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.

The Bermuda Triangulation Effect

Allow me to set the stage. Don, Shirley, Frank and Jessie all work for the same company. They are peers and interact on a daily basis. Let’s pull back the curtain momentarily and observe what is happening.

Shirley has stopped Frank in the hall. They have an exchange that goes like this.

Shirley: “Frank, you won’t believe what Don did. I’m so frustrated with him! He was supposed to prepare graphs for the PowerPoint slides to insert into the Magruder presentation and he totally blew it off. How are we going to get these graphs?”

Frank: “Wow, Shirley! It’s incredible that he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. You know, he’s done that before. What a bozo!”

Later, Frank runs into Jessie and their conversation went like this.

Frank: “Jessie – Shirley told me that Don completely booted the graphs for the Magruder presentation. She’s about to blow a gasket. I wonder if Don should even be on our team.”

Jessie: “That’s awful! Don seems to have a history of doing things like this. He’s being extremely selfish and doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”

What is happening here? I call it The Bermuda Triangulation Effect. The Bermuda Triangle is a region covering roughly 500,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean where ships and aircraft have seemingly vanished without a trace. In other words, it’s akin to a mysterious black hole, sucking in the unsuspecting. Unfortunately there’s no mystery to The Bermuda Triangulation Effect. Triangulation is a no man’s land where different parties whine, moan and groan about another party without speaking directly with that party. In our example Frank, Shirley and Jessie are triangulating about Don and the problems he has caused. Yet, no one bothered to talk to Don about the issue.

Triangulation is bad for business and bad for relationships. It’s pure poison and can dramatically and adversely impact the chemistry of a team. Why does all of this grousing happen among teammates in the first place? I believe that it’s indicative of a team that does not hold mutual respect as a cornerstone. Team members also don’t trust each other to the point that they can have conversations directly with the party who is causing issues. I’ve heard many people explain that they feel like such a conversation could be confrontational and they want to avoid conflict.

Here’s the truth. Entrepreneurial leaders must take all steps necessary to eliminate triangulation. This starts with identifying clear roles and accountabilities for each team member. And everyone must clearly understand how they are accountable to each other. This accountability should include a process for addressing issues and concerns that are encountered from time-to-time. Team members should understand that it is incumbent upon them to speak directly with another team member should a challenge arise with that individual. Discussions among peers should be taboo as they are counterproductive and accomplish absolutely nothing. And team members should be discouraged from trying to resolve their issues via e-mail. E-mail is a one-dimensional form of communication and is one of the worst ways to try and sort out problems within a team.

Team members should be educated on how to speak directly with another team member in what might be perceived as an uncomfortable situation. Had our fictitious team been properly educated, the following exchange might have occurred with Shirley going to Don directly.

Shirley: “Don – I was looking for the graphs that you were preparing and found that they weren’t in shared folder. I need to drop them in the PowerPoint for the Magruder presentation. When do you think you’ll have them ready?”

Don: “Shirley – “I’m so sorry. I spent the night in the emergency room with my daughter and wasn’t able to finish them like I promised. I’ve been working on them and will have them completed in about 30 minutes.”

Shirley: “I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter. I hope she’s OK. If you need any help, just let me know.”

No triangulation occurred. The team continued to move forward to achieve its goals. Feelings weren’t hurt and time wasn’t wasted with angry chatter.

As entrepreneurs we must endeavor to create a culture of mutual respect where team members are totally comfortable having conversations of all sorts with each other. Stamping out triangulation should be a priority to this end.

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 – Audio Episode 14 – Obstacle Proof.

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.

bermuda-triangle

The LFT Problem

I knew a person who always seemed to have a black cloud following over his head. He encountered some of the most bizarre situations I’ve ever known. His drive to work regularly was a harrowing experience. I’d hear tales of near-death situations involving rogue drivers forcing him off the road. Then there was the incident at the sporting goods store. He tried to return an item he purchased and got into a massive fight with the store that involved an ongoing string of e-mails and phone calls. Finally he always seemed to be feuding with a friend. The reasons were so banal that I never figured out what was really the problem.

At one point I dug in a little deeper to try and understand why this individual was always struggling so much. And guess what I found? He had an LFT problem. If you haven’t figured it out by now, LFT means Looking for Trouble. He was continually loaded for bear and saw a conspiracy against him every time he turned around. Turns out he was a pretty aggressive driver (I rode with him once and he scared the bejabbers out of me). He could be very demanding so I imagine that in a retail store he might have been inclined to run roughshod over the sales clerk. He told me that his motto was to “expect the unexpected” and be ready to “play offense.”

Going through life with an LFT mindset must be pretty depressing. And it’s an attitude that’s pure poison for entrepreneurs. I can see preparing for the unexpected, but intentionally expecting something bad to happen seems like it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I truly believe that if we see conflict and strife in every situation then that’s how we’ll live. Those types of thoughts are like a magnet.

