Four go-to words for your next conversation


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: ______________________


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.





Why are you yelling at me?? (does anger work @ work?)

wpid-2014-08-06-21.08.15.jpg.jpegFacing someone who is angry at you – outright yelling-and-screaming angry – is a scenario that comes up when people are trading work horror stories.

I haven’t found a lot out there about how to deal with it well – just lots of “can you believe s/he did that?” 

I remember the first time I listened to my boss yell at someone for a solid ten minutes behind closed doors (his and mine!) before he fired her. My stomach churned like I was twelve years old and about to be grounded. Not exactly how we want to feel at work.

We spend our entire lives developing our personal reaction to anger and those life-long habits are strong ones. They’re our go-to survival techniques. We may avoid situations that may result in anger. We may try to get in with the first punch. Dealing with anger can take a lot of practice if someone yelling at you isn’t in your comfort zone.

If you’re conflict-adverse, it’s helpful to remember that anger isn’t all bad. When it provides the fuel to make a change, it can really help you. We all hear stories about the “I’m not going to take it any more” moment when people stand up for themselves and they get the respect, attention, or result they’re seeking.

That’s not the kind of anger I’m thinking about here. I’m thinking about the situation when anger is a weapon to tear people down, intimidate, and cause fear, it’s destructive. It’s bullying. It’s the feeling in the pit of your stomach that something suddenly went wrong and you’re being attacked.

And it usually makes you….angry.

It’s not feeling angry that’s a problem. It’s the doing. What are they – or you – doing with that anger?

I certainly don’t have all the answers to this one, but I suspect there are a lot of answer out there from your experiences.

I’m happy to share a few ways I’ve been able to deal with these situations better in recent years than I did in the past. I’m really hoping you’ll share some of your experiences too.

What has been working better for me?

1. Ask: Are they really yelling?

If you’re sensitive to criticsm, hard on yourself, or not a fan of anger, it’s easy to misconstrue someone else as “yelling” when they’re frustrated, anxious, or upset.

If you feel like people are yelling at you all the time, you might want to figure out if they really are, or if your perception is playing into the situation. Maybe you need to hear what they’re saying instead of focusing on how they’re delivering the message.

But, sometimes, they really are yelling…..what then?

2. Walk away

There is great power in the polite exit. “I can see you’re upset. I’m going to take five minutes to gather my thoughts.”

It’s okay to leave. Especially if you can feel your emotions rising to meet theirs. The only thing worse than one really angry person is two.

3. Regroup

Take a break. Find a way to get your thoughts out. For me, writing them down helps a lot. For others, it may be physical activity, talking to someone about the situation, but whatever it is, if it helps you group your thoughts or prepare mentally to deal with the situation, do it.

4. Deal with it

This is the kicker, right? Sometimes, we want to just lash out and then not deal with it. Or we want to just pretend “it” didn’t happen. Not dealing with the situation or the person is not good. It’s like the time you got a terrible report card and hid it from your parents. But you knew it was there. Lurking. And when you least expected it, the reality of having to deal with it would come popping up, spreading that dread all over your bright world of denial.

You’ve got to deal with it, or you’ll be sabotaging your way forward.

Dealing with it can take lots of forms. Maybe you can use some of the ideas in this post, or maybe you have other ways of having difficult conversations. That’s another topic.

But what’s the goal of this topic? Dealing with the initial outburst. Whatever your technique, I wonder if our ultimate goals is to not let their anger trigger the same emotion in you.

Can you do it?




Tear Down the Argument to Build Agreement



We had a department store in our town that is being converted into a new movie theater and shops. I drove by today and all that was left of the old store were piles of debris and the metal structure sticking out in the 90* heat.  I could still imagine where the door had been, the shoes, the connection to the rest of the mall, but it looked so different that I could also imagine big theater screens, new seating, and openings to restaurants where there had been blank walls.

I love this stage of renovation, when you’re freed up from what you used to know about a space or a place, and your mind begins to see the possibilities.

In the middle of an argument or conflict, it can feel like you’re dealing with a lot of “knowns” but, if you can get down to the structure of the situation, there are usually more possibilities than we first see.

The metal framework is the essential area for discussion. The bricks, doors, windows, wires, tiles – they’re all extra. They shape the final form and function of the space, turning a two-story box into a department store, a theater, or something else altogether.

Usually, when we walk into a negotiation of any sort, we come with our building. We know what we want from the interaction and how the agreement should look when we come out.

What’s difficult is to engage with an open mind about what the other person sees, to work with them to tear down their building (and yours!), and construct something together that works for everyone.

At the heart of this approach is listening to understand. Since we’re not mind readers, we have to ask questions. Lots of questions.

I deal with a lot of situations that appear to be black-and-white at first. “We can’t do that, can’t approve that, it has to be like this, that’s impossible, can’t be done, this is the only way….etc.” These are position statements.

Usually, there’s a very good purpose behind the initial statement. Finding out what they’re concerned about (safety? cost? management? precedent?) and sharing your interest (and don’t slip a position in here – be genuine about what’s important to you) gives you an opportunity to ask my favorite question: “Is there a way for us to meet both our needs here?”

This approach takes time and a willingness to remain calm, keep asking and digging, and listening for the interests and concerns behind the words.

“How do we both win?” It’s the golden question that, when coupled with really hearing what the other person needs are, can help move us into constructing a shared solution.