Today on Anxiety at Work, we talk about conversations. We’ve all had that moment when we wondered, what did I say to make that person so mad? I’m Chester Elton, and with me is my co-author and dear friend, Adrian Gostick.
Well, thanks, Ches.
Yeah, we’re going to talk today about how we listen and interact and talk with others to bring down our anxiety levels and those around us. Our guest today is Chuck Wisner, a thinker, coach, and teacher in organizational strategy, human dynamics, and leadership communication. He has spent 25 years as a consultant and advisor to leaders in companies such as Google, Apple, Tesla, General Motors, and Shell. I’ve heard of every one of those. His methods are anchored in years of research and the practical application of the foundations of conversations. He is the author of The Art of Conscious Conversations, Transforming How We Talk, Listen, and Interact. Chuck, we’re delighted to have you on the podcast.
Thanks for having me. Great to be here. I like spreading the word. Oh, good, good. Well, we like to think about this. I don’t know if the last time we chatted about a conversation. This is good for us. And most of the time in life and work, as you know, we talk and listen to others. And we’re a little on autopilot. And stress and emotions can trigger conversations to go off the rails. And most of us lack the tools to improve those conversations. So start by talking about what goes wrong with most of us in conversations. Okay, we are like fish in water at a fundamental level. We’re like humans in conversation. And so we’re born, grow up in our families and cultures, and adopt all those conversation patterns. Some are good, some are bad. So we do it without even A, thinking about it, and B, I think a big part is we aren’t educated about it. We aren’t educated about how conversations work, how we can advocate better, how we can listen better, and how we can ask questions better. So that’s sort of was how the book was birthed because, with my clients over the years, they sometimes would say, well, geez, this is going to change how I lead, or they’re going to say, why didn’t I learn this in elementary school?
So, yeah, what you’re saying is you inherit how you converse with people. Did I get that right?
Yeah, we inherit it, and we adopt these patterns that we don’t even consciously choose. We just get them, and then we have them as patterns. And they’re very comfy. They’re like warm slippers or pajamas because we know them and how to do them. We don’t have to think about it. It takes no energy; it takes no effort. So to step back and go, wait a minute, let’s pay attention to them is really, it’s sometimes not easy to work because you have to look at your own mess. But in the end, you become much more cognizant of how they work so that you can navigate tough spots better. So to recap, Chester is probably, if I was talking to his mom or dad, I’d be talking very similar, same with me. We inherit those. That’s fascinating.
Yeah. No, listen, I relate to that. When I’m with my brothers, we have the same cadence. We have the same expressions we have. In many cases, people freak out because they’ll say, I’m getting Elton in stereo. Like, you guys sound and act the same.
Let’s go deeper because you talk about this idea of fundamental conversation types, which is interesting. And there are four. So do you want to walk us through that and know-how? When we know these conversations, we can better communicate with those we’re talking with. Sure, and so do the four, well before I do that, I want to piggyback on our thing about adopting how we talk because I like to call them patterns for a very particular reason. I call them patterns because I think it takes some of the sting out of it, some of the judgment out of it, some of the self-judgment out of it, where when we start looking at our conversational patterns, we can look at it with curiosity and go, oh wow, God, I learned that from my pop, you know, or I learned that from my high school history teacher or whatever. So the idea of looking at and labeling them as patterns helps us get a little removed, and we go, oh, that’s not me; it’s a pattern, and I can change it. So I just wanted to plant that seed because it helps.
The four conversations are something that I learned through my studies in the ontology of language. And then later, it dawned on me that with all the complexity of language and all the books about the different components of language, it takes a lot of work to get a hold of that material. And so, the four conversations were a way to organize a lot of complexity, tools, and practices to make it more manageable and practical. So the first conversation is storytelling, and we thrive on storytelling. Stories are a beautiful thing. We would not be able to exist without them. Our brain has a. There’s a part of our brain that makes stories. You know, it collects billions of bits of information based on our past, history, and experiences, says, oh, here’s what’s happening, and then we have a story. And they’re beautiful things until they aren’t. And because stories serve us well, but because of this unconscious process that goes on we adopt, we also adopt stories that don’t serve us well. And the small example, not small, but a quick idea of a sample I have in the book, is I grew up being told I wasn’t a big enough man because I didn’t like to skin the deer in the basement, because I didn’t, I cried and my three sisters cried, but I couldn’t cry. And, when I started studying, What are the four fundamental conversation types? How can understanding these conversations help us communicate better? How can we change our conversational patterns?
