Oct. 20, 2022

204 How Leaders Can Successfully Manage Conflict and Have Difficult Conversations with Marlene Chism | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

204 How Leaders Can Successfully Manage Conflict and Have Difficult Conversations with Marlene Chism | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Marlene Chism. Marlene Chism is the leading authority on stopping workplace drama and the author of four books, including her most recent book, From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading. In the conversation, Marlene Chism shares what leaders get wrong about conflict, the negative consequences of avoiding conflict, and how to most effectively address conflict by changing our narrative.  

Some Highlights:

-Marlene Chism on what we get wrong about conflict in the workplace

-Why we need to change our narrative before being able to address conflict

-The importance of the inner game in addressing conflict

-How to face conflict courageously

-Marlene Chism on why conflict is an essential part of growth and authentic relationships

-How to channel conflict into courageous conversations

Additional episodes:

Partnering Leadership conversation with Dr. Timothy Clark on the Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Listen Here

Partnering Leadership conversation with Jim Detert on Choosing Courage, Listen Here

Connect with Marlene Chism:

Marlene Chism Website 

Marlene Chism LinkedIn 

From Conflict to Courage on Amazon

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:




More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Marlene Chism. Marlene is author of four books, including her newest, from Conflict to Courage, How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading. I really enjoy this conversation because it takes courage for us to move beyond conflict, and that is really important in leadership. There's so much conflict that gets in the way of us achieving better relationships and team and organizational results. 

So I enjoyed the conversation, learned a lot from Marlene, I'm sure you will too. I also love hearing from you, keep your comments coming mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com, you can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform. Tuesday, Conversations with magnificent change makers from the Greater Washington DC, DMV region, and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders like Marlene. 

Now, here is my conversation with Marlene Chism.

Marlene Chism, welcome to partnering leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

Marlene Chism: I'm excited to be here.

Mahan Tavakoli: Marlene can't wait to talk about from Conflict to Courage, How To Stop Avoiding And To Start Leading but before we get to that, we'd love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become.

Marlene Chism: Wow. What a question. I have lived in Springfield, in Missouri, Midwest, my whole life. So I guess I'm like a fish in water. I don't know how that's impacted me. It just has, just like we all have biases. We all have our own experience based where we grew up.

I can tell you this, one time when I did some work for NASA and I suggested that we all bring up a potluck dish, they said, We don't do that here in DC . You know what I'm saying? So that's how it's impacted me is like not being sophisticated in certain ways when I first started this business. So it's pretty funny when I think back, like, why would anybody not want to do that? Bring a dish from home, or riding subways and having to walk through parking garages. 

 So I grew up in the Midwest in Springfield, Missouri. I still live here. I was brought up in a, pretty religious in a way, and pretty strict religion where I totally don't believe this now, but If it feels good, don't do it. If it smells good, don't sniff it. If it tastes good, don't eat it. I grew up in that belief but I'm so happy that I had a grounding in the spirituality part. I'm so happy about that cuz it helped me to serve. So I don't think there's any wrong way to be brought up because it makes you have awareness and then you search from there and you find your way. 

But would say that I grew up with a lot of fear. And I guess that I was afraid of conflict. I'm a very sensitive person, although I've been told that I'm brutal because I'm very honest sometimes, but I am sensitive. So I did grow up with a little bit of, I would say maybe violent activity in my home and forgiven all of that. But I did see the effects of conflict and I guess that influenced me and I've never really thought about that to this extent.

But when I started going to college late in life, I learned about the Carman Drama Triangle and that opened my mind up because I just thought the things that happened in my family, there was a lot of dysfunction. I was more the rescuer, my mom and dad got divorced at age 14. It became a very much a narrative and a story that we lived out for a long time of how awful it is and how marriage is not a great thing.

When I went to college and I started studying psychology, I had an awakening. I just went, Oh my God, people have studied this stuff. It's not just, this is the way it is. That's one way it is. And these are things that people have studied and panic attacks are this, and anxiety is that, and your narrative is this.

So I just started this journey of exciting self discovery because realizing that how I was brought up, it doesn't have to be the way it is. 

Mahan Tavakoli: What a wonderful way to look into your own background, learn lessons from it, and then understand your narrative, Marlene. One of the things I've enjoyed about reading your content and your book is that you talk quite a bit about the impact of narratives and changing our narrative without understanding it, we can't do that.

Marlene Chism: I've been studying that kind of thing for a very long time because I know that the inner work is what's so important in leadership. And without that, it's just a role, a title, and a task, and it's management, but it's not fully leadership. But one thing I find so interesting, and I use this all the time myself, your story, in other words, what you're telling yourself about the situation, the politics, your race, your gender, your age, the story, your narrative is the source of your suffering.

The circumstances are what they are. We do have things that cause us to be privileged or not privileged or disadvantaged or not, or blessed or not. Those facts are going to be there for everybody in its own context. What makes us suffer though, is not what happened, it's what we tell ourselves about what happened.

 So I use that all the time. And even right now my mom is in long term care and at the beginning of that I had a lot of suffering around just all the logistics, all the things I had to, dealing with her, not wanting to be there and not understanding. And one day I was doing my journaling and my meditation and I thought, I am bone tired, I'm suffering, and what would I coach someone on? And I would say I would coach someone to the extent of your story is a source of your suffering. And the first part of me goes, Yeah, but they don't know what this is. But then I thought, Okay, so what's my story about? What's my story?

