People First! Jen Goldman-Wetzler, "Free Yourself From Conflict!"

Sit back, and grab a coffee as Morag and Dr. Jen Goldman-Wetzler discuss how to free yourself from conflict!

Welcome to SkyeTeam's People First! In this series, we explore the people side of successful business and careers. We all have a story to share, a leadership journey that we are experiencing.

We'll be interviewing authors, business leaders, thought leaders, and people like you to uncover the latest ideas, resources, and tools to help you become more effective at work - and in life. As it turns out, the secret is cultivating winning relationships. Business is personal, and relationships matter!

So, sit back, and grab a coffee as Morag and Dr. Jen Goldman-Wetzler discuss how to free yourself from conflict!

00:00 Open
00:08 Intro
01:50 Origin Story
03:11 What Is Conflict?
05:08 Patterns
06:33 Breaking Patterns
09:49 Do Patterns Change With The Situation?
11:16 Happy Ending
15:30 Dealing with Emotions
24:58 Little House on the Prairie
27:22 Where to Find You & Wrap


- [INTRO] Welcome to SkyeTeam's "People First" with Morag Barrett.

- Welcome to this week's "People First" and the theme for our conversation this week is conflict. One of my pet topics because it is a topic and an environment I try to avoid. But my guest this week, Dr. Jen Goldman-Wetzler is the CEO of Alignment Strategies Group. She is the premier New York based consulting firm that helps CEOs and their executive teams optimize organizational health and growth. But the key here is that she is the author of "Optimal Outcomes," which I can see on the shelf behind you Jen. "Optimal Outcomes; Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life." See, the secret to success. I can't wait to learn more. And this book was selected as Financial Times' book of the month. She's a keynote speaker for Fortune 500 companies, public institutions and leading startups including Google, Harvard Law School and the United Nations. Ooh, I'm looking forward to some stories about that Jen. And a former counter-terrorism fellow with the US department of Homeland Security. She has a PhD in social organizational psychology from Columbia University and has taught conflict freedom at Columbia for a decade. Jen, welcome to "People First."

- Thank you so much. It's great to be with you.

- Well, as I said as somebody who personally avoids conflict wherever I can, sweep it under the carpet, pretend it never happened, I am looking for some words of wisdom from you as we go through our conversation. But as ever I want to start with the origin story. So when you were a little girl, I don't know. Were you sitting there imagining that you were going to become a counter-terrorism fellow? What did you want to be when you grew up?

- I was not dreaming about being a counter-terrorism fellow. I was very interested in design, in interior design and architecture. I loved looking at houses and I grew up in a like a little red apartment building at the end of a long street in Riverdale, in the Bronx, in New York. And so, looking at houses and, you know, designing rooms was a fantasy to me. It was not something that was part of the day-to-day for me. And so that really, you know today what I do is I design organizations. I design lives, I help people design their own work lives, their own personal lives, their own organizational structures and so, you know, that's how I think that there is some connection there from what I love to do as a kid.

- Okay, that's also, I was trying to think, well the most I can think of as conflict for interior design was arguing over paint colors and trying to decide is this little swatch going to look fabulous when I do the whole wall? So thank you for that. Well, let's start with the basics, conflict. What is conflict? How do you define conflict?

- Yeah, well, people have so many different ways of defining what is conflict and what is conflict resolution? You know, the interesting question to me has been how do we, why am I talking about conflict freedom as opposed to resolving conflict? So, to answer your question one way to define conflict is simply say when people who are interacting with each other have different points of view or different interests that don't seem to be reconcilable. And over the last 40 years, we've had a lot of research and a lot of practice come out about how to resolve that kind of conflict. And a lot of that has come, has been about win-win negotiation. And the idea that even if we, our positions are different if we get underneath those positions and look at what are the interests that each person involved has, the reasons why we want what we want, it can be easier to come to a win-win solution. My work is all about what to do when that kind of process fails, when that win-win negotiation just doesn't work. We've seen again, over the past many decades, time and time again, whether you look at the international realm or the business realm, or the, you know inside the home community realm, very often these best practices using interest based win-win negotiation just doesn't work. And so my work is all about looking at seemingly intractable situations, where we feel stuck and how can we free ourselves from those situations from the thought patterns, from the behavioral patterns from the emotional patterns that get and keep us stuck on those conflict loops.

