In this episode Josh speaks with Kevin Wilhelm, CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting. They talk about how you have those difficult conversations with people you really disagree with.

Kevin Wilhelm is the CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting, instructor at Harvard University and author of the bestselling book, “How to Talk to the Other Side: Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change.”

He is one of the world’s pre-eminent business consultants in the field of sustainability and his book details how to find win-win solutions with people that generally disagree with politically & ideologically around issues like the public health, the economy, climate change.

In today’s episode you will learn about:

  • How to talk to the “Other Side”
  • What is authentic listening
  • Meaning of appreciative inquiry
  • How humility and vulnerability affect conversations


Narrator:             Welcome to Cracking the Cash Flow Code where you’ll learn what it takes to create enough cash to fill the four buckets of profit. You’ll learn what it takes to have enough cash for a great lifestyle, have enough cash for when emergency strikes, fully fund the growth program, and fund your retirement program. When you do this, you will have a sale‑ready company that will allow you to keep or sell your business. This allows you to do what you want with your business, when you want, in the way you want.

In Cracking the Cash Flow Code, we focus on the four areas of business that let you take your successful business and make it economically and personally sustainable. Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning, and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable and allow you to be free of cash flow worries.

Josh:                      Hey, how are you today? This is Josh Patrick. You’re at Cracking the Cash Flow Code. My guest today is Kevin Wilhelm. Kevin is the CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting. He’s an instructor at Harvard. He’s the author of the bestselling book “How to Talk to the “Other Side”: Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change.” We’re not going to talk about any of those three things. We are going to talk about how you have those difficult conversations with people you really disagree. Let’s bring Kevin on and start the conversation.

Hey, Kevin, how are you today?

Kevin:                   I’m great, Josh, thanks for having me.

Josh:                      My pleasure. Let’s start there. I’m going to have a conversation with somebody I really know, I disagree about everything with. I know it’s going to be difficult. I know it’s going to be uncomfortable. I’m afraid it’s going to devolve into a shouting contest. How do I not do that?

Kevin:                   Let me ask you, Josh, is this person a relative or a colleague?

Josh:                      A colleague.

Kevin:                   Okay. The reason I always ask that is I’m getting lots of questions as we head into the holidays about, how I talk to that my crazy uncle or to my aunt, who I no longer see eye to eye with. I think with colleagues, the way I would approach it is, it’s so often in this divisive country that we’re currently living in, people always trying to convince one another.

You’re trying to tell someone that they’re right and the other person is wrong. It’s really kind of completely backwards from what you need to do to be successful. One of the things that we learned through the research and all the interviews and all the focus groups we ran for this book, How to Talk to the “Other Side” was that it really starts with listening.

People on the other side, who completely disagree with you, they already disagree with you just like you disagree with them. They’re just chomping at the bit to tell you why they’re right. I think one of the first things to do is to listen and ask them why they hear it. A lot of times, they just want to get stuff off their chest. If you can use authentic listening—

Josh:                      Can I stop you for a second?

Kevin:                   Yeah.

Josh:                      Can we get a definition of authentic listening, because I’m sure folks listening to this won’t know what that means?

Kevin:                   We’ve all been around that person at a party who you’re talking and they’re nodding their head. They can’t hold themselves because they’re waiting for you to end just so they can counteract you with what you’re going to say. I think authentic listening is truly trying to not only hear what the person is saying, but understand what is behind what they’re saying.

That I think is the key to having difficult conversations with somebody, is that if you take someone who is on the complete opposite side, ideologically, politically, religiously, however they are from you. There’s something at their core that they’re afraid of, that drives them anxiety, they’re angry about. They feel just [inaudible 00:03:50] that they’re really excited about to tell you.

You have to hear what that is because so much of the noise that you hear on social media and the political dynamics of television, everything, just tops in those high areas. We’ve kind of allowed someone if you’re Republican or you’re Democrat, that become a standard for the person’s entire value system. We all know that that’s not indicative of someone’s entire value system.

