Dan Tocchini, a partner at Take New Ground, joins Graham to discuss Conflict Resolution - No pixie dust, no potions - just courageous leadership, creative conflict resolution, and relevant restructuring. If you're ready to generate deeper meaning into your leadership role then this episode is a must-read!
Take New Ground
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Graham: Welcome to this edition of The Coaching Conversation. Our subject for today is conflict resolution. I'm really pleased to say that I'm joined today by my guest Dan Tocchini, all the way from Idaho, USA. Dan, welcome to The Coaching Conversation.
Dan: Thanks, Graham. I love being here.
Graham: You have a number of roles. You are a founding partner of Take New Ground. You're a board member of The Grid to name but two - but I've got to tell the audience this because when I was looking at your LinkedIn profile, it made me smile and I also related to the point that you made, which is you help people turn leadershit into leadership. Boy, isn't that a challenge?
Dan: It's that American brashness. You have to differentiate yourself somehow.
Graham: Either way, you landed with me. That's what I can tell you. You went on to say, and I'm going to read this out, you create courageous leaders, creative conflict resolution -which we're going to come back to - and relevant restructuring. Dan, that's a whole heap of stuff there! So, welcome to The Coaching Conversation. Please introduce yourself to our audience.
Dan: I've been doing this for about 40 years. I started coaching back in the eighties before coaching was a thing. I started a company, but it was too early - it was called The Coaching Company. And, I couldn't get executives. I'd go talk to an executive and they'd say, uh, we're not athletes. And I'd say, oh yeah, you are, you just don't realise it. And they said, what do you mean? I said, you know, you guys are doing some amazing things. You're leading people into futures that they long for, etc, etc. And you know, if you play pro football or baseball or basketball or whatever you do as a pro athlete, what do they do? The first thing they do is they assign a coach to you. Well, it didn't go too well. We closed that company up and I was involved deeply in the human potential movement.
As a young man, my mother was a schizophrenic. And so at a very young age, I think 12 is when I first read my first kind of human potential book called, Gestalt Therapy Verbatims, just so I could learn t communicate with her and eventually became a go-between between her and the doctors for a while, and she lived a long healthy life, but bumpy for a while when I was a young man from about the time I was 12 to about 22. And then she wouldn't take her meds. She took lithium. Usually, if she went off the deep end, my family ended up calling me. I ended up going between. And I think that started my love for understanding people, particularly how to stand with people when they get conflicted, which is usually when people really need a coach to get some perspective, to remember what they're about - to look at the new possibility where they don't see any to find possibility where they think it's a threat because most new possibility shows up like a threat usually first.
Graham: I have to say the background that gave you the foundation for getting into coaching; can't get any more solid or even more challenging than that. That's incredible. So, as a coach, what does being a coach really mean for you? And not just as a way of earning a living, but the work that you do. What does it mean to you?
Dan: Well, the website says we turn leadershit into leadership. And what does it mean to be leadership? Well, there's a lot of bumper sticker kind of coaching that can go on for people, you know. So, for instance, one of the things I asked people is if you think about it, just like a coach drawn by horses, that kind of thing. We carry people from one point to another. The conversation we create carries people from where they are, to where they're committed to being, and not to where they're just naturally going to go anyway.
If we're doing our job, we're going to intervene in a way that a new future opens up. And my ideal client is usually a founder or an executive who's troubled. Troubled meaning they've got something that's driving them and unless they accomplish it, they're not okay with it. And when they're off purpose, they're disturbed, driven to have something happen - so usually that's the client that I'm usually connected to, and I'm supporting them in finding new possibilities. And that inevitably means locating the future. In fact, one of the questions I ask people right out is where is the future? How do you find what it is or isn't? How do you find the very thing that you want to have but you don't have? Where do you locate it? And most people have a hard time answering it. They answer things like what's in my head. All right. And I would say, well, that's not a very powerful answer because how do you access that?
Everything I do when I coach is how can I help somebody access what's most important to them? And I don't know about you, but if I get stuck in something or I'm up against something hard, or I'm in conflict and I don't see a way through it - most people want to pull back, they want to resist it. And if I provide some new possibility; if I can open up a distinction and they can see a new way and they can see possibility where they didn't see it before, most people roll up their sleeves and go after it, especially someone who's ambitious and has a vision that they're working to accomplish.
