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Making Difficult Conversations Less Difficult in the Workplace

In business, Dialogue, organizations, Realtionship, Work on January 13, 2011 at 5:29 am

Miriam Grogan, CPCC, ORSCC

A Guest Blog Post by Executive Coach Miriam Grogan

Does anyone like having difficult conversations?  After all, difficult conversations are, by definition, difficult.  (Sharing uplifting, positive messages with employees also seems to be difficult for most people, but that’s another topic.)

We may know something is wrong.  We may be able to define it and why we need to address it.  But ask “what do you want to be different?” and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare and long silence.

Three sub-questions can help you shape what you want to say.

After the conversation, what do you want the other person to

  • KNOW?
  • DO?
  • FEEL?

What do you want them to KNOW?

Sometimes, this is the easiest of the three, as answer is often written down somewhere, in a company policy or job description.  “Our workday begins at 9:00.”  “We’ve reassigned the taking the checks to the bank from Jane to you.”

That said, this question can be difficult to answer, if what you want the listener to KNOW involves the impact on others.  “You have a lot of good things to say.  But you say so much, people are tuning out everything.  Your good ideas are getting lost.”

What you want your listener to KNOW is a critical building block for framing a conversation.

What do you want them to DO?

What action do you want the person to take as a result of the conversation?  What do you want to start, stop, increase or decrease?

“Our workday begins at 9:00” may be important to know.  But it doesn’t necessarily lead to an on time arrival.  “Please make sure you’re at your desk ready to go, coffee cup filled, good mornings completed, by 9:00” has a better chance.

In the second example, only pointing out what the too-talkative employee is doing wrong leaves her hanging.  (She might even talk more because now she’s self-conscious and doesn’t know what else to do!)  Give her something to do.  Consider, “When John asks a question in our staff meeting, count to three before saying anything.  See if anyone else has an answer before you jump in.”

How do you want them to FEEL?

This is often the hard one.  The good news is, you often don’t need to, or even want to, articulate a response to this question.  But you cannot skip over answering it for yourself.  In Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton and Heen write, “difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings.”  There’s no substantive conversation if you skip over the very core.

How do you want the person to feel?  Sorry?  Inspired?  Appreciation for the gravity of the situation?  You may or may not say it explicitly, and the person may or may not feel the way you hope they will, but choosing a “feeling outcome” will influence the conversation as much, if not more, than your words.

Using the examples above, let’s say you, the supervisor, want the person to feel

1.     On notice!!  You are sick of this behavior.  If it doesn’t stop – NOW – they’re cooked.

2.     Inspired.  You like this person, want to see them fix the problem and soar.

Read the sample sentences out loud from each “feeling.”  Different, eh?

Know, do, feel.  Clarifying what you want may not make the conversation easy, but chances are it will be less difficult.

To find out more about Miriam Grogan and her work, visit: http://www.stellarcoaching.com/pages/about.htm

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Backstage at the Olympics: Going for the Gold in Marriage (Reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

In business, couples, Realtionship on February 24, 2010 at 1:46 am

Aly & Jeff Pain with their sons Thomas & Kyle

It’s tough being an Olympic athlete. It’s even tougher being married to one. In fact, Aly Pain has asked her husband Jeff, Canadian Silver Medalist Skeleton racer, for a divorce more than once in the last several years.

And yet today, their marriage is stronger than ever.

“I’m a ridiculously stubborn person,” says Aly, a public speaker, trainer, and one of the first 70 systems coaches to be certified by the Center for Right Relationship. “ I don’t walk away from much. I’ll do what it takes. And there’s an essence of our marriage—something bigger and stronger than us—that wasn’t done, that said: you’re supposed to be together.”

And together, Jeff and Aly Pain have written a book, The Business of Marriage and Medals, about what they’ve learned.

“All of our messes and successes over a14 year period,” says Aly. “Everything we did wrong and what we did right—consciously or unconsciously—so we can be here today as a team.”

When I reach Aly by phone at her hotel in downtown Vancouver, she sounds tired. She has driven with their two boys from Calgary a few days earlier. They’ve come to see their Dad, a man the CBC has called “one of the most celebrated skeleton athletes in Canadian history,” make his last Olympic run. And today’s the day.

Aly has mixed feelings.

“Joy, sadness, grief—blechhh!” she says. “Sometimes it’s everything all at once. There’s a lot of me that wants it to be over. And yet winning in Italy was wonderful. How many can say they’ve been in three Olympics and finished in the top ten in all three? I’m also sad for Jeff and can’t imagine what this is like for him.

