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I Hear You
Repair Communication Breakdowns, Negotiate Successfully, and Build Consensus ... in Three Simple Steps
By Donny Ebenstein
AMACOMCopyright © 2013 Donny Ebenstein
All rights reserved.
Going from Stuck to Unstuck
Harriet opened the conversation by saying, "Look, we were quite disappointed with the workshop, and I think this is feedback you need to take seriously." As Harriet detailed her dissatisfaction with the program, John, who managed client relationships for his firm, was fuming inside. All of her criticisms—all of them!—were things he had warned her about ahead of time. She said, "John, the session was too short." John steamed, recalling that when he had inquired about running a longer session, Harriet had said they could not give the topic more time. Harriet continued, saying, "You know, the junior staff was intimidated and didn't want to participate." When John had asked about dividing the group according to seniority, she told him that her marching orders were to keep the junior and senior staff together. And, to make matters worse, she hadn't let John interact with any of her senior managers one-on-one; she had insisted on being part of every phone call and meeting. This meant that John had no opportunity to sidestep Harriet. Her meddling in the design of the workshop had made things much harder and had negatively affected the final outcome.
After delivering all of the negative feedback, Harriet paused, obviously giving John a chance to respond. He wanted to speak up, but he was afraid of antagonizing his client. Now what? John was stuck.
John's situation is one we can all relate to. You find yourself in a dynamic with someone important to you—a client, a manager, a colleague, a family member—where you don't know what to say or do. You may be stumped as to how to respond, afraid of sounding too aggressive, or fearful that being honest will make things worse. The good news is that you are not alone, and that there is something you can do to get unstuck.
DEFINING STUCK SITUATIONS
Being stuck, in this context, is not like being stuck in the mud, unable to move. It's more like being caught in a maze, running in circles, where all of your motion somehow doesn't lead to progress. You just don't know how to respond in a constructive fashion. Not only do you not see how you can make it better, your attempts to make it better just make it worse. You have the feeling that there is simply nothing that could make this situation go differently.
Consider the following example. I was at a party at a friend's house chatting with a woman I had just met. Her name was Wendy, and she asked me what I did for a living. When I told her that I coach people on how to communicate, collaborate, and negotiate more effectively in their most challenging situations, Wendy proceeded to tell me all about a difficult situation she was having with a colleague at work. Kevin, a peer of hers, would always find a way to avoid working late or on the weekends. He managed to duck most difficult assignments, which somehow ended up on Wendy's desk. In general, Wendy felt he was not doing his fair share of the work, and she was left picking up the slack. She tried to politely raise the topic with Kevin, but got nowhere. Wendy asked me for my advice, and we had the following conversation:
Me: What happens when you try to talk to Kevin about sharing the load more evenly?
Wendy: It doesn't go well.
Me: What does he say?
Wendy: He gets defensive. He tells me not to micromanage him, and that it's none of my business what time he goes home.
Me: How do you respond to that?
Wendy: I usually tell him that people perceive him negatively and that it's not good for his reputation to be seen leaving early.
Wendy: He tells me that he is getting his work done, so there is no problem.
Me: Is he right?
Wendy: Yes and no. He is very efficient and does get his work done. But I can also work quickly, and so can other people at the firm. It's not as if people get their work done and then just leave at five o'clock. If you can take on more work, you do. It's only Kevin who leaves so early.
Me: Did you tell him that?
Wendy: Not in so many words. But I did say that everyone is working hard and everyone wants to get home, and he should think about other people's workloads, not just his own.
Me: What about raising the issue with your manager?
Wendy: My manager doesn't care. She said that she tries to balance the load among the team, and she does not monitor what time Kevin leaves, as long as he gets his work done.
Me: And what do you think about that?
Wendy: Well, in principle that makes sense. But it doesn't work in practice. It's not always clear how long something will take. So a project might take two hours or it might take eight hours, and you don't know which until you get deep into it. If something gets done quicker, you can take on more work. And somehow it always seems as if I get the more demanding and time-consuming projects.
Me: Have you said anything to your manager about how projects are assigned?
Wendy: Yes, I did. I mean, I said it sort of indirectly, but I did say something.
Me: What exactly did you say?
Wendy: I asked her how she decided who got which assignment, and she said that there wasn't really any system. She looked at who didn't get any new assignments lately and gave it to them. She didn't seem to appreciate being questioned, so I dropped the subject.
Me: Were you afraid that she would feel you were attacking her?
Wendy: Yes. And she tends to get defensive and sometimes even retaliates against people who "make trouble." I don't want to be the whiner on the team. Besides, it's not as if I can't get the work done; if I have to work late a few nights, so be it.
