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Hi Folks! We welcome you all to yet another episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Today, we have two special guests on our show, Naseem Khuri and Robert Wilkinson, who share some insightful information on our perceptions of conflict and ways to manage it.
Naseem Khuri is an adjunct assistant professor of International Negotiations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is a senior partner at Dragonfly Partners, a principal at CM Partners, and a senior facilitator at Vantage Partners. Naseem offers training and consulting services to private sector clients in manufacturing, energy, energy consulting, and baNKing.
He also works with public and NGO sector organizations, foundations, nonprofits, international organizations, and government institutions. Naseem’s clients include the US State Department, the US Navy Seals, the US Air Force, the World Bank, and human rights organizations in Northern Ireland. Mr Khuri has a Master’s in public policy from Harvard and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Boden. He is also a member of the Truman National Security Project and musician.
As for Rob, he is a teacher of negotiation and leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and was previously a faculty member at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He has over 25 years of experience helping organizations across public, private, and nonprofit sectors build their negotiation and leadership skills.
Rob’s clients include the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, National Urban League, and many Fortune 500 companies such as Deloitte, Chevron, IBM, Merck, and Bank of America. He has worked on international projects in countries like Rwanda, Angola, and Laos, and has trained presidential appointees at the White House. Rob holds a Master’s degree from Stanford and a Bachelor’s degree from MIT.
Now, with that long intro sorted, let’s get to the good stuff.
Rob kicks off the conversation by explaining that conflict is not always equated with destruction, violence, or war, but rather it is just incompatible goals between different groups pursuing their interests. According to him, conflict is not inherently bad, but the methods people take to achieve their interests can be destructive.
Naseem agrees and adds that the perception of conflict often drives behavior, even though statistically, this may not be the case. He highlights that the perception of conflict has the ability to play with our emotions and that it is the perception of a conflict that drives behavior, not just the conflict itself.
When it comes to our ability to deal with conflict, Naseem strongly believes that it combines nature (our physiology) and nurture (our upbringing and experiences). In his opinion, conflict resolution is a skill that can be improved with effort, similar to playing basketball.
Moving on, Rob highlights the importance of understanding the other person’s perspective and avoiding jumping to conclusions about their behavior. He highly recommends pausing and gathering more information, holding judgment in suspension, and asking questions first to avoid unnecessary conflict. This approach requires discipline and can help to defuse potentially volatile situations.
All in all, to manage conflict, leaders need to take a moment and understand the motivations and interests behind the behavior of others. They also need to set the tone for the conversation and use the right process depending on whether they want to provoke conflict or build unity.
Apart from that, it is important for leaders to recognize the appropriate time to explore disagreements for learning purposes and the appropriate time to seek consensus for team building and inspiration. In the context of overseas aid work, the idea of pausing and assessing the situation before acting was found to be crucial in avoiding unnecessary harm and reducing the human cost of responding to a crisis.
When asked why biases play a role in our decision-making processes, Naseem suggests that a combination of nature and nurture influences our biases and behavior. The factors that shape our decisions and behavior are wide-ranging, including short-term and long-term experiences.
He then cites the book, “Behave” by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, which looks at the brain science behind why we do what we do and how our actions are influenced by many factors, from the moment leading up to a decision to experiences from our childhood and beyond.
Additionally, Naseem references a study on Israeli judges, who were found to be less favorable to defendants because they had not had lunch that day, as an example of how something as simple as hunger can impact our behavior.
The way we behave and make decisions is influenced by many factors ranging from our experiences over time, cultural and societal norms, and even small events such as whether we are hungry or not.
Our brains have evolved to quickly identify and categorize things, but this can sometimes lead to prejudice and stereotyping. As a result, it’s important to take a moment to reflect and slow down before making decisions or jumping to conclusions about others. Afterall, our ability to think critically and judge situations separates us from just operating on instinct.