Language, it was only then that I realized I had a master story that said, you’re not a big enough man. And when I was able to bust that story, I walked into the office, you know, the next day, the next week, whatever, I mean, you know, who knows. And I walked in, and the company president was there; a friend of mine and I eventually became a partner in this firm, we were having coffee. And I look at him, and I say to myself, I say, oh my God, I’m taller than Bill. And before that time, I never saw myself as the six-foot man I was. So that’s just a small example. So every meeting we go into, every family reunion, and every Thanksgiving dinner, we all come with our stories. They might serve us, they might not serve us, but paying attention to them and bringing them into the light is helpful. Should we stop questioning each one, or should I go through the others? Well, I’m just curious about how they serve us until they don’t.
That resonated with me because, you know, I have friends where everything’s a story. Yeah. And it gets annoying. Yeah. At the end of this elaborate story, my question is, is that a yes?
You know what I’m saying?
Did you say yes after that 15 minutes, you know, yeah, troubleshoot? So I love what you’re saying there about, you know, it serves us until it doesn’t. And a lot of us, you know, and Avery and I do a lot of public speaking, and we can get caught in that story trap where everything has to be a story. Is that where you’re going in that it serves us until it doesn’t?
Is it the only way we have to communicate?
Yeah, and when I say until it doesn’t, it’s the stories that aren’t serving us or our audience well, right? And then we have to go inside, and we have to go; let me take this story apart. We have to do a little deconstruction and say, what are stories made of? And they’re made of two things. They’re made of facts, and they’re made of opinions. Facts, minus the last four years or the last six years, used to be something we could all agree on. And then opinions are where it gets messy, right? Because that’s where all of our prejudices, all of our biases come into play. And then we start holding our opinions and stories as the truth when they’re not.
So, some of those formed in childhood that we’re carrying forward those stories We’re telling ourselves as well as as you mentioned, You know, and sort of public life and social stories that that we hear that we believe and we’re going to hold on to that
No matter if facts may counter those.
Right, right, right, and sometimes facts are the good, the good guy that says, wait a minute, I have a story that I need to be a bigger man. But here are the facts. I’m six feet, weigh 180 pounds, and have a family, a beautiful wife and a family of two sons; I’m making money and will be a partner in a firm. Wait a minute; those don’t line up with I’m not a big enough man.
And so what’s the second one, so if we work on, and I spend more time on stories because it’s foundational. If I move into the next conversation, which is collaboration, that’s really, now a bunch of people are coming together, and now there’s multiple stories in a room, right? So whether we’re talking about a meeting or we’re talking about a community meeting or a business meeting or even a family thing, everybody’s coming with their stories. And so that’s why collaboration is so difficult because we get locked into our stories. So the art of the collaborative conversation is not giving up your story but being willing to A, recognize that your story isn’t the truth. It’s one opinion out of many, many, many thousands of opinions, or maybe just one out of the five in the room. And not give it up, but also not be attached to it so much that in conversation, the analogy I use is like you’re holding your opinion with a fist. You’re like, look; it’s got to be this way. This is what I believe. This is what is right. This is what is true. If I come with a fist and you come with a fist, we’re bumping fists, and we get nowhere. So, to better be in this conversation, we open our hands.
Again, don’t give it up, but we open our hands. We go; here’s why I think the way I’m thinking. Here are my concerns. Here are the standards by which I’m making this judgment. There are always power issues; authority and power issues play a big role in the book, and desires always play a big role. So that conversation is our ability to come together, listen, and learn from each other, and magic happens because all of a sudden, I can say, oh gosh, Adrian, when you said that, I never thought of it that way. And suddenly, I can be flexible and fluid enough to change my thinking, right?