- So where do we learn these patterns that get us stuck in the first place?

- Well, very often we learn them from a very young age. We learned them from teachers, parents, coaches, religious clergy, you know, anyone in our lives who is helping to teach us something about the world we are likely to get the messages from them. And sometimes it really is just the most obvious, you know nuclear family that we learn how to deal with conflict from there. And I talk about these as conflict habits. These are the ways that we learn how to approach conflict. So you, at the start of the show said, I will admit, I like to avoid conflict as much as I possibly can. So that is one of the four conflict habits that I write about in the book and that I work with. We either avoid it. We blame ourselves, some of us. Many of us blame other people. And finally in somewhat more counter-intuitively what I have found is that now after 40 years of teaching people how to collaboratively work with conflict some of us actually relentlessly seek to collaborate with other people, even when it's not working for us. So we can actually get stuck in conflict by trying to collaborate with other people when those other people are unwilling to cooperate with us, we stay stuck.

- So again, realize, even though my internal, my natural desire is to avoid it there are times where I have to face up to it and own it. And I know in the book you talk about eight practices and that first one is knowing your habits and patterns. So for me, as soon as my heart rate goes up I can feel that adrenaline spike and it's either fight or flight, more often flight. I then have to make a choice to do different. So how do we break these patterns and know when to push and when actually flight or keeping quiet is the appropriate answer?

- Hmm mm. Great questions. So, the first thing to do as you noted, and that's why it's the first practice in the book is about simply pausing and noticing how you are stuck, because without noticing that you're stuck or how you're stuck, or why you're stuck it really is impossible to break free of anything because you don't know what you would need to break free from. So the first practice is to simply notice your conflict habit and notice whoever is involved in your situation with you, guess what might be their conflict habits. Sometimes this is not so hard to do, right? There are four choices and it's often very obvious that you know either I'm stuck in a blame-blame pattern where I and one other person are blaming each other back or I am avoiding while the other person is relentlessly trying to collaborate with me, or we're both shut down. We're both avoiding each other and that's why nothing is getting done. So your question about how do you know the difference between a time when avoiding might make sense versus a time when avoiding might be less helpful and you might need to break that habit, break the pattern by changing your habit, a habitual response in that situation. The best way I can help you think about this is if you are consciously, intentionally choosing to avoid a situation because it's one you don't care about very much. The issue is not that important to you. The relationship is not that important to you, then might be a great choice to avoid a situation. But if you are finding you're consistently avoiding a certain topic or consistently avoiding a certain person and that means your work can't get done, your relationship is on the rocks. And that this is not something that you have intentionally chosen it's more like a knee-jerk reaction that falls more in the category where I'd say, take a pause notice where you're stuck. And by the way, there's a free quiz online. Over a 1,000 people have taken it at this point that people can take if they're interested. It's at and you'll see the conflict habits quiz and you can take it there to, to find out very quickly. It's a seven minute quiz, what your conflict habit is and you can ask other people to take it as well and then you'll know what pattern have we gotten locked in? What's my habit? What's your habit? And what pattern has that created for us?

- Wonderful. I'll make sure to include that information in the show notes as well. And is the pattern that I have going to be the same in every conflict situation or does it change depending on the who, what, where, the scope and complexity, I suppose, of the issue?

- Yeah. Typically our habit is more or less consistent across our own behavior, across our own lives but the pattern is going to change depending on who the other person or people are that you're involved with. So, if we can just take the example we've already got from what you offered us. So if your habit is avoid or shut down over time avoiding consistently means you're basically shutting down. So if your habit is shut down, then if you and I are in conflict, what's happening is, 'cause my default conflict habit is blame others. I am not proud of this but I will admit to it 'cause it's true. So if you and I, you can imagine what's going to happen, right? I'm going to be blaming you and you're going to run away,

- Yeah.

