Book Review-Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness

Occasionally, I get the chance to review a book before its release. Such is the case with Rick Hanson’s Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness. I’ve read some of Rick Hanson’s previous works, including Hardwiring Happiness and Resilient. This book feels a bit different, however. It’s practical but also seems more connected with Hanson’s desire to contribute his unique perspectives.

The Seven Practices

The subtitle of the book indicates there are seven practices of highest happiness. They are:

  • Steadying the mind
  • Warming the heart
  • Resting in fullness
  • Being wholeness
  • Receiving nowness
  • Opening into allness
  • Finding timelessness

Hanson makes the point that his goal is not perfection in any practice. The idea is that the journey you’re on is the reward – not some mythical endpoint you may never reach.


Dharma is truth. It’s not some religious epiphany or mystical art. It’s not specific to Buddhism. Other practices use different words to mean the same thing. Twelve-step programs speak about living life on life’s terms. That is recognizing and accepting the truth of the world – even if we don’t like it.

All of us are bound by the limits of our perception. We necessarily see an incomplete view of other people and the world. The quest for dharma is about broadening that perception as much as possible through study, meditation, others, etc. so that we can more accurately appreciate and respect reality.

Pain is Unavoidable, Suffering is Optional

Whether we want to accept it or not, we will all feel pain. Pain is a signal to us to do something different. Many perceive suffering and pain to be the same, but they are not. Pain is our physiological response. Suffering is our response to it. We can choose to suffer from a breakup or divorce – or we can choose to learn, adapt, and move on.

We can choose to do things that cause us physical pain, because we know that we’ll grow from them. Anyone who has exercised knows that it can be painful, but focusing on the pain only amplifies it. Focusing on the growth makes the pain fade into the background.

Learning from Experience

There’s an old myth in talent development circles. Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience has been widely misreported as the ways that people learn and what percentage of people learn those ways. (You can learn more in our whitepaper, “Measuring Learning Effectiveness.”) However, the truth is that we get to choose whether we learn or not. Experience is no guarantee that learning will occur. (For more, see The Adult Learner.) After we participate in an experience, we must integrate that experience into our world so that learning will occur. This can and should be done at a conscious level, though some degree of unconscious processing happens as our brain tries to integrate experiences itself in the form of dreams.

Unconscious Memory

We sometimes believe that we’ve forgotten things – often they’re past hurts. However, the research clearly shows that we don’t forget. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study shows that long after the adverse events have happened, they play a role in adults’ lives. (See How Children Succeed for more.) Gary Klein’s work showed that we learn and know things that we often don’t realize we know. (See Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t.)


Underneath the conversation about practices and dharma is another conversation. It’s a conversation about how to learn to better deal with your emotions. I don’t mean control them, nor do I mean to say that you ignore them. Instead, the realization is that emotions are based on the environmental stressor as well as our assessment, as Lazarus explains in Emotion and Adaptation. The more we believe that the stressor won’t seriously impact our life or that we have the resources to overcome it, the less frustrated, angry, or despondent we’ll become.

The practices that Hanson recommends helps us to understand the limited impact that any one thing can have on us and develops our awareness of our inner resourcefulness to overcome whatever comes before us.

You’re Only as Sick as Your Secrets

There’s a familiar quip in twelve-step programs. You’re only as sick as your secrets. The more you hide, the sicker you become. You fear and worry that you’ll be found out, and that drives even sicker behavior – which of course needs to be hidden. The best policy is, therefore, not to keep secrets.

I know that some people must keep secrets for their jobs. However, this isn’t the same thing. What is being said both in the groups and in the book is that you shouldn’t have things you share with no one. You should share secrets appropriately. If you’re not letting anyone know about something, then it has the ability to eat you up inside.

Human Being, not Human Doing

Hanson and I are alike in at least one respect. We love doing. I personally have a hard time sitting still and just being. I’m always striving to get something done or be better. I cram things into my schedules, sometimes stacking and other times twisting things into place to make sure I get the maximum out of everything.

Certainly, there’s something to be said for productivity, but at the same time, there’s something to be said for accepting and being. (See Extreme Productivity for more on productivity and How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about accepting.)


Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” That’s the reality of self. There is no single self that remains. We’re always changing, adapting, growing, and dying. The idea that we’d find a stable image of ourselves over time is fallacy. We change as the firings in our brain change. We are a self that changes.

The truth of our neurology – our Neurodharma – is that we don’t know the truth. We only know a portion of ourselves, and we only know a portion of the truth. However, in reading Neurodharma, we can learn a bit more about the truth.

Book Review-Why We Do What We Do

When a book is only available in print form like Why We Do What We Do, it will delay my ability to read it. In my conversion to reading electronically, paper got left behind, such as the case here. However, if you want to get to the root of intrinsic motivation and why people do what they do – and what we can do to encourage more of it – this is the place to start. Edward Deci is at the heart of the research on intrinsic motivation and has been the core of what other works, like Drive, have used to help everyone better understand motivation.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

It’s a spooky, weird world when it comes to motivating other people. There are their internal drives. Things like curiosity and the desire for learning seem to come inborn. On the other side, there are the external drivers. The so-called carrot and stick used to reward people for the behaviors we want and punish them for bad behaviors. It seems like it should be easy. Extrinsic motivators can get the behaviors we want, so we should use them, and everything will be fine.

The problem isn’t that extrinsic motivators – like money – don’t cause the behavior; they do. It’s like the trained seal that acts when they’ll be rewarded with a fish. The problem is that, in most cases for humans, we’re trying to build behaviors that last after the motivators are gone. We want our employees to keep working hard after the next sales promotion ends – and that doesn’t seem to happen.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (a colleague but not coauthor) discovered that if you used external motivation for a behavior that was previously intrinsically motivated – like playing with puzzles – you’d destroy the intrinsic motivation. Think about that for a moment. The person does the behavior you want – like studying – and you reward them to get more. You remove the external reward and you get less – or none – of the original behavior.

That’s spooky, because it means the very things we’ve been taught to motivate people may be destroying their internal motivation. So, what’s the alternative?

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

As Drive so aptly summarizes, if you want intrinsic motivation, the best way to get it is to provide individuals with autonomy, the ability to reach mastery, and a sense of purpose. Let’s look at these individually, because they’re so important.


There’s a concern that if you make people more autonomous, you’ll make them more independent and therefore less social. There are several problems with this way of thinking. First, as Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, the most wholehearted people and authentic people she knows are compassionate but have a clear sense of themselves. That is, the more that we understand ourselves, the more we recognize our inherent need to be connected with other human beings. We become more authentic and more real the more autonomous we become.

Autonomy is about being able to make your own decisions – and accept the benefits or consequences. Leaders still have a responsibility for establishing the destination, but it should be up to us to improvise how to get there – at least to some degree.


Our egos are powerful things. They want to believe that we’re each better than we are, and we want to believe that we’ve mastered our chosen areas – that we’re the best. Whether that’s objectively verifiable or just wishful thinking isn’t the point. If we want to motivate people, we’ll give them ways to become masters or, at the very least, allow them to feel competent in what they’re doing.


Those with religious beliefs see an order to the universe. Whether that’s God-ordained or through some other means, the religion offers a model by which people can make order out of their world. Even atheists often believe in fate, that is there is something happening, and things are “meant” to be. We need to find meaning in the world, and, personally, that meaning is our purpose. It’s the role we feel we are meant to fill.