Graham: Yeah, it's really, really interesting that Dan. I can absolutely personally relate to that starting point at the beginning of a coaching program, when you say to someone, what is it you want to be or do or achieve? And sometimes they haven't quite worked it out as you mentioned, or sometimes are too frightened to say it out loud. And you've got to give them the confidence, the space, whatever it takes to actually say to somebody, well, I really want to have is this brave, audacious, outrageous, downright silly goal. If it means something to them, then that's all that matters.
Dan: I've done a lot of work with kids coming out of gangs - guys in prison - it's my way of sewing back into the community. And I find it interesting - one of the things I have found is that we're all criminals- it's just some of us are more arrestable than others. I don't think we all know what that is, we know where we break our word, or we know when we do something that we would consider criminal to be. And just working with people about how do you break habits that lock you in, put you in prison, keep you stuck, or put a cap on your potential. And that and that's what I mean by locating the future.
And most people don't know where to find it. They just don't know that it's in their language, right? It's in the way they talk to themselves, the way they think about something, and that's where both the obstacle and the future live. And like you said, if you ask somebody what they want, like a kid in prison, when I ask a kid in prison, what he wants. What he usually says is I want to get out of here, and I say, well, that's not really a vision because once you get out of here, you're coming right back because you've now what? And I don't know about you in the UK, but in the United States, the recidivism rate is about 87%. And if you think about it, people, when they get stuck on something, if they get away for a while, if they can't find, if I have a habit that's really keeping me from the future, people try to break away from them, but they end up returning to them because they can count on it. So how do you intervene in that? How do you make that into, how do you open up possibility out of that? And that's really coaching to me.
Graham: Yeah, I get that. I mean, obviously, coaching is about change and change is challenging. It's easier sometimes to stick with what you know, rather than what you don't know. Coming back to conflict resolution - what for you in a coaching context is conflict resolution? How does it manifest? And what does it mean?
Dan: Conflict comes up when what I want, what I'm interested in, I'm not getting it. I don't think I'm going to get it. I want it. And I feel like somebody else, or something else, is keeping me from it. And, you know, there's something between me and what it is that matters most to me. There are numerous conversations that people have to engage in in order to utilise the conflict so that it becomes a possibility. Most people - just generally as human beings - conflict represents the possibility of destruction or at least looking bad or feeling bad or feeling out of control or being wrong, something like that in one of those four domains.
And so there's a tension about what's wanted and needed. And they're usually, I feel, that I can't get it.
Graham: If it's a physical barrier or an attainment barrier, rather than an interpersonal barrier, how do you tackle that?
Dan: Well, there's there's a couple of ways. First, I operate from a couple of very simple neurological realities and one of them is that people always make the best choice they see available, so it may not be the best choice available, but it's the best choice you and I see. We don't get up in the morning and think I'm going to make the second or third best choice I see available. So, if it's a thing or a circumstance that I feel is between me and what I want - it really isn't - it's the way I'm talking about it. It's what I think is possible in it.
I know for me when I work with others, or I have somebody coach me, I'm usually fighting the difference between my perception and other perspectives. And if I'm fighting for my perception, I'm going to go around trying to prove and protect the way I see the world. So, if the circumstance looks like I can't overcome it, it's probably because my perception tells me it's impossible to overcome it.
And if you're going to coach somebody, there's nothing more rewarding than seeing somebody achieve something that they thought was impossible. Right? And then now what the key is, how do I work with this person to stop proving and defending their perception and open up to other perspectives that could give them a view of the situation, both the circumstance and the goal from from a way that they might find more access or more resource to do it and to get it done.
Graham: That's a that's a really interesting perspective and I really love the concept. Are there any particular tools or questions that you use to open their mind up to new ideas?
Dan: They're more like distinctions for me. So, one thing is, if somebody's stuck, I remember that they're making the best choice they see available. So, if you see somebody make a stupid choice, remember, it wasn't stupid to them. That's why they made it. Then I asked myself, what way of being or what way of relating to what they're up to is actually producing this behavioUr or this choice? Like, what makes it right for them to make this choice?
