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

516: Making Difficult Conversations Easier with David Wood

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About David

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Wood Interview Transcript

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

David Wood
Hey, my pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Totally, yeah.

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

Pete Mockaitis
What happens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

David Wood
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate you.

497: How to Prevent Burnout by Shifting Your Focus with Aaron Schmookler

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

 

Aaron Schmookler discusses how a service-oriented mindset keeps you from burning out.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A powerful phrase for de-escalating conflict
  2. How to stop feeling so self-conscious
  3. How to make work more fulfilling

About Aaron:

For over 20 years, Aaron has been striving to help people find their own intrinsic motivation, their capacity to collaborate, and the fulfillment that comes from harnessing the creative impulse in us all to serve others.

In 2014 Aaron and business partner, Adam Utley, co-founded The Yes Works and developed the Adeptability Model of collaboration and leadership training and the Adeptable Culture Audit. Aaron and The Yes Works serve clients across the country and across industries including Microsoft, MOD Pizza, DiscoverOrg, Burkhart Dental Supply, SOG Knives, 9th Gear, and Textainer to make work good for people and people good for work.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Aaron Schmookler Thomas Interview Transcript

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

Aaron Schmookler
Thanks for having me, Pete. I’ve been listening to your show for years, learning a lot from it, admiring you from afar, we’re birds of feather, you and I.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I appreciate that and, well, thank you. I’d love to get started by hearing a little bit about your background. It seems like one of your formative experiences and key credential is that you worked in the Elephant House of the National Zoo. What’s the story?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, if I’m really going to tell the story, it goes back to that my mother actually was dating the curator of mammals at the National Zoo. I had to, in order to graduate from high school, find some way to do community service. A number of my friends had done envelope-licking and envelope-stuffing and things like that. That sounded like an unbelievable drag to me. And he said, “Well, I can’t get you a gig but I can introduce you to the head of the Elephant House.”

Pete Mockaitis
Power broker.

Aaron Schmookler
Exactly. I met the assistant curator of mammals he told me that they don’t permit people my age, at 16 at the time, to work in the Elephant House because it’s too dangerous. And after an hour’s conversation, he changed his mind and permitted me to work in the Elephant House. I shoveled, I did the calculation at one point, I don’t remember what it was, but it was many thousands of pounds of poop.

And I got to ride the elephants and it was a fantastic, remarkable, fun experience, and I learned a lot about leadership actually there because of how consistent you have to be as an elephant keeper, which I was not. But as an elephant keeper, as an elephant trainer, you’ve got to be incredibly consistent or the elephant will kill you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that can really be a formative experience and one that probably certainly beats the licking of envelopes for your volunteer requirement.

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, I don’t make a good envelope licker.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s dangerous. I guess the sponge is a better approach. Better.

Aaron Schmookler
Indeed, yeah. No paper cuts on the tongue for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so nowadays you’ve moved onto different career path outside of elephants, but your company utilizes the work of improv, “Yes and,” something you call adeptability. Kind of what’s the story here and how does improv stuff help us be awesome at our jobs?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, the story, again, I’ll go to my family. My wife told me she was pregnant, I looked around the work culture and the place that I was working at the time, and thought, “Man, is this a drag.” People clock-watching, it wasn’t particularly cool to be glad to be there, although I was. I loved my work. And I just thought, “I can’t stand the idea that my daughter is going to inherit the prevailing work culture in this country.”

And so, I reached out to a friend of mine who’s the best improvisor I know, Adam Utley, and I said, “I want to change work culture. I want to use improv to do it. I need you to help me. I can’t do this on my own.” And so, we started actually doing what we called improv for business which we knew other people were doing.

And as we got into further along in our business, we realized that the other people out there doing improv for business were doing something different from what we were doing. And so, we had to come up with a different name for it and we thought about the folks who had hired us, what they were looking for. They wanted their teams to adapt, they wanted their teams to be excellent communicators, to be excellent collaborators. They wanted really people to be adept at teaming.

And so, we took adaptability and adept, and we smashed them together. And so, we called our training program Adeptability.

Pete Mockaitis
Clever. All right. And so then, tell us, what does it mean to be adeptable and how can we be more of that?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, when we defined this for a team, an adeptable team is, and I supposed it would stand for individuals as well, somebody who is adeptable. A team that is adeptable is exceptionally good at doing what they do regardless of the circumstances. And what we know about what it takes to do that is that you really need to take in input, you need to take in the input of your fellow collaborators, you need to give input, when I think about, what’s the name of the book, Good to Great, and he talks about how important it is to have an open system, a collaborative system is an open system, so you need to be an exceptional collaborator.

And also, to collaborate with reality. I think one of the things that prevents companies from being adeptable teams, and people from being adeptable, in my own life where I am not adeptable, where I get myself into trouble is where I am not allowing myself to see reality. And so, where teams, where companies resist reality that’s where they run into trouble, and you can ask Kodak about that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, reality, like, “Hey, the marketplace is changing. Customers don’t want this thing anymore.” What are some other realities we might ignore and why do we do that?

Aaron Schmookler
One of my clients is a CEO who had an important director in his company who was an incredibly strong performer, who had connections in the community that really mattered to their company, and who engaged in a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, who did a lot of things that offended people that really created an environment of fear and manipulation on her team. And rather than look that reality square in the face, this CEO spent a lot of time kind of making excuses for her. So, that’s one example.

Another example might be, you know, I could think of my own efforts to prospect, to find clients, and I might write an email that I really like. And so I will send it out to lots of folks that I’ve met, lots of clients from the past, and I’ll just keep sending this email out even though it’s not getting me any results because I like it, I’m closed to the fact that it may not giving me the results that an email where I’m paying more attention to my audience might get.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, how do you open yourself up to receive and adapt to that reality well?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, it takes discipline and, to me, it really takes systematizing collaboration, and that’s what improvisors are great at doing. There are principles behind improv. A lot of people think that improvisors get on stage together and they wing it, and they just kind of make it up as they go along. The fact is that they don’t make it up as they go along.

What they do is they listen really hard both to their scene partners, in the case of theater improvisation, and they listen also really hard to the tiny little tickles in their brain that erupt as a result of what they’ve heard from their partners. So, they allow themselves to be inspired, they allow themselves to surprise themselves, and they allow themselves to not be attached to where they think this thing might go.

And, speaking for myself, I find it very difficult to let go of that attachment. I find it very difficult to let go of the plan. Some of the habits that I formed are to also listen both to my improvising partner, whether that’s on stage, or whether that is a CEO whom I’m coaching, and allow my plan to kind of sit beside me while instead I react, I respond to the moment. And I forget, was it Churchill who said that planning is imperative, and plans are nothing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is ringing a bell. That’s like the process of planning means that you’re thinking through a lot of great stuff but the actual output of it is very, very well not at all be what you end up doing but you’re enriched by having thought about it.

Aaron Schmookler
Exactly. It goes right along with the quote, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Otherwise you end up like, I guess, Michael Scott who always had a plan in his improv to have a gun in every scene is what I’m thinking about from The Office, and it didn’t work so well, and his improvisors didn’t like working with him and excluded him from the fun they were having.

Aaron Schmookler
I don’t know the particular context that you’re talking about and I imagine that what happens when you bring a gun into every scene is that people simply get shot and you railroad the scene, you determine what’s happening, and nobody else really has any input.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Yeah, they’re all just on the floor pretending to be dead.

Aaron Schmookler
Isn’t that fun?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, that’s talking about improv, we were going to talk about burnout. But I suppose there really is a healthy bridge, an overlap here associated with, I understand one of your foundational principles here is that when you’re focused on yourself and you plan how it should go as oppose to the other, you naturally get more exhausted. Can you unpack some of these ideas here?

Aaron Schmookler
So, there’s this concept emotional labor that’s getting a lot of attraction in some of the research these days. Basically, there are a number of forms of emotional labor. We have a big tech client out here in the Pacific Northwest, for example, where we surveyed the leaders, and most of them answered the question, “Do you feel like you can be yourself at work on a scale from one to ten?” They were down in the three to four range thinking that’s not very much yourself.

So, if you’re not being yourself, that’s emotional labor. Or I think about folks in customer service, we work with folks in customer service who feel like they have to smile and act chipper, and they’re putting on this disguise, they’re putting on these adjectives that fit their picture of how they’re supposed to be with their clients.

And I’m not suggesting that they’re not correct, and it’s exhausting to, for example, if you’re already tired because it’s the end of the day, it’s exhausting to decide for yourself, “I’ve got to be chipper. I’ve got to be energetic. I’ve got to be cheerful.” And, in fact, my degree is in theater, I’m a theater director, and what actors know is that you don’t go on stage and be angry. You don’t go on stage and be or pretend to be cold. You don’t go on stage and pretend to be happy. You go on stage and try to affect the people on stage with you.

And when you invest stakes in accomplishing affecting the other person, then the way that you must be bubbles up naturally. And so the implication for folks at work is that if you go in to work to serve people, if you’re in a call center and you get on the phone and you’re dealing with an angry customer, and you think, “I’ve got to be cheerful,” that will feel very, very difficult and it will wear you down. To have somebody yelling at you, and in the face of what feels like belittling behavior from them, you are just all smiles. It will feel incongruous and incongruent, and it will be exhausting.

If, however, you think of it as your responsibility, your duty, your mission to serve them, then that cheer will both be easier, less exhausting, and it will also be much more fitting, much more relevant to the situation. So, instead of responding to anger with cheerfulness, which might actually get you more anger, you respond to anger with service that may also sound light, that may also sound cheerful, and it also be organic. We’re incredibly sophisticated tools. We’re incredibly sophisticated measuring tools, we humans, and we pick up on very subtle things.

And I’ll give you an example from my week. I hired somebody to send out, to craft and send out some marketing messages. The name of my company is The Yes Works. He was supposed to send me this message, I was going to review it, approve it, and then he would start sending it out. And instead he just started sending it out, and instead of saying, “Hi, I’m Aaron, a co-founder of The Yes Works,” it said, “Hi, I’m Aaron, co-founder of Yes, It Works,” and I was not happy.

