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OVERCOMING FAKE TALK
How to Hold REAL Conversations That Create Respect, Build Relationships, and Get Results
By JOHN STOKER
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Light Storm Consulting, Inc.
All rights reserved.
What Keeps You Up at Night?
Picture yourself on a warm summer's day, pulling into Lee's Ferry, Arizona, on a rickety old yellow school bus—your transportation from Page, Arizona. You unpack your belongings, stuff them into a dry bag, and begin the orientation for the eight-day river trip through the Grand Canyon. During your plane ride and bus ride to the middle of nowhere, your cares have melted away. Your only frustration is that you didn't bring enough sunblock. As your adventure down the Colorado River begins, your attention for the next eight days turns to nothing more than the whitewater and red rock. Not surprisingly, when you crawl into your sleeping bag at night, the only thing keeping you awake is the panorama of the Milky Way.
Then, almost as quickly as it began, you're in that small plane once again, heading toward your connecting flight in Las Vegas—and the life you left behind. You return home tired and sunburned, but totally refreshed. After you unpack and unwind a bit, you climb into bed and suddenly your normal life reasserts itself.
Whether it's sick and crying children, flu pandemics, an ornery boss, higher taxes, a nagging recession, an angry ex-spouse, the prospect of losing your job, not being able to retire, or troubled and puzzling relationships, a myriad of frustrations play out on the stage of your mind as you lie in bed at night. Your river trip has quickly become a distant memory.
What Do You Really Want?
If you ask yourself, "What's keeping me awake at night?" your answer may be different from the answer of the person you're sleeping next to, but almost everyone's answers center on one fundamental concern:
I am not getting the results I want!
Your concern may be with a surly teenager who seems incapable of turning in a homework assignment. You and he have been fighting about results—short term (as in making it through the term with passing grades) and long term (as in his not looking back 40 years down the road and wishing he had that high school diploma).
Your concern may be with a 401(k) that is still in the toilet and seems incapable of climbing out. Again, you're talking about results, like being able to retire before you're 80.
Your concern may be work-related—a difficult boss who won't listen to reason, an impossible task with an even more impossible deadline, that coworker in the office next door whose voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard and who seems to spend all day on the phone with her sick (and apparently emotionally unstable) mother.
Most challenges are tied to the results that we want and the expectation we have of others to provide them. Have any of the following situations ever held you back from results you want?
Difficulties at Work
Sometimes we engage in "work-arounds" to get our work done, whether we're dealing with coworkers, family members, or other associates. We may also find ourselves working around certain people, processes, or policies that end up dictating what we do. It's just easier to avoid everything we think is "difficult" and just do it in a way that works for us.
Problem children fall into two categories: the ones we work with and the ones we gave birth to. At home, how much time have you spent arguing with a child over taking out the trash, doing homework, or meeting curfews, only to have the same argument the next day or week?
At work, you likely deal with people who are unreliable, uncooperative, or unskilled—and who consume enormous amounts of time and energy. Perhaps you have spent hours talking with such people, but little if anything changes. So, rather than continuing to engage with them, you give their work to someone you know will perform. Or you do it yourself. Either way, work isn't getting done and frustrations, on all sides, continue to mount.
Groundhog Day Repeats
You won't get results if you hold a meeting or have a conversation—and then repeat it over and over again. If you can't come to an agreement, you have a problem. If you come to an agreement and then have to come to the same agreement again, you have a bigger problem.
Deference to Authority
It's one thing to be respectful, or to expect employees, children, and the like to show deference. But if we're continually deferring to those we answer to or expecting complete compliance from those who answer to us, we'll never deal with issues effectively. Worse, such behavior leads to wasted energy and frustration because nothing ever changes and even less gets achieved. And no one ever feels comfortable enough to tell you what's really going on or to disagree, so little in the way of learning ever occurs. It's just easier to go along to get along.
Abuse of Authority
Parents have authority. Employers have authority. When it's used judiciously, good things happen. When it's abused—through micromanagement, intimidation, or verbal or nonverbal threats—people shut down and productivity ceases.
"Lip-Service" Change Initiatives
How many times have you watched a leader make a pronouncement or implement a change plan that is then left to wither on the vine? Lots of talk and no action. Unfortunately, even though the person with the plan may have forgotten his or her empty challenges or promises, those on the receiving end have long memories. The outcome is that the next time around, people will say "yes" with their lips while their heads, hearts, and hands say "NO!"
