Some people can't stand conflict. Others seem to court it. Either way, it's an unavoidable part of life. So, how do you manage it? And what can you learn from it? In this episode, you'll get tips on dealing with conflict from a former NCAA referee. There's an incredible story of a relationship forged during the war in Iraq. And you'll hear one man's attempt to reconcile his dedication to fellow gang members with his need for a new direction in life.
Featured in this episode:
Former basketball referee Ron Foxcroft
Actor, influencer, and creator Karl Lokko
MALE: I work in film so we have a lot of conflict on set all the time.
FEMALE: Like, even if my brother, it's just we have very different personality types. It's just kind of finding a way to find that middle ground.
MALE: I'm kind of a mediator, a conciliator. I'm always at peace with people (laughs) so I don't have these kind of conflicts.
TAMARA STANNERS: On this episode of Relate, conflict. It is the true test of a relationship, whether it's a minor disagreement between friends or a full-blown war between nations. Conflict is a part of life. The trick is not to avoid it, but to manage it before it gets out of hand because conflict isn't always negative. In fact, it's often necessary for growth. Coming up on the podcast, the story of a minor conflict that led a 12-year old boy to start a notorious street gang. You'll hear about a friendship that blossomed during the Iraq War. And you'll get some useful tips on managing conflict from a former NCAA referee.
MALE: You're listening to Relate.
FEMALE: You're listening to Relate by Zendesk.
MALE: Zendesk builds software for better customer relationships.
FEMALE: For better customer relationships.
TAMARA STANNERS: I'm Tamara Stanners and this is Relate by Zendesk. It's a show all about relationship, the good, the bad, and the complicated. The Iraq War falls pretty squarely into the bad and complicated categories. But this story is about an unlikely bond that was made stronger by the very conflict it grew out of.
PAUL BRAUN: The bond that two people will share is like no other than soldiers that have been through combat. And when you're in battle, it's no longer what cause you're fighting for. You're fighting to stay alive for the person that's to your right and to your left. I am closer to my comrades than I am to my own family.
TAMARA STANNERS: This is Sergeant Paul Braun. He joined the military back in 2009. The reason, he knew a lot of soldiers who were on their second and third tours in Iraq, and he felt he had a duty to get involved. Now for a lot of soldiers, being deployed overseas means saying goodbye to family and that's really difficult. But it wasn't so hard for Paul.
PAUL BRAUN: I was married at the time, and I divorced from that person. It was a very bad relationship. (laughs) We'll put it that way. And, you know, for me, it was like kind of being on a vacation from it.
TAMARA STANNERS: Paul was deployed to Iraq and stationed in the southern town of Bozrah. His team was responsible for guarding the checkpoints in and out of their base. Paul came into contact with a lot of local Iraqis during the first few weeks of the tour, but he wasn't exactly friendly with any of them.
PAUL BRAUN: I was not very fond of them. It was very difficult to try and differentiate between those that were there to help and those that were there to hurt us.
PHILLIP: We know nothing about America except they are coming to kick in the doors, killing the people, stealing our oil, destroy our country and go home.
TAMARA STANNERS: This is Phillip. He was distrustful of the American Military, but he had three kids, a wife, and his mother to support. And he spoke English better than a lot of locals. So, he decided to apply for a job as an interpreter and he got it.
PHILLIP: All of sudden, we have a decent income to raise our family. Imagine how much they appreciate that.
PAUL BRAUN: Well, when we first heard that we were getting a new interpreter, they gave us his real name and say, you know, "[inaudible 00:04:19] is going to be your interpreter assigned to you." And we're like, "Okay," and ...
PHILLIP: So, when I went to him, I introduced myself. He gave me this this harsh, angry look. And he was so tough with me, but I was smiling and laughing at him. So, he told me, "If you try to mess with me or with my soldier ... "
PAUL BRAUN: I'm just going to (beep) shoot you. And he laughed. And I look at him, I'm like, "Do you think there's something funny about this conversation?" And he says to me, "Some day we will sit in America and drink tea and laugh at this conversation." And it was at that point where I knew that this guy was going to be okay. The first thing, I think, everybody notices about Phillip is his smile because it's a very genuine huge smile that he has. And Phillip's pretty amazing in the aspect where there's nobody that has met him that does not like him.
