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

938: William Ury on How to Thrive in Conflict

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Renowned negotiation expert William Ury draws from his extensive experience of working in the world’s toughest conflicts to help transform conflict into opportunity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we need more conflict, not less
  2. The true enemy to confront
  3. How writing the other side’s victory speech can help you win

About William

William Ury is one of the world’s best-known experts on negotiation, and co-author of Getting to Yes, the world’s all-time bestselling book on negotiation with more than 15 million copies sold. A co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, Ury has devoted his life to helping people, organizations, and nations transform conflicts around the world, having served as a negotiator in many of the toughest disputes of our times, taught negotiation to tens of thousands, and consulted for the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and dozens of Fortune 500 companies. He has served as a negotiation adviser and mediator in conflicts ranging from Kentucky wildcat coal mine strikes to family feuds, from US partisan battles to wars in the Middle East, Colombia, Korea, and Ukraine. 

Ury is an internationally sought-after speaker and has two popular TEDx talks with millions of viewers. He lives in Colorado where he loves to hike in the mountains.

Resources Mentioned

William Ury Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Bill, welcome.

William Ury
Well, it’s a real pleasure to speak with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to kick us off, if you could, with a super-riveting tale about a high-stakes negotiation you participated in, and how a key breakthrough emerged.

William Ury
Okay. Picture it, it’s about 20 years ago, I’m face-to-face with the president of Venezuela, he’s furious at me and yelling, getting very close to my face, and yelling at me. I’m in front of his entire cabinet. It’s past midnight. I’m surprised. I’m thinking, “Oh, a years’ worth of work down the drain.” I’m feeling embarrassed and I’m about to react and defend myself, he’s saying, “You know, you’re a fool, you third-siders, you mediators, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t see the traitors on the other side,” because I had said, “I thought there was some progress,” and he really got ticked off at that. And I was thinking of how to defend myself.

And then I caught myself for a moment, and I went to, what I call, the proverbial balcony, which is that place of calm and perspective, just for a tiny second, bit my tongue, and I asked myself, “Is it really going to advance things here if I get into an argument with the president of Venezuela? What am I here for? I’m here to calm things down.” So, I bit my tongue and I listened, and he proceeded to shout, and rant, and rave right close to my face for about half an hour, but since I wasn’t feeding him anything, slowly his energy began to wind down. And then I watched his shoulders sink, and he said to me in a very weary tone of voice, “So, Ury, what should I do?”

That, my friends, is the moment that a mind begins to open up. That’s the very faint sound of it. So, I said, “You know, Mr. President, it’s almost December. Plans for Christmas have been canceled. Why don’t you give everyone a break?” what’s in Spanish called a tregua, a truce, “Just give it a break for this conflict,” because there were a million people on the streets calling for his resignation, a million of his supporters calling for him, there is fear of even civil war. It was a really tense situation in the country. And he looked to me for a moment, he said, “That’s a good idea. I’m going to propose that in my next speech.” His mood had entirely shifted.

And what I realized then in that moment was that maybe the single greatest opportunity we have in negotiation, the greatest power that we have is the power, not to react but, instead, to take a step back, go to the balcony as if the negotiation is unfolding on the stage in front of us, remember what we really want, and listen. And that’s the key, to me, to unlocking a lot of the difficult conflicts that we face, whether it’s in our personal lives, or at work, or in the larger society.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Bill, I love that. And so, your genius move there was to say nothing.

William Ury
Exactly, to say nothing. Exactly. And maybe the easiest thing to do. It’s hard in that moment but it’s not like you have to come up with something clever. It’s to say nothing, and then, if anything, listen to yourself. Watch your own emotions. Watch yourself. Listen to yourself. How can we possibly listen to others if we haven’t really listened to ourselves? Tune in for a moment, and say, “Wow, I’m agitated. I’m feeling embarrassed. I’m angry. I’m pissed off.” Whatever it is, as soon as you start to listen to yourself from that little bit of a distance, your nervous system starts to calm down, and you can bring your best to the situation instead of your worst.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like the balcony a lot as a visual because, and maybe this is deliberately why you chose it, I have the experience, when I am overlooking a large expanse, and, in particular, actually, a lot of empty seats. I don’t know, maybe it’s like all those moments before the keynote, before everyone arrives. There is a sense of calm and power that comes from being in that visual kind of a space. And I don’t think that’s just me. That might be humanity itself. What’s that about?

William Ury
I think so. Actually, right now, I’m in a place, a little getaway in the mountains, and I can see about a hundred miles from here. And what it does in the brain, is that spaciousness, you’re looking over seats, is it gives you perspective. It’s what psychologists call perspective-taking. You could see the larger picture because, so often, in these conflicts, in these negotiations, daily, or small, or large, the biggest casualty is we lose our perspective.

And so, the ability to step back for a moment and see that larger perspective, and you may be in a closed office or something like that, but look out the window, or close your eyes for a second, and remember a beautiful scene that you’ve been in, and all of that will help your brain just recalibrate and tap into your inner potential to deal with that situation, that difficult situation, as hard as it is, with your maximum potential.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, zooming out a little bit, I guess getting some perspective from the balcony, your book is called Possible, and you say that you’re neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but rather a possibilist. Can you tell us what that means? And I’d love to hear the inspiring basis upon which you found your hope.

William Ury
Well, Pete, so, yeah, after all these years, I’ve spent about a 40, 45 years wandering the world in some of the toughest conflicts here in this country and around the world, from labors strikes and coal mines, to board room battles, to political disputes, to civil wars, Middle East, Columbia, Ukraine, North Korea, and people ask me, “So, you’ve seen some of the worst of humanity, how do you feel?” And I used to say I’m an optimist, and I’m an optimist, but now I like to calibrate a little more, and I say, “Actually, I’m a possibilist. I believe in human beings. I believe in our potential to transform conflicts, to change those situations.”

And the reason I believe it is I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen it in small situations, I’ve seen it in large situations, and I saw it in South Africa back in the ‘90s when blacks and whites were in a war, a race war, I saw it in Northern Ireland where there was a sectarian war. I’ve even seen it in the Middle East. I’ve seen it here in this country, and it’s that spirit of possibilism, of being able to see opportunities where others only see obstacles, that I think is key.

And it’s that spirit of possibilism, I think, that we need more and more in our daily lives, in our work lives, in our personal lives because the world outside seems to be, like, going a little crazy, and we need that mindset, which is, it’s not Pollyannish, it’s not like, “Okay, the world is all rosy,” but we look at the negative possibilities, but then we look for where those positive possibilities, we bring our curiosity, our creativity, and our collaborative potential to bear on the situation.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And in your book, you mentioned you’ve been in a number of situations where most people said, “Yeah, this is going to end pretty poorly,” and yet there were surprisingly positive developments in how things unfolded with regard to potential global calamities.

