Ahem, we need to talk: How to prep for difficult conversations

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In the movie, Up in ­­­­­­the Air, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) makes a living as a corporate axe man, doing the deed that local managers don’t want to do. He thrives off of the lack of connection to anyone or any place, jets from city to city as a “career transition counsellor” and seemingly heartless when fired employees cry, get angry or even threaten to harm themselves.

As a manager, you don’t want to be in the role of Ryan Bingham – ever.

Many of us as managers and leaders have had to do the uncomfortable work of giving negative feedback, rejecting an idea – or, in the worse cases, dismissal.

Difficult conversations are a reality in the workplace and it’s a skill you can hone. You might even find the tactics you learn useful elsewhere in your life, as a parent guiding social media-entranced teenagers or dealing with a cranky neighbour.

My philosophy is that it doesn’t have to be painful for you or the person you’re talking to, if you follow some simple advice and use the tips I’ve learned from years of experience as a professional facilitator.

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Shed your protective armour

Getting mentally prepared is the first step. The last thing you want is to be tossing and turning all night in the days leading up to the conversation, ruminating on what you’re going to say. (Although, you may still anyway.) But take the time to get your head into a place and be clear about what is important to you and what you would like to accomplish. Put yourself in the position of the employee. Think about what may be going on with them, what are their perspectives, values and intentions?

This involves casting off your defensive emotional armour that helps us justify our actions. If you go in like an armadillo, it is not a constructive starting position.

Your job as a leader is to be compassionate and generous and walk into that meeting with an open mind and a real sense of curiosity. You may think you have all the answers, but you don’t. What does it mean to go in curious? It means you will have to challenge your assumptions and biases – something all of us have.  Your job is to be non-judgmental and impartial.

Like the author Stephen R. Covey said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions – and others by their actions.”

Put aside your assumptions and judgments

Writing down your observations but not characterizing them is a good first step for preparing yourself to be judgment-free. A statement like this, “I noticed you were on your phone a lot in the meeting yesterday and left the room twice,” is preferable to “You were disengaged at the meeting yesterday…” In the second scenario you are issuing a judgement (disengaged) of what you observed vs. sharing objective facts (you were on your phone, you left the room twice).

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If you can remove the blame-game language, it will go a long way towards diffusing emotions and ‘judge-iness.’ The goal is to give the person a sense of safety by laying out why you’re having the conversation and what you hope to achieve from it.

When I’m in facilitator mode with a room full of people, you might hear “ I am hearing more conversations, I notice that you are no longer writing.” I am sharing what I see and hear, but not my internal assessment of those behaviours and so the room remains judgment free.

Pay attention to the safety of the conversation.  As a facilitator, I am very aware of ‘room safety.’ By that, I don’t mean physical space, but rather the degree to which participants feel that what they say is received with compassion and consideration.  Your job is not to admonish and criticize and, if it is, don’t bother. Your goal is to allow the person to have influence over the conversation, by saying, “I really want to understand your perspective.”

Don’t fear emotions 

There are myriad of hard conversations you might find yourself in, including the performance review, or having to give negative or uncomfortable feedback. Yes, any of these tete-a-tetes can go sideways. But that’s usually because the situation has been allowed to go on for too long without being addressed. The employee probably already feels alienated, unheard, frustrated or apathetic.

In these cases, you really have to spend time unpacking emotional responses, which frankly terrifies most people in the workplace.

But learning how to ask the right questions, without judgment, is the place to start. How you ask the questions are key:  What about this frustrates you? or What makes you angry? And then let the response come to the surface.

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Be prepared to sit in the goo

When they don’t feel heard they can become angry or disengaged. Oddly, the person who talks all the time often feels unheard. Acknowledge the emotion by repeating back to them what you’ve heard them say. They need to know that you are hearing what they are upset about. They need to know you understand their pain, frustration and anger, by giving them their words back to them. This is when people become their real selves, and allows them to release their emotions.

