any practice that you can do. Frequency is, I think, much more important than duration. So, doing something like that once a day, or twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, is very helpful.

For all those people out there wondering, the question I get so often is, “What do I do when I’m stuck in conflict and it’s like the heat of the moment, and I’m just so triggered and I’m so angry?” One of the best practices that I know of is to, on a regular basis, pause and notice, “What am I feeling right now?” That’s all there is to do. And it can be very uncomfortable, of course, but we gotta do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Jen, we’re on a great start.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then I want to hear, so you got this book Optimal Outcomes and I love things being optimal. Fun fact, the name of my company is Optimality LLC. So, tell us, what made you conclude that the world needed you to write this book Optimal Outcomes? What’s sort of like the main issue we’re addressing here?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. Well, first of all, I’ll say I love that we both like things being optimal. I think there are strengths and limitations to that, which I can talk about. But the reason why I think the world needs this book is because all of the conflict books that I know of that I’ve been sharing with people for years that are great, all help people resolve conflict. And the problem is sometimes conflict is not resolvable. I want to say that again.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m hearing Gottman echoing in my ear.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Continue, yeah. It’s not resolvable.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, not all conflict is resolvable. And I think that that can come as a surprise to many, many people because many of us have been inculcated in this idea that we must be able to collaboratively resolve conflict when it arises. And what we know from now, the last 40 years of conflict literature, is that conflict naturally begets conflict. That is the nature of the beast. So, if that’s true, sometimes we may be able to use collaborative win-win principle negotiation methods in order to resolve it, but sometimes we won’t be able to. Sometimes that conflict will turn out to be what I called resolution resistant.

So, this book is all about what to do when you find yourself in recurring conflict, that is conflict that doesn’t go away no matter how many times you’ve tried to resolve it, and that’s what Optimal Outcomes is all about. It’s about how to free yourself in those kinds of situations.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that sounds very helpful and important. And, yes, I’m thinking about Dr. John Gottman, I think that’s one of the main points he puts forth. This is the legendary, for listeners, relationship therapist who can predict divorce rates based on observing them. At first, it seems like a depressing thought, like, “Oh, many conflicts. You’re going to have the same argument until the day you die with your spouse.” Like, “Oh, wow, that’s a huge bummer.” But, in a way, it really kind of frees you, it’s like, my wife is always going to be super into safety as the top, top, top priority, maybe more than the average person, has a Master’s of Public Health.

And I want to be more into efficiency, optimality, productivity than the average person. And sometimes these things coincide beautifully with our vacuum robot, safety and efficiency, and sometimes they are not at all in accord, and that’s kind of just what we’re going to deal with until we die. But, knowing that, we’re able to sort of deal with these matters more healthfully and productively. So, tell us, what do we do when we find ourselves in that situation?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. Well, Pete, what you were just talking about reminds me of how I define an optimal outcome. The definition of an optimal outcome is one that both takes into account the greatest ideal future we can imagine in that situation and it also takes into account the reality of the situation that we’re facing. And I think, again, one of the places where we tend to get stuck is that we’ve been taught that the way to reach an optimal outcome, or the way to resolve conflict rather, is to imagine what we want and then offer other people options, and that we’re taking into account what they want. And the problem is sometimes they don’t know exactly what they want, and we don’t know exactly what we want because we’ve buried some of our interests and needs and desires inside of ourselves.

So, because of that, it can be very difficult sometimes to do that classic collaborative problem-solving. And we need to take into account the reality of who it is that we’re facing, the reality of the constraints of the situation, even the reality of who we ourselves are, just like you were starting to talk about. You sound like you have some self-awareness about you like things to be optimal and your wife is all about safety. But, for many of us, when we don’t have that self-awareness or we’re not willing to admit certain things about ourselves, it can be very difficult to take those realities into account. So, that is part of the definition of an optimal outcome, so it does take those realities into account.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, yeah, that’s really connecting. And I don’t know why you got me thinking about contractors right now in terms of, because sometimes I wonder, “Why is it hard to get them on the phone or to show up when they say they will?” And part of me wonders, like, “Maybe this is somehow optimal for them in a way that I’m not even aware of.” And so, what you’re surfacing here is that maybe they’re not even aware of it, and so awareness is a key foundational step. How do you recommend we get some more of that?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, I’ll give a name to what it is that you just mentioned. That is distinguishing between our ideal values and our shadow values. So, our ideal values are those things that we care about in life that we’re proud to say we care about, things like adventure, spirituality, customer first, collaboration. These are things that people tend to be proud of. That’s in contrast to things that we really care about in life that we’re not proud to admit that we care about. Tend to be things like everyone’s different, and I can talk about it more about how some people’s ideal values are actually other people’s shadow values, and vice versa.

But some classic shadow values, in my experience working with thousands of students and clients, is that things like status, recognition, power, financial security, competition. These are things, ease, right? So, in the case of, in the example that you just gave about a contractor who doesn’t call you back, they may open up a business because they want to be helpful to people and do great work and get paid for their work. And yet there may be things that they care about, like quality of life, ease of not having to keep track of phone numbers, or I don’t know, I’m not a contractor so I don’t know what those things are. But it can help us just to imagine what might be driving someone to do or not do what it is that we hope or want them to do.

And it’s just in guessing even what someone else’s shadow values might be, even if we’re wrong, just the act of wondering what their shadow values might be can help raise our empathy for them. And so, even if we’re wrong, it’s a very helpful exercise to do. The rewards are worth the risk of getting it wrong.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that gets you thinking in terms of like, “Oh, maybe this poor roofer has just been nonstop and needs a break.” And I like that list of shadow values. This reminds me of, I don’t know, St. Augustine or someone who laid out sort of money, power, honor, fame, comfort, pleasure was kind of the framework, and it seems like there’s some rich overlap to what you’re describing, so this is really timeless stuff in the human condition. So, okay, that’s a great step is we become aware and think and maybe guess about some of the shadow values that others are having. And so, where do we go from there?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
So, this is only one of eight practices that are part of the optimal-outcomes method. A nice place to begin, so I dove into this idea of looking at your values and other people’s values, and I should say looking at shadow values is not only about looking at other people or guessing at other people’s shadow values but, obviously, a really great thing to ask yourself is, “What might my own shadow values be that might be driving my behavior in this situation that I might not be proud of that I’ve pushed down?”

But doing that can really, really help free you from conflict, because once you realize what’s been driving your behavior, you have the power to either own up to it and stop doing it, or own up to it and say, “You know what, this is something I’m going to own, and I’m going to do it right out. So, if authority is important to me, and I wish it wasn’t, well, maybe I need to start being more direct, and that would help in this situation where I’m confusing people because I’m trying to be so collaborative but they don’t understand what it is that I want them to do.” So, that’s values.

But a great place to begin is about mapping out the conflict. So, so often, when we’re stuck in conflict, it can seem, on the face of it, like it’s just a very simple situation, “It’s between me and you, and you’re wrong, and I‘m right.” Right? And so, the thing is when we’re stuck in recurring conflict, it’s usually not that simple. If it were, we probably would’ve figured out how to get out of the situation a long time ago, or had resolved it a long time ago.

So, a great tool is to map it out. And, in fact, people can go, if they’re interested in an online, a very cool online mapping software, or even paper and pencil, you can go to OptimalOutcomesBook.com and download the paper and pencil template and also find this very cool online software conflict mapping tool. So, what you do is put down on your map as many, first of all, the people that are obviously involved in the situation. And then your job is to add as many people to your map as you can, people who are related in the situation that you hadn’t thought of before.

And I not only want you to put people on your map, but also any other events, timelines, background, history, anything that has impacted the situation, and also anything that might be impacted by the situation, so people that are impacted or could be impacted by. And, all of a sudden, your map starts to have some texture to it. And it’s amazing to me, it can sometimes take people less than five minutes to sketch out a map like this and, all of a sudden, the lightbulbs are going off and people realize levers for change on that map that they had never thought about before. It also really can help raise empathy for other people, and also compassion for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that sounds very exciting. So, could you maybe give us an example of someone, they got a conflict, and they hunker down and they make the map, and what sort of results for them?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. So, I have a client who is named Bob, I write about him in the book, and he was in a very long standing conflict with the head of sales of his organization. He’s the CEO of a startup tech company. And they had been growing by leaps and bounds, and the salary that he had been paying to his head of sales was completely out of whack, way above market rates, and he knew that he needed to lower it, but every time he tried to bring it up with Sally, the same thing happened. She would get very angry, they would start screaming at each other, and they would walk away and shut down for weeks, sometimes months. By the time he and I started working together, they had not talked to each other for a number of months, and that was a big problem because they needed to run the business together.

So, when I asked him to map out the situation, at first it was just very obvious to him, well, it’s him and Sally. But a few minutes later, when I asked him to put more people on the map, what he realized is, well, the executive team is involved and, particularly the CFO, who had been pressuring him to lower Sally’s compensation. And then he realized he had to put his own family and his background on the map because his ideas about his father and his brother, who were these entrepreneurs, who had taught him that entrepreneurial risk-taking was important. And, also, the way he grew up as an adult in the software field, that touted collaboration as the highest virtue, had made it very difficult for him to be authoritative with Sally and be direct about what he needed and wanted from her.

He also puts Sally’s family and background on the map, and noticed that he knew this from stories she had told him, but he realized she came from a poor family. Even though she made so much money now, she still might have fears about not having enough because of how she grew up. He also put their VC, venture capital investors on the map because they were also pressuring him to lower Sally’s compensation, and that influenced the situation.

