Harvard Business Review IdeaCast | Feeling Conflicted? Get Out of Your Own Way

On this HBR IdeaCast, listen as HBR’s Sarah Green chats with Erica Ariel Fox about how to resolve inner conflict to lead wisely and live well.


Erica Ariel Fox, who teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School, discusses how to resolve inner conflict to lead wisely and live well. For more, read her book, Winning from Within.

SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green.

I’m talking today with Erica Ariel Fox. She teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School, is a co-founder of Mobius Executive Leadership, and is a senior adviser to McKinsey Leadership Development.

Her new book is The New York Times best seller, Winning From Within– a Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change. Erica, thanks for joining us.

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Oh, thanks so much. I’m so happy to be here.

SARAH GREEN: So the book is really aimed at people who have a performance gap that they’re trying to overcome, and maybe for years they’ve been told to speak up in meetings, or speak less in meetings, or they’re trying to get their temper under control, you know, something like that.

It’s so funny about, when you talk about these performance gaps, that they’re often things that we know about– it’s sort of not a surprise– and yet, we still can’t overcome them.

So why do we so often get in our own way on this kind of thing?

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Well, that’s a really fundamental question, and it goes to one of the heart messages of the book, which is, we do have different sides of ourselves, and I think of them as inner negotiators.

And each of those inner negotiators has its own style, has its own priorities, interests, things it cares about, and ways of behaving in the world.

So if you tend to rely– and I’ll give you an example– on one or two of your inner negotiators a lot– let’s say you’re very strong as a thinker, so you use a lot of analytical reasoning, facts and logic.

Or you’re very strong as a warrior and you really focus on getting things done. You identify– your profile is about being a thinker warrior, and you may have a spike, you’re really good at it.

But then you get feedback from a client who says, we love your recommendations, but we don’t really love you. Meaning, as trusted advisers, you’re not building that relationship.

So, you know, the head of the team gives you feedback, you need to really build your relationship with the client.

You understand that conceptually, but because you really identified as a thinker and warrior, you actually don’t have access to the tools that live in other domains.

Other inner negotiators have the skills to build trust and rapport, and inspire people. So what you’re going to end up doing is just doing more of what you always did.

You’ll think, I need to make my argument more persuasive, or I need to take action more quickly, more efficiently, come in under budget, wow them with the complexity of our analysis– just keeping in the same performance gap you had before.

You’re trying harder, but you still within the same band of behaviors based on your profile. So my advice about closing the performance gap is to notice the inner negotiators that you identify with most.

There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re terrific. But you have other aspects of yourself as well, and those other parts of you have capability you’re not tapping until you stretch into them. And when you act on those different parts, you’ll start getting different results.

SARAH GREEN: So before we get into how you might actually address that, I want to just back up a little bit and ask, why is it so important to see yourself as a mix of these inner negotiators instead of just seeing yourself as one integrated self?

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Well, at the end of the day, of course, we are one integrated self. But in terms of trying to make decisions, and making good decisions, if you think of yourself as just one unitary me, then you’re likely to experience a lot of conflict.

Because some part of you does want to pursue the relationship, some part of you wants to break up. There’s a discomfort and an inner conflict, and often, people get paralyzed.

If you say, I am one person, a unitary person, but I have a profile. And I have inner negotiators inside of me. One is really focused on my vision. It’s the part of me that wants to go get a loan from the bank and start my own business. And it’s always been my dream to do that and my passion.

And yes, there is another part of me that’s more analytical, looking at the numbers, looking at my bank account and my Excel spreadsheet, watching the market, and saying, I don’t know if this is the best idea right now.

Now you can say, OK, I want to look at these two sides of myself. They’re both valid perspectives. It’s not a war. I’m not in conflict. I just have these two sides with different views.

And just like you would if they were people sitting around a conference table, you’d talk to them, understand their values. What do they need most to reach agreement? You can start negotiating with those sides of yourself, and you can actually resolve conflict in that way.

It’s a much less painful process. You’ll get to results more quickly. And I think you’ll also get more durable results, because you take into account the various needs the parts of you experience.

SARAH GREEN: So today we’ve talked about two of your inner negotiators already, and that was the warrior that you mentioned, and also the thinker.

