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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Jennifer:

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

519: How to Have Productive Disagreements with Buster Benson

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Buster

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Buster Benson Interview Transcript

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

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

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

Buster Benson
Oh, wow. Cool.

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

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

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

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

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

Buster Benson
Oh, yeah.

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

Buster Benson
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buster Benson
That’s shocking, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buster Benson
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

516: Making Difficult Conversations Easier with David Wood

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About David

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Wood Interview Transcript

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

David Wood
Hey, my pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Totally, yeah.

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

Pete Mockaitis
What happens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

David Wood
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate you.

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:

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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.