So, all of a sudden, a situation that began with him thinking it was just him and Sally yelling at each other on a street corner, it turned out to be a little more complex, and that helped him see these levers for change of people that could potentially be helpful and ways he could have more helpful behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then tell us, what’s the end to this story?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. Well, the ending to the story, I will let you find out in the book, but I will say that he was really able to see because he had been pointing his finger at her, saying, “Why is she so greedy? She’s so greedy. Why can’t she just understand that for the sake of the business she should take a cut? Her salary is just completely out of whack.” And noticing that she was just driven by fear from how she grew up helped him not forgive and forget the behavior that he didn’t like. He didn’t like that she had yelled at him and walked away from him, that was not appropriate behavior in his opinion, or mine. It didn’t make that go away, but it did help him calm down, and it did help him stop yelling back, and it did enable him to actually decide to have a conversation with her.

And the mapping also helped him realize he had beenpressured by the CFO and the VC investors to have this conversation with Sally, but he had gotten no guidance from them, he hadn’t asked them for help on how to have the conversation. So, mapping helped him do that, helped him go to them and ask for advice and help about how to do this. So, those are just a couple of examples of how his map helped him.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Thank you. So, then you’ve got a term, a distinction between conflict freedom versus conflict resolution. Can you kind of help us get our arms around this distinction?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. Well, conflict resolution is what I’ve talked about before, which is thinking that a collaborative win-win style of negotiation is going to help you resolve a particular conflict. But so often it doesn’t work or it’s about safety, right? We could go back to the example you gave about you and your wife. You’re talking about things that are values that are near and dear to your heart. If someone cares deeply about safety, or someone, I’ve worked with plenty of executives who complain about their CEO who cares so much about financial security that that CEO can’t be innovative or can’t put resources in the places that the person thinks they need to in order to allow the organization to grow and innovate because they’re so worried about quarterly financial reports.

And so, whenever we care about things that are deeply ingrained in us from a values perspective, we’re not always going to be able to resolve that conflict and tie it up neatly in a bow. Instead, our job is to free ourselves from that conflict loop. I call it a conflict loop instead. So, the way the conflict loop works, the way we get stuck in it, is that we have conflict habits. There are actually four conflict habits that I’ve identified in the book. And our conflict habits get locked in patterns, in a pattern, with someone else’s conflict habit, or another group’s conflict habit, and those conflict habits make it very difficult to break free from that cycle. So, it’s just a conflict cycle that goes around and around and around.

And so, the goal there is not to resolve anything, sometimes there’s not even anything necessarily really to resolve when we look at that. A classic conflict pattern is blame-blame. So, we blame someone, right? So, that’s what Bob and Sally were stuck in, they were blaming each other. He would tell her he needed to lower her compensation, she would yell back that that wasn’t going to be possible, and then they would just call each other names and how horrible they each were to each other, and they were blaming each other.

So, when you’re stuck in a blame-blame conflict pattern, it can be very difficult to resolve, but you can take what I call pattern-breaking action to free yourself from that situation. And the beauty of freeing yourself from a locked pattern is that it doesn’t take anyone else’s cooperation. You don’t need anyone else’s help or cooperation in order to free yourself from that conflict loop. All you need are your own resources which is the practices in the optimal outcomes method, looking at what your own shadow values are, looking at what other people’s shadow values are, mapping out the situation, using your emotions in your favor, not taking other people’s emotions on as if they’re your own, but keeping those separate from you. And there’s a whole bunch of work you can do around that.

Designing a pattern-breaking path, so not just taking one pattern-breaking action but actually having your actions build on one another over time, because it probably wasn’t one action that got you stuck in this. It’s been going on for a while so it’s not only one action that’s going to get you out. It’s going to be a whole series of simple but surprisingly different pattern-breaking actions that will get you out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you please give us an example? So, some pattern-breaking actions that come together in a pattern-breaking path. What are some examples for how that comes to life?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, the beauty of a pattern-breaking action is that it’s basically anything that’s not what you’ve already been doing. So, typically, when we get stuck in conflict is because we’re doing the same habitual conflict habit over and over and over again, and expecting a different result. So, in the case of Bob and Sally, they’ve been blaming each other. In other cases, you might be blaming someone, and they’re running away and hiding from you. They’re not engaging. They’re shutting down. Or you may be relentlessly trying to collaborate with somebody and they are shut down, they are not cooperating with you, and you’re just offering them option after option, spinning your wheels, wasting your time, wasting energy, focus, money.

So, a pattern-breaking action is anything that’s different from what you’ve been doing. And, obviously, that’s different in any situation, in all different kinds of situation depending on what you’ve been doing. But the beauty of it is that there’s like a bazillion different possibilities, right? So, I also like to say you want your pattern-breaking action to be, ideally, something constructive, so I would not advise, if you’ve been blaming someone else, then like go blame yourself instead. No, that’s not what I’m talking about. But what I am talking about is it could be that if you’ve been blaming, blaming, blaming, and you take a pause, notice the pattern that you’re stuck in, and decide that you want to do something that’s pattern-breaking, something different, it could be you decide to kind of hang back for a little while and not do anything at all.

Sometimes just pausing is a pattern-breaking intervention, in fact. And if people want to find out what their conflict habit is, you can also go online at OptimalOutcomesBook.com/assessment and you can find the conflict habit assessment. It takes like seven minutes. It’s totally free. And so then, you could also ask your friends and colleagues to take the assessment as well. And once you know your conflict habit, and other people know theirs, you can figure out what is the pattern we’ve gotten stuck in, and then you have each some ideas about other things you could do instead.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you could take the assessment to learn what specifically is yours in the habit. Can you give us sort of the menu, the rundown of options, in terms of, “These are the conflict habits.” So, one of them is blaming. And what are the others?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
One of them is blame others, one of them is blame yourself, blame and shame yourself. So, some of us gets stuck in that negative self-talk cycle. One of them is shutdown, so we avoid to the point of letting the conflict brew until it boils over and then we have a crisis on our hands. And then the final one is relentlessly collaborate, so we will collaborate even when other people refuse to cooperate with us. So, we’re offering option after option, and people are not working with us.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, and that’s the whole menu right there?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
That’s just four, yeah. So, there’s 16 different patterns that can emerge out of those four.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, intriguing. Okay. And so then, when you say just a pattern-breaking, it’s just a matter of doing anything other than that, so it could be one of the other three. Or is there something completely different beyond those?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Definitely, things different beyond those, but it’s very idiosyncratic so I can’t say to you, “Here’s the thing that you must do to break the pattern,” because we need to know what it is that you’re dealing with. So, in Bob and Sally’s case where they had been blaming each other, Bob had to take a step back and take a break. And then pattern-breaking action for him was that, instead of surprising Sally as they walked out of the client lunch with telling her that he needed to talk to her about her compensation package, which is what he had done previously, he realized that he could do better by giving her some advanced notice and asking her when was good for her to talk.

So, he did a bunch of different things that were pattern-breaking. Like I said, he kind of created this pattern-breaking path. So, one of the things he did was not surprise her at the last minute, asked her in advance to talk, emailed her, asked her if it would be helpful for him to send her in advance a proposal for what the package would look like. He also asked her if they could just talk about their relationship first. So, they ended up talking about their relationship, their working relationship, even before they then had the conversation about the compensation package itself, because he realized that their relationship had become so damaged that that actually itself needed to be talked about. So, once you start asking yourself, “What else could I do?” well, there’s lots and lots of ideas in the book about how to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I guess I’m also thinking about. I found that a lot of times breakthroughs happen when you stop and really, I guess, empathize, walk in their shoes, proverbially, and get a sense of, “You know what, she’s probably feeling this because this, this, this, this, this.” And it’s amazing, like, occasionally, it’s sort of like I think maybe we just sort of assume we know and understand, “We all understand what everybody’s thinking.” But then when you actually sort of stop and articulate, it’s like, “Well, hey, let me make sure I understand where you’re coming from.” They say, “Hey, he’s really concerned about this because of these matters, and then it really feels like this under these circumstances.” That can often just be just so powerful for folks with just that empathy, it’s like, “Well, yes, that is exactly how I feel and it feels great that you understand me.” And it’s sort of like we’re already getting somewhere now.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah, and that can happen and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes no matter what you do, you could be the most empathetic person on the face of the earth, and the other person is not interested. And so, sometimes the key is to be able to cut your losses and notice for yourself. So, the last chapter in the book is all about helping people stop living in fantasyland. So, if you’re fantasizing about that kind of conversation happening, and no matter what you’ve done, no matter how much empathy you have for someone, they’re still like a blank wall and just not responding to it, it may be that that relationship is one that’s not going to happen the way that you thought it was. And that’s part of what it means to take into account the reality of who the other person is and what they need and want.

And so, there’s exercises in that last chapter that help you determine whether you should continue to go for that ideal future that you might’ve imagined, or whether walking away is going to be less costly to you and more beneficial to you than you had originally thought. So, it’s basically asking you to do a cost-benefit analysis of what it looks like to stay stuck in conflict, what it might look like to walk away from the relationship or the situation completely, and also what it might look like to go for, to pursue that ideal future that you’ve imagined.

And this can be very striking for many people. So, I’ve seen people who thought that they were just going to keep on trying to have empathy and trying to collaborate with someone else, and then they did that practice of choosing an optimal outcome, and realized that the cost that they thought they would have to pay for walking away from that relationship, whether it was a business relationship, or a personal relationship, or some combination of both, that the costs were actually not as high as they had originally thought. And I’ve seen the opposite happen too. People who thought that the costs of staying put were so high that it was going to make more sense for them to walk away, realized, “Oh, my gosh, the costs for me walking away from my mother, from my best friend, from my co-founder, are so high, that’s a fantasy.”

