538: Conflict-Resolution and Negotiation | Kwame Christian – Part 1

Podcast Cover Image: Conflict-Resolution and Negotiation Featuring Kwame Christian
Podcast Cover Image: Conflict-Resolution and Negotiation Featuring Kwame Christian

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Get ready for part 1 of a 2-part series as we welcome Kwame Christian, who is a best-selling author, business lawyer, and CEO of the American Negotiation Institute (ANI).

Following the viral success of his TedxDayton talk, Kwame released his best-seller Finding Confidence in Conflict: How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life in 2018. He also recently released his latest book, How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race in September 2022, and is a regular Contributor for Forbes and the host of the number one negotiation podcast in the world, Negotiate Anything – which currently has over 5 million downloads worldwide. Under Kwame’s leadership, ANI has coached and trained several Fortune 500 companies in applying the fundamentals of negotiation to corporate success.

Kwame was the recipient of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs Young Alumni Achievement Award in 2020 and the Moritz College of Law Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award in 2021. He is the only person in the history of The Ohio State University to win alumni awards in consecutive years from Law school and the Masters of Public Affairs program.

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Conflict-Resolution and Negotiation


George: This is the Conquer Local podcast, a show about billion-dollar sales leaders, marketers leading local economic growth, and entrepreneurs that have created their dream organizations. They wanna share their secrets, giving you the distilled version of their extraordinary feats. Our hope is with the tangible takeaways from each episode, you can rewire, rework and reimagine your business. I’m George Leith and on this episode, we welcome Kwame Christian. Kwame is a bestselling author and business lawyer, and the CEO of the American Negotiation Institute. After his successful TedTalk, Kwame released his bestseller, Finding Confidence in Conflict, How to Negotiate Anything and Live your Best Life. In 2018, that book hit bookshelves. His second book is out now, How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race. His podcast, Negotiate Anything, is the number one negotiation podcast in the world, and he has a new podcast called Negotiate Real Change that you should check out. He’s a regular contributor to Forbes and we invite you to get ready Conquerors. Kwame Christian coming up next on this week’s episode of the Conquer Local podcast. 

George: Kwame Christian joining us on the Conquer Local Podcast. Kwame, thanks for jumping on board. Where is your home?

Kwame: I’m in Columbus, Ohio.

George: I actually like Columbus and not for the hockey team. Sorry, I’m a Leaf’s fan.

Kwame: Yeah, listen, I accept that. As long as you’re not a Buckeye hater, I’m okay with that.

George: Oh no, I do like the Buckeyes. Well, I’m really excited to have you on this show. Our producer, Suliman has done a great job of getting everything prepped and I love the TedTalk, it was a while ago. I’d love to hear from you in your words, how your career got started.

Kwame: Yeah, great question. So I started off doing civil rights work straight out of law school. So I have a master of public policy and a law degree. I did some civil rights work for a bit and to be completely honest, I got really burnt out, really burnt out, and just emotionally from that, it’s heavy work. And so that’s when I transitioned into practicing business law, getting into contract negotiation, becoming a mediator. And I really grew my passion for difficult conversations. And I thought about how my life has been shaped through difficult conversations. And so for me, I thought that was gonna be the best way for me to contribute to the world. So I started the American Negotiation Institute, grew the audience, and then the rest is history.

George: Well, I love hearing that from your voice as to how you arrived here, and thanks for being vulnerable and explaining on the burnout side. But when I look at that history, you’re built to be a great negotiator. So our audience, just so I’m sure you know this, is sales professionals all over the world and sales is one of those businesses that you have to negotiate. And if you’re good at it, it could mean the difference between a nice commission check or a successful business. So we’re hoping to learn a lot from you today about negotiation, but you have that first book, Finding Confidence in Conflict, How to Negotiate Anything and Live your Best Life, but we also are celebrating as this goes to air your second book. So we’re gonna do it a little bit different. I’d like to talk about the second book first and then we’ll get into the negotiating piece in a minute.