PHILLIP: Well, he's some unique personality. During my life, I never met someone like Paul. His parents, when they raised him, they raised him very well. He’s never been rude or mean with the local nationals. You can tell he respects the other side.
PAUL BRAUN: We had a lot of downtime. Someone had sent us a bunch of golf clubs and golf balls. And we would drive golf balls into an old abandoned minefield thinking it was pretty cool if we could try and blow up a mine. So, Phillip comes over and he's like, "What is this, and is this this golf game?" And I'm like, "Yeah," and, "Try." And I tell you, this Bedouin swung a club like 80 times and maybe connected with the ball once. He just couldn't hit it, so we kept laughing at him.
PHILLIP: I taught him how to put the head cover like a prince or sheik. And I taught him how to grow his beard when he left the Army. I taught him a lot of things about our culture.
PAUL BRAUN: Here this guys comes to become an interpreter, a translator, and has to leave his family for months at a time to be able to do this very, very dangerous job. So of course, we're asking about his wife and his children. And he's explaining to us about how his son is growing up and his two little girls at the time. And I was so very guarded with Phillip, but I also was very relieved to see how he was taking our side and how he was becoming one of us. And we were spending 18 hours a day in the sun, 125, 135, one day it was 142 degrees, you know, in full kit. And you spend that much time with a guy, it doesn't matter their nationality, you get to know somebody. And as time went on, he just became one of us, you know. He ended up fighting with us, he mourned with us, he bled with us, he became one of us.
When the British left is when things got really bad. They literally stopped weeks ahead of schedule and said, "We're done. There's no more missions. We're packing up early. We're going home." So, here we have all the interpreters for the British Forces that had to come onto the base, and we had to stop them and say, "Sorry, but you're no longer allowed to be on the base anymore. We have to take your IDs." Well, a couple days later is when the first of the bodies started being brought to us.
PHILLIP: It was really 24/7 worry. Everyone look at me, I think he gonna kill me. You don't know who's your enemy. You don't know who's on your side or not. The militia, at that time, they were like so strong in Bazrah. And they start hunting down most of the interpreters.
PAUL BRAUN: And a family would walk up with a body and say, "This is my father, or my brother, or my cousin, my whoever, and last night the militias came out and they executed him." That was the first of 19 that we had brought to us. So, if you can picture Phillip interpreting over the slain body of a person who's doing the exact same job that he is. And that's when Phillip and I went off to the side one day and he said, "So, what's gonna happen to me when you leave?" And I said, "You know what's gonna happen to you. We've talked about this before. You're already pretty much marked for death."
TAMARA STANNERS: Not too long after this conversation, Paul's tour in Iraq ended. It was time for him to go home. The night before Paul's departure, Phillip snuck into his housing unit to see his friend.
PAUL BRAUN: We had that long conversation of goodbye and ...
PHILLIP: It was too hard. Like, I went to his, place and it was sad emotion day.
PAUL BRAUN: Having a friend like Phillip that you're now leaving behind, that you know there's a really good chance you're never going to see this man, who's now become your brother, ever again. And it was very hard to say goodbye, but we knew that there was a small chance that he'd be able to come to America.
PHILLIP: So, Paul, he was my sponsor. So, he signed all the documents before he left Iraq.
PAUL BRAUN: And everybody that you'd talk to over there would say, "It's literally next to impossible. Don't even try. You know, we've heard of people trying to get interpreters over, it just doesn't work." And we knew that there was a very small limited amount of visas that were being offered. So, we kept calling and contacting everybody we could. And then finally one day...
PHILLIP: They called me and they said, "You have a package." I open it, my passport there. And when I opened my passport, the visa, it was issued in the passport. I was like, "No, I'm, I'm just dreaming." That that visa, it was like one week before I receive it. So, I took a picture right away and I send it to Paul.