Deci, on several occasions, speaks about the pull or the draw towards an integrated self-image. The desire for coherency of thought – including thoughts about ourselves – is very powerful and sometimes elusive. I’ve spoken about developing an integrated self-image repeatedly, the last time in my review of Braving the Wilderness.

I appreciate Deci’s optimism that there’s a pull drawing people into an integrated self-image, but I’m not completely convinced. I’ve seen too many people with decades of experience at life who still don’t feel integrated in their experience.

Autonomy Support

Learning how to spark intrinsic motivation and kick start it rather than replace it with external motivation is tricky. It is what Deci calls autonomous support. The tricky aspect of autonomy support is encouraging without feeling manipulative. It’s encouraging the effort and interest without concerns for the outcomes. It’s much like Carol Dweck recommends in Mindset. Encourage people to do the hard work and persist rather than praising their accomplishments.

Some aspects of autonomy support are learning how to ask the right questions, so that people become more intrinsically curious about their chosen passion. (See Motivational Interviewing for more on techniques that may be useful in the conversation.)

Different Perspectives

The biggest challenge with autonomy support isn’t the desire – or even to some extent the skill – necessary to do it. We’ve all learned how to be encouraging at some level. The challenge with autonomy support is that everyone perceives things differently. What to one person is autonomy support may feel like attempts for indirect control by another. To one person, limits placed on what they can or cannot do are helpful structure; to the other person, they’re oppressive control.

As a result, the difficult part of providing autonomy support is monitoring the results you’re getting and the ways the person is reacting to see if they’re experiencing your actions as support – or control. (For more on control, see Compelled to Control.)


Relationships are essential for our survival. Our ability to make our own decisions doesn’t limit or mitigate our responsibility to the rest of humanity. Nor does it remove the positive results we get from healthy relationships. The trick is, of course, in the fact that relationships add the most value when they’re healthy. While healthy doesn’t have a precise definition, there have been many attempts to identify key characteristics. How to Be an Adult in Relationships emphasizes the 5 “As,” where books like Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries are, obviously, more focused on setting boundaries. The net effect of the techniques shared is that we feel safe and supported in our relationships, and we can trust the other person will be there when we need it.


It seems odd but when we have the right supportive relationships, we experience freedom rather than control. Instead of feeling as if the other person is there to manipulate us, we experience the freedom of our own choices in the context of the supporting environment. You feel the freest to try new trapeze tricks when you know there’s a safety net below you. You’re able to be yourself, to be autonomous, when you know there are relationships there that will catch you.

In the end, that’s Why We Do What We Do.

Book Review-Change Management: The People Side of Change

As hard as it is to hear, the easy part of change management is the technical part. It’s something that I learned over a decade ago, as we were called in to implement new technology. We found that, though the solutions were technically beautiful, organizations weren’t getting the right value out of the change. That’s where Change Management: The People Side of Change comes in. It’s Prosci’s CEO Jeffrey Hiatt’s guide for managing the people side of change in the organization.

Change Tenets

Jeffrey Hiatt and Timothy Creasey start by reviewing three tenets about change:

  1. We change for a reason
  2. Organizational change requires individual change
  3. Organizational outcomes are the collective result of individual change

On the surface, these may seem like simple precepts. However, all too often, I find that organizations ignore these realities. They forget to explain the reasons for the change – in a way that employees can understand and agree. They fail to equip individual employees with the tools that they need to change themselves. They wonder why they aren’t seeing the value in the proposed change when it hasn’t happened because the individuals in the organization never made the changes they need to make.

Consider, for a moment, Fredrick LeLoux’s book, Reinventing Organizations, which describes different operating levels for different organizations, from the most authoritarian to the most mutually collaborative and empowered. The changes required of the individuals to work in these different environments is striking. Learning to be effective in the kind of organization you’re in can be challenging, and that’s without any change. Changing – particularly attempting to change operating levels – is fraught with personal changes that can be difficult to make.


Prosci’s trademark model for change is ADKAR: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. I’ve written about this before in my post on Successful Technology Change and ADKAR, so I won’t repeat more details about the model here. It’s a reasonable approach to managing change even if it doesn’t have all the answers.

Seven Concepts

There are, they believe, seven important change concepts:

  • Senders and Receivers – What senders communicate, and receivers hear are different.
  • Resistance and Comfort – We all want to stay the same because it is comfortable; resistance is everybody trying to keep their comfort.
  • Authority for Change – Appropriate executive or management support is essential for change success.
  • Value Systems – Organizations are no longer command and control, and we must help employees understand why the change is necessary.
  • Incremental vs. Radical Change – Incremental change is smaller and therefore requires less change management.
  • The Right Answer Is Not Enough – The right answer doesn’t matter if employees can’t be bought into the change.
  • Change is a Process – Change isn’t an event or a thing but a process that happens over time.

Over and Under

It’s possible for change management initiatives of any type to fail in two ways: by paying too little attention to the people or by kowtowing to the people and never accomplishing the mission. The goal of change management should be to recognize people and their need to change without forgetting the fact that the change needs to happen – even if that means changing some of the people in the organization.

Every organization faces change. Change Management may be a way that you can navigate that change more successfully.

Book Review-Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

No one cares what you know until they know how much you care. That truth is at the heart of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. Your job as a manager or leader is to bring out the best in the people you’re working with, and that means that there will be times when you need to provide constructive feedback about performance. It also means there will be times when you need to accept there are issues happening with employees, in which they need to be supported and not necessarily held accountable. Navigating these difficult waters is what Radical Candor is about.

Care Personally and Challenge Directly

According to Kim Scott, there are four places you can find yourself as a manager. The measurement is along dimensions of caring personally and challenging directly.

Obviously – by the title – Radical Candor is the place Scott recommends. It involves being high on both personal caring as well as directly challenging. The problem happens when we’re not willing or able to be high on these dimensions, which can lead to:

  • Ruinous Empathy – Here, you care, but you’re unwilling to directly challenge the employees. As a result, they can’t grow, because they’re not receiving the feedback they need.
  • Obnoxious Aggression – Here, there’s no problem with challenging, but there seems to be less personal care. This is the place many managers can slip into as they’re driving towards goals.
  • Manipulative Insincerity – Here, you’re unable to demonstrate personal caring, and you’re unable to directly challenge the employees. This results in employees who don’t trust you and in poor results.

Rather than addressing the quadrants, let’s address the challenges dimensionally.

Personal Caring

In one view, a Taylorism view, people are interchangeable cogs that exist in the organizational system. In another view, more aligned with Martin Buber and I and Thou, humans are inherently valuable because they’re humans. Personal caring starts at the fundamental level of understanding that everyone in the organization is a human. Failing to recognize people as humans who deserve respect puts you on the bottom half of the continuum. (To understand the dangers of dehumanization, see Moral Disengagement.)

The other end is intense personal care, and it’s equally hard in today’s environment. To care about a person, you must know more about them than what walks through the doors. You must understand more about their dreams, their history, and their life today. At the same time, they have a right to hold these things private and not share them with you. In most cases, there’s a degree of trust that must be built before people will share sensitive or important topics with you. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on building trust.)

Some people, particularly those who have trauma in their background, require high degrees of trust and skillful asking to receive the information about how they’re motivated and, to some degree, how you help them best. If you’re struggling to get information from someone, you may consider whether they’re traumatized, and techniques like those explored in Motivational Interviewing will be helpful, or if there’s something more challenging going on, like Intimacy Anorexia.