Is the hardest part of opening your fist that listening part? Because we get so, like you say, if I’ve got my story and I’m holding it in my fist, I’m less likely to listen to other people. You know, there’s all kinds of work done on, you know, great leaders are good listeners and so on, and how hard it is for us as leaders to listen because we have an opinion and a solution. Is that the key to the collaboration type of conversation?
Yeah, the actual, you know, we all know how many thousands of books have been written on listening, right? Mirror the other person, repeat the words, and all those things. But, if you don’t do your work, if you aren’t aware of the identification you have with a story, there’s not even room in your brain to listen because you’re busy thinking about your next point and how you’re going to prove them wrong, or how you’re going to prove your point is right. So that’s key.
That’s the key to open that hand and go, here, I will show my hand. And then the two things that happen in this conversation are advocacy and inquiry. And we need to be taught better to do too. We’re taught to be advocates to win the battle. And we need to be taught how to ask those questions. But if I open my hand, then I want to also the other art is how can I ask a really good question, so I understand your position better. So, what are you concerned about? What standards are you using to judge this, and what fears do you have? And that changes the dynamic of a conversation.
No, I love that idea, too, because you know, Chester and I, like a lot of leaders, you know, we get into this trap where people pay us to come to talk to them, and so they take as our advice, and so we kind of fall, I don’t know if you do this, where you think everything you say is right. But a lot of leaders. It’s not just right; it’s genius.
And so I love this collaborative idea, and we counsel a lot of CEOs and other leaders, and they get into that too, where, gee, boss, brilliant idea. And I remember telling somebody something a little while ago, who didn’t work for me, didn’t get paid for it, and she goes, yeah, I don’t believe that. And it startled me for a moment, and I was rather taken aback. But then I calmed down, and I asked, oh, why is that?
And then she gave her a thought, which shook me up a little bit. It was good for me. But we get into this habit, right? Especially for the boss, we’re always right. Yeah, and just that simple move where you got startled, right? But then you had the presence of mind because of your experience and wisdom. You had the presence of mind to ask her a question. Help me understand how you disagree and why you disagree. And in the book, I use power or authority issues, desires, concerns, and standards as a fundamental template for asking good questions. This is fascinating. So, take us to our third conversation.2
So, imagine, let’s take Adrian’s example.
When he asked the question of the – it was a female, you said, right? When you ask the question, suddenly, you have new information you didn’t have. So when we are in a good collaborative mutual learning conversation, we almost slide into a creative conversation, the third being creativity, the conversation for creative conversation. We slide into that because what happens is as we let go, we open our hands, we learn from each other, and there’s space in our minds because we aren’t so locked down. And ideas bubble up. And in Adrian’s case, it might have been that you and the CEO might have said, well, it’s not Adrian’s way. And then you hear her. And maybe a third idea, maybe a new idea bubbles up that you didn’t think about or she didn’t think about. And so that’s the value of the creative conversation. And there are a couple of parts to it. One is at an individual level; are we willing to put aside our judgments so we really can consider possibilities? Because this conversation is about uncovering possibilities, being open to possibilities, and trusting our intuition is the other personal element. Because often our intuition is going to say, hey, try, you know, go that way or this way. But we often can’t even hear those voices because of our stories and our defensiveness. Does that make sense? Yeah, yeah. You’re open. All of a sudden, you’re open to that creativity.
And that’s what’s missing in a lot of conversations, whether within your families or your communities; certainly, in the political spectrum, there aren’t very many creative conversations going on. You know, I’m right, you’re wrong.
Right, and a lot of people say it’s a brainstorming conversation. Well, in any brainstorming session, you’ve been in, the first mistake that’s made is someone will come up with an idea, and the next person says, we did that; we tried that five years ago.
Right, and they shut it down.
And the conversation is shut down, right? And the art is to be open to possibilities. It reminds me of quantum physics because there’s all this potentiality and all these possibilities. Still, if we are locked in on a particular answer or direction, we can’t see or even hear all these other possibilities. Thanks for going to quantum physics because it’s where I would have done pretty soon.
