Archive for August, 2011

Tools for effective conversations, part 2 – “Shut up and listen”

You know the feeling.  You’re in the midst of a serious conversation and the other person is making some point or answering a question.  You are only half-listening because you are busy formulating either your response to their point, or the next question you will ask.  As soon as there is a tiny break in the flow of the other person’s delivery, you burst in with your contribution, whether they have finished or not.

Sure, it was good to get your part off your chest.  There may have been a price for that opportunity, though:  you didn’t really hear what the other person was saying because you were busy thinking out your response, and/or because you have cut them off before they had said all they were going to say.  Either way, what might you have missed?

In interviewing or coaching people, I find myself continually facing the temptation to prepare my response then interrupt with it.  I frequently have to give myself the message: “Shuddup, take a breath and listen.”  If I succeed with that intervention, I can usually wait until there is a natural break in the conversation, suggesting that the other person has finished.  Hopefully then I will have received the full value from what they are saying.

I suppose it is really around what the conversation is for.  Is it about:

  • Finding out the other person’s views and ideas?
  • Having a discussion which allows both of you to hear and build on each other’s thoughts and contributions?
  • Providing a platform for you to expound your own brilliant ideas on things?

If it’s anything but the last one, you will probably get good value from shutting up, waiting and listening.

But if you wait and listen, instead of formulating your response while they are talking, how will you be ready to chime in when the right opportunity presents?  My only suggestion for that is – trust your intuition.  In that brief instant of silence between them stopping and you starting, there is space and time for the right response, or next question, to formulate itself, based on information which you might not have otherwise had.

Sometimes there may not be a natural pause in the other person’s delivery.  This may be because they really need a spill, in which case let them go on, and on.

Or they may be one of those people who just don’t stop talking.  What then?

  • Decide whether this is a conversation you have to have.  If not, consider just not being part of it any more.  What’s the point?
  • If it is a necessary conversation, as in a work or professional setting, consider a process intervention – instead of wading in with your own contribution, draw attention (subtly or not, depending on what feels right at the time) to the fact that you cannot get a word in edgeways, and it’s not working for you.
  • If you can’t break in at all, try a physical signal – at times I have had to resort to making that “T” sign with my hands, like they do in basketball, to say “Time out!”

Unless you are actually having a debate, productive conversations are not about winning or losing.  Let go of the competitive urge, shut up, take a breath and listen.  You might find some gold nuggets you weren’t expecting.

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Tools for effective conversations – part 1

Bill the builder came around yesterday with his new favourite toy:  his Toyota Huski baby bobcat.  I swear he had a gleam in his  eye like a kid who’s just got that new movement sensor gadget for their X-Box.  I thought it was a pretty cool tool as well.

Since I’m not a tradie, I have different tools for home and work.  The tool I most often reach for lately in the shed is my Hitachi cordless drill/driver.  It’s just essential for so many jobs.

I pick it up and it hefts nicely in my hand.  It goes up ladders with me, onto the roof, into the ceiling cavity, under the house, round to my family’s places.

I can switch it to hammer action when there is brick or concrete to drill.  I can run it real slow when there’s a delicate job.  Or push it hard to drive a screw home, until the torque setting starts to clatter, telling me that it’s gone as far as it’s going to go.

In fact I wish I had two – one for the drill and one for the driver, so I don’t have to swap between the two modes in the middle of a job.

So much for home tools.

I spent last week doing interviews for a board evaluation, having some great conversations with directors and senior executives.  By the end of the week, I realised that in my board of directors toolkit, I have the equivalent of my cordless drill.  It’s the Open Question.

If I am really interested in finding out what someone thinks or has to say about an issue, I give myself a slight pause.  I make sure the question I am about to ask is not one to which they can give easily a yes or no answer, but rather is an open question.  I want to give them the opportunity to expand on the issue at hand, or at the very least not to dodge it.

How do you know when a question is likely to be open, rather than provoking “yes” or “no”?