Challenge Directly

There aren’t many resources for being assertive. No Ego definitely has a bent towards telling things like they are – rather than being so indirect that the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand. Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc. speaks about the brain trust, and how they’re able to have difficult conversations within the group about the quality of Pixar’s movies – as well as how this was difficult to get to. Amy Edmonson speaks about how to make safe environments in her work The Fearless Organization – but as I shared, I’m not convinced that you can entirely extract the fear from the humans who work in the organization.

Most authors counsel readers to measure their responses and consider other people’s feelings and perspectives. However, Scott encourages directly challenging people, so they know what they can improve upon. Books like Crucial Conversations are focused on having difficult business conversations, while John Gottman take a more personal and human approach to conversations in The Science of Trust.

Even with these guides, it takes courage to give feedback to others, because it means opening yourself up to feedback as well. (See Find Your Courage for more on becoming courageous.) We’re well wired to not want to admit our mistakes – as Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) explains.

Challenging directly can only be done effectively in a relationship and where the degree of trust in the relationship allows it.

Fighting and Talking

Two people can – and do – view the same situation differently. One person may think that the two of them are talking, and the other may think they’re fighting. Some people are brought up in households where it’s not okay to disagree. In some high-volatility homes, disagreement could lead to problems; so to be safe, everything needs to be peaceful. Other families found themselves in frequent academic dialogue and disagreement that remained completely – or nearly completely – safe.

The result is that when anyone enters an area of disagreement, there are two responses. The first response of fear, and the second response of “finally.” Finally, we’ve broken through the small talk and are really having a conversation.


Caring personally is one thing. Helping someone else know that you care personally is quite another. Certainly, approaches like Motivational Interviewing can be powerful in developing rapport; however, the degree of attention and skill necessary to use these techniques make them too difficult for most. Instead, Scott recommends that three conversations be had in sequence to create a natural context in which people can learn about the degree of caring:

  • Life Story – Here, some care must be exercised to not appear to be prying and allow the employee to avoid sensitive or painful areas until later, when trust has been established.
  • Dreams – Here, the key is to ensure you get to the dreams that don’t include working for the company or the manager. They need to be the real dreams that are often left unstated.
  • Eighteen Month Plan – Here, the employee works on a specific plan to move them forward towards their dreams – even if it’s outside the company.

These are conversations that are intended to be worked into the employee’s regularly scheduled, 1:1 meeting but can be scheduled as separate conversations as well. The point isn’t how they’re scheduled but that the manager focuses on the individual’s history, hopes, dreams, and fears.

Sails and Keels

The most visible part of a sailboat and the thing for which the sailboat gets its name is the sail. However, no boat can operate with just a sail. Sailboats need the hidden but critical keels. These are weighted fins that descend into the waves to keep the sailboat upright. A sailboat without a keel will tip over in a gentle breeze.

Like sailboats, organizations need the super-stars who are ambitious and driven. It also needs the steady people – who Scott calls “rock stars” after the Rock of Gibraltar. Scott’s rock stars are the keel, preventing the boat from flipping over. Conversely, a boat with a keel but no sail doesn’t have anything to propel it forward. The super-stars, in Scott’s language, are like the sails that propel the organization forward.

Managing Other People’s Emotions

One of the mistakes that managers can make is attempting to manage the emotions of others. Whether that is walking on eggshells and being overly gentle with feedback, because you live in mortal fear of making someone cry, or something as subtle as cancelling meetings more aggressively when someone is in a bad mood, you can’t manage it.

You cannot fear other people’s emotions, but you can’t decide that you can control them either. Other people are entitled to their feelings, whether you like them or not. Perhaps if you want to find a way to both care deeply and challenge directly, you should find your Radical Candor.

Book Review-The Tyranny of Metrics

Everyone has been held accountable for metrics that they didn’t own the results of. Whether it was sales, profitability, or some other metric, we’ve been subject to The Tyranny of Metrics. That does not necessarily mean, however, that all metrics are bad. On the contrary, we need good metrics to realize our best performance. In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller seeks to help us sort out how to generate better metrics, so fewer of us face the tyranny and more of us have the opportunity to realize the power of metrics.

Feedback and Best Performance

In Peak, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain that, to reach the pinnacle of performance, we need to exercise purposeful practice, and that practice needs to provide us some feedback about our performance. In Flow and Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains how we reach our optimal state that he calls flow by having clear goals, immediate feedback, and a balance of challenge to skill. In short, our ability to get feedback on our performance directly relates to our ability to improve that performance.

With that as our foundation, let’s quickly explore what metrics we should be capturing.

Measurement and Value

In the development of peak performance, either in moments of flow or in becoming the best in a chosen endeavor, we’re looking for specific kinds of feedback that allows us to tune our activities. However, the kinds of metrics that are easy to get are often not that useful – and often the real metrics we want can be difficult or expensive to capture. Many have noted that we’re drowning in data but starved for information. (See The Information Diet for more.) This dynamic – that we have lots of easily generated data we don’t need and not enough of the information we want to make key decisions – is a reality of our age.

When finding metrics that are less likely to become tyrannical, we must balance what we can get easily with what will improve our ability to make decisions. The best metrics are low cost to acquire and of high decision-making value, but finding them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We’re more likely to find easy to acquire metrics that have little value.

Cost of Acquisition

Alternatively, we may find that we want metrics that are of high value but for which we’ll need to invest significant resources. Consider for a moment a customer relationship management (CRM) system. A sales team is used to managing information about customers themselves but in a haphazard way. Mostly, sales professionals rely on their email as a record of their interactions with a customer, whether the interaction was face-to-face followed by an email summary or it was conducted solely via email.

Sales management wants to know how the sales team is doing, so they want to track the number of times the salesperson interacted with the customer, including the number of in-person visits, emails, and proposals generated. The effort needed on the part of the salesperson is recording these interactions in the CRM system – an activity they never did before. They perceive little value in this activity. It’s just reporting. They see no benefit in it, because they already have a way of keeping up with their customers.

In this case, the cost of acquisition is modest – particularly with modern CRM systems that allow the salesperson to track many of these things directly in the CRM system or by monitoring the salesperson’s mailbox. In this case, the work to capture the information for the metrics may be appropriate, but they’re not without cost, as you’ll find out if you ever implement a CRM system and listen to the resistance you get from salespeople about it.


Invariably, one of the issues that comes up is how to fit the range of activities into the narrowly defined buckets that are necessary to do reporting. Consider that the CRM system might be implemented such that the contact types supported are email, in-person, and telephone. On the surface, this may make intrinsic sense. However, what do you do when you do a video conference with the customer? What if you’re in person, but you must conference in a member of the team who couldn’t travel to the customer? There are several variations on this theme that play out any time someone is asked to record their activities for measurement. The categories are necessary to make reporting possible, but they’re frequently frustrating to the people trying to put their activities into buckets.

If you need an example, consider the last automated operator system you encountered. Did you have to shoehorn your request into one of the 6 options you received at the first menu? That’s the feeling of uneasiness one might feel every time they record an activity and have a limited number of options.

Distortion of Metrics

Perhaps the biggest challenge with metrics can be distorted. Some of the distortion can be subtle and unintentional. If you’re looking for a decrease in crime, you may be tempted to code the severity of an incident lower – or forget to report it all together. Whether this is malicious or simply a case of natural bias is an academic discussion. The reality is that the values we get from a metric are necessarily distorted by the environment they come from.

The Tyranny of Metrics offers up eight ways that metrics are distorted:

  • Measuring the most easily measurable — at the expense of what we really want
  • Measuring the simple when the desired outcome is complex
  • Measuring the inputs (only) rather than outcomes
  • Degrading information quality through standardization
  • Gaming
    • Creaming – only taking the cases that make the metrics look better
    • Focusing exclusively on the metrics while ignoring the important but unmeasured goals
  • Improving the numbers by lowering the standards
  • Improving the numbers through omission or distortion of data
  • Overt cheating

Collectively, these distortions are a major challenge for designing a set of metrics that can be used to allow us to improve performance.