It shouldn't be happening. This always happens to me, this is taking up time, I could be making other business deals, but now this is my priority. So I noticed how I was thinking about it, and I thought, I'm not gonna let it be an obstacle. It's not gonna be a story. My life is now, and this is a priority. And I don't need anyone to understand that. Why I'm not going to business functions and why I'm not doing as many things. I'm so clear about it now. So the story is the source of your suffering.

Mahan Tavakoli: That's a beautiful way of looking at it, Marlene, because part of what you say, which really resonated with me is that there is an inner game to being able to address conflict that is even more important than that outer game. There's a lot of training, I spent most of my professional life in the training field, very familiar with all kinds of training on how to address conflict, but much of it addresses that external element and doesn't focus on the internal elements.

Marlene Chism: Yes. The inner game, I think is what's missing from most work, and I actually stumbled onto that idea as well. So one of the concepts is that there is no conflict unless there's an inner conflict first, I tell people that's a good thing. So in other words, let's say you and I are business partners and , we're working together, but I get offended about something or I don't like something and I'm gossiping about it to my friend.

And I said go talk to him. He's a nice guy. And I say, Yeah, but then we might not do this project because he's sensitive about this. So now I've gotten inner conflict, which is I need to talk with you, but I have another goal of advancing my career through our partnership. So my conflict is that I know I need to talk with you to be authentic to resolve it, but I also, I'm afraid that there might be something happened because of that. And what I tell people is it's good that there's inner conflict because the only people that don't have inner conflict are sociopaths. They don't care what anybody else thinks. 

So you do care about your career, you do care about the other person, you do care about how you feel when they're upset. You care about so many things, so caring creates inner conflict sometimes because that's our gift to uncover the alignment that we need to have to create the courage to have the conversation or to align those opposing forces. 

But yeah, the inner game is everything. And now what I do is I say, even though these facts are here, and even though there's this conflict, or even though someone is behaving in a way that I don't want, or they seem selfish, that's my judgment, my narrative, what is it within me that's conflicted? I can talk to three other people about it and get social agreement, but it doesn't change the situation.

So it's really about knowing yourself and internally working through those emotional aspects before you have the conversation.

Mahan Tavakoli: So part of what you were mentioning about the importance of that inner game Marlene, you say self-awareness is a big part of it, but I find emotions take over. So when you are guiding leaders on that greater self-awareness to try to master that inner game, how can they go about doing that?

Marlene Chism: There's a lot of different tips and tricks that I teach them in the books. I'm not in the book, but one is don't believe everything you think. You've got to start questioning what your interpretation is. In other words, to say they don't care, or they are only concerned about themselves. That's an interpretation. You cannot possibly know all their concerns. It may be true, but it is an interpretation. 

So I'm teaching one skill of, watch your narrative, could there be three other possibilities? Because if you can find three other possibilities, you depersonalize it just a little bit instead of just believing that if you think it, it must be. So I saw something on social media one day where someone got upset because a woman at the swimming pool told this little boy that the pool noodles, the ones that are for kids are the colored pool noodles. The white ones are for adults. And the father of the boy was so upset and there was this big thread on social media. She must have been prejudiced because it was an Asian boy. And I'm like, there's a thousand other reasons it could have happened, right? 

Oh, you could be no other reason than her own bias and her own prejudice. No, it could be that she's a stickler for rules. Could be she's a little bit drunk and had a bad day. It could be that she's completely clueless and she's a jerk to everybody. There's a thousand reasons, and someone said, What else could it be? And I thought, there is an example of picking one reality and sticking to it, even though you know nothing about the person or the situation, You weren't there. So we've got the challenge, what we believe to be true. So that's the first one. 

Another one is to talk about the observed behavior. In other words, what's the observed behavior versus the story you have around it? He slammed the phone down. And walked off. That's an observed behavior, but they're mad at me and they've been holding a grudge for three years, may or may not be true.

Mahan Tavakoli: Absolutely. So it is the stories that we tell ourselves about the observed behaviors or the facts that in many instances add to that inner conflict that we also have to face. But part of what you talk about Marlene the book is that conflict is not the problem. And one of the challenges that I see, including with many senior executives that I'm working with, is trying at all costs to avoid conflict.

I like to talk quite a bit about psychological safety and Tim Clark, Amy Edmondson have talked about psychological safety. And the misunderstood part of it is, some leaders believe that they can't have conflict in their teams. So what's your perspective on conflict not being the problem, therefore, what is the problem?

Marlene Chism: The problem is the mismanagement of conflict. So one way we mismanage conflict is how we think about it. So we think, I can't upset someone, I can't have a disagreement because that means war, that means picking sides, that means disrespect. And I often say that disagreement doesn't cause the relationship problems, disrespect does. So we can disagree. Where we get off track is when we start name calling we start doing that and that causes the problem in the relationship.

