Author: Mary Jane Nirdlinger

Is the way you communicate holding you back? How to polish your technique. (a series)

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We all think we’re pros.

We’ve been communicating for years, decades, and we’re pretty good at it.

Except when we’re not.

Whether you’d call yourself an expert or you’re just getting started on the journey of better conversations, we all have room to grow.

This is the first in a series of posts (check back for more!) about improving your communications and I’ll cover some of the basics as well as some of the more nuanced, but conversation-saving, elements of connecting with the people around you.

Let’s get started, because where you start really matters.

Think back to your last conversation that didn’t go well.

How did it begin?

You’re probably thinking about what you said (or what they said). The words. How you said them. The background of the whole conversation.

Let me ask a different question: Did you begin already knowing the (right) answer?

We often do, even when we think we’re starting with an open mind.

Beginning with the firm belief that you don’t know the answer is the first key to successful communication.

Most of us are probably already lining up the reasons why that can’t be right. One mouse-click away from jumping to the next article, but really consider that question.

How often do you start an important conversation already knowing what the “right” answer is? Or what the field of “possible” answers looks like? Most of us do this without evening being aware of it.

Obviously, there are times when the right answer really is the right answer. How to sweep a fire extinguisher, the temperature at which water boils. Those aren’t the kinds of conversations or facts that we struggle with.

When you believe that you don’t know the right answer, you make space in the conversation for options. You widen the field. You let other people into the conversation with their perspectives, their knowledge, and their experience.

But what if I do know the right answer.

You don’t.

We are flawed decision-makers. We have a bias towards what we already know, we surround ourselves with information that supports our thinking, and we don’t challenge our opinions or question our own ideas often enough.

(There’s a large body of research on this topic, you can find some of it in the books and sites below.)

You can’t know the right answer until you’ve opened your mind enough to look around. Otherwise, you just know what you think is the right answer and you haven’t done your homework.

If you start your conversation from your answer, it may feel like you’re several steps down the road, saving time and heading toward a better decision, when you’re actually heading off in the wrong direction.

What you need in complicated situations is a deep pool of information to draw from, and you alone don’t have all the information.

Does this mean I have to hide what I know just to make people feel like they’re part of the decision?

No. That’s actually just doing the same thing we’re trying to avoid. Put what you know out there, into the pool, but invite others first, fill it up together before you make your decision.

For example,

If you bring your team together to solve systematic problems – say you’re having routine failures in your ability to deliver products on time – and you know that what’s not working is the supervisors’ oversight of the deadlines, you might focus on that part of the system.

You might argue with me that you know this, because you’ve seen communications between supervisors and their staff. It’s all pretty clear.

Ask yourself: what if you’re wrong?

The cost of beginning with your answer may be missing the critical information that helps you actually solve the problem.

You could begin by assuming that the broken link is in the supervisor-employee communications, alienating everyone in the room in the process.

If instead you begin by sharing what you’ve seen (facts only!) and asking what they know, you may unearth a series of other data points that helps you all see the full picture.

You may learn that there are problems with other parts of the system, or that an earlier production phase isn’t working, leaving your supervisor-employee team scrambling to make up time at the cost of quality.

If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

Learning to make space for new information will improve the decisions you and your team make.

Key take-aways

If you hear yourself beginning a conversation with any of these red-flag phrases, pause, reframe, and invite others into the pool of information:

“I think we should…..”

“The way to solve this problem is….”

“What if we did……”

“We’ve already done this so……” (sets you up to continue a pattern or build on past decisions)

Consider these as alternatives:

“How may ways could we…..”

“Are there ways to achieve multiple goals here…..”

“What are the options we have used before and what haven’t we used…..”

“What are we trying to achieve (not how)….”

“If someone new walked in the door, what do you think they would do……” (opens up options beyond what you’ve already done)

 

For more about the pool of information idea, read Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzier 

For better decision-making, try Decisive by Dan and Chip Heath 

For why starting with being right doesn’t work, consider Better Leaders, Better Teams by Roger Schwarz

Check back or sign up for notifications if you’d like to receive more tips to improve your communications.