The Tyranny of Leading and Lagging

While Muller cautions us against measuring only the inputs and not the outputs, when we’re working with people, it’s important for us to include both. We need to measure the inputs in a way that people feel like they can change. Of course, we must also measure the outcomes to minimize the chance that the input metrics will be distorted rather than changed in ways that make a meaningful impact on the output metrics.

Said differently, we need indicators that people feel they can change, which should generally lead to the desirable business outcome. These indicators, called leading indicators, are the kinds of metrics that Muller describes as “input.” They’re critical to motivating change and ultimate performance. They’re the kind of immediate feedback that is important for peak performance.

The outcomes measures are lagging measures. That is, after the leading indicator changes, at some point in the future the lagging indicator should change. In the CRM example, the assumption is that if the number of active customers, sales visits, or proposals increase, then the overall sales should increase – and presumably so should the organization’s profitability.

If we were to focus on the number of sales proposals and the overall sales, we’d eliminate the kind of gaming that might happen if the salesperson felt like they were being evaluated on proposals. If that were the case, they might submit more proposals – but for deals that they have no chance of winning, because the metric is simply the number of proposals. They might also prioritize proposals for smaller deals – because they’re easier to write – so that their overall numbers are larger. However, when these numbers are coupled with the sales output numbers, it can become clear that there are decisions making the leading indicator move, but they’re not changing the thing that’s important to the organization.

Extending this scenario for a moment, salespeople may also target the overall sales number but will do so by lowering the profitability of the deals. They may realize that if they price deals 10% lower, they’ll get more sales – however, that impacts the overall profitability of jobs. As a result, it may be necessary to include profitability of deals in the mixture of metrics for the sales team to prevent them gaming the numbers around sales volume.

What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI)

Daniel Kahneman describes the bias that you don’t consider information that isn’t present as “What You See Is All There Is” (WYSIATI). While it doesn’t roll off the tongue, it does explain one of the gaming behaviors Muller warns us about – that is, people focus only on those things for which there are metrics. Anything that isn’t being measured but still needs to be done is typically not done, to the detriment of the organization.

One answer to address this is simply to measure everything important for everyone in the organization. However, it’s relatively easy to see that this isn’t a viable option. A better answer may be to first create metrics that aggregate many metrics into one that gives a more complete picture and second to decrease the importance of a metric.

Metrics for Collaboration

When it comes to finding ways to make teams more effective, there are few places where the stakes are higher than in the intelligence community. That’s where Richard Hackman shows, in Collaborative Intelligence, that there are three layers of metrics that are effective for measuring collaboration. The first is the productive output of the group that is collaborating. This is the obvious metric that everyone uses – and it’s also lagging.

The second metric is an indicator that covers the social processes the group uses to interact with one another. It’s a leading metric. The third metric is the learning and growth of the group, which is a far-leading metric. One might, rightfully, challenge the use of the word “metric” with the criteria that Hackman recommends. They’re too generic to even be called criteria directly. They’re guidelines for the kinds of behavior that you want to see.

However, that’s the point for finding metrics that are aggregated. The explanations provided here – and in Hackman’s work – are enough for people to understand what the goal is. If they’re converted into a score, and people can easily find out what makes the score, they’ll understand the intent and what they can do to reach the intent. That will get them where they want to go.

Replacing Human Judgement

If you want an example of how metrics can become too big and too important – thus causing people to distort them – it’s harder to think of a better example than the right-turned-wrong of using statistics to form baseball teams. The book Moneyball exposed the world to how the Oakland Athletics baseball team used statistics – alone – to pick players with great success. Of course, now everyone is doing it – and it no longer works as well.

Any time we elevate metrics to the exclusion of human judgement, we’ve got a problem. It’s not that we don’t need to use metrics to inform our decisions or even that we don’t use them enough in many areas of our lives. It is, however, incumbent upon us to pay attention to how they’re being used. In medicine, we may not be leveraging them enough. (See Mistreated.) In education, the insistence on metrics has diverted classroom attention from analytical thinking to teaching for the test. (See The Years That Matter Most.) In finance, the use of metrics and models contributed to the financial meltdown of 2008, when people used metrics and instruments (that they didn’t fully understand) as a replacement for judgement and common sense.

To minimize the disruptive forces that cause the metrics to become distorted, we need to minimize the value we place on them. If someone’s job depends on a 25 and not a 24 on some metric, there’s too much weight, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to make the number. This is what happened with Wells Fargo when some 5,300 people created false accounts for customers to boost their numbers.

Pay for Performance

The idea that you need to decrease – not increase – dependence on metrics represents a challenge for pay-for-performance-based compensation. We’ve seen the huge distortions that are created when CEOs and executives’ goals are out of alignment with the well-being of the organization, but the problem occurs at all levels. In fact, paying for performance of individuals has been largely debunked as a myth of better performance. The only exceptions to this rule are the kinds of mechanical, unfulfilling work that, for the most part, we don’t see in the kinds of creative class professionals most of us work with. (See The Rise of the Creative Class for more on the creative class.)

For the most part, when we use metrics to pay for performance, we reduce intrinsic motivation and, ultimately, the overall performance.

The Tyranny of Metrics is, then, not that we can’t create the metrics but that we need to find the right metrics, at the right levels, to drive the right long-term performance, and that is difficult – but not impossible – to do.

Book Review-Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

I don’t like win-lose games. I don’t think they’re the right way to approach life, so it would make sense that I’d resist reading Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. It feels like it’s about dominating and conquering the other person in a negotiation. However, that’s not the approach advocated throughout the book. In fact, there’s guidance given to stand your ground when you’re facing people in a negotiation who do want to take this sort of a stance.

Principled Negotiation

Positional negotiating is that it doesn’t consider the full scope of the negotiation. There are relationships and reputations to consider, not to mention the fact that the negotiation may not even be for the thing you really want. There’s a better way, and it’s principled negotiation. It considers:

  • People – The issue being decided is decidedly different than the people involved.
  • Interests – It’s about what we ultimately want, not what we’re initially asking for.
  • Options – Creating new ways to solve the problem rather than fighting over the same old ground.
  • Criteria – It’s based on objective standards, not subjective feelings.


Getting to Yes makes the important point that, in many negotiations, you must remain in a relationship with the person you’re negotiating with after the negotiation is over. That makes the idea of a scorched-earth policy difficult. You can be tough on this negotiation, but what will that do to the relationship? As I said in my review of The Titleless Leader, you can either be right or in a relationship.

However, I think there’s an important point missed here. There’s another relationship in play. That’s the relationship with yourself. It’s the answer to the question, “Is this the person you want to be?” If you negotiate like this, will you be able to sleep with yourself?

Everyone needs to understand that just because you can negotiate hard doesn’t mean you should in every case. Sometimes, the right answer is to not push so hard.

The Thinking is the Problem

It’s easy enough to focus on your perspective and how you see the negotiation, but that’s not likely to get you anywhere. You’ll defend your position, and they’ll defend theirs, but without anyone listening and trying to get to understanding, little progress will be made. We resist listening and trying to truly understand the problem, because we don’t think it will be useful in convincing them that we’re right.

