Interview with Eric Kohler: How to Take a Stand #MeToo

Interview with Eric Kohler: How to Take a Stand #MeToo

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Eric Kohner is an ally who taught me how to coach -- which I love not only because it's a grand way to make a living, but also because coaching skills are at the intersection of leadership and negotiation skills. 

Eric is also an internationally recognized executive coach and keynote speaker. He founded eKCosystem, a global corporate training company dedicated to bringing HUMAN BEING into business, because “in today’s highly competitive world, the new hard skills are the heart skills.” 

In this interview, Eric shared personal stories of: 

- How he negotiated a conflict with his employer, from anger and resistance to connection and vulnerability
- How he encountered unconscious bias in the most unlikely of places and gained empathy for the marginalized
- How he took a stand for himself and you can, too, in the era of #MeToo so we can press for progress. 

Learn more about Eric's work here: www.ekcosystem.com 
Or reach him directly via email here: eric.kohner@icloud.com



Full Episode Transcript

Hello, Hello! Welcome to Episode 32 of Born to Thrive with Jamie Lee. I’m your host and coach, Jamie Lee.

My mission is to help people like you - ambitious people like you - become bolder, braver and better paid.

My guess is that, if you’re like me, you may not fit the bill, you may not fit the description of most people in high positions of power in corporations, law firms, and organizations. They happen to be mostly white men.

And I want to help you break through that glass ceiling and so, today, we’re going to brave that uncomfortable and hot topic: white male privilege.

And we’re also going to talk about bias. We’re going to talk about Me Too. We’re going to talk about the hot-button issues of today and I have very special guest. His name is Eric Kohner.

He is a white dude. But he’s an ally. He’s my ally. He’s someone who has taught me everything, almost everything, all the really, really good and juicy things that I know and that I practice in my coaching.

Eric is an internationally recognized executive coach and keynote speaker. He founded EKCOsystem, which is a global corporate training company dedicated to bringing HUMAN BEING into business because in today’s highly competitive world, the new hard skills are the heart skills. I love that.

EKCOsystem is successfully bringing the heart skills to high-level executives in global organizations such as the US Navy, Capgemini, and ING, just to name a few. So, without further ado, here’s the interview with Eric Kohner.

Eric: Hello?

Jamie: Hi, Eric. How are you?

Eric: I’m good. How are you?

Jamie: I’m doing awesome. So happy to have you on the Born to Thrive podcast!

Eric: Well, I’m excited to be here.

Jamie: Amazing. So, I’m really honored because you were my coach trainer. You taught me how to coach and coaching is really important to me, not only because I do it and I feel like it’s my life calling, but at the same time, what I recognize is that coaching is at the intersection of negotiation and leadership, which is what this is all about.

And so, I’d love to hear from you, what are some of the key learnings in your life around negotiating?

Eric: Great question. You know, interestingly enough, one of my biggest learnings came about when I was working for a coaching company. And one of the things that I was doing with them, they were licensing their IP to me, and it was a very generous agreement and I was bringing this into a corporation, the trainings.

And then overnight they decided that it wasn’t working for them and they basically decided that they were gonna take back their agreement and then centralize it and take all the clients that were licensing material from, take it away from us. And, needless to say, this really upset me. But I was also an employee of that company and so it made it very difficult for me to really take a stand and one by one, each of us kind of folded and allowed this to happen.

And, literally, I know this sounds like a cliche, but literally, I looked in the mirror and I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, doing that.

And so I decided to take a stand and it took about a year and a half  but it was a very long, drawn out negotiation and ultimately me and the CEO of this company had a huge fight. And, ironically, it was when both of us kind of allowed our emotions to really cut loose, something magical happened. And it was a real lesson for me around allowing yourself to take a stand for yourself.

Something magical happened. Intimacy got created between us and both of us kind of realized in that moment of anger that we needed to kind of, both of us needed to reinvent the conversation. And from there, I mean, it still took some time, but from there, we were able to, I believe, come up with a win-win situation for both of us.

Jamie: This is so fascinating, because so many of us...I mean, I’ll just speak for myself, you know? I’m afraid of conflict. There’s a part of me that does not want to get into an argument with people because I’m afraid that it is going to ruin the relationship and they’ll never work with me again. There’s a lot of my own ego involved in that…

Eric: Right.