Me: But it sounds like this situation is making you resentful.
Wendy: Yes, it is. But I have learned that sometimes you can't beat the office politics. I guess I should just recognize that not everyone is going to be a team player and forget about the whole thing.
Wendy was stuck in her situation. She was unhappy with how things were going but felt helpless to change them. I knew she was stuck because she expressed a strong feeling of resignation. The things she had tried didn't improve the situation, but actually made it worse. She had already called it quits and given up on making things better for herself, even though it clearly bothered her enough that she recounted the whole story to a perfect stranger.
In stuck situations, it is natural to give up trying to make it better. As people get more frustrated, they tend to either lash out or withdraw. Sometimes they do both, first lashing out and then withdrawing, disengaging, and ultimately leaving the situation.
The costs of Wendy's frustration and her despair that nothing will make things better are not only borne by her. The company also suffers. As Wendy, a productive contributor to her team, becomes unhappy and resentful, her productivity goes down. There is a significant risk that she will leave the company altogether, and the cost of replacing a skilled employee is high.
This book was written to address these types of "stuck situations." Here are some ways to tell if you are in a stuck situation:
* Are you dissatisfied with what is happening now?
* Do you find yourself in a dynamic that repeats itself? Is there a pattern to what is happening?
* Do you feel powerless to change the situation?
* Are you clueless as to what to do to make it better?
* Did the things you've already tried doing to make the situation get better fail or make it worse?
* Are you resigned to feeling unhappy?
* Do you find yourself thinking that the other person is the worst person in the world?
If so, this book can help you.
FIXING IT BEGINS WITH YOU
While grappling with a stuck situation, the people closest to you are often the ones who make things worse. Why? Because they support you by sympathizing with your feelings, assuring you that it's not your fault, and reinforcing your perception that there is nothing you can do to make things go differently. The "supportive friend" conversation goes something like this:
Wendy: I can't believe I have to work this weekend again.
Supportive Friend: I know.
Wendy: Kevin is such a jerk. He knows just how to maneuver to get out of the toughest assignments. He didn't stay late even one night this week.
Supportive Friend: And you were working such long hours.
Wendy: I know. It's infuriating.
Supportive Friend: Every office has someone like that. There's not much you can do about it.
Wendy: Why doesn't my manager see it?
Supportive Friend: She's probably just lazy. She knows you will get everything done, so why make an issue with Kevin?
Wendy: And she is on a total power trip. God forbid that anyone should criticize her management or how she runs the team.
Supportive Friend: I bet she is threatened by you and knows she can't afford to lose you. You are really good at your job.
Wendy: Well, I am not going to let people treat me this way.
Supportive Friend: You should look for a new place to work.
Wendy's friend wants to be supportive. But not only is she failing to help Wendy; she is actually hurting her. By simply agreeing with Wendy's story and never challenging it, she is making it easier for Wendy to cling to the notion that there is nothing she can do about this situation.
And here is the starting point for our work together in this book: It begins with you. You have the power to shift your most stuck situations.
This is a powerful and transformative idea. You can make things better on your own. Just by behaving differently yourself, you can shift your whole dynamic with another person, even when it feels hopeless!
And yet, when I tell this to people, they become defensive. Consider the following exchange, which is the continuation of my conversation with Wendy:
Me: So what are you going to do?
Wendy: I don't know. I don't think there is much I can do. I know you do coaching and try to help people, but some situations are just not fixable.
Me: Do you feel this is one of those situations?
Let's pause here. Wendy is clearly stuck. She has decided the problem is not fixable, and she's given up. She feels that it is hopeless. Based on what she described so far, do you agree? Is her situation hopeless?
It is hard to tell. But it is much better to err on the side of hopeful, rather than hopeless. We continued as follows:
Me: I think the situation may not be hopeless, Wendy. And I think there's a lot you could be doing to make it better.
Wendy: What do you mean?
Me: I think some of the things you did have contributed to the problem. For example, I don't think you had a constructive conversation with Kevin to talk about this situation. It sounds like you were a bit aggressive in how you raised this topic with him, which made him defensive. It's no surprise, then, that it did not go well.
Wendy: What? I can't believe you are saying it's my fault! I'm the one who is working my tail off all weekend. Kevin is the freeloader who goes home at five o'clock. Why are you blaming it all on me?
What do you think of Wendy's reaction? Did I blame her for the situation? Is this all her fault? Isn't Kevin the one who needs to do things differently?
When I tell people that they can change their stuck situations, they often react as Wendy did. They get defensive, because they feel they are being blamed. They then seek to prove how they are not at fault, and how they can't do anything to change their stuck situation.
