Today, diversity is an integral part of the business strategy for most global companies. While Tone at the Top is an imperative to ensuring the successful execution of any strategic priority, so is robust employee engagement. Having open and transparent discussions can help advance employee engagement for strategic priorities like diversity. However, when not handled skillfully, such discussions can hinder and even hold progress hostage. I recently connected with Derek Gaunt, author of Ego, Authority, Failure, and who as a member of Chris Voss’ Black Swan Group teaches negotiation principles to businesses. What follows is our exploration of how to approach tough discussions and prevail in a way that benefits all parties.  

Joe Kwon: Derek, diversity is a complex and sometimes polarizing subject that I’ve been exploring through a few different lenses to get deeper insights. I recently came across your book Ego, Authority, Failure, where you look at how certain styles of management can be quite damaging and leverage insights gained as a hostage negotiator. Let’s say you’re talking to someone who is holding onto a less than complimentary view of pro-diversity efforts and you’d like to persuade them to release it. How would you approach this?

Derek Gaunt:  This person, and indeed all of us, view such issues through an emotional prism. There are negative opinions, assumptions and impressions he/she has about pro-diversity efforts. Those negatives will have to be attacked first. By attack, I mean articulating them. For example, one might say to this person, “You probably think pro-diversity efforts in the workplace are touchy-feely concepts that don’t accomplish anything.” These negatives, if left unattended, will be a distraction for them during the conversation if you do not label them. Then, you should be on a mission of guided discovery in order to find out what is the true motivation behind their less than complimentary view. Your instinct will be to explain the “why” behind the pro-diversity efforts and maybe ultimately tell them to shape up or ship out. Resist that urge. A good portion of the conversation is not going to be about your “why,” but about theirs. Discover what lies beneath the surface of their “I-don’t-appreciate-diversity stance.” You may be surprised at what you learn.

Joe Kwon:  This resonates a lot with me, Derek. The first thing I noticed is your approach, like any successful approach to communication, requires you to be in control of yourself. By that I mean harnessing your emotions towards taking effective action instead of allowing your emotions to carry you down less productive paths. It’s answering the question,

Do I want to be right or do I want to be effective?

I think most of us struggle with this. That sense of “being right” is seductive and just feels so good.

The second thing I noticed is your advice to attend to the negatives by labeling them. If you fail to do this, a meeting of the minds is unlikely. We’ve all witnessed conversations where each person is so busy trying to make their own point they do not, indeed cannot, hear what the other person is saying. Can you expand on how labeling works?

Derek Gaunt:  Sure. People love to have other people understand what they are going through and it goes beyond saying, “I understand or I get it.” It is actually demonstrating it. Hanging a tentative label on the emotion heard or the dynamics at play by saying, “It looks/seems/sounds like…” is key. With this technique, you are going after both the presenting and the latent emotion or driving force. For example, Pat says,


Now, in this example, the presenting emotions are anger and betrayal. The latent emotion and dynamic is that Pat is in pain. Labeling the presenting emotion is good. Labeling the latent is better. That is when you demonstrate to the other person that you are listening deeply because you have identified an emotion that they never actually spoke. Very powerful.  

Joe Kwon:  The latent emotion. I really like that. It reminds me of an example I use to demonstrate the hidden nature of conflicts. Let’s say my wife and I get into an argument over taking out the garbage. It’s never really about the garbage. My reaction becomes an inflection point which brings to a head other issues we may be having such as respect, fairness, or consideration. Of course, that’s just a hypothetical and in no way reflects our actual marriage!

Now let’s say you have succeeded in listening deeply and labeling in a way that powerfully connects with the other person. I get the feeling that is not the end of the story. I have demonstrated I understand you and as a result you are more likely to listen. However, our goals still seem to be at cross-purposes. It’s like we are really talking and listening, but one of us still has hostages and the other has the S.W.A.T. team ready to breach. What next steps need to happen to move this forward in a positive manner?

Derek Gaunt:  Labeling is just one of the skills. There are others that must be brought to bear. Navigating a difficult conversation is a guided-discovery process using all of the skills.

Everything you need to know about influencing the other person, they are going to tell you, if you stay true to the process.

So, it’s not, “I labeled and now I understand.” It’s executing all of the skills to demonstrate Tactical Empathy which leads to rapport, which leads to influence, ending with a change in their behavior.

