#SeriouslySocial The Podcast
with Simone Douglas and special guest Elizabeth Williamson
Our guest this episode is Elizabeth Williamson, who works as a relationship and family therapist, as well as business mediation.
She and Simone chat about listening, learning through failure, and about dealing with conflicts and difficult conversations.
Special guest: Elizabeth Williamson
Check out our page for updates and teasers about upcoming episodes, https://socialmediaaok.com.au/podcast
Hosted by Simone Douglas
Videography by Marie Carbone
Audio by Chris Irving
Music used in this episode is “Alte Herren” by KieLoKaz, used with permission under a Creative Commons Licence
This production is protected by a creative commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence.
Chris Irving 0:00
Welcome to the Seriously Social Podcast with your host, Simone Douglas. Our guest this episode is Elizabeth Williamson, who works as a relationship and family therapist. She and Simone chat about listening, learning through failure, and about dealing with conflicts and difficult conversations.
Simone Douglas 0:18
So welcome to today’s episode of The Seriously Social Podcast. I am very happy to be joined today by Elizabeth Williamson from Elizabeth Williamson solutions. Thanks very much for coming in.
Elizabeth Williamson 0:29
Simone Douglas 0:30
So Elizabeth, maybe for our audience to start off with, can you just give us a little bit of a story of how your career started? And where you’ve found yourself now?
Elizabeth Williamson 0:40
Well, it’s been a curious journey. So I’m a social worker. And, and I’m a 60s child. So I was a single child in the sixties when that didn’t exist. So if families and relationships always a very curious for me, that makes sense. Yeah, that was pretty weird. And I’ve never thought I’d be a counsellor, which is what a lot of the work I do now. And don’t like conflict, but I’m actually really good getting in the middle of it. So I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes. And that sort of my mistakes have led me towards saying “I’m never going to be a counsellor” and then finding it’s what I do. It’s my, it’s my state of flow, if you like. And then finding out that counselling is all about difficult conversations, difficult people we know have difficult internal experiences. And that led me to get really interested in how to resolve conflict. So I now work a lot with having people with who have difficult people in their lives or need to have those difficult conversations that we avoid. Yeah, organisations that need to deal with difficult circumstances or difficult environments, difficult people. So that’s, that’s my world now.
Simone Douglas 1:51
you’d be in very high demand currently, I would have thought.
Elizabeth Williamson 1:54
I found that I really love working with families. I do a lot of couples work. I had the privilege of studying directly with John and Julie Gottman. Yeah, I spent three years doing studying with them. And I think, I felt like I’ve learned at the feet of masters, some of whom are, you know, academic and well known, and some of the people that I know, and I watched them because they go, “How do you do that?” If you do that, so well, and I just copy.
Simone Douglas 2:24
That’s often you know, how we learn best is by observing people who seem to, you know, just be exceptional at whatever it is that they do.
Elizabeth Williamson 2:35
And what we struggled … You know, when you struggle to learn something, you really have to learn it. So on the back of many of my errors, come my strength.
Simone Douglas 2:44
Yeah, no, that absolutely makes sense. I think many, many years ago, I used to be very conflict avoidant, maybe in my 20s. So my answer, instead of having conflict was just to yell, or to go, No, you will do this, because I’m the boss off you go. Which, of course, doesn’t help anyone in the long run. But I think too, one of the things that I’d be curious about is, what once I worked out how to have positive conflict, and useful conversations that were still difficult and uncomfortable. I still, like as a leader for a very long time, had the reputation from an outsider looking in, as being very difficult to deal with, and if you were inside my team, and part of my team, the exact opposite was true. So you know, the team would say, you know, no, her expectations are really clear, we know exactly where we stand, we know exactly how to communicate and what’s involved. But because I would actively go into bat for my team with people higher up the food chain, their perception was, she’s really difficult, and she’s hard and she wants her own way, you know, so do you think that there’s a, like, how do you get to that happy medium, we’re not so concerned with other people’s perceptions, because you know, yourself what it is that you’re-
Elizabeth Williamson 4:08
Do you reckon there’s a bit of gender bias in that as well? You know, because I think women who are assertive and clear and succinct, in their approach are seen as difficult and men who do exactly the same thing is seen as direct and competent.
