“Treating people with respect and valuing them is a universal language. Culture trumps strategy.”—Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO
Written in an easy-to-read conversational style, this short book will inspire you to spread respect far and wide.
The book is also available in print format ($8.00).
“Well, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!” said Tom, another project manager. “Raven [Tom’s project] is with our current biggest customer. Bluebird [Dave’s project] can wait.”
His lips a thin line and his jaw hard set, Dave glared at Tom across the conference table. Tom’s eyes narrowed and returned a cold, steely stare. Neither project manager was going to budge. They had locked horns over the issue of shared resources, specifically the test engineers who supported both of their projects. The company didn’t have the budget to hire more test engineers, so Tom and Dave were gridlocked in what was essentially a battle for dominance.
Their boss, who didn’t believe in micromanaging his project managers, could have been like Solomon and split the 2 test engineers, but that would have left both project managers feeling resentful, so he told them to “figure it out.”
Have you ever felt like this?
What are some ways that you can unlock the horns, stop butting heads and move from gridlock to dialogue when you face an impasse?
When people argue, or are at a frustrating gridlock, emotions can be high and cause an automatic physical stress response, the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response keeps us from danger by making us want to fight or run away. Sometimes, the threat can be so overwhelming that a “freeze response” (“deer-in-the-headlights) is triggered.
Fight, flight or freeze, you may experience increased heart rate and respiration, red or pale face, tense muscles, rapid speech, sweating, tunnel vision and more. What you won’t experience is your best quality thinking. Stress can alter and disrupt the executive function of the brain, which affects memory, problem solving and decision-making.
Stop, take a break from looking at the issue the same way, and give yourself a chance to calm down, reflect and better examine the problem.
Here are some ways to “Stop”:
Take a break. “I think we need a little break.” Depending on the circumstances, you could suggest anything from a short “bio” break (15 minutes) to a few hours, or to another day. For longer breaks, suggest that all parties do some “homework” to examine the true needs, which may involve getting more information, and considering possible alternatives.
Move on to something else. “We seem to be stuck on this issue. Let’s move on to another issue and come back to this one later.” Ideally, the issue you choose will be one that you can have more conversation. Elimination of conflict isn’t the goal, as long as the conversation is moving forward!
Reframe: Stop the trajectory. “Let’s take a look at this from a completely different angle.” Shift the direction of the gridlocked discussion. In the example of the two project engineers gridlocked over which of their projects more deserved the test engineers, Dave, might have reframed the discussion. “Let’s take a look at this from a completely different angle. How would a delay impact each of our customers?”
New Eyes. Stop trying to resolve it yourself. Get another perspective: “I think getting X’s perspective might give us some insights.” You could have a mutually agreed upon person give his or her perspective, or you could each pick someone to give a perspective. Ideally the person giving a perspective would be one the other party respects.
Listen fully, without interrupting, except to reflect back or clarify. Resist debate until you have fully understood. Most gridlock occurs because both parties feel they have needs and expectations that aren’t likely to be met if they “give in.” Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes as you listen to try to understand those needs and expectations. Realize that you don’t know everything—there may be hidden issues.
In the example above, perhaps Dave had a poor performance review and knows that effectively managing this project is critical to his career. Tom may not know this, and Dave is unlikely to tell him. However, Tom might notice from Dave’s body language, voice inflection and choice of words (“My project . . .”, “I need . . .”) that Dave is personally very invested.
Here are some ways to “Listen”:
Focus. This is not the time to be checking your email, or texting. Nor is it the time to be mentally formulating your response. Listening isn’t simply waiting for your turn to talk. Listen with your ears and eyes. Your ears hear more than words. Ears pick up tone of voice and pauses. Your eyes read facial expressions and body language, which will enhance meaning greatly (think about those times that someone has misinterpreted your email, because they couldn’t see your face or hear your tone of voice).
Limit talk. Limit interruptions to those which enhance understanding, such as reflecting back or asking clarifying questions. Don’t jump in to make a point before you have fully understood the other person’s point.
Reflect back. If you want to make sure that you understand a particular point, reflect it back (using the same words or paraphrasing), and check that this is really what was meant. Visually reflect back by nodding. Nod when you agree, but also when you understand what someone is saying. Nodding will encourage people to talk more. You can even give verbal nods of encouragement with sounds like “ahhh . . .” and “umhmm.”
Take Notes. Taking brief notes will aid your concentration, give you some points ask clarification on and make the other person feel like you are taking them seriously.
Clarification, at the most basic level, involves asking questions to gain a clear understanding.
Some ways to “Clarify:
5 W’s and One H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The 5 W’s and One H give you a framework for question categories. For example: Who is responsible? What are the goals? When is it due? Where does it go? Why is this important? How is it used?