William Ury
That’s right. I’ve learned so much from just watching how people do these things. Going back to, again, like to South Africa, like a guy like Nelson Mandela. Here he was in prison for 27 years, and what’s the first thing he does in prison is he studies the language of his enemies. He learns their history, he puts himself in their shoes, he learns how they think, how they feel, what their traumas are, and that enables him, actually, when he comes out of prison, to be able to persuade them to lay down their weapons and agree to a democratic situation.

And it’s those kinds of things I’ve seen over time that I think that’s what we’re going to need in today’s…We live in an age of conflict. Everywhere around us, conflicts seem to be increasing, polarizing us, even poisoning our relationships, and paralyzing us, and we need the spirit of possibility, of meeting animosity with curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you can tweet that, Bill. That’s nice. And within that, I’m curious, you’ve been doing this for a long, long time. Tell us, what are some of the most recent, surprising, and fascinating discoveries you’ve made about this human communication conflict thing that you’re capturing in your book Possible?

William Ury
Well, one thing is, for a long time, I’ve noticed the importance of going to the balcony, and I noticed the importance of building a bridge, but, in today’s times, often we need more of that. And the thing that’s kind of the hidden resource that’s all around us that we don’t see is what I’ve come to call the third side. Because in every conflict, we tend to reduce it to me versus you, or us versus them, there’s always two sides. And what we don’t see is that there’s always actually a third side, which is the surrounding community, it’s the whole, and that’s a huge resource to us.

If we’re stuck in a conflict, it’s really hard sometimes to go to the balcony, it’s hard to build bridges with some people, or in some organizations, or in some situations, but we can get help from the people around us. It may be our friends, it may be our neighbors, it may be our colleagues, it may be our allies, and it’s not just people to be on our side. That, too, is important, but people who can take the side of the larger whole. Let’s look at it from that larger perspective, who can help us, who can sit us down with the other side, who can listen to us. It’s engaging, building that, I call it a winning coalition for agreement. Building a coalition where we’re not alone in the situation.

And that, to me, is one of the great hopes for humanity, and for us individually in any of our situations, is to look beyond the two sides that we’re always being asked to take one side or the other. But where is that third side?

Pete Mockaitis
I love that notion, the third side, the winning coalition, and we’ve started to introduce some of these concepts, the balcony and the bridge. Could you give us that intro within the frame of the camel story which I really enjoyed?

William Ury
Right. Yeah, this is one of my favorite stories, Pete. It’s an old story, a fable that comes from the Middle East about a man who dies, and he leaves to his three sons, as their inheritance, 17 camels. And to the first son, the oldest son, he leaves half the camels, and to the middle son, he leaves a third of the camels, and to the youngest son, he leaves a ninth of the camels. Well, three sons go about it, and it turns out 17 doesn’t divide by two, and it doesn’t divide by three, and it doesn’t divide by nine, and they start to get into an argument, each one wants more. And you know how brothers can get, almost comes to fisticuffs and violence.

And, finally, in desperation, they consult a wise old woman. And she listens to them, like a good manager listens or whatever, she says, “You know, I don’t have the answer to this. I don’t know if I can help you, but if you want, I actually have a camel, and I’d be happy to give you my camel.” So, the three sons say, “Okay.” Well, then they have 18 camels. Well, 18, as it turns out, does divide by two, so the first son takes his half, and that’s nine; the second son takes his third, and that’s six; and the youngest son takes his ninth, and that’s two. And if you add nine, and six, you get 15, plus two, 17. They have one camel left over and they gave it back to the wise old woman.

Now, if you think about it, a lot of our conflicts, a lot of our situations are a little bit like those 17 camels. You approach it, there’s no way to divide it up, there’s no way to solve the problem. Somehow, what we need to do is, like that wise old woman, we need to step back to the balcony, look at that larger perspective, see if we can come up with a creative idea, a creative reframe, which, in this case, is the 18th camel, that’s the golden bridge, as it were, and see if we can transform the situation, and it often takes the help of a third side, which, in this case, is the wise old woman.

So, to me, actually that story, which I’ve been telling for a long time, I hadn’t realized, it has all those three ingredients, to me, which are the magic ingredients, the magic potentials, the magic victories that we need, which is, one, is a victory with ourselves which is ability not to react but to go to the balcony; the second is a victory with the other side, mutually agreeable solution, a golden bridge as it were; and the third is a victory with the whole, which is to engage that third side, the surrounding community. And if you can put all three together, that’s my aha in this book, then what’s seemingly impossible, and we’re facing a lot of seemingly impossible situations these days, becomes possible.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And I want to dig into each of these three in a bit of depth in terms of hearing some best practices and practical ways to implement, particularly in workplace scenarios. But first, I just want to go meta, or broad scale for a moment, and here you say that we actually could benefit from more conflict instead of less. What do you mean by that? And why is that the case?

William Ury
Yeah, it seems strange to say, particularly for someone who’s spent his whole life trying to help people resolve conflicts, to say that we actually need more not less. In the sense, I’m trying to say it to provoke people, is to say conflict is natural. We often kind of like, a lot of us, and me included, we find conflict uncomfortable and we try to avoid it, or we accommodate, we give in, we appease, or sometimes we go on the attack, and none of those three A’s, what I call them – avoid, accommodate, or attack – actually help us, really, get what we really want.

And so, to me, we’re not going to be able to end conflict. It’s part of life. There are a lot of conflicts, you may not even be able to resolve them, but the opportunity that we have is to transform them, it’s to actually, instead of avoiding it, it’s to embrace the conflict, transform it. In other words, change the form of it from what’s so often a kind of destructive fight or a sullen silence into kind of an engaged conversation where you listen to them, they listen to you, you come up with creative ideas. And if you think about it, conflict can be healthy. It can be productive. It can lead to better communication, more engagement.

They say that marriages, for example, benefit from some conflict, which get the issues that are, otherwise, under the carpet, engaged but in a constructive way. That’s the real opportunity, it’s to transform the conflict. And whenever you need change, whenever there’s something wrong, oftentimes you need conflict to be able to engage it. So, in that sense, when there are things wrong with the world around us, we actually need more conflict not less. Conflict can sometimes lead to innovation. It can lead to better ideas. The essence of what is a healthy democracy is conflict.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, now let’s dig into these three unique human superpowers. We’ve got the balcony. We’ve got the bridge. Can you start with the balcony?

William Ury
What I’ve discovered over the years is that the single biggest obstacle to me or to any of us getting what we want is not what we think of it. It’s not that difficult person on the other side of the table in the office or wherever it is. The biggest obstacle to us getting what we want is right here, it’s me, it’s the person I look at in the mirror every morning. It’s my own, our own, very natural, very human tendency to react, in other words, to act without thinking.

As the old saying goes, “When you’re angry, you will make the best speech you will ever regret,” and that often happens. And so, the ability to not react, and that’s a choice that we have in that little moment, like I did with the president of Venezuela there, that little moment, we can choose not to react but to think about what’s going to really advance our objectives here, and we can respond creatively.