  • Don’t start it with a verb, like: “Did you …?”  “Will you …?”  “Have you ever …?”  “Is that …?”  Phrasing like that can invite a closing down of the issue after a brief answer.
  • Instead start with one of the key words that will open out a question, which mostly seem to start with a “w”:

 –       “What does that bring up for you?”

–       “Where do you think a strategy like that may lead?”

–       “What’s missing …?”

–      “When did that approach last work for you?”

–      “What could you have done better?”

  • Perhaps the most useful open questions start with “how”:

–      The classic one – “How did that make you feel?”

–    “How could that be done a different way?”

–     “How could you respond to something like that next time?”

The one “w” word which I find isn’t always helpful is “why”.  Asking “Why is that?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Why can’t you …?” requires some analysis by the respondent, or some judgement to be made.  It can bring the flow of discussion to a halt, or lead off on a tangent.  Using the other words of enquiry allows the respondent to be descriptive rather than analytical.  It seems to be easier for the respondent to describe, rather than to explain.  So I try to be judicious in asking “why”.

One of the other potential consequences of a well-phrased open question is that the respondent might find, in answering, some insight which they haven’t brought to mind before.  The usual signal for that is a mildly apprehensive look, and the reply: “That’s a really good question.”

Sometimes the battery in my cordless drill goes flat in the middle of a job, and it’s good to have the spare battery charged up and ready to go.  Having a fall-back open question up your sleeve can be useful if the discussion starts to falter.

I got out of a couple of tight spots last week, when difficult issues looked like they were going to close down before they were well-ventilated, by asking “So how do you think that will play out?”  It’s a bit of a last resort, but it’s better than letting something significant sneak past without being aired.

Another useful open question when the conversation may be stuck is simply to ask “How is this process going for you?”  This is at least an opportunity to find out if anything significant process-wise is affecting the flow of the discussion.

So there are my favourite tools at the moment.  Which one do you find yourself most frequently reaching for, in the shed or at work?

“Forgive us our trespasses” – are we “simplifying” the wrong things?

Call me old-fashioned, but do we have to update everything?

I went to church last Sunday. It’s not a frequent occurrence, but it was a day of family celebration, the first anniversary of the death of my beloved mother-in-law and the unveiling of the small but beautiful stained glass window which had been commissioned in her memory.

In Christian terms I might be considered a heathen, but my parents did their best, sending me to Sunday School every week. In fact I became a bit of a bible nerd, and in those far-off days of the early sixties we actually had exams to see how much you had learned at Sunday School. There was an extra exam which was for either really holy kids, and/or nerds. Of course I did that one, for the glory rather than the holiness – trying to over-achieve at the age of 8. I won a couple of prizes for it from church head office as well.

So anyway, to a certain extent I know my bible. (Brigitte says, “So what, you don’t believe any of it.” Well, that’s not quite true. I can get along with most things in the bible except for original sin.)

The bible we were learning from in those Sunday School days was the King James version, which by definition was written in 17th century language. It was before any of these new-fangled translations. So I am kind of attached to that flowing, almost majestic language.

The gospel reading last Sunday at mass was from Matthew chapter 6, the bit where Jesus is telling people not to worry. In the modern version being read from, the final verse said:

“Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

I know that particular passage, which used to be about “the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field” before it was “updated”. I was feeling a little disappointed about its modern translation and that mundane conclusion. As we walked out of the church and were farewelled by Father John, I said to him: “Father, when I was a boy, I thought that last verse in the gospel reading said:

‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ “

“That’s exactly it, my boy,” said Father, generously overlooking the smart-arse comment from the lapsed Protestant. But isn’t the King James version of that verse a whole lot more memorable than the plain English version?

Call me old-fashioned, but my point is this. In the search for meaning and relevance of things spiritual, maybe we are dumbing it down too much. Trying to be up-to-date, we throw away some of the heritage and lineage which might actually aid the grasping of spiritual lessons. We strip away some of the mystery which has to be an inevitable part of any spirituality, even when it is dressed up as “religion”.

