Your grandmother may have told you “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”— but maybe you just need to say it the right way. Hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent are joined by Dr. Liane Davey, Ph.D, to discuss a better way to engage in and resolve workplace conflict, building a healthier, more productive team dynamic in the process. Learn practical methods for confronting coworkers, challenging differing positions, and using dissent to improve trust and productivity- all that and more in this episode of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast.
Dr. Liane Davey Ph.D is an organizational psychologist, public speaker, and a New York Times bestselling author.
Find the Conflict Habit Cheat Sheet discussed in the episode here and learn more about Dr. Davey and about her latest book, The Good Fight, at her website.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
Do Rock the Boat: Making Workplace Conflict Productive
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away, ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I am JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Dr. Liane Davey, psychologist, a New York Times Bestselling author, join us today as our podcast guest to talk about why you should stop avoiding conflict in the workplace.
So, Dr. Davey, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Dr. Liane Davey: Absolutely, it’s nice to meet everyone. So I have spent the last 20 years as an organizational psychology expert helping teams, particularly leadership teams to deal with the messy people stuff so they can get back to business, and about six years ago I realized that it wasn’t good enough to only help teams after things had gone wrong, and so I built this other part of my business to help people keep their teams healthy.
So now I’m an author and a keynote speaker and I have a YouTube channel, all with the intention of helping people build the teams that they deserve.
Tish Vincent: Excellent. So most people think of conflict as something to be avoided, at least within law firms, what makes conflict important and valuable?
Dr. Liane Davey: So conflict is something that is a natural and normal part of every organization. So if you think about it, probably you’ve already had a conflict come up in your day-to-day. So one of the most common conflicts would be that there are two important priorities, things that you could do, projects say, that you could do that would help develop the firm, you could institute a new customer management, customer relationship management system or you could use that funding to bring on more students or more support staff. And you have to make a tough call about which is going to help the firm more to automate your marketing or to add new staff that actually do the hands-on face-to-face tasks. So that’s a great example of a conflict that comes up.
But, there’s lots of others, we need to give feedback to somebody, we need to figure out how to share with someone that we think that there is a risk or a problem in their plan. So, there is a natural stream of conflict that’s just a part of being in any organization. And the problem is that if we as humans avoid those conflicts then they really pile up and they affect the ability of the firm on a whole bunch of levels, and we can talk more about that. But the basic premise is, organizations require conflict, humans tend to run from it and so we get into this pretty ugly conflict debt as I like to call it.
JoAnn Hathaway: So Liane, what would you say the cost is to a law firm of having insufficient conflict? And I think you just touched on that just briefly, but if you could expound a bit, that would be helpful.
Dr. Liane Davey: Yeah, absolutely. So let me talk about it in three different levels. So let’s start with the cost to the firm. So at the firm level, the inability to deal with conflict or the unwillingness to raise issues and work through them, it’s going to have several effects.
So one is, it’s going to affect productivity, because at some level they are going to be projects or things you need to get done, but if you can’t reach a decision, if you can’t create a plan and be ready to go with it, then it’s going to affect your productivity.
If you don’t like conflict, you’re not going to bring the right people around the table to make interesting decisions and do new things, so the firm will be less innovative than it would be if you were comfortable with conflict.
And the third one is, if you don’t like conflict, you’re going to leave risks unexposed and therefore unmitigated and the way you’re running the firm. So there’s all these challenges at the organization level if the people in a firm avoid conflict. That’s the first level.
There’s a second level which is there are huge impacts of conflict debt on our teams. So if you think about the allocation of caseload, that’s an issue you have to deal with in your team, who gets what files, who gets the juicy awesome interesting ones and who gets the dogs that we all know exists, that who has to take one for the team in any given situation. And if you do that and do it in a way that’s not perceived as fair or do it in a way that continues to give the same kinds of things to certain people, then you’re not going to grow and develop other people et cetera, et cetera.
So we create a big problem for the team. We have to do inefficient workarounds if we’re not good at allocating work. It may be that there are power struggles and issues between the partners and the lawyers in the firm and the people in the administration of the firm, and if we don’t resolve those issues there’s going to be a lot of animosity and our engagement is going to go down. So there’s a big cost when we leave conflict debt on our teams.
And then the final type of conflict that is very personal. So if I’m in a situation where I feel I’m not being recognized or rewarded for the contributions I’m making, and I don’t say anything and I just tolerate it, then that’s getting into conflict debt.
