Managing Conflict With Compassion: Reflections From Nate Regier


Most of us look at conflict as a negative concept. But what if conflict could be managed and turned into a positive force by tempering it with compassion and accountability? Tony Martignetti is joined by psychologist and business coach as Nate Regier they talk about Nate’s journey in understanding conflict. Nate shares his memories as the child of Christian missionaries and how these experiences taught him compassion. He talks his work in the clinical and business field and how they learned to temper conflict with compassion and accountability.


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Managing Conflict With Compassion: Reflections From Nate Regier

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Dr. Nate Regier. He is a CEO and Founding Owner of Next Element Consulting, a global leadership advisory firm specializing in compassionate accountability. He’s the author of three books about compassion in the workplace, speaks and consults globally, hosts a podcast and writes for multiple industry publications. He lives in Newton, Kansas with his wife and three daughters. They don’t live with him but he has three daughters and he still has hair. He is also an avid barbecuer and competes in competitions as a barbecuer. It’s pretty amazing. Nate, I want to welcome you to the show.

What a joy to be here. Thank you so much. I’m looking forward to this conversation.

I am, too. I wish we can have some barbecue in this campfire area where we’re in. It would be nice. I am thrilled to be able to have the chance to dig into your story and hear what has brought you to be in this amazing work in the world and what the journey was. That’s the big part of what we get into is the story that is has brought you to this space. The way we do that just so you can understand how we roll on the show is we talk about what’s called the flashpoints. The flashpoints are moments in your story that have ignited your gifts into the world. There could be one or there could be many. As you’re telling your story, we’ll pause along the way and see what’s showing up. With that, Nate, I’m going to pass it on to you and let you get started.

Thank you. It’s interesting that you call it flashpoints because one of my earliest formative memories where I can go back and say this is part of building who I am now involved a flash of fire. I grew up the son of Missionary Kids in Africa and I was living in a rural village in Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was customary that we would spend a lot of time around fires. That was an important part of being in the village and almost many evenings a week, we would eat around the fire. The village elders and people from the community would be there. I would fall asleep on my mom’s lap around the fire and then wake up the next morning in my bed.

One night, we had the customer evening thing. I woke up in the middle of the night to a bright light outside my window, which faced out onto our backyard. I was really scared. I got up and looked and what was formerly just a little campfire was a blazing Inferno. What I could see was two bodies walking around the fire. One of them was throwing our wicker chairs into the fire. It was a scary experience for me. It was the town crazy person. I came to know later that this person probably had paranoid schizophrenia and at that time, they said, “He’s demon-possessed. There’s always that guy in the village. He came along during the night and blew up the coals and probably had some command delusions or hallucinations and started throwing chairs in the fire.

The other person was my dad and he was conversing with this guy walking around the fire. As I watched, this person calmed down, came to his senses and eventually the two of them were sitting in the only two chairs left having a conversation while the fire died down. I remember thinking, “I’d love to be able to do what my dad did right there.” That was a real formative influence in terms of how do you engage with someone in scary times during conflict and come together around where do we go from here? I think that was important for me.

I’m so honored to hear that. For me, it brings this idea of two opposing forces coming together and calmly uniting is one, which I’ve been playing with this idea of convergence of divergence, from divergence to convergence. That’s very powerful. The imagery you painted gets me thinking about that fire being transformational. That’s why I chose this as a theme around this and to have that as a child, at first to be so scared and like what the heck is going on and then to have that realization is really beautiful.

I like your comment about divergence and convergence. That’s important because I also grew up a minority, not without privilege. A huge privilege as a white missionary kid. I had resources but as a minority. Later in my life, I lived near South Africa and Botswana during apartheid, when Nelson Mandela was still in prison. The issue of diversity and divergence and what happens when there are differences. I grew up around where differences were bad and people got hurt for it, marginalized and discriminated against. I saw that going on and yet being the son of missionaries who were Mennonite.

Mennonite is a denomination that there’s much more a lot about peace and nonviolence and I always got this message, “Never resort to violence, always turn the other cheek.” I get that. We don’t want to hurt each other but it still seems like there’s a winner and a loser in this situation. Why does it have to be so adversarial? That ignited my whole quest for there’s got to be a third way. There’s got to be a better way when differences come together to converge instead of one gives in and the other one wins and at least nobody gets hurt

I can only imagine and this is where I’m sure we’re heading. How does this impact you or the life from having those ideas? They had an impact from the perspective of where you were as a child and seeing that as you were living in South Africa, what happened next? How does this impact your life throughout?

