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146. Leading with Curiosity to Transform Conflict with Sarah Noll Wilson

Do you experience conflict in your workplace or home?

Then this episode's for you. (So basically, it's for everyone).

We talk with leadership expert, speaker, and best-selling author of "Don't Feed the Elephants," Sarah Noll Wilson, about the transformative power of leading with curiosity to address conflict and create inclusive, open-minded environments.

Our conversation delves into creating a culture of addressing difficult topics in teams, specific behaviors for new leaders, and the impact of power dynamics on communication and feedback. Join us as we explore the value of curiosity in relationships and leadership, and the imperative of creating a safe environment for all voices to be heard.


About Sarah Noll Wilson:

Sarah Noll Wilson headshot
Sarah Noll Wilson

Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah Noll Wilson helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching, Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health. With 15+ years in leadership development, Sarah earned a Master's Degree from Drake University in Leadership Development and a BA from the University of Northern Iowa in Theatre Performance and Theatre Education - no wonder clients love the energy she brings to their teams! When she isn't helping people build and rebuild relationships, she enjoys playing games with her husband Nick and cuddling with their fur baby, Sally.


While it's not perfect, we offer this transcription by Castmagic for those who prefer to read or who are hearing impaired.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:00:00]:

Curiosity is the greatest gift you can give someone because you're telling them they're worthy to be known.

Teri Schmidt [00:00:11]:

I have to say, I left this conversation with our guest, Sarah Noll Wilson, challenged and inspired. If you have to address conflict in any of your relationships, this episode is worth a listen. I left challenge to recognize areas where I need to use my privilege to speak out and make environments safer for others to do so and inspired to embark on my 2024 focus of learning about and building habits around curiosity. We invited Sarah on because her leadership book club had just read her lighthearted but definitely not lightweight book, Don't Feed the Elephants: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships. I knew it would be a good conversation, but it far surpassed even my high expectations.

A little bit about Sarah. Through her work as an executive coach, an in-demand keynote speaker, researcher, contributor to Harvard Business Review, and bestselling author of Don't Feed the Elephants, Sarah Noll Wilson helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast, Conversations on Conversations, is certified in Coactive Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities.

Teri Schmidt [00:01:39]:

In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

Without any further delay, let's get into this great conversation. I'm Teri Schmidt, a leadership coach here to help you grow. And I believe that leadership is all about courageously using your talents to make a way for others to courageously use theirs, and this is the Strong Leaders Serve podcast.

Hi, Sarah, welcome to the Strong Leaders Serve podcast. I'm so excited to have you on today. I love your podcast and love listening to you and reading your work.

Teri Schmidt [00:02:29]:

So, thank you for coming on today.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:02:30]:

I'm super excited. I'm glad we could you know, for listeners, we had to reschedule because we had some in the neighborhood, so I'm glad we got a quiet So, hour. Yeah.

Teri Schmidt [00:02:41]:

And it's good we got a quiet hour in our neighborhood too because we had a big hailstorm, so everyone is getting their roof redone around us. But yep. Thankfully, we got a quiet day. So definitely looking forward to this. Well, I gave, the audience a little bit of an intro to you already, but I would love to hear just beyond your bio. What's something or even up to, you know, 3 things that you'd love for the audience to know about you?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:03:07]:

Three things that, oh, this is I love this question. Okay. Off the top of my head in this moment, I yep have a large cohort of niblings, my nieces and nephews, we're we call them niblings, and yep, they're just amazing, And, you know, I was sharing with you beforehand that I lost a good friend this week and it's been really neat to see the older ones, stepping into how to support the adults in their life. So that's just been really my heart's very full with that. Second thing you should know is that I have an incredibly Incredibly spoiled dog who is ridiculously cute all the time and is the thing. She just when things are tough. And then the final thing, which I think is just a really fun fact is I play the accordion and I own 9 of them. And that's not a usual thing.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:04:01]:

Half of them are broken. Let's just be very clear. That's a that might be a story for another day, but I picked up well, people picked up, you know, making bread during the pandemic, I picked up the accordion. So that's kind of a fun fact about me that I like to share.

Teri Schmidt [00:04:17]:

That is very fun. And do you get to perform anywhere? Or do you is this just for your family and all the nibblings?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:04:23]:

Literally just for me. It I it's funny because I can speak on a stage in front of thousands of people, and I don't get nervous anymore. I've, you know, I've nibbling’s been on the stage in some capacity since I was in junior high and then as a theater major, and so stage is very comfortable. I get incredible stage fright when I Play musical instruments in front of folks. And so, it's largely for me and my parents. My parents like to hear me play, and then sometimes, we actually were a pretty musically inclined family, so we'll do jam sessions. Like my brother's really talented. My nephew and niece are really talented.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:04:59]:

And so, I'm like, here's the 1 song I can play and not freak out in front of you all. Can you just play with me on this song? So, yeah, it's a lot of fun.