Rob explains that humans are naturally social creatures who have evolved to survive by forming groups or in-groups and that this tendency is hardwired into us. He cites Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which explains how humans evolved into the social creatures they are today.
However, the downside of this tendency to form in-groups is the tendency to overgeneralize the homogeneity of out-groups and expand the heterogeneity of our own in-group, leading to prejudice and stereotyping.
This is why it is important to educate people and train them to use their cognitive abilities to override these instinctive tendencies and form more accurate perceptions of people and groups.
Naseem, Rob, Aram, and Nolan discuss a lot more on this episode of the NEGOTIATEx Podcast. Write to us at email@example.com and share your thoughts on this very informational podcast episode.
On a different note, we are happy to announce that NEGOTIATEx was featured as one of the top ten negotiations podcasts. Read the full list here: negotiation podcasts
Thank you for listening!
Nolan Martin : Hey everyone, welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. I'm your co-host and co-founder Nolan Martin. And with me is the man, my good friend, Aram Donigian. Aram is also the co-host and co-founder of NEGOTIATEx. And Aram, we got two guests, which is not what we have been doing normally.
So,let's kick it off.
Aram Donigian : Sure. Why not try to mix it up a little bit and no one better to mix it up with than our two guests today. So let me introduce our guests Naseem and Rob. Naseem Khuri is an adjunct assistant professor of International Negotiations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Naseem’s a trainer, consultant, mediator and facilitator specializing in negotiation, influence and conflict management.
He's a senior partner with Dragonfly Partners, a principal with CM Partners and a senior facilitator with Vantage Partners. He works with Fortune 100 companies in the private sector offering training and consulting services to clients ranging from procurement officers, managing key vendor relationships to loan officers, managing long-term borrow relationships.
Clients come from the manufacturing energy, energy consulting and banking industries in the public and NGO sectors. He works with foundations, nonprofits, international organizations and government institutions managing strategic planning processes, delivering customized negotiation, influence training, and facilitating internal change conversations and initiatives.
AD : Clients include Israeli, Palestinian, International Diplomats and political leaders. US State Department, US Navy seals, US Air Force, the World Bank and Human Rights Organizations in Northern Ireland. Previously, he was a senior advisor to the Kennedy School Negotiation Project at Harvard Kennedy School, where he developed and delivered customized capacity building workshops to mid and high level public sector clients in Europe and Asia and to local government staff, military personnel and law enforcement agencies in the US.
Prior to that, Naseem was the executive director of the Dubai Initiative, HKS where he served as a bridge between the school and the Dubai School Government. There he oversaw the program's budget and fellowship program and created and developed and funded innovative research and outreach programs aimed at advancing scholarship in and increasing awareness of Middle Eastern issues.
Naseem has a Master's in public policy from Harvard and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Boden.
AD : He's a member of the Truman National Security Project. He's also a fantastic musician. Our other guest is Rob Wilkinson, who teaches courses on negotiation and leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and was previously a faculty member of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Rob successfully supports numerous Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and international organizations and charities, helping them to build their negotiation leadership and team management skills and to increase their overall effectiveness. He has more than 25 years of experience in over 50 countries across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Nonprofit and public sector clients include the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Wildlife Fund, National Urban League, US Postal Service Care International, US Office of Personnel Management, and the White House where he's trained presidential appointees in negotiation management and leadership.
Corporate and clients include companies such as Deloitte, Chevron, IBM, Merck, Fidelity, ExxonMobil, Johnson Johnson, Bank of America, Thermo Fisher, and many others. Previously, Rob worked for 15 years on a variety of international projects. This included spending three years in Rwanda working with Hutu and Tutsi communities, two years working with the UN Peacekeeping mission in Angola, and 18 months in Laos Consulting and a variety of community development programs.
He began his overseas work in Nicaragua, in both Santa Anisa, in contra areas, Robert had his masters from Stanford and bachelor's from MIT.
Gentlemen, that was a lot to say to let folks know where you're coming from. Welcome. It's good to have you with us today!