And, to me, that’s the key.

The ability to step back for a moment, before we react, I mean, we live in a very reactive culture and reactive times on social media. That ability not to react but to go to the balcony, and everyone has their favorite way of doing it. Some people, it might just be as simple as breathing, taking a walk, a workout, meeting a friend. Everyone’s got their favorite way. What’s your favorite way, Pete, to go to the balcony?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, I was reminded back in the day when I was interviewing for jobs as a candidate, and when I felt nervous, I don’t know why, but I guess there’s some science behind it. When I put both of my feet firmly, squarely on the floor, and just became aware of the presence of my feet there, I just felt more solid, grounded, firm, rooted, and that helped.

William Ury
That’s great. That’s exactly it. Essentially, in that moment, you’re pausing, you’re probably breathing, which brings a little more oxygen into your brain. When you put your feet on the ground, you started to relax, and that’s one of the wisest things, pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. When you’ve got something hard to do, start by relaxing. And you were relaxing in that moment, feeling your feet on the ground, and that visual imagery helped some of your nervous system, and then you can bring your best to a difficult situation, like giving a keynote or dealing with a difficult issue.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. So, that’s the balcony, it’s sort of the internal game, we take a breath, we focus, we don’t react, we don’t get defensive, don’t scream in anger. That sounds kind of easy, Bill. Any pro tips, do’s and don’ts about executing this well?

William Ury
Well, it sounds easy but when we’re triggered, when we’re reactive, when our emotions are taking us away, when we’re angry, when we’re fearful, when we’re anxious, it’s not so easy, it turns out, and that’s how often we feel when we’re in a tough situation, a difficult conflict, or an office spat, or whatever the situation might be. And so, that’s why we have to kind of cultivate it.

So, I’d say one thing is if you know you’re going to be in a difficult situation, you know you’re going to be in a difficult conversation with a colleague, or whatever the situation might be, with your partner, with your child, resource yourself. Everyone has their favorite way to resource themselves. I like to go for walks, ideally, in nature. Somehow nature fills me with a sense of awe and wonder. I relax. I can then bring my best. So, before any important negotiation, I go for a walk.

But everyone will have their favorite way of resourcing themselves so that you can actually have some natural resilience, so that when you go in, you’re going to be a lot less reactive when the other side starts saying things that press your buttons.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Well, now let’s talk about how do we build that bridge?

William Ury
Just the same as with the balcony, you have to do the opposite of what you might naturally feel like doing, you might naturally feel like reacting. Do the opposite and take a step back, go to the balcony. The same is true with the bridge. What happens in difficult conflicts is we tend to dig into our positions, the things we say we want, the things we demand. The other side digs into their positions, they push us, we push back, it goes nowhere, or it escalates even.

And the opposite of that, actually, what you find successful negotiators doing is the exact opposite of pushing. Because when you push, for example, right now, if I were just pushing you, Pete, if I put up my hands, you pull up your hands, and I was just pushing you, what would you naturally do?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I would push back, step aside.

William Ury
Right. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d probably be more shocked, like, “What is going on right now?”

William Ury
That’s it. Exactly. But people tend, when they’re pushed, to push back. It’s just instinct, and then we’re in a standoff. And what you find works is to use the power of surprise, which is to do the exact opposite of pushing, which is to attract. Because it’s almost like in a conflict, your mind is here, the other person’s mind is way over there, and you’re saying to them, “Hey, come on over to my idea,” whatever it is, “Come over to my position.” It’s not easy for them. It’s like there’s a big chasm, and that chasm is filled with, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t satisfy my needs, that’s not what I want. Other people will think I’d given in, or I look like a failure, or a wimp.” There’s a whole bunch of stuff in that chasm.

Our job is to build them a bridge over that chasm. It’s to start where they are for a moment, leave where your mind is, and this is not always easy, but leave where your mind is, and start the conversation where their mind is, where they are. You’re asking the boss for a raise, for example, “And I deserve that raise,” and you’re all there. Put yourself in the boss’ shoes for a moment, and imagine, “Wait, there’s a tough budgetary situation.” Start with your boss’ situation. How is the boss going to justify your raise to other people in the organization, and so on?

Think about their problem. Help them solve their problem so that they can help you solve yours. That’s the art of building the other side a golden bridge over that chasm of dissatisfaction. In other words, making it as easy as possible for them to move in the direction you want them to move. Attracting rather than pushing is the exact opposite of what we might normally do in a difficult conflict.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And when you speak to helping to solve their problem, and imagining it from their perspective and their stakeholders, you’ve got a really cool approach called writing your other party’s victory speech. Can you unpack that a little bit?

William Ury
When I face a tough situation, it could be personal or it could be global, and it seems impossible, what I like to do is I like to start at the end, and work backwards. You might not be able to get from here to there, but you might just be able to get from there to here, and then work your way back to there. And the way I do that is I like to sit down and write the other side’s victory speech. In other words, I do a little thought experiment. I imagine, “What if the other side accepted my proposal? What if they said yes?” What if they said yes to your proposal? Imagine that for a moment.

Your boss says, “Yeah, I’ll give you the raise.” Your colleague says, “Yeah, I’ll help you on that project.” Whatever it is, you think about that, and then imagine that they, then, have to justify that to someone else, to their boss, or to their colleagues, or to themselves looking in the mirror, or to their board, or whatever the thing is. What’s their victory speech? They say, “Yeah, it was a good idea for me to agree with Pete, and this is why, because it’s going to do this, that, and this.” You write their victory speech, and you think about how they can see that as a victory.

Then you see your job as helping them deliver that victory speech. And by writing that victory speech, by imagining it, it becomes more possible. And then the job becomes, “Okay, what can I do right now to start to help them, put them in a position where they could deliver that victory speech?” It has to be a victory for you, too, of course. But their victory speech is why they decided to agree with your proposal.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And then, in so doing, that naturally will spark some ideas for, “Oh, wait. You know what, this would be really easy for me to put in my proposal. It doesn’t make any difference to me, but might make all the difference to them in terms of what they’re able to share in their victory speech.”

William Ury
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, can you talk about the third step, or should I say, maybe third superpower?

William Ury
Balcony is one of our superpowers. We all have that ability within us to, as you mentioned, say nothing, not react. We all have the ability to build a bridge, and a core part of building the bridge, I should mention, is listening. We think of negotiation as talking, but, actually, if you observe the behavior of successful negotiators, they listen far more than they talk. There’s a reason we’re given two ears and one mouth, is to listen twice as much as we talk. And so, listening is key.

Now, it’s not always easy to do all this stuff. It’s not easy to go to the balcony in a difficult situation. It’s not easy to build those bridges. And this is where we need help, and that help, as I mentioned before, is around us. We may not see it but there’s a tendency in almost every conflict to kind of reduce it to two sides. It’s like two sides, it’s us versus them. It’s Arabs versus Israelis. It’s labor versus management. Whatever it is, it’s husband versus wife, we reduce it to two sides. But, in fact, there’s always a third side, which is the people around.