However, this is exactly the thing that will solve the problem. In any conflict, the problem is either values or perspective. Understanding their perspective will reveal the value difference or the perspective difference. Perspective differences evaporate when you understand the other person’s point of view, because you suddenly can see both sides. You still must resolve which perspective is more accurate or more appropriate, but at least you know what must be done.

Value differences are harder but not impossible to overcome. Knowing the value systems in play can make this process easier. (See The Righteous Mind for Jonathan Haidt’s foundations of morality for one value framework and Steven Reiss’ 16 Basic Motivators in Who Am I? for a second framework.)

Finding Common Ground

While it was not expressed this way, finding common ground is a good way to get negotiations moving in the right direction. We can place ourselves on the opposite side of the table from someone over a particular issue, but we’re not on the opposite side of the table on every issue. The more we can move the conversation from being adversarial to exploratory, the better off we’ll be. Our brains are more creative and expansive when we don’t feel like we’re locked in a struggle.

There’s an old song by Sting called “Russians.” Broadly, it is about the escalating Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. One of the lines is, “If the Russians love their children, too.” Despite all the things Russia and the United States didn’t agree on, the one thing that everyone agrees on (in general) as a part of our humanity is a love of our children. The point is that, if we look hard enough, no matter what the disagreement, we can find common ground.

It may be that the common ground is easier to find. For instance, Terri and I are passionate about resolving burnout. There are many people who are interested in this problem. We don’t agree with all of their perspectives. Despite that, we have a foundation of mutual respect that, while they may see things differently, we all have the same goal of eliminating it.

First Understanding, Then Proposals

Sometimes, when we communicate with one another, the order we communicate in can make a big difference. When Terri and I are building training materials, we’re cognizant of cognitive load. (If you want to fully understand this, check out my review of Efficiency in Learning. If you want this in a nutshell, our communication series has a post/video that you can share, titled A KISS of Cognitive Load.) In negotiations, there’s another emotional aspect to consider.

If you deliver your proposal first, the other person will instantly start reviewing it in their mind – and potentially getting emotionally triggered by it. The result is they’ll be unable to hear what follows. As a result, an effective strategy is to review what you’ve heard first, then expose your thinking, and finally explain a proposal. (You may find that Motivational Interviewing is effective at helping you learn listening and responding skills.)

Inventing Options

The best resolution to a negotiation is often an option that neither party had even considered at the beginning. Whether it’s a demilitarized zone around a border or something as simple as letting one child cut the sandwich and the other pick which half they want, creative solutions are amazing ways to end a negotiation where both parties don’t feel like they gave up anything but instead like they’ve managed to win.

Being creative comes naturally to all of us (see Creative Confidence), but it doesn’t come when we’re stressed out. (See Drive.) So, a prerequisite to getting to creative options is minimizing the degree of stress and fear. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on stress, and The Fearless Organization for more on reducing fear in the workplace.) Reassuring ourselves and the other party that we’re both looking to find creative solutions that give both parties what they really want is one way to reduce stress – if the other party believes you. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on trust and its role in relationships.)

When to Walk Away

Sometimes, you can enter a negotiation, and you just don’t know when to walk away. You’re so wrapped up in the process that you forget what you’re doing. Auctions are built on this premise. You get so invested in the process of buying the item that you’ll often spend more on the item than you had initially intended – unless you set (and keep) a firm maximum price in your head.

The negotiation equivalent is Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BANTA). This is what happens if you don’t agree. While it’s possible to overplay this hand since we tend to aggregate the benefits of all the alternatives – but not the downsides – we may believe the alternative is better than it really is. However, if we can’t enter a negotiation knowing what the alternatives are, we may not be properly motivated to negotiate – or walk away.

When You Can’t Agree

Let’s say you did everything right, and there’s still no way to reach an agreement. There are still some strategies you can use to move things forward. You can agree to a provisional agreement. You can agree in principle. You can move the conversation forward without reaching the end point.

While the goal is still Getting to Yes, that may not always be possible. At least you’ll have a better shot at it with the tools in the book.

Book Review-Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Terri and I give a talk on conflict de-escalation and resolution with great regularity. One part of that talk is about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and specifically the introversion-extroversion scale. I – from the front of the room – ask the audience to predict whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert. Rarely do I hear introvert. In this context, it makes sense; but in the context of reading a book and writing a review each week, it doesn’t. As an introvert who lives in an extroverted world, I felt like I needed to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In part, I needed to understand the world and how extroversion was valued, but I also needed to understand myself and how I could maintain this disconnect between a speaking personality and a reflective one.

Being Sensitive

Being a sensitive person isn’t said as if it were a strength or virtue. It’s said with an air of disdain for the fact that you can’t adapt to the world more easily. It’s said as an accusation of a character flaw rather than the positive capability that it can be. This is at the root of the conversation between introverts and extroverts, because our degree of sensitivity has a high correlation to our introversion – or lack of it.

It seems the answer to why we’re introverted vs. extroverted may lie in our desires to regulate the amount of stimulation that we’re getting. Introverted folks tend to be more sensitive and therefore use quiet, isolation, and reflection to regulate their stimulation to a comfortable level. Extroverts, conversely, tend to be less sensitive and therefore need more excitement and interaction to reach their ideal levels of stimulation.

Culture of Character

My family connections run back to Chautauqua, New York, where a religious training center was started that eventually radiated out speakers to lecture on literature, science, and, of course, religion. It was the late 1800s, and it was a time when there was a “culture of character.” What you did in private was more important than the impression you made in public.

The character of a person was the very fabric of the nation, as people didn’t aspire to be famous but instead devoted themselves to being defined by their actions. It was a time of rural ruggedness and of hearty work to keep the hearth warm. There wasn’t time for such luxuries as caring what other people thought of you. You spent your time fighting off the wilderness and providing for your family.

Culture of Personality

At the heart of the transition from culture to personality was a young man named Dale Carnegie, or at least that is what he changed his name to. His parents expected him to become a teacher or a preacher. They didn’t anticipate that he would descend into the role of a salesperson. They thought this was beneath the moral fiber of the child they raised. But the times had changed. By the early 1900s, more people were living in cities, the threat of death was further from people’s minds, and there was a need for people who could sell.

The transformation had started, and Carnegie was at the center of it. Instead of honor and reputation, people were valuing charisma and enthusiasm. We had transitioned from interested in how we behaved in private to how we behaved – or at least were perceived – in public.

Take Me to Church

The evangelical movement may be losing steam. John Dickerson’s book, The Great Evangelical Recession, cites data that indicates that fewer people are going to church. More people are describing themselves as spiritual but not religious. However, the rise of evangelical churches transformed the church experience. Churches today are becoming more show and involvement with fewer opportunities for contemplation and reflection. We’re entertained by feature soloists and engaged in group community through singing.

For me, it barely registers. I recognize that it’s a show – perhaps the right show and a necessary one, but a show nonetheless. For someone who has already learned how to adapt to the needs of a world that is more extroverted, this seems like a little thing; but to those who are desperately seeking refuge from the storm that we call life, it can be easy to see how one more adaptation may be too many.


One thing that I’ve learned not to pray for is patience – because God doesn’t give it to you, he teaches you patience. Patience is an underrated virtue that somehow got lost in our rush to the velocity of our new world. Einstein was patient and persistent. So was Edison and his thousand attempts to make a lightbulb. However, in today’s world, we rarely reward those who toil in obscurity. The culture of personality doesn’t value patience like the culture of character did.

Introverts are, on average, more patient. They’ll stick with it a little longer. They’ll have a bit more grit (see Grit). Their internal interests drive them towards figuring out how things work, and once they’ve figured out how things work, they can create unique solutions to problems that others can’t find.