We haven't learned how to self-manage internally to deal with that disagreement, therefore we're faking it. And so the mismanagement shows up and I've seen this a lot in senior leadership. It shows up as I call it, moving the chess pieces around, You know what, we're gonna reorganize these three people don't get along and it's a fight. And we think it's this one problem person because this person keeps whispering in our ears. And we think that's the good person. So we're gonna believe that good person, and we're gonna move these three people into the basement and we're gonna call that this part of the organization, and this person over here will lead them. 

And then what happens is, because they were getting good evaluations from the boss they had, because that boss was afraid of conflict. The new excited manager that's had all the training comes in, she gives them a C minus. Now we've got problems like I'm being disenfranchised. But the truth is because of avoidance, there was a domino effect to where one person avoided, three others avoided. And you try to get a change agent in and they become the common enemy. I'm sure you've seen that a lot.

Mahan Tavakoli: I was laughing as you were talking about this because there are a lot of times when I'm working with senior teams, I have to try not to be the person that is then used, whether by the CEO or other executives to address the conflicts that they have. 

Marlene Chism: I have got a funny saying, you reminded me of that. I know what you're talking about 

but I've jokingly said, I've got a package called Scapegoat Consulting. It's six figures, I'll look bad, I'll make you look great. Then I've got ostrich consulting it’s I stick my head in the sand so you don't have to.

Mahan Tavakoli: That's outstanding. Those two packages would sell really well. Marlene.

Marlene Chism: Absolutely. Scapegoat consulting or ostrich consulting. Which do you need? I can stick my head in the sand, tell you it's great, like what you wanna hear else, I can take the blame and I can come in fully blazing with all kinds of initiatives and you can rescue them from me. And then all of a sudden they're singing Kumbaya again. Everybody needs a common enemy.

Mahan Tavakoli: Which is part of the point that you make is that conflict is not the problem, and it's not about embracing conflict. It's how we face conflict. And there are dysfunctional leadership identities that contribute to not addressing the conflict, not facing it, and therefore having a cost to team collaboration, organizational growth, and even the wellbeing of the individuals.

Marlene Chism: So three behaviors that I see is avoiding, appeasing, and aggression. And then the identity part of it. What I've seen, there's the best friend, hero, and hands off. The three types. 

So best friend happens a lot of times with brand new leaders. I see this like they elevate to a management position of some sort, maybe first line supervisors. And they probably haven't had very much training. And the truth is, that kind of training's not relevant until it's relevant. So, I see why they don't invest, cuz you can learn this stuff and it's a checklist and then it doesn't really work. So I understand that. But they go into it, then they're confronted with a problem and this is how they think about it.

You know what, I was always friends with everybody, they're gonna have my back, so I'm gonna have theirs. But before long, they're open doors becoming that revolving door. And then when they have to align with a decision where there's no other choice, that's where they struggle because do I act like I don't agree to? Or do I just filter things around and avoid? So that best friend causes a lot of stress on the leader and it causes stress in the department too. 

Then I see hands off a lot of times with maybe director level or whether it's in a university or whether it's in a corporation. I really shouldn't have to coach you. You got hired to lead. That's why we have you. You're the leader of your department. It's not me, so I don't wanna coach you cuz the truth is I really don't know how to do it either. So you just need to learn that you need to do it, you need to handle it, right? Otherwise we'll move people around or we'll hire a mediator or a consultant and we'll hope that does it, but it never does.

And then the hero is the person that was great at their job. They know the business inside and out. They were the rainmaker. They were the star performer. They get a leadership position. They just cannot, for the life of them, see that anybody could ever do it like them. So they just keep micromanaging or they do it, or they still need to show off and they don't know how to nurture and encourage because that's not in their DNA yet, they don't find pleasure from that. 

So those are ways that we mismanage it behaviorally or in our identities without knowing that we're not being good leaders based on just how we cope.

Mahan Tavakoli: I see those three identities that you mentioned in organizations and especially with the more senior leaders that I work with, Marlene, I see a lot of hands off leaders where in their mind they say, I've hired a competent person, or this person has the experience to do their job. They don't need me to micromanage them and part of the conversation is micromanagement is not right, but you don't have to go all the way to the other extreme of being totally hands off. 

So for leaders to be able to guide their people and make sure that they are not just avoiding and being hands off, how would you recommend for them to engage and approach those conversations?

Marlene Chism: You have to be open to conflict cuz if you're afraid of it, you're just going to say it's the other person's job. So you really want to adopt the mindset that I don't wanna be blindsided. You've got to know that up front. Let's also define micromanagement because people throw that term around so much just to keep someone from knowing what they're doing. So let's define that. 

When will you feel micromanaged and when you feel supported, how can I support you? I want to be a mentor to you to where if you're struggling with someone, I'm not gonna throw it in your face that you ought to know because you came from this organization where the culture was totally different.

And I've recently just discovered this, I do believe there should be an onboarding period even for the higher level leaders of what to expect, because how can you know how to behave and how to deal with a cabinet or a board. How can you know that if you've never done it, It doesn't matter where you've worked before.

Cultures are different. Leaders at the top are different and I'm okay with even someone saying he's an autocratic visionary. Okay, that's working for where you are right now in your organization. It's not a wrong thing, but if you're in that kind of organization, understand that's what you're in. Know that and does that align with you? Versus they shouldn't be this way. They gotta change. No, they don't have to change. They have the power, so be okay with that and navigate it comparatively versus they're wrong for being that way. No, they got things done.