Clarify Scope of Issue. What’s the problem? How big is it? What does it affect? What are the likely limitations in solving the problem (time, money, resources, technology)? Is there a process?
Clarify method of Issue analysis. Are you just going to talk about the issue or will a formal format or method be used? Will you drill down by asking “Why?” repeatedly? Will you use a SWOT analysis (Strenghts, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)? Lists? Mind maps? Cause and effect diagrams? Problem tree?
Clarify Criteria. What are the critical criteria for making decisions? Are there specifications to meet? A deadline? How will solution alternatives be evaluated? What is the set of required or mutually acceptable criteria?
Clarify facts vs. opinions. Facts can be checked. Opinions can be supported by facts. Do you have enough relevant facts to form well-supported opinions?
Find a point of agreement.
In gridlocked conversation, people can become so entrenched in their opposing viewpoints that they fail to see the many areas of agreement. A small point of agreement can lead to an avalanche of agreement.
Zoom off. If you can get other people saying “yes” on other issues (“move on to something else),” you not only get a break from the issue at hand, you also build positive lean-forward momentum.
Zoom out. You can zoom out of the situation and look at it more globally, finding agreement on the “big picture” or the company’s mission and values and then zoom it back in to the issue at hand.
Zoom in. If you can you can get them saying “yes” on minor points (or even points that are not in contention), you change the nature of the discussion and make it easier to come to an agreement.
You can even have a series of easy questions, that all have the answer “yes,” in order to move from gridlock to dialogue.
In the example of the 2 project managers:
Dave: “Tom, we’ve been butting heads on this issue all week” (Tom nods “yes”)
Dave: “Going ’round and ’round is getting us nowhere, right?”
Tom: “You’re right on that!” (a second “yes”)
Dave: “It seems the problem boils down to us both wanting the same resources at the same time.” (Dave goes for agreement on what the problem is)
Tom: “That about sums it up.” (a third “yes”)
Dave: “So, if we could find a way to use different resources or the same resources, but at different times, then our problem would be solved, right?” (Dave sets up for another way of thinking about the problem).
Tom: “Yeah, but I don’t see how that would happen.” (a fourth “yes,” qualified with skepticism)
At this point, Tom is opening to hear some of Dave’s ideas, which might wisely include bringing in a 3rd party perspective. Gridlock has turned to dialogue.
5. Focus on Solutions
In a gridlocked conversation, the problem often seems to be the other person. You end up in a “You vs. Me” battle.
Win or lose, you lose.
If you win, it is a hollow victory if the other person feels resentful and vindictive towards you.
Another approach is “We vs. the Problem.” It’s not You vs. Me, it’s We vs. the Problem. This has the advantage of encouraging cooperation and is a useful mindshift. An even more productive mindshift is “We Find a Solution.”
It’s not that understanding problems isn’t important. But as humans, we have a tendency to get mired in the problems. The reason we tend to focus on problems rather than solutions is that our brains are prediction machines, continually trying to predict outcomes of actions while at the same time trying to minimize risk and maximize reward. Problems are often based on past experience, so it is easier to focus on them. Solutions lie in the uncertain future.
Here are a few ways to get started on focusing on solutions:
Simplify the situation by stating the major clear goals (don’t start with a comprehensive, detailed list).
Big Picture. Think whole to parts. Consider the big picture first and then the relevant details.
Small Steps. Act parts to whole. Solve small parts, in small steps. Consider trial solutions to gather data as to feasibility.
Minimize problems with the possible solution, at first. Give the solution a chance to grow in the imaginations before you allow people to snipe at it (“let’s focus on how this can work before we pick it apart”)
In the example with the project engineers, Dave might have proposed the following trial solution:
Dave: “Tom, would you be willing to try an idea for 3 days? Asha and Jake are willing to work overtime–up to 12 hours a day each, 6 hours for each of our projects. Actually, they both would like the extra money and are OK with working hard for a few weeks. I got the OK from John to try it for a few days, if you are agreeable. He said there would be enough money in the budget to do it for a month, if it works out. Are you willing to try it for 3 days?”
Tom: “Well, I guess we could try it. It will probably push out the schedule. But for 3 days . . . let’s do it.”
Move your conversations from gridlock to dialogue: Stop. Listen. Clarify. Agree. Focus on Solutions.
I’d love to hear what works for you!
“In solving a problem, think whole to parts, but act parts to whole.” –Diane Windingland
This post is 6th in the series 7 Principles of Making Relationships Work at Work.
This content is also featured in, The Respect Virus: How to Create a Contagious Culture of Respect
Aside from sleep, work takes up most of our time. And, the most challenging aspects of work are often the clashes with coworkers, clients, management or employees.
Learning how to cope with work relationship problems strategically will reduce your stress and make your job easier.