I’ve worked with many clients who loved to fantasize about walking away, but all that does is it kind of acts like a soothing mechanism, because it makes it that you don’t have to deal with what actually is going on in the moment for you, but all it does is just distract you from what it is that you do have to deal with. And if you are going to stay, let’s stop fantasizing about walking away and really focus on, “What are some pattern-breaking actions I can take in this situation today?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, this is nice. We’ve covered a nice little lineup of some of your eight groundbreaking practices.
Okay, sure thing. Well, now, could you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes, my mentor Dr. Morton Deutsch, who is the father of conflict resolution, always used to tell me, “Prevention is the best medicine,” and I believe he’s right. I’ve quoted him in the book as well. And there are so many parts of life that that quote is relevant to.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
I have many favorite experiments and research, one of them that I talk about in the book is about Dr. Wendy Wood’s research on habits. And what she basically says is, the best way to form new habits is to replace an old habit that you’re not happy with, with a new one. So, rather than trying to get rid of one that’s not working for you, just replace it with something new. And she has a new book out on that as well, and I encourage people to go study her work. She’s really a powerhouse and has done just amazing work in the habits area.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. So, that’s a great study and also a book. Any other favorite books?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes. A friend of mine named Priya Parker wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Art of Gathering and it is just a wonderful book. It’s easy to read, full of great stories, and it’s all about how to gather people together from the informal wedding shower to the formal business meeting, and everything in between.

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

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Pausing. Pausing. It’s a very low-tech tool. I know there are tons of apps out there, Calm and Insight Timer that people love, but I will say just being quiet. It doesn’t take much. I like to just sit quietly every once in a while, and just breathe. And I don’t do it as often as I might like or benefit from but when I do, it is just super helpful to just sit and be quiet.

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

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, it’s something my father told me that I say to a lot of people, “Everything in moderation, and moderation in everything.”

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

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
OptimalOutcomesBook.com is a great place to begin.

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

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes. When you find yourself stuck in recurring conflict, do something different, something pattern-breaking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Jen, thank you for this. And best of luck with the book and all your adventures.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Thank you so much, Pete. You as well. Great to talk with you.

519: How to Have Productive Disagreements with Buster Benson

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Buster Benson says: "The real challenge here is not to solve all disagreements... but to actually learn a bigger perspective through disagreement."
Buster Benson discusses how to conquer your fear of conflict and start disagreeing well.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The surprising cost of avoiding conflict
  2. Eight crucial steps for productive disagreement
  3. What to do when you disagree with your boss

About Buster

Buster Benson is an entrepreneur and a former product leader at Amazon, Twitter, Slack, and Patreon. He’s now editor of and writer for the Better Humans publication on Medium, creator of 750Words.com which brings private journaling to a safe place on the web, and developer of Fruitful Zone, an online platform facilitating healthy discourse. He is also author of the Cognitive Bias cheat sheet with over one million reads.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Buster Benson Interview Transcript

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

Buster Benson
Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be talking to you. There have been no other guests who have created a poster that hangs in my office.

Buster Benson
Oh, wow. Cool.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you have that unique distinction. “The Cognitive Bias Codex,” it is a work of art. And could you maybe share the story of that because I’m thinking it’s so cool?

Buster Benson
Yeah. It was a really strange and long story but like, basically, I have been interested in cognitive biases fairly pretty much my whole life and yet I always felt them really hard to remember. There’s just so many of them, there’s 200 plus, they all have really weird names, like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon so there was no easy way for me to actually internalize what was happening here. And I’ve decided to take a couple of weeks, a couple of years ago, in 2016, to essentially try to eat this entire body of knowledge and figure out how to synthesize it into something I can understand.

And so, what came out of it was this framework where, instead of thinking about biases as mental bugs where your brain is glitching out, they’re actually all there to solve hard problems, like there’s too much information in the world, so we do have to filter some things out. Nothing really makes sense so we do have to connect the dots and fill in the gaps with sometimes generalities and stereotypes. And we also have to do things, like we can’t just sit and talk about it all day long. We got to go out and make decisions and take action, and that means that we have to be confident even though we don’t have all the information in front of us.

And so, all of the biases in the world fit into these categories. And when this poster was written, I figured I might as well make it a visual because this is already still such a hard topic, but make it look really nice, and the poster came out of that. And with a friend of mine, John Manoogian. and he really helped make it look like something beautiful, like a work of art.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, it is and it hangs there and I’ve been wondering if it’s possible for me to get that as a sound wrap, like an acoustic panel, you know, and that’d be the visual so it serves a double duty.

Buster Benson
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
But, anyway, so thank you for that. It’s really cool. And I love some of those names, they’re funny. Some of them are crazy and some of them are intuitive, like the IKEA effect, it’s like, “Oh, that’s exactly what I think it would be.”

Buster Benson
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“I spent all this time assembling something I think it’s worth more because I invest in that.” Is there a particular cognitive bias that shows up for you a lot still today even after all of your research and work?

Buster Benson
Well, that’s the thing is they don’t go away just because you know the name, unfortunately. Yes, so the confirmation bias is obviously one that really affects us today where we tend to not only prefer information that confirms us but, now, we’re actually also just only seeking out sources of information that confirm our biases. So, that’s an important one to think about.

There’s also the one called naïve realism which is really interesting and somewhat depressing, I guess, if you think about it too much. But it’s this idea that we think that what we think of people is what they’re actually thinking, and this happens a lot in conversations and debates and disagreements. We might say, like, “Oh, wait. I don’t understand why you think this.” And suddenly you brain is like, “Here’s a reason why they think it. It’s because they’re dumb,” and then we believe that, and that’s a strange bias that we do because we can’t read minds. We have to fill in the gaps there. But we could also ask the question to fill in the gaps, and especially if they’re right there in front of us. So, that really is on my mind recently.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, and a perfect segue to your recently released book Why Are We Yelling: The Art of Productive Disagreement because I think that’s quite one way that things go sour real fast is if you say, “Well, the reason that person thinks that is because he or she is a moron, or a racist, or hates me.” That gets you into some trouble. So, maybe let’s zoom out a little bit and, say, sort of what’s the big idea behind your latest work here Why Are We Yelling and, yeah, let’s get oriented that way?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, similar to the cognitive bias approach, I felt like there’s all these books about negotiation and rationality and persuasion that were really useful in particular context, like work, or sales, or debate in the courtroom, that kind of stuff. But there weren’t that many ways to really make it real for my everyday life. Like, what’s going to help me have a better conversation with my friend over a meal? What’s going to help me have better conversations as I’m going on a walk with my son? These things where we don’t have the tools, we haven’t been really taught how to have these conversations in a productive way.

And so, we resort to just these trial and error attempts, and some of us have luckily stumbled into the right approaches and some of us didn’t, and there’s no real way to help people develop that skill. So, that was my impetus for writing this, first, for myself, because I really need these skills and I want to synthesize it in a way that made sense to me, but also for other people because I feel like more and more these days we just feel stuck and frustrated with the way that our conversations are going.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it if, do you have any data that sort of tell that story? Like, I’m wondering if things sure seem nastier and more hostile these days and less productive in our disagreements, but do you have any proof?

Buster Benson
Yeah, there’s proof everywhere you look. So, depending on which avenue or domain of the world you want to look, there’s different ones. So, one of them I found is that, in a work setting, for example, which is one of the safest ones, 85% of people believe that they have some crucial information about the business, about the company, and they’re not talking about it because they don’t want to start an argument. And so that’s where conflict avoidance has really risen to the surface.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Woo, I’m sorry. That’s huge.

Buster Benson
That’s shocking, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That is just… that’s huge. I think that’s like the core of so much dysfunction right there, it’s like, “I’ve got some info and I’m not telling you not because I’m diabolically trying to sabotage anything but just because, oh, man, this is going to cause a big old argument. I don’t want to deal with it.”

Buster Benson
Yeah, if you don’t feel it’s a safe environment to have disagreements or you don’t know how to have them, you’re not going to move forward and you’re not going to have that conversation, and that’s just going to linger and get worse, and eventually pop up in some other person’s lap. And this happens not only at work but obviously also in the political sphere. We don’t necessarily think that we’re trying to go out there and solve problems, where we all know what the problems are, and we’re just unhappy about it and yelling about it.

I think there’s ways that we can move away from this conflict avoidance stance, which turned out to be way more common than the unproductive disagreement stance. Most people are not having that many unproductive disagreements. They’ve given up and that’s even worse in some senses in terms of like, “Well, if you’ve already given up, how do we get you back in the game so that we can actually work through these problems?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, do tell. How do we do that? So, you’re feeling like, “Oh, that’s just going to cause a big argument. I’m not even going to bring it up, not even going to go there.” What’s sort of the next step?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, one of the first things we need to do is remember that other people are humans and other people are as complex as us. So, to do this, when we go into a situation where we’re feeling like, “I think that they aren’t as smart as I am, or I think they don’t get it,” that’s an opportunity to fill in the gaps with real information. So, having someone in front of you that has all these information and perspective is actually a blessing. You can ask them, “Tell me, I just don’t get how this works for you. Like, what’s the story? What’s the background? How did this happen? Help me get there. Help me see the world through your perspective,” just because that’s information that we don’t have, and until we have it, we just feel confused and baffled. And it’s frustrating. It doesn’t feel good.

So, use these people that you might normally think of as opponents or enemies as a source of information that can help you feel a little bit more relaxed about the world if you can understand their perspective better. And that’s really the first step is just think about, “What are the openings? What are the stories we can glean from each other in a safer setting to have a wider perspective of the world?” Not necessarily to change minds or anything, but just to see it from one more, a little bit higher on the plane of perspectives so that we can see, “This person exists because this happened to them and this is their story, and I’m like this because this happened to me, and I could see now why we both exist in the same world, and we both think we’re doing the right thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so when you say, “How do you get here?” you don’t specifically mean, I don’t know, why you did the project a certain way, but, like, their whole life backstory, history picture.