And if I don’t like the way I’m being treated by a colleague or by my manager, that gets into conflict debt and the cost of that is very profound, because our team members become stressed, they become disengaged, they build resentment toward being a part of the organization or a part of the team, and that’s what’s contributing to some of our terrible turnover levels, our stress levels and short term disability, because people are unsure how to tackle, how to broach these difficult subjects and so they’re taking on that stress on themselves, and we’re starting to see the cost to people’s health, to their families, to their engagement.
So we’ve got these multiple levels at which the firm is really suffering if we aren’t good at conflict, both the business of the firm, the engagement and the staff and the people in the camaraderie in the firm and then just the very health and well-being of the people in the firm. So the costs are very, very high.
Tish Vincent: It sounds like people kind of default to wanting to avoid a conflict and then in your language, a conflict debt is accruing, like it’s building up, am I hearing you correctly?
Dr. Liane Davey: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So all of these things are requiring us to have conflict, but we as human, so first of all, we’re biologically wired to get along with people in our in-group. So we want it to be harmonious and that made sense as we were creatures who needed to evolve together and if you got voted out of the cave, you got eaten by the saber-toothed tiger and that wasn’t so great.
So we’re built to want to get along and have harmonious relationships, but it goes further than that, because we’re raised to learn that conflict is impolite or it’s not nice. And so I think about my grandma telling me if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all and learning to stay out of issues by teachers who kept telling me to mind my own business.
So we had all these voices now that sort of sit on our shoulder and whisper to us all the reasons why we shouldn’t have conflict. So that’s why we get into conflict debt, it’s because the organization is sending us a steady stream of hard calls, tough choices and uncomfortable conversations and the voices whispering in our ears telling us don’t do it, hope it will go away, and so that’s how we end up in this big conflict debt with this whole mound of issues that need to be surfaced and resolved, but instead kind of pile up and collect this compounding interest of stress and it’s really not a very healthy situation.
JoAnn Hathaway: Liane, can you speak to an organization where there may be one individual in an organization who has been enlightened to your teachings and there are some other individuals in the entity who are not agreeable to any of those or don’t understand it, how they might bring it to their organization so they’re not a lone voice in the crowd?
Dr. Liane Davey: Yeah, that’s a great question. So if you start to believe this and you start to build up your conflict skills, the last thing you want to do is walk into a conflict-avoidant firm and walk into the boardroom and pull the pin on a conflict grenade, and I use a more positive, a grenade isn’t a very nice metaphor, but I use the metaphor. We know conflict is good for us, but nobody wants to bite into a giant bran muffin of conflict. So I talk about how do we sprinkle a little bit on our cornflakes instead of having a big mouthful of bran?
So what you want to do is, first of all productive conflict can really be supported by the use of questions as opposed to statements. So if you understand the importance of adding some tension onto the conversation then doing it with questions instead of asserting or demanding is one way, and you’ll find that people respond more positively if their conflict averse to answering a question. So you might for example ask a question that draws out the fact that their plan has a few holes in it. You might say, that’s really, really interesting, how do you think that would work with the clients that work with us across multiple practices?
So you could say, like I think there’s a huge problem. This makes great sense. This plan makes great sense if you only work with us in one practice, but it’s going to fall flat on its face if it’s an issue for clients’ cross practice.
So instead of saying, that’s the dumbest thing ever, what you want to say is you want to call their attention to the issue and the issue in this case would be multi-practice clients and have them come to the conclusion themselves. So one big thing if you’re introducing conflict in a conflict diverse culture is use more questions, so that’s a big thing.
There’s another thing you can do which is spend a lot more time reflecting back what you hear from other people. So I always say if their truth comes out of your mouth before your truth, then that’s going to be another very positive and constructive way to have conflicts.
So if they are saying, I think we need to invest the money in hosting a client event, a shmoozy, awesome, fancy place kind of client event, and your truth is that we desperately need that money to train our employees on the new customer relationship management system, then instead of starting with saying, no, we can’t afford that, that’s not the right answer. We need to invest in employee training, instead of that you put their truth first.
So for you it’s really important that we invest this money in doing a customer event, tell me what you’d like to accomplish with the clients, what you think is important there and dig in and understand and reflect their truth before you say for me I’ve really been paying attention to the challenges our team is having and even reaching our clients or interacting with them, because they don’t know yet how to use the client relationship management system. How do you think we could invest the money so that we can kind of solve for both of these things?
So the good news is, if you are enlightened to the good fight, which is what I call my book, I call it ‘The Good Fight’, because it’s not conflict, the way we fear conflict would be, but it’s a very positive way of having conflict. You can do it with these great questions by sharing somebody else’s truth and then adding in your own and all of these things will be better received than if you come out swinging.
