How to Lead Tough Conversations: Adar Cohen (Transcript)

Adar Cohen at TEDxKeene

Here is the full transcript of conflict resolution expert Adar Cohen’s talk titled “How to Lead Tough Conversations” at TEDxKeene conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to Lead Tough Conversations by Adar Cohen at TEDxKeene


I’m in a concrete maze the size of 72 football fields. I’m being led from checkpoint to checkpoint. And before each door opens, the door behind me slams shut. The lock echoes while I’m searched and interviewed again.

It’s a maximum-security jail, the largest in the country: The Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois.

I’m here for the meeting, I say again. Repeat my credentials. It’s my first time visiting a jail and everyone can tell. They take my phone. They take my keys and they take my little bag of almonds. Almonds?

Finally, I’m left in a room with two men who stare at me as I enter. One is a gang leader; the other is a corrections officer and each of them is the size of four of me. Which basically means I’m outnumbered eight to one.

Their arms are strapped across their chests, flashes of anger in their eyes. I’m terrified and I’m thinking they were worried about my almonds.

The heavy door behind me slams shut. It’s just the three of us now. No one moves.

Now who’s had the very same experience?

But whether you’re a C-level executive or a spouse or you’re a part of any kind of team, you probably know this to be true, that one conversation can change everything.

So I want you to think of a tough conversation that people around you need to have. You got it?

There’s some issue that’s holding them back from accomplishing what they want to accomplish. I believe they might be one conversation away from accomplishing that thing. But they’re not having the conversation they need to have, or they’ve tried and it hasn’t gone well.

I’ve led some pretty tough conversations in some pretty tough environments: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, corporate boardrooms.

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I actually have a PhD in leading difficult conversations and here’s what I’ve learned. We’re not having the conversations we need to have and that’s mostly because we’re afraid. We don’t want to make things worse.

But not having these conversations, or having them poorly is really bad. And most of us know this from our work.

Some issue arises for a team. It could be a minor issue but it goes unaddressed. Frustration sets in. Communication constricts. Tensions rise. Trust evaporates and collaboration is done.

Remember we’re talking about teams that perform surgeries, land planes, run schools. Many of us are a part of teams that perform crucial functions. We can’t afford to avoid tough conversations, so that conversation that you thought of, that people around you need to have, you can lead that conversation.

And I’m going to give you three simple rules to being vastly more effective in leading it. Wherever you use these rules: at work, at home, people are going to thank you.

And then they’ll start reaching goals they couldn’t reach before and they will come and find you and thank you again. And you’ll benefit because the people around you will more successful, not miserable which makes your life better.

So the three rules.

Rule Number One: Move toward the conflict. Most of us don’t like conflict but it’s normal, healthy, and totally human. Without conflict, problems hide everywhere. Big problems. Problems we all want to solve. So conflict is information, and handled well, conflict is opportunity.

So rather than running from it or pretending it’s not there, move toward it. More on this in a minute.

But Rule Number Two: You don’t know anything. And even if you do, pretend you don’t. Ask questions about people’s experiences and listen to what they say. Important things will be said because you’re there listening and the better you listen, the better the people having the conversation will listen to each other.

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And finally, Rule Three: Keep quiet. Don’t panic in the few seconds it takes for people to respond. They just need time. If you’re jumpy about pauses, they’ll see that and lose confidence in the conversation.

Some of the best breakthroughs I’ve seen in really difficult conversations have emerged out of a brief period of silence. Don’t rush in to rescue everyone from that awkward moment. It’s your job to show them that moment is okay.

Now let me tell you about some tough conversations where these three rules saved the day.

We left off in The Cook County Jail with an inmate population that has at times swelled to above 10,000. It’s not an easy place to be. But getting released and not winding up back inside is also difficult.

Inmates are released into gang territory often with no way to get home. If they have a home and the barriers to finding housing employment and education are such that it’s no wonder so many return to the jail again and again back through the system.

So my team convened every stakeholder we could: former gang members, business leaders, corrections officers in the jail, social workers, the Sheriff’s Office, clergy, to see if they could start working together.

City officials warned me not to bring all of these groups together. But I felt no chance of success without having this tough conversation.

Well the first meeting came and whatever I tried nothing worked. The groups wouldn’t sit next to each other, wouldn’t even look at each other. The gang leader and the corrections officer I told you about before, they were the first to arrive that day. This was the toughest conversation I’ve ever led.

We take a break and I’m desperate. I approach that corrections officer who hasn’t said a single word all morning and I just go for it. I charge up to him and I say, “Hey buddy, what do I gotta do to get you to pipe down in there?”

And he looks at me like… and I think I looked at him kind of like…

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Remember rule number one: move toward the conflict. Miraculously he doesn’t squish me. He actually laughs and says, “No, I’m not much for talking.”

But because I had moved toward the conflict and called out the obvious, I had a small opening with him and the disastrous meeting was about to start again and I needed something: I needed him.

Rule number two: you don’t know anything and even if you do, pretend you don’t. So I asked him: “What do people get wrong about what you do”… which is another way of asking how are you misunderstood? I don’t know, tell me. Tell me what this is like for you.

And his face changes. He looks like a different person and he says, “People think that I feel normal about this, keeping people in cages all day. There’s nothing normal about my job.”

Back in the meeting I ditched my agenda and I asked the same question again. And I kept my eyes off the business leaders and I avoided eye contact with the city officials. And I stared down my big buddy until he went for it. He shocked everyone, told them all just what he’d told me: There’s nothing normal about my job and it’s a huge opening.

And now others are ready to share and because I don’t know anything, I keep asking questions. And one by one they all have their chance to describe everything about their day-to-day, minute-to-minute work which means everyone’s getting heard by everyone.

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