Fear of the Unknown
For whatever reason, be they real or imagined, people fear speaking up because of what might happen to them. "Better to be safe than sorry," they believe, so candor and openness are what you read about in leadership books.
When people aren't held accountable, deadlines are missed, commitments are broken, skepticism and cynicism abound, and everyone blames someone else. Then, the lack of accountability seems to become the norm rather than the exception.
Lack of Respect
Unwarranted blame, harsh criticism, and other aggressive behaviors lead to disrespect and mistrust. Then, the resulting lack of respect leads to disengagement, disloyalty, and an absence of initiative.
Lack of Feedback
Whether in our personal or our professional lives, most of us avoid talking about poor performance, personal hygiene, inappropriate behavior, weight, relationships, money, sex, laziness, or appearance. The results are the continued violation of our expectations and an absence of results.
These frustrations are some of the more common ones. You could certainly add to the list! But what all our frustrations have in common is that they all deal with US and our interactions with others. These frustrations do not happen in a vacuum—you contribute to your own frustration.
And, we all want results! We all want to achieve our goals and meet the expectations of those for whom we work. We all want to surprise and delight our clients or customers. We all want to have and keep a good job or to be wildly successful in our chosen field or profession. We all want a life partner, family members, and children with whom we have loving, positive relationships rather than just "tolerating" each other. We also want to have positive relationships with our friends, neighbors, and those around us. And we all want the respect of those with whom we associate.
We may not always couch the complexities of what we want in life in a single word, but we really are—at the end of the day—looking for results. And when we lie down at night feeling we've come up short in achieving the results we want, sleep can be incredibly elusive.
Why Don't We Get the Results We Want?
What we often fail to recognize is that we are dependent upon others in achieving results, and we can't talk about improving results without considering the impact that respect and our relationships have on results.
Notice in the diagram in Figure 1.1 that "results" both affect and are affected by "relationships," which is also true for "respect." Establishing a precise hierarchy among the three is a little like trying to definitively answer the old conundrum about which came first, the chicken or the egg. But what we know with certainty is that when respect is strengthened, the quality of our relationships improves, and our results follow suit. In other words, enhance one and you will improve the other two. On the other hand, if you neglect or abuse any one of these three elements, the other two will suffer.
The next time you can't sleep, look at the results you have, the relationships you are in, and the respect you bring to or receive in any conversation. You can't improve results without addressing respect and relationship. Results, respect, and relationship are a part of every conversation you hold.
In my first job after graduate school, I had a manager who exemplified all of these values. On my first day on the job, I was beset with the usual fears and anxieties that set in when you are hit with the reality that the real world of work is not like college.
Terry came into my office and politely introduced himself. He then asked a million questions about me, what I wanted to learn, how I saw myself developing in this position, and how I thought he could help me. He developed some ground rules for working together, and he left me with some questions to think about and clarify as a starting point to building a solid working relationship. He was clearly more interested in me than in himself. In fact, I actually had to stop him from leaving my office and make him sit back down to answer my questions about him and his professional experience.
Even after all these years I remember how he eased my fears and made me feel like I mattered to him and to the organization. In the following months, we worked hard and talked regularly, and I benefited tremendously as he mentored and managed my daily work and career. Even when he had some harsh criticism to give, he was respectful of our relationship as I worked to achieve our intended results. From that first conversation, I never doubted that he had my best interests at heart. He exemplified the power that building relationships, creating respect, and achieving results can have.
How Do Your Conversations Affect Your Results?
Every conversation that you hold creates the results, respect, and relationship that you experience. Indeed, your result is the conversation; the respect you experience is the conversation; and your relationship with everyone you interact with is the conversation. Finally, you are at the core of every conversation you hold—you are responsible for what you get.
Because you are the only one who has control over you, your relationships, the respect you bring to those relationships, and the results you achieve, this book is about you and what you really want. If you're not realizing the results you want, it's up to you to fix what isn't working. So, before you close this book and explain to the cosmos that you're reasonable, rational, and respectful; that you know how to hold the difficult conversation; and that the problems you're having are someone else's fault—know that while you may be right, you're also dead wrong.
