They’re Crying. Now What?!

Authenticity and trustworthiness are two powerful traits of a genuine leader, yet these can sometimes be the hardest to live up to fully. For example, can your colleagues trust you to be completely candid with them? Many managers start to squirm when it’s time to deliver difficult feedback. Sometimes they aren’t sure of what to say and how, which prompted June 2006’s newsletter, Finding Freedom in Delivering Difficult Feedback.

People also balk due to What-If-They-Cry-Phobia, which is less openly acknowledged as a roadblock. (For the record, it’s not just women that can respond to upsetting feedback with flushed cheeks, watery eyes and runny noses. Real men cry, too.) Since a coaching relationship is a comfortable place to explore the uncomfortable aspects of managing people, I’ve found myself working with more than a couple of execs as they face this hurdle.

Do you suffer from What-If-They-Cry-Phobia? Quite possibly if you answer “yes” to any of the following:

  • Rather than speaking your concerns, do you clench your teeth so severely your lockjaw is covered as a workman’s comp claim?
  • Have you “helped” someone transfer to another team because it was easier than being truthful about their performance?
  • Do you spend hours crafting elaborate, powerfully constructive feedback sessions in your head only to dribble out vague comments and weak, distracting jokes in the moment?

kleenex 1If so, help is here. Following are a few useful tips when you notice people getting upset. Most of them help just by acknowledging that someone is crying! Oftentimes, the biggest awkwardness when they try to keep you from noticing they’re crying, while out of politeness you’re trying to pretend that you’re not noticing they’re crying. (Follow that?) One manager told me that at the sight of tears, he continues the conversation but does so without looking at the person. Here are a few better ideas:

  1. Tell it like it is. Just acknowledge what’s going on by saying something like, “I know this is a difficult conversation, and I appreciate your courage in talking through things.”
  2. Reference their change in demeanor without adding your interpretation. Tears and flushed cheeks could mean a wide range of things: anger, frustration, fear, embarrassment. Don’t assume you know what they’re feeling. Instead you might say, “I can tell that this is hitting a nerve” or “I see this brings up strong emotions.” Then, check in with them to find out what they’re feeling: “What’s going on?”
  3. Make sure they’re physically comfortable. Offer to take a quick break so they can get a tissue or some water. It’s important that their personal needs are met so their focus remains on the conversation, rather than whether or not you see the drop forming at the end of their nose.
  4. Don’t assume you need to postpone the discussion. Unless their response is extremely emotional, this vulnerable state might create more receptiveness for talking about tough issues.
  5. Assure them of your motivations to keep them from derailing. Clearly let them know why you’re having the conversation. Start with what you value/respect in them and then link it to how you’d be remiss as a manager if you avoided the topic just because it was uncomfortable. It might sound like: “The team really relies on your technical expertise and terrific customer relations. I know that you take great pride in your work and would like to be considered for promotion. I’m bringing up this feedback out of respect for those goals.”
  6. Let them share their thoughts. Depending on the feedback, this may be a lot for someone to take in. Allow enough time and conversation for them to fully come to terms with the situation. Then, bring them into the brainstorming for how to move forward: “What do you think could help?” or “How would you like to proceed?” or “What support would be useful?” Please note that most people will not be able to shift into Action Plan Mode in the feedback meeting. Give them some time (1 week to 10 days) to process things and then circle back for determining the way forward.

For some of you, I’ll bet there’s an unspoken conversation that’s been lurking in the background, dragging down your sense of effectiveness. Reread this, reach out to that person, and experience a more powerful type of leadership.

Originally published in May 2007  issue of Jump In! newsletter.

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“Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” (The Clash)

At some point in your career you have probably wrestled with this question. I’ll bet that a few of you are in the midst of this internal debate right now:

  • I feel stagnant, but know the politics and can do this job with my eyes closed.
  • The potential package is great, but the environment is more intense and less family-friendly.
  • My boss hates me (or I hate my boss); anything would be better.
  • The challenge and entrepreneurial culture are very appealing, but the benefits aren’t.
  • I feel completely unappreciated, but am overwhelmed at the thought of a job search.

It’s rarely a simple decision, but there are a few steps which will make it easier. First, pull out two pages from a legal pad for a modified version of the old pro’s and con’s assessment. Title one page “Stay Put” and the other “Make the Move”. Then draw a vertical line down the middle of each page and label the left column “Pro’s” and the right column “Con’s”. Begin listing as many things as you can and keep it handy for when other issues come to mind. When it seems representative, rank the most important 3 – 5 considerations.