Jamie: ...wanting to protect my ego. And so, I’m so fascinated to hear that, for you, having those emotions come to the surface and allowing that conflict, to just have that conflict, confront it, was the pivotal point that made things better not worse.

Eric: Yeah, it was really counterintuitive because, I mean, I really thought, you know, when this was happening in the moment, I thought I saw my career flash through my eyes. And I really want to give this CEO a lot of credit because he was the one that actually, he got very, very angry with me and I said, “Be angry!” Right?

Jamie: What did you say?

Eric: He said, “I’m really, really angry with you right now!” And I just said, it was funny because there was a part of me that went into coach mode and wanted to allow him to, I don’t know, there was this split second where I thought, “Maybe I should coach him right now.” And then I thought, “NO! I’m negotiating, I’m not coaching right now. I have to take a stand for myself!”

And so I just said to him, “Be angry! If you’re angry, fine! I’m angry, too!” And then there was this long silence and he just said, “I’m so frustrated,” and I didn’t respond. I just listened to him and then he said, “You know, maybe there are some things that I got wrong on this.”

Jamie: Wow.

Eric: Yeah, and like I said, I mean, he’s the one that actually got vulnerable with me. And once he, the second he got vulnerable then I was able to then also see his side of things. And we were able to then kind of relook at the whole thing and find a way for both of us to come out of this in a way that worked for both of us.

Jamie: So, my negotiation hat tells me - my hat is talking to me right now - that there were three amazing things that happened. First is that you took a stand and you didn’t fold when the emotions were getting heated. And then second is that you created this space where you allowed for anger to just be. You said you kind of vacillated whether to coach or not, but you’ve taught me that in coaching we all get to be, so you did that!

Eric: In that way, yes, but let’s put it this way: As you learned in coaching, it’s always about holding the other person’s agenda. I had an agenda.

Jamie: Okay, I see. Got it.

Eric: So, in that way, I wasn’t coaching him, but you’re right. I allowed him to have his feelings. I gave him space. And I also gave myself space to have my emotions. And for some reason, as I said before, if somebody would have told me this beforehand, that this was the way that we were gonna break the impasse, I would have told them they’re nuts! But that’s what happened.

Jamie: That’s so beautiful because, like I said, there’s a part of me that is afraid of conflict and that’s because there’s a part of me that does not want to feel negative emotion and what your story illustrates is that allowing us to feel all the feels, even the bad ones, is sometimes exactly what you need to do to get through.

Eric: Right, and I would even push it a little further and say anger isn’t necessarily a negative emotion. It’s just an emotion. And when we give ourselves permission to have all of our emotions and at the same time be responsible with them. So, I’m not talking about being angry and hitting somebody or being angry and manipulating with that anger, but really allowing oneself to have their emotions in a clean way, it’s healthy in negotiations, it’s healthy in relationships. It’s healthy.

Jamie: Yeah, that’s really rich and powerful. Thank you for that. I just want to add one thing which is, you did a third thing that was really amazing, which is you held silence.

Eric: Yeah.

Jamie: Yeah, and that became the space in which the CEO was able to introspect and then allow himself to be vulnerable. That changed everything.

Eric: Yeah, I mean, a lot went on in that timeline, so that’s all I can say. And as always, silence doesn’t mean nothing’s going on, when we allow for that silence.

Jamie: Yeah, which is a great coaching skill as well as a negotiation skill. One thing that comes to my mind is that some people might hear your story, some of my audience who are mostly women, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, but that’s because it was a guy and guy conversation,” you know what I mean? Like, “Of course he was able to get there because it’s a man talking to a man.”

I’ve been asked recently to address white male privilege and for women, professional women who tend to be in like the junior or mid-ranks of corporations and organization, how do they get through to men who are at the upper echelons of these organizations? How do we get through to the old white guys?

Eric: So, what’s the question? How do you get through to people like me?

Jamie: So, we’ve addressed the elephant, we’re getting closer to the elephant in the room.

Eric: No, I love that you’re bringing this up. [Inaudible]

Jamie: So I’m wondering if you would share with us, what do you notice, what do you see about women in leadership? And I think you have a great story to share, an instructive story to share. I’d love to hear from your perspective.

Eric: Well, two things are popping up: something that happened in the past, maybe eight years ago, and then also I kind of want to address what’s happening now.

Jamie: Yeah.

Eric: You know, because now we’re in the Me Too, Time’s Up kind of movement and so I think that my perspective has shifted a lot since eight years ago. But, you know, I was once invited to facilitate a leadership program in a global bank.

