EPISODE 612: Developing Skills for Difficult Conversations with “Talking on Eggshells” Author Sam Horn

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SAM’S TIP: “Pema Chodron said, “Do not let people pull you into their storm. Pull them into your peace.” I think in sales, as leaders, our goal is to set an example of respect. If we choose to do that no matter what, using some of the things you learn in this book, you really can pull people into your peace instead of letting them pull you into their storm.”


Fred Diamond: I’m excited today, Sam, you’re such a prolific author. You’ve helped so many people get their books to market. One of our mutual friends, Arnold Sanow, the great Arnie Sanow, always brings you up whenever we talk about how he’s achieved some of his books and some of the insights that you shared. But you have a new book out, it’s called Talking on Eggshells. By the way, you got a really nice cover endorsement from the great John Mackey, of course, the founder of Whole Foods. He called it the course-correct for today’s cancel culture. Let’s get right into it. You’ve written so many books, why this book right now? Then let’s get into it, what does it mean to talk on eggshells and is it getting worse in our society, and why?

Sam Horn: You know, Fred? You’re exactly right, is that I bet we all have at least one person in our life and we tiptoe around this person. We feel like we’re always saying things wrong. We can never say anything right. We never know what’s going to set them off. This book is how we can deal with those kind of people on and off the job.

Fred Diamond: Well, why now? Why did you write this book now? You’ve written so many books. You’re such a prolific author, you’re a beautiful author. Your work is so beautiful and fantastic. Why this book right now? Again, we’re doing today’s interview in June of 2023.

Sam Horn: McKinsey said that rudeness is on the rise and incivility is getting worse. We all agree with that. In fact, Jeff Weiner, the former CEO of LinkedIn, said that communication skills are the number one skill gap. In fact, some companies are hiring me because especially their younger employees are ghosting their customers. They just lose the complaint slip. Because they grew up communicating with their thumbs, they don’t know how to have hard conversations. What this book is about is how to have those hard conversations and how to act in integrity, how to give and get respect, how to think on our feet, and what to say when we don’t know what to say.

Fred Diamond: Tell me the moment. What was the moment when you said, “This is the book I need to write right now?”

Sam Horn: Fred, you’ve referenced my books. I wrote Tongue Fu! 25 years ago. Tongue Fu! is still selling in 17 languages. In fact, the National Public Library in China got in touch in 2018 to say it was the most checked out book in the China’s National Public Library. This is universal and I think we all want to get along with people. A lot of times though, we don’t know what to say in the heat of the moment. We don’t know how to keep our cool, and often what’s on the tip of our tongue makes things worse. If you want, Fred, especially if people will grab paper and pen right now, we’re going to give words to lose, words to use. Because this is about game changing and words matter. Every single one of them, they set up a ripple effect for better or for worse. Here’s some words that make things worse. Here are some words that make things better. Sound good?

Fred Diamond: Yeah. Let’s go through some of those.

Sam Horn: If you’re taking notes, vertical line down the center, over on the left, put complain. Would you like to know what to do when people complain? Over on the left put explain. Don’t explain when people complain because explanations come across as excuses. They make people angrier because they feel we’re not being accountable. When people complain, don’t explain. Over on the right, take the A train, A for agree, A for apologize, A for act. We’re talking sales here, so maybe we miss an important meeting because we got stuck in traffic. Someone says, “Hey, you were supposed to be here at nine o’clock.” “I know, it wasn’t my fault.” See that explanation? That’s going to alienate that client because they think if they’re making excuses here, where else are they not going to keep their commitments, right? A, agree. “You are right. I was supposed to be here at nine o’clock.” A for apologize, “And I’m sorry you ended up waiting.” A for act, “And I’ve got that information you had requested. If you’d like, let’s just dive right into your options and how we can move this forward.” Boom. A train expedites complaints, explanations anchor them.

Fred Diamond: I hate when I call a customer service or something and they go through this one-minute explanation of why they’re so sorry I’ve experienced this. I know I’ve experienced it. Just help me get to the solution. Sam, you say there’s a three-letter word that block sales, causes resistance and resentment, and probably damages more relationships than any other word in the English language. Our listeners are probably going through the brain of all the three letter words that they know, but what’s that word and what should we be saying instead?

Sam Horn: Put over on the left of your list that little word ‘but’. “Well, I hear what you’re saying, but we tried that before, but the price went up,” et cetera. It’s like, “You really did a good job on that, but you left out this paragraph.” Is, “Well, I’d like to give you that price, but-” That word but actually creates conflicts because it’s an either/or, right/wrong word. As you said, John Mackey said this is a cancel culture, and that word cancels out what the other person has said.