What happened next was I came back to the States and I was scared to death. I couldn’t decide what cereal to buy out of a thousand options. I was scared to cross the street because I thought I’d get hit by a car and my friends were like, “How did you not get eaten by a lion growing up in Africa?” I was like, “That’s nothing. I know how to handle that.” How do you not get hit by a car? Once I got reacclimated, I went to a small liberal arts college and then went on to get my doctorate in Clinical Psychology because I am fascinated by why people do what they do, the science of positive behavior influence. I spent eleven years as a psychologist doing clinical work therapy, group therapy, addictions treatment, neuropsychological assessment and all kinds of stuff.

It’s better when differences come together to converge instead of always having one give in and the other one win.

That’s when I got this passion for seeing the dark side of what happens with people and how we misfunction. What I didn’t like about clinical was I don’t like diagnosing someone as having something wrong with them so that we can get paid to fix them. I never felt like there was something wrong with anybody. I didn’t last in clinical. I did eleven years and when it went on to start Next Element then applying all those principles in corporate settings, working with people, coming from the assumption that you’re okay, capable, valuable and responsible for your behavior.

It’s more of that positive psychology movement.

There are lots of that. I'm super influenced by that.

It’s interesting you point this out because there’s this element of people having a negative connotation around the clinical field of psychology that there’s an element of being labeled. Almost anyone could be labeled insane. We’re all a bit insane in some way and trying to prove yourself sane is really hard to do but we need that field. We need to have that ability to be able to see all the different spectrums of what’s out there. Throughout that, always figuring out where it is that you fit in best. Part of your flashpoint was studying all those things and then seeing where you were able to apply your best skills.

A huge flashpoint was during my clinical work about seven years in, I had a mentor who introduced me to a communication model called the process communication model. It identifies different modes of communication, how people are motivated and it shows your personality and stuff. I had studied every model under the sun, in my clinical work. I was getting paid big bucks to do neuro-psychological personality assessments on people. This model blew my mind.

It was a huge flashpoint for me because it explains so much of me growing up, why I did what I did, why I was always a black sheep, how I was motivated, why my parents looked at me like an alien like, “Who is this child? Where did he come from?” I don’t know how he’s motivated or why he does what he does but somehow he gets through. It validated who I was as a person and it gave me a lot of new tools for how I can be my best self, start to step up and contribute to the world in a positive way instead of in a negative way. The discovery of the process communication model was a life-changing flashpoint for me.

How did you bring yourself into the workplace? Because now you’ve got this idea of bringing this into the workplace. When you first arrived at the first few companies that you were working with, was it easy for you to translate what you were doing to what they wanted? Because in practice, you may have theories in your mind of what you wanted to do but that putting into practice inside an organization is two different things.

It wasn’t easy. Many years ago, things like positive psychology and social-emotional intelligence were making it into the workplace but it still wasn’t commonly embraced as, “This is important. We need it.” I got lucky. In my behavioral health organization, I was managing their employee assistance program before I left and in doing that, I got to work with employees who were struggling. I got to see mental health struggles in people working in businesses. These people were never going to go get therapy or be diagnosed with anything. I started to be able to help make connections between what I had to offer and their real-life struggles. That gave me a good foundation plus I got certified in the process communication model and our clients just flipping loved it in the corporate world. Business took off right away when we started training them.

VCP 96 | Managing Conflict

You say it took off right away but I’m sure those first few years were not exactly roses and beautiful. There’s an element of still the struggle of building a business. Did you discover that you had an entrepreneurial advantage where you had the mindset to be an entrepreneur? What was the biggest challenge in those first few years?

The business took off but it wasn’t easy. We started our company in October of 2008. You will remember that was when the last huge recession was official. We started a business doing the stuff that is discretionary spending for companies. That’s one of the first budgets that gets slashed is training and development at a time when we were trying to start a business. We had a few gigs that got us through. We took small paychecks but by about six months, the word was getting out and we were able to eke out a living.