Teri Schmidt [00:05:09]:

Well, you know, I'm curious about your journey to where you are today, you know, and any pivotal points that really led you to your current focus on I know you're all about making the workplace work for humans. So yeah. What are some pivotal points that got you to that point?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:05:28]:

I mean, I was a theater major, so I don't know. I ended up here. Now, Here's the, the quickest version of the last 20 years, I guess. I moved to Des Moines after graduating from school to Ace a boy, that worked out. We just celebrated 16 years together 16 years married, 23 years together, and I got a job in insurance. Congrats. Yeah. Thank you.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:05:53]:

And yeah, we're the best we've ever been, which I feel like people don't always get to say that, but I am this is why being really intentional in your relationship pays off, you can have really amazing relationships with people you've known half your life. But I got a job in insurance because that's what you do in Des Moines because we have so many financial like, all the headquarters are here. Right? Wells Fargo, principal nationwide, like name a major insurance company, their headquarters is probably here. And I didn't know anything about business. I grew up with a union truck driving dad. I didn't know what a 401K was. And I started to become very fascinated with how training was happening, in part because one of my degrees was in theater education, which wasn't teaching theater, but using theater as an educational tool. And I started to become curious, like, can could we actually make Training people about compensation, commission training, licensing training, more effective, speedier, and more impactful.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:06:54]:

So, the way I got my foot in the door was actually through technical training. And then I became really fascinated with power dynamics. And that one of the pivotal things that happened to me actually So, was early on in my career is I realized that so many of the people who were teaching quote unquote manager classes had never managed people. So, they could, they could say the script, but they couldn't answer the questions. And so, I thought, well, if I'm going to, If I wanna work with leaders and if I wanna work with managers, then I need to do that. So, then I spent as much of my time Managing as many different types of teams as I could, before getting my master's in leadership development. And then I would say another pivotal Thing that really shifted really shifted this belief that work could be better for humans Was I had the privilege of leading the leadership development efforts at an insurance company called ARAG, and It was a legal insurance company. It wasn't very big, maybe about 150 at the time, but my chief HR officer, Aaron Barfils, who's unfortunately no longer with us, myself and my, my direct boss, Lisa Wolf, really did some very progressive stuff to develop the whole person.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:08:06]:

That was our whole belief was develop the whole, not the role, and so I got to see firsthand how different it was when you invested in the whole person, how different it was when regardless of Barflies position, anyone could get access to coaching and not I'm not talking technical coaching. I mean, like, essentially, like, leadership coaching. And that seeing the result of that is part of what accelerated me to wanna do this work with more companies because I saw firsthand how impactful that was to our team members, And I wanted to help more companies do that. So that was actually kind of a medium story for a very long story.

Teri Schmidt [00:08:43]:

No. I like that. And then develop the whole not the role. Yeah. I haven't heard that before, but I love that. Do you have a story of how you put that into practice?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:08:54]:

Yeah. Actually, so part of where that came from is that shortly after I started at ARAG, I developed panic disorder, and honestly, probably the result of working in a fairly high hustle toxic place before and my chief HR officer was about a year in remission from cancer and unfortunately that came back and that's why she's no longer with us. But so, we were both in this incredibly tender time, and just like how do we do this differently and how do we do this better? So one of the ways that looked Is we created a program that actually I'm I still do with clients called personal leadership, and it is a Intensive group coaching experience where people get to really dig into how do I wanna show up? What's the impact I wanna make on this world? What are the things that are important to me? How do I how do I get feedback from people, not just at work, but friends and family members to understand am I making that impact? I mean, from a self awareness of like, what's your North Star? And one of the things I'm really proud of is typically those kind of experiences are only given to people in formal positions of power and authority because leadership isn't a role, it's an act. Right? And we were very passionate about making sure that Anyone could apply to be a part of it. So for years, we ran this and we had people in customer care, And often those aren't they don't get opportunities like that. And so it was and it wasn't about what did you wanna do to be better at our company. It was just how do you wanna show up in your life so that you can be better for you and the people around you? And And, you know, and no surprise, some people went through that program and ended up leaving because they realized that their destiny was somewhere else. And to us, that was a huge success.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:10:50]:

Like, what a gift we could give To say, yeah, this isn't the right place for you, but we can help you get clear about where the right place was. And no surprise, those people are huge advocates for the organization because we invested in them as a person, not just for their productivity.

Teri Schmidt [00:11:06]:

So that's one way. Something else that you talk a lot about is being a chronically curious leader.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:11:13]:


Teri Schmidt [00:11:14]:

Can you tell me more about that? You know what that means and really how leaders, especially, I mean, I'm speaking to those in formal leadership positions, but really anyone who is in the act of leadership Can utilize curiosity to create more impact.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:11:29]:

Yeah. There the thing that I was observing In multiple situations, whether it was trying to solve a problem with a product, whether it was trying to solve or navigate a challenge in a relationship is that a lot of people felt like they had to know The answers thought they knew the answers, made a lot of assumptions about whether It was assumptions about the other person or assumptions about clients. The thing that I learned is that the people who I observed who were really effective Always considered that there were things they didn't know and always sought to seek it out. The other part of the curiosity for me Really comes from, and I know I write about this in the book, but it really came from learning about mindfulness practice, which was all about how do you be non judgmental, to what you're experiencing or what you're observing. And, and I've always been a curious person, but that showed me what was possible when I was curious when things were hard, how to be curious when it hurt, How to be curious when I didn't want to be curious and what, you know, and what I learned. And and the thing is is that regardless if you're in a formal role regardless if you're in a relationship, outside of work, whatever it is, there's just always things you don't know. There's always things you don't know about yourself. There are things you don't know about the other person.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:13:03]:

There are things you don't know about the situation. And by maintaining this willingness to discover, It helps you just I mean, it just helps you see things from a different perspective, which can help you be even more effective. If I can, I wanna share with you, I think one of the most incredible stories that I've ever heard around the power of curiosity, and I love sharing it because it's just, it's just so impactful? My sister, my one of my older sisters, she was in Washington DC with her family a of years ago, and they were visiting the Holocaust Museum and she was wearing one of our Chronically Curious shirts. And, and if you've ever been there or you've not been there, a lot of times they will have survivors or survivors, fam family members of survivors There to answer questions and you can talk with them. And this 1 gentleman, he was in a concentration camps when he was very, very young And he saw her shirt and he said, oh, I like your shirt. And he's interested. And of course she said, oh, it's my sister. It's her company.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:14:05]:

It's kind of their like thing. And this is what he said. He said curiosity is the greatest gift you can give someone because you're telling them they're worthy to be known. Like isn't that just, you know, like I Yeah.

Teri Schmidt [00:14:24]:

I have goosebumps. Right?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:14:25]:

I, yeah, and it's and so, So I think that's you know that's that's why it's so powerful. And and and I will say having worked with Tens of thousands of leaders at this point. You know, my colleagues and I have worked I think we've figured we're we're well over 500 companies we've supported now, and I don't say that to be impressive. I say that Because of just the volume of people we've observed, the people who are most impactful are the people who are willing to be wrong. I'm curious, like, what comes up for you because I know that you, you know, you're in this space a lot. Like, how does that align or not

Teri Schmidt [00:14:59]:

with Yeah. It definitely does align. I think curiosity takes a lot of courage as well. Yeah. Because to be truly curious, you have to ask the questions, and to ask the questions sometimes can come along with a fear of I don't know everything. Yeah. And and maybe someone else or a group thought I did know that thing, And I don't. So I am curious about how you help people overcome that fear

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:15:25]:


Teri Schmidt [00:15:26]:

Or or to gain that courage.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:15:28]:

Yeah. There's a there's a courage in asking and I think there's an even bigger courage in receiving because Sometimes we might ask ourselves a question or learn something about ourselves or a situation that makes us question Maybe how we viewed ourselves, how we viewed the situation, and I I just want to say before I answer your question, I do want to name this. Curiosity is also a privilege. I mean the reason I say that is because if I'm in a place of survival, whether it is because of my Physical health, whether it's because my mental health, maybe it's my financial health, maybe it's my living situation, it can be really, really hard. In fact, it's almost impossible for our brain to be curious when it's in a survival state. So like to be curious is actually kind of a privilege. One of the, the, The practices we use to invite people in positions of power is to do what we call a courageous audit. And this isn't it's like a simplified inspired by the work of Robert Keegan and Lisa Leahy and their work of Immunity to Change.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:16:36]:

But a courageous audit is where we ask People to reflect on what is it that you want to do? What's the impact you want to make, right? Like what's your goal? However you want to say it. And normally what we would do is say, okay, I want to be a better listener, so I'm going to listen better. Right. I don't know. We come up with like, what are we going to do? But the courageous audit Is an invitation to say, but what am I doing or not doing that's actually getting in the way? What am I doing or not doing that's in direct conflict that I'm not even paying attention to? And realizing that that's actually where we can make sometimes bigger movement, By being real honest or as a company, what are we doing or not doing that's actively getting in the way of creating an inclusive culture? What are the ways that we might be silencing people? And so offering up some more provocative questions, And not everyone can is ready to answer those, but it can be really, really transformative for folks like, oh, yeah, I I interrupt people. Yeah. What else do you do? And it's not from a shaming it's from an interrogating. So then we can Do something different or we can understand why we're doing that behavior to begin with, but that's, that's one of the ways.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:17:51]:

Another way that's really simple, And I love this as an activity with the team because we're so quick to want to find solutions to problems that are really complicated Is to just do like a question storm, 10 minutes, we're just going to ask questions. And inevitably what happens is that the first couple of questions are really obvious. And then by the end of it, you're like, oh, man. We hadn't even thought of that. And so that's another way that we can we can build that muscle to go, oh, there's things we don't know. Oh, okay. Like, let's

Teri Schmidt [00:18:21]:

I love that. It's almost like you're lowering the barrier to entry of asking questions.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:18:27]:

Yeah. And trying to make it safe and easy and, like, we all do it. Like, we all jump to conclusions. We all make assumptions. We you know, many of us, You know, like to think of ourselves as good people, and when we're presented with data that tells us maybe we're not good people, you know. It's not about I mean, that's the other thing folks. It's not good or bad. It's just like, do I have more moments where I'm good? Am I being more intentional? Am I repairing when I'm not, like, showing up at my best when I'm tired or hangry or whatever the case is like Mhmm.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:18:56]:

But it it is it is courageous. And and you you you made a really good point too of so often I think that As leaders, formal leaders, and I think team members expect us to know, and they expect us to have the answers. And the reality is there's just some situations that no one has the answer because there's not one answer to it, and so how do we normalize that? I'm glad you spoke to that. I wanted to come back to that.