And I called him and he certainly acknowledged it as a mistake, and the more I kind of tried to get him to respond in the most relevant way that I could imagine, he was becoming more and more defensive. And in response to his becoming more and more defensive, I noticed I got my dander up. And I was just about to kind of raise my voice when I took a page out of my own training book, and said, “How can I serve him?”

And in that moment, I also kind of recognized how difficult it would be for me as a business owner to get this call from one of my clients, how ashamed I would likely feel, how tempted I would be to try to save face in whatever way that I could. And in that moment of service, I calmed down, not in effort, it was an effortless calm down, just all of that chemistry drained out of my body, and I said, “You know, I can imagine how difficult this is and how much your mind must be spinning. So, I tell you what I think we should do. I think we should get off the phone, I’ll give you 24 hours to just consider how you would like to respond because I think I’ve been putting you on the spot and requiring that you respond to me right away.”

And it was no effort for me to pretend to be calm in order to get that response from him. It was simply I decided to serve him instead of requiring that he serve me exactly as I wanted to be served, and it changed the whole relationship right there in that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just because we have to have completion for a story, what happens within the 24 hours with the response?

Aaron Schmookler
He came back in a much more relevant fashion, and stopped defending, and stopped kind of trying to retry questions that we had already answered earlier, and it is an ongoing thing because it’s actually very recent. So, I gave him to the end of today to give me a response, and we haven’t quite got there yet.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s powerful there with regard to that mindset shift with regard to, “How can I serve this person?” And then, in doing so, I guess it’s just natural that you’re focused less on yourself, and how you’re angry, and you’ve been wronged, and this is ridiculous, and you’re spending this good money, and this is a rookie mistake, and aren’t they supposed to be good at their jobs, into you’re in their shoes. I can see how that would just sort of change your whole emotional being in a hurry.

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah. And one of the objections that we get when we talk to clients about adopting this mind of service, just as you said, “I’m the one paying. Why am I going to serve him?” Well, because it’s less exhausting for me, because it’s more effective. We actually started to make progress when I started to serve him. And I’m not talking about being walked on. I didn’t say, “You know what, it’s no problem. Don’t worry about it.” Instead, I thought, “How would I want a client to treat me?” And part of how I want a client to treat me is to hold me accountable, and part of how I would want a client to treat me is to give me the opportunity to come to wisdom, right?

So, serving people is not soft, it’s not laying down. It’s calling people up to their highest selves, sometimes. Sometimes it’s bringing somebody a glass of water.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so this is great in terms of you’re less exhausted and you’re getting better results. So, I guess my impression here is that this seems like a great principle, which is wise and proper and we should do. However, in the heat of busyness, lots of obligations, lots of distractions, and things pulling for our attention, and our own sort of emotional triggers, it’s probably hard to do with great consistency. So, do you have any pro tips on how we can keep coming back to this again and again when forces try to pull us away?

Aaron Schmookler
Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. I am really good at this in my professional relationships. I’m a lot less good at it in my personal relationships, and so I practice there as well. Asking for feedback, taking timeouts, adapting tools. One of my favorite tools, and I know we’re going to get to this again later, is, “Tell me more about that.”

When I find myself getting my dander up, I go, “Okay, I’m going to choose to say, ‘Tell me more about that.’” And what I get often is an opportunity to, as they say, listen to understand where I can feel that kind of hijack coming, that neurochemical hijack coming, I say, “Tell me more about that,” and then I get more information. So, that’s another thing.

Vocabulary and, “Tell me more about that” is a piece of vocabulary is an incredibly powerful mind-shifter, or mind-crafter. So, we can craft our minds by disciplining ourselves to certain kinds of vocabulary.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And what’s so great about that is you can, well, that piece of phraseology there, “Tell me more about that,” is very flexible and that can go anywhere and it gives you a pause because even if someone said the most offensive, outrageous things to you, like, “Aaron, you are a moron and your entire company sucks and is this a big rip-off. I think it’s a big rip-off fraud scam and I need all of my money returned instantly.”

Aaron Schmookler
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know. I tried to conceive of the most outrageous things someone could say to you. And when you’re about ready to yell, you could say to them, “Well, tell me more about that.” Even just say so you can take some breaths.

Aaron Schmookler
And it’s incredibly disarming. And you really are right on the money. We were working in a call center just last month, and some of the call center reps were telling us some of the horrendous things that people say to them when they call.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, example please. Dirt. Give me the juicy details. You can skip the profanities if possible.

Aaron Schmookler
Okay, yeah. So, yes, skipping the profanity, “You are a bleepity bleep. Your company is full of bleepy bleep bleep and I can’t believe that you have the audacity to steal my money,” right? That’s one of the things that this person said. And I’m toning down my voice, also as I understand it, that was pretty well hollered. The person had to take their headset off in order not to get their ears damaged. And this is exactly the tool that we recommended to her, “Tell me about that.”

And the way in which, I mean, that’s a tremendous act of service. To say to somebody who is in that frame of mind, “Tell me about that,” is such a tremendous act of service. You can hear the fear and the expectation that they will not be received, the expectation that they are out there on a limb all alone, you can hear it in the vocabulary, you can hear it in the tone of voice, you know that’s what’s happening from afar. When you’re the receiver of that, it just feels like an attack.

But to serve them in such a way as to say, not, “Hey, screw you,” or, “I’m going to hang up,” or, “You can’t talk to me like that,” to say instead, “Tell me about that,” is so disarming because it is such an act of service in a moment when they’re expecting a battle.

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s great for feedback too just within a workplace. If someone says, “Hey, Aaron, I think that this podcast interview, you’re really scattered, you’re all over the place. Have you done any prep whatsoever? Your sound quality is dismal. Did you read any of the documents I shared about a proper mic?” Whatever. So, even if I give you feedback that might be true, it’s not, you’re doing great. It might be true even if it’s not overtly hostile, I think “Tell me about that” works there too just because, like, “I cannot believe the way I bend over backwards and this is the lack of appreciation I’m getting, to tell me that I’m not meeting expectations after this guy gave me zero guidance whatsoever,” whatever.

You can sort of go start spinning with regard to why you’re mad about the feedback you’re hearing, then “Tell me about that,” one, might get you some actionable wisdom and, two, lets you calm down and, three, I think would really just, as a manager, I’d appreciate it, like, “Well, thank you. Here’s a person who is actually interested in my feedback as opposed to putting up all the excuses and defenses.”

Aaron Schmookler
And we both get to learn that way, right? If you as my manager come to me and lambast my work, and I say, “Tell me more about that,” I mean, you’re likely to come out of that lambasting posture because, again, it’s unexpected. We expect resistance. It’s Aikido, right? Aikido is a martial arts wherein you absorb the energy of your combatant and redirect it.

And so, the service is a fantastic form of interpersonal emotional Aikido. And so when I say, “Tell me more about that,” to an angry manager, well, I might get an initial kind of fiery burst, but then it’s all spent, and even more likely, the fiery burst won’t even happen because the wind has just suddenly been removed from those sails, and now it appears as though we’re on the same side of the table, looking at the same jigsaw puzzle.

And because that really lowers defenses, and it diminishes offenses, we could both become a lot more objective about how these puzzle pieces fit together. You, as my manager, may discover something that you didn’t know, I, as the managed, may discover something that I didn’t know, and we both get to walk away with a lot fewer bruises and scrapes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really great stuff. So, then when you talk about service, I guess you’re thinking about service in the moment in terms of a conversation. But we could also pull back and think about service more broadly in terms of your overarching personal purpose or your purpose as an employee. How do you think about some of that introspection and clarity that can infuse the service into everything in good vibes?

Aaron Schmookler
Boy, what a question. Thank you for asking because you’ve got me thinking now and I’m looking at the ceiling. So, the first of our fundamentals of Adeptability, the whole umbrella, the whole purpose of the day, we call it trust as an action. And you get trust as an action through “I got your back” culture. And we talk about trust as a feeling.

Trust is, in fact, also an action and there’s often kind of the stalemate that happens in workplaces where, “Pete, I’m not going to give you any task, I’m also not going to be vulnerable with you until you prove to me that you are worthy of my trust.” Now, what do you have though to prove your worthiness of my trust? It’s kind of like the catch 22 where I won’t give you a job until you have experience, and you can’t get experience without getting the job.

And I will never feel trust for you, I will never trust in you until I invest my trust, until I give you my trust, until I take trust as an action, and then I will experience from you what you do with it. So, you can either earn more trust or you can spurn, you can burn that trust. Either way the trust I really have to have is trust in myself, or trust in the system, or trust in the rest of the team to be able to weather whatever you, Pete, do with the trust.

And so this is maybe a roundabout way of getting to my answer for you, which is that I, anyway, find a lot of meaning in figuring out how to have ever more trust in myself. And part of how I have ever more trust in myself is by serving others. I think you brought this up a little bit earlier on the self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is such an apt description of itself. That term is so apt, “I’m conscious of where I have anxiety. I am conscious of myself. I’m really paying attention to myself.”

When we stand up in front of a crowd and feel nervous, feel frightened of public speaking, it is because we are self-conscious. We are conscious of ourselves, “Will I do it right? Will they like me? Will I stumble over my words? Will I remember what I wanted to say?” There is all of this focus on the self. And what happens when somebody stands up in front of a crowd and instead thinks, “I’m here to serve you,” and they speak and they pay attention to the response that they get from the crowd, they pay attention to how attentive the crowd is, they pay attention to where the crowd may need them to pause, these things just flow and the anxiety melts away because we are other conscious.

So, what’s the cure for self-consciousness? The cure for self-consciousness is consciousness of the other. And service is the best portal for gaining that consciousness.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, when it comes to consciousness of the other, I think that the questions that you ask yourself are powerful in terms of focusing your energies and your attentions onto something. Like, the brain just naturally wants to seek answers to questions posed, or like you told a story earlier, the brain seeks completion to a story that we wade into the middle of. Are there some internal questions that you recommend folks take on that have a natural way of pointing our consciousness to others?

