communication

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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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.

 

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?

Why the work-around doesn’t work

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Do you think “Because” when you should ask “Why?”

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I talked to a friend of mine who is in the construction phase of her dream life. Literally. She’s building a farm from the ground up and it’s full of space for start-up farmers, heritage animals, and other yet-to-be-imagined ventures.

She then went on to talk about the challenges of beginning this new venture. Coming from the corporate world, where petty cash is accounted for and everyone gets “the rules,” she was stunned to realize that people would steal tools, that cash would go missing, and that the rules weren’t as black and white as before.

Her father was a general contractor and she was marveling at his ability to come home day after day with love and respect for his family.

“I had no idea what he was dealing with at work, he was just there for us,” she said.

She asked her dad how he did it and he said “it’s not about you. These people have their own lives, they’re not trying to hurt you. They’re trying to take care of their families. They’re trying to get by. Just put your systems in place and don’t take it personally.”

She said it was a turning point. She’s never been so nonjudgmental about the people around her before.

It’s easy to make assumptions.

We think we know why people do or say things in a certain way, but if we ask them, we are often surprised.

Yet we resist.

Someone asked me why I thought a particular individual was asking for information.

  • Was he trying to make this person look bad?
  • Was he being nosy?
  • Was he trying to second guess this person’s decision?

With this story fresh on my mind, a thousand (or at least a few) other, alternate, explanations sprang to mind while they were talking.

We don’t know.

We’re quick to assume it’s about us. Something we said, something we fear, something we did.

In this case, what we did know was easy to state. And we could ask a question  – “Is there something else you’d like to know that I can help you with?”

When we let go of our stories about why we think people are doing things, we’re able to ask the Why question. And often, it turns out, it’s not all about us.

I think this home-grown lesson will stick with me for quite a while.

5 Ways to Receive Bad News Better

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I recently shared five ways to deliver bad news better, which got me thinking about receiving bad news.

We’re never just the person dolling out bad news (if we are, we might need to do some soul-searching with some close friends) and hearing something we don’t want to hear can be painful. But it can also be an opportunity to grow.

If you’re like me, you can probably think of a few  things you’d rather be doing instead of learning what’s not going right, but if you’re lucky, and people share the good, the bad, and the ugly with you, you may be able to mine some gold from those murky moments.

How to grow with grace?

1. Don’t try to be perfect, don’t pretend to be perfect, in fact, forget all about perfect.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, baby, practice.”

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. The thing is, I’m tone deaf and not musically inclined. A lot of practice made me better, but it never got me to Carnegie Hall.  Eventually, I stopped worrying about playing the piano and moved on to other things. But that phrase bugged me. A lot. The implication being that if you just work hard enough at something, you’ll get there. In my perfectionist mind, I hadn’t gotten there. That meant I was on the failing end and it was my fault.

The quest for perfection is something we admire and laude, but taken as an absolute it can prevent us from trying, learning, and seeing what’s not working. Criticism can bring up our defenses and a lighting-fast urge to “fix it” and get back on the perfectionist path can prevent us from taking the time to be open to what we’re hearing.

I’ve read a couple of books about Frederick Law Olmsted recently, and they both describe a young man in search of his path. Landscape architecture wasn’t a profession yet, and the man who eventually designed Central Park and so many other magnificent spaces tried his hand at surveying, being a sailor, running a gold mine, and farming (to name a few). When something didn’t work out, he tried something else. Over time, he developed his path and his profession in a way that suited his interests. I can only imagine that there must have been times when it would have been easier to try harder and stay with something he’s started.

Instead, he took what he needed from those experiences and moved forward; his ability to change course with integrity was a character trait noted by his friends.

If we’re not blinded by the search for perfection, we can be open to the sparkle of truth when something isn’t going as planned.

2. Give it a little time

Receiving bad news is not easy. No matter how much equilibrium we may be experiencing, it can knock us off balance. If we’re not ready to hear it, that’s okay. Sometimes the best way to receive bad news is over time. A day later….a week later…..sometimes it takes us a long time to see into our dark spots.

But what to do in the moment if you feel that rush of anger or adrenaline kick in?