Teri Schmidt [00:19:22]:

Yeah. That's great. I'd I'd love to stay on curiosity, but I think it's gonna come out, in in our next Questions which actually came from our read and lead leadership book club. So we did have the honor of reading your book, don't feed the elephants, and just just loved it, and had some great conversations around it. But I did ask the group. If you could talk to Sarah, what what are some questions that you'd like to ask her? So before we jump into those, just for anyone who hasn't yet Read your book and is like, what are we talking about? Elephants? I think

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:19:57]:

need to be fed. Real elephants do. Right. Metaphorical ones do not.

Teri Schmidt [00:20:03]:

Yeah. Could you give us just a brief rundown of what is an elephant? What are the types of elephants that you're talking about?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:20:12]:

I yes. So when we talk about elephants, we're talking about the elephant in the room. And really this book was my, love letter to fellow avoiders of conflict. And honestly, it came from my work of researching adaptive cultures and realizing that, one of the characteristics truly adaptive cultures is one where elephants can be called out, and I realized that I had never experienced that in the workplace, and honestly, I'd never experienced that in a relationship. That level of honesty, for people who are listening and might be wondering what my like, I don't think I have an accent, but we all have accents. I'm a Midwest white woman. We're taught to be nice. We're taught to be polite.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:20:49]:

I say that we're violently polite. Yeah.

Teri Schmidt [00:20:53]:

Right there with you.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:20:54]:

Yeah. Yeah. So harmony, but not really harmony, just false harmony. It's like you don't rock the boat, you don't. There's a lot lot that I've had to unlearn. So the way we think of an elephant, is a little bit different than a lot of people, in in the sense that often when we're working with groups, People will point at somebody like we got an elephant in the room and they're pointing at a person and that person might be causing an issue. They might be causing a conflict, but they're not an elephant. And and let me explain.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:21:24]:

An elephant in the room is created when there's a a problem, a barrier to our success That we're not acknowledging or addressing whether it's internally or externally. Because if, Teri, if you had if I did something that was problematic And you came and talked to me. The conflict doesn't disappear. The conflict is still the same. It's just we don't have an elephant because we actually had a conversation about it. So Mhmm. Hence the The playing on that metaphor of like, don't feed the elephants, don't give it peanuts, don't let it exist, don't let it stay too long. How do we acknowledge it? And, and Part of just kind of playing with that idea is we talk about different ways we might avoid conversation.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:22:02]:

So there's the avoidant, which is the genus, You know, like species. There's the, you know, in the book anyway, we talk about some and then we have new ones that we've added from audience members. But you know, the Imaginephant. You imagine how someone's feeling you imagine why they intended to send you an Without saying thank you, and you've created this entire story in your head, which may be true, but also it may not be true. We have the Deflectifent, we have the, you know, the Blame Affent, and we have the Nudge Affent, and new ones that have come is the Pretend Affent. I'm just gonna pretend like it didn't happen. The perfect effent is my favorite. That's a good one.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:22:42]:

I'm just going to wait until I get it perfect before I have the conversation, or if we look on the side Side of aggression, like the gaslight event that somebody might be avoiding it because they're trying to convince themselves or me that that didn't actually happen. So those are some new ones that have come up.

Teri Schmidt [00:22:58]:

The book is presenting something that people don't wanna think about or talk about, or at least those Who are conflict avoidant by nature, don't wanna think about or talk about, and it is such a fun way to introduce that, but yet A serious way and and a way with really practical actions for leaders and people on teams who are in the active leadership. Practical actions they can take to recognize, catch, as you say, and not feed that elephant.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:23:31]:

Yeah. No. I appreciate that. It is a tricky line to toe, because being light hearted isn't the same as being lightweight, and When we actually get into serious conversations, that's not the time for us to be light hearted, but if I can make that an entry point For people to go, Oh, I think I'm feeding an elephant right now. And if that can feel a little less scary and give them the forward movement to have the conversation, Then do it. There obviously are situations and conversations we're a part of, whether as a facilitator or a participant, where we might not use that language because the the severity of it, the significance, the last thing you would want is to feel dismissive to someone's experience, but it can be it can be a nice entry point in for some people.

Teri Schmidt [00:24:25]:

Yeah. That that's an excellent point that I hadn't thought of. But I I think to your point of it being an entry point, just even given that common language Yeah. To people on a team can help make that conversation or those conversations a little bit easier.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:24:40]:

Yeah. Yeah.

Teri Schmidt [00:24:41]:

So a lot of the people that are listening are leaders, who are in the earlier part of their work journey. So maybe this is their 1st time in people leadership or their 2nd time in people leadership. And I'm curious what are, you know, some behaviors that if they're new to a team, that they can do right off the bat to start to Create that culture of addressing elephants on the team.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:25:08]:

Yeah. I, I love this question. And I just wanna say, Your years of being a manager are not this that's not indicative of you being a quality manager. Mhmm. Because sometimes I'll see folks that are like, well, I've been in this for 20 years. So I've kind of got it figured out. And sometimes their team members struggle the most with them because again, they're not considering, but there are things they don't know. So so for people who are new, there may be people who've been around a while who are still struggling with some of the stuff.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:25:37]:

Right? Don't don't know. One of a couple of things that that people can do. The first is be really explicit about how and when you ask for feedback, and here's what I mean. Often we'll see leaders at the end of a 1 on 1 say or we'll see managers at the end of a 1 on 1 say what can I do for you? And that's their ask, And what do people normally say? Nothing. I'm good.