Simone Douglas 4:25
Well, that’s Yeah, that’s and I think that’s very-
Elizabeth Williamson 4:27
That’s, you know, one thing I have a program that I really love delivering, which is for women, which is “Step Up, Speak Up” and it’s how to, you know, do exactly what you’re saying step up and deal with the reaction that you get, because it’s often going to be reactive. And if you if you prepared for reactivity, and you know what to do rather than often what we do is we mirror what we see and we compliment it. So if you mirror it, you start to get reactive, in your own response, and if you’re complimentary, you get very defensive. That doesn’t work either, either explaining –
Simone Douglas 5:04
Yeah, too much detail.
Elizabeth Williamson 5:05
And then of course, you give ammunition away by giving them too much detail.
Simone Douglas 5:10
And I think absolutely in my 20s I did that like is to manage pubs. For ALH groups, I was really big hotel chain, and I was one of only two female venue managers at the time and in my 20s. And so whilst I would get really good results, it was absolutely I would defend my position to within an inch of its life, because I felt like I had to, which was obviously an internal driver. But you know, if I knew my area manager was coming out to have a meeting with me, and they wanted to talk about budgets and performance. Number one, they would tend to like pick on the tiniest thing that was slightly gone pear shaped as opposed to going, well actually you smashed your sales budget, and you made the bottom line profit, but they go, so this one line here where you’ve gone over in your expenses, that’s unacceptable. But I’d also felt they would bring reinforcements. So they wouldn’t come and see me all by themselves, they would bring like another area manager or somebody else with them to sit down. And it took me a while to figure out that they were intimidated by someone that was just in charge of their own world kind of thing.
Elizabeth Williamson 6:18
There’s a really lovely book by – I think it’s Hypervitz – and I can’t think of the guy’s name .. Heifetz and Linsky I think it is? and it’s called “Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Leadership.” And it’s a fantastic analysis of if you’re a values driven leader, (which you sound like you were then) and are in your 20s you’re learning how to do it …
Simone Douglas 6:37
Yeah, I was still figuring it out?
Elizabeth Williamson 6:39
Yeah, the 20s are about being clumsy, aren’t they? Just gotta a big graceful enhancer in your 20s. But it’s about the tactics that work within organisations, to derail values driven leadership because, you know, that’s adaptive leadership, and people who want to protect their positions or their power. Particularly, you know, what, we’ll find strategies, and one of them is to fault find and, and you want the skills is to know how to bring the conversation back. How am I going to manage this? You don’t lead. I do. But again, it takes, it takes a bit of coaching and support to learn and failing enough times to learn that, “Oh this isn’t working. I’ve got to do something different.”
Simone Douglas 6:39
Yeah absolutely. And I think too, like you said, in your 20s, you’re still learning to trust your own judgement to a degree and figuring out how to be a good people leader so …
Elizabeth Williamson 7:35
And we can, you know, I think we’re so driven in our culture about very binary thinking: right,wrong, good, bad, success, fail, that we miss and we don’t teach really flexible thinking skills so that.. in one of my roles, if you stuck with only either or, looking at solutions for problems, then I know you’re in the wrong place, is when you bet the fifth creative solutions, they start with either this it’ll work, or that’ll fail, and they don’t want to do and you get about the fifth one, and then you get some creative thinking happening. And that’s what good conflict skill management is all about. It’s getting that broad perspective and creative thinking to go, “I could see this from a different angle.” What is happening for this area manager that he’s so frightened that you could do, you know, that will just manage that for him? Because he doesn’t know how to do it; he has to bring in a reinforcement.
Simone Douglas 8:29
Well I know, and it’s the funnily enough event, I went to my mom, who’s a psychotherapist, and asked some advice, because I’m like, this is just painful. You know, number one, you know, they, he seems to feel the need to come and visit me every week, which is like, not normal and distracting from what I’m trying to do. And number two never goes well. And so, you know, she suggested that I start reaching out to him at least once a week and ask him for advice on something. And it was like the smallest little thing, but I’d ring him up and I’d be like, “Hi, you know, I’m just in the middle of doing some forward planning on my labour models and you know, I’ve had a look at x, y, and z. And I’m just wondering, what are your thoughts around, you know, permanent part time versus casual in the labour mix? Do you think that there’s an opportunity there for saving or is it something I shouldn’t waste my time on?” And, you know, they’d always have an opinion, be like, “thanks, that’s actually really informative. I’m going to go away and integrate that into what I’m doing.” You know, it took about three months, but then eventually, they just stopped visiting me they were like, I’m just gonna leave Simone to do her stuff.