Mahan Tavakoli: Therefore, it's part of the responsibility of the organization to bring them along at all levels of the organization. You can't treat people regardless of their background, experience, capabilities with this hands off approach, because part of the point you make is that's avoiding conflict and shirking the responsibility.

Marlene Chism: Yeah, it's a way to blame. As long as I'm sitting at the top where, only a board of directors is gonna fire me, and as long as I'm bringing in money and I'm bringing in donations or whatever I'm doing, I'm not gonna ever be fired. And I'm untouchable. So it's that kind of blind spot right there.

Another one that I see of mismanaging conflict, and this is really funny and it happens a lot. I'm sure you see it too. We're gonna pretend that something's gonna be a choice, but it's truly mandated. I was working with one group, it was a two part coaching series before the book was written.

And this was the question that came out. In the group so we have a new software system that we're supposed to get implemented and I've got one employee that just refuses to do it and she's got good reason. What should I do? And I said it all depends. So my first question is that a choice to change the software?

And everybody, I swear to you, everybody said yes. I said, then unfortunately she has given you her decision, which is to not change her software. Cause see, I try to enter into this without judgment, right? It just, if it's a choice, she said no. And if you wanna try to influence her, there's some things I can give you, but she's told, and you've also told me she's got good reason. 

 So I said, my second question is if she came up with even better reasons, would the whole organization decide to go her way? And they said no. And I said, So then basically it's mandated and they all just puffed up and set back and they said, We don't like that word. We like to collaborate. And I said, But you're not collaborating now. You're telling a falsehood and leading her to believe that she has a choice when indeed it is mandated. So there's choices within that mandate, right? Like about how we do it, what kind of support you need, what kind of glitches are gonna come up. But the truth, she'll set you free. 

To pretend that we just wanna hold hands and sing Kumbaya, be nice. And we're gonna call it collaboration when we're really wink, wink. It's been decided six years ago. Just tell the truth about it. It's coming around the corner. We're gonna have to do it.

There's going to be glitches, there's are methods. We can help you, there will be problems. But this is a time for you to decide if you're on board or not. And if not, there's other opportunities somewhere else. But the truth is, even in that situation, No matter where you work, there's gonna be software updates.

I can't control Apple, right? Like they're gonna keep updating my phone whether I want it or not. Zoom is gonna lose my information whether I want it or not, because they're gonna do an update. So I just think it's funny that we like to collaborate and we wanna play nice, and we would rather be nice than to tell the truth about how things are and let people have their bad feelings about it.

Mahan Tavakoli: That's part of avoiding Marlene, in that whether you call it avoiding or appeasing, there is lack of clarity in the communications, because in reality, as you said, that's not really a choice. You are not asking a question where you are looking for an answer. People have been overtrained a little bit too much.

Rather than saying, This is an update we need to make, or this is something we need to do in an organization. They've been told ask questions rather than give direct orders, which is great advice, but not when you are not looking for an answer. So this becomes another way of avoiding conflict, which actually ends up costing the organization, costing the individuals, and costing credibility in the communication of the message of the organization.

Marlene Chism: What is happening here too, as you said, the lack of clarity, if you were really to break it down, I love to just get right to the root. Our clarity is we'd rather be perceived as nice, even if there's lots of drama going on that's unspoken, we want to use the word collaboration on our walls and in our website, and this is an example of I don't know how to align saying this is not a choice and we still are collaborating. Because we can't handle that middle part where someone feels bad. We take it upon ourselves to fix their feelings and it's good that we feel that way, but here's the other piece that's so profound. When people get this, like we think that I can't stand it when she's upset, I can't stand it When he screams or yells, I can't stand it when they get aggressive. What I really can't stand is how I feel when they do that if I can just deal with my own feelings about Okay, so they're aggressive, so that's what they're doing now. Okay, That's who they are. Okay? So they're gonna cry now this is part two where the waterworks are going to happen, and I feel as a human being, That they feel something that's uncomfortable, but I'm gonna allow the space for that within myself, and we don't have to be here tomorrow or next week, this is just where we are today. 

And when we can provide that radical listing and that space, even for our own bad feelings about how they feel, that is just my need to rescue someone and need to be the hero. I can say they have every right to complain and be negative for a day and to not like it, they have a right. This makes their life harder, but we don't have to be here forever. When you get that kind of maturity, it just changes the conversation.

Mahan Tavakoli: It does, and it's really helpful. What I wonder though, Marlene, is are there people that seek conflict? So part of the conversation is around the fact that it takes courage to address conflict. Avoiding it is not the right way of approaching it. Whether it's our personal lives and in our organizations, there is a certain level of conflict that is healthy and needs to be addressed.

But are there people that seek conflict and how can that be addressed? Individuals that are conflict prone, you put 'em in a team and they cause conflict.

