3 Practices to Ease Difficult Conversations
Michael Scott was the bumbling, incompetent, often inappropriate branch manager of Dunder Mifflin in the popular mockumentary The Office. Michael made a cameo appearance in a speaking engagement I delivered last week to a business owner’s Meetup on the topic of difficult conversations in the workplace.
Michael was the example of the “Tell/Sell/Yell” communication style
used by, well… bumbling, incompetent managers! When Michael wanted his team to
do something, he’d tell them what he
wanted and why. When they resisted, he would continue to persuade them by selling them on his idea.And when they still refused, he would occasionally resort to yelling like a child having a tantrum until
he got his way.
Jim Halpert was the mild-mannered, intelligent salesman in The Office, with a fierce streak of pulling endless pranks on colleague Dwight Schrute. Jim was eventually promoted to Assistant Regional Manager and was fond of a positional management style. He built trust with his colleagues by leading and influencing them to his way of thinking through advocacy. While his efforts were noble, they were surprisingly met with resistance from the Scranton branch.
David Wallace, CFO of Dunder Mifflin, employed the most sense and
executive capacity in the show. He asked difficult questions and handled
uncomfortable conversations with diplomacy and tact. His ability to ask questions
with unknowable answers was spotlighted when he asked Michael why the Scranton
branch was succeeding during an economic downturn when all other branches were
Unfortunately for David, when he asked Michael, “What are you doing right?” even Michael didn’t know, responding:
“My philosophy is basically this. And this is something that I live by. And I always have. And I always will. Don't, ever, for any reason, do anything, to anyone, for any reason, ever, no matter what, no matter where, or who or who you are with, or or where you are going, or, or where you've been. Ever. For any reason. Whatsoever.”
Having difficult or uncomfortable conversations in the workplace is a key differentiator between bumbling managers like Scott and inspiring leaders like Wallace. Scott stayed entrenched in his behavior pattern, using parochial methods to get results. Wallace grew and developed in his communication abilities throughout his career journey, learning how to have the distasteful conversations that move teams through challenging times.
Inspiring leaders develop the ability to conduct stressful conversations through three intentional practices:
Awareness of your perceptions
Your perception is your reality, regardless of its validity. Stated another way, you do not see the world as it is, you see the world as you are. Michael managed from this position, always. He failed to see the perspectives of his team and resorted to the Tell/Sell/Yell method until he got what he wanted.
An inspiring leader is aware of and questions his own perceptions. He wonders where his beliefs came from and doesn’t necessarily accept them as truth, but rather his truth. With this understanding, he can also respect and appreciate the perceptions of others, even those he may not agree with. He avoids right/wrong thinking and recognizes the value of difference in others.
When an inspiring leader avoids right/wrong thinking, he conveys
confidence along with openness. Projecting openness at the beginning of an
awkward conversation communicates trust and creates a safe environment where
the other person can express his perspective. It helps quell fears he may have about the conversation. Fear shuts
people down. When people are shut down, their perspective of reality is
altered. When a person’s perspective of reality is altered, rational decisions
and creative solutions are unattainable.
Awareness of your body language and tone of voice
Paul Ekman is the world’s foremost authority on deception. He studies facial expressions and involuntary body language to expose the truth behind lies using an applied psychology method of interpreting micro expressions. The Fox TV show, Lie to Me was based on the work Ekman did as an advisor to police departments and anti-terrorism groups.
The way you move your body and use your voice during difficult conversations speaks volumes to the other person without you realizing it. In Lie to Me, the team set up a video camera to capture the body language and tone of voice of the person being interviewed. They analyzed the video silently and the audio without the video to uncover the truth.
An inspiring leader knows what he looks like and how he sounds. He practices his thoughts out loud, employing volume, pitch, rhythm, tempo, and timbre control. He ensures the words of the message match the tone, and vice versa. He videos himself or works with a coach to reveal nervous habits he engages in. He role plays challenging discussions, and strategically prepares for possible outcomes. He never goes into an uncomfortable conversation without being fully prepared and aware of how he will move his body and use his voice to control and deliver a concise message.
Awareness of your communication style
In her book Conversational Intelligence, Judith Glaser of The Creating WE Institute surveyed over 4000 leaders across every industry and at all levels of organizations. The survey uncovered the two least developed skills in the workplace are the ability to have uncomfortable conversations, and the ability to ask “what if” questions.
In The Office, Michael’s communication style was what Glaser refers to as transactional. He asked yes/no questions that didn’t invite conversation and simply moved others in the direction of his desires.Michael, unaware of his clunky and unrefined style, once said,
“Sometimes I'll start a sentence, and I don't even know where it's going. I just hope I find it along the way. Like an improv conversation. An improversation."
Jim, a bit more refined, utilized a positional style. He deployed his
position of moderate authority to influence others, engendering some trust by appealing to their
sensibilities. He would get his teammates in agreement with him, exposing the
absurdity of some of Michael’s decisions. Eventually he was able to garner
their support through his gentle persuasion and stable decision-making.
David rose above with his transformational communication style to ask
difficult, and unknowable, questions with sheer curiosity. He unified support
and tapped into the collective potential; always respectful and dignified.
‘What if’ questions are the questions with unknowable answers. An
inspiring leader is unafraid to ask the unknowable questions because he knows
that together, he and the other person can collaborate and partner to discover
and co-create workable answers. An inspiring leader knows the synergy of two
minds working toward an outcome is far more powerful and empowering than
dictating a solution. [Except when one of the minds is Michael Scott!]
When you become acutely aware of your own perceptions and attitudes
about having difficult conversations, coupled with awareness of your body
language, tone of voice, and the types of questions you use, you can shift away
from being a Michael Scott-like manager and move toward an inspiring leadership
communication style. You’ll move from fear to transparency; from power over to relationship building; from
uncertainty to understanding; from the need to be right to shared success; and
from group think to partnering.
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Wendy Nolin is the President of Wendy Nolin Worldwide , a business and executive career coaching firm that liberates professionals from the status quo . Wendy has nearly 2 decades of business and career development experience coaching executives to advance in their career, and business owners to double their revenue in half the time. Her latest book, Own Your Greatness is now available on Amazon.