Elizabeth Williamson 9:32
Yeah, I think there’s an empathy that we really need to bring to conflict into relationships. And I think that skill – what I love teaching, so I’ve got a table here and I try and get people like a play, you know, where are the characters in the story? And can you imagine each person’s motivation and need and see it from their point of view as well as your own so you’re trying to work on your own blind spot. He obviously needed to get to know you very well, but he needed to feel like he was leading you. And he was just intimidated by your competence. And so once you reassured him that he was really important, and, you know, we spoke that masculine ego about giving advice, he could relax. But we often struggle to do that.
Simone Douglas 10:17
Yeah. Well, I think, you know, the default position, too, is like, stop picking on me, like, and just piss off and leave me alone. But I think too, there’s that you can have conflict with, like positive conflict without confrontation.
Elizabeth Williamson 10:32
Absolutely. I love that term. It’s an actual word term that I use. I’ve got a six step model that I’ve developed about working through conflict, because I think we need to be, you know, see conflict as a positive human experience. It drives us to change. It’s inevitable. It’s transformative, and if we’re confident and careful, and empathic and courageous, we make wonderful things happen.
Simone Douglas 10:57
Elizabeth Williamson 10:58
And we avoid it. We intrench fear.
Simone Douglas 11:01
Yeah. And in doing that, businesses constrict, teams disassemble.
Elizabeth Williamson 11:06
So I have this philosophy of, you know, making more peace, one conversation at a time.
Simone Douglas 11:11
Oh I like that. So when you look at, in terms of say, going into like a business or an organisation to look at their models for conflict, I suppose and how they do that, and dealing with difficult people? What are some of the simple things that say, a business owner or a manager can do? Not in, like, in the conversation itself, but in preparation for the conversation? What are some of the things..?
Elizabeth Williamson 11:41
I worked with a really large recreational organisation who had a lot of this, you know, they have staff who are skillful, and they’ve got lots of junior staff doing sort of walking around and managing people in the pool. So they had to really skill up. So I think it’s really important to work with leaders first. So one of the things we really worked on was to get a shared leadership – shared language, sorry – which meant that everyone took responsibility for stress. So you couldn’t have a tantrum because you were stressed. You couldn’t avoid something if you were stressed. But it was all managers and leadership responsibility to help you manage your stress. And then you had a personal responsibility to manage that yourself. So sharing that. So that gave people room to talk about difficult things. And confide and catch more. One of the things was, sometimes it’s so simple: what the staff on the floor gained was the ability to say really confidently, “I’m sorry, but this is our policy. I understand you’re disappointed. But this is our policy. So proceed.” And because of this really simple script, they knew what they had would work up the food chain. They just reduced their conflict significantly. And it was simple. So it was all the stuff to get there, but understand that about 10% of the population are conflict driven. So they won’t cooperate. Once you recognise, okay. 10%. That’s a significant number. You need to be skillful in dealing with them. And they won’t respond to your general skills and general approaches to trying to resolve something. So you have to get to calm them down or manage them, without getting agitated yourself.
Simone Douglas 13:33
Yeah, well, and it’s funny you say that, because, you know, certainly my business partner in a couple of my businesses, he and I are very similar. We’re both quite dominant alpha personality types and we had to come up with this shared language, because we found that we were arguing for hours about something that was like, and then we get to the end of the conversation and go, “Okay, so now we’ve both actually been saying exactly the same thing. It’s just you want me to say it your way, and I want you to say it my way, but we both agree, ostensibly.” So now we just say to each other, “Is this one of those hills?” I which point, you know, and he’ll go, “No, it’s not one that I need to die on.” I’ll be like, okay, or I’ll go or he’ll go “Yes, actually, it is.” I’m like, okay, so you know, “If it is one of those hills that you need to die on, can you now explain to me what it is about it that makes it a hill?”
Elizabeth Williamson 13:46
And it is about learning how to discuss compromise, isn’t it? because what you’re really doing is saying, here’s something, here’s my edge and set boundaries. It’s another thing I love to coach people about: Here’s a boundary I can’t cross because something really fundamental or important, is something that I need to either defend or would cost me something, and here’s where I’m negotiable. And often what we’re doing with discussions is learning where that edge is, and as we get closer to it, we get more anxious or defensive.
Simone Douglas 14:59
And we tend to dig our heels in.