Marlene Chism: I think it's a lack of self-awareness sometimes and a narrative. But yes, I do believe that. I believe we all are capable of that in some areas of our life and it really has to do with programming. I've done quite a bit of reading and I'm very interested in how even emotions are very addicting. They're just like alcohol or cocaine or whatever kind of drug you wanna talk about, 

so if you grew up in a family where the only way you felt noticed was to get hollered at, yelled at, have aggression, and then there was the wonderful makeup, you're gonna attract partners into your life like that, that's just going to be something outside of your own self-awareness the question about why is this happening to me again?

Because in some way I'm craving that, I'm craving that more than I'm willing to feel the discomfort of not having it. I used to say, my mom and I could argue about whether something is teal or aqua, and truly there was an addiction there and there probably still is. It's just that now that she's in a nursing home, I find it really funny and I'm not triggered anymore cuz I now interpret it differently.

And I interpret it to where she can't help it before I interpreted it as she challenges me at every turn, even though I'm very educated and now I go, Okay, this is really funny and she can't help it. We are addicted to patterns and until we start to see that this is a pattern, we can't change it because we're going to keep attracting that into our life.

Mahan Tavakoli: It's interesting, Marlene I love the perspective you have in that a big part of addressing conflict effectively and having the courage to address it depends on our ability to develop greater self awareness, whether it is the narratives that we tell ourselves or the things that typically trigger us, and the ways we react. So a big part of it is self-awareness. 

Therefore, how can we go about developing greater self-awareness? You have studied the field, you spent a lot of time on it. Many leaders don't get a chance to study as much about this as you have. How can we go about developing that greater self-awareness so we can be more productive with the kind of conflicts that we have and eliminate some of the negativity and the negative conflicts in our lives?

Marlene Chism: Journaling is a great tool to just journal what's going on for you. A lot of people feel like they don't have time for that, but you can start to see patterns if you journal and I even journal sometimes very proactively and allow myself to fully blame someone and just throw out all my hate , because I know that it's a shadow and I know that it's just a story.

So I'm gonna go ahead and not pretend that's not there and I'm just gonna look at that and go, Wow, that's pretty rank, but I talk about something in the book about, I call it emotional integrity. It's something I'm working on right now. It's really hard. And what I mean by that is there's three points to that.

The first one is take ownership of your experience. That doesn't mean that you own what someone else did to you or the circumstance that made your life hard. So something happened. There was a set of facts, but if I feel like I want to get revenge, if I'm thinking about it nonstop, and it's circulating in my mind, I'm the one having that experience.

They've done it two years ago and I'm still living it out. I'm milking it as David Hawkins would say in power versus force. So like I'm the one having the experience of rage or anger or disappointment and it feels a certain way. So the underneath that is how does it process in your body? Cuz until you understand that you'll never get there.

Cause it feels pretty bad. And that's why we cope cuz we don't want that to happen. But if you just first of all take ownership, like I'm the one experiencing the rage, the anger instead of they did it and therefore I have a right to, Of course you do. That's not ever been up for discussion. You've gotta write to anything you wanna feel or experience, but it's still your experience and they didn't cause it. You're interpreting something. 

The second piece is to face your dark side. And that's that journaling where, you know what, if you just say, I'm just so angry and I really just wish they'd trip on that, step today or what, whatever you're feeling just go ahead and look at that and play with it and not judge it cuz the shame of it won't help you just to know that you're human and that's just a childish part of you that wants to be heard. So you just do that. You face your dark side. Oh yeah. I can be sarcastic. Know that about yourself instead of pretending to be so perfect. And then I think it's about representing yourself and that's really difficult.

Rather than blaming this works in management too. In other words, I feel like even if I'm in the middle of a heated discussion, rather than saying, You need to calm down. You need to calm down, I'm like, I'm needing a break because I'm feeling especially triggered right now. And I'm not sure if I'm just tired or if I haven't had time to process it. But I'm in the conversation, but I gotta put a boundary up right now. 

So in other words, I can still say I'm angry. I can still say I'm really disappointed and I feel like blaming you, but I know that's not gonna resolve it. So let's meet in two days. I need to process. It's okay to let people know that you have human emotions, but to lash out, which I have done by the way many times, but to lash out and to make it about what the other person did, to try to be aggressive to correcting them is usually not going to resolve it much, it's going to keep people in line for a while, but then they don't have that psychological safety. Representing yourself is such a big deal. I've talked about that even from this perspective, because I see a lot of leaders get caught up in this.

Someone comes to the leader and says, everybody says nobody wants to change the software program. It's not just me. I'm okay with it, but like everybody else is complaining and so they're like, Oh God, really? What are they saying? Jack said this and Jamal said that, and I'm gonna use all this about what everybody else is saying and the leader is taking that hook line and sinker, and that's a problem.

So I always tell leaders to say since everyone's not here, what do you think? Oh, I'm okay with it, but what do you really think? Because you brought it to me for a reason. I just wanted to let you know what everybody else thought. You know what? No, everybody's gotta be in the room because that is not fair.

So I see that tattle tailing and that representing everybody else. And even as a leader, if people are complaining about one person, Try to find a way where it's your concern, your observation, not what three other people said. If you have to coach those three other people to go have their own conversation and then bring everybody in, but that representing other people, and she said, he said, and Oh no, and I can't really have your back on this, but I do want you to know this, I just hate that gameplay and that represent yourself, if you do that, you're gonna solve a lot of problems.