Teri Schmidt [00:26:01]:

No. Nothing.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:26:02]:

Nothing. Yep. But but think of asking for feedback like research. And and when you do a research project, there's this whole idea of garbage in garbage out. If we're gonna ask a really generic question, we're gonna actually get really generic data, but we want to be very specific. So, and this requires you to do some thoughtfulness on your part. So instead of saying, Hey, what could I do more of differently? I want you to be really explicit about a behavior you're trying to do better. Hey.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:26:26]:

One of the things I recognize is that, sometimes I can interrupt people and I just I need your help, in knowing when when do you notice me doing that more? When do you feel like I do that really well? Like not that I interrupt well, but when do you feel like I listen well? And what could I do new or differently, to make you feel even more hurt. So the more explicit and and and the value of this isn't just getting the data. So there's 2 sides of it. It's having the courage to ask and again, having the courage to receive. Because as humans feedback can be really Hard for some of us and we can defend it. We can discredit it. We can say, well, you know, Teri struggles with this too. As a manager, you have to understand that your self awareness will Drop the more power you have and the longer you're in a position of power simply because you have fewer people who are going to be honest with you.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:27:14]:

So you have to work even harder to create that culture of safety. And it's not enough to ask. It's like I was working with a leader and one of their team members actually said he's really good at asking. He's not really good at taking action. And I was like, I love that. Do not just be good at asking, be good at taking action. And managing your reaction to it. So so that's one thing I would say.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:27:39]:

The other I would say is just, Even having conversations with your team member, around, what would it look like? When was a time when you were on a team And they really could talk about anything. What what existed because of that. Right? Do some investigation. What would you want it to look like on this team? Which is a little trickier if you have created a really low trust environment, I will say that, and in which case then, One, you need to acknowledge and own that you've created a low trust environment and, and one of the ways you can start to repair Is to take ownership for that, of, I realized that I am always the 1st one to talk and sometimes I can shut people down and I want to apologize for that. And I'm trying to do better. I know that these are big asks for people. But if I were to just, like, simplify it, it's just get really good at asking for specific Feedback, taking action on it, because that will show the people that I care about your opinion. I value you enough to to do something with it.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:28:42]:

And feedbacks like jeans Try it on. If it doesn't fit, it's okay. If it doesn't be, you can still show appreciation. You can still say thank you. And, and here's why I'm okay with doing The way that I'm doing it. Not but, and, but that's where I would start. That's one place I would start. There's no right place start, but that's one thing that comes out for

Teri Schmidt [00:29:03]:

me. Right. No. But that's that's, yeah, one very helpful specific action. And A couple things I just that I heard that I wanna make sure we call out. When you start talking about the leader who maybe interrupts and says, you know, I'm really working on interrupting. Not I'm working on interrupting more. No.

Teri Schmidt [00:29:23]:

I'm working on not interrupting more. You also said, you know, your last question, what would it take for you to feel more heard?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:29:31]:


Teri Schmidt [00:29:31]:

And I think it's so nice to and so important to Talk about the action that you're working on, but also make sure you're including that outcome. Yeah. Why does this action matter for the team?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:29:44]:

Yeah. And I and I know a lot of people will use the start stop continue.

Teri Schmidt [00:29:49]:


Sarah Noll Wilson [00:29:49]:

I don't always like to use the stop in a power dynamic because that can feel really risky for somebody who has less power than you to say, hey, you should stop this, which is why I really love the question, what could I do new or differently? We get to the same outcome. Actually, we get to a better outcome because we're identifying the solution, not just what I should Stop doing. Cause that, I mean, if I had a boss who's like, Hey, what should I stop doing? Like, do you really want to know? Like, or is this, are you going to retaliate? Are you going to use this against me? Are you going to but if somebody asks the question, what could I like do new or differently? Mhmm. It's an easy it's like a safer way into that conversation that somebody can give you some really good advice that feels less risky for them.

Teri Schmidt [00:30:37]:

Yeah. That's genius because you do see the start, stop, continue a lot, and just that little change in the question, I think, can have a tremendous impact. Yeah. And especially if you're saying, what can I do new and or differently to make you feel more heard Yeah? Or to Help our team feel more comfortable being open.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:30:55]:

Yeah. Yeah. And it's interesting. The one thing I will say, and this has been a new, like a fairly new concept language. So if you're looking for a book next year, Elaine Lynn Herring, she her book comes out in March, and it's all about unlearning silence, and That language of silence, the ways we silence ourselves, the way we silence others has been super provocative for me, So much so that I'm starting to shift away from the, even using the language of avoidance. Because really it's like, if, If we want to create a culture where people don't avoid, what we're trying to create is a culture where people can voice, and we have to reflect and go what are the ways in which I might be silencing people and not even realize it? There's just something, you know, I don't know how that resonates for you, but for me it just There's something that feels really provocative and and and Yeah. Actionable in a kind of an intense way of like, oh, Oh, I'm actually silencing myself. Am I okay with am I okay with that? Maybe I am.