If issues have been left unattended for awhile – be prepared to sit in the goo for awhile. Avoid justifying a circumstance – just listen. Then you can shift to the question: What do you need, what would help this?

Phew, that wasn’t hard at all.

Then you can get unstuck and move on to the possibilities for resolution.

You don’t have to have all the answers

It’s at this point that leaders make the common mistake of having the ready solution. Stop yourself right there. Rather, you should be asking the person, what does success look like for you or what do you want to happen next? This gives them the opportunity to process and interpret their own needs – not having you hand them the answers in a giftbox with a bow on top.

But, keep in mind once you have the solutions, your job still isn’t over.

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Listening = kindness and civility

Wrap up the conversation with an agreement on follow-up steps. Again, this is about you asking decisional questions : What steps can you take, what support do you need and when should we meet next? This makes the person part of the solution, restoring agency to them to design the right solution. Let them figure it out.

Don’t be a Ryan Bingham, armoured up. When we take a more open tack, we can be pleasantly surprised how things can turn out. Just listening to someone is a tremendous act of civility and kindness.

I really like that leading role.

Five strategies for having difficult conversations

  • Approach the conversation with curiosity.
  • Abandon your list of why you are right.
  • Ask open and curious questions. (If you can add, “you idiot at the end of your comment,” it’s neither open nor curious.
  • Assume you don’t know everything.
  • Pay attention to the safety of the conversation. Create the conditions for safety with your behaviours (e.g. active listening) and the physical environment. Thinking about where you have the meeting, sends a message of safety.
  • Ask the person involved for suggestions on how we resolve the circumstance and situation. This gives the person agency to help come to a solution.
  • Be prepared to check in following the conversation.

Have you got a difficult conversation with a group that you need to have? Contact me here.

Resources and reading

Here’s a link to a recent interview on this topic.

Mastering Civility – Susan Porath.

I am loving this book! Susan Porath outlines what incivility is costing leaders and organizations and what to do about it.  Along with being a super interesting read, it offers suggestions for a healthier, happier, more productive workplace, better relationships and results. It’s fun to take the ‘how civil are you’ self assessment!

Give and Take – Adam Grant

This is an interesting listen (I love audible)

It has been assumed that the individual drivers of success and passion, hard work, talent, and luck are unquestionable. In our modern context, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. It turns out that at work, most people operate as either takers, matchers, or givers. Takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly. Givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. While this might sound debilitating – it is fascinating to discover how givers are so successful, and what it means to be a giver. If nothing else – you’ll think about pro-bono work, volunteer time and lending ‘your stuff’ differently.

Nonviolent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg

I recommend this book often and refer to it frequently. The nonviolent communication model, at its core, is the model I use as a facilitator.  It is simple and incredibly effective in tense and difficult situations. Absolutely worth the time.

How a facilitator can set your business on a new course

compass - Supushpitha Atapattu

Francine has had a successful Calgary-based gourmet ice cream company for 10 years. It’s grown to 100 employees and her products are sold at hundreds of Alberta grocery stores and restaurants. As we head into the new year and a new decade, she’s planning to expand into British Columbia over the next five years. That will mean finding an office location in that province, hiring employees and prepping her team for exciting, but demanding, growth.

She describes her senior managers as her “dream team,” but when asked about the mood of her staff, she admits they are skittish about the company’s plans, and some people already feeling frustrated with their workload. How will they ever push through and handle the company’s ambitions?

Francine thinks she may need outside help to take the company to the next level. A good friend of hers, also a successful businesswoman, suggested she hire a third-party facilitator to help the team with discussions about the expansion. Her friend, after all, had a positive experience that helped her company in ways she knows she couldn’t do herself.

First, Francine is eager to have her questions answered: How can a third-party help my organization grow, make some changes to the culture and ultimately and get my employees on board and excited about my growth plans?