Kwame: Absolutely and George, I think you’ll like this too because this book was one that I was not anticipating writing and nor did I really want to write if I’m being completely honest. So after I left the world of civil rights, I was gone, gone. I was gone. And then in 2020, we recognized that America was going through another racial reckoning. And let me tell you how gone I was George. So when I left the civil rights world, I said, I’m not listening to any news. And if anybody on social media post anything about news or race or injustice, I’m gonna unfollow them, I’m gonna block them and that includes my wife, Whitney. And so then when 2020 rolled around, Whitney, she’s been listening to my podcast a little bit too much because now she’s a good negotiator. And so she said, well Kwame, listen, you always tell people that they have to have these conversations. That you always talk about the best things in life wrong, the other side of difficult conversations, but you are being hypocritical because you are avoiding our nation’s most difficult conversation. And that hit home. And I realized, okay, I need to get off the sideline because even though I was feeling good about not being involved and using the ostrich technique for avoiding the world’s problems, I wasn’t contributing and given my background, given my civil rights background, my knowledge of negotiation and conflict resolution, I was uniquely qualified for this conversation. So I stepped back into this world but approaching it through the lens of negotiation. And so it’s a skills-based approach. So I’m not telling people how they should think about race, I’m teaching them how they can and should talk about it from a skills-based methodology and that’s been really rewarding to see how much it’s helped people.

George: Well, I’m excited to learn about this and I’m gonna give you a little bit of background, I’m old as you can tell. I grew up in a small little town in the middle of the prairies of Canada, where most of us are Scottish-Ukrainian heritage, and I didn’t travel a lot in my early career. And then I arrived at the tech company that I’m fortunate enough to work with today and in the last 10 years have traveled to almost 40 different countries and have met people and count of my friends, some great folks in South Africa and in Europe and various other areas so I’m excited to learn from you about, and I love the title, how to have difficult conversations about race, because you talked about ostriches earlier, as a privileged white farm boy from Canada, I would probably just avoid the conversation. And so I’m excited to learn from you as to how to have those difficult conversations or when are they needed.

Kwame: Definitely and that’s the thing that’s really surprising is that they’re needed more frequently than we think about it, than we realize. And so here’s an example. So if we’re in the business world, one of the things that comes up a lot not surprisingly is money. And so that’s gonna be an issue that’s gonna be germane in a lot of times. There are gonna be sometimes where one person says you know what? I think this pushes our budget a little bit too far, and somebody else doesn’t think that. They don’t think it’s a money issue at all, but now they have to have a conversation about money, about finances. Now let’s take this to the conversation about race. There are gonna be times where you in the conversation as a leader, you might not think race is germane at all to the conversation, but then you might have a person of colour who’s on the team and they say based on their lived experience and their perspective, actually no, this does touch on my racial identity in ways that you can’t see. And so now this becomes a conversation about race and you didn’t expect it. And I think that’s one of the things that we have to realize as leaders in the business world and thinking about it as negotiators too, on the more transactional side, sometimes race is going to come up at times where we don’t expect it. And if we’re not skillful enough and confident enough in those skills to have those conversations, we’re going to fail and struggle to advance in our careers.

George: So when your wife was the catalyst and said, don’t be a hypocrite, which I think my wife’s told me that too, and then said let’s get this book out, I know you’re excited about it. What mark are you hoping that it’ll leave on the planet when this book is out there and people are consuming the wisdom that you put forward?

Kwame: I think it’s two things. It comes down to mindset and skillset. So I want people to read this book and then be able to have that belief in their skills and say, you know what, when the conversation comes up, I’m going to be ready. I have a specific framework and methodology and set of tools that I can actually use in a tangible realistic type of way. It’s not about political correctness. It’s not about rules or making people feel bad or anything like that. It’s just about giving you the skills to have the conversation competently and confidently. And then with the mindset, we have to make sure that you have the confidence, yes, but you also are approaching it with a people-centric approach. We have to be humble. We have to be empathetic. We have to be willing to learn and recognize that everybody is an expert in their own lived experience. I can’t tell you about your life. You can’t tell me about my life. And so we can learn together. And I think when we’re having these conversations, these conversations if we want them to be transformative for others, we have to be open to transforming ourselves. That takes a lot of humility and vulnerability to open ourselves up to change because that’s what it will take to actually create the change we wanna see too.

George: So when I hear you talk about that, the first thing that comes to my mind is just being a student again and trying to seek to understand where the other person is coming from. But I think there’s more here that I’m reading into what you’re saying is that if I just went down my road from where I came from and what I was exposed to, and maybe I didn’t travel and meet people from other races and other walks of life if I didn’t seek to understand, I didn’t ask those questions, I’m not gonna be open to this. I’m not gonna be open to that kind of a conversation. Is that your experience?

Kwame: Yeah, that’s a big part of it and I think that’s where the humility comes from too. We have to be open to learning. And the only way we can be open to learning is if we take the time to accept the reality that there is more to learn from other people in these conversations. And George, to be honest, I was really surprised at how much I learned in my process of writing the book. It is a nice little fantasy that we live in sometimes where we think we know it all, but the more I learned it, the more I realize there is still to learn. And so a lot of times when we think about the conversations, it can be overwhelming. And one of the major emotions that holds us back from even having the conversation is fear and the fear will masquerade in different ways and a lot of times it’ll masquerade in the form of convincing yourself that you need to learn more before having the conversation. And now this isn’t to make a statement in praise of ignorance or anything like that. I think we do all need to self-educate, but there is a level of education that we pretend like we need to know in order to have these conversations and that’s really a lie that we tell ourselves to prevent us from having the conversations.