I usually try and start with what I call the four bridge building conversations. That is when someone comes at you know they’re going to be disagreeable about bigger ideological issues, start with a non controversial stuff.

Ask them about, what’s going on with their lives? How are they handling, being cooped up with a pandemic? Tell me about your family? Where are you from? What are your hobbies and interests? When you start doing that, and you think about it, it’s kind of what you would do if you ran into someone at the grocery store and have a kid’s soccer game.

You don’t immediately launch into all the really disagreeable conversation. First, you find the common ground, talked about what you have in common where your shared value. When you start having the conversation there, it allows room for people to then get into the more controversial and difficult subjects. I think that’s one of the keys.

I just travelled actually back and forth across the country in an RV with my family because we wanted it. We’re working from home, our kids working distantly. I must have talked with a couple thousand different individuals. What I found was, everyone’s pretty much having the same life experiences, where the complication comes in is when you start talking politics or climate change, or about wearing masks.

But if you start talking about you’re hurting right now, it’s really difficult time, your kids love to play sports, what do you do with your free time? You picked up any hobbies. You’ll find that almost everyone’s exactly the same.

They found that you could have a lot more ways to get into those difficult conversations when we started with, where can we find common ground first, rather than trying to bite off the controversial areas where your disagreement first.

Josh:                      Okay, in the business context, so I’ve had lots of difficult conversations. I can do this small talk for about two or three minutes before the person I’m speaking with is—this is especially true once a customer wants to move on to whatever it is that they want to talk about, which is going to put us at loggerheads.

How do we transition from that sort of easy conversation that we have with everybody to that difficult conversation we’re going to have with this individual? Well, certainly in a business context, you hit it right on the head. I’ve worked with 185 different companies across the globe.

I think we’ve got 25 different active clients right now across the globe. People’s political persuasions are all over the place. You have to start with not what do I won’t care about? I want to tell them, but you have to listen and find out what did they care about? Where can we find common ground on what they care about?

I’ll give you an example. Whether you’re dealing with small businesses or big businesses, everyone’s hurting financially this year, everyone’s worried about how long is this recession going to last? Will I be able to take care of my employees? Should I revert to having people come back to the office or should I remain a virtual office space?

I engage them there and hear what their concerns are and what their anxieties are. Then that’s when you start to offer the solutions. You don’t launch right in with, “Hey, let me tell you about how much stuff.” For example, I can tell you to a [inaudible 00:07:12] 184 of the 185 companies we’ve worked with no one engaged and 100% work remote.

No one would give up on business travel before the pandemic. Now, they all have. I can tell you that if I was going to talk to people back in February about something controversial, about taking on environmentalist or climate change, it just wouldn’t have gotten legs.

It still wouldn’t get legs if I talk about it now, but if I talk to him about it now say the world is changed, what has worked? What hasn’t worked? What can we do? Where are the other opportunities in a business context where we can continue to allow these things that we’ve become the new norm, but lean into them in a way that can help your business, drive more value, and save more money and help you drive revenue and maintain your customer base?

That’s where the businesses want you to talk to them about sustainability. They don’t want to be sitting here saying, “Look how great your carbon emissions drop because you’re not travelling and customer employees aren’t coming in and commuting to work. I think you have to meet people where they are, what their concerns are and look for the opening.

Josh:                      Where does personal responsibility come in from this? Let me explain what I mean by that. I’m having a difficult conversation with somebody. It’s usually because they’re unhappy about something. I mean, this is very true in the business sense. Not so much true in a personal sense, because there’s a whole different conversation dynamic going on.

But in the business sense, if I’m having a difficult conversation with you is mostly because you’re really unhappy about something I’ve done, or I’m really unhappy about something you’ve done. Let’s take that you’ve done first because that’s actually a more difficult conversation. I’m really unhappy with something that you’ve done, Kevin. So, how important is it for me to own my part of what that difficulty might have been?