Naseem Khuri : Thanks so much for having us. Great to see you.
AD : Well, listen, let's jump into this. Time is a precious commodity and I certainly appreciate that about you both. I know you have a lot of things. You work heavily in the conflict area. Why is conflict so persistent and is it going away anytime soon?
NK : All right, really. Start with the easy ones, Aram? Thanks, <laugh> Rob, you wanna take that?
Rob Wilkinson : Well, let me start. Yeah, I mean, I think the first thing to say is that when I first learned about the kind of discipline of conflict resolution, the first thing that most professionals say about it is that conflict is not equated with necessarily destruction or violence or war. Sometimes we use that word interchangeably with violence or war. And really many conflict resolution practitioners start with the idea that conflict is just incompatible goals between different groups trying to pursue their interests. And so the form that conflict takes can be very constructive. You know, one of the principles in, you know, the classic text that so many negotiation people look at getting to yes, by Roger Fisher and William Urie and Bruce Patton. They say, you know, it's a good thing there's conflict. I mean, every economy functions on this difference of opinion.
RW : I, you know, I value this more than the thing you're selling, than, you know, than $500 or whatever. And the other person values $500 more than the thing they're selling. And so that's actually good for us. Every stock trade is based on the premise that one side thinks the price is gonna go up, the other one thinks it goes down.
So, difference isn't inherently a bad thing, it's just that when people take methods to achieve their interest, it can be destructive. Now we have a destructive conflict. So conflict by definition isn't going away ever because human beings function like that. It's the management of conflict in a more constructive way that we're working to build capacity for in all these different environments.
NK : Yeah, it's also I think, the perception of conflict that drives a lot of behavior, right? So one thing that always strikes me is that a lot of historians and experts have said that right now we live in one of the more peaceful times in human history, and it sure as hell doesn't feel that way.
And so the perception of conflict is something that often drives our behavior because of this, because it does not feel safe, because it feels like there's a lot of conflict in the world to Rob's point, unproductive conflict in the world, then it feels like we're sort of out of control, or we're living in this heightened sense of anxiety and we're not quite sure what to do with ourselves.
But, that's largely a function of perception, so conflict has that ability to sort of play with our emotions as well, and not just sort of exist on its own, but it's the perception of it that sort of drives us.
AD : You mentioned kind of the perception piece is our response to conflict simply biological? Is it the fight or flight response? Is there, is there more to it? Why are we so uncomfortable with something that, as you both have said, is natural and doesn't have to be perceived as a negative thing?
NK : I don't think we're, if you ever just go on Twitter, you'll find people are definitely not uncomfortable with conflict, right? People are very happy to engage in conflict. And just like any other human trait, I think there is different aptitudes, different ways in which ways in which it lives inside of us, ways in which we deal with it. Some of which we are born with, some of which we need to cultivate.
So, I think there's this combination of nature, nurture. I think sometimes people treat the scientific sort of physiological aspect of this. Like Aram, you mentioned fight or flight, right? There are absolute, as we all know, and there's tons of research on it. There's physiological things happening in our body that makes, perhaps, us more conducive to conflict in an unproductive way. And I think sometimes that's just used as a crutch.
NK : Sometimes people say, you know, well, we have this fight or flight response and we've got cortisol pumping through our veins and, therefore I'm out of control. I can't do anything about this. That's just the body. And I have nothing to do with that. And, you know, I would challenge that. I would say that sure, there's things that we definitely cannot control and there's plenty that we can control and there's plenty of work that we can always do.
So, I like to think that I still have a shot at the NBA, right? But I'm in my forties and am six feet tall and I have a bad back. I'm sort of, there are these natural things that are limiting me and I can always get better at basketball, right? There's always room for improvement. I can always get better at the actual skill itself. So, I'd like to think that it's that balance of nature and nurture. As we think of conflict as with anything else, my propensity to have or engage in conflict productively is similar to my abilities as a basketball player.