I want to get into their perception. I want to understand the way they see the world. The other thing is, I know that people always act congruently with the way the world occurs for them. So if I can get into their thinking, if I can understand how they are seeing it, then I understand how the world's occurring for them.
The third thing is the way the world occurs for people happens in language. It happens in the way that they're talking to themselves, and the way they see the situation. So I'm listening to and for how their predicates, how they position themselves in it. Like, this is impossible. Or I'll listen for a specific complaint, right? Because the complaint is a longing to have something that I don't think I can have, but I'm complaining because I don't want to risk losing what I have. So the complaint causes me to think and feel a certain way. Then I react to that complaint. And that reaction gives, usually, the reaction of I move away from the challenge because I'm afraid of it and I'm settling for a certain level of mediocrity or a certain level of what I know I can get because I don't think I can get what I really want.
And so I start to explain, I start to understand first what is the complaint? Then what's the behaviour that comes out of that complaint? Because most people, when you complain, you really don't like what you have, but you don't realise I'm complaining. I don't realise I'm complaining because I'm getting something from the complaint. I can't have what I want, but at least I can have this - it could be as simple as feeling superior or feeling right or ratifying my view of the world. It could be that some at least people will work with me at this level, even though I can't get to that level. There are all kinds of payoffs that I get for staying there. And at least I have that, but if I go for the complaint, I might have to risk all that as well.
I don't know if you notice, but when any human being gets stuck, they're going to make themselves right about why they're stuck and right about how come they can't have it. So, by inviting them into a new relationship we might start with something as simple as saying, if it wasn't that way, would you want to know? Which throws them back upon themselves. And if they go, yes, then I can say, well, let's look at a different perspective. And so there's a number of ways to work into their perspective so they can get a hold of the perspective or at least depersonalise it enough to perceive something outside of another perspective.
Graham: Yeah, it's interesting this. I mean, one of the phrases I use in trying to ascertain what someone really, really is aspiring to I say if you had a magic wand and you waved it, what would it look like? You remove the barriers or the self-limitation, thought processes that basically say I can't do that because...
Another technique that I use from time to time if they're stuck with fear or they're stuck with risk, I say to them What could possibly go wrong? What's the worst that could happen? And what would you do if that happened? And what would you do if that happened?
Dan: Yeah, that's that's really a powerful cognitive approach. Because the more I look into what and the more I voluntarily look into what I'm afraid of, the amygdala calms down, because as I'm looking, I'm still alive, so I feel better and better about doing something about it. So it makes a lot of sense.
Graham: If the conflict, if the limitation, if the complaint is interpersonal; it's related to a person or people, do you do anything different - how do you go about that?
Dan: I use the same approach because if I shift who I am, the other person has to shift who they are because there's a system of relating. I can't control them, but I can control myself. So, if I'm clear about what I'm up to, and I'm grounded about what I'm committed to in the conversation then where the other person is just, I call it the great adventure. If I say something difficult and you don't like it, and then I just listen to what you're saying and I can take it in and I can learn from it. If I'm not proving and protecting, then I'm going to learn and transform. As I learn your perspective, all you're doing is giving me information about your interests. And at some point, if there's any possibility of resolving the conflict, it's usually because we're better off together than apart. And, the only way to know that is to understand my own interests and see how they interest, interact and integrate with your interests. And if I look at that long enough, I may see a way to work this through.
If it doesn't work through, that's okay too, because now I know I'm better off without this than with you. And that will resolve the conflict. So it's like working towards one of those two.
Graham: There's no doubt that empathy is a big player in this. The more you can understand someone else's perspective, the better chance there is of finding a way forward together. So I fully get that. But sometimes, you know, you are just diametrically opposed. They want something you don't want them to have. That's just a reality of life occasionally.
When you're working with your clients, you mentioned they're often founders, do you find yourself working with the founder as an individual or do you sometimes find yourself working with their team or parts of their team?
Dan: Usually it progresses, I work with the founder usually first and then they bring us into their team. We work with a number of really high profile founders, startups, and often we've been introduced by other founders who say, Hey, why don't you try this guy? Because at some point, a founder gets up against scaling their teams. Your business is deeply connected to scaling your team. And if the team isn't scaling, then you're probably going to find that the business is going to hit a ceiling or roll back to where you can work with it.