- And go hide. And that doesn't help, you know, then we're stuck. There's nothing either one of us can really do. I'm frustrated 'cause I'm, you know, so upset and blaming. So that's our pattern. But if you have a partner, a business colleague who is also a shutdown, uses a shutdown habit, then you know you're both shutting down and also stuck. So the pattern that you're in depends on who the other people are that you're involved with in any given situation.

- So with the work that you've done with leaders and teams can you share just an example and a story about how an awareness around both the nature of conflict and the patterns that each person brought, how that affected change and hopefully a happy ending?

- Yes, absolutely. So I was working with the CEO of a design firm in New York City and the head of sales. And, similar to one of the examples that we were just talking about a moment ago the head of this company just had a real temper and he would get angry incredibly easily. And anytime that someone did something that would set him off, you could be sure that he was going to kind of just run in and go blame them and yell at them. And that was a pattern that he and his head of sales were in. Anything that she would do that he didn't like he would just immediately go and start screaming his head off at her. And what would she do? She would cower in a corner. Sometimes, you know, start crying. This was not easy or good for either one of them. And then she would kind of go hide out for days. So sometimes, you know, they couldn't get their work done for days or weeks at a time because of this interaction that they would have. So it was not only impacting the two of them negatively but also their teams and other folks in the organization, clients. And so, my work with them was to help both of, to help bring to their attention for each of them the role that they were playing in this dynamic with each other. For him, for the CEO, to help him see what he was doing and how he was being triggered emotionally and how the impact of him doing that would lead her to go hide. And also to help her see that her hiding wasn't doing any of them any good and that what he did wasn't personal to her. She was able to see that the conflict habit that he had of blaming and yelling was not about her, though it was scary to her when it happened and unsettling to her when it happened but it wasn't about her specifically. And so just pausing and helping each of them notice this dynamic and take responsibility for their part helped each of them change their behavior to some degree. And in this case the power really came for the director of sales, right? So this is an imbalanced power relationship in many ways. You know, one of them reports to the other the head of sales reported to the CEO. So there's a lack of power and a power imbalance structurally but also personality wise. You know, someone who's screaming often kind of can feel or seem more powerful than someone who's sitting and crying or cowering in a corner. So she was actually able to take her power back and of course, there's gender dynamics there as well, but she was able to take some power back by recognizing that her going and hiding away wasn't actually doing anyone any good. And she was able to call, start to call him out on his behavior which was pretty incredible for me to watch happen. And it was effective the way, I mean, we can talk a lot more about exactly how she did it and why it was effective, but that's an example.

- No, I love that. And emotions are often are not necessarily the trigger of conflict, but they're certainly a parallel experience. I mean, I think recently as much as I run away from conflict, I use the phrase incandescent rage and I did not respond to the conflict in the moment whilst experiencing incandescent rage but I likened it to like the Avengers. There was fire coming out of my eyes. I could feel it in every atom of my body, this incandescent rage. And whilst those emotions you can wait, you know, the advice is always wait until you're cool and calm, disconnect so you can reconnect more powerfully. Those emotional reactions are valid. And how does one communicate those to the other person so that they understand how important this situation is and not dismissing it or brushing it under the carpet? Or do we ignore the emotions and just deal with the thing 'cause it's the logic and the heart. How do you balance the two?

- Yeah. I would not choose to ignore emotions because what we know is that when we try to tamp those emotions down and ignore them and push them away they just ooze out in other ways that we can't control and don't tend to, that doesn't tend to do us any favors, that doesn't tend to help us deal constructively. So, my advice about emotions is to first of all, again just stop and pause as you can. Sometimes that pause, you might actually start to catch yourself in the moment. So I talked about two different types of pausing; a proactive pause and a reactive pause. So a proactive pause, and these can be, you know whether you're doing it proactively or reactively you can take anywhere from a 30 second or one second pause to, you know, an hour or two hour long meditation session, but start small if you haven't, if you're not used to doing this kind of practice my advice is start small, 30 seconds, two minutes and just sit quietly and ask yourself what am I feeling right now? That's the first question and see if you can identify or name an emotion. So you named an emotion, incandescent rage which is fantastic.

- Maybe a blog post about it eventually, but yes.

- Great, great. So identify, what am I feeling? Am I feeling, you know, right now we could even do that together.