Kevin:                   It’s incredibly important, because let’s just start at the very basics. Nobody likes being lectured to. Nobody likes someone coming up and pointing a finger at them and saying, “You did this.” One of the things that we went to great lengths in talking about in this book, How to Talk the “Other Side” was that you never use the word “you”.

It’s kind of like you can attack what someone has done, or a policy that they’ve done or an action they’ve done without attacking the person. So often, especially right now, people are feeling very fragile and feeling very defensive. If you need to have a conversation with something that someone has done to you, you can’t say, “Hey, what you did really ticked me off and I’m really upset.”

You mean to say is, action that was taken is what really upset. Here’s what the consequences and how it impacted me. Just like if I had an action where I did  something that how it may impact you, but you focused on the action or the idea or the policy or something, as opposed to saying the word “you” because when someone hears “you”, it carries their whole persona that you have and you’re not going to get anywhere.

The other side, again, is if you’re really upset about something that was done, use appreciative inquiry. Ask them, “Hey, what happened?” Why do you think there was conflict there? What was the source of that? There’s something deeper, was there something behind that, that I didn’t understand, or that I misrepresented, or something of that nature? Again, that allow people to kind of peel back the layers of the onion to tell you what’s really going on, as opposed to kind of what was the first level of blockage?

Josh:                      Kevin, I got to ask you another piece of jargon. I kind of pride myself as being a jargon buster.

Kevin:                   That’s great.

Josh:                      I love appreciative inquiry. I’m going to bet there is maybe 4% of the people listening as podcasts have any idea what that is? I’m a huge fan of appreciative inquiry. I think it needs to be used a lot more. Can you please explain to us what it is?

Kevin:                   Yeah. I appreciate you doing that. I’m sorry, I even use that term, because I usually don’t use that term except when I’m talking to people such as you. It’s basically asking people, what is behind the issue? I think it goes back to something that we probably all learned from our parents when we’re little kids, it’s to listen first.

If you want to be heard, first need to hear someone. Finding out what is behind something. It’s like a classic thing with anybody in a relationship. When you mess up doing the dishes at home, your wife slams the door about something. It had nothing to do with the dishes, even though that’s where it seems like the argument might have come from.

You need to find out what’s really going on, what other things are really under the surface there. I think that’s kind of what we’re saying with appreciative inquiry, as you’re really trying to get at the core as to what the issue was. I think that all the time, I find this on a human level, personal level, continuing in a business level, that when I’m in a difficult conversation with someone who was at complete odds, I never use the word “you”. I always try to understand it.

I just say, “Help me understand what’s going on here? Help me understand this issue why that is so important to the goal that we’re trying to accomplish here?” By just showing a little bit of empathy, humility, the person on the other end has to kind of soften their own edge, too. It allows space for the conversation to happen.

The typical thing right now is, if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you’re going to come in, and you’re going to tell someone what they need to do and what they need to change or on a personal level, there’s something that someone did to you that really bothered you, and you’re going to go and tell them why they were wrong and you’re right. You’re just not going to get it.

Josh:                      You really hit on something really important right there, which I’d like to expand on a little bit, that’s the word “humility”. Let’s talk a little bit about why humility and then moving to vulnerability really helps with these different conversations.

Kevin:                   I think what it allows is, if you can show someone that you’re not 100% right all the time, and that you’re full of imperfections then they will realize, “Hey—” everyone knows they’re not perfect people, and their ideas are perfect. It allows that humbleness again there. I would say, though, that a lot of times, it’s not what you say, but it’s how you say it.

We all know how we’ve reacted when someone says something that may be the truth, but they said it in a volume or tone or way that really just hurt you. You know that if you do that, you see someone’s reaction, you have to immediately recoil and say, “I’m sorry, let me apologize for my tone—” what I’m trying to, kind of bring humor and levity back into the conversation because if someone is yelling at you, it doesn’t matter what they’re saying.