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A little goes a long way

“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” 

-Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project is right up my self-improvement-give-me-a-project-alley and I devoured it when it first came out.

In addition to giving me an incentive to clear some clutter, and celebrate more holidays, that piece of advice morphed into what has become my go-to habit for large projects.

When I’m starting a writing project, I write something – even just a little something – every day I possibly can.

It was the math that convinced me.

If I need to get 36,000 words down on paper, and I write 1,000 words a day, that’s a draft in a month and six days.

That’s seems so….achievable, doesn’t it?

For me, 1,000 words a day is still a stretch. I have a full-time day job, kids, family obligations, and all the other stuff (like laundry, oh, the laundry!) that pulls me in a million directions.

A daily commitment to anything above and beyond the basics has never been my strong suit. I have page-a-day diary my parents gave me in the second grade. Its 365 pages contains entries from second, third, fourth, and probably seventh grade. None of the entries overlap and the diary is at least half empty. I will clearly not be leaving behind a vast repository of my intimate thoughts for my children and grandchildren to pursue (thankfully!).

But a daily habit for a limited period of time? That, it turns out, is an entirely different beast altogether. That is something I can do.

Here’s what a little bit every day looks like:

The blue line is the writing project, growing. 

The green line is the little bit every day.

Some of those days are in the 200 range, a few gems are over 1,000. Even those 200 words add to the blue line, though.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: The habit is transferrable.

Exercise? 20 minutes four times a week makes a difference.

An overwhelming project in the office? Map it out and break it down.

Here are some tips for making the daily habit part of your next big project:

Plan for it

That graph only shows one part of the project. There’s the idea stage, the brainstorming, the planning and picking a start date. After, there will be review, revision, and redo. The totality of the work can be a big barrier for any significant project.

Break it out and focus on one step at a time.

If you think “It’ll take a year to do that!” remember, that year will pass no matter what. Where do you want to be at the end of the next twelve months?

Tell a friend

I deeply admire those of you who are self-motivated and self-accountable. I also know I do best when I have someone else who will ask “how’s it going?”

Whether it’s the friend who carpools with you to the gym, the writing partner, or the co-worker who agrees to review your project, find a friend. Their energy, enthusiasm and support will get you through the middle.

Track it

There’s something reassuring about seeing the line grow. It doesn’t matter if you track your time, or your output. When you commit to writing something down every day – even the zeros – you have a realistic record of what you’ve accomplished. No fooling yourself. It’s also important to notice things that are impacting your project. Weekends are productive? Mornings? Having some data helps you adjust around your priority.

It’s the big picture, not perfection, that matters

I’m assuming that the project you’re working on is a priority. So, don’t let it become something you dread. Mark down those zeros when you have a day that got away from you because you will have those days. But don’t let one zero deter you from accomplishing your mission. That line will go up because every bit of effort adds to the total. It’s like raindrops  in a bucket. Tiny but plentiful, they’ll fill it up.

Celebrate the accomplishment!

When you get to a milestone, do something wonderful. Even if there are more stages to go, you’ve stuck with your project through a commitment. It may not be perfect, but you’ve got something to work with – something you wouldn’t have if you’d been too overwhelmed to begin in the first place.

Congratulations!

&

Good luck!

The User is Not Broken

Imagine this: You need to attend a conference, so you fill out the paperwork and send it off.

A few days later, the envelope returns, but instead of an approval, it contains your paperwork bandaged with a pre-printed post-it note with a list of mistakes you were likely to make.

Sure enough, several of those boxes are bleeding check marks.

The implicit message that official looking post-it note sends is that you and all the other people filling out forms are so broken  the accounting department had to order up those post-it notes to make it easier to send your mistakes back to you.

Are you that broken?

I don’t think so.

The post-it note is a well-intentioned effort to fix something that’s broken, but it’s not you.

If someone has to pre-print sticky notes to tell people not to do the same thing over and over, it’s not the users who are broken, it’s the system that’s broken.