RW : Sorry, I just gotta say, I'm so looking forward to seeing the scene on the basketball court after that. <laugh>,
NK : It's ugly.
AD : I've seen him shoot, shoot a few, shots too. He's not bad.
RW : All right. All right. Let's..
NK : Thanks. I'll take, I'll take.
NM : So, a follow up from that is just, so if conflict can be good, and we've said that already, how you know, this podcast for leaders and how they're able to kind of take the skills that we, we teach them and kind of implement in their lives or in their businesses or anything like that.
So, how can a leader manage conflict if it's so good? And, what are some of the keys to success for leaders?
RW : Great question. And there are some very specific things leaders can do that I think are linked to Aram’s question, really, which is that it's not just biological. There's sort of intellectual and individual process management choices we can make that increase our likelihood of being successful.
So, for example, the perception point Naseem raised is such a great one because sometimes conflicts that are are just perceived slight.
So our great colleague Larry Suskin wrote it in one book, you know, dealing with an angry public. He has this great little analogy. If you're hiking in the woods and you know, you don't realize that you're crossing in between a mama bear and a baby, a cub bear, then you know, the mama bear comes running at you and you think it's entirely offensive on her part.
You know, I didn't do anything wrong and now they're coming at me.
RW : And so you might wanna attack back. Whereas she thinks she's defensive trying to save her child. And actually in the workplace, or in just general interactions, that analogy comes up all the time. You know, you're thinking, why is this jerk doing this? Or who are they to say that they're just trying to make me look bad? And we have all these stories, we quickly tell ourselves about why people are doing what we're they're doing.
And one of the things we all, I know, all of us on the call here teach this idea of first pausing and trying to understand what might be driving their behavior, what might be their underlying interest or motivation here. And you can't be a mind reader. You can't know for sure, but you can hold in suspension your judgment until you get a little bit more information. And that simple kind of discipline of just holding on for a second and then just asking first can turn out to avoid a whole lot of conflict.
RW : So that's one idea. And then the only other one I'll mention is just that in groups as leaders, the way that we set the tone for the process we're gonna use in the conversation makes a big difference on whether we're gonna provoke conflict or not.
And sometimes we wanna, I wouldn't say a negative way, but we wanna provoke conflict when we're doing sometimes brainstorming or a process called red teaming where you have one group kind of critique the other and just kinda like devil's advocate in teams. And there's may be reasons we want to do that, as a leader. And then there's times where we're trying to maybe build a sense of team, a sense of unity, some inspiration to take on a big challenge.
And in that case, you want to kind of maybe do the opposite, build a shared sense of identity and a shared vision. So my sense is for leaders, the judgment between knowing when to explore and expand on the disagreement for learning purposes and when to seek consensus for inspirational and team building purposes is one of those hidden features of excellent leaders, which isn't really talked about as much as I think it should be.
NK : Rob, can you just say that quote that you always say, don't just, don't just say something…..
RW : Oh, yeah. Well, in the, so I worked, as you heard of my background in overseas aid work. And so sometimes we had to do some urgent response to a humanitarian issue. And some of the great leaders in that area would always say, don't just do things. Stand there, you know, and, and in one case, I remember we had a really, when I was living in Rwanda working for Oxfam, amazingly, a volcano actually erupted in Congo next door, and 250,000 people were fleeing across the border.
And so one of those leading thinkers on this question came out to help us. And he said, the first thing we have to do is rent a helicopter. And we looked at each other thinking, really, that's our urgent priority. And he said, well, we have to figure out what's going on. Who's where, where's the lava flowing?
RW : Where are there already camps set up? Before we do anything else, we gotta just assess the situation. And it turned out to be worth its weight and gold, there was actually very little human cost in that response because the people managing it, I was not managing it. People who were, were very thoughtful. And even all the way through to short term things, like if anyone's been trained in first aid, for example, if you come onto a scene where someone's been injured or something, the first thing they teach you is first stop and look around and assess. Don't just rush over to the person.