We never borrowed any money. We had very low overhead so we were scrappy and that helped a lot. Word of mouth, we realized the way to get businesses is you have to deliver, add value and do your best work every day. It was hard. I think I’m a natural promoter. That’s my strongest personality type. I love to promote. I think I’m pretty charismatic and persuasive but I didn’t have some of the technical business skills that I needed. Those are things I’ve had to backfill and find people to help me with along the way.

There’s something about the thing that you provide that probably was the most need at those times when there was a lot of downsizing and a lot of holding back from spending. People were probably having a real hard time at work or at least I know that because I was in the workplace at that time. The reality is people were probably at that point when they could use more compassion in the workplace, more of that feeling like we need to do better by our employees. The desire for more of that development couldn’t have been higher at that point.

That was perfect timing because our first two big contracts that paid our bills for the first six months were both manufacturing, which is the last place you’d think they care about this. Both of them had visionary leaders who recognized how important this was. One of our very first training was 35 Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belts in an aircraft manufacturing company. These are smart cookies from all over the world, India, China, everywhere. Their biggest pain was we have the answer but we can’t get you to do it. We know what your problem is but they couldn’t connect their solutions with the people who they were trying to help and that required social-emotional skills and that’s what we taught them. Now, the need for these kinds of skills is even more.

When I think about that, those periods in time when you look back, 2008, the tech bubble and thinking through 9/11 when we had the issues of 9/11, all these moments when we were all tested. These are moments when there’s a real strong desire to be more compassionate, to dig in and to see what our employees need most. I’m saying that but at the same time, I’d love to hear your thoughts around how do you help people navigate through those periods to make sure that they are better on the other side.

We’ve certainly experienced it ourselves, growth pains in our own company and my evolution as a leader of our company saw things change in terms of how I need to be with my people and how I need to lead. We’ve reinvented ourselves 3 or 4 times as we started but this last year has been a huge challenge for leaders. Leading in a remote world, leading during a pandemic, leading when your company is rapidly trying to pivot, leading when your employees are feeling isolated, alone and need support. How do you manage performance remotely when someone’s working from their home and their kids are running around? These are all things where we’ve had to quickly apply our tools in those situations. It certainly has made a difference.

You’re doing it in your own company but also doing it with your clients. That’s the cool thing is it’s leading by example because you’re doing it for your people.

Authenticity and vulnerability are in short supply right now. We need that in our leaders.

When we started Next Element, that was our number one goal. We are teaching people skills. Therefore, we have to be living and breathing and experimenting every single day. If any of our clients were invisible and showed up in our office on an off day, they would see us struggling with our stuff just like they do.

It’s a great insight because there’s something about it that people lose sight of. They think that if you’re coming in to help them through an issue that you have no issues. That’s not necessarily true. You may be able to be in a good position to help them but it doesn’t mean you’re flawless.

Authenticity and vulnerability are in short supply. We need that in our leaders.

In some ways because you go down these paths because you dare to go down and be vulnerable to be open with who you are. That’s what makes you great at what you do.

That’s the starting point of compassion.

I want to dig into this topic of your book. For example, you have this idea about compassion.

Conflict Without Casualties is a book that talks about compassionate accountability.

Tell me more about this.

We had been working with communication, personality differences, leadership for quite a while. We kept bumping up against the same wall over and over with our customers, which was we talked to each other like we want to be talked to. We motivate according to our personalities. We adapt our communication. Everything’s great but how do we have tough conversations? Because I’m okay, you’re okay and you didn’t show up for the meeting or I’m good, you’re good, we’re both valuable human beings and if you don’t punch your time clock, you can’t get paid. How do we talk about this stuff? Our clients were using other models and prescriptions on how to have difficult conversations or how to be brutally honest and stuff. It was too prescriptive and it didn’t give them the richness of what they needed.

We set up about twelve years ago working on a model for conflict. How do you have generative positive conflict when divergence converges to create something amazing? On that journey is where we discovered first that conflict isn’t bad. It’s the misuse of the conflict where things go wonky. The way to make sure that conflict turns into something amazing is with compassion. We spent the last decade fleshing out what kind of compassion are we talking about? How do you teach it? How do you train it? How do you measure it? How do you scale it? How do you apply it all the time? Conflict is everywhere. It isn’t going away so why don’t we use it to make something?