Buster Benson
Yeah, we oftentimes resort to what are the facts, what are the evidence. The facts and evidence are there to prop up our story once we already have it for the most part. So, asking for that is really about continuing the information, bludgeoning, you find the gotcha information. The stories behind the facts are the real reason we believe things, and that’s what we should go after because those are rich. Those are really filled with interesting detail, they’re exciting to hear about, they’re new. And our brains are trained to really delight in hearing these kinds of stories. That’s why all of fiction is story-based, it’s not about, “Here’s more facts about the world.” Worldbuilders spend all the time telling you about the small details. You get bored real quick, you want the story, you want the plot.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, could you maybe give us some examples of what a rich backstory sounds like, and how it can color, shape and inform a position or an opinion, and how a different backstory would give rise to maybe a contrary opinion or view?

Buster Benson
Yeah, so I try to tackle gun control in one of the chapters and I tried a bunch of different things online and in person. What ended up working was having a salon or a potluck in my house and inviting a bunch of people that have different experiences with guns. And we went around the table and each shared their own personal story. There’s someone who was a former NRA member. There’s someone that had a bunch of assault rifles. There’s someone who just bought a shotgun, and there’s a bunch of people that have never fired a gun before. There are people that have had suicide in their family. There’s people that had violence in their family.

And so, just going around, and saying, “Oh, wait, I know some of you, I don’t know some of you, but I don’t know any of these stories.” And the variety was just so eye-opening just to begin with, and that was really great. But the interesting part came when we decided to figure out, “What’s a policy we can all come to? What policy we think is going to have the biggest impact on gun violence. And let’s come up with proposals and then we’ll tear them apart together just for fun and we’ll see where it goes. Because if we all have the answers, this should be easy.”

What ended up happening as we all went into small groups and came back and now had proposals, and they were all terrible ideas. We all found flaws instantly. And this was eye-opening not because we learned that we didn’t know a whole lot about this issue but the fact that, “Oh, wait, this is complicated. And my simplistic position on it going in is incorrect.”

And that’s not necessarily changing your mind, but saying, “Okay. Well, in order to really do justice to this problem, I’m going to have to really know a lot more than I currently do.” And that can be both exciting and, if that’s not what you want to do, you could be like, “Well, I don’t have time to do that, but I know that the answer is out there somewhere. I hope we can facilitate conversations because we don’t have the answers right now.” And that’s an example where I came in with a really narrow perspective and came out thinking, “Oh, wait. Yeah, this is more complicated than I thought. I shouldn’t feel as self-righteous about this as I did before.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate that example, and I guess I’m always a little skeptical when some people seem to know everything about everything, it’s like, “You know…” Oh, I forgot who said that quote but it said, “Some people are more sure of everything than I am of anything.”

Buster Benson
That’s very true. That’s one of the biases, right? Overconfidence is a big chunk of them, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. So, that’s, well, in a way that’s a “call me an optimist.”  I mean, in a way, that’s sort of discouraging, like, “Oh, man, this problem is going to be not resolved quickly because of its difficulty and complexity, but my optimism says okay.” It sounds like some people had some epiphany, some awakening, some understanding about other people’s viewpoints and were enriched as a result by being able to engage in those conversations and, well, I don’t know if you’re editing the story, but it doesn’t sound like anyone just started screaming someone else’s head off and stormed out.

Buster Benson
No, definitely not. Having food there also helped a lot because food calms you down, it sort of regulates your blood pressure a little bit more, and there’s also this culture element, like, if you’re sharing food with someone, you sort of see them as a peer or as a member of your tribe more than if you’re shouting at them over Facebook comments or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so there’s one quick tip right there. Hey, food is handy. I guess I’m wondering what are sort of like the general principles such that we can disagree with folks and walk away sort of with our relationship, at least, not harmed but hopefully improved? I think that’s sort of challenging is folks believe and sometimes it’s true that, “Boy, if I go here and we argue about this, they’re going to respect you less, or I’m going to respect them less, or it’s going to get ugly in one way or another.” So, how do we not have that happen?

Buster Benson
Yeah, it’s intimidating because it is a hard skill to acquire and a hard skill to practice, and if we’re not aware of where our skills are, we’ll oftentimes put ourselves in situations that are above our skill level. And so that’s why I advocate, let’s just start with small steps and get better in safer places and then move into harder ones, more challenging ones.

So, one way to think about it is that we don’t need to answer every problem. We can think of the world as a bunch of problems that are happening, a bunch of different people that are out there. And what is the one, or the two, or the three, that we are most well-suited to really deeply immerse ourselves in, understand from the inside, and to proactively act on?

And the feeling of when things happen in the news, and you have the answer in your head, and you’re like, “Why doesn’t everyone just do this thing that’s obvious to me?” That feeling goes away when you start to understand some of the problems deeply and you can respect that there’s probably more complexity going on.

And, secondarily, it helps us propose that we do have unproductive disagreements more often because unless someone is thinking about this and working on it, nothing is going to happen and this problem is just going to get worse. So, this mix of, “What is going to help me feel better? What’s going to lower my anxiety about just watching the news, or reading the news, or having family dinners?” Part of that is just being okay with this ambiguity of like, “These problems are harder than I thought they were.” But also, what can we do to make each other better at having these conversations?

First, we have to know what that means for ourselves but, secondly, we have to respect each other and help people get there because nobody taught us this, we don’t learn this in school, we don’t learn it at work. Yeah, it’s something that we should all be better at.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when it comes to developing these skills, I mean, what are some of the practices, or action steps, or things we should do to get them going?

Buster Benson
The easiest one just to begin with is just to want to do it. And I think it sounds sort of trite but we go about most of our day in a pre-reactive mode where we’re like, “Okay, this bad thing happened. I’m going to go attack that. This bad thing happened, I’m going to go attack that,” versus like, “Okay. Well, what would it take for me to just pay more attention to what my reactions to these things and to think about if I did the same over and over again, things aren’t going to get better, so let’s just pay attention to it.”

I say, like, starting a disagreement journal is a great way to do that, if you’re into journaling, or just like talking to yourself and going on a walk, and like, “Let’s go back in that conversation and think about where I went off the tracks, where the thing that triggered me made me change from one that’s like asking open questions to one that was more like defensive, or even insulting, or whatever it is, and see what was it that was important to me that got challenged?” And maybe even follow up with that person the next day and say, “Hey, remember that conversation we had? I realized after the fact that I felt a little bit threatened because this is a value I held. Do you have that value? Is this something that you are really thinking about? What is your perspective on that?” And you might be able to use that as a bridge because there might be something, “Well, yeah, of course, that’s important. But I was talking about this other thing, completely different from that topic. And I’m sorry for lashing out.”

And so, you can use this as a way to go back after the fact and repair that relationship, and then use it as a way to connect it and make sure that the next one is a little bit better because it’s really hard at the moment to know what to do until you’ve sort of reflected on things a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve got, specifically, an eight-step process here to become better at productive disagreements. Could you give us perhaps a one-ish minute or less on each of these steps?

Buster Benson
Sure. So, there are eight of them. Each one of them is about summarizing a big field of work. So, the first one is watch how anxieties sparks. This is what we’ve been talking about mostly, like this mindfulness about that moment that you switch from the calm, curious, open person to the defensive, sort of protective person, and sort of really understand that, where that switch happens, and use that as a way to identify your own values.

Number two is to talk to your internal voices. We all have inherited these, some voices that are very authoritarian, some voices that are very calm and reasonable, and some voices that are like, “Screw this. I’m out, then I flip the table and leave,” and I call it, that’s the conflict avoidance one. And it’s different in each of our heads, and we oftentimes think these thoughts and then we speak them out loud. And so, our internal voices turn into external voices.

And to understand why we say things the way we do, we can sort of go back and think about, “Where does that voice come from? Who in my life am I mimicking in that voice? Do I still need it?” and think about that. That’s cognitive behavioral therapy and sort of the many-minds theory of like, “Oh, gee,” which is really interesting. It can help us tease apart, like, “These thoughts aren’t as necessary.”

Number three is developing honest bias which is sort of the further step past the poster you have. Not only like the what are the biases but what do we do with them? How can we use this information to have better conversations? And I think developing honest bias is the key here. Rather than trying to un-bias yourself, or point out the bias in other people, look for the damage that it does and repair that because that’s tangible, it’s practical, it’s right in front of you, it’s something that you can actually have impact on, versus trying to change the wiring in someone’s mind that’s going to be really, really hard and frustrating.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, to do that, are you just sort of identifying, like, “Hey, this is some things that show up for me in bias”? Or what are you doing exactly?

Buster Benson
Depending on what the situation is, you can say, like, in the work situation, we have this hiring flow that is biased towards candidates that come out of Ivy League colleges. Just fix that and say, like, “Okay, who knows who set that up and whose bias was the one that designed it?” But you can actually fix the process itself. The same goes for if you’re looking for a new job, you’re looking for a new place to live, or any decision that you’re trying to make, you can say, like, “Okay. Well, regardless of what my initial state is, I might seek out familiar things, or I might seek out a safe thing, or I might seek out the thing that makes me look the best.”

What options did you undervalue that you can add back onto the list before you make a decision? And so, there’s these 13 questions you can ask yourself about, like, “Am I favoring the bizarre, interesting, adventurous answers over the seemingly boring ones, even though the boring ones might be better answers for me?” and just add them back on the list, and then look at them altogether. So, you don’t have to change your bias, you can just fix the results of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you.

Buster Benson
So, number four is speaking for yourself. This is one that we do all the time where we speak for others, right? So, we will say, “That party is doing this for these reasons,” or, “That person is evil because they think this.” Rather than doing that, try to invite them into the conversation and ask them to speak for themselves, and also share your perspective from your own stance rather than trying to imagine what they’re thinking. That’s sort of what we talked about at the very beginning.