“There can only be one winner—the ultimate measure of one’s success is in sport. This is what he’s chosen.

“Until midnight tonight. Then he’s retired.”

The measure in sport doesn’t take into account the emotional and economic challenges Aly and Jeff Pain have faced. Only two percent of Canada’s Olympic athletes have kids.

“The Canadian Olympic Committee has never compiled statistics on mature athletes, and so have they’ve never really met their needs. The COC knew mature athletes were least pleased with funding but didn’t know why.”

When a 20-year-old gets an Olympic contract, “it’s like winning the lottery,” says Aly. “They may still be living at home with their parents. But when you’re in your 30s and have a family, it’s poverty level.”

What is it like for their children—Thomas, aged six and Kyle who is it eight—to be here in Vancouver to see their Dad compete?

“They think it’s cool. They’re proud. It’s exciting—and yet I bet they’d by-pass all that to have had Dad home. He’s been away for three and a half years of their lives. It’s a double-edged sword. Whether they grow up hating it or loving it, this is their legacy. They deserve an opportunity to be at the track—to see this.”

What’s next?

“I don’t know,’ says Aly. “I can’t even imagine it. The book is certainly part of what’s next—the game we’re playing together on the same continent on the same stage. It’s been a way of dreaming up our new identity.”

And how did the book come about?

It began with a fight, really. Jeff was home for a few months, and they argued about household tasks—who did and did not do what. So they got out a big sheet of paper. Aly wrote down everything she did around the house. Jeff wrote down everything he did.

“My list was much longer,” says Aly. “We started to renegotiate.”

The Business of Marriage and Medals is, in fact, a business book. It’s about business in marriage and relationship in business.

“It’s only when we started seeing ourselves as a business that our marriage began to work,” says Aly. “Assigning roles, and concrete goals—that’s what we had to do—stop being willy-nilly and thinking it was going to work out. We had to hammer it out and write it down.”

Out of the breaking point came the solution.

“Our marriage has a big message about relationship,” she says. Especially now. “The divorce rate is higher than it’s ever been. Marriage is like a commodity. Businesses treat people like numbers. We’re forgetting the art of relationship: seeing and experiencing another person face to face in an ebbing, flowing balance.

“It’s not a you-against-me thing. It’s a ‘we’ thing. Put the issue out front. Be a ‘we’ and handle it.”

The challenges Aly Pain has faced in her marriage have enriched and deepened her professional life as a relationship systems coach. She finds she has far more compassion for the corporations and families she works with as they go through transitions.

“What they’re saying is exactly what I’m feeling,” she says. “I ask questions I might not have asked before. I know more. It’s a rich place, transition. I don’t find it scary. I like adventure.”

In the end, she says, “This isn’t’ just about Jeff being front stage and me and the kids backstage. It’s more than that. We’re a team, and we know that now.

“Everybody who’s been behind us and supported us—that’s how every relationship succeeds, with support and lots of cheering. We have more people behind us than we can possibly fathom. We haven not gotten here alone.”

To find out more about Aly Pain and her work, visit her website: www.alypain.com and to read excerpts from their book, The Business of Marriage and Medals, visit: http://www.marriageandmedals.com/.

Ghost Roles in Organizations

In business, communities, organizations, Realtionship on October 6, 2009 at 12:18 am

We’ve talked about Outer and Inner Roles and a bit about the energy and skill with which roles can be occupied. In Relationship Systems work, we also talk about Ghost Roles, by which we mean people who are no longer physically present or events, which nonetheless have an impact on what’s going on in the system at present.

Not long ago I worked with an organization that hired me, to help them clarify the roles of its Executive Director and board members. In the two days that we worked together, names of people no longer on the board kept coming up. Each time that happened, I would suggest we add it to the Parking Lot, or the list of things we felt were important but were beyond the scope of our stated agenda.

In a follow-up session, we decided to get to the items on the Parking Lot. Those names of people no longer associated with the organization, for instance.

More often than not, these are people: a beloved former CEO or some trouble-maker whom nobody misses at all. Sometimes the ghost is an event. An illness, for example. Or downsizing that involved a massive lay-off. Anything outside the current team or system that continues to have an impact.

So there we were in a room full of ghosts. At first we called them by the names they share with the people associated with them. Once again: roles are not people. We were looking for the qualities of those roles that were “haunting” the system. Wicked Witch was one. She kept coming up again and again. We listed her qualities, and I asked if everyone was ready to put her out of the room—so we could decide on how they wanted to work with the ghost.