But hold on a minute. I didn't blame Wendy for Kevin's bad behavior. I pointed out that she could have had a more constructive conversation with Kevin about it. That doesn't make the problem her fault.
And here is the good news. If I'm right, and Wendy could have handled the conversation with Kevin differently, then it's possible that she could have elicited a different response from him. It is a wonderful thing to be told that you can change your stuck situation. Wouldn't you want to know that there is something you can do that can make a difference in your dynamic with your manager/colleague/neighbor/spouse/client or whomever else you struggle with, even if the problem was not one you created? Isn't it better for Wendy if she discovers that she is not limited to sucking it up or finding a new job, but she could actually make things better by changing her own behavior?
It's important for me to reiterate that just because you may decide to behave differently does not mean that it's your fault. Fault is a useful concept in a tort lawsuit to show that someone should be held liable to pay damages. But in interpersonal interactions, whether you are at fault doesn't matter in the end. What matters is what can be done to make things better.
Fundamentally, the way to get unstuck in your most stuck situations is by first assuming that you can change things by being different yourself. I know people will fight me on this point. And it's not true a hundred percent of the time. There are situations where even if you decide to behave differently it won't be enough to change things (and in Chapter Nine we will address that issue).
But even though there are some relationships that cannot be repaired, most of the time you can change things by doing something different yourself. Overcoming your own despair and adopting a proactive, optimistic stance that you can change things unilaterally is the secret to making a change.
Here's what I said to Wendy:
Me: Let's take a step back. It sounds like you are in a frustrating situation at work right now.
Wendy: Yeah, tell me about it.
Me: And I am not saying it's your fault. Believe me, if I were talking to Kevin right now, or if I were talking to your manager, I would be pushing them to examine their own behavior just as I am pushing you. They are part of the dynamic and bear responsibility for what's going on as well.
Wendy: Okay. I'm glad you see that.
Me: I am simply saying that I believe you can do much more than you have done so far to make it better. And that's not bad news; it is good news.
Wendy: How so?
Me: It's good news because it gives you power and leverage to make a change. You cannot change other people, but you can change yourself. You can't force Kevin to stay at work past five. And you can't force your manager to care. But I believe that if you change yourself, and how you engage with your colleagues and manage these conversations, they will probably respond to you differently. The potential for making things better has yet to be tapped.
Wendy: So coach me. What should I do?
This was the opening I was waiting for. Once Wendy accepted that she could change things, and asked me how to do that, we were halfway there.
Me: Let's start by examining this situation from other points of view. I think there is a lot to this story that you may be missing. It's likely not as hopeless as you think.
Wendy: It's been going on like this for months.
Me: I was thinking that maybe you need to look at things from Kevin's point of view.
Me: Well, you told me that Kevin is a fast worker and superefficient. You told me that he works very hard to get everything done so that he can leave at five in the afternoon. Do you know why he does that?
Wendy: He recently had a baby, and since then he has been much more eager to get home.
Me: Is he doing less than other people?
Wendy: Not really. He's not doing less, but he is certainly not doing more, either.
Me: So from his point of view, he is doing just as much work as he was before; he is just working even more quickly so that he can finish earlier. Right?
Me: Well, if that's the case, it makes sense that he insists the balance of work within the team is fair. It doesn't mean he is right, but at least you can see where he is coming from.
Wendy: But if I get my work done more quickly, I take on more work. That is what I think my manager expects of me.
Me: Another dimension to the situation is the absence of an honest conversation with your manager about this matter. You haven't shared your concerns or your frustrations with her. Why not?
Wendy: I don't feel comfortable raising it.
Me: Then I think that is something you could work on. Besides, from your manager's point of view, the system probably appears to be working fine. Unless you speak up, how will she know that there is a problem?
Wendy: Are you saying this whole situation is my responsibility to fix?
Me: No, not at all. I'm just saying that you have a lot more power to change things than you realize. When we started this conversation, you were resigned that things would never get better. I'm hoping that what we've talked about so far will change your mind on that.
Wendy: How can things get better?
Me: Well, you can decide to talk to Kevin about his work-life balance more directly. Or you can opt to have a more direct conversation with your manager. Finally, you might consider simply changing your own behavior. Rather than taking on more work whenever you can, slow your pace so that you don't become resentful and burnt out. For all you know, your manager might not expect more than that. At the end of the day, knowing you have options on how to respond can be a real game-changer.
Excerpted from I Hear You by Donny Ebenstein. Copyright © 2013 Donny Ebenstein. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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