Shared understanding and the moments that matter

I was sitting at my desk over hearing a tale of agile transformation gone wrong. The story was one of lack of consultation, imposed process, resistance and ultimately having to leave the company. What I noticed was not the process over people transformation (that is common place), it was instead mention of a meeting.

While telling his story, our wronged man talked about a point where he was taken aside and spoken to. Whether this meeting was an effort to reach out or an effort to correct behaviour, it’s hard to judge. What I can say for certain is, it did not work.

Instead of being a moment of alignment it was a humiliating experience. This was where he became angry and frustrated. He repeated phases said about him in the meeting with disbelief and scorn (and I was hearing this years after the fact). I can say for certain that this was the moment where hope was lost.

Does doing something a lot make you an expert?

Meetings where concerns are raised or where sensitive subjects are broached are quite common. They happen because conflict is a natural by-product of collaboration and when change is in the air, the conflict is even more pronounced.

When these meetings go badly everyone loses, the participants quickly settle into their previous points of view (with even less empathy for the other side). How do I know this? I challenge a lot and not always with the required level of skill or tact.

With this as a constant throughout my career I have been on both sides of this conversation. I have been the person who is asked to step into an office and I have asked others to do the same. My experience tells me that these conversations are skilled affairs with very serious downsides.

With this risk in mind I have been reading “Crucial Conversations” a book dedicated to these tricky conversations. It is filled with mindset changes and repeatable skills that make me more confident in getting good outcomes from these dicey interactions. It is however, just a book and this is just a blog post. So for simplicity sake, I am going to choose the learning that resonated with me most – how to start these difficult meetings.

The book talks about what your intent of having the conversation is. If your intent is to force your agenda, they will see this quickly and defensive behaviours will start. At this point you have lost. You can say your piece but the possibility of any change of behaviour or mindset shift will be lost.

Add to the pool

You must approach these conversations as a dialogue. You must be sincere in your want to listen. The book talks about the shared pool of understanding. You and the person you are talking with have gaps in your knowledge and the reason to have the conversation is to increase this shared pool of understanding. When this shared pool increases, you are much better positioned to collaborate and find some win/win options going forward.

One of the fears that people have is that if they have to listen – really listen then they will be more likely compromise on what they believe in. This is not true. A lot of the time people have values and beliefs that do not mirror our own.

The remedy to this fear is an easy mantra: “Understanding is not agreement, sensitivity does not equate to acquiescence.” Having more knowledge is always better, being sincere with your curiosity and respect will earn you great dividends. Going into one these conversations with a predefined outcome in mind is always going to be easy to spot for the other side. Strong opinions loosely held is where your headspace should be.

“The best way to persuade people is with your ears – by listening to them.” Dean Rusk

To have these conversations you must have the starting condition (mutual purpose) and for them to reach any kind of useful end you must have the continuance condition (mutual respect). The book gives techniques and tools to ensure these are present. What struck me was that both of these conditions were mutual. You are in a much better position if these conditions were already present between the both of you. In essence when you have nurtured good relationships you will be in a position to have this dialogue that everyone can benefit from.

How do we go about having good relationships?

At the LASTConference in July I attended a talk about what marriage counsellors could tell us about team dynamics. It was an interesting talk and I started to do some research into Professor John Gottman (who was the main inspiration for the presentation). Professor John Gottman is a very experienced marriage counsellor who has conducted longitudinal studies into what makes some relationships work and some fail.

What I took from his research was the following:

1) Think about Relationships in the long term. Over 60% of issues in a relationship are not resolved instead they are managed. The key is to understand and to plan a way for these issues to not constantly cause conflict. Instead behavioural norms and compromise are way to ensure that these predictable differences do not become flash points.

2) Small moments count. These are what Prof Gottman calls ‘sliding door’ moments. There will be times where you have a choice to engage with a person or you can chose not to. These are not big moments, but frequent. With each choice the relationships future diverges. Choose selfishly enough times and the relationship will be damaged by these small moments where we chose not to care.

3) Relationships require work. When a flash point happens, trying reconciliation is the right thing to do. Reach out and let yourself be reached out to. There are obviously times when behaviour can be so poor enough that no second chance is given. This is the exception, the most common failure is that no one attempts the hard work of rebuilding. Hence the onus will be on you to make the effort to repair the relationship.

4) Nice is not enough. There is a term called Negative Sentiment Override. It comes into effect when a relationship has been degraded badly enough that actions by one party will be unconsciously transformed into the worst interpretation of those actions. Kindness is viewed as condescension, compromise is viewed as weakness and interaction is interpreted as aggression.

This is why all the above points are necessary. If you don’t look after you relationships they can become unrecoverable.

Connecting the dots

I believe coaching is about creating a space to let transformation occur. For this space to be viable trust is required. The people whom are in the process of change have to believe what lies on the other side of struggle is worth it and that you, the coach, are on their side. This kind of trust comes from your relationship with them. There will be moments when feedback must be given, concerns raised and conflict addressed.

I believe a coach who works at their relationships and ensures mutual respect and purpose with the people they are working with will be able have these crucial conversations highlighting the path to success for all concerned.

Would it not be a great thing if years from now someone would get to overhear a conversation marked by respect and admiration? About how when things became difficult, that you stepped up and successfully had the conversation that mattered?


Crucial Conversations

LAST Conf 2106 talk Dealing with Dysfunction: Using couples counselling patterns to manage team conflict by Matthew Hodgson and Zen Ex Machina

John Gottman

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