“Yes!” everyone shouted.

And not a minute later, she was in the room again.

So I said, “Look. This high-back chair is the Wicked Witch. She’s in the middle of the room. What do you notice?”

“I can’t see the people on the other side of the room,” said one.

“She’s in the way,” said another. “We can’t move forward!”

“OK then. Are you ready to have her in the other room?” I asked.

“Yes! Yes!” said everyone. And I carried the chair out of the room.

And 3 minutes later, there she was again, so I carried the chair back into the middle of the room.

“No. No. No.” said everyone.

“Well what’s it going to be?”

“We can’t seem to get rid of her ….”

“It’s ‘witchy-ness’ you can’t get rid of. That’ll always come back. It happens; it’s normal. How do you want to be when that happens?”

And so we designed an alliance around that.

There were other ghosts in their system. The ghost of an aggressive young know-it-all, the ghost of a greedy landlord. And since ghosts are not people, we set about describing the qualities of each figure as we removed the ghost from the room. Then the group could better see how they wanted to behave with each other when those qualities re-emerged. Because they will come back. Not the people. The qualities: witchy-ness, or know-it-all, or greed, or disrespect.

Those are the qualities you want to become conscious of and be prepared to deal with in the future.

And it could be as simple as saying: “There she is again—the Wicked Witch. Remember what we agreed to do when ‘witchy-ness’ shows up.”

What about fierceness on the job?

In business, communities, organizations, Realtionship on September 2, 2009 at 5:13 pm

We certainly don’t want any fierceness there.

Or do we?

I love working with start up companies. There’s a freedom and wild abandon that is thrilling. New ideas, disagreements, counter ideas fly across the table fast and furiously. There’s often a sense of nothing to lose and everything to gain. Creativity is the only way out because it was the only way in. Everything is up to question, re-examine, challenge, improve, or toss out …. At this stage of the game, change is exciting and energizing. Everything seems urgent. No one knows exactly what she’s doing, and yet everyone is willing to try—and fail. Curiosity is the driver, not fear. There’s nothing quite like this kind of camaraderie. Each day is a leap of faith, and with each successful leap, trust deepens, bonds grow strong, and in this way the new venture moves forward, sometimes like a leopard, stealthy and deliberate; other times like a mouse, running in circles, close to the ground.

No one is walking around on eggshells. Not yet. That comes later.

Think about it—the company has proven itself and now has a track record. Then it attracts bigger and bigger investors. The company is established, a known quantity. It has a recognizable brand. The public trusts it. And something inside the organization changes. People grow more cautious, tactful (and tactical). Meetings lose their creative edge. Things are running more smoothly because there is less and less difference of opinion. We’re all on the same page. Or we appear to be. This slowing down and deepening is a natural stage in a company’s development. But at some point the growing cautiousness begins to serve not only the status quo but certain patterns and power dynamics which have emerged—also natural. What’s new is the emotional field in meetings. More harmonious, perhaps, but also a bit duller, flatter. With more restless boredom under the surface. People say less in meetings and more at the water cooler, and leadership hears what people think they want to hear, not what they need to hear.

There’s a radical truth-telling I associate with fierceness. I think of my friend Agnes back East. We could always depend upon her to stir things up at faculty meetings in the college where we both taught. People referred to her as The Contrarian. She opposed almost every plan of the Administration—on principle. That was her role. And as often as we clenched our teeth when she started to speak, we were grateful. Nervous, but grateful. For she performed an important duty. She raised the hard questions that most of us were too chicken to ask. And she kept on asking them during a time when we were under the leadership of a petty tyrant who would brook no “insubordination.” (Think Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter books.) Didn’t phase Agnes for a moment. She went right on asking hard questions and naming oppression and any other kind of jackass foolishness she saw. In the end she managed to resurrect the defunct Faculty Forum and call us to govern ourselves as we had said we’d intended to in the beginning.

She was heroic. And a pain in the ass.

The point is somebody’s got to do it. Somebody has to occupy the role of trouble maker. That energy has to go somewhere and more often than not, that energy is fierce. Fierceness has truth in it—often a truth most of the organization doesn’t want to hear. The energy of fierceness gets more and more marginalized as an organization matures. The disturber can become a scapegoat. And even if that person leaves the organization or the team, someone else steps in to occupy the role. The Disturber, the Contrarian, the Squeaky Wheel—whatever name you give the role and however skillfully it is occupied—it is often the doorway in a system through which something new and essential is trying to emerge.