User experience is a tech term that’s emerging in customer service conversations, and thank goodness.

From thinking about online experiences like going to the grocery store to redesigning library experiences based on observing patrons (bending over to find your holds? maybe we’ll move the shelves!), putting yourself in the user’s mind brings a new dynamic to your systems thinking.

What’s on your post-it note?

Think of a situation you feel you live over and over. Telling people the same thing? Trying to get them to bend to your expectations or to understand what you’re asking of them.

Instead of guessing what they need to do it right, ask them how *they* think your system works (or doesn’t)?

Do people not know what your expectations are?

Is the information you’ve put out up-to-date?

Is information easy to find or are conflicting instructions drifting around in old desk drawers, shelves, and online?

What’s getting in their way?

What will it take to fix the problem?

It’s easy to let systems linger in a state of half-brokenness because it takes time and attention to fix them and fixing is often seen as “extra” work. We’ve all got a lot to do, so we put these systems projects on the back burner.

But consider this: it takes time to print up the notes, fill them out, send the paperwork back, and you probably still have to explain the “right” way to do things because the reason they weren’t done properly in the first place is that the user doesn’t have all the information.

Plus, each negative interaction is not making your customers feel like they should do better; it’s making them mad. At you. Because they know it’s your system that’s broken, not them.

Catch yourself in that moment of thinking “why don’t they just do this right?” and you’ve found the gateway into thinking about fixing your system from the user’s perspective.

How do you find the time?

There’s no silver bullet for this one. You just have to decide it’s a priority. The funny thing is, once you identify a priority and scope it out, it becomes more manageable.

Ask for help. Do you need resources? Is there someone in your group who would love to take this one (maybe the person who was frustrated enough to order those pre-printed post-it notes?)

Free them up. Give them a deadline. Help them figure out how to work with the users.

Work your calendar.

Don’t let the perfect solution hold you back.

Try things.

It would be lovely to have an automatic online system that handles everything for you and completely meets your users’ needs. But by the time you go through that process, you’ve probably invested a year (or more) and continued to frustrate your users. And what if it’s not what your users need?

Instead of investing in the big-fix, begin with your users.

Ask them: what can you do now? Breaking mega-problems into smaller pieces (update the manual and put it online for everyone) can yield the incremental improvements that generate some energy and momentum for the longer-term projects. And you may discover that what you thought was the answer wasn’t. For some detailed examples of how this works in real-life, check out the Chapel Hill Public Library‘s user design experience page here.

Remember: it’s the system that needs to change. 

The user? They’re fine. No fixing necessary.

 

What should you have delegated today?

Before you leave your desk today, jot down one thing you should have delegated but didn’t.

No excuses, no “but I had no choice“, just think of one thing you could have asked someone else to do.

Try it again before you go to sleep. Was there a moment in your day when you could have asked for help but didn’t? Or did someone offer to help you and you turned them down without even really considering the offer?

Sometimes we don’t even realize when we’re lifting a load someone could help us with because we’re so used to getting it done.

“I’ll just put this slide presentation together myself because I know where the images are and it’ll be faster that way.”

“It’ll take me longer to explain how to do this right than to just do it myself.”

“But they won’t do it as well as I would….”

Sound familiar?

When we don’t ask for and accept assistance, we’re not only limiting ourselves, we’re limiting the people around us.

Several years ago, I wanted to teach my kids how to help in the kitchen when they were little. It was easier to make the meal myself. It was done faster, it looked better, and the kitchen didn’t get nearly as messy.  But when I was able to set aside my image of how things should be, I was able to accomplish two pretty big things: they learned a few things about cooking and, perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t resentfully working alone in the kitchen while they did something else: we spent the time together. I’d say that boost to our happiness was worth every crumb on the floor.

Work seems like higher stakes than cooking (until you’re contemplating whether to hand that kitchen knife to your kid) but remember what it was like to be new at your job? You really wanted someone to hand you that project, let you give it a try, and to coach you without micro-managing every decision you made, right?

