Episode 417: Confidence in Conflict: Turning Breakdowns into Breakthroughs with Emil Harker

Episode Summary

In today’s episode, the extraordinary Emil Harker gives us a true masterclass on defusing conflict, improving communication skills, and transforming breakdowns into breakthroughs. Throughout our conversation, Emil talks about his background as an addiction therapist and how working in that field influenced his approach to conflict resolution as a marriage therapist. He also shares his thoughts on the importance of clear communication in conflict resolution, practical tools to deal with criticism in the workplace, improving our communication skills, and much more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our “Becoming Your Best” podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we have a special guest, a friend, and an amazing person with us today. He’s a seasoned Marriage and Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience and specializes in helping couples navigate and overcome barriers to lead lives filled with passion and purpose. His extensive experience spans a variety of frontline mental health programs, enriching his understanding of psychosocial dynamics. His academic journey culminated with a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Utah State University. Known for his innovative approach, he discovered the profound impact of relational components in addiction recovery during his early work at the New Choices Substance Abuse Program. His contributions to the field continued post-graduation, where he played a pivotal role in establishing one of the first Drug Court programs in Wyoming. So welcome, Emil Harker. 

Emil Harker: Man, that was a long introduction. We should have cut that in half, you know. 

Steve Shallenberger: I know; we’re just warming it up. 

Emil Harker: It’s interesting because my background in addiction, right out of the bed, when you work in addiction, one of the big problems with people’s longevity of overcoming their addiction has to do with their relationships. Because what’s the number one reason why people relapse? It’s because they get in a fight with their wife or their boss, and they’re going, “You know what? I’m done.” So, I was warned, “Emil, you’re going to have a really hard time getting your relationship hours in a substance abuse program.” Because as a therapist in marriage therapy, you have to have so many hours of relational therapy. And so, what I started doing is I started looking at how do I incorporate relational dynamics in the success of my clients that had substance abuse or addictions. And what I found was everybody has some kind of an addiction to something, whether it’s a thought, that’s a negative thought that you’re addicted to, and you just keep holding on to it. And you know it’s destructive, but it provides you a sense of comfort, or you have all sorts of addictive tendencies. So, understanding the science of addiction, the psychology of addiction has helped me with all sorts of issues that people have in their daily walk of life. So that’s kind of where it all started, and the importance of the relational dynamics in our success of life. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’m glad you gave us that background, Emil. Before we get started, I’m going to share a little bit more because Emil takes a really distinct approach to creating strong relationships. In 2007, he ventured into private practice, really driven by a desire to equip couples with effective conflict management tools that led to the publication of his first book, which is “You Can Turn Conflict into Closeness: Seven Communication Skills for Successful Marriages,” which actually received the endorsement from the amazing Dr. John Gottman, a global leader in this field. He’s done so many other things. I love the fact that one of the approaches he takes is found in his book “Confidence in Conflict: Turning Breakdowns into Breakthroughs in Business,” and I’m sure in life in general as well. So welcome, Emil, let’s just jump right into this interview. Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. 

Emil Harker: Thank you, I appreciate that. The first thing was, as a marriage therapist, we get trained a lot in different models of therapy—so these different theories and frameworks. What I found when I was doing this counseling with people is there wasn’t a system that couples could use to work through issues. What ended up happening was the therapist became like the consultant, the mediator of the relationship, which is good for the mediator, but it’s not so good for the couple. I was frustrated because here I am doing couples counseling and we’re not equipped with the tools. We’re given theories, but not tactical, conversational tools to work through those issues when there’s a misunderstanding, frustration, disappointment, or hurt feelings. So what I decided to do, because I needed it as a newly married man, which I thought I was a decent guy. But when you get frustrated, disappointed, and hurt, guess what? I’m not the most sweet guy. And I thought, “I gotta figure this out for myself and for my clients.” So, I became devoted to figuring out how to work through frustrations, disappointments, hurt feelings, but do it in a way that won’t be some smug, like, “I win the argument,” but in a way that creates greater trust, greater closeness, greater intimacy in the relationship. So, that’s why the book became titled “You Can Turn Conflict into Closeness.” Because it isn’t just about winning an argument; it’s about taking the situations that we have in our relationship and using that as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship rather than build stronger walls.  