And it’s a hard habit to break because, I know, speaking from experience, we are just so used to using group labels, and saying, “This group of people has this intention, is doing these things for these reasons,” and we don’t question where we got that from, because we obviously can’t read their minds, and we don’t talk to them a whole lot. So, how can we know? Let’s go ask them directly. It also shows that these groups aren’t as homogenous as we think they are. There’s a whole lot of variation in our own groups and there’s a whole other variation in the other groups, so you can find reasonable people on both sides.

Number five is asking questions that spark surprising answers. There’s a whole list of questions you can just put in your back pocket and pull out right when you’re feeling flooded, you’re like, “Okay. Well, I don’t know how to address this. Okay, I’m going to ask a question,” because we oftentimes tend to ask questions that are black and white but are very limited in possibilities, and we often already prejudged many of the answers to the questions we ask. So, those aren’t going to return a lot of information about the other person that could surprise you. So, open questions, where no matter what they say, it’s going to be interesting and surprising. I think that that’s a better approach, and we can just make a list of these and use them.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you give us one or two right now? I like that way of articulating it, asking questions that invites surprising answers. So, that’s even a little bit more than just not just yes or no, but it gets you thinking about even better questions. So, can you lay a couple on us?

Buster Benson
Yes. So, one that I use a lot is just like, “What am I missing about your perspective that would help me understand you better?” I like to say, “How has this belief been useful for you? Who do you admire?” All these questions are ways of pivoting into their perspective and seeing the world through their eyes, which is always surprising.

In fact, the more different, the more bizarre they are in terms of their worldview, the more surprising it’ll be. And this is a self-reinforcing system because if you do this once, and you get an interesting answer, you’re going to like it. It’s going to be entertaining and meaningful to you. You’re going to want to do it again. You’re going to now have more information to ask even more interesting questions. So, it builds on itself in a really great way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. I guess I’m thinking about things like, “What TV or movie character do you most sort of relate, connect, identify with?”

Buster Benson
Oh, exactly, yeah. There are so many ways to bring your own personality into the questions and ask the ones that you think has some overlap with you, because you can embed that shared interest in a question, and say, like, “Hey, we both like this story. Let’s talk about it,” and through that, talk about the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Very good. What’s next?

Buster Benson
So, sixth is to build arguments together, and this is an interesting one. It requires the other, speaking for yourself, asking questions that spark surprising answers, building arguments together means, “Let’s put aside whether or not your argument is right. Let’s just work on it together and make it as good as possible.” Because any argument, any position, has a best version of itself. Even something like the flat-earth theory of the world has a best argument for it.

And it’s interesting because by bringing yourself to this question, you can be creative, you can sort of start building something that you may never have thought about before. And flat earth is sort of, in the topic, but like to just illustrate the point, it’s just interesting to build that up and think about, “Okay. Well, I obviously have a lot of problems with this. I can help you address these. Like, let’s find the answers to all my questions, and then you’ll potentially will build up to a point that you can convince me from this argument, then that’s a win-win as well.”

So, it’s one way of just turning the conversation from combative to collaborative that can turn out to be really fun. You do have to have some trust built in there because you don’t want to come across as, like, “Oh, I’m going to go in and let’s play blocks and treat your argument as a game.” But assuming that you can pull it off in terms of like, “Yeah, I really do want to build this up for you, and I want the best person and the best people to represent your position so I understand it,” then it can lead to really interesting places.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Buster Benson
Seven is cultivating neutral spaces. This is one of the hardest ones because think that arguments exists in the land of abstractions and ideas. Really, they exist in the world of words, sounds, body language, lighting, and power dynamics, and rooms, and sort of it’s really important to think about, “Which ideas are allowed on the table in this conversation? What are the power dynamics between us that maybe I’m not going to share everything because I know that if you don’t like it, you can fire me?” And then there’s also the question of, “Who can be in this conversation in the first place? Who can enter the room? Can I leave the conversation if I feel like it’s no longer being productive?”

It brings to the surface a lot of the power dynamics that have to happen. And these have a material impact on the success of the conversation. You can always turn something that’s really not a neutral space into something that’s more neutral. And we do this instinctively by saying, “Let’s go on a walk,” or, “Let’s go get dinner tomorrow,” or, “Let’s do something where the dynamic is different and the space feels a little better.”

Pete Mockaitis
Or if there’s sort of anonymous inputs in terms of we don’t know whose name is on that idea.

Buster Benson
Right. Exactly. And there’s people, you know, we don’t even see faces, or there’s no accountability, and people can drop in and drop out whenever they want. That’s another thing to consider especially online where these things happen, yeah.

And the last tip is to accept reality and then participate in it. And this is the most abstract one, but, really, it’s a call to this desire that we shouldn’t try to reject the world that exists and just refuse to participate in it until it is more likable. It is the way it is, and the only thing we can do is be a positive or a negative influence within it.

And I see disagreement as this opportunity for us all to say, “Okay, we’re not going to be unscathed, and we’re not going to be on the sidelines just critiquing all the bad things happening. Let’s get into the mix. Let’s be part of the solution. Let’s even be willing to be vulnerable and compromise in those situations and admit how we’re complicit in them,” because that’s the arena that these can be resolved in, and that’s really the way to participate in the most productive way.

So, this idea, like we can just exile, or censor, or ban all the things we don’t like is the opposite. Let’s bring everyone in and let’s figure it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so much good stuff here. And as you kind of walk through these eight, what really stuck with me, or struck me the most, is that “speak for yourself” bit. And I remember, this will be super quick, but, boy, when we were closing on our house, we had what we call split close where this other side was in a different room with their team and they were talking through the cellphone to, say, our lawyer. And there was this one point, like, “Oh, a little bit.”

And so, our lawyer was, say, “Well, hey, we would like this and that as a result of this,” and then she hangs up the phone and says, “Yeah, they basically say, yeah, they think this is a shakedown.” And then our real estate agent says, “A shakedown? For them to impute our integrity in this way,” and it was so funny, like they didn’t use the word shakedown. Our lawyer summarized for them using the word shakedown, and then the real estate agent took Umbridge at the words they never said, and I was just like, sometimes lawyers, not to point fingers, they come back and stuff happens.

Buster Benson
And this happens all the time, the tiny small steps can really derail a conversation so quickly, so quickly that we don’t even notice that it happened. So, yeah, that’s really a good example of just how easy it is to go on the wrong direction. But there are ways to notice them and say, “Okay. Well, let’s hear it from them. Can we just confirm that this is what’s happening?” because there’s more to be gained by a positive outcome for everyone than to just leave the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
And, speaking of that, well, I guess a shakedown is probably not one of them. But I want to get your take on some common phrases that can show up in arguments that tend to make things unproductive in a hurry and show up a lot, and some superior alternatives to those.

Buster Benson
Yeah, and there are just so many. Choose a genre of conversation that we can tease apart a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. We are professionals in a workplace considering what is the best option to complete an objective in terms of, “Should we invest in A, B, C, or D?”

Buster Benson
Right. Okay, so many things there, yeah. One of them you might be familiar to is, “Let’s take this offline,” is a really, really common one in the world of, okay, that just basically means, “There’s too many people in the room. We want to have this decision between a smaller group of people. And I’m going to decide who those people are.” That’s unproductive. I think that there are ways to identify the goal instead of just saying that the entire conversation should be taken offline. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that. But there’s also, let’s see…

Pete Mockaitis
That makes a lot of sense in terms of it’s quite a power grab, really.

Buster Benson
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay. You can just unilaterally declare that these topics are not going to be discussed here and, apparently, at an arbitrary later time with a group of people to be determined, it may or may not be discussed. Thanks.

Buster Benson
Yeah. And it is a tool that works but it’s also a tool that’s slightly dysfunctional if it’s misused. So, I think that a lot of these tools, they have good intentions. They’re like, “Okay. Well, we’re not ever going to go around the room and get everyone’s opinion, and then figure out what this is going to be”  because we think that that’s the only other option. But there are ways to move fast and make decisions and include people at the same time. It’s not a tradeoff you have to make, as much as it feels like that in the moment sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. And do you have, could you share, what are your favorite approaches for pulling that off?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, I was thinking of, as a product leader, I have many projects where your team is spending months working on something, and at the very last minute, the leadership is like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. Have you considered this possible downside?” And usually you have but you only have a very limited amount of time to talk about this. And so, this can turn a project from launching to taking months and months and months.

And then they’re like, “Let’s talk to more people. Let’s take this offline. Let’s revisit this in a month,” or whenever. One way around that is to say, “Okay. Well, let’s just go through worst case and best case scenarios of this so that we can mitigate those possibilities that are bad and sort of look forward to the ones that are good,” because then they’re heard. You can say, like, “I think the worst-case scenario is that all of our advertisers, they’re going to leave, or our users are going to revolt.” And they can say, “Okay. Well, here is how we’ll know if that’s happening. We’re going to launch it with a smaller group of people. We’re going to roll it out slowly. And if this starts happening, we’re going to stop. But we’re going to start going and find out if that’s true or not.”

So, trimming it from like, “Is this going to be a problem?” to, “Let’s find out if it’s a problem as quickly as possible, and keep the ball moving forward,” can save months and months of time in a lot of situations.

And that could be used in a lot of situations where people are risk-averse and feel like they don’t want to move forward until they feel more confident. But the way you feel more confident is by learning, and so there’s ways to make a prediction, “Let’s learn, let’s move forward. And if it turns out that I’m right, great. If it turns out that you’re right, we’ve learned something. Either way it’s going to be okay and we’re both going to win.” So, that’s really one of the simplest ways to move things forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And, quickly, I also want to get your take on is there any best practices, approaches, or tips you’d suggest for when we’re disagreeing with our boss or someone who outranks us?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, I always like to turn it into, “What would the evidence be of…?” especially with power dynamics, there’s like, “Do this,” right? And you’re like, “Oh, but that’s a bad idea,” or, “I don’t want to do that,” or, “I’m not good at that,” or sometimes it’s a judgment saying, “You’re not good at this,” or, “You’re not the right person for this,” or, “Your promotion is not going to happen.” Those kinds of things, that are really about a judgment of the worth of something, sometimes you, sometimes your work.