Jamie: Hmm. Where?

Eric: It was in Singapore. The bank itself, their headquarters is in the Netherlands, but, like I said, it was global so they had people all over the world. And, if I remember correctly, it was called the Leadership Inclusion Program, and what they meant at that time, inclusion meant specifically including women. You know, that was their main focus.

So, these were some of the top women leaders in the company that were going through this program. And I was delivering like one piece of a much bigger program. So, I flew in. There were about forty women, twenty went in one room with me and my co-facilitator and the other twenty went in another room with two other facilitators. We finished the first day and for whatever reasons - it was all women, my co-facilitator was a woman also, so it was all women - and for whatever reasons there were a few women in the class that I just rubbed the wrong way. I just walked in and I don’t know what I did. To this day, I know when I mess up. In this particular case, I didn’t know what I did.

Jamie: Could it be, Eric, that you were a white dude?

Eric: You know, I don’t know if I was a white dude, but I think what I represented to some of the women were arrogant executives that they had to deal with.

Jamie: Mmm, so they were projecting that onto you.

Eric: Yeah, because I can be very direct, you know. That’s just a part of who I am and that can be perceived as arrogant at times. So, I have to be honest, I don’t know. I don't’t know what I did. But I get this phone call at 1:00 in the morning, that evening, from the lady that was in charge of the program and basically said, “I’ve heard some real negative comments from a few of the women in the group. They don’t like you and we’ve decided…” She said it much nicer. She said, “I don’t want to do this, but I’ve decided I’m gonna replace you.”

Jamie: Ouch!

Eric: Yeah. And I just said, “No.” I kind of…

Jamie: You took a stand again.

Eric: I took a stand again. Yeah, I said, you know, this happens and I said to her, “This isn’t about me. This is about what happens inside organizations. Whenever there’s a problem, people don’t go directly to the person that they have the problem with. They go around. They’ll go to HR or they’ll go their manager. They won’t go directly speak to the person that they have the problem with.”

I said, “You know, if they don’t want me in the class, I’m happy, well, not happy, but I’ll accept it. But they’re gonna have to fire me.” And so, the lady was taken aback but she said, “Okay. We’ll do it that way then.”

And the next morning, I felt like I was walking into the lion’s den and my co-leader was very supportive and she basically said, “You need to stand up for yourself. We’re not gonna walk in here and just allow them to railroad you like this.” So, she did something brilliant, okay? Before we started on all that other stuff, she just talked about how she’s really excited to be in Singapore because once she’s done with this thing, she’s gonna go shoe shopping and she’s gonna just go shopping, right? And somehow, that, she met the group in a way that they could relate to, right? And so the first ten minutes they were talking about clothing, basically. And I was just sitting there waiting for the inevitable.

And finally, I just said it. I said, “Look, I heard from the person that’s in charge last night that there’s some people that have a problem with me. I want to give you the space to say whatever it is that you need to say.” And basically the class just said, “Oh, no, we don’t have a problem with you,” or “We’re past all that,” which kind of, you know, I knew that not to be true, right?

And then finally there was one woman in the group that said, “I know that this is an inclusion program but I just have to tell you, there’s something about you I don’t like.”

Jamie: Hmm. Can I just pause you right there and say that’s the kind of feedback that so many of my negotiation workshop share with me. That’s the kind of feedback they get. Vague. Subjective. You know, there’s no concrete basis for this. They get told by their mostly male, sometimes female supervisors that they just don’t have the chops. There’s just something lacking and they don’t know what it is. They’re too aggressive. They’re too whatever, too shy or too aggressive.

Eric: Yeah, I get it.

Jamie: You’re getting a taste of what they get.

Eric: Exactly. And that was the upshot of that whole program because after that, I mean, I said to the lady, “Thank you very much, I really appreciate you telling me this and I’m facilitating this workshop and part of my job is actually to make you uncomfortable. Because leadership is about stretching you. And I’ll do the best I can. Let’s talk during the break if there’s something I can do to make it easier for you.”

And then we moved on and the rest of the workshop was magical. The rest of the workshop was a huge success, and one of the women, in the feedback said, “You know, we really got a lot out of the workshop, actually, by it not working at the beginning because it allowed us to go through this journey. Like, there was a struggle at the beginning but the end result gave us a lot of learning.”

