For the third installment in our series of conversations with diverse voices, we went seeking insight on a really common event: conflict. And, specifically, how to manage it better. And we were thrilled to connect with Kwame Christian, director of the American Negotiation Institute, and author, attorney, and speaker in the field of negotiation and conflict resolution. We asked about how anyone can get better at negotiation, how the Institute’s “How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race” programming has evolved this year, and more. Read on!
1. Tell us about yourself. Have negotiation and conflict management always been areas of strength for you?
My name is Kwame Christian, Esq., M.A. I am a business lawyer by trade, but my passion lies in teaching people the skills of negotiation and conflict resolution. In my TEDx Talk and in my book, Finding Confidence in Conflict, I talk about being a “recovering people pleaser,” and how I learned through my background in psychology and with the skills of negotiation and conflict resolution, that I could build the skills to overcome the people-pleasing while keeping the relationship intact. In that journey, the American Negotiation Institute and the #1 negotiation podcast in the world, Negotiate Anything, was born.
2. Can anyone learn to be a better negotiator?
Yes! Like anything else, negotiation is a skill that, when practiced, can become stronger. Part of becoming a better negotiator is expanding our idea of what a negotiation is so that we recognize when a negotiation is happening. Often the common idea of a negotiation is limited to situations like contract negotiations, and then people are blindsided when a difficult conversation arises and it goes poorly. This is why my definition of a negotiation is “anytime someone in a conversation wants something” because it forces us to recognize that negotiation opportunities are happening in almost every conversation.
3. When is the right time for an organization (be it a nonprofit, private company, corporation) to program conflict management workshops for their team members?
Anytime, but it’s always a smart idea to implement conflict management before you actually have a dying need for one. While not impossible, it is much harder to rebuild team cohesion, productivity, and relationships that have been broken because of conflict that has been ignored or has continued to grow due to a lack of conflict resolution skills. The quicker conflict is addressed and resolved, the better the relationship outcome, and the quicker a team can return to productivity.
4. Who from these organizations, as in which discipline or team, starts the conversation with you? What’s happening in their organizations, and why do they call?
It can be anyone, but in general it will depend on the goal. We group negotiation and conflict resolution under the umbrella of ‘Difficult Conversations,” but usually an organization will have a specific need they are trying to address. For example, if an organization is wanting more of the hard negotiation skills, usually it is someone from the procurement, sourcing, sales, or acquisitions departments reaching out to us. If it is someone wanting more of the difficult conversations in general or conflict resolution material for their team, then usually they are in HR, talent management, or the like.
5. How have you adapted your “How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race” programming this year to reflect current events and remote work? What are your plans for this focus area in 2021?
Our “How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race” programming was born out of this year’s current events, but it has evolved since the beginning. We recognized that it wasn’t enough to just go into an organization and say “here are your tools” because not everyone is on the same page. If they were, we wouldn’t be here. So we expanded the program to prepare people to be ready to learn the skills, and also include follow-up so that they have continued learning after we leave. In terms of future plans, if we have learned anything from this past year, it is that we cannot predict the future. This year, as election season approached, we expanded our content to also include “How to Have Difficult Conversations About Politics” because organizations were finding that internal dynamics and productivity were being significantly disrupted due to the divisive nature of the current political climate, and they did not have the tools to address it. Our content is flexible and designed to evolve and adapt as we grow and learn, and as the rest of the world changes too.
6. A few years ago, you intentionally avoided news and social media. How long did that last? What habits did you develop then that are still useful now?
It lasted one year and it gave me perspective. So, now when I keep myself informed, I do a better job of making sure that it doesn’t take an emotional toll on me. I also recognize that there is an emotional limit, i.e., you can be too informed. I think it is important to stay up to date on these conversations and to have an understanding of what is happening, but not overdo it by falling into the rabbit hole.
7. And a marketing-specific conundrum. When you find two leaders (say the CFO and CMO) speaking different languages but talking about the same thing, what’s the most important action required from both people to find common ground?
We need to figure out the goal. Often what is happening when parties are speaking different languages but talking about the same thing is because they start off the conversation about tactics. Each party might have a different approach to achieving a goal so they are not seeing eye to eye. Therefore, it is important that we identify goals first, then create a strategy to achieve that goal, and then figure out what tactics you will use to achieve that strategy. Sometimes in order to find common ground, you need to do what I call “expanding the scope” of the conversation. So for example with a CFO and CMO, maybe they don’t agree on a specific issue, but if you expand the scope of the conversation, they can probably both agree that they both want what is best for the company. Then you move from there in order to find a solution to the current issue. Doing this helps create the perspective that each party is on the same team and makes it easier to solve a problem jointly, instead of it seeming like each party is on opposite sides of the spectrum.
8. What books are you reading lately? Fiction or nonfiction, your pick.
I aim to read a new book every week, so this changes constantly. Currently, I am reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. It is an excellent book about political psychology—the how and why people believe what they believe.
Are you feeling more capable for negotiations now? Wait, I mean conversations in which someone wants something … Either way, we hope so. Our goal with #tapculture is to extend our knowledge around diversity, equity and inclusion, giving people information and tools to foster belonging. Read our recent conversation with Tori McConnell, American Indian College Fund scholar.
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