When you can see delegation as part of the bigger picture – growth, development, expanding your team’s capacity – it becomes a positive. It’s not just handing someone else more work, it’s growing your team for the future.

Answer that question we started with for a few days and then think about what’s holding you back.

Do you need to set clear expectations so you can feel confident that you’ll get good results?

Are you setting up a system that will allow for questions and monitoring without being overbearing?

Can you start small and work your way up?

Once you begin seeing opportunities to delegate as growth moments for your team – at work or home – you may find it a little easier to entrust and encourage.

And remember: they’re not the only ones who get to grow from this experience. When you encourage your superstar team , you also create space and opportunities to push yourself to the next level.

Two Ways to be a Better Supervisor

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If you want to be a better supervisor, you need to know what employees are looking for when they consider working for you.

In the best interviews, the questions and evaluations take place on both sides of the table. They’re interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them.

There’s usually a lot of pressure to fill an empty position. You’re focused on your needs: what you need to accomplish, how this person will perform, and how they’ll work in your culture and with your team.

Meanwhile, your staff is probably anxious to fill a gap and get some of the extra work they’re doing back where it belongs and off their overloaded plates.

That’s a lot of pressure to find someone and plug the hole.

But a good fit is critical, especially if you don’t want to be recruiting again in a few months.

If you ask candidates what makes a good supervisor, two key responses come up consistently, regardless of the particular position or the level of responsibility: 1. Keep your door open and 2. Give me guidance, then turn me loose.

It’s how we all want to be treated.

1. Keep your door open.

We want to know that someone’s there who is vested in our success. Supervisors communicate that by being available, answering questions, helping us see the pitfalls and hurdles before we stumble, and being our advocates and mentors. You can’t do this from behind a closed door.

2. Give me guidance, then turn me loose.

We crave autonomy, but we hate to find out we’ve been wasting our time heading down the wrong path. Don’t micromanage me, but don’t let me get so far off track that we’re in crisis mode cleaning up something that could have been prevented with decent communication. Hence the open door.

Simple, right?

Easy to do? Yes, when we’re relaxed, open, and not rushed. But the reality of our work world today is that we have to deliberately carve out the time (and intention) to meet these two basic needs.

If we’re overloaded, rushing from meeting to meeting, or locked in our office trying to manage an overload of deadlines and responsibilities, it’s hard to open the door. It can also feel hard not to micro-manage (or ignore) our colleagues when the stress is getting to us.

With January just around the corner, maybe this is a good time to set some new year’s goals for your supervisors and yourself.

Just these two actions can go a long way to keeping solid relationships with the people in your work life.

What else do you think employees want?
And what do you plan to focus on next year?

When you solve problems, are you a spider or a honeybee?

20160131_121054.jpgI recently read two books worth sharing because they have different but complementary perspectives on problem solving, creativity, and inspiration when tackling big challenges.

In Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Ed Catcall and Amy Wallace delve into the life and strategies of Pixar. In addition to making me want to drop everything and go work at Pixar, their stories reinforced a critical element of problem solving: new information.

That seems obvious, but we easily overlook the opportunity to insert new information. Instead, we instinctively go to our team, debriefs, lessons-learned, and our usual echo chamber of voices.

At Pixar, the team working on Brave took archery lessons together. The Ratatouille team visited french restaurant kitchens, experiencing and recording the details that gave the movie its authenticity. While designing Kevin, the giant bird in UP, an ostrich was provided a home on-campus for the animators to observe and sketch.

Most of my problems don’t involve giant birds, but the lesson is well taken. Instead of living in our head, filled up with what we already know, it’s useful to get some fresh perspective. Good french bread doesn’t hurt, either.

We’ve all experienced these ah-ha moments, on vacation, talking to someone new, when we’re out of our “normal” routine. We know how good it feels when inspiration strikes and we move into a solution. But what if you’re struggling with a problem that goes on for months, or years?