It’s our go-to. Yeah, you can blame everything on physics. Yeah. Since we watched the Big Bang Theory on TV, we’ve been deeply diving into quantum physics. I love that. Yeah. So. So conversation type number four.
Okay, so. So now everything we talked about is I think of it on a spiral. So we can get locked into our own story, good or bad, but if we hold it open, we come up a funnel and have a collaborative conversation where we’re opening things up. And then, we have that conversation and come to a mutually creative conversation. That’s wide open. What’s possible? And then the last conversation is commitment conversation, where it collapses again. Because commitment conversations are where the action is, this is who will do what and by when. It’s like business and, well, life.
We live on promises, one chain of promises after another. If you ask me to do the podcast, I agree, right? Voila, we have a podcast. And then it serves you in one way; it serves me in another. Because we did the podcast, I can say to somebody else, hey, I did a podcast with Chester and Adrian. And so we live in these little promises, right?
And interestingly enough, we do that conversation really badly. Because we are addicted to yes, we’re addicted to sure. The boss says, hey, can you get me those slide decks for this afternoon for tomorrow’s meeting on a flyby request? And I’m sitting at my desk saying, oh yeah, sure, boss, no problem. And then I spent four hours doing it, sending them to me that night, the next morning to find out it wasn’t what they wanted at all, right? Because I just said sure, they needed to be clearer about what they wanted; I didn’t ask questions about what they wanted, so we ended up with a bad promise, which broke, leading to distrust. So it’s a very, there’s a particular dance that I lay out in the book that helps us understand how this thing gets structured and how to slow it down a little bit, and you know, if you’re going to request someone be clear. You know there are timing elements, there’s what is a good look like elements. There are authority elements. There are all these pieces to it, right? But in the end, it is about making promises and then fulfilling them because that’s how we build trust.
So, what if you’re addicted to yes? Chester and I just had this conversation yesterday. We were working with a client in Denver, and he said, Yeah, I got on this two-hour call with 20 people on a Saturday. I said, well, why’d you do that? He goes I don’t know So careful chess. He’s a little addicted to yes, yeah, yeah.
It was one of those things, right? I said, awesome. I’m on this thing, and I go, why would I give up two hours of mine? Saturday for a panel that’s too long and has too many people. They didn’t just start. Adrian’s much better at this than I was. Do you look at your calendar? I go, I Guess I don’t. A friend of mine asked me to be on the thing, and I said, well, he’s my friend, and he would do it for me, so I’ll do it for him. And you’re right. We do get addicted to it; I want to be the guy that always supports everybody else. If I start to say no, that diminishes my brand, right? I’m a helper.
That’s the social pattern, right? I mean, and again, it’s not, don’t take it personally. You didn’t even choose that pattern, right?
It’s my mother’s fault. I’m going to go right to my mom. That’s right.
Look, when someone makes their, how this game works, this dance with commitment conversations, someone either makes a request or an offer, that it’s as simple as that. Someone says, will you do this for me? Or I can make the decision, make an offer, or I will do this for you. And then it falls into the trap of, sure, that sounds good. Of course, I can help. But that’s only one option. No should be part of our vocabulary. Only for self-preservation, taking care of ourselves, and sometimes taking care of the other person. They’re asking for something that doesn’t need or should be done differently. And one of my teachers, Rafael Echeverria, said a request without a possible no isn’t a request. It’s a third option that is not rocket science, it’s not surprising, but it’s called the counteroffer. And that means that Chester if you’re asked to do something on a Saturday, and you take a breath and instead of saying yes, you go, wow, that sounds like a good community of folks that I should, would like to talk to. You know, Saturday doesn’t work for me, could we do it Monday morning? That’s a counteroffer. And they might come back and say, no, I can’t do it Monday, but what about Tuesday? And so we’re in a loop where we’re trying to get to yes, but we’re doing it in a way that satisfies you, the other person, and more likely creates a good promise.
Yeah, yeah, I like this counteroffer. Get them to say no. Right. Then you’re off the hook. Right. Hey, I made a good offer. It’s like when you offer to help somebody move, and then they hire a mover, and you get credit for the offer.