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Maybe it’s time for a course correction 

That’s where a facilitator comes in. When I go into an organization, my role is not to be an expert on the business’s service or product (although I do love my ice cream). My role is to provide the process so that the group can have the right discussions and make decisions about how to achieve the company’s goals and, in the process, change how they work together. The company or organization can be any size – as small as five or six employees or as big as 200.

You could think of a facilitator as a bit like a ship’s captain. All hands need to be on deck, and everyone needs to understand and agree on how the vessel should operate and the best route to its destination. The captain’s role is to make sure the crew has all of the tools and resources to avoid rough waters and not get lost along the way.

The first step when meeting my client is to conduct a thorough discovery. Some of the topics explored in this fact-finding stage are:

  • Why is the group coming together?
  • What does the meeting sponsor want to achieve?
  • What does the group want to achieve?
  • What is success coming out of a facilitated discussion?
  • What are the critical issues? topics?
  • What is the mood of the group; what kind of headspace are they in?
  • What is the change that we need to see in the group?
  • What will happen after the meeting?
  • How are results carried forward?

Leadership through participation

Leaders realize that in the midst of big changes they can’t simply manage from the top down, but rather need to be a participant in the transition. That’s where a facilitator can help. The initial thought is, “I’ve got something I need the group to do, or I need to get something out of the group. So, I need everyone’s involvement. And, I need to be a participant in this, not lead this.”

Typically, the decision to hire a facilitator is made by an owner or a mid- to senior-level manager who has a budget to work with. They realize they need to solve a problem, need to have a series of difficult conversations, or want to explore an opportunity. The self-aware leader realizes they need to be a part of the process, right alongside staff. Making decisions together helps achieve the goal of buy-in from everyone. After all, people need to be participants in the decisions that affect their day-to-day work lives.

My role as a facilitator can span a range of scenarios: business planning; optimizing a process; establishing organizational values; exploring challenges; building solutions; exploring difficult topics; making decisions; and, helping those routine meetings go more smoothly so that everyone gets a chance to speak. This (hopefully!) leads to follow-up and accountability.

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A facilitator is an enabler of change

Once I’ve completed interviews with the client and any other relevant individuals, I draft a proposal, with the opportunity to go back and forth over the details. Then the real work begins. An agenda is drawn up for the group, getting feedback along the way about objectives. Once I’m clear on meeting objectives, then the detailed process development begins. When that is done – it’s time to meet and get the ball rolling.

Of course, there are expectations on both sides. There’s an onus on the facilitator – as an enabler of change – to help the group get to tangible results. Often, employees’ expectations are high. In those first meetings, the facilitator needs to create the conditions so that people will share freely and listen to each other, which from my experience can also be a teachable moment. I’ve been in meetings where co-workers have a habit of cutting each other off mid-sentence. In this case, I introduce exercises to help people not only to hear each other but also learn to really listen.

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Change doesn’t happen by magic 

At these first meetings, everyone needs to be in a I’m-willing-to-hear-what-you-have-to-say mode. Biases need to examined and hold space for new ideas. The elephant in the room can be that you may or may not succeed. The facilitator’s job is to help you get there, but it may take more one session.

One experience I had involved five or six meetings over five months, just to shift the way people were thinking and how they related to each other. At the end of the process, they had defined mission, values, strategy and milestones. The leader of the organization recognized that her goal to foster change in the culture through the planning process also meant assigning an ownership team for each strategy. She chose several stewards who were made responsible for moving the changes forward each step of the way, so it was a continuous process.

I never suggest that one session can change culture, but it can scratch an itch and start to build momentum towards something exciting and rewarding.

What I’m reading this month

Blog: Leadership Development – it’s about capacity not just competencies

This is a really interesting discussion about stages of ‘adult development.’ We understand there are stages in child development, so why do we assume that development stops at adulthood? This thoughtful exploration connects leadership development with stages of adult development. Lengthy – and worth the time.