The way to turn that into productive disagreement is to say, like, “Okay. What would you see in the world if I was performing at a higher quality? Or what evidence would there be if I was ready for a promotion? Or how do you see it?” Just so it turns it from something that’s a judgment call into something that can be found in the world. And that’s also a great way to summarize what they’re really trying to say, which is like, they’re going to ultimately going to use signals in the world to make decisions, and it brings clarity to that.

So, turning it from something subjective to objective, saying that in the future if you had done these three things, or if you had spoken for the company and those things that happened, then I would sort of think that you’re prepared for the next step. Versus, like, “Oh, you’ll know when you see it,” or, “I’ll let you know,” kind of thing which is really vague, ambiguous, and can only increase your anxiety over time.

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

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, the last thing I’ll say is that the real challenge here is not to solve all disagreements, be like a perfect disagree-r, but just to have one or two to experience what that’s like, how enjoyable they can be, what it’s like to actually use disagreement to connect, what it’s like to actually learn a bigger perspective through disagreement, because if we can feel that feeling and sort of see that as the antidote to the anxiety we feel, then we could begin to expect it from our leaders, from our politicians, and the world more broadly, because right now we just don’t expect a whole lot from people because we haven’t experienced it for ourselves. So, taking baby steps and saying, “Okay. I just want to feel this and sort of see it in other people as well,” in the long run is the challenge here, and my hope that this sort of brings out.

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

Buster Benson
So, not to be too trite, but, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is a Gandhi quote, but I think that that is one that has really influenced my approach to the world. It goes back to this accepting and participating. Don’t just be the critic. Be in the mix. Get all messy in the mud and get something done. If that’s what you want everyone else to do, then you got to do it too.

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

Buster Benson
In the news recently, I saw that this Stanley Milgram experiment has been debunked, which is really interesting to me. The interesting thing I think with experiments that I love the ones that had been falsified just because it helps us understand science as an evolving process. And one of the worst biases out there is publication bias where we only look at the studies that sound good as a headline, and that can sort of validate something about our lives.

So, I love any experiment that feels like it should be right that gets disproven just to add a little bit of that complexity back into our conversation. So, we can’t just listen to what feels good in our studies. So, Stanley Milgram is the prisoner experiment is going to be one that I would recommend reading or listen to, but the fact that it was revised and that we’re now questioning this is really interesting to me.

Pete Mockaitis
We’re talking about the authority with the shocks?

Buster Benson
Yeah, the one where you would zap people until they were basically dead because you’re the authority.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I want to see the latest on this. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Buster Benson
Favorite book right now. There is this book by Jenny Odell called How to Do Nothing, and it is just a delightful book that is both meditative and practical and rich in imagery in stories and stuff. She talks about how to live in a world where everything is trying to make us more productive, including my book, and how to just maintain integrity and dignity in that sort of high-pressure environment.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Buster Benson
My pen and paper are the ones that I go by the most. To add something a little bit more quirky, I’ve been really interested in the art of tarot decks recently, and I’ve been using this as a way to add symbolism and interesting this to my life.  We just have these tendencies to get into these routines and ruts where things can get really dry and sort of abstract.

Bringing back art into our work is really important to just remember that there’s a creative force that goes into the things that we do. Not necessarily advocating for the pseudoscience of tarot but I’m saying that just seeing the magician and the empress and the hanging man next to your desk, and say, “Okay, yeah. We live in a really rich world,” has been really helpful for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit that helps you be awesome at your job?

Buster Benson
So, my favorite habit is private journaling. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s morning pages, Julia Cameron wrote a book called The Artist’s Way. It’s like this brain dump. Anytime that my brain is tangled up and I’m not into open question, I’ll just type furiously until all the knots get worked out. And it’s been a really, really helpful tool for me over the years to figure that out through that because, otherwise, you need to go on a long walk or ask someone out to coffee and talk about it. But this is a way that’s always handy and you can always use it to figure something out for yourself.

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

Buster Benson
BusterBenson.com is my website, there’s all kinds of weird things, and @buster on Twitter is where I live on the internet.

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

Buster Benson
Yeah. Have one proactive disagreement about something that you feel is important, and don’t keep it bottled up, and see how it goes. And be patient with yourself if it didn’t go right the first time.

Pete Mockaitis
Buster, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks. And keep on having some lovely productive disagreements.

Buster Benson
Thank you so much. It has been a joy.

516: Making Difficult Conversations Easier with David Wood

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David Wood says: "The tough conversations we haven't had form the boundaries of our world."David Wood shares his process for making difficult conversations more manageable.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What makes difficult conversations so difficult
  2. The four-step blueprint for tackling difficult conversations
  3. The simplest way to receive more quality feedback

About David

After life as a consulting actuary to Fortune 100 Companies, David built the world’s largest coaching business, becoming #1 on Google for “life coaching.”

He wants every human to play the best game they possibly can in work AND life and to have zero-regrets when they die. David coaches both high performing leaders, and soon-to-be-released prison inmates, to higher levels of Truth, Daring and Caring.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Wood Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
David, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

David Wood
Hey, my pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to kick it off if you could share an interesting story about some of your work with people in prison.

David Wood
Well, I’m moved by their stories, and I’m particularly moved by some of the tough conversations that they need to have. There’s one inmate who we interviewed. We took in a film crew and we interviewed her, and she was part of a robbery. She didn’t actually do the robbery but she conspired to plan the robbery, and they didn’t follow the plan. They did something else, and someone got shot and killed. So, she got sentenced to 25 years in prison for planning a robbery whose plan wasn’t followed.

And one of the toughest conversations of her life that was coming up when I spoke to her, and I haven’t spoken to her since she had it, was she said, “How do you explain to the widow of your victim how sorry you are? How do you say ‘I understand that your kids are now suicidal, and you’ve lost your husband, and it was all because of something that I set in motion’? How do you explain how sorry you are?” And I didn’t really have any answer for that. So, that’s one story I’m moved by. I’m moved by many of the inmates and what they’re facing on a daily basis.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intrigued. And so, in terms of your life’s work and expertise, what is it that you think that causes you to return this population again and again?

David Wood
I keep wondering why I go back into prison. I think, initially, it was a fascination with confronting my own freedom because I think that we take so many things for granted, and I wanted to see what was it like to go in and serve this underprivileged population. And then when I got in there, I found out how grateful they were. They were really humble, and they were really listening. They wanted to learn, “How am I going to communicate with a potential employer? How am I going to handle tough conversations with my family while I’m in prison and then when I get out since they’re blaming me for everything that’s gone wrong?”

So, they’re listening, and they want to know. And when we leave there, they’re just so grateful. They said, “A lot of people won’t come and spend the time with us. Thank you so much.” So, it gives me a chance. A lot in my life is going really well and it gives me a chance to do some service.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, can you zoom out a little bit? I want to hear a little bit about your philosophy and organization, play for real, what does it mean?

David Wood
Well, I believe we’re playing a game. I know not everybody has that viewpoint but I think life is the greatest game there is and the stakes are very high. Literally, we can die. So, the stakes don’t get much higher than that. But if you don’t know that you’re playing a game, what can happen, let’s say in your job, you can get tense, you can start to feel overwhelmed, you can start to get a bit crabby and snap at people because, now, you’re stressed and you’ve forgotten that you’re playing a game. So, I’d like everybody to be able to tap into the flow of life by remembering this is a very high-stakes game.

But I don’t mean we’re being frivolous about it and we’re just, say, dancing through the daisies with butterflies floating around our hair and not a care in the world. I’m saying, let’s play the game but let’s play it like we mean it. Let’s play it as if we may not get another chance to be reincarnated and live a second life. Let’s play but let’s play for real. So, to me, that means let’s try and live so that on our deathbed we will have zero regrets and say we absolutely gave our job and our relationships and our life everything that we possibly could.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. And so, we’re going to spend most of our time talking about how real conversations are difficult conversations play into it. But just to get oriented to the broad picture, you lay out four particular obstacles or enemies of playing for real. So what are those if you can give us the quick version for how we overcome those?

David Wood
Yeah. So, one thing that people are missing is real goals. They’re going through life but they haven’t actually set goals to light them up. So, that’d be the first thing that’s missing. The second thing, suppose you have goals, you know where you’re heading, but not everybody sits down and creates a strategic plan, and says, “This is exactly what needs to happen for me to achieve those goals.” So, we’re just talking about a lack of a strategic plan.

The third one is there’s no real action. It’s one thing to have a plan, it’s another thing to implement the damn plan. So many of us get distracted by Facebook messages and text messages and people coming and knocking on the door that we don’t actually take action on the things that we say matter. So, lack of real action is the third one.

And then the fourth one is lack of real growth. And I’ve identified three values that I found critical to up-leveling in life and business, and that’s increasing your truth, increasing your levels of daring, and increasing your levels of caring. So, by addressing these four, we can actually create real goals, we can create a real plan, we can get in real action. And by increasing levels of truth, daring, and caring, we can actually have real growth in our life. And if you follow all four of those, then I say that leads to a regret-free life.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that makes a lot of sense to me in terms of, yeah, I can see those four things need to be in place to move toward really cool stuff that matters. And if we increase the truth and daring, that’s going to certainly help you out there. Now, I guess I have a bit of a picture or assumption on how daring and caring apply and how they’re special. But could you expand upon increasing truth? What does that mean and how is it done?