Even though you didn’t have to help the guy move, this is genius.
And it’s true in business, these flyby requests that someone gives, there’s no space to ask questions like, why do you want the deck? Who is it for? How long does it want to be? What’s your style? If you ask a few questions, you’re more likely to come up with a good promise. So I’m inserting this notion of clarifying your request before you even get to yes, no, or counteroffer. So if a request comes your way, ask, what’s it about? Tell me more. Why are we doing this? What would be the benefit? You ask some questions to understand better what you’re saying yes, no, or counteroffering. Does that make sense? Smart questions.
Hey, by the way, we had a list of questions for Chuck. We’ve asked for two. It’s amazing how interviewing a guy who’s an expert on conversations led to a great conversation. This is fun. How do people learn more about your work, Chuck?
Where would you send them?
So, my website is chuckwisner.com. I am on Instagram. I’m promoting the book on Instagram as Chuck underscore Wisner. I’m on LinkedIn, Chuck Wisner. The book is available on Amazon for pre-order, and it’s going to be on it’s going to be available next Tuesday, the 25th, or something like that. So that’s, and I’m writing a bunch of articles I’ll put on my social media and LinkedIn. I just finished an article for the Harvard Business Review. It was published two days ago, one for Psychology Today and one for Fast Company. So those articles should be available.
So, Chuck, this has been such an engaging conversation. And the thing that we’ve done a lot of work on is the podcast on anxiety. How does mastering these four types of conversation help lower people’s anxiety? And then my follow-up question is whether this is a great tactic in your personal and family life. If we answer those two questions, we’ll wrap it up, but this has been beyond interesting.
Yeah. So, about anxiety, I think a lot of the root of anxiety, so in my book, I again use a spiral that when we can catch ourselves in conversation or our emotional reaction, anxiety, anger, or disappointment. I like the visual of a funnel; at the bottom of the funnel is fear, and at the top is love or open compassion. So, when we catch ourselves with an emotional reaction, to ask ourselves where am I? Am I spinning down because if we spin down the funnel, if a fear kicks in, we spin down that funnel, and we can’t see straight at all? All we do is feel fear and get the chemical flush in our body, right? So, if we can catch ourselves somewhere and go, I’m having this anxiety, what’s this about? And we can ask ourselves a few questions. What am I concerned about? Are my desires not aligned with reality? Is there a power struggle going on? Just that moment to ask yourself a few questions often brings some worries and things into the light so you can manage them better. Because when we’re going down the funnel, it gets pretty dark and foggy down there. And the idea is to become aware of what our thinking is behind our emotions to manage them. Most people don’t realize that your emotions are a physical manifestation of your thinking. And so if you can get under it, you have a much more conscious awareness of how your thinking drives fear. Does that make sense? Absolutely. I love that idea of catching ourselves in the fear funnel. Hey, if you had a couple of last takeaways for the listeners today, a couple of things to take away, one or two things, what would you say, Chuck? Start with yourself.
When you are in a conversation that feels like it’s going off the rails or is stressful, you know, calm, get yourself present, you know, ground yourself on your body, you know, sit straight and be willing to say, be willing to reveal some of your thinking, right? And that takes a little work because we have, we all have to process our inner dialogues, what I call our private conversations, but that work is enormously valuable because, at the moment then, you become much more adept at not being hijacked by them but by using them in a positive way. And the second thing is we have to fall in love with questions. We are taught to advocate. We’re taught in school we raise our hand to have the answer. We aren’t raising our hands because we have to go to the bathroom. We may do that when we have to, but we raise our hand because we have the answer. We don’t raise our hand and say; I have a really good question for you. And some teachers might be, a good teacher would be open to that, but a not-good teacher would not. So we have to fall in love with questions, you know, to better understand each other and ourselves.