Being Wrong – Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz

Being wrong is an inescapable part of being alive. And yet we go through life tacitly assuming (or loudly insisting) that we are right about nearly everything — from our political beliefs to our private memories, from our grasp of scientific fact to the merits of our favourite team. Being Wrong looks at why this conviction has such a powerful grip on us, what happens when this conviction is shaken, and how we interpret the moral, political and psychological significance of being wrong. Drawing on philosophies old and new and cutting-edge neuroscience, Schulz offers an exploration of the allure of certainty and the necessity of fallibility in four main areas: religion (when the end of the world fails to be nigh); politics (where were those WMD?); memory (where are my keys?); and love (when Mr. or Ms. Right becomes Mr. or Ms. Wrong).

Mapping Dialogue, Marianne Mille Bojer, Heiko Roehl, Knuth Marianne

In a world of increasing complexity, answers have a short life-span and people have a growing desire to solve their own problems. Sustainable social change is increasingly depending on successful dialogue. This book provides a closer look at transformative dialogue tools and processes for social change. It profiles 10 dialogue methods in depth, and another 15 more briefly. The methods covered conceptually and in case studies include Deep Democracy, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology, Scenario Planning, World Cafe, the Israeli-Palestinian School for Peace and many more. The book gives insight into the foundations of practical dialogue work, a dictionary to distinguish dialogue from other forms of conversation, and inspiration from traditional African approaches to dialogue.

See my list for other favourites.

Mythbusting: What facilitation IS and ISN’T

So what do you do, exactly?

It’s a question all facilitators get – from friends, from family, from new connections at networking events … There’s not an easy way to describe group process facilitation – especially if someone has never worked with someone like me. But here’s a closer look of what my job is and isn’t.

What’s your organization looking for? This quick list might help get you closer.

  • For facilitators

If you’re a facilitator, I invite you to take a look and see if you find it to be true in your own experience (are there any I missed that you encounter?).

  • For prospective clients

If you’ve been told your group might benefit from facilitation, but aren’t quite familiar with the process, I’m hoping these descriptions help give a better picture of what we do, what we don’t do, and the value we can ultimately bring to your group.

A quick note

Please keep in mind, it’s never a bad thing to ask a question. So, even if you got it wrong – don’t let that stop you from asking a different one! Keep asking away.

I’m happy to share and curious to hear what you think and always happy to explain more about what I do. Here we go.

Facilitation is NOT…

Counselling

I get this question a lot. People ask me often whether I feel like an Oprah or Dr. Phil when groups are sharing difficult truths, grievances, frustrations and the like.

paolo-nicolello-1127477-unsplashAnd it’s true, many of the exercises I lead participants through can feel therapeutic, simply because it gives a space and a process for people to talk about topics or opinions that perhaps aren’t often sought – or as openly received as they are during a facilitated workshop.

Yet, here’s the big difference between my work and those professionals who offer professional counselling advice: I do not deliver feedback.

Through careful questions, I open the floor for people to speak and act as a neutral observer, repeating back what I’ve heard to make sure I’ve understood.  Sometimes I’ll ask the group to repeat back what was said to ensure the group understands.  At no point am I weighing in with my opinion or in judgement of what has been said.

In this way, facilitation is a bit more like coaching, encouraging a group to work together to arrive at their own unique solutions or end points.

Consulting

I’ve written before about the differences between what I offer and the services a consultant can bring to an organization.

Consultants are hired for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field. The consultant often goes into an organization to discover the organization’s circumstances and then offers their assessment of the situation and skills to address. Instead, I’m hired to help teams discover their own thinking.

Crowd management

If there are a few “strong personalities”, that round out a team and seem to be paralyzing progress, I’m often asked  to help bring the naysayers on-side.

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Oh, dear! What a responsibility, to transform a vocal dissenter into a compliant team-player. Unfortunately, no, I cannot offer this service.

But. (Don’t worry, there is a “but.”)

Instead, I create processes that create space for everybody else. So those loud, scene-stealing, types aren’t erased or transformed, but rather, come into context, as everyone else (even the shy, quiet types) are given a time to speak, and have their chance to own the conversation.