George: So in your work with the American Negotiation Institute and the training that you’ve done with several Fortune 500 companies, this is applying the things that you’ve written about in both of your books, but we’re specifically talking right now around how to have difficult conversations about race. Are you finding that more companies are wanting to incorporate this learning into their curriculum for their teams? Like, are you finding that it’s a proactive approach? We need to do this.

Kwame: Yeah 100% and one of the things that’s most rewarding is that when I’m thinking about negotiation and conflict resolution, I’m defining those things very broadly and people are starting to appreciate that. So for me, people might look at me and say, Kwame, have you become a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert? I say, no, I’m a negotiation expert who has lent his skills to this space, right? So I’ll give an example. I was in San Diego doing a sales training to some sales leaders. And as I was talking, they started to realize that there were some instances where they would go into different areas in the country, and then there would be a cultural difference, a racial difference and it was difficult for the sales leaders to break through in that regard. How do I connect with this person? And so this book provides people with an opportunity to actually get an understanding of the psychological barriers that are being faced by both people in the interaction, and then create a negotiation or communication conversation to circumvent those biases cause we all have biases. I mean, that’s just the natural way the brain works. There’s one way to get rid of biases though that’s foolproof. Have you heard of this?

George: No, but I would love for you to help me with that.

Kwame: The only way to get rid of your biases is by turning off your brain, otherwise known as death. I feel like that is a little bit extreme.

George: I didn’t know where you were gonna go, but I was anticipating there might only be one way to solve this problem. So is it accepting and then learning how to deal with it?

Kwame: Absolutely, and so this is what we have to do. We can’t get rid of our biases, but we can manage them. And that’s the thing. If we try to say I am unbiased, that’s just a psychological impossibility. And so when it comes to these difficult conversations, I have a framework called the compassionate curiosity framework and it’s designed for not only the external negotiation and difficult conversation, but also for the internal. And so for you as a sales expert, you’ll see this as a tool for overcoming objections as well. So step one is acknowledging and validating emotions because a lot of times there’s an emotional challenge so we wanna work through that. Step two is getting curious with compassion, asking open-ended questions with a compassionate tone to gather information and empathize. And step three is joint problem solving where we’re working together collaboratively to figure out what happens next in this specific situation or with the relationship as a whole, but then flipped internally, we’re acknowledging and validating our beliefs, our feelings, and our perspective. What do I feel? How do I think about this? What’s the conclusion I’m instantly coming to, I need to acknowledge what that is. And then the next step is getting curious with compassion, questioning that, challenging those assumptions, and digging deeper within ourselves. And then when it comes to joint problem solving, we’re reconciling the differences between our hearts and our minds. What will actually make me feel good emotionally going forward, but then also what solves the problem? What should I actually do? What decision needs to be made? And so you start to practice going through this, it helps you to address your biases and regulate your emotions as well.

George: Kwame, three steps, and thank you for those simple three steps, but when I look at each one of them, there’s a ton to unpack in there. It could go in 30 million different directions on each one.

Kwame: Yes, I know and I tell you for me as a podcaster, professor, and lawyer, being succinct is a challenge. And so if you point me in the direction, I’ll go deeper.

George: No, but I just think that going through those three steps and I love the fact you put a sales spin on this because just ask anybody that knows me, they’re like, oh, you’re so manipulative. No, I just am a glass-half-full kind of person. I think that there’s an opportunity in any issue, but what you’ve identified here is acknowledging and then validating. And I find that some people can like acknowledge and brush you off without follow on questions to validate. That’s just one… The first thing came to my very simple brain – I’m not a professor, I’m a podcaster, but not a professor and author like you. And then next is get curious with compassion and that’s what I was kind of referring to earlier is that seek to understand, be a student, ask questions, try to really understand where the other person is coming from, and then finally let’s get on the same page and figure out if we can find common ground. So that’s the way my simple brain works, but as I mentioned, there are different nuances to each one of those three steps.

Kwame: Definitely and your brain is spot on with the way that you’re interpreting this too. And you’re right in focusing in on the acknowledging and validating portion, because that is the most challenging part of the process, not because it is difficult to understand what to do, it’s difficult because you won’t want to do it in the moment because most likely you’re a little bit triggered too. You’re feeling pressure. You’re afraid as well. And so that’s why I worked really hard to simplify this process because, under the heat of the moment, you’re probably not going to remember 17 steps. We have to make it as simple as possible so you could actually put it into action.