Aaron Schmookler
The “What do you need in this moment?” is a really good one, which is different from, “What do you want?” because people will tell us what they want all day. It may not be what they need. It may not be what would really affect them. You can think about negotiations in medical malpractice situations where they’re saying, “We need $5 million,” and the negotiation goes back and forth, “Two-hundred thousand,” “No, 5 million,” “Okay, 300,000,” “No, 5 million.” And sometimes when you get the patient, the wronged patient away from their attorney, all they really need is an apology.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Aaron Schmookler
So, “What is it that you need?” is a great question. And if I may respond to your question in other ways, other than answering it, there are system of adeptablity, the “Got your back” culture that we’re talking about, we build on four principles. One, “Yay for failing,” that not, “Hey, isn’t it great that we failed.” In fact, we say failing rather than failure because failing is a fragile present progressive word. The only thing you need to do to break that verb is to pick yourself up and start working again. If you’re working then you’re not failing because you’re actually back in the trying stage.

So, it’s actually fantastic to have ambitions that you can’t easily accomplish, that’s how we grow. And also, being in an environment where “Yay for failing” is practiced. That’s a service in and of itself. To say “Yay for failing” to somebody else who’s maybe just fallen down is a service. To say, “Yay for failing” publicly is also a service because you create an environment where other people feel free to fail, and then get up.

By the way, I don’t mean to say that we should just wallow in it, but we should get up and keep working. So, we move from “Yay for failing” into “Be obvious,” which is about really being direct, really being clear, saying what has so far been unsaid, nothing goes without saying, and most importantly what’s obvious to you is not necessarily what’s obvious to me. There is no such thing as common sense.

And these are all questions also in a way, “What is the obvious thing to me? What may not be obvious to you? How do I create clarity? What are the things that have gone unsaid so far? What’s the elephant in the room?” And from there we say you really have to take in the information. This is what we were talking about earlier. You have to take in the information in order to have a relevant response.

Kodak refused to take in the information that digital was the way of photography’s future largely because they were attached to their film business. They made so much money on film and film processing that they couldn’t even imagine a reality in which film and film processing were going to be removed from the economy.

And then, lastly, “Yes and” which is something that you brought up, which is an incredibly advanced skill. And while it’s the most commonly known improv principle, it’s also the hardest because it’s hard to say yes to bad ideas, it’s hard to say yes to somebody who says on the phone, “You’re a bleepy bleep and your company is full of bleepy bleep bleep bleep. How dare you steal my money.” Saying, “Tell me more about that” is actually a “Yes and.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Without you having to explicitly say, “I agree, sir.”

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
“We are fraudulent, aren’t we?”

Aaron Schmookler
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Tell me more about that.” You’re saying, “I’m curious,” and we can build on that and without you feeling like you have betrayed something by giving something up.

Aaron Schmookler
That’s right. And, yes, also might take the form of, “I can understand how you would see it that way. And let me share how I see it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, thank you. So, all right.

Aaron Schmookler
Sorry if that was too long a monologue. I noticed I was holding forth.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we’re covering a lot of really great stuff here. And so then, I’m intrigued, when it comes to, it sounds like with regard to burnout that when you practice these things, you’re just naturally less exhausted because you’re not forcing it, you’re not faking it, serving is energizing just because it feels good to help people and make them feel good. So, any other tips when it comes to keeping the energy flowing? You got an interesting turn of a phrase about treating the workday like a workout. What does that mean here?

Aaron Schmookler
A lot of people come into work, and I have been this guy, and they go through the motions. And there’s actually, I think, nothing more burnout-inducing than just going through the motions, phoning it in, following procedure and protocol on autopilot. That we are beings, we humans, who aspire to growth. We are fed by growth. We are fed by accomplishment. And there’s nothing fulfilling about going in and just going through the motions.

There may be a few people out there who would love to be paid, I hear about folks whose jobs essentially don’t really exist. They go in, they’re paid, and there’s nothing that they are required to accomplish. And most people in that circumstance feel like they’re withering on the vine. And one of the great ways, I think, to feel as though you are working, growing, contributing every day is to come in and serve.

You cannot serve while going through the motions. You cannot serve while on autopilot. If you really are trying to serve the people in front of you, we people are incredibly dynamic, incredibly changeable, changing things, and so by serving we create the constant change of what it is that we need to accomplish and the ways in which we may need to accomplish it.

And if you really are committed to serving, when I am really committed to serving, I also run up against my own bull, the places where my ego really gets in my own way, the places where I have blind spots. And in my most intimate relationships are the places where I am most tempted to serve myself, where I’m most tempted, for example, to have arguments where I can watch myself saying, “I never did that,” or, “That’s not where I’m coming from,” even though I know that the truth is exactly what my wife, for example, is telling me it is, and my ego won’t let me tell the truth.

And so, that’s a place where if I am able to turn myself instead to service, that I get to grow, I get to feel accomplished, and, therefore, I get to feel alive. And, really, what is burnout but not feeling alive?

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

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, man, we’re just scratching the surface, and that’s worth mentioning all by itself. We’re just scratching the surface. And the other thing is that we will serve best when we are generous with ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we go out and be selfless. I’m suggesting that we go out and serve. And sometimes that means that we need to turn off our cellphone, and go to the spa, go get a massage, go on a fly-fishing trip, as somebody I was talking to this morning is about to do in Alaska, to recharge.

And that serving of the self is sometimes required, is regularly required, frankly, in order to be able to serve others. And when we find the places where our conditioning, where our ego, where our habits interfere with our ability to be decent, to serve, to even be proud of ourselves rather than ashamed, well, I suggest that we’d be kind to ourselves.

I remember telling my mentor just a couple of weeks ago about a place that I was just like, “Man, I just don’t know why I keep doing this.” And she said, “Why do you judge it?” And it was so freeing to have her say that to me. And that gift that she gave me also made me more capable of addressing this gap in my own habit.

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

Aaron Schmookler
John Kennedy is reputed to have been walking through NASA and saw a janitor carrying his broom, and said something to the effect of, “What is it that you do here?” And this janitor turned to him and said, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Pete Mockaitis
Nice. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Aaron Schmookler
Adam Grant in his one of his books cites some research about leaders, that leaders are more likely to receive input, receive ideas about how to solve a problem from their team if they have, first, tried to solve a problem themselves. And it doesn’t even have to be the same problem. But simply the fact of putting yourself into a problem-solving posture before hearing somebody else’s ideas makes us more receptive and less critical in that kind of nagging sense than we would be just hearing their suggestions cold.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. And a favorite book?

Aaron Schmookler
I’m going to have to give you two, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. The subtitle of that is “How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.” And I’ll put in another quick quote here from Liz Wiseman, “At the apex of the intelligence hierarchy is the genius-maker not the genius.” And also, I love the The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle.

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

Aaron Schmookler
I have a headset made by Plantronics that allows me to hear and be heard on my phone better than anything while I am hands-free, even walking into a 10-mile per hour headwind. I love this thing. In fact, the couple of days when I could not find it, I went to Best Buy and bought another one just so I could use it that day, and then return it if and when I found the one that I had misplaced.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we have to hear the model number.

Aaron Schmookler
Let’s see. I think it’s 5200. It’s not there on the device but it’s got a little arm that comes out from your ear so that the microphone is near your mouth, and it’s wonderful. Nothing else that I’ve ever tried comes close.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Aaron Schmookler
“Tell me more about that,” hands down. We’ve already talked about it but saying that, particularly when I am inclined to dismiss the other person as irrelevant in some way, to say instead, “Tell me more about that,” hands down my favorite habit.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and is quoted back to you often?

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, the second fundamentals course in our series of three, the “Umbrella for that day.” It’s never about the thing, it’s always about the relationship, and the implications of that being whether you like it or not, people will come away from this interaction affected by you, and your future relationship with them will be affected by it as well. And that is much more lasting than whatever the transaction might have been about.

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

Aaron Schmookler
I am the only Aaron Schmookler on LinkedIn so you can find me there. And you can also find me at TheYesWorks.com. And you can hear my voice more, along with my guest, on the podcast Mighty Good Work.

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

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, the next time you find yourself in that amygdala hijack where you feel the chemistry rising, where you are either getting fight-y or flighty, see if you can just remind yourself with one word “serve” and see what that does for you, and see if you can find a way to serve the other person even while your amygdala is tempting you to fight or to flee.

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, this has been a treat. Thanks so much for sharing your time today and for listening for years. Keep up the great work.

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, Pete, I think you are a really excellent curator and contributor to this world of how to do work well, how to do great work, and how to be great doing it, so I’m glad you’re out there.

478: The Simple Secret To Better Trust and Culture with Randy Grieser

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Randy Grieser says: "Shift judgment to curiosity."

Randy Grieser offers actionable pointers to keep a workplace culture healthy and thriving.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How trust is built in the workplace
  2. The 6 key elements of a healthy workplace culture
  3. Do’s and don’ts for effective conflict management

About Randy:

Randy Grieser is the founder and CEO of ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance. He is the author of The Ordinary Leader, and co-author of The Culture Question. Randy is passionate about sharing the importance of creating healthy workplace cultures, and believes leadership requires us to always be intentional about what we do and how we do it.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank You, Sponsor!

Randy Grieser Interview Transcript

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

Randy Grieser
Yeah, thanks for having me on your show.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, could we start by hearing about some of your mountain biking escapades?

Randy Grieser
Yeah. well, it’s all about having fun and being happy. I think all of us need at least one thing that just really gets us going. I was in Canmore, Canada which is just a beautiful mountain biking area, and I hadn’t been on my bike for about a week, and we flew in. My wife and I grabbed our bikes, went to the hills and we were having supper that night, and I said, “Oh, that just made me happy,” right?

So, yeah, I like to get out as much as I can. I’m not like top of the world-class athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a great way to explore the wilderness. We’re also headed into the Isle of Skye in Scotland in September which is going to be super cool.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely. Well, another thing I find super cool, other than forced segues, is you did a huge study on workplace cultures. Can you tell me what was sort of some of your most striking discoveries there?

Randy Grieser
Yeah, absolutely. When we started to put some work into our book “The Culture Question” we also put together kind of a survey of things we’d like to know about. And the fascinating thing with that, of course, is you don’t know what you’re going to get. So, we had some ideas about what we might find but probably the most exciting thing we found was the secret to having your employees trust you as a leader.

And so, we correlated 20 questions to the question of, “I like where I work.” And for everyone who said, “I like,” where they worked, the two strongest questions that correlated was this, “I trust my direct supervisor.” And for any of you listening who is a manager, is a supervisor, you know how important that is. Trust is the holy grail.