Mahan Tavakoli: What a brilliant observation Marlene and I think if leaders take nothing else from this conversation but that one thing and apply it, it truly transforms many of the conversations in their organizations and then the conflict that arises from it because so often, People are representing the views of others and leaders allow that to happen, which causes lots of misunderstanding and lots of conflict.

So to me, I see it repeatedly as you do as an observer of leadership teams and interactions. So much of the conversations are not, This is how I see it, this is how people see it.

Marlene Chism: You know what's funny about this too? I was doing a workshop and I haven't been out on the road a lot since Covid. I've been doing most things, by video. But I was not too long ago with a group of business owners, and we were talking about this very concept, and one business owner said when these two argue with each other, they come to me to talk about the other person.

And I said, What do you do? He said I've tried to get them to have the conversation, but they told me it's my job because I'm the leader. And I said, So let me ask you a question. Who invested a quarter of a million dollars to have this business? Was it them or was it you? Oh, it was me. And I said but yet they're telling you what your job is.

That's interesting. that's really interesting that they're telling you that it's your job to fix their problems, 

Mahan Tavakoli: Marlene, I don't think a single week goes by that I don't hear something similar from a senior executive in an organization. 

Marlene Chism: Yeah, and I think it is tricky. It's hard. I always encourage if you can go to the person with whom you have the problem. And just represent yourself for the purpose of improving the relationship, the business, instead of using other people as a scapegoat. And even offering to people. I'm doing a little self-reflection, I'm going to be offering opportunity to give me feedback about this one area. Do you find me approachable? On a scale of one to 10, where am I even that would open up feelings that would change, because even if they thought bad of you. Just the question alone and be like, you know what? They're a pretty good guy or gal. To even ask that question makes me think I was being a little harsh, right? If I'm open to hearing it, what could I do to better support you as your top leader? There may be things you don't understand, just that curiosity. And I think that's hard at the top because you're looking at the vision. Sometimes you're autocratic. I think it is hard and they have feelings too, so it is a dance that we all have, but I just don't like that I'm gonna represent everybody else unless you ask me to do it. And that's an agreed upon thing that we're gonna do. 

Mahan Tavakoli: Which is why, to your point, it is somewhat of a tricky area, but you have to be very mindful who you give voice to and whether that person and that individual is speaking for themselves or saying, This is how people view it.

Marlene Chism: And also, even in our world right now, I see sometimes people get on a rant about women, all women feel this way. No, they don’t. All people of color feel this way. No, they don't. So it's a danger to start ranting and railing about how everybody feels, because there's a lot of individuals in that group.

You can quote stats, you can quote, surveys and white papers, but I think it's so important to talk about your lived experience, and not put everybody into that to say that's how it is across the board everywhere because that is such a generalization and it causes a lot of conflict. And people will argue about things like that on social media. I don't even get in those conversations because I already know it is a no win. Someone's already loaded up, they're ready to fight. But the thing that always gives me is when someone's speaking for an entire group of, 10,000, 20,000, a half a million people that's a problem.

Mahan Tavakoli: Those types of problems also exist in organizations. So social media is an extreme version that makes it a lot worse. They also exist in organizations. 

Now, one of the ways for us to address conflict in the organization, is something you've done a lot of work on Marlene, and that's having difficult conversations, which is by definition difficult.

I love the skills you go through, most especially would love to touch on radical listening. How can radical listening play a role in difficult conversations?

Marlene Chism: Radical listening is the ability to stay with the conversation and even say, Tell me more, or, I hear you, or It sounds like you are feeling or experiencing it this way without needing to prove a point or share the latest statistic or prove them wrong. 

Because really radical listening is about the relationship, and the facts exist. Really you're talking about emotion. You're talking about someone's lived experience or how they're seeing things or their narrative. So even if you disagree, whether it's politically or in the workplace, or hierarchically, whatever it is, to be able to say, That sounds like you're really frustrated.

No, I'm angry. You're angry. Wow. So it's really hard. Yeah, it's hard, and to be able to just do that without, advising is a hard one for sometimes top leaders especially here's what you need to do. Oh, I've had a problem like that. I've already solved it. A lot of people say men, I'm that way too, so I guess I'm in that category, but wanting to fix it because we don't like someone else's pain and we're looking at an engineer versus Looking from the heart, we're looking from the head space. So radical listening is about sensing the essence, and you've gotta have self-awareness to do that.

If you are only in top level down problem solving mode, and I can fix how you feel because I'm uncomfortable with how you feel, you can't do it. You almost have to be okay with how someone feels. And you feel it too, but you don't take it on. You just feel it a little bit. You're like, That sounds heavy. Yeah. And I was really disappointed. And at a certain point, if you radical listen, you can coach, but until someone feels heard, you cannot help them.

And I learned that in narrative coaching, or it confirmed that for me, that you can only coach a regulated person. So for everybody out there, if your spouse has ever given you advice, when you've come to them just wanting to be acknowledged, I lost my car keys.