When you create this type of situation, everybody else gets louder and the “loud voice” becomes noticeably quieter simply for lack of airtime.

Interestingly, the so called “loud voice” are often loud because they don’t feel heard.  So really demonstrating that I have heard them goes a long way as well.

Bringing a group to a pre-decided endpoint

Similar to the above point, I’m not a wrangler. Sometimes a client will approach me to let me know s/he has already made a decision and needs someone to help bring all others on-side, to bridge the understanding and pave the way for a new world.

This is awkward.  If the decision is already made and we’re pretending that it’s a participative decision, then it is better if I walk away. It goes against my ethics to run a manipulative event.

nathan-shively-57964-unsplashIf, however, the decision is not fully made and there is genuinely a role for the group in making the decision, then I create process that allows the group to participate within the defined boundaries, acting as the neutral process support to get there.

Another alternative, if the decision is made and we need to group to understand the decision, why it was made and explore implications and impacts or perhaps begin planning for implementation – then this is also a great role for a facilitator.  What we aren’t doing is “forcing compliance”.

Training

This is a bit of a fine line. Yes, you can use a facilitated process to help people discover a new topic or subject area, and there is definitely such a thing as a facilitative trainer,  but no, I myself am not an expert in a subject or here to help others learn how to perform a new task.

(Unless the topic is facilitation – in that area I am qualified as a formal trainer!).

I remain neutral on all content. If there is a subject matter expert present, who needs help leading a group through a certain type of process, I can aid in that journey, but the content will never be a facilitator’s to own or pass along.

The bottom line

Ultimately, I can help groups come to a resolution around a problem, area of tension, or difficult question. But I’m not counselling, training, executing crowd management skills or manipulating a group to do it.  Facilitation is about offering good process that taps the wisdom of the group, enables the group to discover its thinking, and lets the group itself discover that they had the answers all along. And honestly? I can’t think of a more rewarding job than that.

Us versus them: How facilitation can help pull back siloed thinking in the workplace

Polarized thinking, or the idea that there are good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, in every situation, is a common thing I see among teams in all different types of organizations.

When working through a planning or decision-making process, an all too often side effect of passionate professional minds – coupled with limited time and resources – can be fierce loyalty with one “side.”

Too often in a professional setting, teams of colleagues can form into camps, seeing themselves as the heroes, fighting the ‘right’ fight at the expense of another group that’s working towards different goals.

The cause

What causes this sense of “us versus them” in the corporate world? It’s human nature to bond with those who you work closely with – especially if they think the same as you.

The symptoms

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But problems begin to emerge when you start aligning too tightly with your own team to the point where you close your mind to the opinions of others and maybe even treat them a threat to your own objectives.

Power struggles often hatch when employees or team members feel like they’re competing: for scarce resources, for pride, power, prestige, time, ownership, budget, headcount… you name it.

The prognosis

The concept that in order to be right, someone else has to be wrong, or that we’re too busy to check with others, or that ignoring others means we don’t have to take them into account, can be a damaging one.

A division of teams into separate silos can lead to inefficiencies, lost productivity, slumping morale, duplication of efforts, confusion of responsibilities, and more.

At its best, a misaligned organization squanders time, skills and talks ‘past each other’, and at its worst, can lead to a toxic work environment, leaving people feeling like their fighting for their lives or being unfairly targeted.

What’s the cure?

Professional facilitators like me are trained to help people listen, hear and understand each other. It sounds straightforward, but when a team’s reputation or an individual’s career prospects are on the line, (as they might perceive it), it’s easy to let the basics of considerate, authentic two-way communication fall by the wayside.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tools that facilitators can use that work as a powerful antidote to the “us versus them” mentality. See this in your organization? Here’s how a facilitator might help restore balance.

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  1. Constructive listening

Participants in my sessions have told me time and time again that this technique is surprisingly useful.

I ask two people to sit with one another at a table, desk, on a bench, etc. I ask one to talk about their opinion, or the issue at hand. For two minutes straight they just talk, and the other person does nothing but listen. (They can take notes, but are encouraged not to respond in any way.) Then, flip it. For another two minutes the other person speaks and the first speaker just listens.