When your employees trust you, they’re going to move mountains with you. You’re not going to have to beat them or to use the saying “the carrot and the stick,” right? You’re not going to have to beat them or give them a reward. They’re going to work towards your mission and vision because they want to and because they’re inspired by you.

And so, the statement that most correlated with “I trust my direct supervisor” was this, “My supervisor cares about me as a person.” Think about that, Pete. To us that was just like, “Wow, we didn’t expect to find that.” But the secret to trust is simply just caring about your staff at a human level.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, we’ve heard that theme come up a few times from places like a Navy Seal and more. So, yeah, let’s dig into that. So, caring, what are some ways that supervisors do a great job of caring and some ways that they frequently fall short and maybe just totally overlook it?

Randy Grieser
Absolutely. Well, first of all, I should have full disclosure here because when people attend my presentations or go to my workshops, they see that I’m actually a clinically-trained social worker, and so they roll their eyes, and say, “Well, of course, a clinically-trained social worker would talk about caring leadership.” It’s like the C word is this very scary word for people.

But I always tell people, “I’m a social worker. I don’t do therapy with my employees but I just ask them questions. I just care about them at a human level.” Like, right now, one of our employees, a partner, is in palliative care, and we’ve been really thoughtful about, “How do we support someone who’s going through something like that?” I have another staff member who has a child that has special needs, and, “How do we support an employee who periodically needs to leave the office to go care for the child?”

Probably my favorite story I like to tell though that really gets at the heart of caring leadership is I was giving this presentation and speaking about this, and someone came up to me afterwards and said, “Randy, this is so important to have a caring leadership. I’ve worked in my organization for two years, and my supervisor doesn’t know I have children.” And I said, “Well, you know, you should be asking someone if they have children the first day of the job.”

But, Pete, anybody you know who’s got children between the age of 5 and 15, on a Friday at the end of the day, if you say to them, “Hey, weekend is coming up. What are you doing this weekend?” What do they say, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
It depends with the kids.

Randy Grieser
Yeah, I’m taking my kids. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, at a fundamental level, caring is not about doing therapy, it’s just like care about your staff, “What did you do this weekend? You’re going away to a vacation. We’re in the midst of the summer. You’re taking a week off. Where are you going?” “Oh, I’m going with my kids,” right? So, it’s really just about caring about people at a human level.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is quite illustrative in terms of maybe a wakeup call, and it’s like, “Oh, I guess I’m not in a habit of asking. If someone says I’m in the habit of asking those questions,” then you may very well find yourself in that boat where you don’t even know about them having kids.

Randy Grieser
Yeah. And even at just a practical level, I mean, you said, “What more can you do?” Like, one of the things that I meet so many managers, is they’re so busy working that they never eat with anybody else, right? And I don’t spend an hour eating with my staff. I don’t even spend half an hour eating with staff, but I’ve consciously chosen for that 10 minutes where I’m going to scarf down food, I mean, you can’t really work on the computer while you’re scarfing down food, right? So, I might as well spend it with people and just chat with them a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, I’d like to hear some more of that. So, asking basic questions, spending some time with food. Other key ways that supervisor show care and fail to show care?

Randy Grieser
Yeah, really, we just need to spend time with people, build relationships. One of the core tenets of a healthy workplace culture that we talk about in the book is building meaningful relationships. And it’s not just with managers and employees, but with everybody. What are we doing as an organization where we are fostering genuine connections?

And one of the things we found in our interviews with people, and we found even just in our work as consultants when we go into organizations, is organizations that are healthy, people like each other and people laugh, people smile, people spend time together. It’s just so clear when you walk into an organization, you feel that, right?

My wife and I, when we were in Canmore this weekend, we went to a couple different restaurants. And there was one restaurant where it was just striking that people hated being there. The service was terrible, people weren’t smiling, people weren’t connecting. And then you go to another restaurant, and it’s like the waiter staff, they’re having fun with each other, right? They’re bumping into each other, they’re chitchatting.

And so, if you think about that, even in just your daily interactions, you go to the coffee shop, you go to the grocery store, you can see a healthy culture at work and people caring about each other. And so, when we build workplaces where people genuinely enjoy each other’s company, we’re knocking one of the things that we need to do out of the park right away. And, again, I’ve yet to come into a healthy organization where people don’t like each other and don’t have a little fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Like each other, having fun, makes total sense. Are there maybe some common workplace, I don’t know, practices or policies that get in the way of that, that maybe should go?

Randy Grieser
Well, yeah, I’ll name a few things here. One is the obvious which is in the spirit of trying to improve workplace culture, people focus on perks, right? And so, nothing drives me up the wall more than when I see some national publication release, “Our best places to work” And, inevitably, we have things like, you know, free beer on Friday nights, “Yay, let’s all go get drunk with our friends.” Really? Like, that’s what makes a great place to work? And the proverbial foosball table, right?

Exactly. Or bring your pet to work day or free yoga. And there’s nothing wrong with those perks but in a lot of time, management will check or tick off the list, and say, “Listen, we’ve done what we needed to do to create a healthy workplace culture.” And many organizations just can’t even afford these things, right, to be frank. We work with a lot of not-for-profit agencies, I’m doing education systems. They can’t afford perks and so you’ve got to do stuff beyond that as well.

Some policies and practice I’ve seen that have gone the wrong way is mentorship programs. I love mentorship programs, mentoring people. My most important task as a leader is to mentor people. And some formalized mentor programs get it wrong because they only mentor some people, “And, Pete, you’re special, you’re one of the few. Aren’t you lucky you get to be mentored by me?” And what does that do to everybody else, is it demotivates them, right?

And so, our approach with mentorship is like everybody should be motivated, everyone should be growing and working towards. And so, we really don’t like those mentorship programs where there’s the kind of like, “You’re special.”

Awards, right? You know, for achievements, for doing things, right? Awards have that kind of counterintuitive effect where for anybody with young children, you’ve always promised that you were never going to say, “I need you to clean your room, and if you clean your room, I’m going to give you something,” right? And the moment you break down and you do that, and you say, “Son or daughter, if you clean your room, I’m going to give you an award.” What happens the next time you need them to clean their room?

Pete Mockaitis
They want the award.

Randy Grieser
They want the award, right? And so, then award becomes kind of this expectation as opposed to a way to actually motivate people. And so, there’s nothing wrong with perks for the sake of perks and within reason, but when we only focus on perks at the expense of those other things that really help us make healthy workplace cultures, we don’t do ourselves well in terms of helping us create that culture.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you laid out six key elements of a healthy workplace culture: communicating purpose and values, providing meaningful work, focusing leadership team on people, building meaningful relationships, creating peak-performing teams, and practicing constructive conflict management. I want to talk about the last one because I think there are many organizations where there’s just a whole lot of fear going on. It’s like, “I can’t really tell you what I’m thinking, so I’m just going to say nothing,” or, “Boy, if we argue, we’re not arguing well. There’s like collateral damage.” So, how do we pull that off?

Randy Grieser
Yeah, absolutely right. I always say you can do a lot of things well but the moment people hate each other, the moment people are living in fear, it’s going to be very difficult for you to be a successful organization and to function effectively, right? And so, when it comes to practicing conflict management, a few things that we really want to focus on is we want to start with leaders.

Interestingly, the second highest correlated statement that we found was that when leaders practice conflict management effectively, employees also do as well. We teach conflict resolution skills in one of the trainings that we offer. And one of the common themes we get from participants is, “I wish my manager would’ve been here,” right?

And managers think they’ve got it all figured out, but there’s a lot of managers that don’t. They tend to avoid and even I sometimes, I’m like, “Are we five years old? You got two kids in a sandbox, like, you’re not five. Learn to figure it out.”

So, one of the most important things is to just be aware of how detrimental on manage conflict. Conflict is inevitable. It’s going to happen, right? It’s natural. We’re human beings. In and of itself it’s not bad. It’s how we manage it. Ironically, one of the ways that we build a culture that manages conflict effectively is we actually have to have some experiences of conflict and some experiences of getting to the other side, and going like, “Oh, you’re not a terrible human being. Like, we had a disagreement, but then we had a natural human conversation and we resolved this issue.”

So, it’s kind of counterintuitive but you do need to experience some level of conflict to actually learn to deal with it effectively. And so, absolutely, I run a training organization so I believe in training. One of the problems we get, Pete, is often we get requests for training like conflict resolution skills or respect for workplace training too late. It’s when we hate each other, you know.

And then it’s like, “Well, the training was actually meant to be before we hate each other so that we can actually work through these things. Now that we hate each other here, you might need to do some things like mediation, or some assessments, and group conflict mediation-type work, but a simple training is a band-aid effect when we’re really not doing well.” So, right away from the get-go we want to be establishing a culture that manages conflict effectively.

For those of you in leadership, that means holding people accountable. It doesn’t mean jumping in and saving the day, right, and being the hero for everybody. Sometimes it means meeting with people and coaching people, “Hey, I noticed that you and Susan aren’t talking anymore. What’s that about?” And holding people accountable and saying, “You need to figure this out because this isn’t going to be healthy in the long run.”

I’ll tell you one of the worst experiences I had with conflict and not being managed effectively, in our own organization, that’s one of the things I want to note, Pete, is a lot of our insights that we talk about in our book and that we teach in our presentations as training has come out of when we weren’t doing well, right? There’s been periods where we’ve learned the hard way.

And one of the worst experiences I had with conflict was with when someone was withholding information because they wanted someone else to look bad. And then when a mistake happened and it made us look bad, he gloated and said, “I knew that was going to happen. I just wanted you to see for yourself.” And I was like, “Oh, my, this conflict has gotten too far.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so, okay, that’s something clearly to not do. Don’t hold information and look to make people embarrass themselves and fail. Check. What are some of the other key do’s and don’ts for effective conflict management?

Randy Grieser
Yeah, you know, really from an employee-to-employee perspective, it’s creating the culture of honest mutual feedback, giving people feedback, being sensitive about it, not being a jerk about it. But when you see something, say something. If something bothers you, don’t wait for it to fester, right?