What if the thing that hurt them is now hurts you and there's two people down who have you helped them? So it's the idea of just, it's same for conflict management, slow down, pause, listen, assess first before we just fire back our response, which is so often the case
NK : That firing back to me is such a huge component of unproductive conflict in the world right now, if I can dare to say such a big thing. But the propensity that people have to quickly, quickly, quickly react and to just fire right back. And you see it in every single environment, whether it's, whether it's in a leadership setting with a, someone in the C-suite just shooting down a quick idea that they think will never work or they think is out of budget or out of scope to Will Smith at the Oscars.
And every single instance of conflict that we see and that we work with within organizations or within the government or wherever we're doing all this work. I bet, and we haven't actually done this exercise overall, but maybe we could look at pool, our clients, and I bet we could look at conflict within that unproductive conflict and point to certain instances where someone fires back unproductively.
They are reactive, they do this without thinking, they rely on impulse to do it, and it leads to a worse place than they were before. And so, that's just something I think we tend to undersell in general. I think we often talk about conflict as a whole or conversations as a whole or difficult dynamics in an organization, when in actuality oftentimes comes back to our tendency to just fire back very quickly in very specific moments.
NM : I like to highlight kind of two, two things that you had said there, just cause I think it hugely beneficial for the group, and that's tactical patience. So this was definitely something I learned during my special operations time in the US Army. It served me incredibly well for the next seven years of being a leader. So, you know, incredibly important for what y'all mentioned, and the application across industries is very vast. And then the second thing you had mentioned, just to reiterate, is to be tough on the problem….
RW : ….Soft on the people, Roger Fisher.
NM : Yeah, to be tough on the problem is soft on the people. And as we have differing viewpoints, especially in a situation that's going to be, you know, raise conflict or at least be, have some conflict within it, I think that's really important, that you kind of highlighted there, Rob.
AD : So I wanted to go to both these points. Holding judgments, withholding judgment is a hard thing to do, and you, and you, you hit it, right? Cause we have a, we have a tendency for action. It seems that when we do that, our assumptions are often wrong. Thoughts about why that is? Why are we so affected by biases? Is it nurture? Is it nature in the scene? Going back to something you said earlier. Is it our family story, and where we come from? Why do we get that so wrong? That's part one. Part two is how do you convince somebody who says, I don't care about how they see things. I don't care to pause because I know I'm so right. How do you answer those two things?
RW : Again, Aram,with the small questions,
AD : Just the small ones for you. Yeah.
NK : <laugh>, maybe I'll take a shot at the first one. not necessarily take a shot, but just reference something. So there's this great book by Robert Sapolsky, who is a neuroscientist who wrote this big old long book called Behave. And it talks all about why we do the things we do. Simple as that, right? And a lot of brain science, a lot of science in general. The one thing that's really cool about this book is that it's structured in the sense of we are led to our decisions and we are led to behave the way we do.
And he looks at it sort of how big the window is that you're looking, so I'm not being articulate here, basically right before the moments that something happens, there's a certain set of things that happened that lead you to that decision. But also 30 years before, there's a lot of things that led you to that exact moment a week before there are things that led you to that exact moment.
I'm thinking about the sort of all the way from, you know, as you a, as you say, sort of experiences you've had since when you were a child all the way to whether you had lunch that day. And there's that famous Israeli study around judges who were less favorable to defendants, simply because they hadn't had lunch that day.
And you should be careful of how you, what time your <laugh> your court appointment is, if it's right before lunch, watch out <laugh>. So, that's just a plug on that it's a huge question around, you know, why we have these biases and why we do the things we do that can be traced back to few seconds before all the way to years and years and years before.
In summary, just read the book, Aram. That's all I'm saying. Just read the book, Stop being lazy and read the book.