In Designing Your Life: Build a Life that Works for You, William Burnett and Dave Evans give “stuck” problems a useful name: Anchor Problems. An anchor is the thing that’s dragging you down. Good if you’re a moored sailboat, bad if you’re being held back because you already know what the solution is and you can’t get there. It’s too hard, too big, too heavy, too whatever. It’s holding you back.

There’s a lot more to this book, including specific methods for pulling up your own anchor problems. But the general idea is when you can locate that anchor problem, then bring in some new ideas, you can move from stuck to unstuck. Imagination becomes key. Mind-mapping, journals, designing your way out of the situation is not about up-ending your entire life, but more about widening the lens. Bringing in new information. Trying things.

I thought these two books were a good pair. Creativity, Inc. has useful overall ideas from a major company’s management; Designing Your Life provides practical exercises in support of their main concept: life is a design challenge with many solutions.

Which brings me to the spider and the bumble bee.

Jonathan Swift wrote “The Battle of the Books,” a satire of old versus new ideas. He characterized the spider as drawing everything from within, and all she eats is flies. Not a great source of inspiration. The bumblebee on the other hand goes from flower to flower, gathering pollen to make nectar. It’s pretty obvious which one Swift favors, although he leaves the final interpretation to the reader.

Whether you’re looking for inspiration on a management level or a personal level, each of these books are good flowers in the field, reminding us of the value in seeking ideas and insight from many flowers.

Book links:

 

Is it time to play Kill the Company?

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I just finished up Adam Grant’s book Originals (see his website at adamgrant.net) and really like one of the examples he shared for for generating more, original ideas with your team: Kill the Company.

In short, if you want to generate some excitement and energetic thinking, don’t ask your team to envision the future from within, ask them to imagine what your competitor would do, with unlimited funds and opportunity, to kill your company.

There are a lot of factors in play here, and it’s worth reading the book if you want a more complete understanding. It’s an interesting twist though, because it engages our imagination in a different way. It’s hard to imagine the future from what you already know. If you own a car company, and you want to do better, your default is to start with a car. If you want to kill the car company, you begin thinking differently: Driverless? Subscription service instead of ownership? Drone delivery? Bike pods?

How are you going to defeat those competitors who’re out to kill your company?

Take a moment to imagine this from within your organization.

How would someone pinpoint your weaknesses? Overcome them? Do things differently and better?

Now, counter.

I’d love to hear if you’ve tried this in your organization and whether it was successful?

Why the work-around doesn’t work

20160227_152827.pngWhy the work-around doesn’t work

I once had a senior manager tell me that the reason she wouldn’t confront one of her direct reports about an issue was that she wanted to “preserve his dignity.”

Instead, she worked around him, hoping he’d figure it out.

Of course, he didn’t.

We have probably all seen (or done!) this at work. It’s understandable. Most of us spend more time at work than any place else and it can seem easier to avoid, dodge, or preserve than to address a situation head-on. Especially if it’s a situation we’ve allowed to fester. The problem is this quick work-around is obvious to everyone – often even to the person who’s being avoided – and it undermines morale of entire groups. The person at the center of the problem doesn’t get a direct opportunity to address whatever’s going wrong, which is certainly not a way to preserve their dignity, and avoidance breeds cynicism and distrust.

The telltale sign of a work-around is if you’re having a conversation about a problem with someone other than who the problem is about.

When you avoid saying what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it, you’re working around the problem.

This can go from small things (not assigning a project) to organization-wide structures put in place to avoid one person’s behavior. The cost over time is much higher to work around the problem than to address it.

Next time you catch yourself having a parking-lot conversation consider these alternate approaches:

Say the unsaid.

If the manager had taken the direct report aside and told him clearly what the problem was, she could have communicated in a dignity-preserving manner what he needed to do to improve instead of leaving him wondering why people didn’t respect him or want to work with him. Nobody wants to be the kid other kids don’t like but we can’t figure out why. Say what others are afraid to say.

Say the unsaid to the person who needs to hear it.

Respect your colleagues enough to tell them what they need to hear. Feedback isn’t easy sometimes, but it’s the only way we grow. Delivered with compassion and good intent, it’s the essence of professional respect.