And so, one of the things that I do, within our organization, is we partner people up. We say, “Listen, if you have to have a difficult conversation with someone, we have a lot of people here who have experienced doing that, get together with someone and roleplay.” Earlier on in my career as a manager, one time I did the classic, you know, the appropriate coaching someone, “Well, instead of me saving the day, why don’t you go have that conversation with that person?” Well, the person went ahead and had a conversation with this person, it was like, “You know, you swear words, swear swords, swear words. “If you ever do this again, I’m going to knock your head off.”

And I went back to the other person and say, “I told you to go talk to him.”

“Well, you told me to go talk to the person and I went and talked to him my way.” And I’m like, “Oh, so when I’m coaching you to actually have the conversation, I had assumed you knew how to have an appropriate conversation but I actually need to walk you through that.”

I’m a big believer in roleplay as a leader. When I used to have difficult conversations, I roleplay with some of my peer leaders to just kind of practice it and get it out there. One of the most important things we encourage our staff is to not to see the other person as a terrible person. Most people genuinely are reasonable people. 95% of us are pretty good human beings, we don’t really actually want to hurt people’s feelings, but we do stupid stuff sometimes, right?

And so, the first thing is just to shift. You know, we have a T-shirt actually, Pete, and I should send it to you actually. And it’s a great T-shirt that says, “Shift judgment to curiosity.” And, really, what that’s about is, like, when you think that someone is being a jerk, actually just be thoughtful for a second, and go, “Well, maybe they don’t mean that.” So, instead of judging them, be curious, “Why are they acting in this way?” It doesn’t mean how they were acting is right but it kind of humanizes our relationship a little bit more. So, it’s one of our favorite sayings, “Shift judgment to curiosity.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. And so, I’m curious, so screening the swear words is not the way to go, and doing some roleplay in advance can be super valuable. Any other pro tips for the actual conversation?

Randy Grieser
Yeah, really, one of the things that we try to stay away from is the emotion when we have a difficult conversation and focus on the problem and the task at hand, right? So, don’t make it about what your intent was but actually just focus on, “This is how it made me feel.” And so, we go back to the classic communication 101 I-statements, right? “When you do this, this is how it makes me feel.”

Most of the time that person didn’t know that. Most of the time that person wasn’t aware that your intent, right? We have a little diagram we have, it’s called Action, Intent, and Effect, right? And the action is what’s out in the public for people to see, but the intent is hidden, and the effect is hidden. So, sometimes even I will do something I have no clue how it would’ve landed on you. And so, we really encourage our staff to focus on the intent and the effect of people.

First of all, we just want to build a culture that has low levels of conflict to begin with, right? And, again, that’s where we start to get into some of our other areas. When we hire people, that’s one of the things we focus on. Like, one of our core values is that we want people to embody what we teach. We teach people to be respectful in the workplace. We teach people to manage conflict effectively so we expect people to do that.

And so, we’ve crafted our interviewing questions to hire for people who fit our culture. And so right away, when we have new people come in into the organization, if we sense that they’re fit in our culture, we nip things in the bud right away. So, in general, when it comes to implementing some of these six principles and elements of healthy workplace cultures, when it comes to the people effect, we need to start right from when we hire people.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. And so, if you’re talking to a professional who is not in control, they’re not sort of leading the organization, shaping the culture from the top, are there some basic things you recommend that all people can do to contribute to oozing the culture and fun and liking each other vibes?

Randy Grieser
You know, absolutely. I mean, first of all, I’ll say that clearly leadership sets the tone of healthy workplace cultures, right? And time and time again I run into employees who really want to improve that healthy culture but leadership is not on board. And so, one of the first tasks that you have to do as an employee is try to influence leadership.

And I use the experience, when we go back to the point about negative conflict, because I say, “This is not just about the wellbeing of employees in the workplace. This is about your financial wellbeing as well.” And so, sometimes I use that approach to senior leaders, right? By the fact that we don’t have a healthy workplace culture, people aren’t sharing information, we’re not communicating well, people are not engaged because they’re just putting in their time for a paycheck, and so they’re not being as innovative. Like, this is affecting our ability to be successful as an organization.

So, one of the reasons that we need to care about this as leaders is because it’s actually going to help us, if you’re a business, it’s going to help you financially. If you’re a social service agency or not-for-profit, it’s just about being an effective contributor to whatever role you’re doing. And so, when I’m giving this talk to C-suite professionals who sometimes need a little bit more grease to get them to think and care about the wellness of their employees, I really hammer home this point about, “When you have a healthy workplace culture, this is your competitive advantage.”

And one of the persons interviewed, he clearly said to me, “Randy, I could’ve jumped ship to a competitor, it would’ve increased my salary.” He was already making a six-figure salary, and he said, “I could’ve made 50% more, but I didn’t go because I love the place I work. And a couple of years ago I went to this Angelina and Brad Pitt divorce scenario where it was just like all over. It was terrible. Like, I was in the courts all the time. And my senior staff, they had my back. They knew that this was important to me, they didn’t make me feel bad. So, why would I leave this place? They’ve been great to me. Why would I?”

And so, one of the things we talk about is money matters at the lowest end of the level, but for many people, I mean, there are some professions, I think of the sales profession as an exception there, but for many people, man, when they have a great place to work, they don’t want to leave that environment, right, because they worked in places that aren’t a great place to work.

And so, when you get senior leadership, as an employee if you kind of get senior leadership to talk and do that, I’ve had frontline employees grab this book and just show it to their leader, and say, “You know, it would really be great if you could read this and we can talk about this,” right? And there’s been slowly, you know, people begin to change.

One of the most exciting things that I’ve seen within healthy organizations is, time and time again, when I talk to leaders and managers, they say one of their biggest issues is access and retention to key talent, right? Well, the secret to access and retention of key talent is be a great place to work and your employees will bring in people for you. When there’s job openings, they’ll say, “Hey, you should come work here because we’re a great place to work.”

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Randy, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear a couple of your favorite things?

Randy Grieser
Well, it depends on what else you’re going to ask me. You know, absolutely. I like to just kind of review the six key elements, if I may. I’ll do kind of a quick summary. We’ve talked about the importance of conflict management. Communicating your purpose and values, like most employees want to work in an organization that matters, that makes a difference. Most in organizations want to be guided and connected to that purpose.

Meaningful work. Most people don’t want to do work that is just boring and irrelevant. And so, making sure that people’s interest and ability and purpose all align together. There’s things that you could do there. Focusing your leadership team on people. Really, that caring about people we’ve talked about. Building meaningful relationships, people want to like who they work with. We’ve spent the vast majority of our waking hours at work. Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually liked each other?

And one of the kind of unique things that we’ve focused on in our book was the importance of creating peak performance teams. It’s really hard to know that we have a culture if we literally don’t work together. And I’ve walked into organizations that’s, true, they don’t work together. We have a bunch of individuals who show up, they don’t even say hi to each other, they go to their little cubicle, they do whatever they do all day, and they leave. So, it’s really difficult to establish a culture when we’re not working together in teams.

So, those were kind of the six key things that, really, we want to focus on. And, again, instead of perks, focus on these six things then you’re going to have your healthy culture.

Pete Mockaitis
And now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Randy Grieser
You know, I don’t memorize things well, but I’ll be honest, my daughter inspires me. She’s 16 years old. She’s super ambitious. Last weekend, we climbed a mountain together and we spent seven hours. It was seven hours and it was quite the slug. And there were several things that she said on the trip that I thought, “This is so cool that my 16-year old daughter can think this way.”

And one of the things that we talked about was sustained effort. We’ve been hiking up this mountain for four hours and it got really steep, and it was she said it’s like two steps forward, one step back. And we had a conversation about sustained effort. What was kind of funny is we lost my partner and her mom, right, along the way. When I say we lost, she just stopped climbing because she got scared. And my daughter had said to her, my daughter was trying to be encouraging her, and this is a great quote from a 16-year old, right, “Don’t let fear stop you from living life.”

And I thought, “How brilliant is that?” I’m super inspired by my daughter for thinking that way and for persevering and continuing on.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Randy Grieser
You know, I pick this book up probably six, seven years ago, and I just can’t help but always going back to it. Can I give you two books, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Randy Grieser
You know, one, I love stories of other people. I love stories of people building things unique. And one of my favorite books, it seems a bit odd, but it’s the biography of Warren Buffett “Tap Dancing to Work.” I believe passion is so important in how we work and if we want to inspire other people to be excited about their job. I love the fact that Warren Buffett is, what, 87, 88 years old now, literally still runs the business, not like a fake corner office but actually is doing real work. And, yet, he’s given away everything.

And even the title of the book “Tap Dancing to Work” so, he really taps into, man, we got to like what we do, right? I mean, my son has graduated from high school, and he’s torn about what he does, and I’m like, “I don’t care what you do, but you better like it. Be excited about it. Be passionate about it because it’s a long 40 years if you’re not passionate about work.” So, I just love some of Warren’s thoughts and quotes. And everyone thinks of him as a finance person, but he’s a great manager and a great leader as well.

Another shout-out is to who we really resonate when it comes to how to motivate people is Daniel Pink and his book “Drive.” I really, really kind of pinpointed in the three core areas of autonomy, mastery, purpose. We touched on even some of those in our six areas, right? So, really, he was a pioneer in kind of shifting the way we think about motivation and employee engagement.

So, those are my two big books.

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

Randy Grieser
Well, come to our website Achieve Centre. We are based in Canada. We do work in the US as well. So, Centre is spelled with an R-E. It makes it unique. So, AchieveCentre.com.

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

Randy Grieser
Yeah. You know, you want to be awesome at your job, just be nice, be a nice person, be kind, right? Somebody the other day asked me, “What do you look for when you’re hiring people?” I’m like, “We want to work with nice people. Like, at the end of the day, I want to like you as a human being.” So, you know what, if we’re all a little bit nice to each other, we’re going to be awesome at our job, and we’re going to make awesome workplaces.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Randy, thanks for this, and keep on caring.

Randy Grieser
Yeah, thanks for having me on your show, Pete.

454: Embracing Conflict as a Gift with Judy Ringer

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Judy Ringer says: "When we can enter a conversation and think 'What can I learn here?' everything changes. It all works out."