Emil Harker: That was probably the biggest thing for me. So, after I put together this framework, I actually made these DVDs because I couldn’t afford to print books, and I would sell my DVDs. But then later, someone told me about this Kickstarter program. I had no money; I had a book idea. So I wrote my book, the grace of God guided me into connecting with Dr. Gottman, who supported it. But anyway, I did a Kickstarter campaign, got my book printed, published. So that’s out there. Now, I had a tool that I could share with people that can take those moments that would normally cause a breakdown in the relationship, where people pull further apart and kind of create their lines in the sand, and now create closeness. So that’s the first big one. But the second big one was when my executive client said, “Can you come and teach our team how to communicate? Because we’re a bunch of great guys and gals, and we’ve got great ideas, but we spent way too much time dealing with the emotional aftermath of a disagreement or a misunderstanding. Can you teach us the same tools?”  

Emil Harker: So I started showing up at these corporate trainings with my book, “You Can Turn Conflict into Closeness.” I show up at your corporate retreat with this book. It’s one of those things where the people in the group are like, “Are we going to be holding hands? Is this going to be a group hug thing?” And the stories were about breaking through in intimate relationships. So, with some encouragement, I rewrote the book, so to speak, but I re-engineered it to use the same principles and strategies but apply them in the workplace. Especially nowadays, we have so much focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and DEI, and the programs that are rolling out are actually causing more issues because they’re focusing on the diversity component, thinking that the more you understand diversity, then the more inclusive you become, and that’s not working. What really creates inclusivity is the connection people have to each other when they work through a difficult situation. I’ve seen big old posters on the walls of what their mission statements are, what their values are—trust, respect, inclusion, diversity, cooperation—those are beautiful posters. But everyone who’s worked in the world knows that you don’t put posters on the wall expecting it to go into their hearts. That you get somebody to take a moment of frustration and disappointment and handle it well. Those two people now trust and respect each other; they’ve got each other’s back. So, the process of creating these values won’t be some posters on the wall; it’ll be by teaching them how to take that inevitable situation—every business has them and every relationship has them—and equip them with the tools they need to create a connection and a sense of respect and trust, instead of, “Well, you’re unreasonable. I don’t like you; I’m not going to communicate with you anymore.” So, those would be the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had in my business, in helping other people really become equipped with the tools they need to make changes in their lives. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, I love it because I’ve had the chance to be in a couple of Emil’s seminars, or where he’s been invited to speak, not only to a business group but to couples. So what he talks about applies across the board, whether it’s in relationships with a partner, or spouse, whether it’s with children or business associates, the outcome is the same: building close, productive, happy, satisfying relationships. I like that. So, if you don’t mind, let’s just get into this, Emil. What could someone do? You take a unique approach here in how you do it. So, what are some of the high points? This fits right in with becoming your best; you’re spot on that because it’s as we develop these skills that we become our best and able, as an individual, when a situation takes place to get to a better place. We take responsibility for that. And if another person has those skills, great, that makes it easier. But what do you recommend? How do you go forward? What’s unique about what you do? And what are the tools that you think could be helpful? 

Emil Harker: So, when you think about becoming your best self, when we are really motivated, we oftentimes rely on just being a good person. But being a good person isn’t going to give you the ability; you have the capacity, but not the ability. So, what we have to do is we have to start thinking that differences of opinion, disappointments, misunderstandings, miscommunications—those are inevitable. Because normally, what we do is when that happens, we kind of think something’s going wrong. Well, that’s actually nothing going wrong; that’s normal human interaction. So first, we have to remember that differences of opinion, even though they may create an impulse of defensiveness inside us, that impulse isn’t actually well thought through. That’s called an impulse for a reason. There are actually biological reasons why we get that way. In my book, I talk about that, but knowing that it’s going to happen—disappointments, frustrations—the first thing that we need to do, and this takes some practice, but we have to think there could be something I’m missing. We normally do not think that; we normally think that our perspective is pretty well thought out.  