Have this phrase handy: “I’m going to need some time to think about this.”

What if what’s really going through your head is “You have no idea what you’re saying, there are a million things wrong with your assessment and you’re wrong, wrong, wrong!”

You could try to set the record straight.

If there are inaccurate facts or missing pieces of information and the conversation is time-sensitive, you could try to share them on the spot. But if you’re emotional, you may not be able to hear what’s being said and you may not share your information clearly.

What about, “I think I can offer some clarification, can you give me a minute/hour/day/week?

3. Don’t let it get to you

I don’t mean ignore what’s being said, I really mean don’t obsess over it. When we ruminate, we can’t let it go. We have imaginary conversations in our head, we try out different versions, we test a response we wish we’d given. That’s a lot of brain power spent on being in a rut.

Does what you heard feel unfair? If so, ask yourself why. We react strongly to unfairness; we also react to the things that we know are our weaknesses. They rub us the wrong way and we go back to them like a spot we can’t reach, trying to resolve them.

If there’s  crumb of truth in what you’ve been told, you may be defensive, or you may eventually come to consider it closely and see it in a new light. Sometimes we’re just not ready to hear what someone else is saying. That’s okay. If the same thing comes up time after time, we’re likely to notice it and eventually come to it with an open mind.

Running up and down a rut, replaying a conversation, and imagining how we could show the other person how wrong they are are diversions that prevent us from relaxing into an open mind.

4. Let yourself change

We all change. An interesting study discussed in the New York Times about the “end of history” illusion shows that we are much better at acknowledging how we’ve changed from our past selves to today yet we are not able to imagine how we will be different in the future. Try it: have you changed from who you were 5 or 10 years ago? Now look forward: how different do you think you’ll be in 10 years? For most of us, it’s hard to imagine we’ll change as radically in the future as we have in the past.

It’s okay to change your opinion, to adapt to new information, and to seek out new situations and experiences.

You will change.

5. Know what to ignore

These suggestions assume that the giver of bad news is well intentioned. There will be times when someone says something that isn’t true, isn’t well intended, or is downright hurtful.

Not everyone is here to help us grow, and it’s okay to toss those in the mental rejection file.

If you’re interested in the other side of the conversation, check here.

5 ways to deliver bad news better

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We like to think of ourselves as decent people.

Nice. Professional. Fair.

Sometimes, we have to deliver bad news to someone, which can set off internal anxiety and ratchet up our emotional state. “Nice” and “Fair” no longer feel like they’re part of the game, making our situation more challenging.

The good news is that you can deliver bad news better.

1. Hone your message

Preparation for the conversation is essential. I once read that we should spend twice as long preparing for a meeting as we spend actually holding the meeting. While that seems ideal (yet impractical, perhaps?) for many situations, bad-news meetings may be the best time to apply that mindset. Ask yourself what you really need to talk about. Remember that the person on the receiving end is probably going to jump to an elevated emotional state of their own. You’ve had time to prepare, but maybe they haven’t. Choosing your topic and making sure you have researched the facts is important. Don’t overwhelm the conversation, don’t pile on the problems. Choose your message, practice it so you can deliver it without rambling, and avoid the urge to add “one more thing”.

What if you actually do have a lot of things to cover? Take, for instance, the situation where you thought you had one problem and as you looked into it, the problems snowballed and now you’ve got a list of 10 things to cover.

Should you begin by running through the list? That depends. Looking closely, you may be able to prioritize and identify the primary issue or the most time-sensitive one. You may want to start there, let them know upfront that you have multiple concerns but you’d like to begin with your strongest one and return to the others at a later time. Then see #3 below for follow-up

2. Maintain your focus

Remember when you were a kid and you knew you were in trouble? What was your best defense? Distraction!

“But, Lisa didn’t do the chores you asked her to do” (focus on someone else)

“But I did make my lunch yesterday and I fed the dog” (divert to other issues)

Since a lot of our defense mechanisms were developed early on, they can emerge strong when we’re stressed. If the person you’re talking with heads down another path, you will want to bring them back to the topic at hand.

“We can talk about that other project at another time, let’s stay focused on your project for now.”

“I haven’t had time to think about this new issue you’re raising, let’s set a follow-up time for that.”