Judy Ringer explains how the techniques and principles of aikido can turn workplace conflicts into valuable experiences.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to master yourself during conflicts
  2. Three effective mindsets for resolving conflicts
  3. How to skillfully inquire, acknowledge, and advocate

About Judy 

Through interactive presentations and individual coaching, Judy Ringer helps you transform conflict by changing your relationship to it. Aikido is the metaphor she uses to become more intentional and less reactive, to communicate directly and respectfully, and to create your life and work on purpose.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Judy Ringer Interview Transcript

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

Judy Ringer
Pete, it’s a delight already. Thank you very much for inviting me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, shucks. Well, I’m so glad that everything worked out and we’re making it happen. I want to hear about something you made happen, which was singing the national anthem at a Red Sox game. How did this come about?

Judy Ringer
Yeah. Well, it’s something I love to talk about, so thank you. I had this dream for a very long time to sing the national anthem at a Red Sox game. I’m a Red Sox fan. I live in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which is about an hour north of Boston. We go to the games now and then when we can.

I love to sing. I’m a professional singer in my spare time. I love to sing the national anthem. I just thought, “Wouldn’t it just be cool.” Just one of those crazy dreams you have, so I set about achieving it. I wrote – I went to their website. I wrote them. I found out what you have to do and how many probably thousands of people ask every year to sing for a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

I sent them – I made a professional CD. I sent them a CD, just like they ask for, of me singing the anthem and also God Bless America. I followed up. I even sent them a couple of videos of me singing at other games that I’ve sung at more locally. Nothing happened. But every year, so I went about this for maybe three – four years and every year I’d just follow up and I found out who I needed to talk to.

Finally, what really made it happen was Dave O’Brien, who’s the announcer for the Red Sox, came to one of our Rotary meetings. I’m a Rotarian here in Portsmouth. After he spoke – and he was just a great speaker, as you might imagine – I went up to him and I said, “You know, Dave, I’ve been trying for years to get noticed by the Red Sox team. I’d love to sing the national anthem.”

I said, “I actually can sing. I would do a good job. I’ve sent them videos and audios of myself.” He said, “Well, I don’t have much control over that, but if you’ll send me an email, here’s my address, I’ll just send it along and see what happens.” That’s exactly what he did. He passed it along.

Somebody got in touch with me and there happened to be a New Hampshire day coming up at Fenway Park in July of 2017. This was in May I think that I got contacted by them. So it happened. It was an amazing event. I got there. I got to be underground with all the team. I got to walk out on Fenway Park. I got to sing for I think it was about 40,000 people that night. It was awesome. It was awesome. I practiced all my skills. Everything I talk about in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so cool and so interesting to me when there is a process and then it doesn’t matter. It’s like actually there’s a guy who knows a guy.

Judy Ringer
I know.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to, “Yes, please follow step A, B, C, D, E, F, G,” and it doesn’t – yeah.

Judy Ringer
I know. And yet I have to say that maybe the fact that they had my audio and my video, they could go to it. They could see that I was really – that I wouldn’t mess up or embarrass anyone and that all of that adds up. Maybe if I hadn’t also done all of that, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go and talk to Dave.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh certainly, right, because it does feel a little bit more audacious like, “So Dave, I like to sing. Hook me up.”

Judy Ringer
Exactly, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. I want to hear about your book Turn Enemies Into Allies and your martial arts work. Could you sort of just tell us the whole story here? What’s the big idea that you’re presenting?

Judy Ringer
That’s a great question too. Well, the big idea is that I have a model that I use when I go into organizations and help people resolve conflict. The model is based on aikido and some of its techniques and principles, like blending and redirecting of energy, for example.

I also have – part of the model is that I work with the people in conflict – usually there are two of them – and they need to be able to work together and they can’t. I work with each person individually first and then I bring them together. As I got used to doing this model and doing it many times in organizations, I would notice that I’m not doing anything that the manager couldn’t do themselves.

I decided to write the model down in a series of blog posts. This was about five years ago that I first started writing about it. Then I began expanding them and they became Turn Enemies Into Allies, the book.

The major point here is that you can do what I’m doing if you’re a manager, a leader of an organization with some skills that I describe in the book and some attitudes that I describe in the book like non-judgment, like curiosity, like appreciating where people are coming from, the ability to listen, the ability to reframe the conflict as a gift of energy that people might be able to use to actually build their relationship and become leaders themselves and apply the skills not only at work, but in life too.

That’s what I decided to write about in the book. The big idea is you can do this. You can do it fairly easily actually if you get over the idea that conflict is negative, that it’s a bad thing, and adopt the attitude and begin to practice it that conflict can be a gift if we decide that it is to get to know each other better and to learn how to solve a problem rather than needing to create a contest over it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s so much there to dig into. Let’s see. Let’s start with that conflict can be a gift.

Judy Ringer
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us, what’s great about it?

Judy Ringer
What’s great about it? Yeah. Okay, well, the premise – the book starts with the premise that if we can’t manage ourselves, we can’t manage anybody else. The first gift in conflict is that it causes me to look at myself and ask myself “Why is this getting to me?” or “Why is this person, this situation? Is it something that I have any control over and if it is, where is my power and how can I find it? Maybe I’m not expressing myself. Maybe I’ve been avoiding the conflict. How can I decide to take a more active role in the conflict?”

The gift might be first of all I have to manage myself. I have to manage my own emotional mindset. I have to center myself, as I describe in the book, and bring a centered presence into the conflict, so there’s a gift right there, learning to center myself, learning to be mindful about how I decide to be more intentional in the conflict instead of reactive to it. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly, yeah.

Judy Ringer
That’s the first gift. The second gift, let’s say it’s a conflict that involves an issue at work that we’re trying to solve. The gift is how do we solve this in a way that’s sustainable and that meets the interests of all the parties involved. If it’s a team, how do I get the voices of all of my team members involved in solving it? If it’s just one-on-one, same thing, how do I find out what’s important to each of the parties in the conflict and then help them express those needs and help them find a solution that meets the needs.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. Those sound like some good things. So tell us then when it comes to aikido – well, first, could you share what that is for those who are not familiar and then what are its parallels to this process?

Judy Ringer
Right. That’s where this idea for me anyway came from. Aikido is a martial art, first and foremost. It was developed in the 20th century, so it’s a pretty recent evolution of the martial arts. It was developed by a man named Morihei Ueshiba, a Japanese man, who’s now dead, but only died in 1969.

His idea was that you could subtly transform other martial arts through aikido into a martial art that didn’t harm people. The goal is to render the attack harmless without harming the attacker. You do this by first getting out of the way of the attack and moving in to join with this energy and then redirect it.

Let’s say somebody’s coming at me with a punch. Instead of blocking and punching back, I get out of the way really fast. I join the energy by let’s say, grabbing onto the arm that’s punching me, and then I redirect it into a pin or a fall. I’m not trying to harm the opponent. I’m just trying to control and deescalate the conflict.

With that comes a metaphor. In fact, Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, had a philosophy that went along with the development of the art. He said that this is about turning our adversaries into allies. This is about not protecting ourselves from the enemy outside of ourselves, but from the enemy within, that if we could vanquish the source of the conflict within ourselves, then we would have no difficulty with those outside ourselves.

We call it blending and redirecting. We think about the attack as a gift of energy that I can use to redirect and keep the opponent safe while also keeping myself safe on the mat. Off the mat, we’re practicing aikido anytime we listen with an intention to learn with curiosity. That’s the same thing as blending and redirecting.

When I ask question – when you come at me, let’s say, with a – and say, “Judy, that’s a stupid idea,” instead of saying, “No, it isn’t. It’s a great idea” so that would be like blocking and resisting, instead I say, “Well, Pete, why do you think so? What specifically don’t you like?” or “Tell me more.”

That’s me blending, getting off the line. I’m not getting hurt and by asking a question and being curious, I find out more about what’s upsetting you about my idea. Maybe it’s that you just can’t afford the idea. Maybe you like the idea, but the budget doesn’t allow for it. We have a new way to open up the conflict and talk about it. Does that make sense too?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh certainly, yes. Well, so now I’m curious. That particular example, talk about self-management, I think there’s a challenge right there. It’s like if someone says that to you, the knee-jerk reaction is anger, defensiveness, frustration. What do you do right there in that moment, where you’re like, “This jerk. I want to yell at him.”

Judy Ringer
Yeah. I’ve got to say that I still practice this. It’s not – just because I’ve been teaching it for 25 years doesn’t mean I don’t have conflict in my life. Your question goes right to the point, what do I do, what does one do. It helps if you practice, just like anything else. You don’t pick up a flute and learn how to play it in an instant. You have to practice it.

You practice noticing first of all. That’s the first thing. If I don’t notice I’m getting reactive, that I’m starting to react and say, “What do you mean? What a jerk you are,” if I don’t notice that, I can’t stop it. That’s the first thing.

Then you stop and you center yourself. You take a breath. You just don’t say anything. You bite your tongue. You count to ten. You do any of the things that we’ve heard about over the years to center yourself.

I have specific ways. When I ask my groups, “What do you do to center yourself?” everyone says, “I breathe.” Sometimes people say, “Well, I think about a bigger perspective,” but you can tell in that that they stop themselves from reacting and decide what they need to do next.

The amygdala, the brain stem has some very strong reactive patterns programmed into it. The prefrontal cortex is what we use to think with. To make that journey from the back of the brain to the front of the brain maybe takes a half a second, maybe not even that long, if we notice and we take that breath. That’s the first step, center myself. Now I can make a more intentional choice about what I do next.

It may be – if I’m being really reactive, it may just be I say something like, “Let me think about what you just said. Can we talk in about five minutes?” so I give myself more time to be centered and be less reactive.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. I like that. Well, so then you talk about the breath, is there any special way to breathe or what do we think about the breath?

Judy Ringer
Well, it’s basically to breathe. Most of the time, if the audience listening thinks about the last time they were involved in a conflict or something happened to them, surprising, caused them to react, chances are they weren’t breathing. They just held their breath. It often happens.

The more we can just notice that and begin to breathe again – it doesn’t have to be a huge breath. It doesn’t even have to be terribly deep. Just to start breathing again and to focus on the breath is enough. I’m doing that now because I’m a little nervous. I mean here we are a podcast. I want to say it right. I want to do everything right so that induces a sense of stress and anxiety.

