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On the Learn for Life Podcast: Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Academic Director Dr. Beth Fisher-Yoshida

The Talks@Columbia: Learn for Life podcast explores the people, the skills and the global forces driving change in our professional lives, with host Dr. Jason Wingard. 

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This episode features Dr. Beth Fisher-Yoshida--Academic Director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program, Professor of Practice, and Vice Chair of Faculty. Her approach to learning is based on her core belief that when we improve communication by developing more self-awareness, we will have better relationships and improved negotiation practices.

Listen to Dean Jason Wingard and Dr. Beth Fisher-Yoshida, and read the full transcript below.

Beth and Jason

Jason Wingard: (00:00)
Did you ever wonder about the child rearing strategies of the parents of Venus and Serena Williams? How'd they raise their girls to be enemies on the court, but friends and sisters off the court? Parents throughout the world want to know their secret. How do you get kids to stop competing and fighting all the time.

Jason: (00:17)
Well, it's not just everyday parents who want to resolve these conflicts. Some of the biggest icons of our time have been peacemakers. The most obvious names being Nobel prize winners like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. They've tackled in justice on a global stage and showed the world that even the most intractable and bloody conflicts can be overcome. Today, we'll delve into the realm of negotiation and conflict resolution. I'm Jason Wingard. Welcome to the Learn for Life podcast.

Beth Fisher-Yoshida: (01:02)
Conflict resolution is not a sound byte. Conflict resolution is something that really takes time and it needs to be a sincerity and an interest in wanting to build the relationship or repair the relationship in some way.

Jason: (01:16)
In the work world, negotiation and conflict resolution touches everything, from human resources management to education, to health, to law, and even business. With me to discuss this topic today is Dr. Beth Fisher-Yoshida. Dr. Fisher-Yoshida is Professor of Professional Practice, Vice Chair of Faculty, and Academic Director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program here at Columbia University School of Professional Studies. Welcome Beth.

Beth: (01:41)
Hi Jason. Thank you for inviting me for this conversation today.

Jason: (01:44)
So Beth, let's talk about your New York roots. You went to school in upstate New York, you got your masters here at Columbia University in New York city. You've made a home for yourself in a place known for being direct and hard charging. A lot of people believe if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But I understand you have a story that challenges that idea. Can you tell me about when you left New York early in your career to move to Japan?

Beth: (02:08)
It was quite a challenge at first because I am a strong minded independent woman from New York and going to Japan in the late 1970s, early 80s, it was a very different kind of place than New York. And so the cultural norms and the practices were not the same as they are in New York, but they are the same now in Japan as they were back then. And I learned very quickly that I need to wait a much longer amount of time for people to respond in a conversation. New York speed, if you pause three seconds, then okay, it's the next person's turn.

Jason: (02:39)
It'll be filled in. Right.

Beth: (02:40)
In Japan, I remember seriously waiting five minutes and just being in pain, trying to figure out, is it my turn, is it not my turn? Is that person still speaking? I wasn't accustomed to the conversational cues that they were using there.

Beth: (02:56)
And so if you are able to actually wait, which is not a very New York custom to do, but if you're actually able to wait in the conversation, then all this fabulous information comes forward, but it's not going to come forward in the same pace that you used to in New York.

Beth: (03:09)
And I also learned to understand the role that I played as a foreigner, and how I was viewed from the people around me. In some ways, as a foreign woman, I had an easier time working in organizations than my Japanese female counterparts.

Jason: (03:24)
So your transition to Japan is very interesting. It's easy to analyze the differences between culture in say Tokyo and New York City. But Beth, what are the similarities? How are they the same?

Beth: (03:35)
So when I first arrived in Tokyo, I do remember that I looked around and I thought, "Wow, this is really a metropolitan city, just like New York." Tall buildings, hustle and bustle during the day when people are going to work. But then I remember thinking, okay, the subway stopped at 12 or 12:30 at night. And I thought, "How can this be a cosmopolitan city when in New York we have 24 hours subways?" So in terms of the business rushing around, in terms of access to convenience, then they are very, very similar in many ways.

Jason: (04:03)
So let's connect your story to your career. On one end, you learned a tremendous amount about intercultural communication. When you were successful at communicating, you were successful at opening your mind to other points of view. And on the other end, your spirit of empathy. You learn about core tenet about resolving conflicts. This personal experience solidified your career path and led you to your role today. Thinking about students and colleagues you've worked with over the years, how do others end up specializing in conflict resolution the way you have?

Beth: (04:32)
So when I look back on my career path, it looks as though it was all carefully planned and it definitely was not. It was really about, well, that looks interesting. Let me try that. So being more than one path that leads to Rome or that leads to conflict resolution, many people have different ways of coming into the field. It's a very multidisciplinary field. So my path was from the field of intercultural communication and intercultural conflict, which I met head on being a New Yorker in Japan in those days.