- Okay.

- So just take a moment and notice what am I feeling? Might be feeling interested, might be feeling bored, might be feeling excited, might be feeling calm. Angry, happy, joyful, sad, fearful. So there are five basic emotions that researchers have have noted that humans tend to feel and then there are all different variations coming out from there. And so, first of all, identify, how am I feeling, what am I feeling? Second, we can let those emotions settle. So Zen, you know Buddhists, Vietnamese Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests just like a muddy glass of water, if you've got a muddy glass of water if you just set the glass down the mud will settle to the bottom and then you have clean water that you can drink. And so the same can be true with our emotions that sometimes not necessarily necessarily when we're dealing with incandescent rage but sometimes if we're just dealing with some sadness or an inkling of fear, settling down can help it just glide right on by and then the next emotion will come along. But the question for me, helping people in conflict, high conflict settings is typically that doesn't work because our emotions are ones like rage. And when you were feeling rageful the idea that you would sit, you know, you'd have to sit for a very long time sometimes to enable that to settle in. So then my challenge is to ask yourself what message or what messages are my emotions trying to send me? So the emotion of fear is often trying to send us the message danger. There's danger here.

- Yep.

- There's danger ahead. So then the question is, what do I want to do? How could I constructively deal with that danger that might be present? Or sadness, right? Am I feeling sad? Why am I feeling sad? What message is that trying to send me? Or anger. Oftentimes anger is there to tell us there's an injustice that's occurred or there's been a boundary that's been crossed. And so, you know, some of the most famous people leaders of our time and in history who have dealt with their anger constructively are people who have said, I feel angry, right? Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, these are people who didn't ignore their anger. They actually acknowledged and recognized their anger and used it as a catalyst for constructive social change. So I encourage us all to think of ourselves like those leaders and ask ourselves, how can I use this anger for doing construct, taking constructive action?

- And I like that advice. And the advice that you can do it in a second 'cause sometimes in a real life or death situation you don't want to say, hang, hang on. Just going to sit here for an hour and just work out, you know what's going to happen because then it might be too late. But even in that second, it's the curiosity. I mean, I remember thinking, wow, 'cause for me to go incandescent rage that's, wow. What has provoked that and being British, trying to damp down and put it back in the box but also how do I channel this in a way that helps us move the situation forward? So you're talking there about what is it that I'm looking for? What is it that that CEO and head of sales were looking for? What's the future between incandescent rage and the outcome? So how did you help them then to narrow their conflict gap or however you describe it and create a more productive future together?

- Well, what the head of sales started to do, like I was saying a little bit before, was call out that CEO when he would start to get rageful and angry and yell. She started to find the courage within herself and courage is a piece of the final practice of the book. It really, you know, this, these practices are simple but they are not easy, necessarily. And courage is one of those that it's very simple but not easy. And the way you know fear often tells us that it's a moment that is going to require courage of us. So she was fearful but she was able to kind of gather up her courage and say I'm going to do something different than I've done before. So if normally I would cower in a corner, today I'm going to experiment and I'm going to walk up to him and I'm going to say, you know when you yell at me like that, it causes me to want to run away and that doesn't help either one of us. So my request going forward is that if you are angry about something that I have done or said that you come to me once you've cooled down and we can talk about it, but I cannot and I will not respond to you when you're in this emotional state. And you know it didn't take her having to say it more than once or twice for him to kind of be so taken aback. So that's what, one of the practices that I talk about is take making a pattern breaking path. And one of the defining features of a pattern breaking path is that you do something surprisingly different than you've done before. So we can all imagine this woman who's been cowering in her office in tears suddenly coming back with these words of power. This was very surprising. And what happens when you surprise someone else by doing some things so different than what you've done before is that it jolts them out of this conflict loop, this pattern that you've both been stuck in together as well in a good way. So it really kind of jolted him out of this pattern and he realized, I can't, this is not going to work. This hasn't been working. It helped him see that what he had been doing wasn't working. But again, you know, it required an immense amount of courage for her to do that with my help of course.

