Advanced De-escalation: When You Can’t Avoid Controversial Topics

In a time when stakeholders are more on-edge than ever, it pays to brush up on basic de-escalation technics. To that end, I wanted to take a moment and point out something from Kelly Leonard, Executive Director of Learning and Applied Improvisation at Second City Works, who promotes a concept he calls “thank you, because…”

H/T Holly Mulcahy for bringing this to my attention because if there was ever a time to learn about advanced technics for engaging in difficult conversations, now is the time.

Leonard explains the approach in a Cleveland Clinic Being Seen and Heard podcast hosted by Steph Bayer. I highly recommend listening to the entire podcast, but here’s the transcript of Leonard describing the concept and providing a real-world example for how it can be applied.

Kelly Leonard: Actually I have another extra that builds on that if you want to hear about it.

Steph Bayer: I would love to.

Kelly Leonard: Most people know about “Yes, And” because it’s the stickiest of improv concepts. Essentially the idea is you get nowhere in a scene by saying no, or even just saying yes. You have to say yes, and.

Kelly Leonard: When we were working with the scientists at the University of Chicago, they’re like, that’s great. We actually have the science that backs that up. What happens when you have an intractable problem, a seemingly intractable problem, a core disagreement? The example I always use is people who are against vaccines. I’ve been talking about this well before the pandemic. I had this issue before then. We didn’t have an answer and they didn’t either, but in working together over the course of basically a year, we discovered this idea of thank you, because. The idea there is, if I’m talking to someone who…

Kelly Leonard: I have a specific story about this. One of my daughter’s friends, her parents were against vaccines, so the daughter was unvaccinated. I like them, and Nora wanted to stay friends with her friend. In talking to them about this issue, I was able to say, “Thank you.” That sets off the gratitude part of their brain. They’re not scared of what’s coming because I just thanked them. Because it’s crucial, I find some point of agreement, no matter how small. The point of agreement I found was I said, “Thank you because you care for your daughter so much you don’t want to get her hurt. I have the same thing. We are connected in this way, and we’re trying to protect our daughters.” We figured out a way that they would chat, text, zoom, and do other things until hopefully Nora would get better. That was an amazing way of us taking this idea.

Kelly Leonard: By the way, there’s a paper coming out next year about this because we’ve done this exercise with tens of thousands of people. The numbers are off the charts in terms of the ability for people to stay in that conversation longer, and actually find an outcome that’s useful as opposed to just blocking each other and being done with it.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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Advanced De-escalation: When You Can't Avoid Controversial Topics