First of all, I love how this comes back to this early childhood memory of you saw your father being compassionate in a very conflicting space. It could have been dangerous for him if he cowered or let down his guard. He could have been putting himself at risk. In reality, he decided to lean into compassion and it created a moment where he deescalated the situation. He converged. It’s interesting and I wholeheartedly agree that they’re the right types of conflict that can create amazing things to happen. The fact that you’re doing this in the world now is cool. I wouldn’t have thought of it as being compassionate accountability, which is such a weird combination. It’s almost like a paradox but it speaks to this balance, the need for a balance in the world where you need to be able to have both and they have to be held at the same time. That’s how I’m interpreting it.

You’re dead on and one without the other can’t work. Compassion without accountability gets you nowhere. You can’t nicey nice you’re way out of an abusive relationship, out of a failing company or out of a client who refuses to pay. At the same time, accountability without compassion gets you alienated. We can’t just be the one bringing the hammer down, attacking everybody and blaming everybody when something goes wrong. These two must co-exist, not just be balanced. They have to work together in unison. That’s where we developed our framework called the compassion cycle, realizing that for these two things to co-exist, it takes a very specific skillset and methodology of how we walk into conflict without casualties but instead with accountability.

VCP 96 | Managing Conflict

I can talk about this all day and I think that this idea is something that we all need. We all need to go deeper into it. I want to ask you some questions more about your journey. As you reflect back on the path that brought you here, even the things we haven’t talked about, what are the things that were the key lessons that you’ve learned personally that have been poignant for you?

I can think of a couple. One of them is that it’s so true. We’ve heard it over and over again that nobody cares how much until they know how much you care. What that means is if you want people to hear you, speak their language. Nelson Mandela said, “Speak to a man in a language he understands and you speak to his head, speak to him in his language and you reach his heart.” I think for me, this whole message is, “If my message matters then I will adapt how I deliver it so you can hear it.” That’s the platinum rule. That’s not the golden rule. That was a big lesson for me.

A second huge lesson for me as a leader is that before I was a leader before I was promoted, my success depended on my ability to do stuff, my individual capability. Now that I’m a leader, my effectiveness depends on my ability to help other people be capable. That is huge for me because if my motivation is to be the capable one, to be the smart one or to have the answer, I’m not doing my job as a leader and that goes against every fiber of my being because I’m a doer. I love to get stuff done. I love to be productive. Unless my team is increasing in their confidence every day, I’m not doing my job.

That one particularly settles in for me because that element of being the enabler in a good way enabling people to be able to unleash their potential, to get to unlock their potential because you are the one who’s helping them along in that process of becoming who they are by not getting in the way. A leader should not be getting in the way. They should be creating the right environment for that to happen. The capability building is something that you do along the way as you build up your career, as you get into this place where you’re becoming the leader but then once you get to this place, you realize, “Now my role has changed. Now I’ve got to unlock the potential of others.”

I think that’s one of the areas where our sweet spot is as a company. It’s in that moment where people now have responsibilities for other people. What does that mean? In my book Conflict Without Casualties, it’s about how do we coach and mentor for compassionate accountability. My latest book, which you alluded to this in the topics in there about seeing people through, is about how do we include a diversity of personalities in the workplace. How do leaders do that? Inclusion and conflict are the two core competencies of the future for leaders.

That makes a lot of sense. We’re playing with paradoxes here because it sounds like polar opposites. The reality is that’s spot on because we need both. Is there anything else in terms of lessons that you wanted to share along the journey that you’ve picked up? I know there’s about a million.

Maybe one small one. It’s that I’m into the personality world. A lot of people out there know about personality and study it. Personality is not an entitlement program. Your personality does not entitle you to behave in any protected or special way. It means you are now fully responsible for who you are and how you’ve been built. If we’re going to be teaching people about personality, we have to be teaching them skills to become more responsible for what they do with that. My message is for myself. Stop hiding behind your personality and start living in it.

That’s refreshing. That’s something I‘ve got to say that I’ve never heard anyone say it that way. It makes a lot of sense. It’s a great insight. I wonder where did that come from? Where did you learn that? Was that something that you’ve just learned? Was it something you’ve learned a long time ago?