- I love that. And in the work I've done with individuals, I'm coaching a CEO right now, or with teams, when they go home at the end of the day and do what I call BMW, bitch, moan and wine about, oh, you won't believe what so-and-so said. A, you're having the conversation with the wrong person but there's a sign to your point to go back and express our needs and wants in a way that draws a line in the sand like she did. So yes, I will hear you out when you're frustrated but after you've calmed down.

- Yeah.

- And by articulating it, you can hold yourself accountable for not cowering going forward but also hold them accountable for not yet come back in an hour,

- yeah.

- If they're still at the simmer point.

- Yeah.

- But if we don't have the conversation 'cause we're stuck in the pattern of, in my case say avoiding, then we're never going to renegotiate how are we going to disagree.

- Absolutely.

- Yeah.

- So I'm curious that in terms of your book and your research I'm assuming that the intent isn't that we end up in "Little House On The Prairie" where nothing is ever contentious.

- That's right. That's right. That's not life. So conflict is an inevitable part of life and it can be used in creative, you know, to push creativity forward, to enable innovation. And it, there's a ton of research that shows that that is the case that conflict can be used for positivity in the world. So, the question in my mind is not how to get rid of conflict or how to free yourself forever from conflict. The work is when you're stuck in a conflict loop that just keeps going around and around and around, no matter what you or other people have done to try to break that loop and you just haven't been able to do it, these eight practices, designing a pattern breaking path, being courageous, reckoning with what would happen if I walked away versus what's going to happen if I just do nothing and stay put and stay in conflict versus what might happen if I go for this imagined future that I have. How can I imagine a better future? Taking into account the reality of the situation that I'm in and the people I'm dealing with; that all of these practices can help us make breaks in that conflict loop and then in looking for what's our optimal outcome we can actually free ourselves from that loop by designing a pattern breaking path out of the loop.

- What I like about the work that you've done and you offer the assessment, I'll make sure again for those watching and listening to the podcast go and take the self assessment and find out what your own conflict style is, is through the conflict style assessment and also the "Optimal Outcomes," your book, you're naming the elephant. And it's breaking the pattern of, well you're just being a jerk. You were mean to me at playtime. You stole my toy, you know, whatever that keeps us trapped and allows us to reflect on either culpable negligence. How did I either create the situation either by creating it or by not articulating my needs and wants. And then we can, once you've named the elephant we can start working together as to how are we going to reduce the impact. So it doesn't undermine what we can deliver at work together or our individual reputation.

- Right.

- So, once I've read the book, once we've taken the assessment if we want to learn more about the work that you do at team levels and so on, where and what do we, where do we go to discover more about your work, Jen?

- Well, the best place is And there's a ton of free resources. In addition to the assessment, there's also a emotion traps assessment that you can take as well. And then there are 10 other PDF files that people can download for free that walk you through each one of the practices in the book. There's a values inventory. There's a mapping, a practice which walks you through, step-by-step how to do these practices in order to free yourself and others from conflict. And I would also add, I love what you just said before. One thing that differentiates this set of practices this "Optimal Outcomes" method from other conflict "resolution methods," is that conflict resolution requires you working with someone else to collaborate with someone else to achieve your goals. The "Optimal Outcomes" method is really the opposite. It's all about what power do you have inside of your own self within yourself that you actually don't need anyone else's cooperation to do. So everything we've talked about from designing a pattern breaking path to noticing your own emotional needs and the traps that you fall into and how to change those, it's all about what you can do yourself. Even the story that you know we talked about about the sales, the head of sales it was her who was able to make a change even in a situation where she arguably had less power than the other person involved.

- Powerful. I love it. Jen, thank you very much for sharing your wisdom today and for joining us on People First.

- Thank you so much for having me. It's been such a delight to be in conversation with you. I look forward to more.

- [Narrator] Thank you so much for joining Morag today. If you enjoyed the show, please like and subscribe so you don't miss a thing. If you learned something worth sharing, share it. Cultivate your relationships today when you don't need anything before you need something. Be sure to follow SkyeTeam and Morag on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And if you have any ideas about topics we should tackle, interviews we should do, or if you yourself would like to be on the show drop us a line at That's Thanks again for joining us today and remember business is personal and relationships matter. We are your allies.

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