5 Ways to Master Difficult Conversations

Many of us will go a long way to avoid conflict.  But it is a natural part of work life; my clients estimate that up to 30% of their time is spent dealing with conflicts.  In fact, if managed well, conflict can be a source of innovation, creativity, and connection.  Sure, disagreements and arguments can take up a lot of time and energy, but conflicting ideas can be a source of creative ideas that bring about positive change.

So the key is how you manage those tricky situations.  Mastering difficult situations can be the difference between a good leader and a great one.  Ignoring the problem can leave people feeling stifled or excluded; going after it too aggressively can heighten tension to such a degree that no one cannot move forward. So what can you do?

Here are my 5 Bs to mastering difficult conversations:

  1. Begin with the other person’s concerns. Listen twice as much (if not more) than you speak; try to understand what is at the heart of the problem by clarifying meaning, asking questions.  Like a wine-opener, delve deeper into the matter with questions such as “tell me more” “help me understand that better”.
  2. Become an expert people reader. Pay attention to both what they are saying as well as what they are not saying by reading non-verbal behavior as well as listening to the actual words. Listen for the emotional message being sent.   Don’t assume you understand what they are feeling and thinking – check your understanding by asking questions.
  3. Be Super-prepared and careful about how you frame the discussion. Be clear on the outcome you want — how you frame this determines the quality of the conversation.  For example rather than “I would like to ensure my idea gets passed” try “I would like to ensure that the best ideas get passed”.  If it doesn’t come easily, think ahead of what kinds of questions you can ask to get the heart of what is really going on.
  4. Build the tone of the conversation: Intentionally create a welcoming tone to the conversation that will foster genuine sharing and trust. Make an effort to be open, curious. Visualize yourself doing so
  5. Be of Service to others – first help them get what they need from the conversation and then, offer your point of view.

No one loves conflict situations, but managed properly they can be vital in changing culture and creativity in an organization.

Emotions Are Contagious – Who’s Infecting You?

My family and I spent a wonderful New Year’s Eve at the Blue Note in Milan listening to great music, enjoying a fabulous 7 course meal with specially selected wines.  And of course, since it is Milan, everyone was fashionably and festively attired: men in dark fitted, tailored suits and women in sumptuous outfits.  On the next table sat Marco, beautifully attired like everyone else, but with a little something extra:  he had on the most magnificent sequined dinner jacket, which matched his ebullient personality.  It made me smile.  And, you know me, at first it was almost a knowing smirk – I mean who would wear such an ostentatious jacket.

But here’s the thing, the very exuberance of the jacket – and the person wearing it – seeped out to the next table (ours) and we found ourselves, smiling, clapping and becoming exuberant ourselves.  And then so did the next table, and the one on the other side of him.  His cheerful contagion was infecting us all.  By then end of the evening, we were all very happy.  And although I’m sure the setting, the wines and the music helped, I really attribute much of the spirit and ambience to Marco, the “Patient Zero” of the situation.

Countless years of research have produced a huge body of studies that demonstrate how quickly and deeply humans, usually unconsciously, absorb and then mirror the emotions of those around them and how these emotions impact our state of mind and relationships.

And it’s a two way street.  Just as we are impacted by the emotions of other people, our emotions are impacting those around us.  When we hang out with positive people, research shows that we are more likely to be cooperative, energized and less stressed.  And the opposite is true. When negativity permeates our relationships, our stress levels, anxiety and general outlook in life can profoundly change for the negative.

I’ve seen this countless times with clients — where  “prevalent culture” was defined heavily by the personality and emotions of the person in charge – some created stressful, anxious and draining environments while others created friendly, upbeat and fun environments.

And this should be an easy one to handle, right? Not always.  We are often not very good at recognizing changes in our feelings early enough to do something about it.  So the best thing to do is to start paying very close attention to the emotional climate around you.  For me, when that climate is negative, I feel a tense, sudden malaise, but am not sure why.  That’s my cue to start paying attention to what is going on around me and how I’m reacting to it.  This then allows me to modulate my response.  Learning to listen, understand and react to these weak signals gets easier as you do it more.  The same thing applies for behavior, so start recognizing when your emotions are impacting those around you.  Over the years I have started to recognize when my voice starts heating up, and I get shriller and faster in my response. That, for me, becomes the cue  to slow it down and examine what it is that I am communicating and the impact it’s having on those around me.

So my question is how can we, as leaders, create more a harmonious environment around us?  The key is in being highly aware and attuned to the emotions of those around us so that we can recognize and surround ourselves with relationships and environments that impact us positively and that we, in turn, energize and inspire other with our emotions and behavior.