But in the book, you actually talk about four, what you call the Big four. And it’s the warrior and the thinker, but also the dreamer and the lover.

And you refer to this as your inner executive committee. Could you just walk us through those? What are these different four parts doing?

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Yes, and just, if I can double click on the executive committee, I often say you can think of them as, the dreamer is your inner CEO, the part in charge of vision, strategic direction, inspiration.

The CFO is like the thinker, who’s doing risk management, could be a general counsel, but who’s doing analysis.

The VP of HR is a nice metaphor for the lover. That’s the person in charge of relationships, communication, developing talent, the person in your office is trying to keep employees engaged and developing them over time.

And then the warrior I analogize to the chief operating officer, who just really needs to keep everything on track, keep the trains going, coming in on time.

And just like an executive team has a CEO, a COO, a chief operating officer, and it could be chief people officer, chief talent officer, or a VP of HR, you have these different roles, or profiles, inside of you.

SARAH GREEN: So this is interesting because I think there’s kind of– what I’m hearing is that there’s a lot of reflection that has to happen kind of in down time or in a time that you set aside to really work on this.

But I know for some people, maybe what they really struggle with is kind of being in the moment. So for instance, someone who has been advised to say, letting their temper get the better of them, for instance, might have some work to do, kind of on the side, on the weekends or whatever.

But also would need to have some resource that they can draw on in the moment to stop from snapping at their colleagues, or something like that.

So how do you slow down in the moment if you’re not sort of hanging back and reflecting?

ERICA ARIEL FOX: That is a wonderful question. So I’ve talked, actually, about seven aspects, you know, trying to give people a map of the inner life of a leader.

The Big Four are really the fundamental parts of you that you need to show up and go to work every day and function at home.

What you’re asking is, if you step back a little bit, even if you knew how to access all four of them, in the moment, if there’s time pressure or emotions are charged or you get hooked somehow, how can you choose skillful behavior?

And that gets to the third part of the book where I talk about the transformers. These are three parts of you, almost like a board of directors that governs your inner executive team.

And these you can actually drawn on in a minute. You don’t need to spend 40 years meditating to learn about this stuff.

If you think about, for example, when you said something sets you off and you get angry.

So if you start writing an email, and it’s very hostile and critical. It’s all true, but it’s just kind of antagonistic, most people– and I would imagine this is true for you, Sarah– that some little voice says to you, ah, maybe before I hit send. Maybe I’ll save it as a draft.

Or you’re driving on the road and someone cuts you off, and you want to accelerate into their car. But there’s some little part of you that hesitates and says, you know, you’re gonna lose a whole day explaining this to the police.

So you don’t accelerate into the back of the car, even though you feel that impulse.

So that hesitation, which is a form of self protection, that’s the part that I’ve called the lookout, which is this little part that’s looking out for you, right?

This lookout is saying, I know what your impulses are. I know you want to yell, or tell this person off, or ram your car, or send this email, but that lookout is alive and well.

We all have that capability right now. So it’s just a matter of practice in saying, you know, I listen to my lookout when I feel road rage.

Sitting right now in this committee meeting, I’m starting to feel committee rage, but I’ve trained myself to listen to my lookout who’s waving a flag, warning me.

Just like you didn’t send the email, I think this is not the right time to make that comment. That’s going to seem like an attack on your boss.

So the transformers are these other elements that complement the Big Four, and they help you to use your best skills and your higher nature in the moment, especially when the pressure’s on.

SARAH GREEN: So a question about that is, why aren’t those four enough? Why do you also need to have these other three transformers, as you call them, or the board of directors to really help you lead?

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Well, it would be a little bit like if you think about an orchestra and you say look, we have the strings, and we have the trumpets, and we have the percussion. Why do we need the conductor?

We’ve got all the players, you know, we just say like, play! And you’d get something, but it wouldn’t be a beautiful symphony.

So you have these core players, right, and you could say the same of a football team. I mean, everybody’s there on the field, somebody’s got to call the plays.

So the lookout is there to help you notice in real time, what am I doing? What am I about to do? The captain is like the conductor of the instruments, and the conductor doesn’t have to play his own instrument, but he is aware of the way the Big Four are operating, and wants to make sure that they’re working together effectively, that there’s a harmony, that there’s a balance.