Tish Vincent: So if you follow the methods that you are outlining, the conflict can be productive and that’s important?
Dr. Liane Davey: Exactly. So when I decided to call the book ‘The Good Fight’, it was because it was sort of two books in one. So when I first started writing the book I thought about it as the people who were conflict-avoidant and needed to learn the fight. So the message is really that some things are worth fighting for and being conflict-avoidant and getting into conflict that is a problem. But as I got working on it more-and-more I realized, well, it needs to be a second book also, which is the book for people who are okay with conflict but do it in a way where there’s a lot of collateral damage where it’s hurtful or personal or destructive or goes in the wrong direction.
So the book is just as much about the good as it is about the fight. So how do we have conflict in a way that’s really productive and at the end of the day we can not only move the business forward faster, we can strengthen trust and engagement and we can look ourselves in the mirror and be really proud of ourselves. So that’s what a good fight looks like.
JoAnn Hathaway: Liane, have you found that as you have gone into organizations that when you start to introduce these concepts that they really take off and people embrace them and maybe that is a very broad statement and is difficult to answer. If you can in any generalization tell our listeners how these concepts and ideas are perceived when you first go into organizations?
Dr. Liane Davey: Yeah, I think it’s like most concepts. So there are a few people who have just been waiting for the right words to say for, they have known this is an issue, there’s pent-up demand and finally the book or the videos or whatever else they have seen finally gives them the right words for how to actually broach the issues and those folks are quick out of the gate. They almost — they’re so antsy, they want to jump up and run out of the room. I actually did have somebody in Atlanta recently where I was teaching them this stuff and then we were supposed to go straight to the cocktail hour and she was late and I didn’t know where she had gone and she comes and said, I had to go make a phone call. I finally knew how to deal with this issue that had been sitting with me for a couple of weeks, and so she wanted to go make the call before she got to the bar. So we always have some percentage of the organization where this liberates people and they’ve known all along, they just didn’t have the words.
Then we have the sort of folks with a little bit of trepidation in the middle of the pack and they want to see somebody else do it first and they want to see that somebody challenges a partner in a meeting and keeps their job and then they’re like, they want to see that someone’s gone in the water and there’s no sharks. So that’s the next group we get, because when these first few out the door, when they use these new techniques and these ways, they have great experiences.
And so people are like, oh, I want — I want some of that, and then there’s always going to be 20% of the firm which is a completely a number I’ve just picked out of the air, but some amount of people who are just never going to be comfortable with it, they don’t really believe in themselves. They don’t have the confidence to share a different opinion with people who they believe are more worthy or more knowledgeable or more experienced or whatever else.
So we’re never going to try and get to 100%, but one of the big things I talk about in ‘The Good Fight’ is, how do we systematize conflict so that we stop having to rely on people to have these difficult conversations, because that’s too big an ask.
So what we do is we actually turn it into a way we manage the firm. And so there’s two different chapters in the book dedicated to processes you can do with your team and there’s all the instructions in there about how to do it. Conversations you can have with your team so that you don’t even need to get into the fight in the first place that you have normalized the tension between the different practices and with marketing and with finance and all those sorts of things, so that you don’t even have as many conflicts in the first place.
So there is a lot we can do to increase the likelihood that the firm is going to adopt these approaches. And so on the first hand, we are counting on individuals to behave in a way that’s new and different, but then we are quickly backing them up with some of these core processes that systematizes and normalize a lot of conflicts, so that we take the pressure off of them.
Tish Vincent: I would think that a firm, if they adopt the ideas and they implement them and the firm is transitioning from being conflict avoidant to knowing how to have the good fights that they might experience it as exhausting. Is there any way to make it easier, that transition phase? I mean, once it’s established I can see everything would work better, but do you ever get that feedback that oh, it’s exhausting when they start to transition?
Dr. Liane Davey: That’s a great question. I have never had that feedback. I think because we do try and do the sprinkle it version versus the giant bran muffin — a big mouthful of bran muffin method. So I have a blog, I posted on my blog on how to create a conflict habit and I give nine little things and I have turned it into a cheat sheet. And so maybe what we will do is put that cheat sheet in the show notes and your listeners can download it, it’s nine ways you can sprinkle conflict into your next meeting.
So it’s little tiny things like represent a different stakeholder. So the conversation is going along and it’s all very harmonious and you sense it’s going a little too easily and the decision maybe hasn’t been made as thoroughly as it could be. And so you can sprinkle a little healthy conflict by just saying, you know, I think this is a really, really great plan when it comes to our existing clients. How do you think it’s going to be perceived by our prospective clients? So all you are doing is sprinkling a little bit of tension on the conversation by sharing a different stakeholder. Or you could say how do you think it’s going to be perceived by the Bar Association or what if this showed up in the newspaper, how would it land with the public?