Elizabeth Williamson 15:01
Yeah, dig your heels in because you don’t want to go there. So learning about that, as you’ve done with your partner means you can give a clue and this is getting into this territory where we both going to have to be a bit more aware of what the conversation clusters. We like to slow down a bit, might need to pause and go “Why is this so edgy for me?” And then find a way of talking about that. And many people just don’t have that skill. Never been taught it.
Simone Douglas 15:31
Well, yeah. Because we don’t get taught it in business school. They don’t teach it. They teach old school negotiation one on one. It’s really funny, actually, my (now 13 year old) when he was seven, read the book (’cause just like here, I have a bookshelf at home).
Elizabeth Williamson 15:49
I’m sure you do.
Simone Douglas 15:51
One of them is called “How to get what you want without having to ask.” So like effective negotiation. I think it was written- I forget when- that was his bedtime reading when he was seven, because he took it off the bookshelf, he was adamant that this is what he wanted to read. And so you know, I said to him, okay, that’s fine. So we’ll read a chapter a night, and then we’ll have a conversation about how that might apply in your life, because obviously this is gonna be about business examples and asking for a pay rise, and God knows what else
Elizabeth Williamson 16:15
Pocket money is important.
Simone Douglas 16:19
So he’s in the Stinas room at Trinity Gardens, and he has this teacher, Helen, who’s amazing. And I said to her, you know, we’re about three, four days into this, and I thought maybe I should give her the heads up. So I said, “Helen, just letting you know, Hunter is – this is what we’re doing for bedtime reading, you may find he uses language, it’s not consistent with a seven year old’s vocabulary. You know, if you have any questions at all, let me know.” She goes, “That would explain why he asked if we could have a conversation about what a win-win outcome would look like if he undertook the classwork that I asked him to do yesterday,” and I was like, “Good job, buddy.” But you know, that’s that model is not, you know, whilst that I think we’ve come a long way, that’s very, like basic, you know, prescriptive negotiation techniques really it was, when are we going to teach people?
Elizabeth Williamson 17:13
So I think, it’s historical. We are the generation after a generation that lived through some Vietnam, Second World War, the First World War, and we are, I think, if you think about time, we are in the present the future and the past. Now. And most families are still working with models that are 50, 70 to 100 years old, particularly around trauma. Think about relationship skills, because we do what we know until we have to learn something different, unconsciously. So we approach difficult conversations, difficult situations, with our history, and we rarely think forward very far into the future. What will the longer term consequences of this be? Because we’re trying to get a quick solution, because we’re so uncomfortable.
Simone Douglas 18:09
Like, make it go away.
Elizabeth Williamson 18:10
You make it go away, or you’re responsible. Or you fix it for me, it’s not my fault, you fix it. Or if I say exactly what I think and I blow up, it’d be like a movie, you’d go, “Aww thank you for that criticism, you point out my flaws. I’m now going to stop doing that.” So we proactively rehearse failure, which is why it’s really important to learn. Actually with couples, with organisations with leadership, we go into conflict, we do exactly what we did last time. You can predict it won’t work, and we work with negative confidence. We predict it. So confidence is a skill, it’s not an emotion. It’s predicting with reasonable success, the outcome, your actions, and negative confidence is predicting with reasonable accuracy, this is going to fail. So we avoid conflict, because so what I like to teach is positive confidence, like positive conflict. If I do this, and this is likely to lead in the direction that I want. So in conflict, you have to know what you want. And you have to know what’s reasonable to want rather than just dominating or being submissive or giving up what’s important that shouldn’t give up.
Simone Douglas 19:23
Yeah, and that’s, I think, quite complex for most people, because we’re, particularly as women, I think, we’re taught not to ask for what we want.
Elizabeth Williamson 19:34
One of the problems I think, culturally for women, is we ask what we don’t want because we’re not allowed to ask what we want. So we negotiate from, “Look, I don’t want this and I don’t want this and I don’t want this, you can stop doing that?” And I spend a lot of time coaching women to say what is it – actually people – What is it that you want? And people struggle. In a mediation, people really struggled – what is it that you really want? What is important? What don’t you want us to know? If I don’t want to go to Victor Harbour that does not help me, anywhere to go with me. So what does he want? And we don’t spend enough time with the discomfort of working out what is it? Because we’re caught up in the emotion. Driven much more with that than what we’re thinking – also, what do I want that might be useful for everybody? As opposed to just me.
Simone Douglas 20:27
Yeah. What’s actually going to contribute to a rich life around me? Or to the richness of people?
