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Bar Rescue's Jon Taffer: If You Want to Win Arguments, You Must Argue Smarter

"First of all, it should not be the emotional," says the master of conflict.

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Jon Taffer will get in your face. It’s one of the reasons that fans love his show Bar Rescue, where Taffer helps bar owners turn their struggling businesses around… often after a lot of tough love.

Gabe Ginsberg | Getty Images

But here’s what fans may not appreciate: “The anger you see on Bar Rescue is not emotion,” he says. “It's deliberate. It has a purpose. I'm focused on a consequence of the conflict, and the conflict is more surgical.”

That’s the kind of strategic conflict he now wants to teach others. It’s the reason he wrote his new book, The Power of Conflict.

The world is of course full of conflict, but Taffer says most people approach it all wrong. They either see conflict as something to avoid, or they argue with emotion and a winner-take-all mentality. “If we're going to engage together, I should have a purpose for engaging with you,” he says. “I should know that the is going to be worth it. Otherwise, why would I do it?”

In this conversion, Taffer explains the importance of conflict — and the ways to use it most effectively.

 

There’s no shortage of conflict in the world. Why do you feel that people need to understand conflict better?

In today's world, no matter what your political beliefs are, whatever your religious beliefs are, whatever your values are — we better stick up for them today, or they're going to disappear. We need the confidence to engage in purposeful, deliberate, dignified conflict. Not cursing online. None of that behind-the-screen kind of stuff. I mean, you and I could disagree, and I still can love you. I still should treat you with dignity.

So it's all about giving people the confidence to engage in dignified, meaningful conflict, and advance their lives by sticking up for themselves. We studied the physiological effects of not engaging, or being submissive and holding your views to yourself, and they're not good. It dulls the endorphins in your brain. It has a very bad physiological effect on you. So sticking up for yourself is not only emotionally smart. It's physically smart.

This is not a book about arguing. It’s a book about arguing smarter. What’s the difference?

First of all, it's understanding what to argue for. Engage when it's meaningful. Next, where you engage is important — what time, how you go about it. And then, dignity.

You know, Jason, if you and I have a disagreement, we're going to sit at the table and talk. If you think I'm going to rob you of your dignity and embarrass you, why would you come sit at the table and talk to me in the first place? So it's all based in dignity and respect.

Where did you develop this sense of useful conflict?

I've run all types of hospitality properties, from concert venues to ski resorts. If somebody got in my way, I would take the key ring out of my pocket, throw it at my supervisor across the table and say, “You want my job? Do it. If not, let me do it.”

I was always quick to engage. But I gave myself accountability and I delivered. You don't do something like that if you don't have the self-accountability to make it worth the other person's decision to give you back those keys, in a proverbial sense.

It sounds like conflict has always come naturally to you. But what should someone do if they’re more conflict averse?

Conflict has a negative connotation. Manipulation also has a negative connotation. But you know, we manipulate employees and people in our lives all the time. Heck, if Entrepreneur gave you a 100% raise, that's pretty terrific. It’s also manipulative. They're doing it for manipulative reasons.

These are not necessarily dirty ideas. So what if we didn't use the word conflict? What if we use the word engagement instead? What if we use the phrase in the arena. Do you want to be in the arena of discussion and engagement in our world?

In today's society, every voice matters. For those of us who don't speak up, that minority with big mouths looks like they lead the day, but they don't necessarily do. My point is, we all need to step in the arena and fight for the things that we believe in. Maybe fight isn't even the right word. Maybe we all need to step in the arena and speak up for the values of things that are important to us.

We should never be scared to say something that is important to us. Your opinion should mean everything to you — but it should mean something to me too.

In the book, you talk about staying aware of your objectives during a conflict, so that you don’t escalate tensions unnecessarily. That’s hard for people to do when conflict becomes so emotional

First of all, it should not be emotional. We shouldn't lose control of it. It should be deliberate and thought through.

Let's say we disagreed on immigration, right? We could agree on a couple of things to start. We want everybody to be happy, right? We want people to be safe. We want families to stay together. We both want these common things. We're really only arguing about how we get there. Let's not forget that.

Typically we all want the same thing. It's just the way we get there and think about it that’s different. So we should start conflict by identifying that common ground, along with why it's worth us having this discussion. It means something to you and it means something to me. Let's talk about this so it becomes a constructive conversation.

When the other party gets emotional, there's no discussion to be had anymore. At that point, you shut it down and come back another day. Every conflict doesn't have to be won that day. Sometimes it's a small process.

I've had conversations with people where they disagree with me, and the next day I notice they're doing something differently. When they slept on it, suddenly their mind opened a little. So, understand that this isn't a one-round engagement. By speaking what we believe, listening to the people around us who we care about, understanding opposing views, getting in the arena, being engaged, and sticking up for what we believe — that sounds like a good life, doesn't it?

Whenever I go into a difficult conversation, I find it useful to constantly acknowledge the other person’s good intentions. I know they want something good, even if we disagree on how to get there. Do you think that’s a useful strategy?

Oh, I completely agree. For example, I wouldn't cut someone off in the middle of a sentence. That's telling them that they’re not important, and that their sentence didn't mean anything to me. Also, use to show you're engaged. I don't want you to build up a brick wall around yourself.

The whole principle of the book is to do this in a respectful and dignified way, which doesn’t cause people to get emotional. Because if we treat each other with dignity, we then all sit at the table with open attitudes. In the corporate world, that's when great ideas happen.

As an entrepreneur, I want to create an environment where the people who work for me can say, “Jon, I think you're crazy.” And I say that! “Guys, if you think I'm crazy, tell me so.” It's important as managers, as entrepreneurs, and as employees, that we foster an environment that creates constructive conflict. From great constructive conflict comes new ideas, new resolutions, new solutions, new opportunities. It's incredible what comes from this engagement when we're not scared to jump into that arena.

Let’s dig into that more. Many managers create an atmosphere where people are afraid to disagree, even though the manager didn’t intend that.

People have the confidence to engage when they have the confidence in themselves. That confidence comes from a perception of self-worth. So as a boss, as an employer, I want every person who works for me to have a feeling of self-worth.

That means coming into the office and saying hello to people every day. Saying that I'm proud they work for me, almost every day. Little statements like that mean a lot. Going out to lunch with somebody means a lot. First you build their self-worth, so they have the confidence to engage and put their opinions forth.

It doesn't happen overnight, especially with new employees. They have to know that you're sincere, and that you value them. When you can create self-worth, boy, the promised land becomes a lot closer. Then think about what happens when that employee says, “You're crazy.” What's the next line? “Okay. Then what do we do?” From that comes great ideas and solutions, but it all started with “You’re crazy.” So let's not be scared to do that.

Let’s flip it a bit. What happens if someone works for an insecure leader who doesn’t want to be told they’re crazy? How can someone disagree with them?

Easy: You play to it. Play to his ego.

This company means very much to you, doesn’t it? How proud are you of this company? And it's all because of you. You made this happen. This company is a cultural reflection of you. You should be so proud. I've got an idea to enhance this culture and make this brand even more meaningful to you…

That's how you start. In the book, we talk about the different personality types that you're engaging with. That's what being deliberate is all about. It's all about understanding who you’re engaging with, how you want to go about it, where you want to do it, what are your objectives, and what are the best ways to get to your objectives. That’s when people are going to realize, conflict isn’t to be feared.

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