So there is these nine little tiny ways that we can add a little bit of tension. And so in that way what you are doing is you are building up the muscles slowly, so that you don’t get to the point of exhaustion or failure or what we want to do is start to build it up in a way that it’s more manageable and it doesn’t take all your resilience just to have these kinds of discussions.
And I think that’s important. I really encourage people not to go with the gusto the first time, because then they will have a bad experience and we want them to successively build positive experiences and show that conflict makes decisions better, it makes relationships stronger.
Feedback, giving somebody a piece of feedback is a great example of productive conflict. If people have been watching someone and everyone in the firm knows that this person needs a piece of feedback that they have never been given, everybody knows the lawyer that cannot actually get to the point succinctly, as an example, everybody knows this and nobody has ever said anything. Yeah, I know everybody does, right?
And so just the practice of — and the book goes into how do you give feedback effectively and you give feedback effectively by being very — taking all the judgment out of your feedback and just saying, when you take two or three minutes to describe this point, the impact is that I think people are missing the potency of your point, how might you arrive at the key message more quickly, And when you give somebody feedback and learn to just have these small ways, first of all, you will get gratitude and response from the vast majority of people and that little win will fuel the next, okay, now, I am going to try and give somebody else a little bit of feedback. And so it becomes a virtuous cycle as opposed to something that people see as exhausting.
JoAnn Hathaway: Now, Liane, we all have encountered those people in law firms or other organizations who have been long-term employees, who are kind of the backbone, and maybe the — with all due respect to people, are maybe the 00:20:28 birthers of the organization who have the attitude like, but we have always done it this way. They are those people who are not akin to change and why should we change anything, this is the way it’s always been done, and they are kind of driving the ship. Is there any particular way that we might address these types of personalities in organizations?
Dr. Liane Davey: Yeah. So first of all, to recognize that these are pretty normal humans, that when we find a formula that works, we are built to stick with it, which makes a lot of sense, right? So if we first of all start not by thinking of this person as resistant to change or a stick-in-the-mud or old fashioned, but instead if we think of them as a human who has got a formula that’s working for them and so we are going to have to give them a pretty compelling case as to why that formula doesn’t work.
My tip is that one of the things that works much more effectively is to talk about the future and talk about things outside the firm. So if you start justifying well, we are not doing it right, we need to be more efficient, we go to all these things, all of that lands like judgment, and humans, we get very defensive in the face of judgment against us. So you don’t want to do that with somebody because then they are going to dig in harder.
So what I really encourage you to do is talk about things going on in the future and things going on outside the firm. So let’s talk about how professional services are evolving or let’s talk about the fact that there is more and more places where lawyers are being brought in-house to avoid having to pay legal fees. So what’s changing in the environment?
And then you can say for us to be ready in a couple of years when this really gets going or the commoditization of law, so artificial intelligence is a great thing you can talk about these days, because nobody quite knows enough about it and it’s just scary enough that it makes a great thing to talk about.
What if 50% of our practices are automated and we needed to have a vastly different expense structure. So what would we need to do to thrive in that environment, what would we need to do to be ready for that?
And it turns out if you go more future-oriented and you go with things that are outside the firm, then people can be more curious, can be more interested as opposed to this isn’t that we are doing anything wrong, this isn’t that our firm isn’t as good as it needs to be, which means that you aren’t as good as a leader as you need to be. But instead it’s just saying we are in this sort of inevitable time of change, how do we be ready for that. And so it’s also not saying that we are too late or we are behind, which is again judgmental and saying, where do we need to go and how do we become ready.
So that technique works really well because it just doesn’t cause that big defensiveness and resistance to kick in.
Tish Vincent: If you had one tip that our listeners could try today, what would you advise them to do?
Dr. Liane Davey: One tip? Okay. I am going to go with my validation three point plans So let’s try this one. So if you feel like you are about to get into an argument and you just think oh, I can’t do this, I don’t have the strength, then here are the three steps to avoid getting into an argument.
So step one, whatever they just said that’s making you want to tear your hair out or scream at the top of your lungs or just breakdown and cry in frustration, whatever they just said and whatever awesome retort you have come up with in your head, don’t do it, instead say something that validates them, which is exactly the opposite of what you feel like doing.