No one likes to be yelled at. If someone is telling you or looking down on you, it does, again, they can be telling you everything that is absolutely right with your life, or wrong with your life that you need to improve, but you don’t do it. Think about the way how doctors tell us that we need to lose weight versus other friends.

You just hear it so differently. I think that that again, that’s part of it. I found so often when I’m trying to talk to people from the other side that they’re so ready, and so just ready for a fight. They’re expecting someone to come in and fight with them, argue back. That’s what they really want because that’ll make them feel better about who they are.

When you go in and you shake their hand and say, “Tell me what’s going on. It sounds like a horrible situation.” If you can truly empathize with their situation and make it not about you but about the issue, it’s kind of like someone’s experience with race or sexism or what they’ve experienced in life. You can disagree with their ideas, but you can’t disagree with their experience.

I think that’s where we’re off not people are trying to do is they’re trying to say, “No, my experience is right and you should hear it from my perspective.” As opposed to saying, “Oh my God, your experience, I can understand now why you may feel that way. Let’s acknowledge that and then figure out how we can work forward.”

Josh:                      Yeah, the thing I find works best for me in these situations, is when I can stay in the world of asking questions, I tend to do a whole lot better than when I start telling people what they should do. Because in my experience by asking a good question, if you’re overweight, you know you’re overweight.

I don’t need to tell you that, but if I asked you some questions about your feelings about your weight, or exercise, or diet, or living a long life [inaudible00:15:51], you’re more likely to have a different conversation with me that if I start telling you even in a kind way of things you might think about.

 As I’m going through the questions, I can say, are you interested in some ideas? If they say no, then you have to kind of respect that. Now, in the workplace, if I’m a supervisor, and I’m working with you, I’m still going to do the same thing.

But there comes a point where I’m going to say, “No, you have to do it this way. I’m sorry, we need to agree to disagree, but in this particular case, I really need to have you do this.” They’re not going to be happy. Don’t expect them to be happy, but you also might want to be thinking, is this the right person to be in your organization?

Kevin:                   Yeah, well, I mean, one of the things that not only this book, but my previous book, making sustainability stick that I really hit on was, there’s six different personality types and how people learn. Some people learn by being told, some people you have to show them, some people are visual learners, auditory learners, and experiential learners.

Extroverts want to be talked to engaged in a different way than the introverts want to be talked to. I think that you’re absolutely right in that. It’s called leadership. You need someone to do something and you’ve listened. You’ve now said, “Hey, we need you to do this. We need to agree to disagree.” But say, “We need you to move forward and this is why.”

If they continue to push back, that’s where it’s all about leadership and accountability. I think that that’s where people come into is. I’ve noticed, I have a number of millennial and Gen Z employees, they need to be talked to a little differently—my introverts going to talk to a little differently than extroverts. For some people who are audio, you know, some people learn by example, or by story. You have to understand how each person learns and hears things and that takes time. That’s how you’re going to be successful. That’s what being a true leader is.

Josh:                      Yeah, I would agree with that. That makes sense to me. So, what is the most important, actually, I’m going to take a little side trip here. When I work with somebody, this is around mistakes. Most business owners in blue collar businesses handle mistakes really poorly. They don’t think it’s okay for anybody but them to make a mistake. They only think it’s okay for them. They never admit they made a mistake so that’s a problem. So, when I am working with somebody, and I’m in a situation, there’s a mistake, my rule is, we have to have learning from it. So, if I go to somebody and said, “Okay, this was a problem, what do we learn?” Most of the time, people will say, “I don’t know.”

My next question is, “Well, if you did know, what would it be?” About 50% of the time, they still say, “I don’t know.” Then I have a one that always works, which is, “Well, why don’t you pretend you knew what had to be done? If you were pretending, what would you say?” If I can’t get in the answer, then I know the person is never going to be a good member on our team because he’s refusing to even take a bit of responsibility.