PAUL BRAUN: I get a text message from Phillip and it's a picture, and he's … holding his Visa. And I called him up, and I'm like, "Where are you?" He's like, "Buddy, I'm at home." I'm like, "Dude, you got to get to the airport as fast as you can, so we can fly out of there."
TAMARA STANNERS: Phillip packs his bags, but now he has to say goodbye to his family.
PHILLIP: My two girls, they didn't understand what's going on. It ... They thought it's just, just a short trip for me, but my son and my wife, they understand very well what's going on. It's hard.
TAMARA STANNERS: A week later, Phillip is on a plane to Minnesota where he'll live with Paul. They haven't seen each other in three and a half years. When his flight lands, Phillip was greeted by a local TV news crew and, of course, his old friend.
PAUL BRAUN: After giving him a big hug and a handshake and, you know, God, here's my brother. I haven't seen him for years. I never thought I'd ever see him again, and here he's actually finally here in the United States, which is just unbelievable.
PHILLIP: It was so good to see Paul again. He found me a job. There's a senior home right front to the house. He just walked in and he told them like, "I have friend. He comes from Iraq, and he's looking for a job." And I'm still in that job. He gave me an idea about the culture here, the kind of people here, and the people in Minnesota, they are so nice. They make it easier for me. I never had hard time in Minnesota or in America in general.
PAUL BRAUN: At the Mall of America, they had a choir that was singing Christmas carols, and we were standing on, and on the third floor, there were [inaudible 00:11:48] looking down, and I noticed that Phillip started to cry. And I said, "What's wrong?" And he says, "You have no fear here. All these people can get together and not worried about someone coming by and trying to blow them up." And then as the music continued, he kept on slightly weeping. I'm like, "Are you okay?" And he's like, "I miss my family." And that's when we really wanted to overdrive to try and get his family here to the United States.
TAMARA STANNERS: Nearly two years after Phillip arrived in Minnesota, he gets an email in the middle of the night. It's from the American Embassy in Baghdad, and it lists the visa information for his wife, his three daughters, and his son. He is ecstatic. He's finally going to see his family again! But they still need to get out of Iraq. Phillip is a marked man, and he knows if the wrong person finds out he was an interpreter, his family may never make it to America.
PAUL BRAUN: As we started to getting more of the paperwork, getting closer and closer, it became a lot more dangerous for Phillip's family, and if they're caught with these documents, especially by the militia or by ISIS, they would be executed immediately. Everyday you're wondering, "Is this when we're gonna get a phone call?" or "Is this when we're gonna get an email that his family was killed?"
TAMARA STANNERS: Phillip is a nervous wreck for a week before his family's supposed to arrive, but the day finally comes.
PAUL BRAUN: And I meet Phillip at the airport with my family, and then all of a sudden we get the message his family's flight has landed.
PHILLIP: You know, my family, they had never met Paul. They spoke to him over the phone. They love him so much, but they never met him. PAUL BRAUN: And Phillip was just beside himself.
PHILLIP: Like Paul ... They were like pushing me, "Step forward. Your family coming. Go greet them." I just stood back and like, I was watching my son coming down, and I told Paul, "No."
PAUL BRAUN: He says to me, "I want you to be the first person to greet them and to meet my family." And his son was the first one to come down and come through those doors and just embrace in a hug. It was very powerfully overwhelming. And his daughters came through and his wife and being able to finally hold them and touch them was very emotional.
PHILLIP: I love Paul from beginning. Since I stopped work with him, to get Paul as a friend and now as a brother, I'm proud of myself. Hey Paul.
PAUL BRAUN: Yeah.
PHILLIP: What do you call the camera and when you go to the basketball game or football game and the camera like (sighs) the big screen zooming-
PAUL BRAUN: Oh, the jumbotron-
PAUL BRAUN: The big TV screen?
PAUL BRAUN: Yeah. The jumbotron.
PHILLIP: I mean when they, like, kiss-
PAUL BRAUN: Oh, the kissing camera.