And I’d learned this, really struck me once, I’m an anthropologist by training, and then I got into negotiation but I was studying anthropology to understand and figure out human beings. And I was visiting an indigenous tribe, in Southern Africa, in the Kalahari Desert, the so-called Bushmen, and I was watching how they deal with conflicts. When two people get into a conflict, it can get serious because the men all have these arrows that they hunt with, which have poisoned tips, and you can kill someone, and then that person takes three to die, will kill someone else. And pretty soon, you have the equivalent of a small-scale nuclear war in a small group.

So, what they learned to do, what I saw, is when tempers start to get high, and you notice that, and people notice that, someone goes and hides the poisoned arrows out in the desert, and then the whole group gets together around the campfire – the women, the men, the children – and they talk it out. And it might go on for a day, or two days, or three days. They don’t rest until they talk it up because they know what the consequences are if they don’t. It’s not just a question of reaching an agreement. There has to be a kind of reconciliation.

And what I realized is that’s our ancestral birthright, it’s that use of the community, of the people around us to help create a container, a space, within which even the most difficult conflicts can gradually be transformed. That’s the third side, and that’s a power that we all have to evoke, or we often play the role of third siders. We don’t think of it necessarily but parents are always playing that role of third sides among their kids, peers among their colleagues, or the odd managers among their employees.

It’s that third-side role of helping listen to people, help them cool down, helping them get into communication with each other, helping explain what the other side thinks. All that knitting together turns out to be key if we’re trying to transform the impossibly difficult conflicts that we sometimes come across.

And the third side is the help of the whole, that’s what it is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. That’s beautiful and a good reminder to seek that out, and to get that support. In the workplace, any pro tips on what might make for great third side collaborators to get in on the mix?

William Ury
It could be someone even outside your workplace, or just a friend and a colleague who can be a coach to you. You have a hard situation, sometimes we get blinded but the ability of using a friend or someone as a coach, to say, “How am I going to approach this difficult issue I’ve got with my colleague, or a coworker, or my boss?” That’s one. Another is there might be a colleague that you could involve. Sometimes, too, you’re not alone in these situations.

Imagine that you’re facing a difficult boss. If it’s just you, that’s one thing. But if it’s you with your colleagues, that’s the winning coalition, can approach the boss and sit down, and say, “Hey, let’s talk about this,” then you’ve got some more power. There’s real power in the third side, and sometimes you need that in situations because not everything in the workplace is fair.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And when you talked about the tribes, you mentioned it might take a day or two or three, and, in your book, you mentioned working through some negotiations, that could take months or years. How do you think about patience and how we can get more of it? Because I think, sometimes, we can have the frustration that, “We’ve had this conversation four times, and it’s going nowhere. I guess it’s just hopeless.” How do you think about those situations? It seems you think about things differently.

William Ury
I do. I just know that when you get into these real gnarls with each other, and we kind of know this in families and so on of how these kinds of disputes can go on for a long, long time. And this kind of negotiation, I’ll just say upfront, can be some of the hardest work that we humans can do, and it takes patience, it takes persistence because, when you’re looking for possibilities, you make little breakthroughs, and then you might make progress, and then you might have a setback, and then you got to go back.

And it’s that way that I see the little possibilities turning into large possibilities. So, it’s true, it takes some time. Human beings, we’re not like computers. We take time. We have our grievances, we have our wounds, we have our traumas. It takes time to work through those, and it does take some patience. On the other hand, I would say, if you do invest in those relationships, if you do build trust in those relationships, then you can operate very fast at the speed of trust.

I remember a long time ago, I had some funding from Warren Buffett to work on avoiding nuclear war, a long time ago, and he was telling me about a negotiation he got involved in with his partner about making a major investment. And it was hundreds of millions of dollars, and he said the negotiation took place in one minute over the phone, where the guy called him up, and said, “We’re about to make this deal. What are you thinking?” He said, “What do you think?” And they were able to make the deal quickly. Why? Because they had developed the trust beforehand. They knew that the other would not take advantage of them.

And so, to me, if you want to move fast, then invest in building trust and confidence because, then, you can operate at the speed of trust, which is very fast.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. A lot of this has come back to when you say trust, patience, persistence, humility, calm, just sort of good human virtue stuff. Do you have any pro tips on how we can develop that within ourselves and our colleagues before we have a conflict or a negotiation that we’re getting into? Are there practices? You like going for walks. Is it meditating? Or is it reading, or spiritual practice? Or, how do you recommend folks get better at these just human goodness kinds of things?

William Ury
Well, the first thing, Pete, to recognize is that this is not rocket science. These are things that are inside of us. These are human potentials that each of us has. This is our birthright. So, it’s developing things that are already inherent in us. And, yeah, everyone will have their favorite ways of doing it. It might be meditating. Meditating can calm us down. It might be going for walks. It might be getting a coach or having a friend be a coach, coaching each other, all these kinds of resources. And then investing in the relationships around us by building trust.

It might be those little things where you put deposits in the bank of goodwill. You acknowledge someone. You thank them. You go out of your way to help them so that, then, when it comes to a difficult situation, you can withdraw a little bit, you can count on that, and say, “Look, we’ve got a hard situation here to work through.” But then you’ve got something to work with. And so, it’s that relational work that’s key to building the resilience that will allow us individually within ourselves, and then relationally in our organizations and in our work lives to be able to navigate some pretty stormy weathers sometimes.

And trust can’t be underestimated. It takes a while to build up trust but it can be destroyed in a second. So, what’s interesting to me is, even though sometimes people associate negotiation with kind of slight shading of the truth, or manipulation, the best negotiators I know, the thing they value most is their reputation for honesty and fair-dealing because, then, the other side will trust them, they’ll share more information, and you’re more likely to end up with a creative solution that works for all sides.

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

William Ury
One thing I just want to say is in a lot of these situations, there’s an element of power. We feel like there’s an asymmetry of power, we feel powerless. And so, one thing in negotiation, when you’re on the balcony, that you might want to think through is you’re trying to get the other side to do something, you’re looking for an agreement. Paradoxically, it’s helpful to think through what I call, what negotiation would call your BATNA, your best alternative to a negotiated agreement.

In other words, imagine that you’re not going to reach agreement with the other side, what’s your best course of action for satisfying your actions if you can’t? Imagine the difference it gives you. BATNA, knowing that, it seems like negative thinking, but it’s actually alternative positive thinking. It’s like, “I’ve got an option here. If I can’t reach agreement with a person now, maybe I can reach agreement with someone else. If I can’t get this job, maybe I’ve got another job.”

Just thinking through that gives you confidence that you’re going to be able to satisfy your interests. And that confidence, actually, increases the chances that you’re actually going to reach an agreement. So, paradoxically, when you’re on the balcony, think not just about what you want, but what’s your alternative for getting what you want if, for some reason, you are not able to reach agreement with the other side. Think through your BATNA. BATNA is power. BATNA is confidence.

