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Happy Book Birthday (And What We’ve Learned Since About Conversations, Conflict, and Avoidance)

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Today, February 1, is big for us:

It’s the day Sarah Noll Wilson, INC. turns SIX and Don’t Feed the Elephants: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships turns TWO.

Let’s focus on the book first. What that means is that we’ve had the opportunity to work with and put the book into the hands of thousands of people. Wow! As a team, we are overcome with gratitude. And, as always, we are still focused on growth and continuing to learn along the way.

In the spirit of that depth of gratitude and growth, I want to share five things that have shifted and expanded our thinking since the book was published:

1. “it depends” is a valid answer.

There is no such thing as “right” language when it comes to having difficult conversations. Whether it’s conflict, disagreements, differences, emotionally charged conversations . . . whatever the case . . . what is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for the other.  Sometimes, we’ll hear people say, “We can disagree as long we you do so respectfully,” or “We can debate as long as we do it civilly.” My question, then, is always: “Okay, but who gets to decide what respect looks like? Who chooses what is civil?”

Typically, that is going to be controlled by those with the most dominant identities and/or who have the most power, making it totally dependent on the person, the culture, the relationship, the situation. What feels effective in my partnership might not feel effective for yours. What a productive for a client in Iowa might not feel productive for a client in Hong Kong.

There’s also the issue of safety. If you’re “the only” in a room—the only woman, the only person of color, the only person with a visible disability—the considerations there can feel very different. We’ve been on a journey of naming this dynamic much more explicitly.

When we share examples of language we can use to engage in uncomfortable conversations, it’s with the understanding that we do a lot of our work largely through our lens as white women working with largely white leadership teams. It’s important to distinguish that’s not the only lens, not by a long shot.

2. it’s time to rethink avoidance and silence.

We talk a lot about conflict avoidance. On a particularly deep episode of Conversations on Conversations podcast, guest T. Maxine Woods McMillan, an attorney, pushed me a bit on this idea. She spoke beautifully to the idea that conflict doesn’t go away; we might shift or reposition it, maybe to another person or maybe internally, but it’s always there. Such a powerful concept.

The thing is, as Elaine Lin Hering speaks about so brilliantly (look for her upcoming book Unlearning Silence: How to Speak Your Mind, Unleash Talent, and Live More Fully), creating cultures and relationships where we can have these conversations requires us to interrogate when we are silencing ourselves and when are we silencing others.

Sometimes I think when I first wrote the book, it was like, “Well, I’m avoiding the conversation.” Now I think, “I am being silenced in this situation, even if that silencing is coming from myself.” A revised focus is what we do with that awareness. How do we take ownership for that so that we can take a calculated risk that feels right for us?

3. Choosing Not to Engage can be worthwhile, too.

We sometimes see folks default to having the uncomfortable conversation at all times, thinking that “in order to free elephants, we have to go there.” Sometimes choosing not to engage is a viable option. The reality is that sometimes you’re not safe, or you don’t have the energy, or it’s not a priority at the time. In these cases, being able to consciously reflect and choose not to engage is also a way for us to step into our power.

4. don’t underestimate the importance of how you show up on the receiving end.

When I wrote this book, the idea was to address how to step into and have the conversations we need to have. We’ve certainly done that (and continue to). There’s another part, though, that has become even more clear as we go deeper into this work: how we receive these conversations is critical, especially when we’re aiming to create psychological safety. How do we practice this act of receiving uncomfortable conversations or difficult feedback? That’s tough, and there’s a lot of nuance. (For more on that, we recommend listening to A Conversation on Psychological Safety with Brandon Springle.)

5. The Curiosity-First Approach can be a useful Mirror.

Generally, when we teach the curiosity-first approach, we have people create a personal case study in their lives. In other words, we invite them to call to mind a conversation they have had and want to revisit or one need to have. Then, we ask them to consider the skills they might need to deploy for that to be productive.

Getting curious with yourself, getting curious about someone else, and getting curious with someone else can offer pretty remarkable clarity. The biggest things we’ve seen people become clear about in this process are usually personal reflections:

  • maybe they played a larger role than they originally thought;
  • perhaps they didn’t consider that the other person had needs or expectations that differed from theirs; or
  •  they realize they haven’t expressed what they needed well or often enough for it to be understood and honored by others.

Remember, when there are challenges in relationships, it comes down to a need not being met or a value being stepped on. How do we show up with that?

Your Turn

If you’ve read Don’t Feed the Elephants, what resonated with you? What have you applied in your life, what was the outcome, and what has evolved in your thinking since?

If you haven’t read the book, that’s okay! This is also an invitation to consider your relationship with avoidance and how that manifests in your life in ways both explicit and implicit. Starting with the curiosity personal case study can be a good entry point for this thought exercise. If you try it, tell us what you learned.

And, as always, thank you for your support of not only this book, but of the work we do in the pursuit of putting humans first, always. (That means you.)

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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