It can, so every once in a while I just stop, notice that I’m breathing, and I’m standing both feet on the ground and everything is going to be okay. If I just say that mantra to myself, everything will be okay, pretty much.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so it is okay.

Judy Ringer
Let me give you a couple of other suggestions on this because I know people love to hear ideas. Okay, what can I do in the moment? That’s the question. First, you notice. Then you have a practice. If you have a practice, like I know your last speaker, the one I just listened to this morning, was talking about mindfulness.

If you have a mindfulness practice, if you meditate daily, you’re already getting into the mood of centering so that if something happens later in the day, you’ve got a sense of what it feels like to be centered from your early morning practice so you can go back to it fairly quickly. You can create rituals for yourself.

I have a client who one day she had a really tough meeting with her staff – all of her staff meeting – and she was nervous about it. I said “What are you going to do to center yourself first?” We were doing coaching. She said, “Well, I’m going to maybe look at some of the pictures on the wall.” She said, “I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”

I said, “Well,” and there was a pen on the table and I threw the pen out on the table and I said, “You could just look at this pen. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or special. Just look at the pen once in a while.”

The meeting went really well as you might imagine. She did a great job. At the end I said, “How did you do?” She said, “I looked at that pen a lot.” Every time she looked at it she just kind of took a breath, and she recentered herself and she got physically and mentally and emotionally more stable, more balanced, more calm, and more ready for whatever might come next.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, cool. There we have it in terms of you start to notice yourself in situations all the time and then you stop and center with a breath and planting the feet on the floor, etcetera, so you’re in a good spot there. Let’s talk a little bit about some of these perspectives in terms of non-judgment, and curiosity, and appreciation. Can you share a bit about these mindsets like, what does it mean to really approach things in such a way.

Judy Ringer
Right. These mindsets are the mindsets that I recommend in the book that the manager follow when they’re listening to one of their employees. Let’s say they decide to engage in this intervention in the book that allows them to hear each person’s story first before they bring them together. What this does is that it allows the employee to tell their story in a way that they feel heard. Non-judgment is just that.

It’s impossible, of course, because we’re always making judgments, but once again, we notice we are. Maybe we favor this particular employee because they’re a high producer and we really wish the other employee would change. When we listen to each one, we try to listen without making any judgments ahead of time and just deciding to listen to the story as if it were the first time we’re hearing it.

Appreciation steps in when we think about how to appreciate the more positive intention of each of the parties. Again, I’m meeting with them separately. I’m hearing, even though they’re making mistakes and they’re going about things reactively, that they each probably have a positive intention in there somewhere.

An example might be that one of your employees tends to avoid conflict and so they haven’t said anything to the other person about what’s bothering them. The form that this takes is that they just ignore emails or they ignore requests for information because they’re afraid that they might be reactive and say the wrong thing.

If you can appreciate that the person’s afraid of conflict, that most people are afraid of conflict and the positive intention is not to make things worse, it helps to approach the coaching from this point of view as opposed to deciding that the person just has no skills and can’t do anything and nothing’s ever going to work.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Judy Ringer
Approaching it with an appreciative mindset helps everything. Another way that appreciation works is well, for example, on the aikido mat, we always find that usually one side of the body gets the technique faster than the other side.

For example, in learning how to fall, we have to learn how to roll. On one side of the body, I know how to roll really well and I don’t get hurt. The other side of the body, I crunch my shoulder every time. Instead of focusing on the side that gets hurt, I do it a lot of times on the side that works so that I can figure out what I’m doing and apply it to the side that doesn’t work.

In the workplace, this happens when we see, “Well, where are you and Jane getting – where are areas where you work well together?” in an example that I give in the book. It was with a medical practice and the team was not getting along at all.

I said, “Well, there must be some areas where you are able to work together or you wouldn’t keep working together.” They said, “Yeah, well, when we understand our roles and our goals, everything goes really smoothly.” I said, “Okay, so let’s appreciate that. Let’s figure out how we can apply that to the places in your practice where you don’t have clear roles and goals.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Judy Ringer
Appreciation, non-judgment, curiosity, one of the major tools that helps in conflict of any kind, whether it’s with employees or with people at home. These skills apply everywhere. How can I – well, I’ll give you an example of this.

One of the clients I was working with was quite upset with her colleague because she copied everyone on every single email. I said, “Well, what question would you like to ask your colleague?” She said, “Well, I’d like to ask why she copies everybody on every single email.” I said, “Okay, well, it’s a great question. Can you ask it in a more curious way?”

She said, “Okay,” and she worked on it. She practiced. She got to the point where she said it in a way that probably her colleague could hear it really well. I said, “Okay, so what do you have to do to be able to say it that way because it’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it.” She said, “Well, I’d actually have to be curious.” We laughed about it. It was kind of an aha moment.

The point is if you’re in conflict now, how are you approaching what you say. Even if you’re asking a question, are you really curious about it or are you just stating the question in a way that’s kind of attacking. There’s a big difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then when you said ask it in a curious way, you didn’t so much mean choose different words like, “Why are you doing this?” but rather the sort of tone and vibe you’re putting out there when you ask that question.

Judy Ringer
Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly what I mean.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Judy Ringer
One of my favorite sayings and this comes from one of my mentors, Thomas Crum, that your quality of being is primary. Everything else is secondary.

If I come into a conflict conversation with you and I have a purpose to resolve a conflict, to learn what I can about how you see things, if I come into the conversation thinking, “Well, whatever’s going to happen, I’m going to learn something and I know it’s going to be better after this,” that’s my quality of being, my mindset, my emotional state. If I walk into that same conversation thinking, “This is going to be awful. I wish I didn’t have to do this,” there’s going to be quite a different outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay, that’s handy. I’m curious when it comes to the actual listening, in terms of the bit of the mindset we discussed when you’re listening, but is there any – are there key questions you recommend asking during the course of the listening?

Judy Ringer
Yes, I can. I can recommend some generic questions that will get things started. Then what real listening does is that it continues to ask questions. It doesn’t just stop. It really – a good listener really listens for what’s being said and also what’s maybe not being said. They listen for ways like you’re doing today, Pete, for ways to go deeper into the conversation.

A generic question might be, “Can you tell me how this started?” if a manager, for example, is talking to an employee about a conflict. “Can you tell me how this started? What’s your view about how the resolution would work? If it could be resolved, what would be ideal?” Another question, just a generic question would be, “Can you tell me more about what you’re thinking?”

“I’d like to talk to you about what’s happening between us. I’d like to hear our point of view and I’d like to tell you mine. Would you like to start? Tell me what’s going on? How do I affect you in ways that are not helpful?” Now, you have to be willing to hear the answer, but that’s a great question to just ask someone to tell them how you could be more helpful, for example.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay, that’s cool. I suppose that these all sort of flow from that curiosity and they feel nonthreatening as result as I listen to you say them. Maybe to sort of make it all come alive and together, could you maybe walk us through an example of a conflict? You had Person A and Person B that you spoke with individually and then you brought them together and how did it all come together?

Judy Ringer
Well, one of the best things that happened in what I’m thinking of right now is that at the beginning I usually ask people on a scale of one to ten – and we’re in individual sessions now – “On a scale of one to ten, how important is it that you and Sally be able to work together,” for example. Let’s call the other person Lauren. Lauren says, “Well, it’s ten. We have to be able to work together.”

I said, “How likely do you think it is that the conflict’s going to get resolved that we’re working on together?” “Zero.” I said, “Okay. Let’s take a look at how willing are you to put yourself into this fully,” and they’ll say maybe “I’m a ten. I’m willing to do this. I just don’t think there’s any possibility.”

One of the ones that I worked on with a large insurance company, that’s the way it started. They said that they wanted to work on it, that it was important that they resolve it, and yet they didn’t think there was any chance because it had been going on so long. One of the problems is that managers let these conflicts go on too long.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s when they bring in a ringer.

Judy Ringer
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Couldn’t resist, Judy.

Judy Ringer
Good one. I’m glad that came out.

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve probably heard it before. You’ve probably heard it before.

Judy Ringer
Oh, no. Well, once or twice.

Pete Mockaitis
They bring you in and your last name is Ringer, so. Okay, so there we are.

Judy Ringer
So there we are.

Pete Mockaitis
They want it resolved, but they don’t think it’s going to happen and they say they’re willing to work on it.

Judy Ringer
And they say they’re willing to work on it. I set up some sessions and we begin to talk and maybe three or four or five different depending on how polarized things are and how deeply resentful each person is, I listen to each party for three or four hours, like I said in individual hour-long sessions. I hear them. I’m listening.

What happens in this case, Pete, is that – I don’t know if this has ever happened to you or anyone listening today – but when you usually listen to someone and you ask them some questions and you say “Tell me more” and “How did you feel when that happened?” and “I’m really curious, when did this start and how do you see it being resolved? Do you see your contribution? How do you see your contribution in this conflict?”

When you ask questions like that and they really talk, things relax. They lighten up because maybe for the first time someone’s really, really listening to their side and aligning with them. Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. You said so three to four hours for each party.

Judy Ringer
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So six to eight hours total. I think you’re right that probably nobody has ever listened to them about almost anything for that long.

Judy Ringer
Well, thank you for that. I’m not saying I listen for three or four hours. I say I listen maybe in the first session and then I begin to teach some skills. And I begin-

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got you.

Judy Ringer
Yeah, so it’s not all just listening for them. But maybe the first hour, most of it is listening. People love to tell how bad the other person is.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure.

Judy Ringer
I just say, “Yeah, I get it. I know from your point of view this is how it looks.” People also get that I’m doing that with the other party too, so they’re starting to think, “Well, if she can do this with the other party, maybe I can too. Or maybe there’s a different way to tell this because this is my story. Maybe there’s another way to tell it.” I begin that way. Then we start to bring people together. Now, when they come together, they’re more relaxed, they’ve got some skills.

One of the best things that happened in this particular situation was after they began to talk to each other and hear the other person’s story and see what they had in common and how it all got started and starting to be able to be more civil with each other and kind with each other actually, one of the women said, “I didn’t realize this is just a set of skills.