George: And I relate back to feel, felt, found. There are a number of processes there, but I like the way that you’ve broken this down. And when I first saw the topic of this episode and started to do the research into you, I’m like, oh, this could be great. I’m gonna learn how to manipulate people and negotiate better. But I love the fact that there’s a very human element to your content and the things that you’re speaking about and I can tell you’re a great negotiator because I just feel calm right now just talking to you like, oh, relax Leith, calm down. We’re gonna walk through these steps so I really appreciate that. If you could go back and write the new book that just hit bookstores in the last little while and do it differently, what would you do a little bit differently?

Kwame: I would outsource the whole process cause writing is a bear. What would I do differently? I’m really proud of the way that it turned out. I will say that. When I look back on this book, there are no regrets in terms of the content that was put in and the approach. One thing that I would have done differently though, is I would’ve done a better job on the podcast side, creating kind of like a companion piece, almost like a brief audio course to go along with it. Because I think especially with the book, I wanted to keep it as practical as possible. And so I put in actual sample conversations that I’ve actually had with people going back and forth. And I think the readers would benefit from actually hearing my tone a little bit. And so I would’ve created a companion piece to go along with it. But as far as like, what’s actually in the book, this is the first time I’ve really actually said that or appreciated it. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

George: Well, it’s a phenomenal piece of work and we appreciate getting the early copy so that we could go through it before the episode and congratulations on that. We’re gonna put all of the contact information into the show notes so that people can get their hands on it. So Kwame, now I wanna go back to the art and science of negotiation, and you have a podcast that we mentioned in the intro and I never get enough learning about negotiations. In fact, I gotta tell you, if you look up sales in the dictionary, pretty good chance there’s a picture of me. And I’ve spent a lot of time with chief financial officers because I find that if you can negotiate with the CFO as a salesperson, you’re gonna be much more effective at getting deals done and coming up with win-win relationships. But I wanna really dig in with your history and your background because it comes from the legal side, which is a little bit different than negotiating with a finance person unless I’m wrong in that assessment.

Kwame: Yeah, it’s really interesting and this podcast has been helpful to me in a lot of ways because I was always wondering who that handsome guy was when I looked up sales in the dictionary. And now I know, so I appreciate it. The other thing is for me getting into the negotiation space, it’s been really cool for me because it’s almost like mixed martial arts in a sense. Not in the combative sense, but different people enter mixed martial arts with different backgrounds. So somebody might be a wrestler. Somebody might be in jiu-jitsu, somebody might be a boxer and then you see that in the way that they communicate. For me as a negotiator that comes from a mediation background and as a lawyer negotiating contracts, the conflicts come to me. I don’t need to find them. And so I just find myself in conflict. It’s really easy. But on the sales side, there’s a negotiation that has to happen beforehand for the conversation even happen. And so what’s interesting to me in my experience, interviewing people with these different backgrounds is being able to create a unique methodology that respects the different strengths of different people. Salespeople have a different methodology that’s really strong. Hostage negotiators have a different methodology that’s really strong. Relationship therapists and police interrogators, they ask the best questions. And then learning from each of those people and then putting it into a unique methodology for negotiation and communication has been really rewarding over the last couple of years.

George: One thing that I witnessed here in the last couple of months, and I’ve talked about it a lot, cause I like talking. I said I’ve done some pretty complex negotiations, but building our new fence was one of the toughest negotiations I’ve ever had to facilitate. And you got five neighbours, none of them want the same thing. Then you’ve got partners and spouses in the middle of it. Then you get somebody who’s gonna build the bloody thing. Then you got the municipal forces that come in and tell you what you can and you can’t build. And I was exhausted. It took months. It was super hard. But to your point, negotiation is everywhere in life.

Kwame: Absolutely, I say negotiation is shaped like water. It will fit wherever there’s space. And for me, when I define negotiation, I say any conversation where somebody in the conversation wants something is a negotiation because what I’ve recognized is that a lot of professionals are negotiating all the time, but they have a low negotiation awareness. So they don’t recognize when they’re negotiating. So think about a salesperson. When they’re talking to a prospect, they can easily identify that as a negotiation. But when they’re talking about people on their team, their CFO, their CEO, the people on the back end and operations, all of those, those are negotiations too. And if we increase our awareness, we can actually bring those skill sets to the table at the right time. And I think a lot of times we’re just missing out on those opportunities to make better deals with the people around us.