Graham: Yeah, a business is limited by its people, isn't it? That's always the case. When you're working in these organisations, whether a startup or established, where does culture sit in all of this? You know, the way stuff gets done inside that organisation, how does that play out with conflict, complaint or limitation?
Dan: That's a great question. It depends on what kind of coach you are. If you're effective, I think, for instance, right now, there's a lot of cutting back going on. And I had a client tell me just yesterday You're the last person. You know, TNG is the last organisation that we would ever cut. We actually look forward to meeting with you because when we get stuck, or if things come up, we're able to find resources.
So if you're adding value, and it's the kind of value that really adds up to the mission. To the mission of the founder of the team that you're going to have a secure place. We usually do very well and we're killing it right now as things go tough in the economy. Innovation is a very important reality and we are very good at stimulating that with our clients. I don't know if that answers your question.
Graham: I meant rather than the wider economic culture, the actual internal culture of the organisation; the interplay between the people that play out in relation to the complaint, and the conflict that either the founder or the team members are experiencing.
Dan: They usually use us to support problems on the team, usually internally, there's usually some personality differences, working differences, different ideas, different styles, and we usually end up working with them on getting hard on the problems and soft on the people that usually get conflated. If they can start to identify what the real issue is, they can get off of the personalities, and that's usually how we get our toe hold in the culture.
Graham: Looking at your typical coaching programs, do they have a typical life, 6 months, 12 months, or longer? How does it typically work?
Dan: You know, I have a number of clients. I have one client that's been with me for 15 years, but our clients usually last at least 3 or 4 years. Rarely do we just stay a year because we get deep into the organisation and a lot of our clients, they'll pay us in stock as well as in cash, which then means we're part of the organisation. And we know we've reached a good level of value when they look up and go, Hey, would you be willing to take this year's contract? Whatever it is, whether it's with our team or with one of us, would you take a portion in stock? And we love that. That's one of the ways we actually keep our consultants because they're invested in a lot of the companies, they get a piece of that. And so they stick around.
Graham: That's never happened in all the time I've been coaching with our practice. We've never had that kind of offer. So really, really interesting thing. And as you said a minute ago, demonstrates the sheer value that they believe you're adding. By giving you a slice of the action. I mean, it also aligns your interests with theirs at the same time.
Dan: One of the guys I was talking to, he just came through one of our leadership programs. We've been coaching him for six years and he decided to come out to Hawaii to one of our leadership programs where we do a four day intensive leadership program. And we invite our clients, and then they sometimes bring their loved ones, sometimes it's open to the public, but we get our clients coming and they bring people with them. And he said to me I'm starting to understand why we really like working with you because you find you like to find the conversation nobody else wants to have. And if you think about it - If you think about culture in an organisation, it's like a table, right? And there are certain conversations under the table. And then some of those are the ones that are not acceptable. Right? Then there's the conversations that are on top of the table. And what I've noticed is that organisations are usually driven by the conversations under the table. So, if you can get them up on the table, they've got some great value because people really want to talk about them. They just don't have the language to do it. And if we can help them and create the language and they can depersonalise it - it's amazing what they'll do and how they bond whilst doing it. Even if they may not like each other, they respect each other a lot more.
Graham: Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? I mean, the word trust comes into that conversation, doesn't it? The reason that you're having it under the table is because you don't trust someone or something.
Dan: Yes, they think What's going to happen if I talk about it? How's it going to be used on me? And what's going to happen in the future? Loads and loads of trust that doesn't mean they like each other, but they have loads and loads of trust because they know what's going to happen when they know they can count on each other, no matter what, because they're aligned with the mission - I mean, I like you, but I can count that you're going to deliver? And what I depend on from you will be there.
Graham: Yeah, And your reaction to me will be persistent and consistent and I know what I'm going to get and it's all manageable.
When you are working with your kinds of organisations, you've mentioned founders and startups, are they your organisations of choice or do you prefer the more established organisations?