You see, if you're part of a relationship—whether at work or home or on the golf course or in the boardroom—you're part of the conversation. And if the relationship isn't working, you can likely change the way you're engaging in the conversations to positive effect. (I say likely because I know there actually are some circumstances that are beyond your control. But those exceptions are far fewer than you realize.) However, what you do or don't do contributes to every conversation that you hold. You just can't let yourself off the hook.
Now, let's explore what kind of conversations we hold, what kind of conversations we should hold, and the principles that will help us successfully navigate any difficult conversation.
Why Don't Your Conversations Work?
Have you ever been in a prickly situation where you just don't know how to talk about what really matters, so you don't bring up the tough issue? Or how about those times when everyone nods in agreement during a conversation that seems to go great, but then the expected outcome never materializes? Then you have those times when you try your best, but somehow you (or the person you're talking with) make a mess of it. Such scenarios are what we call counterfeit conversations or "fake talk." Such conversations can be about any topic: changing, improving, requesting, or correcting something. The conversation seems to go well, but then nothing happens! Simply put, a counterfeit conversation never produces desired results.
At work or home, we have all held these conversations and then ended up mystified when performance or behavior remained the same, accountability or responsibility never improved, problems weren't solved effectively, customers weren't satisfied, quality and safety continued to be at risk, and change challenges went unaddressed. We thought we shared our message, but found out later, after not getting the expected results, that the conversation went awry.
Sometimes fake talk occurs because we expect people to read our minds. Consequently, our listeners keep on doing what they have always done, even though we think our intentions should be obvious. People who engage in fake talk may beat around the bush or are so vague that even a mind reader would misinterpret what is being said, let alone have any idea of performing up to expectations or being accountable.
Fake talk is also marked by a rise in the frustration level by one or all of the participants. Such conversations can be so filled with emotion, aggression, and disrespect that people are too busy "fighting or flighting" to understand what is really being said. Fake talk is vague, manipulative, covert, shortsighted, problematic, disrespectful, accusatory, noncomplimentary, or an outright lie. Such conversation can be passive, aggressive, or both.
Here's an example of a counterfeit conversation that begins with a lack of respect that undermines whatever relationships may have existed, and leads to a complete lack of results:
DUCK AND COVER
Henry stormed into his staff meeting. He started shouting and yelling and demanded to know who had borrowed his thumb drive.
"I know one of you took my thumb drive to make a copy of the proposal we outlined in our last meeting!" he ranted.
Staring everyone down, he continued, "Why don't you fess up and just admit that you lost your copy and borrowed my thumb drive? Don't play dumb with me! Who has it?"
Everyone just looked at the floor and said nothing. Finally, in a rage, Henry shouted "Meeting over, until I find my thumb drive!"
After berating and blaming his staff, the manager stormed out of the conference room—with the thumb drive hanging around his neck! When asked why no one said anything, one of the attendees replied, "No one wanted to make our boss look more ridiculous than he already looked! Let alone be the one to incur his wrath!"
Note that the way the manager treated and related to his people affected their willingness to share their thinking, influenced how they performed in the moment, and created lost energy and wasted resources to resolve key work issues. In other words, no results! Not to mention the perpetuation of continued mistrust and this man's reputation as an ineffective manager.
What Kind of Conversations Should We Hold?
Instead of counterfeit conversations, we should be holding REAL conversation. REAL conversations get results. REAL conversations change things. The parties to REAL conversations not only understand, they come away feeling valued and respected. The behavior and the relationship of the parties are changed for the positive, and something actually gets done. Such conversation leads to the opportunity for transformation.
These types of conversations are specific, direct, open, insightful, solution-oriented, respectful, accountability-based, and encouraging or complimentary. If you want to check up on the quality of your conversations, answer these three simple questions:
How do my conversations impact the quality of my results?
How would I describe the quality of the relationships that I have?
Is respect one of the hallmarks of how I treat others or how they treat me?
If you answered any of these questions with a degree of negativity, you are probably engaging in fake talk. After all, some of the greatest opportunities for holding REAL conversations come when no one agrees with our view, we don't get what we want, or others are repeatedly violating our expectations. The quality of all we receive reflects the quality of the conversations that we hold. Unfortunately, when we engage in fake talk not only do we not get results, but we also put respect and our relationships in jeopardy.
Excerpted from OVERCOMING FAKE TALK by JOHN STOKER. Copyright © 2013 by Light Storm Consulting, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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