PHILLIP: Shot. Kissing camera. I love that! (laughs) The kissing camera. But unfortunately, every time Paul like the one who beside me, so I can't do it!
SPEAKER: You're listening to Relate.
SPEAKER: By Zendesk.
SPEAKER: Zendesk builds software for better customer relationships.
TAMARA STANNERS: Now war is one thing, but what about those small, everyday battles that we all have to fight? At work, at home, with the cable company, and how do you make it so that both sides walk away feeling like they've won? You know those times when a coach loses his time after a ref makes a call he doesn't agree with? Tempers often flare in pro sports and in business too, and Ron Foxcroft knows both of these worlds really well. He's got some advice to help you keep a cool head in any situation. Ron is a former NCAA basketball referee, the inventor of the Fox 40 whistle, and the CEO and chairman of Fluke Transportation.
RON FOXCROFT: The very first thing about refereeing is it's difficult. (laughs) It's challenging. There's many challenges. We, as professional referees, take our job as seriously as the players and as the coaches. There's just as much training. There's just as much preparation, and there's just as much just plain hard work. We lose up to 65% of our referee applicants after year three because of abuse, conflict, people not understanding that referees are human beings. They're not computers. Now I've had it, and I've had coaches come at me pretty hard. I've had fans come at me pretty hard, but, you know, what you try and do is you try and put yourself in the position of the person that is disagreeing with you. And I learned very early in my referee training; you have two ears and one mouth to use proportionately. Try and put yourself in his position and listen.
The other thing is you have to bring the emotion down. In other words, time is a healer, and when there's a conflict, it's usually instantaneous, and it's almost like a knee-jerk. And you have to strategize on how you can get time between the initial outburst and the dialogue and communication.
What I did in basketball officiating when a coach instantaneously went off with anger, I would try and create some distance and time between his anger and my communication. So, I'll give you an example of that. When he went off, it was knee-jerk. It was instantaneous anger, and I would invent something that I had to do. For example, I would find something at the scores table that I had to administrate to create maybe only 30 seconds between the time of his outburst and the time that we start communication. I always started the communication by having him say, "Yes." And what I meant by that was-
"Coach, you don't like the call that I just made."
And the answer to that is-
You get them saying something positive, and then I would say to the coach:
"Coach, you know, you could be right."
Well, there's another yes. So, now you have two positives in the dialogue in the communication. And then the third time, the third dialogue I would usually have is I would say-
"Coach, let me put myself in your shoes and understand where you're coming from. Would you allow me the same courtesy?"
And usually, you can make headway when they say, "Yes. I'll allow you the same courtesy."
So, now you've had three positives. You've had three yeses... which is a very, very good thing. And then you work into the conversation, and all this happens over 30 seconds in a basketball game. You're not at a debating club where you have an hour. You have 30 seconds to make your point. Now, those skills that I learned in the officiating world, I've been able to transfer those skills into real life and into real business.
When I'm at a boardroom table and we're having a professional, robust disagreement, and I want to stress that it's okay to have a disagreement, it's all right to have a robust disagreement, providing, a) you're a good listener, b) you show respect to the person sitting on the other side of the table. And every time I've had a robust, healthy, professional disagreement in my business life, I try to stand up, walk across the boardroom table, and sit in his chair to understand where he's coming from.
When you're having a robust, emotional disagreement and you win 100%, and the person on the other side of the boardroom table loses 100%, that's a lose on both sides. What you really need to do is to both people come away feeling, I won 50% and the person you're disagreeing with in this robust conversation wins 50%. Fifty-fifty. You always try to get a 50-50 so you both come away not necessarily agreeing with the other person but, understanding the other person's point of view.
TAMARA STANNERS: If you want to learn more about managing conflict with your customers, visit relate.zendesk.com for a great article on this very subject. It's called Turn Complainers into Brand Advocates. Find the love.
SPEAKER: You're listening to Relate by Zendesk.
SPEAKER: Zendesk helps your business turn interactions into lasting relationships.
