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Avoid Conflict at Your Own Peril with Mark Goulston

Author, Mark Goulston, speaks with Richard Levick, chairman of Levick, in this transcribed installment of the In House Warrior Podcast series. Bestselling author Mark Goulston discusses better listening to increase productivity, and provides key takeaways for general counsels on conflict avoidance. Listen here


Speaker 1: Welcome to the Corporate Counsel Business Journal’s daily podcast, In House Warrior, with host Richard Levick, Chairman of LEVICK, a global crisis and litigation communications firm.

Richard Levick: Good day, this is Richard Levick for In House Warrior, the daily podcast of Corporate Counsel Business Journal. And with me today is Mark Goulston, a bestselling author of seven books, including the top book on listening in the world. Mark, I know you’ve negotiated for the top hostage negotiators at the FBI, where listening is obviously a critical skill and lives depend on it. You have your own podcast as well called The Wake Up Call. Welcome to the show.

Mark Goulston: Well, it’s great to be on, Richard. Thank you.

Levick: Mark, I met you a few months ago online like we all do, in a Zoom Cast in a group of other authors and speakers, and found you eminently interesting and such a joy to speak with because of your listening skills and how you apply it to both business and personal situations. Talk a little bit about the work that you do, and let’s get into… I know you’ve just been doing some work in London that’s on conflict resolution, which is really interesting.

Goulston: I started out as a clinical psychiatrist. I focused on suicide prevention for 30 years. None of my patients died by suicide. And what I discovered is the way that I got through to those people was to listen in to them and get where they were coming from and connect with them there, as opposed to trying to convince them from the outside in, in which case their eyes would glaze over and they’d look at me and not give up their suicidality. And so that expanded to training FBI and police hostage negotiators.

And as you mentioned, I recently joined a company in London called Tanto Capital Partners, T-A-N-T-O, and they actually work with companies to leverage the founder’s experience having worked at Merrill Lynch in 2008 and selling off $8 billion in positions in a month and going from 67 people to four people. And so one of their services that I’m assisting with is how to put a group together that can now partake in saving banks by buying as a group stuff that they couldn’t buy as individuals, which are these positions in distressed assets. But they brought me in as a conflict management coach, as a premium service to all their clients, because what most people will agree with is conflict is one of the biggest obstacles to success anywhere because most people avoid it or handle it poorly. And I will come in and coach people how to resolve the conflict and deal with conflict effectively in the future.

One thing I told them is, “I’m not going to resolve conflict between greedy people that I can’t root for because at this stage of my life, I won’t put lipstick on a pig or two pigs. I just won’t do it.” So this is an opportunity if you’re in a conflict to learn how to get better at it so that you can not only resolve the conflict in your business, but maybe you’ll get to talk to that estranged kid from your first marriage or other people that you’ve got a conflict that’s causing you to drink yourself into another conflict.

Levick: Mark, we’re slowly apparently coming out of the pandemic isolation. A lot of general counsels are going to be dealing with conflicts that arise with people slowly coming back to work. What recommendations do you have as they face this new uncharted territory?

Goulston: Well, there’s a quote that someone told me, that poise begins with a pause. And when you’re dealing with people coming out of this, you’re dealing with people who have a constricted mindset. And you have to realize that when you talk to them, you have to give them stuff that is simple, doable by them, or else they’re going to tune you out. So you need to make sure that whenever you’re communicating with people that you’re relevant, you’re clear, and you’re concise.

Levick: What are some key takeaways that you’d like to leave with general counsels in terms of conflict avoidance? It’s obviously always easier to address in the early stages than after people have become concrete in their positions.

Goulston: A friend of mine, Marshall Goldsmith, top executive coach in the world, one of the things that he says is, “Try to focus on the future that nobody has screwed up yet.” Because if you focus on the past, it just gets into a he-said she-said, and deteriorates. So the more that you can say to the other person, “Going forward, what do you and I need to do differently so that this doesn’t reoccur, and we don’t have to go through this again? If we had this to do over again, what should you and I have done differently so that we wouldn’t have ended up here?”

Levick: What do you think about people’s challenge with change because one of the things that you’re talking about with conflict avoidance is someone or someones have to change their behavior? How do you help people overcome that?

Goulston: I gave a webinar in Saudi Arabia sometime ago, and it was called Overcoming People’s Resistance to Change. And my central hypothesis is that resistance to change doesn’t exist. What exists is non-rational, non-functional self-preservation. Non-rational, non-functional self-preservation. In other words, most people are trying to stay in this psychological silo of, “Here I’m competent. Here I’m confident. Here I’m in control.” And anytime you try to bring them outside of that towards change, they try to drag you back into it because they quickly feel incompetent. They lose their confidence. They feel out of control. So if you look at people realizing that they’re not really resisting you but they’re just trying to stay secure, what you want to do is always say, “How did you come to that position? What’s behind that? What led to that? Tell me what were the steps that’s caused you to believe what you do?” And then hopefully as they start to share that with you, you can find some wiggle room in some of those steps.

Levick: Mark, it’s always great talking with you. I always learn so much. In the final 30 seconds or so that we have left, what’s the key takeaway you want to leave with the general counsel audience?

Goulston: This is the message that I give to everyone in the world, listen more than you talk.

Levick: Mark Goulston, thank you so much. Richard Levick for In House Warrior, and we’ll see you tomorrow.

Speaker 1: You’ve been listening to the Corporate Counsel Business Journal’s daily podcast, In House Warrior, with host Richard Levick.