Listen

Hear their side of things with an open mind. They may give you fresh insights or tell you something you didn’t know. Be open, so you can design the solution with them. If they’re “the problem” they need to be part of “the solution.”

Tell others what you’re doing

If you change your behavior, people notice. In the absence of an explanation, they will make up a reason and we are a creative bunch! So tell them what’s going on. The more direct you can be about why you’re trying something different, the more likely they are to understand and, when it works, emulate your behaviors.

If you’d like a straight forward read on how to work with others around you, The Power of the Other by Dr. Henry Cloud has specific examples you can apply to many situations.

Can you avoid this number-one mistake?

 

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If you could do one thing to improve your productivity, your mental well-being, and your organization, would you?

Of course you would.

Eliminate avoidance.

Simple. But not always easy.

We all avoid certain things, either because we don’t like doing them, they’re uncomfortable, they challenge us, or they’re just plain hard.

Avoidance is a squeaky door problem.

At first, the squeaky door seems like no big deal. But every time we go through that door, it squeaks. We tell ourselves we don’t have time to fix it. But every time we use that door, it annoys us.

We’re not sure how to fix it. We google squeaky door and find all sorts of technical advice and are intimidated by the idea of having to remove the door, use power tools, and rehang the door. So we ignore it a little more.

Meanwhile it drives us batty.

Finally, one day, we get out the WD-40, squirt some on the hinges and – voila! – no more squeak.

We realize if we’d just done that months ago, we’d have saved ourselves hours of distraction and annoyance. Or, if we’ve really let the problem go too long, we call in an expert, pay them a lot of money to fix the door, and s/he tells us we should have done this sooner.

We all have a list of squeaky door issues we’re ignoring.

Avoidance occurs at all levels.

Personal.

I hate voicemail. The red light on my phone is my squeaky door.

Groups.

The office kitchen may be the biggest squeaky door out there. Challenging projects, repetitive problems, they’re all things we may avoid.

Organizations.

Difficult people, issues, situations we work around – they drain us of energy and attention.

Avoidance has a unique ability to grow larger and larger in our imagination, much like the monster in the closet.

I finally tackled the bin of old home-movies on VHS, scheduling several appointments at our local library, sitting in front of the television with a book while the movies transferred from VHS to digital. It took time, yes, but when it was over, I felt a huge sense of relief. Something I’d been meaning to do for years was done.

The sense of relief I felt when I left the library with a full thumb-drive was incredible.

The same thing happens at work when you finally address the problem, or complete the task.

We put things off when they feel overwhelming. The best techniques for dealing with them are the ones that work for you.

Some suggestions:

  1. Make a list. Just getting them down on paper brings them out of the scary imagination-closet and makes them more manageable.
  2. Break it down. Really think through the bite sized steps. For my videos, it was: make appointments. Buy a flash drive. Go to appointments. Discard videos. That’s a lot easier to tackle than “deal with those movies!”
  3. Tell a friend. Having some accountability can help. Can you schedule a check-in with someone? Promise to hand something in? If you’re deadline-driven, this can help motivate you.
  4. Get help. If your squeaky door is past the WD-40 stage, get some help. Find an advisor who can offer perspective and help you break down the task. They might even help hold you accountable.
  5. Share the burden. At the organizational level, if there’s something you’ve all been avoiding, having a small team of people to eliminate the squeak can be a valuable strategy. If it’s going to take a while, require stamina, or innovative thinking, more heads can be better than one.
  6. Think about the future. Visualize what it will be like when you no longer have this annoyance in your life. For me, the red light on my phone is the annoying voicemail trigger. Instead of avoiding it, I listen immediately, write it down, and assign or return the call. If I can’t handle it immediately, I schedule a time on my calendar (which is next to the phone). Then I don’t have to carry around the annoyance of the unchecked or unreturned message.
  7. Don’t give up. Avoidance is a habit and it’ll take time to replace it with a new one. Use small steps, repeat them often, and don’t give up.