I can count on two or three fingers the number of times I’ve had close calls in my car. I know I’m pretty vigilant when it comes to driving and while alert, I’m not “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” In other words, I don’t believe that there is someone out there looking to make my driving experience a miserable one. As an entrepreneur I’m well aware of the fact that there may be others who are looking to gain an unfair advantage. But I don’t obsess on this awareness. Instead, I go into each situation with the belief that the person across the table from me is going to deal honorably and I know that we’ll find a mutually acceptable conclusion to our interaction.

Life is so much better when we are in an LFG mode. LFG? Looking for Good. Don’t be fooled by this approach. It’s not naïve or Pollyanna-ish. LFG is relatively simple. We look for the good in every experience and with every person. This type of thought is also like a magnet. When we Look for Trouble we find it. When we Look for Good . . . we find it! It doesn’t mean that I’m going to walk down a dark alley in a big city and flash a big roll of Franklins! After all I’m not bulletproof. But it does mean that until someone proves me wrong, I’m going to choose to see a positive outcome in whatever I’m doing.

The entrepreneur who wakes up in the morning with a siege mentality and wonders who or what is going to come at him today, is in trouble before his feet hit the floor. By contrast, the entrepreneur who wakes up and knows that today is going to be positive and productive has just set the stage for a great day. Oh sure, there will be challenges because that’s just life. But the challenges are so much easier to resolve when we don’t have a nagging belief that there’s someone hiding around the corner ready to whack us in the kneecap.

So which will it be – LFT or LFG? The choice is 100% ours to make. There is no conspiracy. And there is no “other shoe” about to drop.

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 – Audio Episode 10 – Urgently Patient.

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.

falling shoe

Oatmeal on the Floor

I’ve been watching with great interest as my 2½ year-old grandson and his 11-month old sister explore their relatively new lives. Building an entrepreneurial business is a lot like raising a child. There’s a tremendous amount of nurturing required. Let’s look at the parallels.

My grandson is prone to tantrums which come with the territory during the terrible twos. Usually this happens because he’s frustrated or doesn’t get his way. In a growing business we can feel extreme frustration when things don’t go our way. We may have a tendency to take out our frustration on others in the form of an adult tantrum – possibly we say or do things that are less than kind. I also notice what happens when baby sister picks up one of his toys. Now, this may be a toy that he hasn’t touched for weeks, but if she latches onto it he suddenly wants and needs it right then and there. He’ll push her and she’ll push him – and trust me, she’s a strong little cuss! In our entrepreneurial endeavors we may regularly experience conflict with others who see things differently. As with children it sometimes seems like all we do is attempt to resolve such conflicts.

Do you want to talk about hyperactivity? I’m an expert on this subject. When you look up the word in the dictionary, my grandson’s picture is there. He and his sister are both afflicted with this tendency. They are all over the place all of the time. He’ll put together a couple pieces of a puzzle, then zip over and ride his tricycle, then run upstairs and bang on his drum set (a hand-me-down from his older cousin who received it from yours truly – kind of a Karma thing). Baby sister is motoring around and climbing on everything during every single waking moment. Think about the entrepreneurial environment. It’s hectic. The pace is frenetic and we’re constantly putting out fires and incubating new ideas – all at the same time. The downside of course, can be a lack of focus and a failure to complete tasks and projects.

Kids make ginormous messes. When I visit at my daughter’s house I’m always struck by all the “stuff” that is strewn about. At our home I watch these kids drag things out of the toy box and leave them in their wake as they move on to the next “thing.” Fortunately we have fewer “stuff” items at our home, but there’s no question that the little munchkins can actually pull everything out and cover the floor in a matter of seconds. And when it comes to eating, that’s a whole other story. There’s no other way to put it – it looks like a daily occurrence of an Animal House food fight. There’s oatmeal on the floor, eggs on the walls and cheese stuck to the ceiling! Our businesses may look the same way. Building an entrepreneurial organization is a messy proposition. Things break. The prototype product we created isn’t the sleek game-changer we had anticipated. Systems and processes are half-completed and sometimes customers are less than pleased.

For all the trials and tribulations of raising children, there are many rewarding moments. Watching my grandson take his first few steps and become more confident every day thereafter was pretty cool. Listening to a 2½ year-old sing the “ABC Song” perfectly is a proud moment. Seeing the smiles and hearing them lovingly call me “Poppa” melts my heart. I guess it’s true what they say about grandkids being the reward we receive for not killing our children. Likewise, our hearts sing when things come together and we actually take three steps forward as entrepreneurs. Oh sure, there will be two-step-backward days as well, but the net effect is positive. How do we make sure that the rewards are always there? Like parents, we remain committed to building our business just like we’re committed to raising our kids. We learn how to be patient. We learn how to be positive. And we learn how to celebrate the victories along the way.

When we grow an entrepreneurial business we know there’s going to be oatmeal on the floor. But if we are committed, patient, positive and celebrate success, eventually our baby will grow up and make us very proud.

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.

Messy Baby

Grrrr!