Emil Harker: If we assume that we’re not missing something, we become way less cooperative, we become way more defensive. And then when we’re proven wrong, we become more defensive and less cooperative, instead of gushing with appreciation. Science has proven that our memories aren’t as good as we think. So, if we go, “You know what, if there’s a misunderstanding or a disappointment, I’m going to assume I missed something.” If I assume I miss something, then the burden of proof becomes on them. I’m a cooperative, nice guy. If their burden of proof is inadequate to point out that I missed something by default, then they must have misunderstood or didn’t manage expectations, but I make them feel good about it and safe. I’m going to put a little pin in that right now because I want people to know something: exchange does not motivate or change people’s thoughts, minds, or behaviors — emotion motivates. So, if I have the right answer, and I give that right answer, and I’m right about my point of view perspective, that does not increase the likelihood of me persuading you to think or do something different. What does is connecting with you—connect before you correct. If you’re giving information without them feeling safe, then that information is going to bounce off the walls. But if I take a moment to connect with them, really understand where they’re coming from, and assume that I might have missed something, I have created a safe place to disagree with me. 

Emil Harker: So now, we have collaboration. Because if I missed something, I want to know that I missed something. I don’t need to be right to be effective. Because I’m going to accept feedback, I’m going to open my mind and redirect incorrect. That creates trustworthiness in other people. But if I assume I’m right all the time, and I’m wrong 3% of the time, that doesn’t bode well. If I assume I’m wrong most of the time, and I’m hardly ever wrong, that just creates safety for people. So, that’s the framework that we operate from. 

Emil Harker: So now, let me give you a tool. Let’s say somebody comes at you a little hot. Now, as soon as they open their mouths, we can feel it, man, we feel the energy. They can come at you with criticism, and that’s a statement that starts with the word “you.” “You didn’t,” “You’re late,” “You missed something,” “You forgot this.” Now, our pride and ego don’t like that. But if we embrace the reality that we could be wrong, we create safety. And I create composure. I want to be composed. So as soon as they open their mouth, the first word they say will tell me what kind of statement it is. Statement number one is a criticism; it starts with the word “you.” “You did,” “You didn’t,” “You always,” “You should,” or “You never.” It can be said with hostility or sensitivity. I don’t care. But that’s a criticism. When I get criticism, instead of explaining myself, I need to make sure the other person feels heard and I connect. Remember, connect before you correct. 

Emil Harker: So, as soon as the criticism comes, I am going to agree with as much of that criticism as I possibly can. “Emil, you were late in bringing me the material that I needed for the board meeting.” I have to think: what is true about that? Not why it’s late, what’s true about it. I’m going to go with what’s true. And let’s just pretend in this situation, I know about the board meeting, and I know about the material. I’m going to say, “You’re absolutely right. You gave me this instruction three days ago that you needed this material, and I didn’t show up with that material when you needed it for that board meeting.” That’s all I do; that’s all I say. Because if I start explaining why, I don’t know if they’re ready to hear why; they could be too frustrated. But if I lean into it, and I say, “You know what, you’re right, Bill. You asked me for this material, and I did not give it to you in time. And then you weren’t ready to present to the board.” Now I’m not being defensive, which shows that now Bill is going to be going, “Emil’s not being defensive. So, now I’m confused.” So when someone’s confused, they might ask a question. That is statement number two: a question. A question is a request for information. Now notice, if I get a criticism, even if they send another criticism, two in a row, “Emil, you’re not doing your job,” then I agree with what’s true. “You know what? I didn’t follow through with this task.” I capture what’s true and talk about what’s true. I don’t just say yes or no; you’re right, and I tell how it’s true. “You’re right. I did not get this information to you in time.” Now, he’s gonna go, “Why? What happened?” Now, I got his attention. Now I can explain to him, “The files that you gave me were corrupted. I spent all night last night trying to figure those things out. I only got half of those things done. And by the time I got those things done, I actually fell asleep and didn’t get up until six o’clock. So, by the time I got here, I didn’t get it done. And I didn’t have my phone plugged in because I was so out of sorts. So I panicked, and I got here late. I totally get why you’re going to be pissed off because you needed this information, and I didn’t have it. And that’s why.”  