On New Year’s Eve, I decided that I was going to be more like Marco!

Doing vs. Being – Leading with Balance

Most leaders have a long mental, if not written, “to do” list.  In this pre-festive season, that list can seem never-ending.  But sometimes we are so focused on what we have to do as leaders, we forget about who we have to be as leaders.  As the world spins faster and faster, and pressures continue to mount, the ability to focus is outpacing most other leadership skills as being the key to moving forward.  

But focus on what?  When I think about it, the people who really influenced or inspired me through the years did so because of who they were, what they stood for, not just the accomplishments they achieved.  I want to be like them, rather than just do what they did.   I was and am inspired by people who are “real”, who are visionary, engaged and honest.  I am drawn to people who care about me and my success as well as the organization’s. Genuineness and Caring are palpable.  

I believe that one of the things that really differentiates a Manager and Leader is that one focuses more on doing (better, faster, in newer ways etc.) and the other focuses more on being (inspiring, motivating, stable, consistent).  Not that one comes at the cost of the other.   Clearly Leading also involves delivering results. But being seen as an inspiring, authentic leader is equally, and usually more, important.

So what can you do to keep your authentic self in the forefront?  

  1. Practice the Pause.  Before speaking, reacting, judging, advising…pause just a few seconds to think about the intent of what you want to say.  Who do you want to be in this interaction?  Crystallize what you want to sound like, come across as and express.  These few seconds of pause/visualization goes a long way in making your words and manner more meaningful and to ensure that they are aligned with your intentions.
  2. Listen to understand. Of all leadership skills, I find listening the one that is least leveraged by leaders.  Authentic listening aims to understand what the other person is really trying to say, to understand from their perspective. Often we listen at the surface – just the words they happen to use as heard from our perspective.  Feeling listened to boosters a sense of engagement and belonging.  According to the Kotter International, 71% of the workforce is actively disengaged but companies with engaged workforces have 5 times higher return to shareholders.
  3. Remember the Magic Ratio – Substantial research has been done showing that growth and performance increase when balanced with praise or recognition.   If you want to really change behavior, research shows the magic ratio is a 5:1 ratio (Positive: Negative).   Focus on building strengths, if you want to boost connection. I read in a recent Gallup survey that two-thirds of employees worldwide feel that their efforts were not really recognized.   Just imagine what a difference focusing on the positives can be for them.  

In this hectic period leading up to big holiday, I send you my very best wishes for a peaceful and joyful holiday season!

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A Meaningful Goodbye

As I left an energizing client offsite in Budapest last week, I realized how often I find myself in the position of saying goodbye. As a coach, I find often myself in the position of starting or ending relationships – whether with individuals, companies or even in the MBA classes that I teach. The nature of my work is cyclical, where for a few months or even a few days, in the case of workshops or seminars, I enjoy a productive, deep and intense relationship and connection with people. And then we say goodbye. Sometimes for good. In our work lives, saying goodbye is getting more and more frequent as we move through departments, countries, teams and companies.
Most of us fall into two categories of saying goodbye:
1) Dreading it – we hate the feeling and so just avoid saying goodbye
2) Rushing through it – we go into a default mode, as we rush past what is ending to the next thing that is beginning.
As a result we often miss opportunities to truly engage and connect with people by saying goodbye in a meaningful way. So what can you do to make this less grueling? I have found three tips that help me the most:
1. Prepare for the occasion. All of us know when the end is near, but we hate the uncertainty and abruptness of it all, and so we gloss over it. Is this all? Can l move on? So actually take a few minutes to think through these questions: How does this training/meeting/relationship fit into the larger picture of my life? What was the takeaway and how do I feel about it? I’m not suggesting a big long process here – just a couple minutes of intentional thinking which will give you clarity. Preparing in this way allows you to make visible the full range of emotions you are feeling and to react or behave in a manner that is consistent with your true feelings and character. It allows you to behave intentionally rather than through default behavior of fear and awkwardness. As you continue this practice, it gets faster.

2. Manage and Express the Emotions. Just identifying and giving a name to the emotions has a calming effect. However, expressing your true intent to the rest of the team or business partner is what creates the “sense of an ending”, to use Julian Barnes’ term. With individual clients, I send a short worksheet before our last meeting to help them think about what they have learned/gotten through this process, how they have changed and what it means in the context of their lives. And I do the same. Depending on the person, we can spend from 5 minutes at the end of the last session to over an hour discussing this. But when we leave, there is a connection — a sense of belonging and purpose of our time together. And this is the purpose of closure. In bigger groups, taking a few minutes of personal reflection and then sharing with a partner achieves the same purpose. On a personal level, just acknowledging gratefulness for the time spent together with another person goes a long way in creating a connection and is always well received.