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

William Ury
A quote from a great anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said, “We are continually faced with great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. And now a favorite study or experiment?

William Ury
My colleague, negotiation colleague at MIT, Jared Curhan, did some very interesting experiments where he was studying how people negotiate.

And what he found was there was a very interesting correlation between how cooperative people were, how likely they were to reach agreements that were good for both sides, and the amount of silence that he noted in the negotiation. In other words, those little pauses, where people paused, they were a little more reflective, which is, of course, time on the balcony, so that silence turns out to be one of the great powers not when you’re talking but when you’re not talking. When you just even take that moment of silence, there’s a correlation with creative outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

William Ury
Favorite book that I’ve always liked is a book that was written 2500 years ago in China, the Tao Te Ching, which is kind of a book of paradoxical wisdom, but things like, I remember one quote from it, which is, and it goes back to your earlier question, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” In other words, oftentimes, our minds are like these fizzy glasses, it’s full with fizz. Can we just take a moment, like when you planted your feet on the ground, to let the fizz settle so we can actually see more clearly, and, thus, act more effectively?

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

William Ury
Something that we all have, which is the ability to listen. But listen not just the way we normally listen, which is we normally listen within our shoes, like thinking, “Oh, I disagree with this, I agree with that,” or whatever it is. The kind of listening where it’s empathic listening, where you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You try to imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes for a moment.

And if you can do that, if you understand where their mind is, you’re going to be much more effective at influencing them, of helping them move in the direction you want them to move. And it’s also, to me, it’s a sign of basic human respect. And I find that that’s maybe the cheapest concession you can make in any negotiation, is to listen and give them some respect. And it also helps you influence them more effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget that you’re known for, people quote, Kindle book highlight, re-tweet, from you again and again?

William Ury
Well, I’ll give you a contrarian one. I’m known for “Yes,” for getting the “Yes,” but I also wrote a book about “No” and the importance of “No,” and what I call the positive no, which is a yes, followed by a no, followed by a yes, like a sandwich. It’s a no which starts a yes; a yes which is important to you, “I’ve got an important family commitment this weekend,” followed by a very calm and matter-of-fact no, so you say to your boss, “So, I can’t work through the weekend.”

And then on the other side of it is a yes on the other side, which is, “But I can work with John and Mary, and we can make sure the work can get done anyway.” Sometimes it’s important in negotiation to have that yes, but it’s very important also to have the no to stand up for what’s important for you.

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

William Ury
Just my website would be good, which is just my name, WilliamUry.com.

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

William Ury
I do, which is next time you find yourself in a little bit of a spat or a conflict with a colleague, or a coworker, or a boss, think about bringing that spirit of possibility; think about tapping into your innate human superpower of going to the balcony, of not reacting, but asking what you actually want; and the innate superpower of the bridge, of listening, of being creative, and the innate superpower of engaging the third side, the community around you. If you put all three together, you can transform your conflicts. And if you can transform your conflicts, you can transform your lives.

887: How to Navigate Conflict and Find Clarity with Marc Lesser

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Marc Lesser shows how to navigate difficult emotions and conversations to build thriving relationships.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we shouldn’t be afraid of conflict
  2. The one question you need to ask when dealing with difficult people
  3. How to assess any relationship in 4 words

About Marc

Marc Lesser is a speaker, facilitator, workshop leader, and executive coach. He is the author of four books, including Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader: Lessons from Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen, and CEO of ZBA Associates, an executive development and leadership consulting company. Lesser helped develop the world-renowned Search Inside Yourself (SIY) program within Google and was director of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the oldest Zen monastery in the Western world. He lives in Marin County, California, and leads Mill Valley Zen, a weekly meditation group.

Resources Mentioned

Marc Lesser Interview Transcript

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

Marc Lesser
It’s great to be here. I think it’s really important to be awesome at your job.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And I think you’ve got something to say that will be helpful in that quest with your latest book, Finding Clarity: How Compassionate Accountability Builds Vibrant Relationships, Thriving Workplaces, and Meaningful Lives. That’s stuff that we’re into over here.

Marc Lesser
Yeah, and I think it’s no small thing just to have the aspiration to be awesome at your job. I’ve noticed it’s easy, cynicism is easy. Awesome requires work.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know what’s funny, when I was doing the original research to put this together, I was using some survey tools and trying to get a sense for, “Does anyone care about this thing I might want to make because I don’t want to build something nobody wants?” I’ve learned that lesson about four times. And, yeah, it was about 4% of people were ten of ten extremely interested in listening to such a show.

And so, that means 96% were not, and I don’t blame them. There’s a lot of different domains of life to focus on or to be awesome at, and sometimes people just want to leave work at work, and that’s okay, in certain times and seasons.

Marc Lesser
Yeah. Well, I’m not saying anything everyone doesn’t know, it’s that we spend a lot of time at our work. And any place where we spend a lot of time, man, we should be awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. And that’s the vibe, I think, with me and listeners that it’s just more fun being awesome discovering how to be more awesome, contributing to awesomeness in others, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Marc Lesser
Yeah, it is. It is. It’s a great word. It’s a great word – awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know what’s funny, you just got me going. I almost deliberately chose it because it was a little bit radical even. Because I remember one of my first speaking engagements, I was talking to the Illinois CPA Society, so a bunch of accountants, and there was this partner who was talking about professionalism, and she said, “I, for example, would really not appreciate it if a youthful member of my staff were to say that something was awesome, for example.”

And I thought, “Really? Because I love that.” So, I guess I’m sticking it to her. No, I wish her the best. I really do. But I think it conveys a little bit of a vibe. It’s like we’re going to be ever so slightly irreverent and would be professional enough to pass along with your teammates and colleagues but, hopefully, edgy enough to keep your interest.

Marc Lesser
Yeah. Well, awesome is way up there on the continuum of aspirations. Awesome is pretty high up there, but I think it’s good, too. I’m a big believer in the importance of being aspirational.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Yes. Me, too. And, Marc, it’s funny, usually we spend the first couple minutes of me learning about you. But look at you, you’ve got some compassion and some vibrant relationship-building action going on over there.

Marc Lesser
Yeah. Well, it took us some time to get past the title of the podcast but I think we’ve almost achieved that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so speaking of titles, you’ve got a fun one. You were once the director of a Zen monastery. What’s the story here and maybe some cool experiences from that role?

Marc Lesser
Yeah, that was kind of an amazing experience. My one-year leave of absence from Rutgers University when I was back in my college days, that one year turned into 10 years of living at the San Francisco Zen Center. And five of those years were at this amazing place called Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which is in the mountains in Central California, and it functions as somewhat, I have to be careful, traditional Zen monastery.

Very traditional in certain ways in terms of the schedule based on kind of some ancient processes and formations of Zen practice but also California, men and women living together, children living at this monastery. But traditional in the sense that, man, we got up early in the morning, 3:40 a.m. wakeup bell, and a lot of meditation, a lot of study, a lot of ritual and being together, but also a lot of work.