So, yeah, that’s number one and when we finished the workshop, exactly what you’re talking about, Jamie, I said to them, “Thank you.” I thanked the group. I said, “I now know what it’s like to be the only woman in the room by experiencing some of the feelings that you had about me. I can see what’s it’s like to be the only of your gender in the room. So it was a great learning for me.”

Jamie: And thank you, I appreciate you sharing this story because it shows again that we’re all biased.

Eric: Yeah, we are.

Jamie: It’s not restricted by gender or by position, by class. Bias is in all of us and if we’re not conscious and if we’re not willing to brave that discomfort which you have demonstrated over and over again is the critical thing that can help people get past impasse and create that fulfilling connection where something really magical happens.

Eric: Yeah, exactly, and, I mean, here’s the thing: I also consider myself a feminist. And what I mean by that is when I was growing up, you know, my mother, she read Anais Nin, I don’t know if you know who she is but my mother was at the beginning of the whole feminist movement, so I was influenced by her.

And I am a product of a white, patriarchal society, so as much as I want to see women as equal, I’ve still been impacted by the environment that I was grown up in. So I said to you the other piece is the Me Too movement, when I look at the Me Too movement, when I look at all the women, I mean almost everybody I meet now has a story. I have to take responsibility as a man and say not all these women can have these stories without men being guilty as charged.

And so, what it’s done is it’s made me take a real deeper look at where have I been responsible for some of this? Where have I personally not seen women or objectified women or been impacted by mob mentality, the mob male mentality, I’m talking about, and allowed myself to not be the best that I can possibly be? And so, I think it’s a good time and it’s a very vulnerable time, also.

Jamie: Yeah. I appreciate your vulnerability. I can relate to you. I’m an Asian immigrant woman and I am also a product of both Korean patriarchy, white patriarchy, I mean, I think what I learned is that this bias, yes, it’s systemic, yes, it’s embedded in our society and companies, organizations, but it’s also embedded inside of us. And it’s so hard.

Eric: Insidious.

Jamie: Yes, it’s insidious and it’s so easy to miss that unless you’re really consciously thinking about what you’re thinking about. And so it’s really uplifting to hear from a male ally who is going through this journey and it’s not easy. It’s not easy.

Do you have a personal story? Do you have another personal story that you can share with us about Me Too?

Eric: Yeah, actually, this happened right before the Me Too movement. I was leading a workshop and once again, I can honestly say that the accusations that were made against me were not true. And I also would like to say that probably at other times in my life, I’ve been guilty as charged, okay? But in this particular moment, I wasn’t.

And there was a woman in the class that...I was working with, my co-facilitator was a woman of South Asian descent and for whatever reasons, there was a woman in the class that felt that I was both being sexist and racist. And she reported me to the company that I worked for and I was thoroughly investigated because that’s what happens and it was really, it was hard. It was very, very hard.

Jamie: Do you mind my asking, what do you think triggered this response?

Eric: Well, the only thing I can think of, I mean, you know what I look like, okay?

Jamie: Because I’ve met you, yes.

Eric: So, to the audience, I’m a New York...I look like a tough guy, okay? I’m not saying I am a tough guy but I just look like a tough guy. I look like I could belong to the mob, okay? And I think that just happens a lot. I’ll walk into a room and sometimes that’s worked in my favor, but other times it hasn't. And I think that goes for everybody. What we look like sometimes can work for us or against us.

And I have a condition where my hands shake, so during the class, she did all the flip-chart stuff and at certain points, I would say, “Hey, could you put this up?” You know, I would just tell her. And I think the lady in the class kind of saw me bossing her around. Or she thought I was bossing her around.

Jamie: She saw your co-leader do all the flip-charts and her mind that meant that she was being bossed around by you.

Eric: Yeah, like I was telling her to do all the menial work, I guess. And that’s the only thing I can think of. And, as I said, I’m a pretty direct person and sometimes that directness can get interpreted as bossy or arrogant or I don’t know. That’s the only thing I can think of. She was the only one who had that feedback in the class, so I don’t know. But the point, for me, was that it was horrifying to be accused of that and it was really, really difficult.

And the upshot of it, though, was I suddenly got what it’s like to be profiled. And I suddenly realized, wow, this happens all the time with women of color or people of color, period. And women constantly in the workplace are getting profiled and it really sent me in this journey of not only personal introspection about this but learning systemically what’s going on.