How many times did I tell you? Hang them up on that hook. Are you no good? And but you should have put that in the same place. When you get into that, you're gonna have a fight cuz they're not needing to be reminded as an adult how to take care of their car keys. They're just wanting to say, Oh that must have been so frustrating. Come here, let me give you a hug. And it's the same thing in the business world. We're just wanting to say, how can I support you? Have you come to resolution? So that's just a skill that I don't know that we ever get that totally, we just have to keep practicing because if you come off as I know what you need to do, you're really saying you need to be helped, you need to be fixed and I've got the solution and I'm better than you and I'm judging you. So we just have to learn that people are intelligent, they have their own flaws, they may need our support, they'll ask for it, or we can say, I'm here to support you. Are you wanting to brainstorm? And on the same token, cuz I can hear some of your listeners going, Yeah, but if you listen too long, they're gonna be venting, over, around the clock. And that's true. Because some people, they're attracted to that drama, like you said earlier. Do they like that conflict? As long as you're loving and making them feel heard, they got all these endorphins going on and you're sick of it. 

So you've gotta say so I'm here to support you. I just wanted to vent, then you say, that's great. I've got five minutes. Go vent away.

Because if you don't do that, like I've been on the phone sometimes and I could swear that they were the muse for caller ID Oh my God, really? Like this is gonna go on forever and I don't know how to make this stop. So there's that balance there to where you get really clear about your boundaries, that if it's venting is five minutes, not five days in a row cause it's unresolved. And at that point you can no longer be of help. Cause I don't wanna resolve it.

Mahan Tavakoli: I love the perspectives, Marlene, first of all you addressed the question that was on my mind and I know the listener's minds were how do we handle people that just use the opportunity and just want to vent? Beautifully said. 

Now, the couple of things that I wanna underline that you mentioned with respect to these difficult conversations is that a lot of times the leaders that I see in organizations as they move up, they believe that people are coming to them for the answers. So they're quickly in that solution mode and giving people the solution, which doesn't help in their radical listening that you talk about. And there is such a time pressure of the meetings, the emails, the everything that's happening where we are not taking the time to truly be present and listen to the other human being. Whether it is virtually on Zoom or now more and more in person, we're still not there for the person even for that five minutes. So it's not that the person wants five days, even for five minutes being present to radically listen. So it is a skill to work on and it should be a priority if we want to be able to handle difficult conversation.

Marlene Chism: Yeah, and it's really okay too. This is a skill that I teach in the classroom setting. If you truly don't have time, let's say you're in the middle of an important email, you've just crafted it, you've changed it three times. You haven't put the two yet in there who it's to, and like someone comes in and they want you to radically listen.

You can say, I've got this email, but I've got to finish. It's gonna take me 10 minutes. Let me do that so I can be present cuz I'm just gonna keep thinking about it. Wishing you would shut up and that's really what's going to happen. Or no, I'm listening, I'm letting you know I'm on cell phone. No, I'm listening, go ahead. No, I will not go ahead. Because you're not fully present and so if you can't be fully present, get used to saying I can't do this right now. I could talk at one o'clock today. Or if you can hang out for 10 minutes, Let me finish this and that'll be completely present.

That's just a decision because we pretend and that's that appeasing. Oh, I'm listening. Great idea. Totally agree with you. And I don't, cuz I haven't heard a thing you've said.

Mahan Tavakoli: It's something that we need to constantly work on Marlene, this is a struggle for all of us. It's not as if any of us have mastered it. It's something that we can consistently work on. 

Marlene Chism: Yeah, and in the book there's chapter seven is the entire framework for difficult conversations, and I've called it the performance conversation model, where I think performance should be talked about all the time, not just once a year, but nonetheless, it was built from the perspective that if you need to have a conversation that, for example, you inherited a team and you've let it go on for two years or There's a problem with one person, but you've danced around it.

It's a more serious conversation than just quickly, Oh, I observed you slammed the phone down at the meeting, are you upset? That's a quick conversation. The skills are in there for that so that once you build the relationship, the trust and the connection, the skills work alone, and you just learn the skills.

The skills are easy to teach. What's difficult is the framework, which is where you start with intention and you clear out your own energy about it, and you process through guiding the conversation and radically listing when it's their turn to talk so that you can figure out what the real problem is, because it generally is in one of these five buckets of clarity.

Priority resources, skills, or willingness. And if it's willingness, that's when you talk about not working here anymore. Generally it is in a category, clarity's almost always a part of it, but sometimes it's a priority issue, sometimes it is a resource or resourcefulness issue. They just don't see it the way that you want them to see it.

So once you have that conversation, I always say the answer will come through the conversation, not before. So you've gotta get rid of, I already know what their problem is. You might, and it might be a part of it, but you've got to be open to figuring out why it's that way, and that is the hardest part of this, is to learn that skill of being uncomfortable in that middle part where you don't know what to say or where you went off into verbal ping pong of That's not fair.

Look, I'm not talking about that. Yes you are. No, I'm not. That's what she said. Like when you get off into that, you've lost your clarity. So the real purpose of that framework is to stay on track, not to micromanage someone, but to know where you are in the conversation and your perspective is always about helping the other person.

And if you can't feel that way about it, you've got a lot of inner work to do. Because if you're really just documenting wink, wink, so I can fire them in three months, that is the wrong perspective because that means you've avoided something for this long and you've got to clean up that part of it. So the conversation is in the book and I actually wanted the entire book to be about that because I've been teaching it for so long, and the publisher said, could you make it a broader topic of conflict?

