Category Archives: Communication Skills

Escalating Emotions

“I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but I guess things just escalated.” Karyn described this latest blowup with one of her team members. “I am only her supervisor on the weekend, so I feel a little helpless. Her weekday supervisor lets her get away with leaving early. I talked to Rick about it. He just doesn’t want to confront her.”

“And when you stopped her from leaving early, the conversation turned grisly and she left anyway?”

Karyn nodded her head slowly. “And next Saturday, I don’t know what to do or say. I can’t just pretend nothing happened?”

“Oh, you could. Hope is a strategy. You could hope she doesn’t blow up again. You could hope she doesn’t leave early again. You could hope she gets all of her work done. But if hope doesn’t work, what are you going to say and when are you going to say it?”

Karyn scrunched her face, “I don’t want to wait until she tries to walk out the door again. Then it will be Groundhog Day all over again.”

“So, when would be a better time to talk to her?”

“I think early in the day, perhaps at the very beginning.”

“Good, then there won’t be the drama of her trying to leave at that moment. Now, what are you going to say?” Karyn struggled with the question. No response.

“Karyn, I want you think about this. You cannot stumble into this conversation. You have to be prepared. Think about this and we will talk again. Think along these lines. I want you to be both straight AND sensitive. What will you say?”

Twinges in the Stomach

Charlie was in my office yesterday. We talked about mostly nothing for a half a minute, when I suddenly became uncomfortable. Something happened inside of me, mostly with my stomach. I wasn’t in discomfort, but there was a significant twinge.

The twinge in my stomach was caused by a short silence, a white space in the conversation. I asked a question about Charlie’s last meeting with his boss. There was no response from Charlie. Silence in a conversation often causes a momentary awkwardness.

I don’t know where this conversation is going next? I thought I knew, but I don’t know now. I wish I knew, but I still don’t know. I hope this conversation get some direction soon, because this awful silence is killing me. BOOM. My stomach told me we were talking about something more important than the weather.

My automatic (unconscious) reaction was to avoid. Do anything to make this feeling go away. The silence was awkward. The automatic (unconscious) response was simply to “talk.” Make the silence go away. If I talk, the silence will be gone, the awkwardness will be gone and I won’t feel this way. Talking would also likely steer the conversation back to a discussion of the weather.

Channel the reaction. My bio-response to Charlie was a twinge in the stomach. The twinge told me that this conversation had potential to be more meaningful. I could avoid it or I could engage. Avoidance would be easy, simply talk to fill the silence, talk about anything.

OR,

I could engage, and let the silence continue. I could let the silence do the heavy lifting to move this conversation to the next level. Something significant had happened between Charlie and his boss and Charlie needed to talk about it. We could have talked about sports, or we could have engaged in a meaningful discussion that had real impact on Charlie.

The twinge in the stomach gives the Manager a heightened sense of intuition and the possibility to channel the reaction to a more productive outcome. Listen to the twinges, watch for white space in conversations.

Translator Role

My conversation with Tony (S-II) about his manager, Suzanne (SIV) –
I have to tell you, every time we get together, all she talks about is pie-charts, bar graphs and the big picture. It’s different down on the shop floor. Sometimes we get materials in from our vendors that are out of spec and we have to reject them. When we reject raw materials, sometimes our productivity goes down. And, remember the machine we were going to replace this year, but kicked it into next year’s capital budget. That machine breaks down a little more than it used to and when it does, our productivity goes down. I try to explain this stuff to Suzanne and she just keeps talking about the big picture.

My conversation with Suzanne about her team member, Tony –
Don’t listen to Tony, he gets all wrapped around the detail and loses sight of the big picture. He just doesn’t understand what we are all about here.

Not a personality conflict –
When we introduce the context of time span, we can clearly see the reason for this conflict. Tony is in a role with shorter time span decisions and problems, clearly having difficulty with the way Suzanne sees the world. Suzanne is in a role with longer time span decisions and problems, clearly having difficulty with the way Tony sees the world.

Translator –
The translator role (S-III) sits in between Suzanne (S-IV) and Tony (S-II), who can translate Suzanne’s big picture thinking (that is what we hired her for) into time span appropriate projects that Tony can drive on the production floor.

But, My Team Gives Me the Wrong Answer

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Question:
I use questions to coach my team members, and they provide answers but not always the right answer. As a result, the conversation can appear like an inquisition. It’s challenging, at that time, not to revert to “telling” rather than “asking“.

Response:
If you are asking a question and you don’t get the response you want, it’s not because the response is wrong, it’s because you are asking the wrong question. -Tom

Not a Lot of Listening

“The biggest difficulty we have,” Susan insisted, “is communication.”

I nodded. “How so?”

“Well, sometimes it seems we are not even on the same team. I give instructions, I hold meetings, but when somebody has to coordinate with someone else, it always seems like the ball gets dropped.”