Teri Schmidt [00:31:56]:

Right. I was just listening to your episode with her On your podcast. Yeah. Absolutely. And it was one of those that I thought I need to listen to this again and again and again because It is challenging, and it caused me to ask questions of myself that I I knew I wasn't fully processing when I was listening to it the first time. So I would Highly recommend everyone listen to your episode, but also get Elaine's book.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:32:20]:

Get Elaine's book when it comes out in March. It is like, I, I don't know. It's been a while since I've highlighted that many. I was just like, when I was reading, I was like, oh man, oh, this one, like this hits And this hits in a way that I wasn't prepared for it to hit, you know, and it's like, okay, okay, like how do I, how do I find my voice and how do I help others do the same? Like, it's just such a powerful, powerful perspective.

Teri Schmidt [00:32:46]:

Yeah. Yeah. You know, speaking of that, I think that leads right Into a question that one of our book club members asked, and that is they were wondering. They said women and other historically marginalized groups often labeled as too aggressive if they address issues directly, and their male colleagues often aren't. And therefore, they might Fall into behaviors Yeah. As a result.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:33:09]:


Teri Schmidt [00:33:10]:

So how do you recommend these leaders address in light of the potentially Negative feedback that they may receive.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:33:17]:

It's no, I'm really glad that came up and that, that is actually, that's been probably the biggest evolution for us since the book Was written because even though the book published in 2022, it was really done about a year before in my journey from a Perspective of better understanding systems of oppression, better understanding

Teri Schmidt [00:33:36]:


Sarah Noll Wilson [00:33:36]:

Those dynamics. This could be a conversation for another day, but I had to be okay with the book is what it is for where I'm at and not where I'm at to be able to write about yet, if that makes sense. Mhmm. So I I like let's name let's name that. It one of the problems with a lot of books and I throw myself into it is it's written from a very, you know, I mean, I'll just name it. Like my experience is working with largely white groups. It is from working with largely American senior leaders who have an incredible amount of power. And the reality is The more dominant identities you hold, the safer it can be for you to speak up.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:34:19]:

And when I say dominant identities, right, if you're heterosexual, White male Christian in America, you hold more dominant identities and it's not as risky for you. If I'm in a group of all women, it won't be as risky for me to speak up as if I'm the only woman in a group. If I am a Black woman in a group that is largely white dominant, the risk is going to be far greater. And, and part of that is because of right, some really strong gender bias, some really strong racial bias from the standpoint of exactly like you said, too aggressive, too passionate, too emotional. I always tell leaders if the word to is in front of your feedback, It is likely coming from a very biased place.

Teri Schmidt [00:35:09]:

And and That's a great test.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:35:11]:

It just is. Right? Like It's almost always towards women or people of color. Almost always in my experience. And it's a it's a tricky it's a tricky balance because unfortunately, the burden is on the person who's And you know, the nudge offense might be how you get it done. That might have to be how you're successful. I hate that for us and I hate that for you That that may have to be the case. You may have to find allies who can stand with you And speak up with you. I hate that for us and that's the reality.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:35:58]:

Mhmm. There might be situations where you go, You know, one of the ways I like to think about any kind of situation is is am I okay with the cost of me speaking up versus not? Whether that is cost is to myself, whether that Cost is to my colleagues, whether that cost is to the team or whatever the case is. And, and honestly, at the end of the day, only you as the individual gets to decide that. There's so much mental gymnastics and emotional gymnastics that Happens when you are, when you have multiple identities that are not part of the dominant group that the dominant group doesn't even think about and is aware of. Yeah. So let's, let's flip it actually. So the burden isn't on the person who's already having to navigate the risk. And let's, let's flip it to the people who hold the dominant identities and dominant power, which again in America is largely going to be white people.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:36:57]:

Like I hold dominant identities as a white woman, as a straight white woman. Right? And one of the questions I often ask leaders to think about Is who gets to speak up? Who gets to speak up and then there's no commentary about them speaking up? Like who gets to be safe? Who gets to disagree and people won't say they're too passionate, they're too aggressive, they're too angry, they're too emotional. And even just name naming that, because I'm like, I want you to hear this because I want you to catch it coming out of your mouth the next time it happens. And then then normalizing And and and educating people that like it is riskier when someone is an only to speak up, Which means you as a leader really need to be working that much harder to make it even safer for them, but because you exist in a world where it's Safe for you to say whatever you want, you just assume it's safe for everyone. And that's the other thing, and that that's honestly true if you have informal power because of your identities, But if you have formal power, one of the traps we see leaders fall into is, like, well, I can speak up. Therefore, I think you should be able to speak up. And we forget, like, well, no. It's safer For me to speak up, I'm the director, I'm the CEO, I'm the COO, I'm the senior director, I'm the VP, and you're the customer care rep.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:38:13]:

Like, of course, it's a different risk and we have to just be aware of that. So like, so part of it is there is the reality of If you're a member of a historically marginalized, if you are a member of where you are not the dominant identity, There is a different navigation, and there is a much different cost, which those people we're already aware of when we're in those situations. So the challenge really is dominant norm group. Can you be aware of and and I'll and I'll share this. A good friend of mine who also is she's my Coach who helps me I call her my inclusion coach because she really just pushes me to see things I don't see as a white person. And she said, I feel silenced when I'm in your group. And at first I was like, why? Like, we're so open. We're so and it's like, oh right.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:39:04]:

Cause we're a bunch of Midwest White women who are really nice, and, you know, you are an Asian woman who, Speaks more directly than we're used to. Right? Not wrong. Or or even if it's nothing we're doing, it's just the fact that like She's very aware that she's different and so she is constantly managing, you know, and like, and the more I become aware of that, It took me a while to not be like oh man like like what do I do to have you like us? And it was like no wrong that's the wrong wrong That's the wrong angle. Like now I'm making it about me instead of you. But like just being aware of that and like Trying to to normalize that, and when I'm in groups, I recognize I understand that as a white person, I get invited into rooms that my colleagues of color might not be. So then how do I speak more directly? How do I take risks? Because let's be real, me taking a risk as a white person talking about this is very different than a person of color, to plant seeds for people to consider, oh yeah we do do that. Oh, there are ways we silence people. So thank you for bringing it up.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:40:17]:

And, like, I want you to know that that is something that's been a real big journey of ours for the last years is how do we more explicitly talk to power dynamics because I didn't in the book because quite frankly when I first was kind of figuring this concept out I wasn't thinking about it. I'll own that. And

Teri Schmidt [00:40:35]:

and when

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:40:35]:

I was writing the book I wasn't at a place to be able to tell those stories because I tried to and honestly they just came off as like and further like Yeah. Harming instead of just going you know what? This is where I'm at. And when we talk about this work now, it actually looks very very different from the book. Even the language. Which that

Teri Schmidt [00:40:54]:

in itself is a message. Yeah. Yeah. I

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:40:56]:

mean, we again, this is part of the being curious, like, I mean, even language. Like, in the book, I talk about, like, things you can say. Well, now we're more explicit. Like, these are things I can say, but this might not feel right for you, and there is no right language. It's just what's Right for the situation and the relationship and the people who are involved, and it's even like when I hear people say like, well, we can disagree as long as we do it respectfully. Like, well, who gets to decide? Like, who decides what's respectful? Because what's respectful for my clients in New York is different than what's respectful for our clients a Hong Kong. Like, you couldn't have more opposite cultures. So, like, even that is something we're evolving is to just be like, hey, this is coming.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:41:38]:

This is very much informed and influenced from our experience of working with predominantly white senior executive teams. And that is a very different experience when you're not part of that dominant norm.

Teri Schmidt [00:41:50]:

Yeah. Yeah. And I think it, you know, I'm here in so much that I'd love to dig into, but for the sake of time, I'll just pull out what's really popping for me. And it it all comes back to that curiosity and, You know? And the mindfulness, like you were talking about, recognizing that just because I'm a leader and I feel safe

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:42:10]:


Teri Schmidt [00:42:10]:

You know, what's behind that? Why do I feel safe, and what might be different from those on my team? What what might be some reasons that they don't feel safe? And and, again, not jumping to solutions, not, you know, again, like you said, making it about you, but Staying curious and and asking how can we make it safe for people?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:42:32]:

And and and in what ways are we actually silencing people? You know, like I unintentionally can silence a group because I'm a really fast thinker and talker, and when you're the owner of a company it's easy for my team members, my colleagues to defer to me, and I have to work really, really hard on that. I'm not saying I'm successful at it always, but I'm definitely much more conscious of it now, You know, or not speaking to the lived experience of people who are different than me is a way that I can silence people. Right? Like I know there are people who might read the book and go, this isn't a book for me. And like, and that that's a tough reality. And again, where we're at now is how do we name it? How do we name the reality for people who are different than us So that they can feel seen in the work and we can continue to learn right from each other in that.

Teri Schmidt [00:43:25]:

Definitely. Well, a couple of questions remain. One of them was, sometimes there are just so many elephants. Yeah. How how can we decide which ones to address first?

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:43:36]:

It's a great question. Okay. It depends. That's probably gonna be my my response to most of these. The thing that comes up for me is where do I feel like I can make the biggest impact? The other thing that I'm assessing is where do I think I could start to make inroads that could open the door for the other ones? Right? Like, where do I think the person's willingness is to have those conversations? And I might start in a smaller place, Or I might actually rip off the band aid depending on the situation. Like some of it, I might go for the biggest elephant if I think they're ready to hear it, and other times I might take a more indirect route. So it it depends. And also again, we're constantly evaluating what's the risk for us speaking up and speaking out.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:44:18]:

But where do you where do you feel like you could start getting momentum? Sometimes the momentum is in the heat. Sometimes the momentum isn't just starting.

Teri Schmidt [00:44:27]:

Right. Right. That's a great point. Great point. What happens when 1 person reads your book gets so gung ho about addressing elephants? Vince, have you seen Yeah. That play out where it almost does more damage than

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:44:40]:

guns? Yes.

