That’s a pretty lofty promise in the title of a blog. Only 3 steps to completely change and improve workplace relationships, you say. It sounds too good to be true. But it only takes two minutes to read it and ten minutes to try it. What have you got to lose? A 12 minute investment.
Imagine a difficult conversation with a colleague with whom you have had multiple disagreements and challenges, someone more likely to blame than to become an ally in a solution. Suppose s/he comes to you (again!) with a complaint about the work one of your team members handled.
We talk way too much particularly when someone is finger pointing, we immediately launch into a defensive posture. We pretend to listen while actually we are 2 paragraphs into crafting our response. It’s a habit that is hard to break. We think our value lies in what we say. How smart we are. How persuasive. Clever. Direct. Pick any attribute you think you need to represent and that’s where we each get stuck. We also want to protect what is ours – in this case, a team member – like the mother bear for her cub. But, hold on. Before you straighten your back and go nose to nose, take a breath. Your job in this moment is to disarm the situation with attention.
#2. Ask open ended questions that start with “what …”
Ask your colleague a series of questions, each beginning with the very neutral “what” such as: What about that surprised / frustrated / bothered you? What was the expectation at the beginning of the project? What do you think was the most important part of that report / presentation / program? What role do you (the person complaining) play in a successful outcome? What role do you think I can play? What might we all do differently next time?
Notice you are shifting the focus from past to future – both are important in this dialog, but we spend way too much time dissecting what was wrong versus exploring what’s possible in the future.
You will find that the simple act of asking open ended questions is enough to signal a shift in your typical communication with this individual. Certainly, as a client of ours is fond of saying, there are all sorts of ‘what’ questions that aren’t quite so neutral: What the (blank) were you thinking!? But all joking aside, there is a simple elegance to exploring a situation neutrally by starting every question with “what.”
#3. Acknowledge Their Values
So, here’s the interesting part – at this stage, if you’ve maintained a neutral, curious state of mind, you’ve been picking up on the other person’s core values. Some of this comes from what they actually say, so use their words, and some of it comes from your intuitive insights about this person. At this point you get to recognize those values. You might say “I want to acknowledge that one of your values is doing things right and on time. That’s critical to our ongoing success. It’s important to you that we all understand the rules, yes?” They are nodding. “And, I hear the frustration in your voice – you take this project very seriously.” Yes, yes. “You care very deeply about how the company is viewed by the public.” Indeed! “So, let’s get together with the team and map out a plan for the next presentation so that we all are in sync.” OK!
Just know that the next time you strut into someone’s office to complain about one of their colleagues, they may very well have read this blog, so don’t be too surprised when they sit quietly at first, and then ask a series of intelligent open-ended questions … “So, Bob, what about that was challenging for you?” Wouldn’t your workplace be greatly improved if everyone utilized these simple steps?
And, by the way, this approach works equally well with spouses and significant others!