But if we go back to our example of hosting a client event, if they have just said, I think we need to spend $50,000 at the swankiest country club in town, with caviar and champagne and really show our best clients an amazing time, and you are like, are you freaking kidding me? What you want to do is say okay, for you, you think our biggest priority right now is to bring our best clients together, to have a very luxurious experience for them and I want you to validate them in a way that doesn’t have judgment in it. Simply all you are doing is restating what they said.
And what’s amazing is that the minute they hear their truths come out of your mouth, they will first of all think that you are smart and think that you are right and be listening more closely, so that’s really good. So you want to start there.
And then the other thing is it’s going to throw them off, because they are going to have been ready for a fight, because they know you want to spend it on internal training. So they are like, what, I thought I was going to get push back here. So you validate them first.
The second thing you do is you ask a great question to show that you really are curious. Okay, so what makes you focus on the clients right now, where do you think our top clients are at, what’s the state of our relationship with our top clients, what would be the primary objective in bringing them together for an event, whatever, just ask a big open-ended question that’s going to allow you to really get more understanding of what their truth is.
And as they do, start to say oh, okay, so for you the truth is that we have grown so large that — and we have been so focused on growth and business development that we have lost touch with the clients who are actually the lion’s share of our business and the ones who will be loyal to us no matter what happens and we need to reestablish that connection.
And as you say that, they will be like nodding their heads, like how did this woman get so smart, that is exactly. And so first of all, nothing — no cue in the situation will tell them that this is a fight. Okay, so we have validated and we have asked great questions and reflected it back, then we get to pivot.
So step three is so interesting, because at the same time, for me, I am thinking about one of the most important things for really being connected to those people is knowing who is touching them, where their files are at, broadening the relationship so we know more and more people within each of those client accounts, and I think the tool for that is really our new client management system. And if we could learn how to really use that well, it would really serve us. So for me, the priority right now is making sure we can all use that tool.
And so then you have shared your truth, and because their truth came out of your mouth first, by this law of reciprocity that human beings work on, they will listen to what you have to say and then you engage them in finding a solution, right? So you say okay, so we have got these two truths at the same time. We need to strengthen our connection or reignite our connections with our most important clients, and we need to find a way to sort of broaden and deepen and actually make sure that we have codified and that we have got those relationships somehow in our data. How do we work that? How do we find a way to kind of solve for both of those things?
And so that technique, which can also be applied in the following situation, you are sitting at the dining room table when your partner walks in the door and says, I had the worst day, and what you want to say is, you think you had a bad day, wait till you hear about my day, and we want to invalidate.
So it’s the exact same technique to go, you did, how come you had a bad day, what happened, and then you ask a question, what do you think made her do that, that’s so weird? And then you say, must be a full moon because I had a terrible day too. Hey, do you think maybe a bottle of wine and binge watch Game of Thrones would help?
And so this technique, whether it be with a partner in the firm, a colleague or somebody at home, the technique of first validate, then ask a question to show you are curious and to learn more and then pivot and add your truth is the magic wand of healthy conflict.
Tish Vincent: That’s brilliant. I think that’s a takeaway all our listeners can use.
Dr. Liane Davey: I have a YouTube video all about it if people want more, it’s called how to — I think it’s called like how to prevent an argument or something like that on YouTube. So it takes you through — the fun thing in that video is I go through all the things that we want to do instead. So I go through all the unhealthy horrible things we do first before I get to this. I just gave you the magic wand.
Tish Vincent: Excellent. Thank you.
JoAnn Hathaway: So Liane, sounds like the three magic words are validate, question and pivot, is that correct? I am trying to get those in my mind because those are three things — I tend to be a prong person so I can remember those three things and they will be very helpful.
Dr. Liane Davey: Yeah. And the generic principle is just make their truths come out of your mouth before yours does, that’s the generic principle, and this validate, question and pivot is how you do it. But if you can just remember, if their truth comes out of my mouth first, this won’t be a fight.
JoAnn Hathaway: Wonderful. Well, it looks like we have come to the end of our show. We would like to thank our guest today, Dr. Liane Davey, for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: Liane, if our guests would like to follow up with you, how can they reach you?
Dr. Liane Davey: So it’s just my name is my URL, which is easy, except I have these two really hard to spell names, so it’s just lianedavey.com, so lianedavey.com. And there is — if you subscribe there, then there are free resources and tips and tools and all sorts of goodness, and certainly any of your listeners, if they have any questions or things that they would like me to cover in my weekly blog or do a quick video on, they can just send that right in to me through the website and I will get back to them with some tips and tools that they can use in their own firm right away.
Tish Vincent: Thank you Liane. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On-Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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