And it was there in that role as director that the lightbulb went off for me, and I realized that I thought of myself as a Zen student but I was leading, I was in a leadership role, I was managing. So, this Zen monastery turned into a conference center and resort in the summer time. So, very quiet and chill, secluded all winter but very much like any other conference center, workshop center, 70 or 80 overnight guests, gourmet vegetarian meals served, three meals a day, so it was pretty intense kind of workplace.

And the aha I had was that I was in a leadership role, and that I loved it, and that I got to get the experience, very much the full-on experience of integrating meditation, mindfulness, spiritual practice with running a small business, managing a staff, dealing with money, dealing with all the problems and opportunities of any small business.

And I wondered, “Why isn’t everyone integrating these, what looks like these two different practices?” And that kind of set me on the path of this whole wonderful world of mindful leadership, and it was why I got the call several years later from Google, saying, “Hey, we want you to come and develop a mindful leadership program for Google engineers,” and that was also another amazing opportunity.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when we talk about mindful leadership, is there a key way you would articulate what that is and how it differs from normal or sort of mainstream traditional leadership?

Marc Lesser
Well, now we’re going to go back to where we started. Yes, it’s an aspiration to be awesome but awesome, I think, I’m kind of teasing but I’m also being real that I would say that mindful leadership is about bringing one’s full heart, mind, body, spirit into your work, and that all those things really matter, and that it’s great aspiration for results and effectiveness and doing things at the highest level possible, and bringing in a great sense of one’s humanity and emotional intelligence into leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds swell. Tell us, along the way, any particularly surprising or counterintuitive discoveries you made in researching this or putting together the book Finding Clarity?

Marc Lesser
Yeah. Well, this has been my life. Finding Clarity is actually my fifth book, and all of my books, in some way, have been about, I’d say, this integration of one’s whole life, that everything in your life alignment, and a wholeheartedness. I know you’re going to ask me this later but I’m going to give you the answer to this right now.

One of my favorite quotes is from the poet David White who says, “The antidote to exhaustion isn’t rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.” And I would say that, like, “Well, what is it that makes one’s work awesome?” One answer that I have is about to be wholehearted, meaning that your work is fully aligned with what you believe in, with what your values are, with some aspiration that you might have of doing good things, doing important things. Your work is an offering that you’re making to the world. So, to me, these are all ways of talking about, again, whether you use the language of mindful leadership or wholehearted leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, then tell us, what’s this concept of compassionate accountability?

Marc Lesser
Yes. So, compassionate accountability, I’d say, is maybe a subset of that. It’s a focus on holding oneself and others accountable. It’s interesting, accountable is a word that’s used a lot in the business world, as it should be. But generally, often people have sort of a negative connotation with this word accountability. So, I sometimes substitute the word alignment, which is maybe a softer, gentler form of accountability.

But accountability, people usually think of it as obvious things like doing what you say you’re going to do, like having goals and benchmarks and being accountable to them, like actually being able to look at and report on how is it going, but, really, accountability is about aligning about what success looks like, but also, I’d say, aligning around how we’re working together, how we are dealing with success and failure, with conflict, what happens when things are difficult, when there are challenges. Then what?

And the compassionate piece is marrying accountability and alignment with a sense of care and trust and compassion. Compassion is kind of one step up above. Empathy is talked about and the importance. There’s a lot of studies on how important empathy is. Empathy is feeling the feelings of other people. And compassion is feeling other people’s feelings and wanting the best for other people, wanting to heal people’s suffering and stress and anxiety.

So, compassionate accountability, it’s beautiful. They seem like they’re contradictory but they are two, I think, essential practices in the workplace, and I think important practices toward working with more awesomeness.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you perhaps paint a picture with some examples of, “Here’s an approach that we would consider compassionately accountable,” versus some other common approaches that are lacking either in compassion or accountability that are rather common?

Marc Lesser
So, I think what I’ve noticed is that accountability is hard in the workplace because it means dealing skillfully with conflict. And dealing skillfully with conflict is, well, it takes skill but it also takes emotional intelligence. So often, whenever there are gaps in people not meeting certain goals, they might be financial goals, they might be product goals, they might be you’re trying to build a team or roll out a particular product.

And accountability means paying attention and checking in and really looking wide-eyed and with as much clarity as possible about, “How are we doing in meeting those goals? What’s working well? What’s not working well? Where do things stand?” and having those conversations where you’re not overreacting or underreacting.

So, compassion is I think of compassion as the sweet spot of being able to be direct and clear, and, at the same time, to be caring and to be building, to seeing anytime where there are gaps between what we’re trying to accomplish and where we are, that those gaps are opportunities to build trust and connection as oppose to eroding trust and connection.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, could you maybe give us a demonstration in practice if, let’s say, someone was underdelivering on a goal or commitment, how might you approach and articulate some messaging to that person?

Marc Lesser
Sure. Yeah, I was thinking of an example that I often use, and maybe this is close to what you’re saying. An example is you’re carpooling with someone. And day after day, they’re late. You’re standing there in the corner and you have an agreement that they’re going to pick you up at 8:00 and it’s, sometimes, 10 after 8:00.

And most days, you just get in the car and you don’t say anything. But, at some point, you say, “We need to talk about this. There’s a gap between what we’ve agreed to do and what is happening. And here’s what I’m seeing, and I’m kind of feeling not so good about it. In fact, I’m a little angry. I don’t feel respected. What are we going to do to close this gap to fix this problem?”

But then you have to listen because you might find out some things that surprise you about what the other person’s experience and story is, having to do with either family matters, or some sickness, some health issues, that, “There was construction on the road that wasn’t supposed to be there, so I went another…”

But it means being able to have such a conversation. Now, these conversations and these gaps are very much affected by context and by role and relationship. The one I was just talking about was kind of equal people, one person just picking up another. Now, if I’m the person in charge, and you are regularly late with handing in the accounting information that I needed, that might be a different conversation.

That might be, “We have a problem. Here it is. I hear there’s a lot of reasons why your reports are late but this is really important and this needs to be fixed.” And it might be, “Do you need some support? Is there something you’re missing?” So, the compassion piece might be caring enough to ask, “Hey, do you need some support?” understanding what the problem might be, understanding why these accounting reports are regularly being handed in late, maybe being willing to help support and fix them. So, that’s the compassion piece.

The accountability piece is bringing it up and talking about it, and having the clarity and the skill, the directness to say, “We’ve got a problem here. We need to talk about this.” And it’s amazing how often that doesn’t happen.

Pete Mockaitis
It certainly doesn’t. Can you share some key drivers as to what’s behind that happening so rarely?