Just such good advice. I love everything you’ve said, you know, and it’s so interesting as you started to break it down into the four types; that resonated with me because, as you mentioned, the first one, the storytelling, it’s so easy to get lost in that, and that’s your brand, and disregard the others. And as you start to understand the different ways to communicate and protect yourself. I also really appreciated the idea there of how you tamp down your anxiety. You start with love, don’t let it funnel down into fear. Start with yourself. So some great advice there. Listen, Chuck, this has been delightful. Tell us one more time where people can get your book because they want to have it if they want deep and meaningful relationships. Yeah, yeah. At work, at home, and in their communities. Is that a big enough endorsement right there for you?
Great, it’s online at Amazon, it’s online at Barnes and Noble. And I’m hoping it’ll be in bookstores in a week or so. So have at it. And, you know, a lot of stuff is packed into the book, but it’s worth the effort.
Excellent. Well, listen, thanks so much for being on the podcast. It has been a delight.
Thank you both.
Okay, Adrian, so there are 15 questions on the sheet. We got through like two because he’s such a great conversationalist. Tell me what some of your main takeaways were.
Well, starting with that, we are not educated to have conversations. I mean, what a silly thing that in, you know, 18 years of going to school, by the time you’re all said and done, that nobody’s given you at least one lesson on, here’s how you have a conversation. I remember a business leader that used to do that with his new employees. He’d sit them around the conference table and say, okay, have a conversation with me because he knew they would interact with clients and each other. And they had no idea, these young people, how to start and maintain a conversation.
So, he had to teach them this. So, first off, that was powerful. It made sense to me that most of this is inherited. The way you grow up and the conversations you have at the dinner table, school, or on the soccer pitch, whatever it might be, makes sense. And yet, it never occurred to me that we would gravitate towards one of the four that would be dominant and how important it is to understand all three. I love the commitment, the commitment conversation, that clarification, and how that tamps down your anxiety. I know what’s expected when it’s due, how perfect it has to be. And, of course, one of my biggest takeaways is the counteroffer. I love that. I’m going to live with that for the next 20 years.
Well, and on that commitment, how many people say yes and never do it? Yeah. And that’s powerful. And deliver. Backing up, I want to start with the idea of the stories we tell ourselves. In his case, I’m not a big guy. And I’ve seen that too. That’s one little example, but where do people go? Am I tall? You’re like 6’3″. Yeah, you’re tall. But they still are small in their minds because it’s something that’s happened. That’s just one example, but we carry these stories around like little bubbles.
And yes, I am this way. I am this political party. I am this. I am this, that, or the other, but not collaborating.
How we hold our stories in a fist. That was such a great metaphor. And to be collaborative, you’ve got to open your fist. You’ve got to be open to other people’s ideas. The last takeaway I thought was brilliant is falling in love with questions. Fall in love with questions. Raise your hand and say teacher, I’ve got an excellent question for you—the preamble. And be curious. We’ve lost in our personal dialogue, in our public dialogue, that curiosity. And, of course, the outreach of curiosity is lots of questions. So fall in love with questions. It was my big takeaway from today. And I love that idea. And I’ve seen that where people do that. And it’s so refreshing where you may have a wacky idea and somebody going; they go, tell me more about that yeah yeah, and it’s, and you know they’re not buying in, but at least they want to listen to you, and it kind of challenges you as well to present your point in a more thoughtful way versus yeah that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard it yeah well I guess was Chuck Wisner and an engaging conversationalist as you would hope his book is the art of conscious conversations transforming how we talk, listen, and interact. I’m going to order my copy. You should order yours too, and I’m sure it’ll be brilliant.
We always like to give special thanks to our producer Brent Klein, who puts this together and edits out all our fireballs and mistakes, and to Christy Lawrence, who helps us find these amazing guests. And, of course, to all of you who listen in, we love sharing the knowledge of all these wonderful people we meet with you. And if you like the podcast, please share it. We’ve created a virtual online community called thecultureworks.ai. And that’s a place where you can be safe in talking about anxiety and workplace issues and so on. We appreciate you giving us our time. Please share it. Join our community. Adrian?
And we love to speak to audiences around the world, virtually or in person, on the topics of wellness, resilience, and culture. So give us a call. We’d love to talk to you about your event. Don’t forget to pick up our book, Anxiety at Work.
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And we wish you the best of mental health.