Typically, people only do one pro’s and con’s worksheet, focusing just on the viability of leaving, especially if it’s for a specific opportunity. While this evaluation provides insight about the option at hand, it’ll keep you blind to other possibilities. I’ve seen lots of “ah ha” moments when clients get really clear about their current situation.

The second step is less concrete but more valuable. Your “rational” evaluation is influenced by a complex range of emotions: frustration, excitement, disappointment, hope, uncertainty. Sometimes they can mask additional factors influencing your decision. For example, does it seem easier to leave than own up to performance shortcomings or learn something new? That would be good information to have, since when we move, we typically take our baggage with us. (Conversely, are you balking at a terrific new opportunity because it stretches you?) Ask yourself the following:

  1. What do I long to escape?
  2. What is drawing me away?
  3. What would remain the same?

Incorporate your responses into the lists from Step 1. Now what’s your gut telling you?

When working with a client in transition, we focus on clarifying their options and potential outcomes. At the same time, we look at how they could be more effective in their current role. Their answers to the above three questions are a good starting point. This second strategy lets them build new skills which will support success in their next role and make their current situation more enjoyable. In some instances, shifting a few things in the current situation has worked so well that the vote has shifted from “go” to “stay”

*Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Jump In newsletter.

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What I Know

Every Autumn I’m drawn into conversations about change and transition. What might have been “okay” a few months ago now seems stale. I hear:

  • “Work is fine, but I’m itching for something new.”
  • “I want to tackle that next challenge/promotion.”
  • “My kids are back in school; I’m ready for my turn.”
  • “Help! I don’t know what I want next, but I want something different!”

I think years of schooling also have etched this pattern of “buckle down and focus” into our psyches. Personally, I feel pulled to assess my practice and refresh the vision of my business. Even though 4th quarter is quite hectic externally, internally I am aware of deeper currents. Taking time to explore those thoughts and desires provides a soothing balance to the busyness.

What I KnowOne tool that’s proven useful, is starting and maintaining an inventory of “What I Know”. Instead of allowing snippets of ideas to spin distractedly in the periphery, make a habit of anchoring and connecting those needs by capturing them in an evolving list. Start defining and refining the whole range of “what you know” about what you want.

In the beginning, you may have a very short list that seems too vague or overly optimistic. When I was ready to transition out of my marketing career, the only things I “knew” I wanted were: flexibility, autonomy and the opportunity to have my work grow and change as I did. Then I added things like: working with people on a meaningful, sustained level and being recognized for offering a valuable service. Eventually, I had a useful benchmark for decision-making and guidance.

It sounds simple and the good news is – it is! The better news is that this technique really works by creating a meeting place for your ideas and sharpening your attention.

*Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Jump In newsletter.

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Finding Freedom in Delivering Tough Feedback,

Let’s look at something most people avoid: giving undesirable feedback. Perhaps right now you’re grappling with someone who fails to communicate effectively, has a casual relationship with accountability or treats others poorly.  I come across this situation frequently and have even been asked to conduct workshops just on delivering difficult feedback.

Typically, an exasperated exec can’t understand how another person misses the focus and urgency of a performance-related situation. What I’ve found is that often there is a lot of talk among almost everyone but the person at the heart of the matter! In one case, a President insisted an employee “had to know”, yet there wasn’t a whisper of it in her file. The President was surprised, but held his ground, saying that he himself had brought it up. The light bulb went on, though, when asked for specifics about his feedback. He realized he was so concerned about hurting the person’s feelings, or eliciting strong emotions, that his usual direct style collapsed into overly tactful nuances that were completely missed!

There are a couple of hurdles even the boldest can stumble over when delivering tough feedback:

  • Lack of Easy Entry – The conversation doesn’t happen because the person affected doesn’t know how to initiate it.
  • Talking Too Much – Most people don’t like long pauses so they just keep talking to fill the gaps. With so many words floating around, it’s easy to get lost and miss key points. People have a “what was that all about” experience.
  • Lightening the Load – Some use humor, or “balancing”compliments, to diffuse discomfort. It actually can confuse your listener, minimize the sense of importance or even insult them. This pitfall is a close cousin to Talking Too Much, only more distracting.
  • Forgetting the Other Person – It’s easy to get so focused on what you want to communicate, that the “conversation” turns into a monologue. You’ll have more buy in if you actively involve the other person in defining the issue, voicing their motivation for making changes and brainstorming solutions.

