Conflict trainer: Act like Clint, not Woody

Mark Goulston knows a thing or two about managing conflict.

A psychiatrist and author who has trained FBI hostage negotiators, Goulston shared his expertise with YSU managers this month in a webinar titled “Mastering Difficult Conversations.”

The web conference was offered in response to a campus survey in August that asked managers about their training needs. “One of the topics that bubbled to the top was handling difficult conversations in the workplace,” said Rosalyn Donaldson, technology and training coordinator in Human Resources.

Goulston said conflict avoidance is a major problem for corporate and organizational leaders, and he can relate. “As a young person, I avoided confrontation, but now I try to act more like Clint Eastwood, not Woody Allen,” he said. “I’ve learned that handling difficult conversations with poise is one of your best opportunities to earn the respect, admiration and trust of other people.”

He said managers generally encounter two types of difficult conversations in the workplace – talking with difficult people, those he described as “the screamers, yellers, excuse makers and self-pitying victims” – and sharing disappointing news with good people.

In any case, Goulston emphasized the importance of maintaining eye contact, listening without interruption and responding with a “caring” tone of voice. When the manager must initiate the conversation to communicate bad news, he said, it’s important to realize that not revealing the upsetting news would actually make it worse.

“Remember, it’s not personal; it’s not about you,” he said. “Realize that it happened, own it, explore all alternatives, and realize that people are less upset when they are offered some options. Do what you can to help.”

Goulston lives in Los Angeles and is the author of the international best seller Just Listen: Discover the Secret of Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, and four other books. Donaldson said the webinar was offered to YSU as a complimentary service of Go To Training by Citrix, an online training software company. To view the recorded webinar, visit




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