RW : Let me try to be a little more constructive than our dear friend. <laugh>. No, the only one thing I would just add to your question, but your questions really both, which have to do with the fact that why do we bring in judgment so quickly and we wanna read quickly, and we sometimes think, I don't care what they think. Well, the way we've evolved, I mean, I know all of you on a call know this, but the way we've evolved as human beings, you know, for millennia our lives didn't change that much.
We were just hunters and gatherers. And then, you know, the world exploded in a whole different way with the industrial revolution. But before that, we didn't, you know, need all the things we're talking about as much. Our lives didn't, you know, if, if you're, you know, a hunter gatherer and you hear a russell in the bushes, Nolan's point about tactical empathy, like that wasn't part of the existence, then you didn't think, I'm curious what's going on in those bushes.
RW : It might be that, you know, you just ran <laugh>. So our brains didn't evolve to have to think about all this stuff. But as we started to become more and more social, one of the interesting things in the research that we've been learning in social psychology is that we very strongly identify with the group that we're in. And we see sharp boundaries between outgroup people who aren't like us.
And there's a few interesting things about the research there, which is that there's some important things we have to do to survive like that, which is to quickly collapse groups and make, make groups in a way that we can quickly understand. Like when we're driving on the highway, there's cars around us. There's not, oh, that's a Nissan stanza, and I'll look at that. That's a, you know, Cadillac, that one has a scratch. We don't think that way.
RW : We think it's just cars cuz we can't drive safely if we don't start to, you know, categorize things. The trouble is when we bring in judgements about that outgroup, now we have the problem because then we have prejudice and stereotyping and that kind of thing. So, again, a reinforcement of that pausing and reflecting slows us down from leaping to conclusions, which is, oh, those people are just like that. Whereas we're just trying to do the right thing here. And us and them really deepens because we've evolved that way. But we've also evolved with the ability to actually bring in some cognitive judgment about whether that makes sense or not, rather than just operate out of instincts.
AD : So Rob, to kind of wait where you're, you're talking, are we as human beings just tribal by nature? And are we just naturally inclined to form in groups and outgroups and vilify those who see the world, think about us, think about things differently, and for survival's sake, we just need to find our group, go there. And how is it that tribalism exists in 2023? Why is it so predominant?
RW : I mean, the way that I would put it is that we have evolved to survive by being social preachers. And what it means to be a social creature means that you find your in-group. Yes. So we are kind of geared towards that. We're hardwired for that. And it does make sense, you know, that is how we survive.
I mean, you know, yet another book references that the, you know, the, the, there's a kind of a famous book that is by Jared Diamond that looks at the history of how human beings evolved basically.
And the long sort of millennial version of how we kind of became who we are. And you know, there was a period as hunter, gatherers, or even as individuals, we didn't have to worry about, you know, there you, you just picked berries, let's say, but now you may have a choice where now that we can get together and hunt, we could kill a, you know, mastodon or something and then eat for several days, or we might get nothing and have no food to eat.
RW : So, we have to make judgments about who's gonna do what. You go down to the water and you pick mollusks and we'll go hunt for this creature and you plant seeds over there. So we had to develop a system to work together to survive. And so that's a positive thing. That's not, that is not at all a bad thing. The book, by the way, I'm referring to is called Guns, Germs and Steel. It's a fascinating look at how we've evolved as human beings.
And so that's all good. But the downside is that when we bring in the, so here's the specific interesting thing about the research on the social dynamics is that we have a tendency to overgeneralize the homogeneity of the outgroup. And we have a tendency to expand the heterogeneity we see in our own ingroup.
Even if the outgroup actually objectively is far more heterogeneous and they have different kinds of people, we say, oh, those people are just like that. It's our tendency as human beings. So the intellectual effort to override that tendency is basically at the heart of what we teach and train people on and sort of try to educate students about is tools and techniques to use your cognitive part of your brain to override the instinctive part that's, that falls into these us and them categories basically.
NM : Hey, everyone on here had a great conversation with both in the semen. Rob, we're gonna have to end it if you haven't already. Please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast and join us next week for part B of this episode.
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