Psychologists say you can cope by solving a problem (problem-focused coping), or you can cope by avoiding a problem (emotion-focused coping). Ideally, solving a problem would permanently remove the stress, but as some problems are not easily solved, avoiding the problem also will result in stress reduction. Often, you can engage in problem avoidance strategies while simultaneously working on solutions.
The steps are outlined below:
1. Understand the problem and determine the desired outcome. Maybe this is obvious, but don’t make assumptions about the problem and don’t try to solve a problem without knowing what you want as an outcome. Let’s take the problem of an employee who habitually comes in late as an example. You could assume that the employee is late because of poor planning or a lackadaisical attitude, and deal with the problem punitively, or you could find out why the employee is late (maybe their childcare provider is habitually late) and help them explore solutions, while setting clear expectations.
2. Plan. Consider solution approaches.
- Adapt a solution from a similar situation—consider using solutions that have worked in similar situations. Have you had other employees come in late? What have you done? If you don’t have a highly similar situation, consider a similar situation, maybe even from your personal life. If your teenager is late for school, how do you cope with that?
- Use a Process. Some relationship problems occur regularly. Have a proven process in place, and maybe even a script. Once you have had a problem, take notes! When it happens again, review the notes and develop a process. If you work for a large company, your HR department may already have processes in place. Having a process in place encourages consistency and fairness, and saves you the time you might agonize over what to do.
- Model the problem with role-playing. Practice your solution. At the very least, do a dry-run in your head. Better yet, practice with someone else.
- Divide and conquer. Break down a big, complex problem into smaller, more easily solvable problems. Perhaps there are multiple problems that contribute to the problem of being late. Consider addressing the smaller problems first.
- Use Trial-and-Error. Trial-and-Error can be preferable to doing nothing, if the steps are small and without grave consequences. In the case of the late employee, you can start with simply asking the employee to come in on time and telling the employee why it’s important (to both the company and the employee). If that does not yield the desired results, you can try having a problem-solving discussion, perhaps using a “divide and conquer” approach. Then, if lateness is still an issue, you can try something else, like a written agreement, spelling out expectations and consequences for not meeting the expectations.
- Brainstorm: You can do this alone, but you can also do it with another person, or in a group, if the issue is not confidential. Brainstorming a large number of solutions (let the Post-It Notes fly!) and then reduce the number of solutions by using the above methods.
3. Do. Carry out your solution plan.
4. Check. Check your results.
5. Adjust. If the outcome is not achieved, consider adjusting your understanding, your desired outcome and your solution approach.
6. Consider problem avoidance strategies. A few avoidance strategies:
- Ignore. Some problems, especially if they are minor and not likely to recur aren’t worth the energy to solve, or to even avoid. (e.g. someone is late to work because they were in a car accident).
- Separate. Physically separate the problem or conflict-inducing entities. Move seats. Adjust schedules.
- Redirect. Change the subject to one on which there is agreement.
- Distract. Distract yourself or the other person with something more engaging, preferably something that is fun, relaxing or mentally stimulating in a way that is very different than the problem at hand. Give yourself a “time-out” from the problem by going to the employee lounge, listening to music, or switching to a task that you are excited about.
- Reframe. Look at the problem another way. Consider the significance to the “big picture” or to a longer timeline. Ask yourself, “will this matter in 5 years?” Consider how the problem might look from another individuals point of view. Or, better yet, ask yourself, “what is the opportunity in this problem?” An employee’s poor communication skills become an opportunity for learning. Loss of a major client becomes an opportunity to grow existing clients and find new, possibly better clients.
- Delay. Put it off until “later.” Agree to address the problem at a later time, if putting it off won’t have dire consequences.
- Avoid Triggers. With experience, you will learn that certain things may trigger or escalate a problem. It’s often easy to see what triggers other people, but you have your own triggers, too. For example, when people are late for an appointment with me, I find that somewhat irritating. I used to find it extremely irritating. I have avoided triggering my anger response by modifying my own behavior. I have a plan in place. First, I almost always confirm appointments the day before with an email. Second, if someone is more than 10 minutes late, I call them and ask if they are on their way (which means that I have taken the time to make sure I have their cell phone number). Third, if I end up waiting, I always have something to do, rather than fume (with a smart phone, this is easy—email, Facebook, Kindle Reader and more are available). Finally, if necessary, I will reschedule.
Do you have any additional coping strategies for solving, or temporarily avoiding problems?
This post is 5th in the series 7 Principles of Making Relationships Work at Work.
Whether you’re married or not, you can apply some marriage relationship advice to your work relationships. Like marriage relationships, work relationships take nurturing to be most satisfying and productive.
My last post, 6 Signs of Bad Conversational Habits that Kill Relationships, was based on Dr. John Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. This post will introduce the seven marriage principles in the book and my recasting of the concepts for business relationships. The next seven posts will go into more depth about the applications of each of the business principles.
