Difficult Conversations

It’s a fact of life that there will be times when we must communicate with someone else about something that may make both parties uncomfortable. Yes, we all will have many difficult conversations over the course of our lives – personally and professionally. And while no one looks forward to such conversations, it is important that they not be avoided. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen situations where two people just need to have that hard conversation to get back on the same page. Instead, they avoid each other entirely for a while. Then if by happenstance they are thrown together, there are awkward moments galore. I’ve seen friendships end and business partnerships blow up, simply because two people can’t come to grips with the fact that they need to clear the air and “talk it out.”

Why are these conversations so hard to have in the first place? Often it evolves from one of three places. First, we may perceive the encounter to be one where conflict will be present, and we are highly allergic to conflict. Second, we may have let ourselves be hurt and just can’t stand the thought of interacting with the person who allegedly hurt us. Or third, we may be concerned that our conversation with the other person may be hurtful to them and we don’t want to be the one to play that role. So, we suffer in silence . . . or maybe not. Rather than addressing the issue with the other person, we may have a tendency to talk to everyone else about the situation – friends, family, colleagues – often wringing our hands in despair and playing the tape(s) over and over for them. Here’s the bottom-line question. Did taking this tack make us feel any better? Probably not. Did it solve the problem? Definitely not. Were others around us unnecessarily drawn into the negativity of the situation. Almost always.

Refraining from having an honest conversation about a difficult matter does a disservice to our relationships. Now assume that we have finally decided to address the issue. Let’s talk rules of engagement. Should we have these conversations one-on-one or should a third-party be present? While there are exceptions to the rule, I think we need to have the guts to deal directly with the other person. While it may help our courage to have a wingman, the person with whom we are trying to resolve an issue may not feel comfortable putting all his or her cards on the table. Do we have the conversation in private, or do it in a public place? I’ve witnessed situations where one person wants to meet with the other in a restaurant “to avoid a meltdown.” This could be perceived by the other party as being manipulative and further strains the relationship. I’m always in favor of meeting in private and behind closed doors if possible.

Our body language is critical to the success of the encounter. We should be as open and relaxed as we possibly can. Sitting with our body turned away from the other person and our arms folded doesn’t send the message that we want to resolve anything. Keeping palms open, smiling and making eye contact will help put the other person at ease. How direct do we want the conversation to be? In my book, directness is fine, but we need to use warm candor instead of brutal honesty. We don’t need to sugarcoat our dialogue, but we must be sensitive to the other person’s feelings. If we’re there to score points and prove that we are right and they are wrong, then by all means, rub their nose in it. But if we really want resolution, we are gentle with our words while still making certain that there is no ambiguity in what we are saying.

I’ve also found that sticking to the facts is a good practice. That said, we must remember that the reason the conversation may be difficult in the first place could be due to emotions that ran amuck. Thus, we need to have empathy for the emotional factor but keep the discussion in the logical realm. And sometimes, rehashing the disagreement isn’t necessarily productive – it may be best to just apologize and move on (if an apology is warranted).

Difficult conversations are necessary and will generally be successful by adhering to this simple principle. I will treat the other person the same way I want to be treated.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Good or Bad Signals?

You walk into a meeting and there are several people in the room. Two people are scowling, another has his face in his hands, and one person has his body turned away from the others with his arms crossed. It’s not hard to surmise that there are some unhappy folks in our midst. Entrepreneurs will do well to pay attention to body language and non-verbal forms of expression – not only to understand how others may be feeling but also to know what signals he/she may be sending.

So quick – here’s a bit of trivia. What was the television commercial that coined the phrase “never let them see you sweat?” Give up? It was a commercial for a deodorant product called Dry Idea and was released in 1984. Though the product is long forgotten, the phrase is apropos for every entrepreneur. Let’s focus on how we want others to see us.

As a leader, the last thing I want is for anyone else to sense that I’m having a bad day. Fortunately this seldom happens, but when it does I don’t want members of my team to be nervous or concerned about how I’m feeling. Putting on the happy face is important when others are looking to us for leadership. Members of our team often take their cues from us. That’s why I do my best to try and always send positive vibes.

How we dress can send a powerful message. A number of years ago our companies went from casual Fridays to casual every day. It seemed to be the way of the world and there was a lot of enthusiasm for making the shift. After a few months, I realized that I did not like it. However, once a policy has been changed giving something like this to the team, it’s very hard to take it away. But that didn’t mean I had to dress down myself. Instead, I started wearing suits or sport coats and ties every day but Friday. I’m just more comfortable attired this way. And being one of the few business people still dressing up, I have been the recipient of many a comment as to how nice I look. If nothing else, others are noticing that I am representing our organization in a sharp and tasteful manner. Perhaps they’ll draw a positive conclusion about our brand as well.

I’m working with my oldest grandson (age 11) to help him learn how to shake hands. The handshake should be firm but not crushing. It’s important for the hand to be dry and warm. A cold or wet handshake is a turnoff. At the same time as the handshake is occurring, we look the other person in the eye, SMILE and introduce our self – “I’m Lee Harris.” I teach my grandson that when he does this in a confident manner the other person will almost always reciprocate with his or her name. At this point it’s a good idea to repeat the other person’s name – “Hi Dylan, it’s nice to meet you.” So you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? I already know this stuff.” You would be amazed at how many entrepreneurs don’t know how to shake hands! Oh, and one other thing. When wearing a name badge, stick or pin it on the right side – not the left. This way, when you reach out to shake someone’s hand, it’s easy for them to see your name badge.