Dan: We have a broad range. If you look at our website, we've worked with Nike and their top executives in Portland on the marketing side - pretty deep into Nike. And so that's a big company. It's been established, had lots of problems, and issues in change. They've hired us to help them make a lot of executive changes and work that out. Then organisations like Jenny's Splendid Ice Cream, which is a pretty good size, uh, company because they make craft ice cream. Jenny Britton-Bowers is the founder, we got to know her, helped her kind of do some internal work with her board and get that thing started.
And, and it really depends on the people who want it. Announce that they want to put another set of eyes on what they're doing, on the challenges or problems they're facing, on changes they're making. And so they seek out somebody who's who can really help them do that. We have a very clear way of how we vet our clients. We have a very clear way, a very powerful way to map and assess and map the culture. And we can show them what the tendencies are when they're not under pressure and where they go under pressure. The executive team gives them language to see ways they can do it. It depersonalises it. Then they want us to come coach them. So, if they're a startup. If they feel great because we can help them put the team together. If they're stuck, they can begin, when we identify the tendencies. If you can defend, if you can define the breakdown better than the client, you have instantaneous credit. We really focus on. What is the issue? What is it you want to get done? What is it that you're facing? And the more if we can get that really clear, they'll do something. And the minute we hear, oh, that's it! We know that there's credibility. Now we can go to the next step that gets us deeper; whether they're a small or a large company.
Graham: There's no doubt self-awareness is the first step in any coaching program, isn't it? However they arrive there, whether you take them there or they're already there before you turn up, if they're not self-aware as a team or as individuals, you've got your work to do, because that's the raw material you're working with, isn't it?
Dan: If you touch something that's tender and they get better and they back up, we can step back, go see that. What if you could talk about that? What if you had a magic wand? We'd say if that wasn't here, what would things look like? Yeah, and so they talk all to be this would be great. Okay, we could then let's talk about that. But let's talk about it in a different way than you're used to. And we have a number of ways of chunking things down. So they feel good about it. They feel empowered in it, even though it's. Threatening and they might get defensive from time to time. There areways to diffuse that, that, you know, we have a number of the key is for us to be in control of ourselves and also be aware of our own mechanisms and govern ourselves in a way that they want to be with us, even though it's challenging.
Graham: And you mentioned earlier about having a common language. We find that enormously if you if you can give a group of people. The common experience of sharing a new language or a new understanding it does all about desensitising, depersonalising, but it also seems to give a new energy it's almost as though they're seeing the world through new eyes and it seems to in itself, to ba reinvigorator, which I thought is great.
Dan: It's great. If you're a coach, that's the kind of thing you enjoy and then to see them win and to be associated with one of the, it's such an honour to be involved with people doing things that are in innovative.
We just got hired by a company called Impulse Space and they were all SpaceX guys. In fact, the guy who founded it was the number one employee there for 18 years, he invented the propulsion system and they hired us. And we had such a great time together breaking through some of the things - it's almost like making new friends, but with a purpose and it opens up a horizon that I find myself researching and doing things I never would be doing, but for the sake of the client and it calls more out of me. Not only are we calling more out of them, but when they hire us, they call more out of us there. You know, when you hook up with a really smart group of people, you want to be your best, you know, be on your toes.
Graham: Yeah, if there's anybody in the audience today who thinks being a coach is easy, you've been reading the wrong books!
Dan: Yeah, get ready to get sifted, get ready to go through it, because I go through constant transformation. You know, you missed something. You have to go back and correct it. You know, you got to be prepared to own your own stuff. There's just a million things. Any coach knows this. It starts right here first.
Graham: Dan, it's been really great talking with you. Thank you for your time today. I've come away from this seeing conflict as a complaint and I never looked at it like that and that is really, really great news for me. Thank you for sharing that. How can our audience find you?
Dan: I travel, but our offices are in L.A. You can find me on LinkedIn on LinkedIn, on Instagram, and you can also find me on the Naked Leadership Podcast.We broadcast both on Apple and Spotify. I think we're in the top 2% of downloads on Apple and if you really want to hear an interesting episode, episode 130 is a very good one - check it out.
Graham: Thank you very much much for your time Dan and see you again soon. Bye.
That was the latest edition of The Coaching Conversation.
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