Over on the right, put the word and. “I hear what you’re saying, and we tried that before, and do you have any ideas on how we can handle that more effectively? You’re right, we did quote this price, and-” Do you see how when we use the word and, we advance the conversation? We don’t have to agree with what the person’s saying, we’re just not arguing with it. That word and in all my years of speaking, and all around the world, if we hold ourself accountable for it, we put ourselves on the same side instead of side against side.

Fred Diamond: But is one of the worst words. They say get rid of all your buts, et cetera. It’s always a limiting word no matter what context you put it into. I’m glad you called up on that. One thing that I liked about your book is that it had more than 200 quotes, I guess, on how to be kind. You know what? We talk about that a lot, not just on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, but on LinkedIn and Facebook. Everybody is going through challenges. We don’t know what those challenges are, not just in work, not just related to sales. Again, we’re doing today’s interview in June of 2023. We’re still figuring out the impact of the last couple of years. The concept of 200 quotes on how to be kind even when other people aren’t. Could you refer back to a couple of the ones that are most inspiring to you that you really enjoy? I love the concept of kindness. I tell people that all the time. I’m going to share something, I want to go down this path. I always say, “Nothing happens for a reason, so you might as well be kind.” Tell us the ones that you really are inspired by.

Sam Horn: Well, shall I do my Elvis impression, Fred? It’s like, I got to do the lip. Well, Elvis said, “When things go wrong, don’t go with them.” Over on the left are all these words and reactions that make things worse. Then on the right are all the words and responses that make things better. Mother Teresa said, “The world is full of good people. If you can’t find one, be one.” Here’s one of my favorite, and then we’ll give a real life example, is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was being interviewed on CBS Sunday morning. The reporter said, “I can’t believe it. You go to the opera with Judge Scalia and you are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. How can you do that?” She said the six most powerful words, Fred, you ready? “We are different. We are one.” When we have a difference of opinion, whether it’s a difference of political opinion, whether it’s a different way of how we’re going to do business together, how can we focus on what we have in common instead of what we have in conflict?

Fred Diamond: Judge Scalia and Judge Ginsburg, both of blessed memory, had to work together. Obviously they were diametrically opposed on many issues from their political approach, but they had to work together. What about people who are just mean? We see this on social media all the time, and hopefully we don’t come across customers, but what if we do? What if we come across a customer, can you eventually bring them into your realm, if you will, or do you suggest just moving on and being kinder to other people?

Sam Horn: That’s a wonderful option. Let’s give two options, because there’s no simplistic answers, right, Fred? This is complicated, and I don’t want to be Pollyanna, so I give people options so they can pick the one that’s relevant to their situation. Here’s one option, then we’ll give another. I was shocked when I found a dear friend who I’d had monthly phone calls with for 20 years said that a certain president was the best president we ever had. Well, Fred, I thought just the opposite. I couldn’t believe that someone I respected so much that we were so polar opposite on this. When I hung up the phone call, I didn’t know if we’d ever talk again. Then I remembered I grew up on a horse in Southern California, and there was quicksand out in those dry riverbeds. Well, now did we stop riding our horses because there was quicksand out there? No, we avoided the quicksand.

Fred, I think there are quicksand conversations. If it’s a family member, if it’s a long-term client, et cetera, we may have opposing opinions on things. The question is, are we going to throw away that 25-year relationship? Are we not going to work with that person because there’s one issue that we don’t agree on? I think sometimes we can agree to disagree and we agree, “That’s a quicksand conversation. We’re not going there because we want to keep this relationship.” I think that’s one option.

There’s another, and that is the silent sanctions. If someone is being mean, if someone’s yelling at us, cursing at us, accusing us of things that are not true, or right, or fair, or kind, we’ve been told to turn the other cheek. I think if we turn the other cheek, they’ll slap that one too. I believe in doing something called do the you. We’ve been taught to use I replies. “I don’t like being spoken to in that tone of voice. I don’t think that’s fair.” I replies backfire with bullies, or narcissists, or controllers, or manipulators. It focuses on our reaction instead of their behavior. Do the you. “You, back off. You, enough. You, stop. You, sit down. You, take your hand off my shoulder.” Because doing the you keeps the attention where it belongs, which is on their inappropriate behavior instead of our reaction to it.

