We've all had times when conversations didn't go as planned. You tried to give feedback, or express a concern, but it came out more like a scolding or shaming. Or you meant to ask a question, but it came across as an assertion that the other person had failed in some way. What could have been a straightforward conversation turned ugly -- and fast. And though you said it wasn't what you meant, the damage was already done.
We don't have hours to prepare for every conversation, but taking a minute -- or even a long pause before speaking -- to consider what's at stake can make all the difference in the world. Doing the work to prepare when you do have the time will help you get better at managing conversations on the fly. Sometime in my past I attended a training where we received a robust template for preparing for difficult conversations.
These core four questions have been most helpful for matching my intent with my impact.
1. Do you know how you come across?
I know a lot of people who believe they are approachable, open, and a great listener. Ask around to people who work with and for them and you hear a different story. There's the HR manager who prides himself as open-minded & transparent, but others perceive him as arrogant and condescending -- the kind of person who is right about everything. Or the President who has an open door policy, but everyone knows that no one ever goes in there unless they have to. And the shop floor supervisor who prefers direct communication -- but he means from him to others, not the other way around. And the center manager who talked of being cool, humble and confident who had a reputation for being critical of everyone and everything to make himself look better. Or my favorite, the senior leader who thinks he's getting away with making people think his "change of heart" was his idea when they know direction came from the president of the company.
We are all more transparent than we think we are. We also tend to ignore evidence that doesn't fit with our beliefs about ourselves, rather than consider whether the truth in it.
I had an employee tell me I destroyed her self-esteem, little by little, with everything I said and did for the six months we worked together. My manager said not to take the feedback too personally and not to dwell on it too much. But it occurred to me that if what she said was even partially true, then I wasn't the leader I thought I was.
If you know that you come across as arrogant, and that isn't what you want, then you can take proactive steps to combat the perception. Consider your need to have all the answers -- and find a good book or a class about how to have more questions. Then practice. If you intend to have an open door but people haven't responded by coming to see you, try going to them. Practice making a personal connection instead of being all business all the time. When you've made a mistake, or when something wasn't your idea, admit it. Own it.
If you don't know how you come across, find out. Ask for feedback -- or simply pay attention. The feedback -- directly or indirectly -- is out there and not hard to find if you're looking for it.
2. How much trust (or emotional capital) is in this relationship?
In Daring to Lead, Brene Brown uses the metaphor of marbles in a jar to illustrate how we build trust in relationships. Some acts put marbles in the jar, other acts pull marbles out. The more marbles we have, the more emotional capital in the relationship. We have a different trust level established in every relationship. And we tend to assume we have more marbles in the other person's jar than we actually do.
This week I had interactions that added marbles, some that removed marbles, and others that were more neutral. One had enough negative impact that the size of the jar is now smaller -- and I'll be more guarded in the future when I engage with this person. Maybe, in time, we'll earn that trust back.
Consider the relationship's marble jar status. Be brutally honest with yourself. And then adjust your approach as needed.
3. What is your goal for the conversation?
The goal for the conversation is different from the impact you want to have. The goal of the conversation is more about what you want to communicate -- or to make known. You may have the goal of communicating feedback, engaging in open discussion, finding a solution for a shared problem, or to share status about an important project. The goal is to convey information, share knowledge, offer input, or express concern.
Something to check as part of your goal is whether you and the other person share the same meaning about the subject matter. You may believe that expressing a concern created a specific behavior expectation. Or that when you "agreed" on a go-forward plan that you both had the same idea in mind. When you check for shared meaning, you avoid acting on assumptions. My biggest relationship blunders were when I acted on assumptions rather than checking for shared meaning. Checking for shared meaning has the bonus of generosity -- as defined by Brene Brown, "you extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others."
4. What is your intended impact?
Your intended impact is about the feeling of the conversation. How do you want to feel after the conversation? How do you want the other person to feel? Is this a marble adding or marble removing conversation? Or marble neutral? What about this communication could derail your best intentions?
If you destroy the relationship but accomplish your goal, is that okay with you? If you don't accomplish your goal, with that ruin the relationship? How could this interaction bring out your best? Is it your intention to bring out the other person's best, as well?
When you have a sense for the impact you intend, you have a better chance of noticing when you're having impact that was unintended. You are responsible for all your impact, whether intended or not. If you've thought ahead to how you want it to be, you're more able to recognize whether you're having that impact or not -- and to course correct.
It's not about perfection, but it is about paying attention. As a leader, everything you do, everything you say, everything you don't do, and everything you don't say -- it all matters. Building relationships and getting work done do not have to be mutually exclusive activities. And for leaders, relationships are key to better problem solving and for getting work done.