Emil Harker: “Well, Emil, it would have been nice if you would have let me know.” Or, “This is so frustrating,” or “I’m in a tough situation.” That is statement number three, that’s called a declaration. A declaration is about the person speaking or about the situation. The phrase I’m going to do is I’m going to say, “It seems like you’re really…” or “I can tell that you’re…” and then insert the emotion: frustrated, upset, overwhelmed, stressed out, in a pickle. “Because you counted on this information. I didn’t get that information to you. And I didn’t let you know that I wasn’t going to get that information to you. So it left you really in a bad situation when you’re at work or in the board meeting.” “Yes, that’s right.” And notice, I’m composed, situations came up, didn’t follow through with, I couldn’t get those things done that I needed to get done. He has every right to be frustrated and disappointed, especially if I’m normally the kind of guy who shows up and is ready to go. So I’m not going to take it personally that he’s upset. In fact, I have compassion for the guy who’s upset. He’s in a bad situation. So, He has done a criticism about my behavior. He’s asked questions about my behavior. He’s made declarations about how it’s affected him. I’m staying composed.  

Emil Harker: So, think about this, how does he feel about me—not about my task that I failed, but my ability to handle that situation? He’s going to think, “This guy’s the most reasonable, he’s humble, he’s accountable, he’s not reactive, he’s not defensive.” Imagine if I said this: “Well, Bill, if you would have given me better data that wasn’t corrupted, I would have been ready.” How’s Bill going to do? Is he going to respond well? No, he’s not going to respond well at all. He is going to say, “You should have told me that a long time ago, and then we would have been–” See, that’s lack of cooperation.” But if I’m humble and accountable, I create trust and respect. So, now the problem is still the problem. But now, instead of taking three days to figure out how to resolve it, he says, “Okay, so what can we do?” Or I say, “Okay, so what can we do? How do we move forward?” If we don’t have the tools to handle the statements that we’re given, and they are so predictable. Think about it. Criticisms, questions, declarations, every once in a while, you’ll get a command; there are only four statements. These happen every day, yet we do not think about how to respond to them. Industries spend billions of dollars on lost opportunity, the cost of mistakes, missed work from conflict, and the quality of life that people have is diminished because we don’t practice and prepare for the four statements of conflict. I mean, it’s like having penicillin and not sharing penicillin, knowing what it could do to society if we shared penicillin. We actually have solutions now to remedy the conflict in our society. But we’re not passing out the pills. And I think we should. That was a soapbox there, Steve. Sorry, I jumped on that one. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, are you saying, Emil, that if a person can learn how to do this, that one person can change the whole tone of the outcome or help things get to a better place? 

Emil Harker: Absolutely, because here’s what’s interesting: So many of the communication strategies out there require agreement. In other words, we agree to communicate this certain way. But what I’m teaching is, I don’t rely on anyone else following the process. Now, to your point, you said earlier, if someone understands this, then this speeds up the process tons more. But I don’t need buy-in; I don’t need their participation, because I’m going to be prepared for their worst day. And if I can handle me on their worst day, then I can cover their weakness a bit. And that makes me more trustworthy, more respectable, so that when a situation comes up in the future, they’re going to want to talk with me, they’re going to be willing to share with me, even if there’s a difference of opinion, misinformation, misunderstanding, or someone forgot. I want to be the person. Now, notice I’m not just sweeping things under the rug either. I’m not avoiding the conflict. Avoiding conflict is like fermented problems — it creates resentment. So as soon as someone comes at me and they’re a little bit spicy, or even passive-aggressive, I can stay composed. And by my response, because a lot of times in those situations, we either become smug, or we get sarcastic back, or we get defensive in some way. And what does that do to the milieu of the group? It feeds that negativity. But if I can respond positively, imagine I’m in a group, and the supervisor comes at me a little bit hot, “Emil, you didn’t do this,” and I say, “You’re absolutely right. I didn’t do that. You asked me to do it. I didn’t follow through with it all the way.” Period, end of story.  