David Wood
Right. Well, let’s say, this is about being awesome at your job, right? So, if you want to be awesome at your job, let’s look at how you can increase your levels of truth. Now, if you’re not speaking up and talking about something that doesn’t work for you, then you’re hurting yourself and you’re hurting the team. So, let’s say Bill, over in accounting, is doing something that’s actually slowing down your job, and you stay silent. Well, that doesn’t really help anybody. So, by increasing our levels of truth, we can start to speak up about what I need, about what the team needs, and about what the company needs. It might be that you need a pay raise, and so while you’re sharing that with your boss, you’re increasing your level of truth.

And I actually have a secret mission. I want everybody in the world to increase their levels of personal responsibility, increase their levels of agency so that we’re speaking up and we’re causing the matter instead of just being passive or, even worse, complaining or gossiping. So, that’s an example of how we might increase truth.

Now, to increase daring, I think you can start to see how it goes hand in hand. For you to speak up and be the squeaky wheel at work, it might take some courage to go to your boss and say, “May I have more money?” or, “Can I get a transfer to this environment?” or, “Hey, I think I’m being discriminated against sexually in the workplace.” All of these things take daring to speak up. Also, it’s daring to say, “Can I have that Japanese account?” or to say to a prospective customer, “How about you sign up for a year instead of one month?” So, those are just some examples of the daring.

And then caring, you can care for your fellow workmates and actually care that they do a good job, and that they’re doing well, and that they’re feeling appreciated. You can care for your direct reports. You can care for the relationships between you and your customers. You can care for your personal relationships and nurture your relationship with your kids, with your parents, with your spouse, and you can also practice self-care, because burnout’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem in the workplace. And if we’re not taking care of our nutrition, and our rest, and our exercise, then, eventually, we are going to burn out and it’s going to whack us with a big stick.

So, does that answer your question of, “How do we increase levels of truth, caring, and caring?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, so I’ve got a broad picture for how that unfolds there. So, now, yeah, let’s just talk, when it comes to pulling all that and you’ve got some conversations that are tricky, I mean, for starters… I made this more philosophical. Let’s see how it goes. What makes a difficult conversation difficult in the first place?

David Wood
Fear of loss. We’re usually worried about losing something. So, a difficult conversation at work would be, again, “May I have a pay raise?” We might be worried about annoying our boss and getting cut out of the next project, or maybe the boss says, “You know, we really don’t have the budget to support your salary, and you’ve just reminded me. You’re fired.” Or, let’s suppose, with our partner, a really tough conversation can be a confession, “Hey, I kissed someone and broke an agreement three years ago, and I want to come clean about it.” We could lose that relationship. So, fear of loss is one of the biggest things that make something a tough conversation.

The other thing, which I think is linked to this, is vulnerability. We can’t control a tough conversation. We can’t control the other person’s reaction if they get upset, if they get defensive, we can’t control what they do. We can’t even control how the conversation goes so we’re stepping into vulnerability to have a tough conversation. And I can understand why a lot of people might want to just sweep that under the carpet.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so that’s why it’s sort of tricky. So, then how do we go about having these conversations effectively?

David Wood
Well, I have a four-step blueprint. And, by the way, tough conversations, I’ve been interested in those for 10 years in helping my clients, but I only recently, but I realized how well they fit into truth, daring, and caring because it’s all about telling the truth. It takes a lot of daring to have a tough conversation, and it takes a lot of caring to do it right. So, I’ve been very excited when I realized, “Oh, this is a way I can express truth, daring, and caring in the world and one the ways that we can play for real.”

So, how we do it, as I have a four-step blueprint, and if you like, we can give listeners a download at the end of this so that they don’t have write down a whole bunch of notes.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Let’s do that too. So, okay, four steps.

David Wood
Yeah, four steps. And if you like, we can use an example with an authority figure. So, it could be something that you want to say to your boss, or we had an example with one of the prison inmates, and she was saying, “When the guard was late to his shift, that meant that I couldn’t be where I needed to be in the prison, and I got chewed up by another guard, and it really impacted my life.” And she said, “How do I have that tough conversation with an authority figure who has the ability to make my life hell?” And anyone with a job knows that their boss has a lot of power over them financially, their work hours, a whole bunch of things. So, we can use that as an example perhaps.

Step one is you ask permission for the conversation. Don’t just launch into it. So, with this prison inmate, for example, she could say to the guard, “Excuse me, Mr. Smith, do you have just a few minutes for a quick conversation?” And this is a good point to share your hope for the conversation, and we’ll give listeners a worksheet as well. When they download the four-step worksheet blueprint as a worksheet so you can prepare for this, and that’s where you work out your hope.

Now, her hope was, “My hope is you can understand a little more about what it’s like to be an inmate and that, hopefully, that might influence some of your decisions in the future,” something like that. Or, “My hope is that my life might be a little bit easier if you understand a bit more what it’s like.”

And then, step two, this is where you can share your fear or concern. Now, I guarantee there’s a fear or concern or you wouldn’t be calling it a tough conversation. So, in her example, “I’m hesitant to bring this up because I don’t want to offend you. You might feel offended or defensive and you might not want to listen to me, and I might get in trouble.”

And then, step three, this is where you share the issue. And if you have a request from your worksheet, this is where you put it in the request. So, in her example, again, it might be something like, “When you were late, I got in a lot of trouble. I got chewed out and I couldn’t pick up my property, and it really had an impact. And my request is, to whatever extent you’re able to, if you could try and be on time, then I’d be really grateful.”

And then, step four, the last one, I think can be the most important. This is where you get curious and you listen and negotiate. We don’t want to have tough monologues. We want to have tough conversations. And this is also where caring comes in. So, it might look, in this example, something like, “I’m wondering how is it for you to hear that? Does that make sense? Does that sound workable? Do you have a better idea? I’d love to hear anything you’ve got to say,” because you don’t want to just dump this and then run. And you may find out, she may find that this corrections officer may have a better idea than she had. The corrections officer may be like, “Look, I’ll speak to the other CO and I’ll smooth things over for you,” or, “I can’t guarantee I’ll be on time but I’ll help you out if you get in trouble because of it.” We don’t know. But that’s the plan.

Step four is get curious, and then we listen and negotiate.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yes. I like that. It makes sense. It’s handy when you sort of have, I don’t know, a preamble but you share those bits in advance. And I think it makes them more kind of sympathetic or appreciative that you’re a human being and you have some sensitivities and vulnerabilities and you’re not trying to attack them.

David Wood
Yes, that’s right. It’s relational and it’s vulnerable. It’s like, “Here’s my hope out of this, here’s my fear or concern out of this, I’m a real person. I’m kind of at my edge here.” It changes the whole space. And people are more, I find, they’re more likely to listen when you show a bit of vulnerability and let them know the context of what’s going on instead of just you working it out in your head, and then launching into a tough monologue trying to get what you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s do another scenario here and I think this happens a lot at workplaces. Okay. Let’s say you are responsible for your project to get done and that has any number of dependencies from other departments which you don’t have really control or authority over those folks who need to provide key stuff or inputs for you to get the job done. And so you’ve got to do some of those prompts, like, “Hey, you didn’t give me your stuff when I needed it.” But I always found that tricky in environments, in terms of, “How do I do an appropriate follow-up and what are the prompts I should be using to get what I need without being sort of offensive or pestering?” Because I don’t want them to think like, “Who’s this guy and why is he always in my business pestering me non-stop?” So, yeah, there’s the scenario. Let’s walk through how’d you approach such conversations.

David Wood
Perfect example and very similar to this inmate who wanted something from someone else who had some authority, she couldn’t control it so it was really a request. And in giving that preamble, I think you’ve given all the answers we need. So, first step would be asking permission, right? We’re not going to dump it on someone. We’re going to say, “Hey, if you’ve got a few minutes to talk about this project,” and this is where you’ll sweep in your hope, “My hope is we can be more in sync as a team and to be honest that I’m going to look even better with my boss,” for example, right? I’m making that up, “But I probably want to look good with my boss. So, that’s my hope.”

“And then my fear, or my concern about bringing it up is I know you don’t report to me, I know it’s not your job to make me look good, and I don’t want to be too obnoxious. I don’t want to be stepping on your toes, and I don’t want to put you offside, so I’m a little hesitant to bring it up, but I think it’s worth talking about.” So, now, we’ve been real, we’ve shared a hope, we’ve shared a concern.

And then, step three, share the issue and include a request if you have one, “So, the issue is I would share the impact. When I get the material later than you said it’s coming, there’s a whole pipeline that gets messed up, and it ends up taking us longer, and then sometimes I get in trouble for it. That’s the impact. And so, my request is that if we can be more rigorous around our deadlines, and if you don’t think you can get it to me by Thursday, give me a firmer deadline of Monday. But if you say Thursday at 5:00 o’clock, my request is that we be a bit more rigorous with it. Do you think that would work?”

And now I’m already going to slip straight into number four, “What do you think about this? Have you got any other ideas? Because this isn’t quite working and I’d really like to find something that does work.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, defensiveness pops during the course of the conversation. Do you have some pro tips for navigating that?

David Wood
Yeah. And I like what you said, like, “I don’t want to be obnoxious. I don’t want to be nagging all the time.” So, I’ll share that concern and I’ll say, “How do I request things from you without being a nag? How do I do it? Do you have a suggestion for language? I’d really like your ideas on this because I’m a little bit stumped.” And then you work it out together.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure. Now, can we talk about going first. I’ve got Stephen Covey in my head here now. You know, “Seek first to understand then be understood.” How do you think about that sequencing or timing of who’s going first, and when is it optimal?

David Wood
Yeah, yeah, great. I love that. So, in the download, you’ll get some pro tips. And one of the tips is if you find that the other person is not really listening, they’re just jumping in, so you say something like, “You know, if I get the things later than we said, then I said, ‘Oh, well, my boss was doing this, and blah, blah, blah,’” they’re not listening, then you could try some words like this, “Hey, I want to hear that, and I want to try and get this out in one go. Do you think you could give me just two minutes? And I think I can cover all the bases. And then I’d love to hear everything you’ve got to say. So, we’ll just take turns then. Is it okay if I go first?”