Business Principle 1: Learn What Makes Them Tick
Marriage Principle: Enhance Your Love Maps
Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world. They have a richly detailed love map (that part of your brain where you store information about your partner’s life). Because emotionally intelligent couples know each other’s goals in life, each other’s worries, and each other’s hopes, they are far better prepared to cope with stressful events and conflict.
Business Principle 2: Give Honor and Respect
Marriage Principle: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration
People who are happily married like each other. Even when the other person is driving them crazy, they still feel that the person is worthy of honor and respect. By simply remembering your spouse’s positive qualities, you can prevent a happy marriage from deteriorating.
Business Principle 3: Create Moments of Connection
Marriage Principle: Turn toward Each Other Instead of Away.
This just means that the couple connects with each other in lots of chit chat and other moments of connection. Partners who characteristically turn toward each other rather than away are putting money in their “emotional bank account,” building up emotional savings that can serve as a cushion when times get rough.
Business Principle 4: Share Power
Marriage Principle: Let Your Partner Influence You.
This is typically much more of a challenge for men in a marriage. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct. Emotionally intelligent husbands have figured out the one big thing: how to convey honor and respect.
Business Principle 5: Cope with Problems Strategically
Marriage Principle: Solve Your Solvable Problems.
All marital conflicts fall into one of two categories: Either they can be resolved, or they are perpetual (which means they will be a part of your lives forever, in some form or another). Happy couples learn to keep a perpetual problem in its place and to have a sense of humor about it. You many not love the problem, but you are able to cope with it, to avoid situations that worsen it and to develop strategies to deal with it. You need a willingness to explore the hidden issues that are really causing the gridlock.
Business Principle 6: Move from Gridlock to Dialogue
Marriage Principle: Overcome Gridlock
The goal in ending gridlock is not to solve the problem, but rather to move from gridlock to dialogue. You will learn to live with the problem. To navigate your way out of gridlock, you have to first understand its cause. Gridlock is a sign that you have dreams (hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity) for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other.
Business Principle 7: Create a rich “Work Culture”
Marriage Principle: Create Shared Meaning
Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together—your own “marriage culture” with symbols, traditions and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you.
Stay tuned for the 7 principles applications. Next post: Business Principle 1: Learn What Makes Them Tick
What does Dr. Gottman, well-known for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, see in those five minutes that is so telling? And, as you look at the six signs, how might they apply to work conversations, too?
#1: Harsh Start-up. If your conversation has a harsh beginning, it will inevitably end on a negative note (96 percent of the time, the outcome of a 15-minute conversation can be determined by the first three minutes).
#2: The Four Horsemen (4 kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, that are lethal to a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling)
Horseman 1: Criticism. A criticism and a complaint are 2 completely different animals! A complaint only addresses a specific action. A criticism attacks someone’s personality or character. (e.g. “I’m really angry that you didn’t do X “(complaint) vs. “Why are you so lazy and forgetful? I hate having to do X when it’s your responsibility” (criticism)). A complaint can easily turn into a criticism when you add something like “What’s wrong with you?”
Horseman 2: Contempt. This is the worst of the horsemen. It includes sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt conveys disgust. Contempt develops over time, fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts. When someone thinks you are disgusted with them, it is virtually impossible to resolve a problem. More on how Contempt destroys relationships (Psychology Today)
Horseman 3: Defensiveness. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict.
Horseman 4: Stonewalling. When discussions begin with a harsh start-up, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness, many people “tune out.” This tuning out is “stonewalling,” a behavior that is far more common among men.
#3: Flooding. Usually people stonewall as a protection against feeling flooded. Flooding means that the negativity (criticism, contempt, defensiveness) is so overwhelming and so sudden, that it leaves the recipient shell-shocked. A flooded person feels defenseless and learns disengage emotionally (looking away, non-responsive, short answers).
#4—The Fourth sign: Body Language. The physical sensations of feeling flooded—the increased heart rate, sweating, etc.—make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion. Creative problem solving goes out the window as the body goes into survival mode: fight (act critical, contemptuous, or defensive) or flee (stonewall).
#5: Failed repair attempts. Repair attempts, are efforts to deescalate the tension during a touchy discussion—to put on the brakes so flooding is prevented (“Let’s take a break,” “Wait, I need to calm down,” or, even being a little silly). Repair attempts decrease emotional tension, lower stress levels and prevent your heart from racing and making you feel flooded.
In marriage relationships, failed repair attempts plus the presence of the four horsemen predicts divorce with the accuracy rate reaching into the 90s.
#6: Bad Memories. People who are deeply entrenched in a negative view of a relationship often rewrite their past, and recall events with a negative slant.
To read my free 6-page, e-book “Cliff Notes” summary of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which includes some very practical advice, click here.