TAMARA STANNERS: Conflict is the theme of this episode of Relate, and here's a story about a young boy who grew up in the projects of Brixton, a neighborhood of London, and how one violent encounter led him on a path to become a gang leader. Fortunately, the story doesn't end there.
Remember when you got your first bike? It was pretty amazing, wasn't it? Karl Lokko got his when he was 11.
KARL LOKKO: I loved this thing. It was just, yeah, it was God's gift to me, you know? I would ride it usually in Kennington Park. As I said, my parents were very protective, so, they would only let me play out in the park while everyone else was ...
TAMARA STANNERS: Karl grew up in Brixton, a low-income and underserved area of London. He lived in a subsidized apartment block. They call them estates in the UK.
KARL LOKKO: The estate is the park for the majority, you know, but I had to go to an actual park to (laughs), to play (laughs). I remember this time around, I didn't actually ride my bike on the park. I was riding it around the area that I lived in and then, um ...
TAMARA STANNERS: His parents told him the estate grounds were off-limits. They'd heard that local kids were involved with gang activity there. Karl would normally obey his parents, but his bike gave him freedom. He figured he could get away fast if there was trouble. But one afternoon, another boy stopped him in his tracks.
KARL LOKKO: Told me he wants my bike, basically, but I wasn't about to let go, 'cause this wasn't just a bike. This was my parents'. I even at that age understood the reality that money was hard to come by and that they had to work really hard to be able to buy me this, so I was like, I can't let go of it. So as a result, I ended up getting punched in the face. I just remember riding off with the bike and just tasting the blood in my mouth.
TAMARA STANNERS: This was the moment when he decided to make a change. KARL LOKKO: I was like, this can't continue. This just can't go on. I said, "I have to fix this."
TAMARA STANNERS: Karl Lokko was a problem-solver from an early age. When he was only 11, he was known as one of the smartest kids in his school, but his intelligence led him to a disturbing revelation.
KARL LOKKO: I started to kind of get some insights that part of the system didn't serve those coming from my demographic. Prior, I was under the illusion that if you got good grades and did what's right, that, you know, there's gonna be a level of social mobility. That kind of façade disintegrated.
TAMARA STANNERS: He needed to find a way to get out of the high-rises, out of Brixton, out of poverty.
KARL LOKKO: Parents who worked 12-hour days and still not have enough. You know, the only ones that had a level of financial freedom in our communities were those that were doing it through criminality whether drug-dealing or what be it. It became my ambition to be a part of this collective. From 12 years old, I was like, wow, I need to get involved.
TAMARA STANNERS: But Karl didn't have any connections to any of the established gangs. How is he gonna get in?
KARL LOKKO: I ended up banding together with all the young men that was tired of their situation also and wanted to feel that they belonged to something, kinda created something, and I said, "Look, this is ours." And that was the first gang that I was ever in was a gang that I actually had to create.
TAMARA STANNERS: By the time he was 13, Karl and his gang, they were being noticed. The police had found a photo with evidence of criminal activity, a photo that was key to Karl Lokko's rise as a gang leader.
KARL LOKKO: Then about six months later, the press got ahold of it, and we were on the front page of the major tabloids in the country because it was like 13-year-olds who were working a pump-action shotgun.
TAMARA STANNERS: This gave Karl some serious street cred. KARL LOKKO: It was what I had wanted. They made it out like I was this real thing. I was just basking in the glory of it, if I want to be honest.
TAMARA STANNERS: The shotgun was fake, so they all got off scot-free, and the experience didn't scare Karl. In fact, it pushed him deeper into gang life.
KARL LOKKO: By the time I was 15, the young men that I was actually running with, those were my brothers.
TAMARA STANNERS: Karl was a strong leader. He pitched an idea to another gang that they join forces.
KARL LOKKO: Yeah, that's when things really started getting going. By 15, I felt like I was a man and I felt like I had become, you know, I felt like I was capable of doing certain things.
TAMARA STANNERS: But by 16, he saw his close friend murdered.
