meeting

Hello, Conflict Calling!

I’m not sure what possessed me to schedule a difficult one-and-a-half-hour conference call for first thing on a Monday morning a while back, but I did. And when we used the entire time and had to continue it into the three to five p.m. slot, I felt bookended by conflict.

There are a lot of days like this. A lot of weeks like this, aren’t there?

In this particular situation, we were going through a lengthy project topic by topic, sharing comments and points of view, which sometimes sounded more like “we won’t do this” and “well, we need to have this.”  Did I mention this was all on a conference call?

I put on my best listening persona and tried to really sink into the role of hearing what was important to both of us and listening for clues. I suppose the fact that it was Monday was ultimately helpful. I was reasonably well rested after a lovely weekend and able to step out of the situation a bit to notice the times when I wasn’t as focused or as effective. I noticed several situations that made it harder to communicate well:

  1. Several times it was clear to me that the other party hadn’t read or hadn’t understood the part of the document we were discussing. (Why do you keep saying things that aren’t accurate?)
  2. There was one instance when they were pushing for something we couldn’t do. I couldn’t offer what they needed; they weren’t hearing the base piece of information (not ours to offer) so I felt like we were in a one-sided argument. (Why can’t you stop asking about this? I can’t give you what you want!)
  3. There were times when I felt frustrated by the sheer number of follow-up items and stressed by the impending deadline. (How will we ever pull this together if you keep asking for more changes?)
  4. The conference call itself is sometimes a problem. In the absence of body language – poised to speak, mouth open, nodding – people tend to talk longer than necessary in order to get their point across in the void. (When will s/he stop talking so I can answer the question and we can move on?

The most humbling realization, however, was that the folks on the other end of the line were probably thinking the same things about me and my co-workers. There were some sections we’d suggested changing or adding that were covered elsewhere. I could tell that they, too, were nervous about making our deadline work, there were things we were pretty stubborn about, and I’ll bet you a nickle I talked too long at least once!

This evening, I was thinking about the whole situation and the great satisfaction I get out of solving complicated problems. I love this kind of work, but it’s not easy.

We all have to deal with work situations that are full of those moments of conflict. Listening carefully and just saying out loud some of those things in parentheses seems to help. It also pushes us to think empathetically – what’s going on with that other person and how can I reach them?

Here are some of the things I tried:

  1. Instead of “why didn’t you read this”, I tried “I know you just got this, do you need time to read it?”
  2. Instead of “I can’t do that” , we offered “Would it help to understand the relationship between these two pieces of information?”
  3. Instead of “We can’t keep adding to this list”, how about “We’re adding a lot to our list, perhaps at the end we should take a few minutes to discuss how we’ll get it done?”
  4. But that last one…..I’m still not sure how to get body language in a conference call, Skype, perhaps?

What are your tips for conference call negotiations?

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Le Mot Juste

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Flaubert would have been proud.  Today, I followed a committee discussion about principles, tracing their travels through language to find just the right way of capturing the way they wanted to describe and identify their future.  They were looking for le mot juste.  Each and every mot juste.  They pounded out the difference between promote and encourage, they explored the meaning behind some of the cliched phrases and jargon before them, casting old words aside for stronger, more precise words that accurately conveyed their aspirations.  It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

I have a hard time with writing by committee.  And yet it does have the potential to capture the broader world, when the participants are giving it their all, as these were.

This morning, I finished reading a New Yorker article by John McPhee in which he describes his use of the dictionary as a trail of breadcrumbs, moving from word to word until he stumbles across the gingerbread prize – le mot juste.

When the wisdom of a group produces something better than our individual searching – dictionary writers, copy editors, committee members, people who care – it’s a gratifying experience.

Rube’s Moment

Meetings sometimes go like this:

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I enjoy the back and forth – the exchange of ideas and building something together.  That’s part of the joy of what I do for a living.  But sometimes, in the middle of the glowy creation phase, you get a flash of perspective and wonder “What exactly are we creating here?”  But you press on, because building something together is messy.

Sometimes along the way, there’s a pivot point in the process when everything changes.  You’re in the flow, everyone’s jamming along, the problems are cropping up and you’re following them down the chute, up the ramp, around the tunnel and then, suddenly, someone pulls that innocent looking lever on the wall and “wham!” the entire contraption changes course and you think “woah now!  Didn’t see that one coming….!”

Rube Goldberg got it.

Life is a crazy, unpredictable mess, but we do our best, draw up good plans, knock our heads together and sometimes the whole thing works in beautiful, wonderful ways.

And sometimes it falls apart and we pick up the pieces and start over again.