Marc Lesser
I think people don’t like conflict. People are often afraid, “Is this person going to be mad?” I think we all want to be liked. We all want to be loved. We’re afraid, “If I bring this up, is it going to make it worse? It’s not really going to fix the problem anyhow.” Or, any set of stories about, I think, fear of making it worse or I’ve noticed often people just give up.

You might bring up a conversation and it didn’t go the way that you wanted it to, and you stop having those conversation, and just go home and complain to your spouse, or just let that ulcer build, let those stressors. And I think this is how not to create an awesome workplace, is to not face into the gaps. I think this is such an important…and not just in work. I think in all our relationships.

Like, not only do I want to be awesome in my work. I want to be awesome in my marriage. I’d like to be awesome as a father. I’d like to be awesome as a brother. And it means, actually, leaning into, “What does awesome look like? And what are the gaps between what I’m feeling and observing and seeing now and my own desire, my own aspiration, my own vision for what awesome look like?”

So, there’s the kinds of examples I’m giving. Awesome looks like agreeing on when we’re going to get picked up, and it actually happening, or agreeing on when those reports are going to happen. But there are also, I think about, that we’re working together in a way that feels supportive and energetic and clear, maybe even fun, at least enough fun.

Yes, so being able to hold those aspirational visions and to work skillfully with others in working to close the gaps in order to make things if not better, maybe even awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’m curious, do you have any pro tips if someone is having that thought, like, “Okay, I probably got to say something about this issue but I’m scared. I want them to like me. We might make it worse. Last time that didn’t go so well”? If we’re in that loop of self-talk, do you have any, I don’t know, statistics, or data, or reframes, or wisdom to help us get over the hump?

Marc Lesser
Yeah. Well, yeah, there’s many, many pro tips. Here’s one, one of my favorites. A really easy way to find a way into such dealing with some of those gaps or some of those conflicts is to start by saying, “You know, the story that I’m telling myself is that you’re late every time you’re supposed to pick me up, and, therefore, you don’t respect me. You’re not respecting me and my time. That’s the story that I’m telling myself.”

So, it’s a way of, “I’m taking responsibility. This is something I’m experiencing and seeing. I’m not blaming. I’m not coming after you, saying you, blah, blah, blah, you don’t respect…No, it’s like this is something, this story I’m telling myself is really…” Again, this isn’t for every situation but it’s one way to start the conversation is by leaving the blame.

And often what happens is, by the time we have these conversations, there’s some anger built up, there’s some resentment built up, and you don’t want to…it’s usually not very skillful to start these conversations with anger or blame, but to start with, “Here’s what I’m noticing. Here’s what I’m feeling. Here’s what’s happening with me.”

“And I’m curious, what’s happening with you? What story are you telling yourself? What’s happening with you? And what do we need to do? What do we need to do to close the gaps?” Or, “Here’s a request I have for how I think it would go better in the future.” Any one of those. Those are all a few different tips there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And I imagine when you open that way, with, “The story I’m telling myself is that you don’t respect me that’s why you’re late,” it’s probably pretty rare that your counterpart says, “You know, you’re right, Marc, that’s exactly what’s happening. I don’t respect you and that’s why I’m late.”

Marc Lesser
Yeah. Part of the other answer, I think you were asking about, like, “Why don’t we have these conversations?” I think most people are incredibly vulnerable, and we all have, I think, a pretty well-developed inner critic, inner judge. We are hardwired to be very cautious and careful, and we don’t want to be hurt. It’s almost like a kind of death that to be vulnerable enough to show how we’re really feeling, to show our vulnerability, to show that we feel disrespected or we feel not seen. All of that comes up.

And so often, it’s not actually what’s happening. It’s not real. So, it’s a little bit unnerving, a little bit vulnerable to come forward with things where we feel where we’re being let down or hurt or challenged, any of those things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, you’ve got a number of great tidbits in the book, and so I’d love to hear your view on how we could shift our thinking associated with “difficult people.”

Marc Lesser
Yeah. Well, this is where, I think, I tell the story in the book of, often, in public trainings and workshops, it’s not unusual that someone will ask, “How do I deal? Give me some tips for how to work with difficult people.” And I often will wonder if the person asking the question is one of those difficult people. Now, I think I have to say, of course, there are difficult people, there are people who are toxic, just go around leaving trails of stress.

But those such people, I think, are very, very rare, are very small miniscule percentage of the population. Mostly what we’re talking about is our bosses who just don’t act the way that we want them to all the time, our coworkers who, again, are doing things differently than, in some way, we’re not as comfortable with, or many, many situations where anytime things don’t go the way we want them to, we can then label those people as difficult people.

Now, I’ve been CEO of a few different companies, and I make it a habit to do anonymous surveys of my employees. And I’ve learned that I’m perceived, hard to believe, but some people find me difficult. So, what’s interesting is that some people who work for me feel that I don’t include people enough, and that I’m making decisions too quickly, not being inclusive enough.

And other people find me too inclusive, too slow, asking for the input. So, it’s like, man, we all see the world through different lenses. So, I think this is the key to, I think, working with so-called difficult people, is to start by being curious about, “What lens am I seeing the world through? And what lens are these other people seeing the world through that’s making it difficult and challenging for me?”

And this is chapter one of my book Finding Clarity, is entitled ‘Be curious, not furious.’ And this, I think, is maybe step one about working with these so-called difficult people is noticing if you’re furious, noticing feelings and anger and emotions that are coming up, and to start by being curious about yourself, start by being curious about, “Huh, wow, this has a real charge for me. I wonder what that’s about.”

And, also, a key thing about working this issue about difficult people is to not confuse impact and intention. This is one of those classic rules of thumb in having difficult conversations. So, impact is you do something, Pete, and I’m like, “Ouch! That hurt. That didn’t feel good.” Well, we humans are wired, we go right to thinking, “I know why, that I know your intention, that you must’ve had some bad intention.”

But instead of going right from impact to intention, to be curious, “Hey, that hurt. What just happened there, that didn’t feel good to me. I’m curious, what was that about? What were you thinking? Why did you just do what you did?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, you talked about the anonymous surveys for a moment. In practice, how does one execute that? You just, anything, Google Forms, Typeform, or a specialty consulting 360 feedback company that you engage? How does one execute that if they say, “Ooh, I want anonymous surveys”?

Marc Lesser
Well, there happens to be one in the back of my book that when I was CEO of my last organization, I was doing a lot of work with Google, and my friends at Google were happy to provide me with a very well-developed anonymous survey that they used at Google. And I took it and I worked with my team and we customized it and worked it to be as useful and effective for our environment.

And so, yeah, I think it actually takes some thoughtfulness to develop what are the things that you want to measure, what are the things that you want to know from your employees. And, yeah, so it’s designing just the right questions, and it can be a handful of questions, or, I think, the one that I have in the back of my book is about 60 questions. It’s pretty thorough because it gives you a benchmark around culture, around management, around the CEO.