3. Accept that things move on. When we are working successfully with others, we enter into a rhythm, a flow. We feel connected, energized and powerful. Unfortunately, when that relationship comes to an end, we feel a let-down, a sense of being empty and so perhaps that interferes with our readiness to say goodbye. This is a normal feeling, and if we accept that the emotions we are feeling are actually appropriate to the occasion, we are less anxious about it.
As a society, we tend to avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable or awkward. But learning to stand in discomfort is not only a key skill to acquire, but it has a high ROI with respect to personal closure, wisdom and poise.



Good Things Take Time

I love late August/early September figs.  By the time they have baked in the sweltering sun for two to three months, they are bursting with flavor and ready to be eaten.

I think of figs at this time of the year, where it seems everyone is scrambling at turbo speed to get things done.  Our heads are running wild with business ideas, targets and options and we often undertake more things than we can do well, but we push through.  But not everything can or should be rushed.  If you eat a fig before it’s time, it not only tastes awful, it leaves a sticky residue in your mouth that lasts for a while and is difficult to wash off.

Warren Buffet once said: “No matter how great the talents or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t make a baby in a month by making nine women pregnant.”

With the speed of change so rapidly accelerating, it can be hard to keep pace.  So, like good leaders, we take a deep breath and keep running, trying to take tactical shortcuts where we can.  As managers, parents, educators we focus on training ourselves to be faster, to get better at handling multiple projects at the same time.  While this helps get through quick, urgent problems, in the long term, it compromises depth and quality.  Deep thinking, which requires time and focus, is just as critical a skill.

The myth of quick, fast and easy is one of the most destructive and soul-numbing beliefs I see with clients today.  It almost always takes more time than you’ve anticipated to achieve your objectives, and most of that time is spent on working hard.  Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to be good at something.  I’m not sure if that is always the case, but I do know that rushing things almost never gives you the result you truly want in the long term.  Many clients find themselves having created situations which did not bring the results they really wanted. Anything really worthwhile takes time, patience, perseverance and faith in the process.  

What are you doing to strengthen those skills?


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What are You Reflecting Out to the World?

When I saw this picture posted on social media by my friend Franca, I immediately got the sense of where she was – both literally as well as metaphorically. The picture itself, together with what was reflected back on the glass, revealed evidence of the life around her and “painted” a clear picture –beach, relaxation, sunshine.

When I think of my clients, particularly in stressful or busy times, I realize that it is so easy to lose sense of the “picture” of who we are – what picture are we painting with our lives? Or, more specifically, what picture are the pieces of our lives reflecting back at the world? What are others seeing? Because, after all, even though we tend to judge others on their actions (i.e. what we observe), we judge ourselves on our intentions (what we planned in our heads). And therein lies the problem: we don’t often have or take the time to truly look at what we’re actually doing, to observe our behavior. Instead, we rely on our impressions, which are formed in our minds by our intentions. The result is that the idea we have in our heads doesn’t often match what is really out there in the world.

A client once told me that he tried to spend as much time as his schedule allowed with his direct reports, having “free flowing” conversations, in order to build stronger personal rapport with his team. For him, because he really wanted to and intended to connect with his folks, he thought he was making a big effort towards this goal. However, when we actually analyzed at how he spent his days, we saw that while he often started the day with the intention of spending time with people, the usual time constraints, tasks and emergencies took over and what actuallyhappened (what was reflected back, what was seen by others) was that he rushed crazily through his days, having hurried and very transactional conversations with people. The result was the opposite of his intentions: people perceived him as being only a “bottom line” leader – caring only about getting the task done quickly, and much less about his people.

Misalignment of intent and actions can be hard to perceive, particularly if you are someone who tends to “live inside your head”. Being aware of what is actually taking place around you, observing your behavior and its impact on others, takes time and focus, two elements which seems to be getting increasingly squeezed out in our lives.

So here is my summer invitation for you: How about spending some time observing (non-judgmentally, of course!) and reflecting on what the slivers of your life reveal to the world. What picture are they painting? What do they say about you? Are they aligned with your Purpose? I am doing the same – maybe we can share notes after the summer. 

It is only when intent and actions begin to align, that you start to be authentic. And when they are aligned consistently, you start to become more centered and grounded.

All the best for a reflective and energizing summer!