We tend to sit a lot in the business world. Our days are consumed with meetings and there are many levels of unspoken communications constantly occurring while we are seated. Are we rocking in our chair? Do we have a fidget-prone foot or leg? These movements can be distracting to others and may lessen the impact of what we have to say. Are we slouching in our chair? Is our phone in our lap and are we looking down for extended periods of time as we check e-mails, texts, etc.? As entrepreneurial leaders we want to set a good example for our team. Good posture and ongoing attentiveness sends the right message.

Finally, I can’t overemphasize the power of the SMILE and regular eye contact. This form of non-verbal communications puts people at ease and is vital to establishing a positive rapport.

Even though we may have learned about body language and non-verbal communications long ago, it’s always a good idea to periodically review and refresh. Better yet, spend a few moments to teach a youngster what you’ve learned.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 82 – “No” Flippers.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Anti-Bulldozer

Many of us entrepreneurs have a tendency to be a bit aggressive at times. The appropriate analogy might be something about a bull in a china shop. Speaking for myself I know there have been times when I pushed through a situation and likely ran roughshod over others who were involved. It’s not that we do so intentionally, but we are naturally assertive and want to get things done . . . right now!

Much earlier in my career I was totally oblivious to how others might be reacting to me. I had not yet learned how to “read” people. I thought I was doing things the right way, but apparently was stepping on a lot of toes in the process. When this was pointed out to me I became a bit defensive and thought, “It’s not my problem if others have such thin skins.” Perhaps this was true in a literal sense, but how others feel and perceive us becomes reality – regardless of what we intend. What I didn’t realize is that being the bulldozer caused my colleagues and others to resent me and not want to work with me.

After many years it became apparent that others weren’t going to change – I needed to instead. Fortunately this didn’t require me to compromise my principles. But I realized that not only did I need to understand how others were responding to me, but also that I needed to adjust my approach accordingly. I began to pay close attention to “reading” people and modifying my approach away from a “one-size fits-all.”

Reading people is multi-faceted. It requires us to listen not only to what others say but how they say it. If I am laying out a strategy and asking for feedback, I need to pay attention to voice inflection, pitch, cadence and tone. I need to watch facial features. Does the other person’s jaw clench; is there an eye twitch; does the color change in his or her face, and do the nostrils flair? I must observe other body language tells. Is there a stiffening or turning of the body; do the arms fold or gesture in some way; do the fists clench; does the head raise or drop; is eye contact lost; what do I see in the eyes, and does the person literally shrink in position? How exactly does the person verbally respond? Is there hesitation before speaking? What words are selected by the person in his or her response?

People reads are only part of the sensitivity process. How do I conduct myself when receiving feedback? Is my body language open or closed? Do I keep a smile on my face or do I send signals that I don’t really want to hear what is being said? Am I truly listening or just giving the appearance of doing so? I have found that repeating back what the other person says helps send the message that I am listening. Then it’s important for me to acknowledge what is being said in a positive manner. For example, “I hear you when you tell me that you aren’t in favor of reaching out to the client in the manner I suggested and understand why you feel the way you do. Let’s come up with a different way of handling this.” In the old days I would simply tell the person to “just do it.” Today, it’s become much more important for me to be flexible and help others find different ways to reach the same end goal than just the way I want to do it.

Sensitivity is not a weakness. Instead it is an effective leadership trait. Reading people; listening to them; understanding what they are saying, and making the necessary adjustments engenders the trust and confidence of our team.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.


Do You Read Me?

Question: I’ve heard the term “reading people” and I think I know what it is but I’m not sure how to do it. Do you have any tips on how to go about doing this?

Answer: Learning how to read people is a critical skill for everyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s the business world, government, academia or any other walk of life, understanding the reactions of others will help us improve our relationships – guaranteed.

The first step toward learning how to read people is to push ourselves out of the picture. All of our focus and powers of observation must be directed at the person with whom we are interacting. If we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next, or our mind is wandering, we may very well miss the subtle signals that the other person is sending. Often our desire to engage in conversation may also cause us to be oblivious to how the other person is really feeling.

I have a theory that successful poker players may be more skilled at reading their opponents than utilizing whatever strategy they may be deploying. Start with the use of our auditory senses. How articulate is the other person? What is his/her cadence like? Are the conversational pauses appropriate in duration? Are there increases in the voice pitch? The manner in which a person speaks reveals whether he or she is nervous, happy, sad, lying and a host of other emotions.

What visual cues do we see? Can the other person maintain eye contact? Is the person slouching or sitting or standing in an erect manner? How genuine is his or her smile? Does this person fidget or shake a foot? Some people play with their ear lobes or hide their mouths behind their hands. What kind of hand gestures do we see?

Reading people requires that we finely tune our powers of observation. Think about how well we really pay attention. What color are the other person’s eyes? Which side does he or she part their hair? How was this person attired? Was this person wearing rings, earrings or other jewelry? If you are like me, you aren’t as keenly aware of the other person so as to notice these details. This is something I’ve been working on lately and I can tell you that it has helped me pay closer attention to all aspects of whomever I am interacting.

Ultimately the objective in reading people is not to manipulate them but to make a connection. When a connection is made a relationship can be built. And I would much rather build a strong and lasting relationship with someone than use my ability to read them for purposes of gaining an advantage of some sort. If someone is in distress, I want to empathize with them. If someone is in a euphoric state, I want to celebrate with them. If someone is anxious, I want to help calm them. Above all, I want to support them and can do this if I understand them.

We can become better leaders, better colleagues, better acquaintance or better friends when we look below the surface and understand how another person is feeling. Reading people for this purpose is truly a noble calling.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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