And then that's where this all evolved, that's why I'm still a work in progress of all this because, it's 21 years worth of work plus me still growing.

Mahan Tavakoli: I love this book and I look forward to you digging even deeper in those difficult conversations because that's a critical piece of it. Marlene, As I mentioned earlier, the highest functioning teams I've seen have a lot of healthy conflict and are able to address the conflict.

One of the biggest challenges, and problems that I see is that people assume high performing teams don't have conflict, high performing teams in my view and experience have as much, if not more conflict than other teams. However, people have the courage to address the conflict and work together as opposed to avoiding it. The low performing teams are the ones where they avoid conflict.

Marlene Chism: I think that's because when you have conflict and you really genuinely like the other people, or trust them or believe that their heart is in the right place, you can feel vulnerable enough to say, I'm opposed to this and here's why. And talk me into it. Or hear my side. I think you can do that more if you really think that other person has good intentions.

But if you don't have a trusting relationship or if you don't have a track record, or if you've been burned before, the first thing we do is we assume ill will from the other person. So it's really hard not to look for that evidence because that's where we're all biased. We're biased to protect our own interests.

And that's why I define conflict as opposing drives, desires and demands with two arrows going in opposite directions. Because for me, to be able to deal with conflict, I can't see the other person as an enemy. I have to see 

that there must be hidden elements of something I don't understand. And this has been helpful too, in like even just being a consultant. And sometimes, you don't get the job, you don't get it, and you think, God, there was a great relationship. It's helped me instead of saying I knew they were just appeasing to say, there must be puzzle pieces that I don't get.

Maybe a new initiative came in, maybe a new leader came in and it was their cousin was a consultant and they got it. I don't know. And so once you just know that there's always opposing drive desires and demands, you can create a different narrative about it that makes it so less personal versus I did something wrong, or they don't like me, or they're not a good person.

Just there's these opposing drives and desires that change all the time. And now that I know that I don't have to personalize everything,

Mahan Tavakoli: Marlene, I encourage everyone to read the book, with respect to knowing how to address conflict, the important role that narratives play. Difficult conversations, you go into a lot of areas which can be healthy for us to address in our organizations, but also in our personal lives.

In addition to your own book, , what are some resources you typically find yourself recommending?

Marlene Chism: One thing I recommend that's easy to do is LinkedIn learning. You can find different leaders that have developed content on difficult conversations, negotiation, anger management, that kind of stuff. I've got five on LinkedIn learning myself, plus, you get a certification 

so I do recommend that to get the overview and to hear some leaders' perspective on it and find things that are in common or, pick out something in mind that you like and pick out something of someone else's and build your own kind of way of doing things. I just say read a lot of self-help book.

There's one that I really love. It's called Leadership in the Art of Self Deception from Arbinger. It is one of the best books I've ever read on the inner game, and I didn't even know it existed until I started doing my book.

But they're very good. I also, love new age spiritual books because it's all about your inner growth. So I think The Untethered Soul is a great book if you wanna learn how to process emotions. It's really interesting if you like that kind of thing about how to let things settle in and how to feel it and not react to it.

So I like books like that. David Hawkins, Power Versus Force gets out there. But I think it's so interesting to talk about the levels of consciousness and to start applying that to your own life. That you know when you're happy, when you're excited, when you're feeling connected, you're at a higher vibe.

And when you're in that lower vibe of anger or resentment, you're emitting a vibration that's gonna create more of that. So I love stuff like that. I find it very practical to my own growth, and I find it applicable to leadership. It's just that we would prefer a Harvard Business Review as leaders, right?

But I think this other stuff's really good.

Mahan Tavakoli: It really is important and I appreciate the recommendations because as you say repeatedly, that inner game plays a big role and the more experience that I have in leadership development, Marlene, and especially when I deal with higher level leaders, the more I realize the inner game is where the challenge is, the more junior leaders, a lot of times it's the outer game that they need to refine the higher up people moving organizations, they have mastered the outer game, but there are a lot of issues with the inner game people assume that the person that has become the CEO is all of a sudden happy and has everything taken care of.

In many instances, those people have more of an imposter syndrome and have more concerns and more issues going on, which is why that need for addressing the inner game. How would you suggest Marlene, for the audience to find out more about you? Your book, LinkedIn Learning Connect with you.

Marlene Chism: My website is marlenechism.com so it's just my name, marlenechism.com. I am on LinkedIn, so if you heard me on this podcast, you can connect with me or follow me and say, that's where you found me. My book is at Amazon, and it's called From Conflict to Courage, How to Stop Avoiding Start Leading. And my email is marlene@marlenechism.com

Mahan Tavakoli: Marlene, as I've said repeatedly, conflict is not by itself a bad thing. As you say, conflict is not the problem. It's not about embracing conflict. It's about facing it. And in this book you share. Works on how we can face the conflict how we can have those difficult conversations, and also provide the framework and a study guide so we can address this with our teams, so our teams can handle conflict better.

I really appreciate you joining me in this conversation. Marlene Chism.

Marlene Chism: I so appreciate you having me on your show.