And I really feel like I’m just a beginner in this. I don’t feel like I really know, yet, what this all means but it’s taken me on a really rich, new journey around Me Too, around Black Lives matter, around white privilege. All of that, you know, before this incident, it wasn’t that much on my radar, to be honest with you. And now it’s something on a daily basis that I look at and it’s taken me in directions that’s very fulfilling, let’s just put it that way.

Jamie: Yeah, and thank you for that. And, you know, I’m really encouraged by what is happening in our culture, in our popular culture and social media culture. You know, we’re raising awareness. The conversations, the tone is changing and the media is...last night I saw Crazy Rich Asians and…

Eric: I was gonna ask you about that! I’m gonna see that this weekend.

Jamie: Oh, it was amazing!

Eric: With my daughter, actually, and my wife’s a Filipina so my daughter really kind of identifies with being Asian, so I look forward to that.

Jamie: Yeah. I cried and it didn’t dawn on me how much I had yearned for this kind of representation, seeing people who look like me, people who have a similar background as me on the big screen. And it’s a fantasy, but still, the dream is so meaningful because it touches us emotionally.

Eric: Right. I get it.

Jamie: And so, on that note, I want to wrap this conversation up with a question to you: What is a vision that you hold for equality, for gender equality, where we’re not so systemically held back by these old stories about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be of color, like, what’s possible for us in the future? What do you think, Eric?

Eric: Hmm. Wow. Do we have four hours? I think that - and I’m hope I’m not ruffling any feathers to your audience when I say this - but, you know, politically, right this second, we’re in a very, I don’t know, the only way I can put it is constrictive period where the government is, how do I say this...

Jamie: But take us into the future!

Eric: Well, this is what I’m about to say. So, politically, right this second, we’re in a period of...it’s dark, okay? But, culturally, I think we’re in an amazing period right now. Like you just said, Crazy Rich Asians, Blackklansman just came out. I don’t know if you saw the TV Show Pose. Have you ever heard of Pose? It’s completely cast, it’s about Black and Latino transvestites in the 1980s, and it’s completely cast with real transgender actresses.

Jamie: Wow.

Eric: And both in front of and behind the camera, the LGBTQ community is totally represented in that TV show. I think a lot of groundbreaking stuff is happening right now, so I think the future is very bright. And demographically, I think that it’s very colored, that the United States is moving towards an era where, hopefully, a lot of the issues that we’re talking about today won’t be issues anymore.

Jamie: Thank you.

Eric: I’m very optimistic.

Jamie: Yeah. So, what’s gonna be one thing that we can all do to help bring us closer to that vision?

Eric: You know, I mean, it’s paradoxical because, you know, I mentioned that this is systemic, so change is going to be systemic and it’s personal. So, I think that we all have to find what’s important for us. Like, obviously, what you’ve chosen is to empower women in the area of negotiation.

Jamie: Yeah.

Eric: That’s specifically your thing. For me, I’m just newly embarking on doing work in the social justice field around training people in underserved communities, training them in coaching skills. So, I guess what I’m saying is that, you know, I think all of us have to individually look into ourselves now and see what is the area that we want to carve out that can make the world a better place. And then do something about it.

Jamie: Beautiful. Yeah, and I’d love for you to come back and I’d love for us to have one more conversation about how to use these amazing coaching skills and the tools to do exactly what you said. How to enhance, how to bring us closer to that compelling vision of a more equal, more just world. So, please share with us, how can our audience learn more about you and the work that you do? Where can they go?

Eric: Okay, so you can go to my website which is ekcosystem.com or you can just email me at eric.kohner@icloud.com.

Jamie: And I’ll make sure to include your website link as well as your email in the podcast notes and for those who are curious, you can also reach me at jamieleecoach.com. My email is jamie@jamieleecoach.com and Eric, thank you so much for your bravery, for your vulnerability and for these really great stories. I hope you have a wonderful day!

Eric: Hey, it’s been a pleasure.

Jamie: Yes. Same here. I’ll talk to you soon!

Eric: I love the work you’re up to!

Jamie: Thank you.

Eric: Bye bye!

Jamie: Bye!

Hey, before you go, I just want to let you know that I will be doing a free webinar. The series will be called Bolder, Braver and Better Paid because, after all, that’s the mission I’m serving, and the first webinar is going to be next Wednesday, August 29th on How to Win Over Difficult People and I’d love for you to join. The link to register is on my site, www.jamieleecoach.com.

Hope to see you there. Bye!

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