When I am doing my marriage celebrant gig, I am continually surprised but comforted by the fact that so many couples want to do the old-fashioned wedding vows, the 17th century version with “to have and to hold”. I guess it’s the ritual thing. It just seems to help make the occasion special.

(I even had a groom recently who wanted to include: “With this ring I thee wed.” Which went just fine after we had explained to the bride, whose first language was Korean, what “thee” actually meant.)

It’s no surprise that so many of those Buddhist teachings appeal to me. They recognise the place of mystery, and leave it to the individual seekers to find and deal with the ultimate questions, and maybe even some answers. Rather than over-simplify in the fruitless cause of religious certainty, and consequently de-ritualise, they accept the unknowable.

So give me any day (when the occasion requires it) that old-fashioned Lord’s Prayer, and the plea to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.”

And notwithstanding all that, I’m pleased Father John asks God for forgiveness of my sins if I happen to turn up at his church. I’ll take blessings from wherever I can get them.

Working with professionals (but is this how my clients think of me)?

I love working with professionals.  There is some stuff which you just can’t pull off on your own, even as a dedicated DIYer.   You have to get in someone who knows what they are doing, and if you are lucky, that person will be a genuine professional.

I just had two of them at my place, where the consequences of two different screw-ups came together.

(One of the things I have realised about this blogging life is that to give the right context to the messages I want to pass on, I have to tell stories against myself.  Oh well, here’s another one.)

A few years ago, I had this great idea to bring my early 20th century oak roll-top desk into the computer age.  To keep the various power cords and USB connectors for my laptop and peripherals out of sight, I would cut a really unobtrusive hole in the back of the desk, and the cords could all pass through and plug in without them having to drape over the front or the side of the desk.

I got out the 1 inch hole saw I inherited from dad, rolled back the roll-top, and started drilling away.  I hadn’t pushed the roll-top back quite far enough for the best access, so I stopped, pushed it back a bit more, and went at it again.

When I was done, there was a discrete hole in an unobservable part of the desk.   Pleased with myself, I closed up the desk, and discovered that I had also put not one, but two, neat one inch holes in the roll-top.  What I hadn’t realised was that that the unobtrusive place I had chosen was where the top rolled out of sight.

I kinda solved that cock-up by just leaving the desk open for the next few years.  I had to suffer the occasional ribbing from Brigitte about my gaffe, and the ignominy when she would tell the tale to other people with morbid glee.

Just recently, though, Jim the Bulgarian piano restorer came into my life.  He had just worked a miracle repairing the leg of Brigitte’s baby grand piano.  The leg had been snapped off in a glaring display of incompetence by some removalists who claimed to be, but were definitely not, professionals.  (Check out Jim’s website)

Brigitte, with her usual dash of schadenfreude about the whole roll-top incident, had told Jim about the desk, and asked him if he might work a similar miracle there.

So Jim proposed that he come up to Leura, and bring with him his friend Chieko the piano tuning wizard.  Chieko would tune the piano, which was suffering from discordance after having been dropped by the non-professional removalists, and he would fix my desk.

It sounded like a great plan, until I showed Jim the desk.  He inspected my handiwork, and my heart dropped about a foot when he said: “This will be one of the greatest challenges of my professional career.”

Meanwhile, Chieko diagnosed and solved some thorny technical issues consequent on the dropping and repair of the piano.  I guess that’s why she is a “piano technician”.  (Check out her website)

Notwithstanding the challenge, Jim came up with a plan which involved rooting around in my box of assorted fasteners for 8 small brass screws; mixing up some plasti-bond; drilling some fine holes on the sides of the damaged areas; and then painstaking filling the gaps with the plasti-bond.

“Oh, like a dentist putting a pin in your tooth to do a really big filling,” I said.  “I guess so,” said Jim.

Fill, sand, fill, sand.  What did Edison say about genius – the relative components of inspiration and application?  Eventually the one inch holes disappeared, replaced by two pale pink disks of smooth plasti-bond.

I thought that was pretty good, even though the filler was a bit obvious.  But Jim wasn’t finished.