In a larger group session, I mix the partners up and start the two-minutes listening/two-minutes speaking exercise again. Now, that’s four minutes, six minutes, eight, that you’ve just listened to someone else.

Sound easy right? In fact, it feels quite unusual at first – to not offer response or ask follow up questions. But, even so, I encourage you to take the time and make the space to try this, as prescribed, and see what comes up.

  1. Asking the right questions

Another technique I love is called the Interview Matrix. In this exercise, there are four, straightforward, but unique questions that are posed. The questions are open enough that anyone can respond. Every person is assigned one of the four questions and is given note paper to record the responses of those answering their question. Through a round-robin process, each person will receive three answers to their question, and will also respond to the other three questions (six rounds if you’re doing the math – three rounds as a listener and three rounds as a respondent). Generally, I allot about five minutes per round.

Again, with this exercise, you are creating a situation where people must listen. Sure, they may have objections, questions, frustrations running inside their heads, and that’s OK! At very least, everyone gets the opportunity to put their stakes on the table, and have their voice heard. After that, a discussion can be had, where everyone is starting with the same information. A common response at the end of this exercise is “I heard so many different perspectives.”

  1. Good cop, bad cop

Ritual dissent is a similar active listening exercise that I often use. Here, a person presents an idea (related to the task, question or issue at hand) to a small group of people.  In the first round, the group that was presented to is instructed to only give negative feedback. The presenter then tweaks his/her proposal and moves on to another small group to present it again. This time, listeners are instructed to only give positive feedback to their presenter.

This is a way for the presenters to hear input they might never otherwise hear (i.e. an ally or team member being forced to consider if there are any downsides to an argument, or a non-supporter having to dig deep to find a bright side to the presenter’s argument). This is just another way to get different types of feedback in the open for consideration.

Real, meaningful change

These exercises are all great for sharing perspectives and generating discussion in a room. And while they are strong steps in the right direction, sometimes the hardest part is getting participants to consider a change on the inside – to consider that their view might not be the right one.

This is where I come in.

The neutral stakeholder

In the book The Third Side, William Yuri talks about the necessity of “cooperating to compete.” He identifies the importance of the third side, people who have a stake in the outcome, but don’t necessarily have a side. These people may enable process, idea sharing, shuttle diplomacy, or clarification as an example.  In my case, I provide the neutral process that allows a group to arrive at an outcome. My purpose is to help the group achieve the best outcome for the group, as decided by the group.

Consensus as the answer

To me, and my fellow professional facilitators, there is no right or wrong answer; rightness is whatever consensus the room reaches. But rather than simply encouraging a mob mentality, or agreeing for the sake of agreement, I consider a successful consensus one that’s arrived at only after everyone had been led through a fair and transparent process where all participants have equal say.

Funny enough, I’m often invited to facilitate group discussions or planning sessions where my client is hoping I can bring over difficult personalities or strongly opinionated naysayers to a certain side. They hire me with the intention of reaching a specific outcome at the end of the day.

I tell that that, in fact, I’m not there to lead the discussion in a certain direction, or manipulate the outcome. I’m there to make sure the group lays their thoughts, ideas and opinions on the table for others to hear, so that a well-informed opinion can be reached – among all.

The result? Even if the group doesn’t land where the client is expecting, they usually tell me they are happy with the group’s decision. They are satisfied because the process was clear and they watched the engagement and support happen along the way. This, they often agree, is more important than the nature of the outcome.

What’s the point?

Having someone leading the discussion who has a strong incentive to find resolution (a.k.a. the neutral facilitator) can be extraordinarily helpful.

This is the person who can focus on bridging understanding, motivating the room to a space where everyone can agree – even if that means ceding some of the power, the prestige, the budget, the headcount – the rightness – that some may be holding on to as the thing that will save them from the punishment of being wrong.