And if it’s not, “Okay, maybe you go first and I’ll listen first. I’m okay with that.” The main thing is that you take turns and that there’s actually a two-way communication instead of someone just getting triggered and kind of running the show. If that happens, make the request, “Can I go first? And if not, you go first.”

Can you say the question again about the sequence of timing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. So, we talked about, “Can I go first?” and I’m thinking about Stephen Covey with one of those seven habits of seek first to understand then be understood. So how do you think about the timing, sequencing of who goes first, talking versus listening. And are there particular circumstances in which you recommend listening first or just how do you think about that?

David Wood
Well, I think it’s sometimes a matter of charge, like, “Who has the charge?” So, if you’re the one that has some emotional charge on something, and you’re a bit at your edge, you might just want to request permission, “Can we talk about this? Can I share this issue?” And if you a yes, go for it. And then find out their reaction. So, I think it makes total sense for you to go first.

If you think that they might have a bit of charge, let’s say that you think they’re really upset with you about something, then you might say to them, “Look, I want to have a conversation about this and I can go first if you like, or if you like, you go first and I’ll listen, and then we’ll switch.” So, you’d still ask permission for the conversation, then you might throw it up in the air. Because if they’ve got a lot of charge, then the chances are higher they’re going to get triggered, angry, defensive, upset, something like that, and I might want to preempt it and let them, just hear their issue first.

But sometimes you’re taking something to someone where you don’t even know if they’ve got an issue, so I don’t think we have to artificially try and get their side first. I think it’s fine to just lead in and see if there’s permission for you to share your side.

Pete Mockaitis
I got you. Thank you. And then in terms of sort of managing in your own head and the emotions in the midst of these conversations, anything you recommend on how you can do that well? So if you’re starting to freak out, do you have some tips? Or if you’re feeling a little scared, nervous, anxious, and some things show up that you weren’t expecting… What do you do?

David Wood
I can see why you’ve got so many reviews on your podcast. You ask really good questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

David Wood
So, yeah, we’re talking about some emotional regulation now. If you know that you’re going to have an issue, for example, I had a podcast host say, “How do I share with my mother who’s got Alzheimer’s and who’s dying? How do I share with her all the things that I’ve been disappointed about in my life? I want to have no secrets between my mother.” Now, that’s a tough conversation.

And one of the tips that I gave her was to talk it out first with a friend or even journal it. Like, get it out. Don’t take all your charge about your disappointment about how your mother raised you and dump it on your mother. Better to go through your worksheet, work out your hope, work out your fears, you might write down all your disappointments, talk them out with a friend, in this way you can release a lot of that emotional charge so that when you go into the live conversation, you can be more matter of fact and deal with the facts, say, “Yeah, I was disappointed about a few things. Here are a couple of the key ones. And now that I’ve talked it out with a friend, I’ve realized that you’re actually doing the best you could.”

Those kinds of insights can come out of doing this. And I’ve also, I had one client who’s a manager in a tech company, and she said, “I’m worried about this tough conversation with my staff. They’re going to give me feedback on my management style. What if I get triggered? What if I get defensive and shut down?” Which is a super smart thing to be aware of. So, I said, “Great. We’re going to practice it. I’m going to be your employee, and I’m going to give you feedback, and I’m not going to go very easy on you, and we’re going to see how you go.” So, she got to roleplay it. And I started easy, just with a few things, and she handled it really well. And then, finally, I said, “You know, basically, you’re just clueless.” And that was too much.

So, we found her edge and she shut down, and then we slowed down, and we worked through it, found out why she would shut down, and she learned a new language. She learned how to say, “Ouch! That hurt,” instead of pretending and covering it up. So, long answer to a short powerful question, you can roleplay it, and you can talk it out with your friends first to release a lot of that charge so that you’ll be more settled when you actually have it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is good. And while we’re talking about feedback and being on the other end of some of this, are there other perspectives in terms of, how can we be open to the feedback and encourage and receive it and put it to use all the more often?

David Wood
Well, one way, this might seem flippant, but one way that we can get good feedback more often is to listen to the feedback we get. Now, I’ll put myself up and confess straight away that this isn’t automatic for me. If someone says something that I receive as critical, my first thought might be to defend, “Well, the reason that happened was blah, blah, blah.” I’m not listening. I’m not listening to their experience. So, if you can catch yourself, you go, “Oh, wait a minute. I just reacted to that. Let me slow down and listen to this. All right, you’re saying when I deliver this late, it has an impact on you and you get in trouble with your boss. All right. So, what I need to do is to be better about managing my deadlines.”

Now, if I’m willing to actually listen to someone’s woe instead of just defending myself, they’re more likely to come to me next time and say, “Hey, you know that conversation went well. How about this one? Would you be willing to try this?” But how many people do you know at work who just, historically, have not been open to requests, or criticism, or feedback that’s less than glowing. I know people that I’m not going to give them any feedback because they’re bumpy and they’re just not open to it so I stop giving it to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally, yeah.

David Wood
Yeah, I’ve got this manager I was just talking about, she wants feedback. She wants to be a great manager and she knows to be a great manager she’s got to know if there’s a problem so she’s gone to each of the team members and said, “Would you be willing to tell me if there’s something I’m doing that’s not the best?” And she told them a story about her boss. She told her boss, “What could I do better?” The boss said, “Oh, everything is good. Everything is good. No, you’re doing great.”

Pete Mockaitis
What happens?

David Wood
And then when it came to review time, the boss said, “Well, here are five things you could’ve done better.” And she was naturally pissed. She’s like, “I wanted that feedback. I could’ve been better already.” So, she told that story to her staff to let them know that she really does value feedback, and to model for them what it’s like to actually request for feedback so that some of them could go, “Oh, same here. Let me know if I can do something better.” A real ninja move to cause some of that.

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

David Wood
Well, I like talking about my favorite things, so let’s shift gears.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, let’s do it. How about a favorite quote or something you find inspiring?

David Wood
Well, I’m going to quote myself because I said something a couple months ago and it stuck with me, and it feels so core to the work I’m doing. And what I said was, “The tough conversations we haven’t had form the boundaries of our world.” They literally form the boundaries of our reality. But the tough conversations we do have become the defining moments of our relationships, our career, and our lives.

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

David Wood
A favorite bit of research? Well, there’s an assistant professor on the East Coast of the U.S. who surveyed, I think, it was 150 hospice nurses to find out what people actually regret on their deathbed. You hear so much talk about, “Oh, on your deathbed, people wished they hadn’t spent so much time at the office, blah, blah, blah.” But where’s the research? Well, I’m telling you, there isn’t any. This guy has got the closest piece of research, it’s very hard to get to the actual people dying due to privacy laws and permissions at the hospital and family and all these things. I’ve tried. But he actually researched the nurses and found, say, the top five regrets of the dying. So, that’s one of my favorite pieces of research just because it’s the closest that exists to what I really want to see which is actually asking those who are dying.

Pete Mockaitis
And for those who haven’t seen the study, could you share a couple of them?

David Wood
Oh, being true to one’s self, that’s one. And I may not have the words right but being true to one’s self, speaking up for you instead of living other people’s dreams, that’s one. And I think an example of that would be telling people how much you love them.

And I can relate to that. When I imagine being on my deathbed, there’s a scan, and I’ve been near death. I’ve been sitting on a plane with the engine caught on fire, I’ve had my parachute collapse and head plummets towards the ground, and I’ve scanned, “Is there anything left? Is there anything left unsaid?” In fact, I turned to my partner, with the engine on fire, and said, “Well, good, Ray. Is there anything we haven’t said?” And we agreed we were solid. I want that experience for everybody, that you don’t die with anything left unsaid.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

David Wood
I’m a fan of The Work of Byron Katie. And so, I’m going to mention Loving What Is because it was my first introduction. I didn’t get a grasp for The Work from that book but it was what led me to go further with Katie and finally get a grasp on The Work. So, Loving What Is by Byron Katie will start to introduce you. This reminds me of a quote of hers which is one of my favorites, which is, “The worst thing that can happen to you is a thought.” Yeah, a whole gamechanger to start to realize that circumstances don’t give us our experiences of our life. It’s what we’re believing that gives us our experience of life. And Katie gives us a way to hack those painful thoughts to get to peace.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a favorite tool you’d recommend to people to be more awesome at their jobs?

David Wood
Yeah, I recommend the four-step blueprint for tough conversations which we’ll give your listeners in a few minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David Wood
Ooh, I like something called somatic sequencing. It’s new. This is new for me. I’ve been running from a lot of the sensations in my body for years and years, and I believe this is what people pick up with cigarette, or they smoke, or they have a glass of wine. Or you take some medication to kind of numb ourselves, or watch TV. But I’ve been experimenting with a therapist in feeling the feelings. Like, I’ll go and lay down a special place in the house and I’ll be like, “What is happening in my body?” I’ll just feel it and I will try and welcome everything that’s happening. And that’s been a bit of a game changer for me. So, that’ll be my new favorite tool or practice.

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

David Wood
You can go to PlayForReal.life. At PlayForReal.life you can download the blueprint. If you are serious about up-leveling in career and life at the same time, then see if you qualify for a discovery session with me. If you do, I don’t charge for those sessions. And I have joined the ranks of the podcasters in the last week, Pete. And if you’d like to listen to me as well as Pete, then Tough Conversations with David Wood is a new podcast you can subscribe to, again, at PlayForReal.life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Well, David, it’s been a whole lot of fun. I wish you all the best and keep on doing the great work as you’re playing for real.

David Wood
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate you.