Beth: (04:59)
And so other people enter from different angles such as international relations and international development. Maybe they learned international relations in school. They wanted to focus more on conflict and peace agreements. Maybe they served in the Peace Corps or other kinds of experiences such as that in developing countries. Others may come from a psychology background and they want to understand the inner workings of people's minds and how their relationships between people go. So psychology plays a role in conflict.

Beth: (05:25)
And then separate from any disciplinary orientation, there are many people who do not like conflict and they don't like dealing with it, and they come to the program to study conflict resolution or, in general, study the field of conflict resolution, so they themselves can learn how to deal with conflict more effectively.

Jason: (05:41)
So you've met a lot of people with a variety of different negotiation styles and approaches. Some might even be called hardball negotiators. How do you, or how does one, go head-to-head with someone with an intimidating or an aggressive style?

Beth: (05:55)
I can speak now from a more senior position in my career, but when I was younger, it was a little bit different. It was more intimidating, even for me. And so now, I think what I do is I really focus on the relationship. So for me, negotiation is about building relationship and building communication. So if somebody is intimidating or trying to be intimidating, I sit there and think, "What is going on here and why is this person doing what he or she is doing?" Like why are they behaving in that way and what are they looking for from me for a certain kind of reaction? So typically, I just look past the intimidation and I have to say that, in most cases, I don't get intimidated because I don't think they're really trying to intimidate me from a very mean point of view. I think they're trying to win or to get something. And I try not to take it personally, which has taken me many years to develop that.

Jason: (06:43)
Hmm. So that's a natural segue for gender in negotiations. You've spoken and written about women negotiating effectively for themselves. For example, in areas like getting a higher salary or getting a promotion or better work life balance even. Women are an underrepresented group in the workforce, particularly at higher managerial and leadership levels. Given your experience and knowing what works well and actually what doesn't work well, what advice do you offer to women looking to negotiate on their own behalves?

Beth: (07:12)
So it's really an interesting dilemma that I think women are facing today, especially when you look at different kinds of research and what women should or should not be doing. So I'm very interested in the narratives or the stories that women tell to themselves and about themselves, the stories that are told about them.

Beth: (07:29)
So for start, women in general just need to believe in themselves and believe what they're worth. And they really have to put forward what their value is. They need to manage the social narratives that they've grown up with about who they should be, as a woman, in a certain kind of a context. Then they need to understand the broader systemic dynamics where they work.

Beth: (07:49)
So for example, some things will be achievable and others may not. And then there's the hard decision, should I stay in this situation knowing I cannot get what I want or should I go to another situation, not knowing if I'm going to get what I want, but maybe taking that chance? And they need to develop more self awareness and skills to really boost their confidence and effectiveness.

Beth: (08:09)
And in my research, one of the most common comments that people have made, women when I've interviewed them, they said, "I didn't know I should ask," meaning I didn't even know that was something I could ask for. And in general, the way men are socialized, they don't even think that they shouldn't ask her. It's a question of whether they should ask for whatever it is that a woman doesn't think she should ask for.

Jason: (08:30)
Hm. So beyond gender, does the same advice apply to other underrepresented groups?

Beth: (08:34)
Absolutely. So first, you're always dealing with the social narratives of what's been told about you and who you should be with your own personal narrative about who you want to be. And I think information is power. People really need to do their homework before negotiating. So sometimes people say to me, "You know, I know enough about this. I'll just go in there and wing it." And I say, "You know what? Winging it is not a strategy. It's not a good thing I recommend." You need to understand yourself. You need to understand what's important to you, what's of value to you. You need to understand as much as possible about your negotiating partner, and then the context that you're in.

Beth: (09:08)
So some things will be achieved and some things will not. So if you go in with an intention, as I mentioned earlier about building relationships, if you go in with the intention to build a relationship in the negotiation, so that all parties walk away benefiting, then I think the outcomes will be more positive than not.

Jason: (09:23)
Hmm. That's an increasingly critical conversation as we think about the future of work and you and I have talked a lot about that. A large amount of research is showing that diverse organizations are financially successful organizations. And that's just to say that diversity of thought leads to more and an enhanced profit. So longterm survival is dependent on being diverse and inclusive. And so your theory and what you just talked about really reflects with that.

Jason: (09:47)
Let's shift to technology now. What role has social media been playing in negotiation and conflict resolution?

Beth: (09:54)
Well, I say it's a blessing and a curse, right? So the blessing is that it's so much easier to share information and build awareness, which is great. We can just spread news very quickly. The curse part is that there are many unskilled people blurting out whatever comes to mind in that moment. So there's an immediacy in social media which allows for less time of pausing, taking your time, reflecting, and not responding from a very emotional point of view. Because when we are super emotional in a way that it overtakes our thinking, we're not clear, our thinking is cloudy, and then we're not going to be the best of who we can be in that moment. So we lose that opportunity to delay and reflect.