 

If you enjoyed this, you might also like This article about why you should do your worst task first or This article about delegation.

 

Four go-to words for your next conversation

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Quick: Training!

What’s your first reaction?

 

Love it? Hate it? Somewhere in the middle?

All training is not created equal, and training to handle challenging situations can be deep, time intensive, and provoke a new level of growth for you and your team. When that’s the case, the skeptic becomes a supporter and your team grows.

Keeping the momentum going after a successful training program is usually the hardest part. It requires commitment and dedication, buy-in from your critical players, and constant reminders.

Team problem-solving is one of those complicated topics because it often focuses on moving through difficult moments. It’s complicated because teams are complicated – they’re full of people!

Sometimes, the complexity that is so useful in teaching the skills of problem solving gets in the way of the long-term application.

I’ve boiled several aspects of team-focused problem solving methods down to four words:

  • Ask
  • Acknowledge
  • Share
  • Solve

 

Ask: What information do you have?

Acknowledge: I heard you say this: ________________________

Share: I have this information: ______________________

Solve:

Your Interests My Interests Shared Interests
     
     

This approach, which is common to many systems for team communications, helps me

I also try to remember one primary point of  ! Caution !

Don’t do this: make assumptions about your partner’s inner state.

Example: “You were angry when I told you what I thought about our interview candidate”

Instead, do this:

Ask: “I saw you frown when I said I thought they were well qualified. Were you reacting to my statement or something else?”

Once you start to listen for it, you hear a lot of assumptions about why people are doing things (they don’t like so-and-so, they’re preoccupied with something else, they’re not skilled enough). These assumptions are just that: your assumption, not a fact.

Check yourself but asking how you’d react if someone stated that “fact” about you. You may be surprised to see how often you make these types of assumptions.

Here’s an example of the four questions in action.

The Setup:

Sandy has been given responsibility for managing three divisions that have not been performing well. She’s an up-and-coming worker in her organization but this is new territory for her. She’s had to learn new operations, build relationships, and try to sort through the opinions, facts, and the mountain of data that her division chiefs have brought to her in the past three months. Late on Friday, her boss, Ross, lets her know there’s a gap on the Board meeting agenda and he’d like Sandy to present an update.

Sandy doesn’t feel ready and tells her boss she thinks they’ll have better news next month.

What’s really going on?

Take a look at what Sandy’s NOT saying: I’m concerned that our numbers don’t look good and I won’t have a chance to talk to our managers in all three divisions before the Board meets on Tuesday. One has been out sick, one is on vacation and the other one always bombards me with data and spreadsheets instead of sharing real information. I’m worried that I won’t be prepared to answer questions and the Board will doubt my ability to manage this key transition. I don’t want to let my boss down by doing a bad job.

 

And what Ross is NOT saying: I’d like to fill the agenda for the meeting next week, and Sandy is always willing to help out. If I can get her to just let them know we’re on it, the Board will probably ask me fewer questions between now and our next full update. I don’t want to have a hole in my agenda next week and I’m upset that Jason’s group bailed on me at the last minute, putting me in this position.

 

It’s easy to imagine that a short conversation could result in something like this:

  • Sandy asks what about an update to the Board is important to Ross.
  • Ross says he just needs to give them something.
  • Sandy acknowledges that he wants to update them and shares her concerns about communication with her group and how it will look to the Board if she has incomplete information.
  • Ross asks what she could do by Tuesday.
  • Sandy says she has preliminary information about what’s been done so far and she thinks she’ll have data in a week.
  • Ross acknowledges she’s not going to be ready on Tuesday and shares that he primarily needs to fill a hole in the agenda.
  • Sandy’s interests are good data and being professional for the Board.
  • Ross’s interests are good data and keeping the meeting running smoothly.
  • Together they solve the situation by agreeing on a preview-presentation at the meeting with a report to follow.

It’s a better outcome for them both, and avoids a weekend of stewing about uncooperative staff and worrying about an upcoming presentation.

I hope Ask-Acknowledge-Share-Solve works for you.