Fred Diamond: You talked in the beginning of the conversation, and you talked about how a lot of young people. One of the reasons why you wrote the book, why the book is so necessary, is because they communicate via text, or they communicate via commenting on things. A lot of times they do make quick comments that they probably regret. I tell this to young sales professionals all the time, “Be careful what you post on social because you’re going to be looking for a job at some point and it’s going to be found. Don’t do that type of a thing.” What is some of your advice to people who are listening who maybe are junior in their careers? You wrote this book and a lot of reasons for them not to do things like that. Some of the references like the CEO of LinkedIn and the guy from Whole Foods. Give a specific message to the young sales professionals who are used to replying with what’s a top thing on their brain. But when they’re in business and when they’re in this sales world, you can’t do that. It’s not necessary. You’re representing a company.

Sam Horn: I’m just so glad you brought this up, Fred. One of the messages of Talking on Eggshells is to be the pattern interrupt. Is that often the thing we’re going to say on the tip of the tongue, the thing we’re going to dash off with our thumbs, the thing we’re going to fire off in an email, it’s reactive and it will almost make things worse. A pattern interrupt, often if it’s face-to-face, is physical, and we say, “Time out,” or we say, “Wait a minute.” Because if people are angry, or cursing, or blaming us for something that’s not our fault, if we try to talk over them, they’ll just talk louder. The voice of reason gets drowned out in the commotion. If we say, “Time out,” or if we say, “Wait a minute,” and then we shift the pattern, “Let’s not do this. This won’t help. Instead, let’s find solutions instead of find fault. Instead, let’s figure out how we can keep this from happening in the future.” That reaction, which is to fire something back right up, stop, pattern interrupt for ourselves and for them, and then switch once again to solutions instead of fault.

Fred Diamond: Do you have any examples, like a success story? I think you brought a couple of them up in the book where people learned how to be the pattern interrupt and to use it to turn conflict into cooperation. Can you give us a specific example or two if you have them?

Sam Horn: I love your questions, Fred. Yes. I was speaking at a women’s leadership conference and in the Q&A, a woman put her hand up and said, “Sam, why are women so catty to each other?” Fred, you’ve heard this before. You know what? Over on the left, if someone makes an accusation or says something and you don’t agree with it, do not deny it. If we deny it, we reinforce it. What we do instead is we redirect it. Don Draper said, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Do not deny. “I don’t believe women are catty.” We’re reinforcing it. “Do you know what I found? Women are real supporters of each other. In fact, I wouldn’t have this job.” If someone says, “You don’t care about your customers.” “We do too care about our customers.” Now we’re arguing with our customers about whether we care about our customers. We say these four words, a pattern interrupt word, “What do you mean? What makes you think that? Why do they say that?” They may say, “Well, I’ve left three messages and no one’s gotten back.” It reveals the real issue. We can address that instead of reacting to the attack.

Fred Diamond: Usually all these conflicts start with nothing. A misunderstanding, a miscommunication, misexpectation, if you will. A lot of times if you just have the ability to center, you can identify those and figure on those. You talk about humor in the book as well, how we can sometimes handle hassles with humor instead of harsh words. That doesn’t always work though. One person’s humor is another person’s insult, but talk a little bit about that. If someone’s teasing us, can we reply back with humor? Talk a little bit about the concept of humor in this type of environment.

Sam Horn: Art Buchwald said, “I learned a lesson very early in life. When I made people laugh, they liked me.” Often tension, conflict were adversaries, et cetera, and appropriate, gentle, real humor, true humor, not a joke, can actually turn that around. Quick story. I’m in the San Francisco airport. I’m on one of those lazy sidewalks. A very tall man coming the opposite direction. Fred, I can’t believe it. There are people in front of me pointing at him and laughing. I’m thinking, “That’s so rude. There’s no excuse for this.” When he got closer, I could read his t-shirt. I could tell why they were laughing. On very large letters it said, “No, I’m not a basketball player.”

When he went by, I got off the lazy sidewalk, caught him, I said, “This is brilliant.” He said, “This is nothing.” He said, “I grew a foot between the time I was 13, 16 years old, I didn’t even want to go outside because everyone’s got to make snarky remarks.” He said, “My mom finally said, ‘If you can’t beat him, join them.’” He said, “This is nothing. I’ve got a whole drawer full of these at home. My favorite one says, ‘I’m 6’13” and the weather up here is fine.’” He said, “Now I have fun with my height instead of being frustrated by my height.” If we have something we’re sensitive about, I think we can come up with comebacks so that people no longer have the power to push our hot buttons and we can have fun with it instead of being frustrated by it.