Jason: (10:33)
Let's focus now on the future, when the youth of today become adults. What does your field look like, Beth, in 10 years or even in 50 years?

Beth: (10:40)
So projecting into the future is not one of my things I do best. But let me just think about that for a minute. So because everything has gotten so much faster today, and even this affects our teaching in the classroom too, is that things need to be heard and framed in sound bites. Conflict resolution is not a soundbite, right? Conflict resolution is something that really takes time and it needs to be a sincerity and an interest in wanting to build the relationship or repair the relationship in some way. So it really takes a lot more attention, which I'm concerned about, that people don't have the longer attention span for sustainable solutions.

Beth: (11:19)
So you might be able to resolve something on the surface for that moment, but it doesn't mean that it's a deep, long lasting, sustainable resolution, which takes time to build. So being able to stick with it is critical. And so I imagine that more people will have skills and attitude necessary to reduce the number of conflicts was, if we just increase the amount of people skilled in conflict resolution, then they can have the good conflicts that where they really surface underlying tensions to be able to resolve them. So if they're more skilled, then the sound bite orientation won't work against them, but if they're not skilled, then the sound bite orientation will not be good.

Jason: (11:56)
So let's continue on that good conflict theme. Our mutual colleague here at Columbia, professor Peter Coleman, was recently featured in the School of Professional Studies Talks at Columbia speaker series. He said that conflict gets a bad reputation sometimes unfairly. He raised the question that I'd like to pose to you now. Is conflict ever necessary or helpful?

Beth: (12:16)
I think one of the reasons that conflict gets a bad reputation is because if you ask people, "Do you like conflict?" Most of the time people will say no, and so they avoid it or they feel uncomfortable. So I think that's why it gets a bad reputation is because we're not skillful at being able to have some kind of constructive outcome to the conflict.

Beth: (12:37)
However, when there is a conflict situation, there's usually some kind of underlying tension that's happening between people. And if the conflict does not surface, that tension remains, and will impair the relationship going forward. This happens in organizations all the time. Think about work teams, people feel there's not a fair distribution of work and so that tension stays there. If you're able to, and I say in air quotes skillfully, raise the issues and surface the conflict and address it, then you can resolve the underlying tensions, and then you can have a much more effective working relationship. So in those situations, when there's a skill involved and people are skillful at conflict resolution, then you can have a more positive outcome. But typically it does get a bad reputation because it just does not feel good to be in conflict.

Jason: (13:29)
Extending on that thought and going back to Venus and Serena Williams. You have to wonder what kind of conversations they had before they competed against each other and after. What do you think they talked about?

Beth: (13:40)
Well, of course, I wish I was a fly on the wall for those conversations, but since I'm not, I would imagine that they probably worked very hard on not personalizing the conflict, and they just kept it that, this is our profession, this is our sport, this is what we do. But it's not who we are in terms of our personal relationship as sisters. Because didn't they play doubles together sometimes?

Jason: (14:03)
I think they won together as well.

Beth: (14:03)
There we go. So they learned how to work together as well.

Jason: (14:05)
Absolutely. All right, so I'm going to end with three rapid fire questions. You're ready?

Beth: (14:10)
Mm-hmm. Sure.

Jason: (14:11)
So a biker is riding the wrong way on a one way street. Do you confront them or not?

Beth: (14:16)
Well, I think about the word confront, and to me, that sounds a little bit adversarial. So if I thought they were a danger to themselves and others, I might approach them. So I'm using the word approach rather than confront.

Jason: (14:28)
Okay. Second, a young person doesn't give up a seat on the subway for an older commuter. Do you tell that person to give up their seat?

Beth: (14:36)
I would think probably not because I've thought about my role on subways and I think too many unknown variables in that situation. Unless it got really serious and violent, then I probably would not say anything.

Jason: (14:46)
All right, and here's my favorite. Your spouse wants to order a bottle of red wine at a restaurant and you want to order white wine. Do you let it go?

Beth: (14:54)
Absolutely. I drink red. I drink white. Whatever it is, it's fine with me.

Jason: (14:58)
Thank you Beth for joining me. We frequently talk about making an impact at the School of Professional Studies and it's clear that your graduates make a difference, not only at the individual level, but on a global scale as well.

Jason: (15:09)
A few of today's takeaways from our discussion together. Number one, relationships are important, so think about every interaction with others as an opportunity to forge constructive relationships. Number two, developing self awareness and basic conflict resolution skills will help. Make a different for all involved. And number three, understand the context you are in as best you can before acting, because context does matter. There are many influencing factors that shape how effective you will be. Do I have it right?

Beth: (15:38)
You sure do, Jason.

Jason: (15:39)
All right. Thank you again, Beth, for joining us today.

Beth: (15:41)
Thank you for having me, Jason. It was really a pleasure.