I thought I was a bad person because I couldn’t figure this out and I was in a conflict that I couldn’t figure out. It was driving me crazy. This is just a set of skills. Anybody can learn these.” I said, “Yeah. That’s right.” They’re mind-body skills and they’re verbal communication skills. As I said, quality of being is primary. I’ve got to learn how to be centered, curious, nonjudgmental, wanting to learn. I’ve got to have a learning mindset.

Then I’ve got to learn just some key skills like inquiry. How do I ask questions? How do I listen? How do I acknowledge – acknowledgement? How do I acknowledge what I hear? It’s not just I’m listening; I’m also showing you that I heard what you said. Then how do I advocate because I get a turn here too. Here’s how I see it. You don’t see it my way. This is what I see. That’s advocacy.

When everybody gets a chance to be heard, then all the information’s out there on the table. You can begin to sort through it and solve things. Basically, in that book and in my work across the board, I like to help people move from a mindset of how do I be right, how do I look good here, how do I make myself right to a mindset of what can I learn here. From a message delivery to a learning conversation. From a difficult conversation to a learning conversation.

When we can enter a conversation and think “What can I learn here?” everything changes. It all works out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great stuff. We’ve talked about the being and some listening and some inquiry. Can you share with us a couple thoughts around acknowledgement and advocacy?

Judy Ringer
Yeah, I can. In the book I call acknowledgement the secret sauce because we never do it. We may listen. We may think we’re pretty good listeners and we may be actually. Then we go right to, “Okay. Yeah, but,” “Right. Yeah, but,” and then we want to advocate right away.

There’s some little piece in between that’s called acknowledgement that goes like this, “What I hear you saying is,” “Is this what you’re saying?” “Can I clarify?” “If what you’re saying is true then, it would all work out if-” I just build on what the other person’s saying.

I believe the reason we don’t do this is that we have this notion that if we acknowledge what the other person’s saying, it’s some sort of tacit agreement with what they’re saying, that if I actually hear an opposing point of view, it means that I’m agreeing with it. That’s crazy. Of course it doesn’t mean that. It just means that I’m good enough to listen to you, care about what I’m hearing, and care about solving the problem enough.

Acknowledgement – okay, if you said “That’s a stupid idea, Judy. I don’t think it’s going to work. We can’t afford it.” I would say, “You don’t think we can afford it? Can you tell me more? Why not?” Okay, I’m not only acknowledgment, I’m clarifying. I’m being more curious. Just like you’re doing today, I’m going deeper and deeper and deeper until the person feels heard. Then I can advocate.

If we’re trying to change a piece of software, for example, I’m going to say something like, “So-“ – let’s say I’m for it; they’re against it. I’m going to say something like, “So Jenny, you think that this piece of software would cause more harm than good. Am I hearing it right?” “Yeah, you’re hearing it right.” “And you think that basically what we have isn’t broken, so why fix it. Is that right?” “Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m saying.”

Now they may not have said those exact words, but I’m adding on. “And is there anything else I need to know?” “No, that’s about it.” “Okay. Would you like to hear my view on this?” “Yeah, sure.” See, now they’ve lightened up. They’re maybe ready to hear my point of view.

I have to be really clear about this, Pete. This is not about manipulation. This is not about getting Jenny to hear me – pretending to hear Jenny so she can hear me so I can get my way. This is about sincerely trying to solve the problem. I have to be ready to admit that maybe this piece of software isn’t exactly what we need. However, when I’m there then Jenny’s much more likely to be able to hear what I have to say next.

Advocacy is what comes next. That’s me not selling necessarily, but educating. That’s how I like to think about it. Let’s pretend that we’re both from different planets. In fact, in some ways we are. We all come from different cultures, different upbringings. But let’s pretend that we’re really from other planets. I need to pretend I don’t know anything about what’s going on for Jenny, but I also need to know and not assume that Jenny knows anything about what’s going on for me.

When I’m advocating, I start at the basics. “Here’s what I see, Jenny. Here’s what I see the problem and the productivity that we could increase with the new software. Here’s what looks good to me about it. What do you think?” Then you go back into inquiry and you start to go back and forth now, inquiry, advocacy.

Then if you get to a point where you’ve got some form of agreement, Jenny says something that I agree with, I’m going to try to build on that. Pick something. “Well, I hear what you’re saying about you’re worried that it might cause people stress because it’s something new. What if we started out with a trial period or something like that, where we just took a few early adopters and see what they thought? Could that work?”

I try to build on something and use what I’ve learned from my inquiry to create a solution that would work for the other party.

Pete Mockaitis
You use the phrase ‘until they feel heard.’ How do you know when you’ve got there?

Judy Ringer
I know when the answer to my question “Is there anything else?” is no.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I love it. It sounds like maybe for some the challenge is just bringing in – dedicating the time and the patience upfront that you’re really going to go all the way to the end as opposed to “Well, we have a 25-minute appointment window, Judy, so let’s hurry this along.”

Judy Ringer
Yeah, let’s get these guys together and figure it out. I know a lot of people that I’ve talked to have tried this first and usually emotions run high and things don’t get solved. That’s why I like to work with people individually first. Even just try it for one session.

One sort of fallacy about conflict that I think people have is that especially in this busy work environment that we’re all in right now is that we don’t have time for this kind of an intervention. We don’t have time to separate the parties. I don’t have time to talk with each one. Let’s just get them in the room and tell them to figure it out.” I’ll tell you, you don’t have time not to resolve the conflict.

The one that I mentioned with Sally and Lauren, that went on for two years before anybody decided to try and solve it. That’s two years.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And all the mental energy when they’re fuming quietly in their cubicles instead of doing anything productive. It’s like, “I can’t believe that she said. Oh my gosh, the nerve on her,” whatever’s kind of going on there. It’s not productive value creation. It’s sort of wheel spinning that if you could boy, just imagine if you had half an hour of that over two years mathematically, jeez, it’s like over 50 hours of productivity lost, which could totally happen when things simmer.

Judy Ringer
It’s absolutely correct. That’s not even counting the polarization that could be taking place as they complain to their teammates.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure.

Judy Ringer
And everybody starts to take sides.

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

Judy Ringer
I don’t think so. Some of my favorite things will be in what we’re going to talk about now because you asked me for my favorite quote and things like that.
Pete Mockaitis
All right, well let’s hear a favorite quote.

Judy Ringer
Well, I have a couple. They’re all – well, actually I have three. They’re all in the same vein. One of them is mine, which is “When you change, everything changes.” Another one is Margaret Wheatley. She has said, “We invent our environment by our presence in it.” Now Margaret Wheatley is an organizational consultant and writer. She’s written a lot of wonderful books like Leadership and the New Science.

But that “We invent our environment by our presence in it,” and “When you change, everything changes,” when I decide to walk into a room centered, breathing, positive attitude, appreciative, it’s really hard to fight with me, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Judy Ringer
The other thing – the last one is what my Aunt Mary said, which is “Life is what you make it.” If life isn’t turning out exactly how you planned in the workplace, take a look at your contribution to it and see what you can do differently.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Judy Ringer
You’re welcome.

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

Judy Ringer
I would go to Brene Brown and her work and research on vulnerabilities and the power of that. I think when we’re centered, we’re completely open and completely flexible and completely vulnerable. I think there’s a lot of power in that.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Judy Ringer
Favorite book. That is a tough one. I think – one of my favorite books actually and what got me started in this and it’s quite old now is The Magic of Conflict by Thomas Crum.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Judy Ringer
Yeah.

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

Judy Ringer
Yeah, and I just began to use this tool about maybe six weeks ago because so many people recommended it. I thought I’ve got to check this out.

It’s the Calm app, C-A-L-M, that helps people if you want to develop a centering practice and you don’t have a place to go or don’t have time to go to a class, this is a great app for teaching you how to meditate and for getting you involved in a practice that you can do every day very easily with just your phone and a set of earphones if you need them. You don’t even need those.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit.

Judy Ringer
Yeah. A favorite habit is catching myself uncentered and then recentering.

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

Judy Ringer
Yes, I think it’s this idea that conflict is a gift if we make it one. Let’s say conflict can be a gift of energy. There’s an article I wrote a number of years ago that’s getting a lot of press right now called How to Turn Your Tormenters Into Teachers. People seem to be resonating with that, that in fact, I have some power here, that I don’t just have to let these things happen to me.

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

Judy Ringer
JudyRinger.com. it’s all there. I’ve got a lot of downloadable resources, articles and I have a great blog. It’s called Ki Moments, K-I Moments about the K-E-Y moments in life. Ki means energy or life force.

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

Judy Ringer
I do. I thought about this one a little bit. I would notice the red flags of blaming and justification because when we’re blaming someone else for something that’s going on or for our feelings for example, for making us angry or reactive or justifying our behavior, it limits our power. We can only change ourselves and the more we try to change other people, the more power we’re giving away.

Pete Mockaitis
Now let’s see, so justifying then is just sort of making our arguments for why you exactly as you are right here and right now are perfect and no change is required.

Judy Ringer
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
What is that song? It drives me nuts. It’s like “I don’t want to be anything other than what I’ve been trying to be lately.” Apologies for the pitch, but I was like what does that even mean and why not? You all need to change and grow. I don’t like this song. But anyway, I overthink lyrics sometimes. I’ve got to recenter when listening to the radio.

Judy Ringer
We can appreciate who we are. I don’t mean that. You know that, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Judy Ringer
We absolutely need to appreciate who we are and our positive intention. The minute we start to blame somebody else or say, “Well, I have to do this because the other person, they made me be this way,” is just sort of like saying, “Well, here’s my center. Take it away. You can go away with it and just take it.” It gives up power.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, Judy, thanks so much for sharing this. I wish you lots of fun and luck in aikido and you’re book and all your adventures.

Judy Ringer
Thank you very much, Pete. This was a joy.

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

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Dr. Donna Hicks says: "People actually flourish when they're treated well and they suffer when they're treated badly."

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Donna

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Donna Hicks Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donna Hicks
You have all the what?

Pete Mockaitis
-dramatic torture or killing-

Donna Hicks
Right, right, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donna Hicks
That’s one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donna Hicks
Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairness, we talked about that one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Donna Hicks
That they can do nothing about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

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

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

Donna Hicks
Thank you. Me too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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