Joe Kwon: I think we sometimes forget how changing someone’s behavior is inextricably linked to changing our own. One thing I find fascinating about the development of hostage negotiations is that in the early days, a lot of the strategies were based on rational game theory and ignored the role of emotions. In the field, these strategies were not working the way negotiators expected. New strategies were developed which changed the behavior of hostage negotiators and as a result, changed the behaviors of the hostage-takers.

I was blown away when you said, “Everything you need to know about influencing the other person, they are going to tell you, if you stay true to the process.” This is such a crucial concept and is at the heart of Tactical Empathy — that if you do the work of helping the person explain and share where they are coming from to the point that they feel completely understood, this helps you increase your influence in every moment that follows. Now, I’m picturing a bend in the road like a literal turning point. How does this happen and what does it look, sound or feel like? 

Derek Gaunt:  In reality there is no noticeable bend in the road. What I mean to say is there is no one-punch knockout when using any of these skills. It is the cumulative effect that we are looking for. I often use a boxing analogy. Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather are two Hall of Fame boxers with remarkable careers. Mike won the majority of his fights by knocking out the other guy with one well-timed punch. Floyd rarely knocked anyone out but never lost a fight. He won by out-pointing the other guy. The cumulative effect of his blows, not just one punch, secured his victories. With Mike, the bend in the road is obvious…the guy is flat on his back with a glazed look in his eyes. With Floyd, you have to go to the judge’s scorecard to determine who won so it is not as obvious. It is the same with employing skills to demonstrate Tactical Empathy.

Now, having said that, there certainly are some tells that the conversation is moving closer to the point where you make your ask. Are they less defensive? Have emotions subsided? Is it clear that they no longer view you as a (figurative) threat? Are you discovering Black Swans? What changes to facial expression, voice or body language have occurred? These will tell you whether you have more work to do more so than anything else.

Joe Kwon: I love that analogy, Derek! I think going into charged discussions we often imagine ourselves as Mike Tyson. We load up with one or two big arguments hoping to score the knockout, but when they don’t land we get flummoxed. This can lead to boiling anger and frustration. Hopefully everyone keeps their ears intact.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson

I prefer the alternative paradigm you illustrate with Mayweather – consistently and almost imperceptibly building rapport and influence. 

Let’s say a person shares with you their frustrations about how they’ve been treated in their career. Add to that a sense of fear about the security of their future given all the changes in companies these days and concerns about whether they will be treated fairly. We know ignoring all this and merely sharing statistics or case studies is unlikely to score a knockout. 

What would Tactical Empathy look like in a case like this?

Derek Gaunt: Tactical Empathy should most times, dare I say, always start with attacking the negatives early and often. So in this case, it may look something like this:

“Joe, I know you are frustrated over the trajectory or lack thereof that your career has taken.”

“You’re probably are a little anxious because of all the changes within the organization.”

“And you may even be questioning what the future looks like for you here.”  

“At the end of this conversation you may think that this meeting was a complete waste of time.”

“If at any point during our conversation you think I am being unfair, stop me and we will rewind the conversation back to where the unfairness began and we can start over from there.”

The next portion of the conversation could be a series of open-ended questions related to how they view themselves, you and the organization, followed with labeling, mirroring and paraphrasing the responses. Diving in to determine the world according to them. It is only after you have gained that deeper understanding that you are in a position to make your ask which may sound something like this:

“Joe, what I’m about to ask is going to sound horrible.”

“You are going to think I am naive.”

“You are going to believe that I am trying to force an unnecessary or warranted burden on you.”

“And you may even think that this is being done to placate people who complain a lot.”

“Would it be difficult for you to share some of what you’ve accomplished in your career to help improve pro-diversity efforts?”  

You will note the continuous deference in this conversation up to and including the ask.

Joe Kwon: Before we wrap up, I’d like to highlight a few points. First, someone may see the simple language you’ve shared and think “there is no way this would work.” I’ve never negotiated with hostage-takers, but I have used Tactical Empathy and can report that it works because both parties feel respected and willing to listen. Second, someone may find this approach totally alien. How many of us can say that we’ve been part of difficult conversations that were handled in such a respectful and even-handed way? I think people are more used to getting the S.W.A.T. treatment, which ends poorly for all parties involved.

The key takeaway for me is if we have the composure and skills to allow another person to feel respected and understood, our influence skyrockets and seemingly intractable conflicts can be resolved. The bigger the stakes and the deeper the divide, the more crucial it is to get both sides to voluntarily agree the best way forward.

Derek, thank you for sharing these invaluable tools to help people engage in difficult conversations more successfully.