The good news is that there are a few tips that can help you rise above the pitfalls and deliver effective, direct and actionable feedback.

  1. Set the Stage: Arrange a time to speak, giving the other person a heads up that you want to “address some concerns” or “explore better ways of working together.” This advance notice shows respect and prevents them from feeling ambushed.
  2. Prepare: Jot down the objective facts/examples – what you observe or experience relative to their behavior. Set aside any interpretations or judgments you might be weaving into those facts. Also list your 1 – 3 key points in direct, concise language.
  3. Approach with Openness: Go into the conversation being genuinely curious about the other person’s perspective and be prepared to listen to what they have to say. Start the conversation by sharing what you’ve noticed (your points in Step 2) and then ask them how they experience the situation. This part may get emotional; that’s okay. Just acknowledge that you recognize it’s difficult to have this kind of conversation and you appreciate their sticking with it.
  4. Make Specific Requests: Frustration, yours or theirs, often points to unspoken requests. After Step 3, integrate the information and then formulate specific requests. These should be positive statements defining what you each want the other to do in support of the desired outcome. If appropriate, use this as a starting point for creating an action plan and appropriate strategies.

Preparing in advance, pulling out emotional triggers (like judgments) and being clear about your intended message can boost your confidence and directness. The outcome is a more candid and productive conversation. You’ll breathe easier from clearing the air and getting things back on track.

Originally published in June 2006 issue of Jump In! newsletter.

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Finding Freedom in Delivering Difficult Feedback

Let’s look at something most people avoid: giving undesirable feedback. Perhaps right now you’re grappling with someone who fails to communicate effectively, has a casual relationship with accountability or treats others poorly. I come across this situation frequently and have even been asked to conduct workshops just on delivering difficult feedback.

Typically, an exasperated exec can’t understand how another person misses the focus and urgency of a performance-related situation. What I’ve found, is that often there is a lot of talk among almost everyone but the person at the heart of the matter! In one case, a President insisted an employee “had to know”, yet there wasn’t a whisper of it in her file. The President was surprised, but held his ground, saying that he himself had brought it up. The light bulb went on, though, when asked for specifics about his feedback. He realized he was so concerned about hurting the person’s feelings, or eliciting strong emotions, that his usual direct style collapsed into overly tactful nuances that were completely missed!

There are a couple of hurdles even the boldest can stumble over when delivering tough feedback:

  • Lack of Easy Entry – The conversation doesn’t happen because the person affected doesn’t know how to initiate it.
  • Talking Too Much – Most people don’t like long pauses so they just keep talking to fill the gaps. With so many words floating around, it’s easy to get lost and miss key points. People have a “what was that all about” experience.
  • Lightening the Load – Some use humor, or “balancing”compliments, to diffuse discomfort. It actually can confuse your listener, minimize the sense of importance or even insult them. This pitfall is a close cousin to Talking Too Much, only more distracting.
  • Forgetting the Other Person – It’s easy to get so focused on what you want to communicate, that the “conversation” turns into a monologue. You’ll have more buy in if you actively involve the other person in defining the issue, voicing their motivation for making changes, and brainstorming solutions.

The good news is that there are a few tips that can help you rise above the pitfalls and deliver effective, direct and actionable feedback.

  1. Set the Stage: Arrange a time to speak, giving the other person a heads up that you want to “address some concerns” or “explore better ways of working together.” This advance notice shows respect and prevents them from feeling ambushed.
  2. Prepare: Jot down the objective facts/examples – what you observe or experience relative to their behavior. Set aside any interpretations or judgments you might be weaving into those facts. Also list your 1 – 3 key points in direct, concise language.
  3. Approach with Openness: Go into the conversation being genuinely curious about the other person’s perspective and be prepared to listen to what they have to say. Start the conversation by sharing what you’ve noticed (your points in Step 2) and then ask them how they experience the situation. This part may get emotional; that’s okay. Just acknowledge that you recognize it’s difficult to have this kind of conversation and you appreciate their sticking with it.
  4. Make Specific Requests: Frustration, yours or theirs, often points to unspoken requests. After Step 3, integrate the information and then formulate specific requests. These should be positive statements defining what you each want the other to do in support of the desired outcome. If appropriate, use this as a starting point for creating an action plan and appropriate strategies.

Preparing in advance, pulling out emotional triggers (like judgments) and being clear about your intended message can boost your confidence and directness. The outcome is a more candid and productive conversation. You’ll breathe easier from clearing the air and getting things back on track.

Share