Teri Schmidt [00:44:41]:

Yeah. They're just all about it all the time.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:44:43]:

Yeah. Well and and I will say I will say this is that and usually sometimes those individuals Didn't actually, like, hear the book's message. And the reason I say that is because they start weaponizing it. You need to just call it out and they're not taking into consideration the risks. They're not taking into consideration that person's Experience, they're not taken into consideration. So like like, I love it when people are excited and, everyone's on their own journey. It's not about me doing this for someone else. Like, I'm not gonna make someone.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:45:20]:

So so for yes. I have seen that. Which is Why we spent a fair amount of time on the getting curious about others? Because we saw that was a place where people were weaponizing it. Somebody comes to HR and they say, Man, I just experienced something really sexist or really racist. Well, let's get curious about the other person. What do we think? It's like, nope, Nope. Nope. If somebody caused somebody harm, we're not getting nope.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:45:42]:

We're not re traumatizing them. Mhmm. So like, so part of it is if you are gung ho about it, Begun. How about it for you in your life and how you want to show up? Own it that it's for you and it's not forcing other people to do it. So here's what this can look This is something my husband and I are really working on in all of our relationships is just trying to be more present, more vulnerable, more honest, and less surface level, like we don't we we both we both came from generations of avoiders, And if something really important comes up, one of the things we're working on is for the relationships that are important to us that we have the conversations It's about things like would you be open to having that conversation? Because you can't force that on someone else, but we can open the door. And what I would say is when people kind of come from that place, More people are willing to go like, yeah, okay, let's have this conversation. But it's it's your work, and and and the thing that I feel like sometimes People, and this is true of anything. I've seen this with Radical Candor, seen this with Crucial Conversations.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:46:48]:

I've seen insert the book And people are just like, well you just need to, and then they become commanding about it. And actually what you're doing is silencing people. You're you're not necessarily making it Safe for people to speak up. So if you want this to be your culture, it has to start with you. It has to start with you owning it. It has to start with how you are showing up and supporting people, not commanding, right? I always say it's not a prescription, it's an invitation, because there's Times when this these aren't the right tools, you know, like there is no one solution to any kind of situation, which is why I need a t shirt that just says it depends, like it depends. What's the relationship? What's the history with this person? What's the right? I can have very different conversations with some of my siblings versus Other siblings because of just the, like, practice we've had together or colleagues or clients. Like, there are some clients where I can be really bold with them and there are others and I'm like, they're not ready for that.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:47:46]:

I need to get them to that place or my Perception is that they're not ready for that. Let me be maybe more explicit. Yeah.

Teri Schmidt [00:47:54]:

Right. Right. Yeah. So it it it all starts with you making sure that it's about your work

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:47:59]:


Teri Schmidt [00:48:00]:

And if you start from there and invite people into those conversations.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:48:04]:

I mean, I have, you know, I have a, I have a really good friend too. You know, she she's very, great about like her boundaries and she'll just, one time she called me out on something I said, and she said, listen, it was in such a beautiful way. She was like, I really value our relationship. And it's really important for, for us, for you to understand that this is a real important value of mine that you you unintentionally stepped on, and it was just like, okay, thank you. Like this is hard for me to hear, but thank you. And that's a way you can bring people in. Look for those opportunities when you can own it. Hey, like I was thinking about it.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:48:40]:

I didn't show up as my best. I'm really sorry. Hey, I realized that what I said didn't come across as what I meant, But I just wanna, like, I wanna own, like, the impact that I made. Like, that's one of the ways you can create a culture of safety.

Teri Schmidt [00:48:54]:

Well, I'm sure we could talk for a lot longer, but I wanna be respectful of your time. So, obviously, we highly recommend your book, but where else can people learn more about the work that you do and stay connected with you.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:49:07]:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, I appreciate you mentioning our podcast, conversations on conversations. You can find that on our website, I always say don't be fooled by the name. We have an incredible team and crew behind the work we do. We, you know, so that's the best way to keep keep connected. We also do a weekly newsletter where we talk about different topics, related to this, and and again we're on this journey too, so we try really hard to show up when it's like, oh, yeah, we messed up, or here's how we learned, or Here's what I'm learning.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:49:39]:

I'm really active on LinkedIn, so that's a good place to connect with me if you want to connect with me on on LinkedIn, but otherwise, like, And, and I guess this is the thing I'll say I really wanna, I wanna go back to the person who asked the question about the, like, marginalized people. I, we all need to be pushed. Even if somebody wrote a book, they don't know it all. They know it through the lens of their experience, So I invite people to offer perspectives and stories because it helps me be better and then it helps me help other people be better. So, if there are things as you're hearing this, even that you're like, oh, I have a different perspective. I genuinely invite that conversation because There's always things we don't know. Right? To kind of go full circle with that. So, yeah, is where you can find us or you can connect with me on LinkedIn.

Teri Schmidt [00:50:27]:

Excellent. Well, thank you, Sarah. Thanks so much for the time today, and thank you for the journey that you continue to be on and for sharing that with everyone you're working with, everyone who has the opportunity to learn from you, it is making a difference. And I know it's made a difference in my life and will make a difference in so many others, so thank you.

Sarah Noll Wilson [00:50:50]:

Thanks. Received. Even if it's hard for me to receive it.

Teri Schmidt [00:50:58]:

Wasn't that a thought-provoking conversation? What is one way that you will be more curious either with yourself or with others today? Send me a message over on LinkedIn and let me know.

And until next time, lead with the quote that Sarah's sister heard from the Holocaust survivor: "Curiosity is the greatest gift you can give someone because you're telling them that they're worthy to be known."


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