And that conductor role is crucial to get good results out of the Big Four, which are like your instruments.

And that’s why I say it’s like a board of directors. The day to day work of a company will be done by the executive team, but there is this group looking at the big picture with a little distance, making sure, are we on purpose, are we, of course, within laws and regulations?

But are we fulfilling our mission, giving returns to shareholders? Just keeping everybody on track, and that’s really what the transformers are doing.

SARAH GREEN: And now, I think there were three transfers. One is the lookout who kind of notices when you’re about to do something stupid.

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Yeah. Or something wonderful.

SARAH GREEN: Or something great. Yep! Exactly!

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Something fabulous.

SARAH GREEN: Gotta be an optimist there, too. The captain is kind of the one who says like, if your dreamer and your thinker are fighting, it’s kind of like, brokering peace among those, or saying, well, maybe we need to bring in the warrior to sort this out, or something like that?

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Yeah, that’s right.

SARAH GREEN: Yep, and then what’s the third one?

ERICA ARIEL FOX: The voyager is different from the other two, mostly because of time.

So the lookout and the captain are really operating in this moment right now. Sarah is in a meeting, she’s with her colleagues. The lookout says, Sarah, shh! You’re about to get hysterical. I don’t think this is very helpful.

And then your captain comes in and says, I do think you have something important to say. When is the right time to say it, and to whom, and how? And still supports you to take a step, but to do it constructively.

The Voyager is taking a long term perspective over the course of your life. It’s not taking a snapshot of you in any one moment, but it’s saying, this is the part of you that wants to grow and evolve over time.

SARAH GREEN: So I’m reminded at this point, I guess, a bit of almost the old Whitney Houston song, I’m every woman, it’s all in me.

It’s like, do you promise there’s only be seven?


SARAH GREEN: It’s like, there aren’t going to be 20 other sort of secret parts of myself hiding inside me?

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Well, I guess I have bad news and good news on that.


ERICA ARIEL FOX: So I often reference the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, because he coined the idea that we are a hero with 1,000 faces.

So what does that mean? Are there are only seven inner parts of a human being that we need to care about? No. There are many, many parts of us.

And even within these categories, by the way, there are different expressions of them, right?

So within the lover, there’s sort of the parental love, which is different from sibling love, which is different from romantic love, which is different than the love between a mentor and a protege.

So even the four categories have nuance. So I’m not meaning to say, and it wouldn’t be true, this is all you need to know. If you’ve got these guys down, you’re set. You’re master of your inner domain.

What is true, though– and I have thousands of people I work with around the world to support this claim– what it is true is that if you focus on these four– don’t worry about the 1,000– you start to understand how they operate, you start experimenting, and doing a little stretches here and there at home or at work to incorporate more of the Big Four in your repertoire.

If you come masterful, my belief, with these four, in a day to day way, and you know how to harness your transformers to keep you in line.

Right? So you know how to play the instruments, you’ve got the conductor who tells you when to play which one.

The lookout is telling, in any given moment, ah, wait! That wasn’t the plan. Drop the flute, get the drum.

And you have a commitment to a development path over your life. That’s your voyager’s process.

That’s your life journey of learning and developing. My experience is that you can get stronger relationships, better results, on the ground. Better outcomes.

It’s frankly, more of life’s deeper rewards. People who’ve been doing this winning from within type of journey work for years have said yes, their businesses are more successful.

Yes, they’re left paralyzed by decision making because they’ve learned the inner negotiation process. But they’re also happier. They’re more fulfilled.

They feel deeper satisfaction because they know how to clarify inside of themselves, what is most important to do, and how, and when, and they have a lot more feeling of freedom and choice.

SARAH GREEN: Well, Erica, thank you for taking the time today to walk through the framework with us.

I know there’s a lot more in-depth information in the book, which I personally have to say, I found enormously helpful. So thank you.

ERICA ARIEL FOX: Thank you, Sarah. I’m so happy that we got to talk about it, and I hope you do it again.

SARAH GREEN: That was Erica Ariel Fox. The book is Winning From Within. For more, visit hbr.org.

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