It’s helpful to spend a few minutes of your preparation time thinking about how the person you’ll be speaking with has reacted in the past. Can you anticipate any of these behaviors? If so, have a few phrases ready to help bring them back into your conversation. When you’re feeling anxious, this will help you bring things back to calm, which is good for everyone involved.

Be true to your word during the conversation. If they are bringing up legitimate concerns and you offer to talk about them at another time, include them in #3.

Platitudes will diminish trust even if they seem to diffuse the situation in the moment.

3. Have a plan for resolution, but hold it lightly

I remember getting into some kind of trouble when I was a kid and being asked “What do you think your punishment should be?” This was such a startling question to seven-year-old me and I remember thinking “Isn’t that your job?”

As adults, we can, and should, have some responsibility for resolving the situation we’re in. Of course, there may be situations where policies, laws, and other governing direction has already been set, but many of our interactions are less prescriptive and what we’re looking for is an approach that brings us to a shared understanding of what happens next.

If you’re prepared, you may have some suggested corrective actions. This is useful, but don’t forget to be receptive to new information during your conversation and work that into a plan of action.

The best possible outcome is an agreement on action that has buy-in from both parties involved.

4. Agree on follow-up with clarity.

This one’s simple. What are you each going to do? By when? And how will you know it’s done.

Too often, we leave meetings or conversations in a rush with a general sense of what will happen only to later discover that we didn’t leave with the same tasks in mind.

  • Write it down.
  • Repeat it back.
  • Exchange notes after the meeting.
  • Set a follow up date and time

Having clarity, especially after an emotional discussion, is key. When we’re angry, upset, or otherwise distracted by our emotions, we’re not thinking at our clearest. Having something in writing and an ability to check back for clarity can help set things back on track.

5. Let it go

We all make mistakes. Every single one of us.

You never really know what else is going on in someone’s life and how your issue fits into their constellation of events. They may be struggling with something in their personal life, they may be excited about a positive change and focused elsewhere. They may have a different style of relating or communicating that’s making it hard for the two of you to connect.

You may have other pressures and situations that are impacting your view of the situation. Stress about another part of your job, anxiety about your career, personal demands, they can all influence our actions in ways we don’t see clearly in the moment.

You don’t have to like everyone you meet or interact with, but remembering that they each have some humanity and respecting that can help you move away from the emotional reactions you’re having and focus on the discussion at hand.

When it’s done, if you have a clear plan of action, you can focus on that and let the rest go.

This may be the best question you can ask

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When I was traveling a few weeks ago, my husband and I were flying different airlines. When I got to baggage claim, I realized his flight wasn’t coming to my terminal. I asked the woman at the information desk where to find his airline. She told me it arrived at a terminal three miles away.

Flustered, I was about to head back up the escalators to find the shuttle when she continued, “May I ask why?”

I gave her my details.

She said, “This is just a suggestion, but since you’re renting a car, you might want to each take the shuttle to the rental place and meet there. It’ll save you a trip.”

She could have just answered my question and let me barrel off. Instead, she took the time to ask for information and to offer some clear thinking when I was frazzled from the flight.

That was a good question.

There’s a lot of discussion and research available about how to move from positions (I have to do this) to interests (what am I really after – might I get there in a way that gets you there too?).

Asking “Why?” may be your best move.

When we’re considering regulations, we might tend towards “I need this type of documentation.”

Why? Maybe because we’re after a piece of data. Or maybe we’re trying to be sure something that happened once doesn’t happen again, but we’ve put an overly complicated system to place to guard us from that possibility.

Asking “why?” makes you consider your underlying interests and your reasoning.

We had a process in place that had been unquestioned for years, until someone called me about it. “Why do you do this thing first, then the other? Why can’t they happen at the same time?”

Good question.

I asked and it turned out that our system was set up when two functions were in separate locations and one side was routinely circumvented. So the other side said “you have to get their approval first, then ours.”

Now that everyone is on the same software, both functions are tracked in the same system. There was no longer a need for the sequencing, but the process hadn’t changed.

Until someone asked “why?”

It took us 3 minutes to make that change.

That was a great question.