Stretch Our Strengths

Introverts can often adapt to the world around them, finding ways to fit in, but it has a cost. It’s possible to be in a situation more suited for an extrovert as an introvert. It’s not that it’s not possible – as the introduction to this review indicated. The tricky part is that introverts can only do this for so long. They’re putting on a show, and the show has a cost.

First, when the introvert’s internal resources are depleted (see Willpower), they won’t be up for an extroverted experience. Second, they’ll need recovery time. Terri and I, though rarely lacking in a conversation, will find that, post-presentation, we often sit in near silence so that we can both recover. (She’s an introvert, too – just not as strongly as I am.)

We know that, in many ways, we have a natural “set point” that we seek. We can, with conscious effort, reach to heights of extroversion – but not when we’re exhausted. Fitting into an extroverted world requires willpower – and that isn’t always available. Experts believe that we can stretch into uncomfortable areas – but only so far. Like a rubber band, we’ll keep coming back to the place that is more natural to us.

Introversion Is Not a Disease

Ultimately, introverts need to learn to accept the values of their nature. It’s introverts that allow us as a civilization to accomplish great things. Our extrovert friends and relatives need to accept us for who we are and recognize our values. That isn’t to say that there isn’t value in the gregarious. Rather, it’s valuable, just not essential. Love is essential. Gregariousness is optional.

If you’re an introvert, get some Quiet – and take your power.

Book Review-Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love

Hollywood makes it look easy, whether it’s jumping from a building to a rope ladder hanging from a helicopter or it’s building and sustaining a lifelong love – at least as much of the love as you can fit into a two-hour movie. Just because they make it look easy doesn’t mean it is. Having a high-quality and deeply intimate relationship takes work. That’s something that the Gottmans know about – not only personally but in their work as well. Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love is a roadmap for building and maintaining a lifetime of love.

At its heart, the book shows a way to prioritize each other and hold the eight conversations every couple should have at least once – if not on a regular basis.

Requiring Vulnerability

Identifying what keeps people together and what drives them apart is what John Gottman has been doing for decades. As I mentioned in my review of The Science of Trust, Gottman is distinguished by his capacity to predict divorce after a short few minutes of argument. His criteria for the way couples manage their conflicts are very predictive of how likely it is they’ll be able to stay together. So, when he says that vulnerability is required for a lifelong relationship, it’s worth perking up your ears.

To get to vulnerability, we’ve got to make two stops first. The first step is trust. I’ve written about trust and its relationship to vulnerability extensively. The most recent coverage is in Trust=>Vulnerability=> Intimacy, Revisited. The short version, for our context, is that trust is the belief that we can predict someone’s behavior enough that the chances of betrayal are low. When we predict that the other person will have our best interests at heart, we develop a perception of safety. This perception of safety allows us to become vulnerable. So, the stops on our way to vulnerability are trust and safety.

Requiring Effort

John Gottman calls the moments when you can make the choice to lean into your love or be selfish “sliding door” moments. In the response for a bid for affection, you have the choice to make to do what you want – or respond to the bid and pour into your relationship. Sliding door moments are the choice between what we want in the moment and the long-term health of the relationship. That isn’t to say that we should, or even could, make the decision for love every time. It’s always possible that we’re too tired, too sore, or too distracted. However, it’s the effort it takes to make these choices routinely that builds relationships up.

Making the decision to turn into your relationship isn’t always natural. It’s not the easiest choice. It’s a decision to put your relationship first, because you know that good relationships nurture and sustain you when things get difficult.

Whenever you’re putting effort into anything, there’s a background accounting happening. Is the effort I’m putting in worth the results I’m seeing? While we can defer seeing results, ultimately, the calculus that happens is deciding whether the results are worth the effort. (See Relationship Calculus for more.)

ualities and Characteristics

The Gottmans share six characteristics that seem to be found more often when successful couples are speaking of their marriage:

  • Fondness
  • Affection
  • Admiration
  • We-ness (vs. separateness)
  • Expansiveness (vs. withdraw)
  • Glorifying the struggle

I know plenty of couples whose marriages work for them but in which there is very little “we” and a lot of “I” space. They enjoy their time together, but that time is small and secondary to their individual lives. While it seems to work for them, it doesn’t work well for Terri and me – and the Gottmans seem to believe it’s not the best approach.

For the record, Terri and I get to work together, both literally and figuratively. Her desk is right next to mine. We speak together. We write together. We dream together. It seems like that is important.

Expansiveness is an interesting aspect – it’s “Yes, and…” It’s amplifying each other’s perspectives rather than negating them. It’s an attempt to build the other person up rather than tear them down. Our jobs are to help the other person become the best person they can be, and that means supporting them. (See my review of Group Genius for more on improvisation and “Yes, and…”)

Finally, I can say, personally, that Terri and I feel like we’re on a mission together. We’re struggling – to have a great marriage, to raise children, to build a business, to eliminate healthcare-associated infections. Through all of it, we’re in it together.

The Dates

The eight dates are:

  1. Lean on Me: Trust and Commitment
  2. Agree to Disagree: Addressing Conflict
  3. Let’s Get It On: Sex and Intimacy
  4. The Cost of Love: Work and Money
  5. Room to Grow: Family
  6. Play with Me: Fun and Adventure
  7. Something to Believe In: Growth and Spirituality
  8. A Lifetime of Love: Dreams

Each date is laid out with a guide to how to be successful. Everything from where you should be and what to bring are included in the guide to give you the best chances of success. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to successfully navigate the sometimes difficult conversations, but at least with the guide, you’ll handle some of the big things that trip people up and create barriers.

For Love of Money

While I have great respect for Gottman and agree with most of what he shares, there’s one area where I’ll disagree about the root cause. The research says that money is one of the top five reasons couples fight. I’ll agree that it shows up this way, it feels this way, and it may even be the content of the conversation. However, I believe that couples disagree about money because of a difference in values.

It’s not that they’re in a conflict about money. They both want more income for the family, less expenses, more play time, a more stable nest egg for rainy days or retirement, and so on. They’re quite aligned on all these things. Where they’re not aligned is in their values about each of these in relation to one another. Should we save more money or have more vacations? Should we take stressful jobs with higher salaries – or live simpler lives with a less stressful job?

Those are the real questions at the heart of the fights. The husband wants to buy a new car, because he thinks he deserves it. The wife is concerned about the kid’s college fund, or the fact that they can barely meet their current commitments, or whatever. Similarly, the husband may not understand the new dress that helps the wife feel more attractive.

So, while money is the surface level-issue that’s seen, in my experience, it’s rarely the root cause.

Conflict Apathy

I’ve developed conflict apathy. I don’t go looking for fights. However, I’m no longer afraid of them, either. I don’t worry that there will be hurt feelings or permanent damage. I speak my truth in love and expect that Terri will do the same. That’s not to say we don’t hurt each other – we do. However, we don’t run away from the conflicts because we’re afraid of getting hurt.

We walk through the conflicts, because the view on the other side is better. We walk through the conflicts, because we know if we’re willing to do that, we’ll stay on the same side and work together.

I don’t know if you can build what Terri and I have, but Eight Dates might be a good start.

Book Review-Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job

Conflicts are everywhere. They’re at home, at work, in our politics, and in our communities. Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job focuses on only work conflicts but delivers real thinking and tools that can be used in all the conflicts we face.