I know someone who always seems to have the worst luck with personal encounters. This person relates harrowing tales of being cut off by other drivers and nearly having an accident on a daily basis. This person is regularly aggrieved by others – slights of all types and magnitude. This person is opinionated and not the least bit shy about sharing views on a wide range of subjects, often causing discomfort for others. In short, this person lives in a constant state of conflict.

Conflict can be a healthy thing if it’s properly managed. But I sure don’t want to live there. Some people dread and avoid conflict as much as others seem to constantly be embroiled in it. As entrepreneurs it’s next to impossible to completely avoid situations where conflict may arise. And trying to do so may damage our relationships if we fail to be genuine and authentic for the sake of what we perceive as “keeping the peace.” So just how should we manage conflict in a healthy manner? I have learned through experience that there are four elements to managing conflict.

First, we must never play the victim. Conflict begins when we give someone else our power by letting our feelings be hurt or believe that we are being taken advantage of in some way. These feelings bubble up and our resentment builds as we buy into this story that we are telling ourselves. It’s critical that we break this cycle before it starts thereby allowing us to avoid wallowing in and exaggerating the fiction that we have created. Of course there may be instances where someone really is trying to hurt us and take advantage of us. But if we don’t give our power away the perpetrator won’t be able to escalate the conflict.

Second, maintaining a positive attitude is critical to successfully managing conflict. After we eliminate any stray feelings of victimization we need to shift into a 100% positive frame of mind as quickly as possible. Our positive energy is vital to creating the end result that we desire. Think about it. Are we more likely to end up in a good place with negative energy or positive energy? The choice is pretty simple.

Third, we stay in “fact mode.” Let’s assume for a moment that the conflict involves an employee who has accused you of showing favoritism to another employee. The accuser is so upset that he has pleaded his case to a number of his co-workers, causing a minor uproar in the organization. You know this guy is flat wrong but you resist the temptation to feel like a victim and take offense that your integrity and leadership is being impugned. You choose to stay positive and move directly into the fact finding mode. You have a calm and non-accusatory conversation with the angry employee to find out specifically why he believes you are showing favoritism. Perhaps the facts lead you to the realization that this person misunderstood a key piece of information that led to his misperception. You are easily able to share the real facts and quickly defuse the situation.

Finally, we must know when to compromise when appropriate. It’s easy when we know we’re right to become entrenched in our position and dig in our heels. And it might be just as easy to say something like, “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding,” even if we truly aren’t at fault. I do not advocate compromising our core values or our principles. But sometimes it’s better to offer the olive branch when neither is at stake. The conflict may quickly de-escalate at that point and our leadership may be admired and respected.

Managing conflict can be a positive opportunity to build relationships. Entrepreneurs should embrace this opportunity by not playing the victim card; staying positive; pursuing the facts and compromising when it makes sense to do so.

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.

boxing-babies

That Queasy Feeling

Question: As an entrepreneur, I consider myself to be a pretty easygoing person. But there are times and situations where my interaction with others can become pretty intense. How can I avoid these situations?

Answer: You can’t avoid them but you can change the way you feel about them. What you have described is confrontation. Many entrepreneurs don’t deal well with conflict and confrontation and attempt to avoid them at all costs. Often this makes the problem worse. By avoiding dealing with a particular situation that could result in a perceived confrontation, we may be giving tacit approval to bad behavior on the part of someone else. Or we may not be resolving a particular situation that could become poisonous for our organization. This doesn’t just apply to the business world, but to life in general.

Why do we try so hard to avoid conflict? Are we afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings? Are we concerned about our own image? Does it make us anxious when we’re in the middle of a disagreement? Is there a chance that a relationship could be damaged? It’s true that all of these things could happen . . . if we believe they might. But what if we changed our attitude and didn’t view them as truths?

Suppose instead, that we look at a potential conflict or confrontation as an opportunity to accomplish several things. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to truly understand someone else’s point of view. Maybe it’s a chance to learn of a new idea or a new way to accomplish something. It could also be an opportunity to strengthen a relationship. Conflict will occur only if we believe that it will and allow it to be so. The key to the preceding statement is keeping an open mind.

I’ve encountered plenty of confrontational situations over the years and in many cases I dug in my heels and probably caused the conflict to intensify. More recently I’ve taken a different approach. Over time, I’ve found that it has gotten easier to open my mind and truly listen to someone else rather than being loaded for bear. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t intense conversations however. For example, if someone isn’t performing to expectations, this can’t be ignored. In these situations I’ve taken more of a mentoring or coaching approach rather than just having harsh words with the other person. Instead, I’ll start by asking them if they believe they are meeting the expectations. Often they’ll admit that they aren’t and we can move quickly into the coaching process. If they don’t make such an admission, it’s my duty to show them where they are falling short and make recommendations for improvement. Notice my wording here. At no time do I feel as though I’m in conflict with the other person.

We can avoid confrontation by changing our mindset. If we think a situation will be confrontational, it will be. But if we view the situation as a positive opportunity to have an open mind and reach an agreement with another person; or if we can turn an intense conversation into a coaching opportunity, then we can avoid that queasy feeling altogether.

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.

queasy feeling