Her pulled out a few little jars and an artist’s fitch brush out of his tool box.  (“If it can’t be fixed with what’s in this toolbox we are in real trouble, ” he had said when he arrived.)

He mixed up some bits of this and that on a folded-up sheet of paper, which ended up looking like an oil-painter’s palette.  He found the right shade somewhere on the palette and brushed it onto the filler.

It was a perfect match for the oak.

The roll-top desk is back together again now, an attractive piece of furniture with just the right amount (for me) of patina.  I’ve decided not to update it for computers.  The odd cord or two can hang out over the side, and I’ll put them away when they are not actually in use.

As we were finishing the job, Chieko had just completed doing whatever piano tuners do, which is a black art to me.  As is the custom with piano tuners, she then gave it a test run, and launched into a high-speed rendition of the Rondo alla Turca.

“Why is she playing it so fast?” said Jim.  “Because she can,” I said.

Yep, I love working with professionals.

So, am I sure that my clients think the same about me?  It’s definitely got me thinking.

It’s okay to cry

Doesn’t just about everyone cry sometimes?  I can’t watch Steve Martin in Father of the Bride without tearing up a bit.  I had to wipe a few away as the lights came on in the cinema after Mrs Carey’s Concert a month or so ago.

Crying at funerals, as a product of genuine grief, doesn’t seem to generate too much discomfort for the non-criers – it seems natural and accepted, even expected.  Brides and mothers crying at weddings is just part of the fun.

Then there is occupational crying.  I was in a session recently where the person I was with started to cry.  Which was a fair enough reaction given that we were touching on some deeply felt professional issues which went to this person’s view of themselves.

No matter how used to tears you may be, someone crying in front of you in a work setting is a little challenging.  There are natural reactions:

  • you may feel a little shiver of anxiety yourself
  • there may be a transference of that person’s pain or distress, or some small part of it, to you
  • there may be some embarrassment that this happening in front of you
  • there can be some slight sense of “there but for the grace of God go I”.

If you coach, manage, advise or mentor people;  if you have to do performance appraisals for your staff, or have to give “constructive feedback”;  if you have difficult news to deliver like “your position is being made redundant”; then sooner or later someone is going to cry in front of you.

A few decades ago now, when I was at learning-to-be-a-lawyer school, we had a crusty old instructor taking us through family law  practice.  “If you have a female divorce client coming to see you,” he said, “always have a glass of water ready, because they can’t drink and cry at the same time.”  In other words, he reckoned, try and stop the tears at all costs.

So what should you do, when someone breaks down in front of you in a professional context? Starting from the premise, of course, that you haven’t been mean, malicious or gratuitously provocative.  Here are a few thoughts;

  • First of all, don’t panic, or rush to try and stop it.  Crying is a natural, even helpful, reaction.  It’s okay if people cry.
  • Consider feeling privileged that someone is sharing a deep emotion, and trusts you enough to cry in front of you.
  • Be prepared to let some of the emotion play out, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  You don’t have to own the whole teary situation, and you don’t need to have those feelings of personal anxiety.
  • That said, offering some tissues is really helpful.  They can help the crier maintain a bit of personal dignity which can otherwise be difficult when tears are running down into their mouth and their nose is dripping into their lap.
  • Take a pause, and don’t press on immediately with the agenda.  Don’t worry about a bit of silence.  Even so, crying is not a  reason why eventually you shouldn’t continue with the business of the session.
  • Try and maintain a safe environment, without external interruptions.
  • If the cause of the tears isn’t obvious, (e.g. not “you are being made redundant” or something similar) you might gently  enquire, after some composure has been regained, “What pushed that button for you?”, and then help them explore it.
  • Before you terminate the meeting, give them a chance to pull themselves together, and minimise the prospect of further embarrassment from having to walk through the office with red swollen eyes and a wet face.

So you don’t have to be thrown by someone crying at work.  Now, if I could just get over my own mild embarrassment as the lights come on in the darkened cinema and I try unobtrusively to brush away a few stray tears.



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