And once you have it, yeah, you just put it out there as any. There’s a bunch of different platforms you can use for forms, and collect the information, and spend a lot of time looking at the results, and it’s hard. I wanted, I’ve always aspired to have awesome workplaces, and, generally, the results of those surveys can be surprising to find out that a lot of people might find the workplace awesome, but a lot of people maybe don’t find it so awesome, and to get more information about what are those gaps, and what can we do to close those gaps.

One of the things that I found out was that things like spending time with employees’ personal and professional development was something that mattered a lot, and that it wasn’t, as CEO and in the last company that I helped grow, there was a gap there. We were not spending, we were not prioritizing really making sure that people felt that their personal and professional development was a high priority, and that we had to put in different systems and mechanisms for being able to support employees more in that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You’ve also got a good tidbit. You say that there are four most important words to assess a relationship. Lay them on us.

Marc Lesser
Yeah, I think the four most important words are, “How are we doing?” And I tell a story in my book about having that conversation with my adult daughter, where I think there’s just something about, again, I think especially if there is any tension or anxiety or gaps in any kind of relationship, the tendency is to not address it and to not talk about it.

And my experience is that’s usually a bad idea. It’s a bad idea in the workplace. It’s a bad idea in our primary relationships with our partners, with our children, with our parents. So, just being able to check in, like, “How are we doing?” But it takes some skill and some presence, actually, to ask that question and to ask it in a way that is real and where you’ll get some real feedback.

Because, usually, I hear this a lot, and I’m sure especially with young kids, “How are you?” “Everything’s fine.” It’s always fine. In the workplace, generally, “Everything’s fine.” So, you might have to dig a little deeper and ask, “Well, what are some things that aren’t fine? Tell me, there must be one thing or a couple things that could be improved in how we’re working together because I want this workplace to be awesome, and it sure doesn’t look to me that you think this is an awesome workplace. What could be better?” And I think it starts with the, “How are we doing?” conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
And if I may ask, where did the conversations with your adult daughter go in terms of highlighting ways to be doing better?

Marc Lesser
Yeah. Well, it wasn’t easy. I got to hear, which I really wanted to, about some things that were bothering her. There had been some challenging miscommunications that happened between me and my daughter, so I suspected there were some lingering feelings, some gaps, some resentments, and I got to hear about those things.

But I felt like talking about them and airing them was really important as opposed to shoving them under the rug or pretending that they didn’t exist. And I also got to express how much I appreciated my daughter being able to tell me about things that were bothering her, and I let her know, “That’s really important to me. I want to know that.”

And I got to express my own sense of how important that relationship is and how much I loved her, and how much all that good wonderful yummy stuff that we get to do with them, our children.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’d also love to get your view of when it comes to storytelling, if that could be an effective means of producing compassion accountability and awesomeness in environments. Any perspective on how we can share and receive stories all the more effectively?

Marc Lesser
Yeah, I’ve been working with a few different leaders on the importance of storytelling as a way of expressing. I think it’s a really important skill to be able to express a vision, to be able to tell stories about things that were awesome, things that were successful, specific stories about what customer engagement, employees that went above and beyond what was expected to do, things that were amazing, and to tell stories about failures, and breakdowns, and what happened, and what we learned.

Yes, storytelling, I think, is, I’m surprised there aren’t more MBAs, more business school classes on the art of storytelling, such an, I think, important competency and skill for leaders.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so it’s important. Any tips on doing it better?

Marc Lesser
It’s funny, I used to do and I still do it, a fair amount of keynote speaking. And being able to be a good storyteller, I remember years ago, hiring a coach and consultant. And part of it is practicing, practice telling a story. Take specific events and talk about them. I think the typical arc of any story is describing what’s happening, what’s the challenge, and how we overcame that challenge, and what we learned from it.

It’s like the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey starts with that we’re all heroes in the journey of life, and it starts maybe with the aspiration for awesomeness, the aspiration to find our true home, to find meaning, to find connection. And then there’s always the challenges and how we find our own power to meet and overcome these challenges. Star Wars, apparently, according to George Lucas, was based on his reading of the traditional hero’s journey process of stories and of life.

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

Marc Lesser
I think we’ve accomplished a lot here.

Pete Mockaitis
I think so, too. Well, so now you gave me it before, but I want to hear it again. It’s so good. Favorite quote, drop it on us.

Marc Lesser
Well, I’ve got many favorites. I started and ran a greeting card company for 15 years so I am a professional quote collector. But one of my all-time favorites is Wendell Berry, who’s a fifth-generation Kentucky farmer, who said, “Be joyful though you’ve considered all the facts,” which I think is great on a hard day in business or reading the newspaper. Like, don’t shy away from the facts but practice with joy.

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

Marc Lesser
Oh, man, favorite study, bit of research. Yeah, I love some of the studies on meditation and how studies showing how meditation will, over time, change the gray matter in your brain, and studies showing that meditation, the relationship between meditation and developing one’s own leadership skills and emotional intelligence. Lots of studies out there, thousands of these people studying meditation and mindfulness.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Marc Lesser
Well, the book that I was thinking about while I was talking today is a book called Difficult Conversations. And it’s a book that’s one of the best edited books. Every word in that book matters. Yeah, it comes out of the Harvard negotiating team and it’s simply called Difficult Conversations.

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

Marc Lesser
I love my MacBook Pro. It faltered as I was starting it this morning, I said, “Oh, no, I depend on this computer so much these days.” So, yeah, I love my MacBook.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Marc Lesser
Getting up every morning at 5:30.

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

Marc Lesser
Yeah, the four most important words, “How are we doing?”

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

Marc Lesser
My website, MarcLesser.net with lots of my writing and audio and video. Yeah, worth a visit.

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

Marc Lesser
Yeah, don’t avoid conflict. Learn to get awesome at noticing and working skillfully with the gaps between what is and what would be awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Marc, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and clarity.

Marc Lesser
Thank you, Pete. It’s been a pleasure.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Liane

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

Resources Mentioned

Liane Davey Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I was thinking weightlifting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liane Davey
Five percent.

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

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

Liane Davey
Right, it’s not feedback.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That happened. For the record.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liane Davey
Right. Right.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liane Davey
Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy. Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liane Davey
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

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

Pete Mockaitis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Hesha

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

Resources Mentioned

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Hesha Abrams Interview Transcript

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

Hesha Abrams
My pleasure.

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

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

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

Hesha Abrams
I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Hesha Abrams
I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesha Abrams
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesha Abrams
Indeed.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that sounds easy.

Hesha Abrams
Indeed. It honestly is.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
You’re a pro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
With a V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesha Abrams
It depends on the complexity of the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesha Abrams
Exactly, isn’t that great?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesha Abrams
Isn’t that great?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Amy

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

Resources Mentioned

Amy Gallo Interview Transcript

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

Amy Gallo
Thanks for having me, Pete.

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

Amy Gallo
Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Gallo
Thank you.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

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


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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
“Surely, not I, Amy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Gallo
That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, clever. Tormentor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Gallo
Yeah, that is the right mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis

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

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

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

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