Triggering the Avalanche

As I sat down to write this review, I kept identifying specific kernels of how conflict operates and how people can manage it better. Each time I’d cross a topic, it would be worthy of standing on its own. It spawned a series of articles:

There are more individual pieces I started that I won’t finish until after this review. By no means did Resolving Conflicts at Work contain all the information for the articles. I’ve been teaching conflict resolution for years now. However, what it did was trigger me to put the pieces together as individual and distinct topics. It increased my awareness that, though I thought some of these things were automatic and normal, they’re far from it.

Their Ten Strategies

It seems appropriate to convey the ten strategies that they advocate for resolving conflicts:

  1. Understand the Culture and Dynamics of Conflict
  2. Listen Empathetically and Responsively
  3. Search Beneath the Surface for Hidden Meanings
  4. Acknowledge and Reframe Emotions
  5. Separate What Matters from What Gets in the Way
  6. Solve Problems Paradoxically and Creatively
  7. Learn from Difficult Behaviors
  8. Lead and Coach for Transformation
  9. Explore Resistance and Negotiate Collaboratively
  10. Mediate and Design Systems for Prevention

It’s not that these are wrong – in fact, these are the kinds of things you want to do in a conflict. The struggle for me in writing this review is that I conceptualize them very differently.

For instance, I believe that emotions are the key barrier to effective conflict resolution. In my review of De-Escalate, I explained many ways that emotions can impact us, particularly in a conflict. When we teach conflict, we start with managing emotions, and we return to it repeatedly. It’s not that Resolving Conflicts at Work doesn’t discuss emotions, but they’re far from first.

There’s nothing in Resolving Conflicts at Work that I disagree with directly. There’s great information that gives color and character to what I already knew and taught; it just feels slightly off.


The best relationships I’ve got were forged in the fire of conflict. The people I respect and trust the most are the ones with whom I’ve had disagreements and I’ve learned from. I’m built up by these conflicts, and I expect them, so that I can become a better person. The truth is that John Quincy Adams’ mother, Abigail, was right: “It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed.” We need conflict to forge our relationships and our character.

We often forget that conflict isn’t inherently bad. Conflict is only bad when it isn’t handled well, when it leads to hurt feelings or broken relationships. Conflict is the force that drives us forward into better understanding of ourselves and others.

Curiosity Killed the Cat, but Not by Conflict

If I won the genetic lottery in any way, it’s in my insatiable curiosity. My mother may not have appreciated the incessant “why” questions, but they are a powerful asset as I enter into relationships and, particularly, conflicts. The desire to learn about the inner world of the other person has helped me incalculably. (See Choice Theory for more on our inner worlds.) While curiosity may have killed the cat, curiosity is a powerful tool in conflict.

The root of conflict either comes from a difference in perspective or a difference in values. Curiosity allows you to discover whether it is a difference in perspective or a difference in values and, more importantly, the desire to explore the space that these differences occupy. If you’re not overflowing with curiosity, then cultivating it will serve you well.


The degree to which we are certain can be both a hinderance and a help. The more certain we are of our internal values and beliefs, the more open we can be in discussing them with others – after all, there is no or little risk. However, our certainty that we’re objectively right for everyone and that there are no alternatives that are just as good or better than our approach leaves us unable to listen and understand others’ points of view.

It’s the person who is uncertain of their position and vulnerable who is the most likely to vehemently defend it. When you feel comfortable with who you are and what you believe, you have no sense of fear or vulnerability and therefore no reason to exert energy to defend yourself.


One of the challenges we face in our modern world is that conflict is most frequently adorned with war-like imagery. It’s seen as an epic battle, where there is a clear winner and loser. Instead of looking at conflict as a natural process that helps to shape and define us, we focus on winners and losers.

The challenge with this approach is that it encourages us to dehumanize the other party in the conflict. (See Moral Disengagement for more on dehumanization.) By dehumanizing them, we lose all the fundamental respect that we offer every human. Instead of being a part of the brother- and sisterhood of humanity, they’re somehow disconnected from it. This, in turn, causes us to lose the value we can gain from conflict in terms of better understanding and sharper vision of the world around us.


Detachment (see The HeartMath Solution and The Happiness Hypothesis) and acceptance (see How to Be an Adult in Relationships) are two key components for our ability to be at peace and therefore exit conflicts successfully with good solutions and a greater respect for the other party. When you stop trying to change the unchangeable you have a lot more energy – and a lot less fear.

Accepting things as they are is the first step into a world of accepting our emotions as they are – rather than being afraid of what they may bring.

Transcending Emotions

It’s not that you ever get rid of emotions. Emotions are healthy and natural things. (See How Emotions are Made for more context on emotions.) Instead, with practice, you can get to the point where there’s a better working relationship between reason and emotions. To use the Rider-Elephant-Path analogy from The Happiness Hypothesis, the rider (reason) and elephant (emotions) develop a rapport where they respect each other and work together towards common goals.

If we can reach this stage, then we can stop seeking emotional soothing from other people. We can stop looking for them to soothe our pains – pains that we may or may not need to hold onto. A simple change in attitude from being wrapped up in our emotions to allowing them to flow through us may help us with Resolving Conflicts at Work.

Book Review-Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy

On the one hand, there’s plenty of research that our memories aren’t stored in words, they’re stored in concepts. There’s the awareness that most of communication – particularly emotional communication – is done with body language. On the other hand, there’s Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. We know that words do matter. That’s why there are marketing copywriters and political speech writers who spend their entire careers trying to get into our head and shape our thoughts.

We know that our emotions can change the expression of our genes (turning them on or off). We know that our words can trigger our emotions. As a result, we can unleash the power of our genes through our words and how we interact with others. It’s powerful stuff that most people have never been trained on nor even considered. However, considering how we can communicate with others is perhaps the greatest power we can wield.

The History

The compassionate communication approach that Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman explain in the book grew out of work helping couples build intimacy and resolve conflicts, but it has become a tool that has been used by business and environments far from the bedroom.

The good news about this history is that it means the strategy was designed with the awareness of the most highly charged conflicts that exist. The bad news is that the parties in these types of relationships are highly motivated to resolve their conflicts. As a result, the strategies that are proposed sometimes are overly prescriptive and aren’t practical in business situations. While they may be effective at limiting bad behaviors in intimate relationships where the conflicts are already well known, requirements like limiting all talking to 30 seconds or less may not work well in the general context of a business conflict, where there is a higher intellectual and lower emotional component.

In the interests of full disclosure, we teach conflict de-escalation and resolution. (Visit for more.) As a result, I’ve developed some strong opinions of what can – and can’t – work in the real world. We teach that conflict isn’t good or bad – it’s both. We can get good conflict when we learn and work through the disagreement and bad conflict when we build resentment and fail to take others into account.

That being said, there’s a lot of good material here that can add value to resolving any conflict.

The Twelve Strategies

The twelve strategies recommended by Newberg and Waldman are:

  1. Relax
  2. Stay present
  3. Cultivate inner silence
  4. Increase positivity
  5. Reflect on your deepest values
  6. Access a pleasant memory
  7. Observe nonverbal cues
  8. Express appreciation
  9. Speak warmly
  10. Speak slowly
  11. Speak briefly
  12. Listen deeply

Let’s walk into each of these and provide additional supporting references.

1. Relax

Stress changes the way we react. Drive shares how stress focuses us and prevents us from considering all our options – and considering all our options is exactly what we need when we’re in a conflict. More than considering our options, stress changes our responses. When we’re afraid (stressed), our brain is actively looking for attacks and that can cause us to perceive the other person’s words as attacks. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for cognitive biases and how they shape our thoughts.)