Stop hiding behind your personality and start living in it.

My brother gave me a wake-up call when I was about nineteen. One time he said to me, “Nate, you never know what people really think of you.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I didn’t really care in adolescence what people thought of me. He goes, “You’re persuasive. You’re a big talker. You can out-argue anybody. People aren’t going to be honest with you. You can just out-talk them. Know that you are unaware of how people think of you and if that matters to you, you might want to change your behavior.” I didn’t pay him any attention at the time. I thought he was a stupid big brother but it’s true. Later on, when I discovered the process communication model, I realized that we all have all six personalities in us and it’s our job to live into all of those, not just find out what my strongest type is this so back up off me.” That model finally held me accountable for who I was.

Bringing awareness to this helps you to harness these things to the best of your abilities not because you can overemphasize them but because you can basically see them as tools to understand the world around you better. I think that’s how I’m interpreting this and that’s how I’ve been seeing a lot of these things that if we go deeper, we figure out more about ourselves. It’s not a badge to be able to say like, “Now that I know that I can be this way.” Become aware and then know how that shows up for other people. It’s an interesting insight.

I’m a huge fan of mindfulness, self-acceptance, becoming and owning who you are and being good with that. We also have a job to do in the world. We got to go interact with people, involve people, include people and influence people because we are social beings and we have work to do in this world together.

That’s why I think that the whole idea that we’ve been playing with throughout the show is this convergence and divergence. It is so important to have that idea where how can you bring those different ideas together, different people together and then come together so that you’re having that unity of thoughts, of people talking together. This has just been packed with so many great ideas and insights. Your story is so powerful. I want to ask one last question. What’s one book that’s had an impact on you and why?

I’m sure everybody says this, “So many,” but there is one. There is a book that is significant for me and that book is called Leadership and Self Deception by the Arbinger Institute. I first read it in the early or late ‘90s, maybe early 2000s. That was significant for me because it’s a journey on peeling back our own layers of how we try to justify, deceive ourselves and make our negative behaviors okay. That opened up my mind to myself. It was eye-opening for me and it’s been a foundational principle for all the work that we do, all the models that we teach and include that in some way.

I love that recommendation. It’s funny because no one’s recommended it yet. Of all the things, I also like their The Anatomy of Peace, which is great.

They’re all good. The books are all so good.

I love the takeaway that you have from that book too, which is powerful. Nate, this has been powerful spending this time with you, hearing your story and getting these powerful insights. I can’t wait to dig into your books because the concepts that you brought to the table here are ones that I think are so powerful for everyone but especially for leaders out there who want to dig deeper into how to lead in the world. I’m looking forward to reading them because I’m a voracious reader. I know that the readers are going to go out and grab these books. Where else can people find more about you?

I’ll let you know. I want to thank you too, for epitomizing and living a couple of the main principles that we teach, which are openness and resourcefulness. You create a safe place and you create a circurious place. That makes it a real joy to have a conversation with you so thank you. You’re really good at what you do for those reasons. People can get a hold of me by going to our website, and everything there right upfront. You can learn about compassionate accountability and my book stuff. We’ve written what we do or you can search me on any social media.

Nate, I’m so grateful. Thank you for coming to the show. This has been a true pleasure and I’m just glad to have you.

Thank you.

Thank you. Thank you to the readers for coming on the journey.

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About Nate Regier

As a leader are you drained by gossip, triangulation and division? Are you overworking for others when they should be stepping up? Are you spending too much energy putting out fires and dealing with employee and customer drama? Leaders are responsible for 70% of engagement, yet over half of employees are disengaged.

But what if you could transform those negative work interactions and engage differently for breakthrough results? In the past ten years, I’ve helped dozens of people-focused businesses re-imagine compassion to build a safe and inclusive work environment, develop people’s capability instead of doing their work for them, and focus on what’s most important instead of putting out fires. Over 90% of our clients say our tools are more effective than anything they’ve used before.

Over the past ten years Next Element has worked with healthcare, service, and manufacturing organizations of all sizes including Healthcare Corporation of America, Via Christi, Ascension Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield, CarFax Canada, Kasa Companies, and Pivot Physical Therapy.

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