Emil Harker: Now that person goes, “Okay, where do I gotta take that?” “Well, if you care about your job, you’ll step up your game.” That’s a declaration. So I capture the emotion, tie it to the experience. “I can see this is super frustrating for you and it’s super important. You’re really displeased that I wasn’t able to meet those expectations.” Now, imagine I’m doing that in a group of six people. That supervisor that is trying to bully me is starting to go, “Maybe I’m not on the right path here.” Because now that supervisor is going, “Well… So what happened?” I might say, “You know what, let’s take this offline. I can kind of walk you through what happened.” Now everybody in the group goes, “Man, Emil knows how to keep this crap together. I would have lost it.” And I also am not going to embarrass or humiliate my supervisor because maybe he gave me poor information, the files were corrupt, or he didn’t even tell me this. He could have said, “I told you this.” And the email that was supposed to be sent didn’t get sent. Now, I’m not going to embarrass him. Why? Because I want to create trust and respect with him. So, offline, after the meeting, I come to him and say, “Hey, look, I can see you’re truly upset because you’re expecting me to follow through with some things. And I didn’t follow through with those things. Do you want to know why?” “Well, of course, I do.” “I just checked my emails. I didn’t get an email for that. Would you check your email?” Now the supervisor goes, “Oh, crap. It’s in my unsent files.” And what do I do? I go, “No worries, that’s happened to me millions of times, okay? It happens to all of us.” I got his back. I don’t need to be defensive. And now, how does that supervisor feel about me now? Everything is relational; motivational is from the emotion. He trusts me, he respects me. So when there’s another situation, is he going to come at me so hot? No way. Because I got his back, and now he’s got mine. And that’s kind of the society, our workplace, that transfers into home. We spend way more time at work than we do at home. So, how we feel? If we’re not feeling energized, we’re feeling beat down from work, and we come home to our partners and our kids—low energy, no skills on how to deal with frustrations or disappointments—what’s going to happen? 

Steve Shallenberger: Not good. It really flows over. Well, Emil, I am shocked — we’re at the end of our interview; this goes so fast. It’s been wonderful today; I love it. We’re just scratching the surface, no doubt about that. So, any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners on how they can master this? 

Emil Harker: I think of communication much like exercise and fitness. It isn’t like doing math; you figure out how to do math, and when you need to do math, you can do math. It’s not like that. It’s like fitness. If you’re not anxiously working out on a regular basis, then you’re not going to be fit to handle the situation when a situation comes. I know you like to play pickleball. If you haven’t exercised in a long time, you’re not working out, you’re going to get hurt, or you won’t be able to recover very fast. So, we train consistently so that when game time kicks in, we can handle that moment. We do need to think relationally in that same way. If you want your relationship to be good, how are you training on a daily basis? Because there are multiple times during the day where we can literally apply these tools so that we don’t have to think about it anymore. And that’s kind of my fantasy, is if we make learning how to communicate in conflict something that we do comfortably, then we can kill contention and grow from the diversity that we have. 

Steve Shallenberger: I love it. We need to teach this in the political world, Emil. We’d be so much further along. As a follow-on to this last question, how can people find out about what you’re doing and have access to your information and your books, etc.? 

Emil Harker: I would suggest people go to You can also just Google my name, there’s lots of resources out there. But I have two different books, depending on who you are and what your situation is. If you have a relationship with someone that’s important to you in your life, then get the book “You Can Turn Conflict into Closeness.” If you want to transform the culture in your organization or business, reach out to me at, and I will send you a complimentary book, and we can chat about what’s going on in your situation. I’ll support you whether you hire me or not. It’s part of my mission. 

Steve Shallenberger: Email is awesome. I love having the chance to work with him. And we’re so grateful that you could join us on the Becoming Your Best podcast show today. Thank you so much, Emil, for joining us. 

Emil Harker: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to hang out with such an amazing guy like you. 

Steve Shallenberger: I feel the same way. We wish you all the best. I love you sharing what your vision is and how you want to help people. That’s wonderful. 

Emil Harker: Good, I appreciate it. Have me back when you can. Okay, Steve. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, there we go. Well, and to our listeners, it’s been great being together with you today. I love your energy about becoming your best. And I wish you all the best today, and all of the things that you’re doing. I know that as you do that, you’re having a huge impact on all of those around you. So, wishing you the best. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Emil Harker

Founder of Emil Speaks

Speaker, Trainer, Conflict Consultant, Author

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