2. Stay Present

As Sherry Turkle explains in Alone Together, we’re more technologically connected and more personally disconnected. The suggestion for difficult conversations is to stay present in the moment. (Alternatively, Vital Smarts calls difficult conversations “Crucial Conversations.”) Perhaps my favorite way of expressing this is the way John Gottman describes it as “emotional attunement” (see The Science of Trust for more). If you find that your mind is starting to wander because the other person isn’t communicating fast enough for you, you may find that matching your breathing to the other person’s provides enough stimulation to keep you focused and at the same time cultivates that emotional attunement.

3. Cultivate Inner Silence

If you’re looking for outer peace, you’re likely to need inner peace. You can’t give what you don’t have, and without inner peace, you don’t have peace to offer. Perhaps the best expression of how to create inner peace comes from the Dalai Lama in his book, An Appeal to the World: The Way to Peace in a Time of Division. You may also find that Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life provides great advice for using meditation to create a sense of inner peace.

4. Increase Positivity

Whether it’s John Gottman’s recommendation of five positive comments for every one negative (see The Science of Trust) or you prefer Barbara Fredrickson’s three-to-one ratio (see Positivity), being positive helps in a conflict. It encourages the other person to be positive, too, and that may be all the lubrication necessary to resolve the conflict. Positive people are just more likeable.

5. Reflect on Your Deepest Values

Steven Reiss, from his research, came up with 16 basic motivators. (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality.) Jonathan Haidt came up with six foundations of morality. (See The Righteous Mind.) Strength Finder has its aspects (see Strengths Finder 2.0). These and many more tools are designed to give you an opportunity to learn more about yourself and what matters most to you. While this is important to knowing who you are and becoming emotionally stable, it does little to serve you in the moment. (You may want to see Emotional Intelligence or Emotional Intelligence 2.0 for more).

We find a better exercise is to work through the means and ends. That is, in a conflict, you want something. It’s important to understand whether that is the end that you really want or only a means for you to reach the end you want. For instance, you may want freedom and see a car as a way of getting it. If you don’t realize that the car is just a means to the ends, you may get hung up on getting a car when any solution that leads to freedom is acceptable.

6. Access a Pleasant Memory

Paul Eckman spent a lifetime studying the face and how we convey our inner states to one another, both intentionally and unintentionally. (See Nonverbal Messages and Telling Lies for more on his work.) It turns out we convey quite a range of emotion with our faces, and, through the magic of mind-reading, others pick up on this. (See Mindreading.)

Positive or pleasant memories signal to our face that we’re happy, and that is conveyed to others – and ideally puts them in a similar state. The result of this can be a greatly reduced sense of friction in a conflict. Rick Hanson explains how to rewire our thinking and to be more positive, happy, and pleasant in his book, Hardwiring Happiness.

7. Observe Nonverbal Cues

While mirror neurons operate at an unconscious level, it’s important to actively observe non-verbal cues to surface our awareness of what the other person is thinking or feeling. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth studied attachment styles of children and their mothers. They found that parents who were more appropriately attentive to their children produced children who were more secure and able to function in the world. (See Daring to Trust.) This is consistent with the research with rats and the mothers who licked and groomed them more, creating rat cubs which were more likely to explore. (See How Children Succeed.)

Motivational Interviewing, a technique that is commonly used to help people make difficult changes, is built on the foundation of careful attention to what is going on with the other person – something that we could all focus on when we are navigating a conflict.

8. Express Appreciation

Primal Leadership shares Zig Ziglar’s quote, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” How To be An Adult in Relationships calls it an “attitude of gratitude.” It’s a desire to appreciate the other person and to communicate that. Focusing on the things you like or appreciate in the other person can help you both find common ground in your respect for one another.

9. Speak Warmly

Working with recovery groups taught me the difference that tone can make. Twelve-step meetings start with “Hello my name is…” and are totally shaped not by the words that are said but the tone and tenor they’re said with. (You can see more context in Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.) The tone and tenor of the words spoken during a conflict can convey more than the words themselves, so speaking warmly can be a powerful message to the other person that you want to find a way through the conflict. (See Trust Me for more.)

10. Speak Slowly

It was a pre-conference session years ago with my friend Eric Shupps that helped me to understand the value of speaking slowly. I’m from the Midwest, so my typical speaking speed is laid back. Eric is from Texas, and he sports a slightly more relaxed and slower speech with only the slightest hint of a southern drawl. During a break at the session, a young woman came up and said that she couldn’t understand me. Eric and I were slightly confused, as we’re both used to getting the occasional comment about his speech. As we dug deeper, we found out that we were (and particularly I was) speaking too fast.

The truth of the matter is that we (I) crammed way too much content into the day, and we were speaking fast to get through all of it. Some of the students were grateful for the compressed experience – but others couldn’t keep up.

In our conflicts, we want to speak slowly to create space for the other party to process what we’re saying carefully. It doesn’t do us any good to communicate everything quickly if the other person doesn’t understand.

11. Speak Briefly

There’s an old saying (associated with Mark Twain) that gets compressed to “I would have written a shorter letter, if I had more time.” That seems to make no sense. Longer would give more time to write. However, it’s more accurate to say that we can refine our thoughts and write less if we’re given time. In a conflict, it’s paradoxical that you can get to a resolution sooner by pausing to consider your reply after the other person is done speaking. If you’re willing to allow some pause before speaking, you may find you speak less, the other person understands more, and the conflict is resolved sooner.

The “protocol” for compassionate communication calls for 30 seconds of communication at most – which I find more restrictive than necessary. 30 seconds is approximately 75 words – not much can be conveyed in that. The good news is that it prevents issues from stacking and makes it easier for the parties to align. The bad news is that it takes a lot of cycles.

12. Listen Deeply

Focusing on what the other person is saying and trying to deeply understand is key to resolving the issue. That means not working on your response until they’re done – and the opportunity to create a delay in the conflict. Delays are okay on multiple levels, because the slower the conversation, the less likely it is to be perceived as a threat.

Dispassionate Observation

The master-level trick for managing conflict is to find a way to be a dispassionate observer. Instead of reacting to what the other person is saying with fear and concern, you watch as if you’re an observer who is watching the conversation unfold. This level of detachment is difficult to accomplish but powerful. Because you’re not in the middle of the conflict, you don’t have to worry about whether the other person wishes you harm or not.

This frees your mental capacity to focus on creating solutions that may accomplish what both you and the other party really want.

Perceived Safety

The dispassionate observation works because the observer is safe. As explained in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited, our need for the perception of safety drives our ability to connect with others. The greater degree of safety we feel, the greater trust we generate and, in return, the greater degree of feelings of safety we get back. It’s a cycle that starts with getting off our heels and into a more relaxed stance (both figuratively and literally), so that we can be open to feeling safe and helping the other party feel safe as well.

Rescripting Memories

One of the things that trips most folks up in a conflict that goes sideways is that you’re not really discussing the situation of the current moment. The responses from the other person (and your own) don’t make sense when measured by the item of dispute. Instead, we’re tripping on emotional landmines left by the process of growing up. (See Step, Step, Click for more on emotional landmines.)

Another master-level trick is to work on your memories, to change them into memories that don’t create emotional triggers. Our memories are much more malleable than we believe. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.) And we have the capacity to change the way we perceive threats. Albert Bandura was famous for helping those with snake phobias overcome them by providing progressively higher perceptions of self-efficacy. (You can learn more about Bandura’s work in Moral Disengagement.)

Maybe you can use the words in Words Can Change Your Brain to rescript the way you approach conflicts.