Kevin:                   That is so key. I love how you laid it out there because those are three ways to do it. I think that what is a mistake, a mistake is a learning opportunity exactly. There’s no such thing as failure. It’s because everyone’s failed at something.

Certainly business owners never been successful if they haven’t had a few failures and some scars that have informed them of how to do things differently. I think creating a culture where people are open to learning and that were mistakes aren’t punished, per se.

I mean, certainly, there’s some that can be caused from major thing, but where the majority of mistakes are not that big a deal that you can learn from them correct them and make sure that they’re not done in the future. Then share that information and make sure that that people own that. That’s important.

You’re right, if you give someone two or three opportunities to talk about how an issue played out, and they do not take any accountability or see any part in what they’ve done, then you know that that’s going to happen again and again.

I made this mistake, it might be one thing, and it might be a much bigger one. Because we all view the world through our own eyes, as any manager will know, or an employee will know they’re right. So, whether you’re the person who’s right or that everyone thinks they’re right and everyone can have a justification.

You need to make sure that the learning happens, and that not only does the learning happen, but that there’s some kind of institutional memory as to what the mistake was. I think that the harshest thing, like you said, whether it’s blue collar or white collar, it’s the idea of the infallible manager. It’s baloney.

 Everyone made mistakes. If you have an area where people are afraid, what I tell my employees is like, “What I don’t like is I don’t like surprises. I don’t mind steaks. What I really won’t tolerate is a mistake that I have no idea about until it’s too late to correct it.”

So, I would rather you come to me immediately and say, “Oh, my gosh, we made a mistake, or we got something wrong in this contract, and it’s deliverable.” We have time to rectify it, reach out to the client, correct it, get a good standard, change the deliverable and give them the right thing, then it’s like, “Okay, there was a learning opportunity. We fixed it.” If you come to me on the 11th hour, I’m like, “Here’s the mistake and there’s no time to correct it.” That’s when the anger can ensue.

Josh:                      Kevin, unfortunately, we are out of time. This conversation is really interesting. We could go on for a lot longer, but we don’t have it.

Kevin:                   Absolutely.

Josh:                      So, if people want to find you, how would they go about doing so?

Kevin:                   You can go to my website. My company is Sustainable Business Consulting. So our web address is You can also check me out at where not only you find more information about my company, but the book, How to Talk to the “Other Side”, as well as a number of TED talks that are out there on some of the same issues.

Josh:                      Cool. I have two things first is sort of easy. Because you’re listening to this podcast, you’re listening to someplace. If you’re listening to someplace, you can give an honest rating and review. Please go and do that.

It’s a big, big deal means an awful lot for how we get ranked on all the different podcast platforms that we’re on. The second thing I want you to do is, I have been obsessed with a sustainable business. My economically and personally sustainable and I think personally sustainable, fits in a lot with what we’ve been talking about today.

At the same time, you want to create a sustainable and economically sustainable business then you need to take the next step. The next step is creating a business that’s sale ready.

Now, sale ready does not and I’m going to repeat this, does not mean you’re going to sell your business. What it does mean is that you create the business that somebody else wants to own and there are eight things you need to do to get there. It’s really easy to get this eBook. It’s free.

You just go to This is Josh Patrick. You’re with Kevin Wilhelm. We’re at Cracking the Cash Flow Code. Thanks a lot for stopping by. I hope to see you back here really soon.

Narrator:             You’ve been listening to Cracking the Cash Flow Code where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?”

If you’ve liked what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802-846-1264 extension 102, or visit us on our website at, or you can send Josh an email at

Thanks for listening and we hope to see you at Cracking the Cash Flow Code in the near future.

Topics: kevin wilhelm, appreciative inquiry, authentic listening, sustainable business podcast, Sustainable Business, sustainable business consulting, how to talk to the other side, difficult conversations

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