Elizabeth Williamson 20:33
And better our relationship to be continuing in a way that I want and in a way that you want, or (if you’re very difficult), I need to manage you in a way that’s possible.
Simone Douglas 20:44
It’s the other option, I think. I find that interesting in that with the Duke of Brunswick for argument’s sake. So we’re very strange, and I like it that way because I’m very clear about, and when Alex and I took on the pub, I was really clear that I want to do all the things that I was told I wasn’t allowed to do in pubs because it wouldn’t make me any money. And yeah, I wanted to do them back then, you know, 13 years ago, but wasn’t allowed to. So let’s have 100% gluten free menu, let’s teach this staff how to, you know, speak conversational Auslan so that deaf people can get communicated to in everyday language.
Elizabeth Williamson 21:22
Oh i didn’t know that, that’s fantastic!
Simone Douglas 21:22
Yeah we’re actually Adelaide’s only deaf friendly pub.
Elizabeth Williamson 21:27
That is fantastic. I mean, I live with the disability, but I’m also on the board of access to arts. So we’re always looking for accessible opportunities.
Simone Douglas 21:35
Yeah, we’ve tested their accessibility and inclusivity thing, just as a community as a whole-
Elizabeth Williamson 21:43
That’s hugely important!
Simone Douglas 21:44
Yeah, it really is! But you know, apparently, it doesn’t make you money. It seems to make me some money, so that’s fine. But what I worked out, too, is that by embracing all human beings, so we have this story with the Duke of Brunswick which is, “The outside world doesn’t matter here.” And so that’s, you know, the staff, the minute they walk through the door, that’s their one job is to make the customers feel like they’ve stepped into this safe space.
Elizabeth Williamson 22:09
Ah so you have an ethos.
Simone Douglas 22:11
Elizabeth Williamson 22:12
And I think not enough businesses can can actually, I mean, that’s genius. So that’s one of the things that I like to work with is, what is the ethos of your business, because value statements are generic and boring. Nobody gets them. Everyone wants to be honest and reliable, and accountable. But you know, when you can put the thoughts of your business into a statement that people are accountable for that is imaginative, you ask people to actually embrace it.
Simone Douglas 22:36
Yeah, they help tell the story.
Elizabeth Williamson 22:40
And we’re storytellers. That’s what conflict is about, isn’t it? When you tell a story about conflict, you are the centre hero of your conflict story. Or you’re the victim. And you got to get past that. And you get to actually choose, and everyone has that story. And they’re all competing. So to have this thing to come in with, the outside world doesn’t matter in here, is here is just right for you.
Simone Douglas 23:03
Yeah. And so yeah, we have this thing that who you are as a human being is absolutely okay, just as you are. And so that creates really nice work environment for everybody as well, but I think what you were saying about being the hero of your conflict story, is a really great thing to end on. And so what do you find, so with the people that you start working with, what’s the default position that they start off in their conflict stories, and how do you help … Where do you help them navigate to?
Elizabeth Williamson 23:40
So I think most conflicts have driven over a battle of who’s hurt the most. So people compete to be the victim. Which means my pain is more important than your pain. And we should be talking about my pain. And I don’t want to listen to yours. So where do I start? Just start with listening. And look, you know, it’s as old as, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” And as modern as neuroscience. But if, when you listen to someone you can repeat back in their own words, what you’ve heard, they know you are listening, not just hearing. But the value that the thing that I loved that was important is to validate whether you agree or not with their position, the other person’s position. If I think I get that’s why you see things that way, that from your position that you would see this issue was the priority, makes sense to me. Which is trust. And then we’re not battling over hurt. I get your pain. I’ll tell you next, about me. But I’ve just mobbed exactly the way I want to talk to you which is: I will listen first in order to understand you and demonstrate it as a gift that I’ve heard you and this is what lovemaking is in couples. But in business, it’s also about “this is how I’m gonna negotiate, and I’m not shifting from this position.” So I’m inviting you in and if you don’t play that game, now I have a lot of information about how you do work, And if I’ve got to manage someone who’s conflict driven, whatever you do next will give me a lot of information. And, if I coach to, you’ll know what to do to manage someone who is not gonna play by the rules.
Simone Douglas 25:29
Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you very much for joining me today. It’s been a fabulous conversation. I could talk for hours but I will get in trouble.
Chris Irving 25:39
Thank you for listening to the seriously social podcast. See our website for more details at www.socialmediaaok.com.au/podcast. Check the show notes for credits, music used in the program and more details about our guests.