Fred Diamond: That’s such a better place to be, to constantly be fighting and arguing for those things, just to accept it. You’re tall, good for you. It’s not the worst thing in the world, trust me. Sam Horn, before we ask you for your final action step, got time for one or two more questions. In the book, you refer to some research from McKinsey, which says, rudeness is getting worse and incivility is on the rise. I don’t think anybody listening to today’s show is going to dispute that. Do you believe if we go first and model what you call proactive grace, most people will be motivated to respond in kind? Talk about what proactive grace means, and then give us an example or two.

Sam Horn: I tell you, Fred, we’re both storytellers. I get to tell a story about my 84-year-old Aunt Kay, who volunteers at a hospital. She drives five days a week, and she did this during COVID. I asked her what it was like and she said it was stressful. I said, “Well, what’s an example where it was very stressful?” She said there was a woman who blew through our opening doors, held up her phone and said, “My daughter’s in the ER. She was in an accident.” She said, “I need to see her.” Well, you may remember the policy was no visitors or one visitor per day, per patient. Kay called the ER, there was someone with the daughter. She had to tell the woman that she could not get in to see her daughter and the woman lost it, screaming, yelling. Now, over on the left, put how rude, how offensive. What a jerk. This isn’t my fault. Why are you blaming me? All of those reactions. Instead, she asked herself four words. You know what those words were, Fred?

Fred Diamond: I don’t.

Sam Horn: How would I feel? How would I feel if my daughter was in ER and I couldn’t get in to see her? Over on the left, put there’s nothing. There’s nothing I can do. Not my fault. It’s the policy. Hey, I’m just enforcing the rules here. Over on the right, when she said, “How would I feel?” It turned her contempt into compassion, her impatience into empathy. It turned her from, “There’s nothing I can do,” to, “Let me see if there’s something I can do.” She called the ER back, she said, “Who is with the daughter?” It was the Uber driver who had brought her in. She was able to explain the situation and thank him. He left. The mom got to be with the daughter. That is the quintessence of this book, Fred, is how can we turn, “Nothing I can do,” to, “What if there’s something I can do?” Turn contempt into compassion and patience into empathy, that’s proactive grace.

Fred Diamond: You just used the word empathy. I said this before, probably the most common word we’ve used on the podcast over the last three years was empathy, and your book is all about this. Sam, I just want to acknowledge you for, I referred to this in the beginning, the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people that you’ve impact by helping them become better communicators, better writers. All your books have been just absolutely fantastic.

Before I ask you for your final thought, I just want to ask you one final question. We’re talking about skills here. Some people we find are better. Obviously read the book a couple of times, it’s going to help you implement some of these skills. But what are some of your advice for people who this may be a new concept to them where they’re struggling with this for ignorance, whatever the reason might be? What would be some of your advice to develop some of what you’re talking about as true skills where you get to the point where this is just how you be? You said be kind. It’s not that hard to be kind, but a lot of people aren’t kind. Talk about how you make these just a part of who you are. Then I want your final action step before we say goodbye.

Sam Horn: I’m so glad you brought that up because sometimes people say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Or, “I just use that word but, I’m not even aware of it,” et cetera. I believe that just like using a computer, face it, when we started using a computer, it was awkward. We didn’t know where to put our fingers on the keys. Now, we don’t even look at the computer. We just think, “What do I want to say?” I think we can do the same thing with being kind, being compassionate. However, here’s the craft and the skill of it, is that at the end of every chapter in the book, we have a one-page summary, words to lose and words to use.

If you want, people can get in touch, we send them a one-pager that they can put by their laptop or by their desk on the refrigerator because it keeps these ideas in sight, in mind. These aren’t concepts. This is what to say when people complain. What to say when people are blaming you for something that’s not your fault. Here’s what not to say. Here’s what to say. Keep it in sight, in mind so you can catch and correct. Guess what? It gets awkward. The more you apply it, you can get to a stage where it’s automatic. You’re not even using the word but anymore. You’re not telling people what they should do. You’re not giving them orders. You’re not telling them, “No, I can’t.” You really are using more of these words on the right, which helps us get along better with just about anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Fred Diamond: That’s definitely the place you want to be if you’re in sales or just a human being in life. To be in bad relationships, to be rude, it’s just a waste of time. It’s not really the place you want to be. It’s not a fun place to be. Sam Horn, thank you so much. Congratulations on the book, Talking on Eggshells. Give us one final action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas, give us one final action step you’d like to impart upon the audience so they can take their sales career to the next level.

Sam Horn: Well, you talked about quotes, Fred, and Pema Chodron said, “Do not let people pull you into their storm. Pull them into your peace.” I think in sales, as leaders, as project managers, et cetera, our goal is to set an example of respect. If we choose to do that no matter what, using some of the things you learn in this book, you really can pull people into your peace instead of letting them pull you into their storm.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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