George: So Kwame, a question I have on negotiations, is there always a winner and a loser in a negotiation?

Kwame: There’s always a winner, whether or not there’s a loser, depends on the circumstances. And so for me, this is my mindset in these negotiations. I believe I can win every single negotiation, as long as I do two things. Number one, this is always my primary goal and that is to get better. In every conversation that I have, I can improve my skills and I wanna treat myself like a really great coach so I’m gonna perform and then I’m gonna replay the tape in my head. What did I do well, I want to do more of that. Let me replicate that. But if I did something poorly, my goal is to not make the same mistake twice, that’s it. That is something that’s completely within my control and I can win on that point. Number two, I always wanna put myself in the best position for success. I can’t control what the other person says and does, but I can control my behavior and I can approach this conversation in the strategic way that puts me in the best position to succeed. Whether or not I succeed and accomplish my goal in a tangible substance of sense, that’s not completely in my control, but I want to make sure that I’m putting myself in the best position to succeed. And so when I’m focusing on controlling the controllables, just like one of those ancient stoics, I know I can win all the time because as long as I’m getting better, I know I’m going to keep on putting myself in the position to win.

George: I’m sure you’ve heard this saying, you negotiated so strongly, there’s nothing left on the other side. Have you ran across that in your career where like I always like to maybe leave a little bit of juice in the orange on the other side, because you might want to go back and continue to work with that side, but I’ve been in some situation, I’ve been ground on the other side of it where I got nothing left. There is nothing left to give. Do you see where I’m going with that?

Kwame: Absolutely, yes, I will step up on my soap box briefly. So first of all, we can’t even know if there’s nothing left on the other side. How do we know? Did we acquire their company and look at their books? It’s just not possible to know. And even if I could take everything from somebody, I wouldn’t want to. I think back to the negotiation wisdom of I believe his name was Bob Wolf, he was the agent for Larry Bird. And he said I would intentionally try to leave 10% of the value I know I could have claimed on the table because I know there’s more value in the relationship as a whole when people want to work with me. But if I’m eviscerating people all the time, then people don’t wanna work with me. It’s very short-minded. And I remember one time I was doing a procurement negotiation training and they were talking about a supplier that squeezed them and they were saying listen, please just don’t do this. They resorted to begging and the supplier squeezed him. Then two years later, the situation changed and he picked up the phone with glee and started the conversation with, do you remember two years ago? It’s a poor strategy to try to wreck people all the time. So I think we need to make sure that we’re approaching these conversations with the relationship in mind because the thing about power and leverage is that those power dynamics, they shift with time. And it’s really nice when you have it, but you have to remember once you don’t, you’re gonna have to rely on the relationship and if that’s gone, you’re gonna be in a bad spot.

George: Well, I wanna say this, I wish I would’ve met you 30 years ago. Maybe even my early sales managers would say, I wish George would’ve met Kwame 35 years ago when I started in the sales business because out of all of those years of even trial and error and any of the learnings that I could get my hands on, I find that you have a framework here that could help a young entrepreneur, a young seller stave off a whole bunch of heartache by learning some of these skills. So where would we go aside from the TedTalk, the podcast, the books, but where would we go to get more Kwame to help us with this very important skill in being an entrepreneur or a sales professional?

Kwame: I appreciate that. And you can check out the website, Americannegotiationinstitute.com if you’re interested in learning more about our trainings, workshop, consulting, that type of work. And we also have a lot of goodies there in terms of free guides. So if you go to our website, Americannegotiationinstitute.com/guide, you can get access to all of our free negotiation guides from salary negotiation, conflict resolution, how to negotiate your salary, all of those types of things. And so, yeah, make sure you check that one out.


George: Well, we are going to get two episodes out of our conversation with Kwame Christian, what a great episode, Finding Confidence in Conflict and How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life is the title of the book. And we have those three steps that I was gushing over because they were so simple, but it really is good for us to remember: Acknowledge and validate the emotions, use the compassionate curiosity framework to seek to understand, and then engage in problem-solving, but joint problem-solving. We’re on the same side. We’re gonna figure out together, we’re gonna come up with a win-win, but be very careful that you don’t give in too much because you might get taken advantage of. Some amazing nuggets on the art of negotiations from Kwame. And if you like this episode discussing conflict resolution and negotiation, let’s continue the conversation. Check out episode 520, body language on Zoom with mark Bowden, and episode 528, Mastering your Meetings with Caroline Goyder. Please subscribe and leave us a review and thanks for joining us this week on the Conquer Local podcast. My name is George Leith. I’ll see you when I see you.

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