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“It seems that when I do the talking, there’s not a lot of listening.”

“And that surprises you?” I smiled.

“No. But, as the manager, I expect my team to listen when I talk to them,” Susan shook her from side to side, impatiently.

“Oh, so this is your team’s fault?”

Susan was no dummy. She sensed I was setting her up. “Well, okay, I know I am 50 percent to blame,” she relented.

“And what would you do differently, if I told you that you were 100 percent accountable for your team’s complete understanding? You, as the manager, are 100 percent responsible for the effectiveness of the communication. What would you do differently?”

What Were They Thinking?

“I don’t understand,” Geoff began. “We had a meeting. I explained the new way things were going to be done. A couple of people asked questions. Everyone on the team agreed.”

“And?” I asked.

“And when I took a look at the work today, nothing was changed. It was done the same as before without the changes,” he replied. “I don’t know what they are thinking.”

“If you want to know what someone is thinking, watch what they do. People say and agree to all kinds of things. As a manager, never mistake what someone says for what they can do or will do. Don’t listen for their agreement, watch what they do.”

Experience Meets Experience

Every conversation can be calibrated. Every conversation has a platform. Seven levels of listening –

  1. Ignoring completely, oblivious, engrossed in your smartphone.
  2. Pretending to listen, glancing up from your smartphone.
  3. Listening selectively, attentive only during downloads on your smartphone.
  4. Listening to respond, smartphone holstered.
  5. Listening to understand, to understand the other person, to understand the situation.
  6. Listening to learn, to learn something new, something interesting, something that matters.
  7. Listening for the intersection where someone else’s experience meets our experience on which we can build trust.

Thinking about your relationships, as a manager, as a friend, as a stranger, as a parent. Where is your intersection with reality?

How Not to Appear as a Control Freak

“I am taking over a new department,” explained Ellen. “It’s not a promotion, just a new department. I heard through the grapevine that some people are off-balance wondering what life is going to be like under my direction. Two people said they might quit. How do I let them know that I am not going to be some micro-managing monster?”

“You could wear a sign,” I suggested.

Ellen laughed. “Be serious. I want to let them know that I am not some control freak boss.”

“It sounds backward,” I started, “but instead of telling them about you, why don’t you find out about them?”

Ellen looked puzzled.

“Look, you may be under the microscope. If you become genuinely interested in each of your team members, you will accomplish two things. First, the focus will immediately shift away from you. Second, asking questions about them will speak volumes about you.”

How to Find Common Ground

“Like I said, I will ask them about the way they see themselves in their role on the team,” responded Julia. We had been talking about her new management position.

“And what if you don’t like what you hear?” I asked.

That was a hard question. Julia started her sentence twice before completing it. “I just have to keep digging. Somewhere in there is a small starting point. Somewhere in there is a small place where we can agree.”

“Is that the point of intersection we were talking about?”

“Yes.” Julia was on a roll. “And I have to find it before we can go on. Sometimes you have to go slow before you can go fast. Until I make that connection, until I find that point of intersection, we are not going anywhere in the conversation.”

“And what do you think happens between the two of you when you find that point of intersection?”

“It’s like a little piece of magic. We get something we can build on and move forward with. Until we find that common ground, all we have are differences. You cannot build on differences.”

Curious Communication

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been reading your blog on the recommendation of one of the owners of my company. I am unsure of how to handle this situation. Our company has grown over the past few years and, with that growth, some roles have been re-structured, responsibilities shifted from one person to another. During this time, one of our critical business development processes appears to have shriveled from a lack of attention. It used to be a high priority, driven by the CEO, but now, it is hardly noticed, its momentum slowing to a standstill.

This has caused some concern in middle management, but we are unsure how to approach the CEO without causing controversy. We are not a bunch of whiners, but we think this is important. Somehow, somewhere, the ball got dropped.

Response:
Your question leads me to believe that your company culture doesn’t actively create open dialogue, that sometimes agendas, company and personal are driven with only half the story told. There is likely another side to this story. So, how to find this out “without causing controversy.”

Public or private, this conversation has to be held in a safe environment. In 1-1 conversations, I use the following phrase to set up the environment, “I am curious. -followed by the question-.” Curiosity is safe, keeps my agenda out of the explanation so I can truly hear the other side of the story.

A university chancellor, I work with, conducts frequent “brown bag” lunch sessions with students at his campus. The “brown bag” aspect removes the formality, and creates a more candid dialogue.

You might create a small “brown bag” affair, with an intimate group of “curious” managers and invite the CEO. One of my rules is “no surprises,” so the invitation should be clear to the CEO that you are there to find out the current Vision of the Business Development activities of the company. There is likely a reasonable explanation for this shift in focus.

You might find this “brown bag” affair becomes a regular event, once a month, once a quarter, and quite soon, will impact the culture of the company to promote this kind of curious communication.