KARL LOKKO: We were brothers by this time. It was a big blow. It was an occasion of some sort, one thing led to another, and he ended up getting fatally stabbed, you know? It was ... Yeah. Like I, I remember the blood leaving his body at such a rate that it propelled his t-shirt into the air 'cause it had touched his heart.
It was just heavy. It was just heavy. But it didn't deter any of us. It just gave us a reason for rage. It wasn't, "Oh, we need to stop this." It was, "No, we need more guns, and now we need more knives, and we need less remorse." By the time I was 17, I would say, I was in my prime.
TAMARA STANNERS: Karl no longer felt the need to leave Brixton because he was the king of Brixton in his eyes, and nothing could stop him. His parents begged him to stop. His teachers avoided him. But the violence in his life just made him more angry and more deeply involved, and yet deep in the back of his mind, something started to shift.
KARL LOKKO: I think there were some seeds that was sown before me saying that, "You know what, this is not for me." There was no justice. You know, it just felt very empty. And these feelings, like I would feel them, but I didn't know what to do with them, you know, or even how to articulate them. And even if I did know how, who to speak to?
TAMARA STANNERS: Thankfully, there was one woman who wanted to speak to him, a pastor named Mimi. Her son was in the same gang and she was looking for ways to get these boys out.
KARL LOKKO: She felt that if she could maybe reach me, that she could reach him. One of the, the first major breakthroughs was with me. She would never speak from a place of judgment. She embodied love. She always was able to differentiate between me and the activity. She would say, "That's an idea, it's an action, but that's not you. Your core, your soul, your spirit, who you are, that's not it."
TAMARA STANNERS: Over several months, she was able to convince Karl that this lifestyle did not define him. He finally came to realize that he wanted to get out. Now, he had to tell the other gang members. This was especially hard because they were family to him.
KARL LOKKO: By separating myself, I did see that as me betraying them.
TAMARA STANNERS: He decided to be honest with them. He sat down with each member to explain where he was coming from.
KARL LOKKO: I just basically would be like, "You know what, I don't believe in this. For the sake of love, I just can't live this way. I can't, I can't do it. And I hope you understand."
TAMARA STANNERS: And, they did understand.
KARL LOKKO: The majority did. These are not, I don't know, feral creatures. These are young men and women that believed a lie, responded to circumstances in a way that they thought the outcome would be best, and essentially, they just wanted me to be happy.
TAMARA STANNERS: Karl used the ambition and leadership he fostered in gang culture and applied it to activism, to influencing policies to help gang members get out of the lifestyle, to treat them less as criminals and more like addicts in need of help and in need of positive relationships.
Karl has shot to the top of the activist world. He's given a TED talk and represent social campaigns backed by people like Richard Branson. He admits his life feels a little surreal at times.
KARL LOKKO: I'm getting on private jets going to private islands.
TAMARA STANNERS: He is now financially secure enough to leave Brixton. The thing is, he doesn't want to. In fact, he recently laid down deeper roots and bought a house around the corner from where his parents still live.
KARL LOKKO: That there, Mimi's dining on that restaurant, that's actually past the Mimi shop. I am well and truly a Brixton boy, if I want to be honest. It's difficult 'cause I've had a bit of an identity crisis being flung from polar extremes, you know? But I definitely still feel very much at home in Brixton.
TAMARA STANNERS: While he's walking, Karl is interrupted by a guy who stops him on the street to congratulate him on some of the work he's done. Karl explains that the man is a former gang member himself, someone else who turned his life around and now runs a football club for kids. They have their own special bond. He's one of the few friends who's been with him in his old life and his new one.
That's it for Relate this time around. In two weeks, we'll have an episode for you on failure. Now, failure might sound like something to avoid at all costs, but it's actually a key component to success, and I'll tell you why next time.
Subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts so you don't miss out. For more articles on connecting to your customers in deeper ways, visit relate.zendesk.com. And if you want to explore technology built to improve your customer interactions, head over to zendesk.com for a free trial. I'm Tamara Stanners. Talk to you soon.