How to Stop Avoiding Difficult Conversations

While the old adage suggests that silence is golden, on teams it’s deadly.  That’s because in the absence of information and open communication, people make up stories about what is happening, whether positive or negative.  And once people start to make up a particular story about something, that story holds more power over their behavior than anything else happening on the team.

There are many reasons why people might avoid conversations, but in our experience the main reason is because they don’t know how, and they’re afraid that the conversation might escalate into conflict. We’ve worked with many tools over the years and next to the intention/impact tool we wrote about in February, this tool based on Sherod Miller’s work, provides a step by step process to preparing for and having a difficult conversation.

The First Step

So, instead of avoiding that difficult conversation or launching into it ill prepared, take a few moments to write down the answers to the following 5 questions:

  1. What have I seen or heard? Make sure you jot down the facts of the situation, those very objective details that are not debatable. If you find yourself having a hard time coming up with ‘just the facts’ then you know you have already made up a pretty compelling story about the situation and need to slow down, and identify just the facts.
  2. What do I think is going on? — This is the “story” part of the situation, the assumptions and beliefs you have about it, the meaning you have attributed to a particular situation. In our experience people are pretty good at identifying their story, but not so good at being open to the other person’s story.
  3. How am I feeling? Some people are really good at this step (and in fact can get stuck here or overwhelm others!) while others are uncomfortable identifying and/or expressing their emotions. The six basic emotions are anger, fear, sadness, surprise, happiness and disgust. Other emotions common to difficult situations are disappointment, frustration, betrayal, or anxiety. It is important to identify and name your emotion in order to deal with it in a helpful way.  In our experience, people who skip this step tend to “act out” their emotions and this then creates more confusion and unintended impact for others.
  4. What do I want? This is a simple question but it often stumps people. They are usually so preoccupied with their story and/or emotions that they get stuck there.  In our experience, often the main “want” is to feel heard.
  5. Am I open to another perspective? This is probably the hardest step of all.  If you really want open communication and a productive team, you need to be prepared to be wrong.  We often ask people “if the other person was 10% right what would that be?” If you can be open to even a 10% shift in your thinking, there’s a stronger possibility that your difficult conversation will turn out ok.

Hopefully writing down the answers to these questions has allowed you to develop some perspective about the situation and deal with your own emotions in a positive way.

The Second Step

Now, you are ready to have the conversation using the first 4 questions above to structure it. If you are completely new to having this sort of conversation, we would suggest you choose a very low risk situation to practice and let the person know you are trying out a new tool.  Here’s how to structure the conversation:

I ‘m trying a new approach to our teamwork (communication) and would like to chat about what happened at our last team meeting.  Would you have a few moments to do that? Assuming a yes, then identify your responses from question #1 above and ask the other person for theirs. Once you have agreed on the facts, you can proceed to your story (#2 above) and ask for theirs.  Move through all  4 questions above, asking the person for their perspective at each point.

In our experience most people who have a solid relationship going into the conversation are able to come to a better understanding and strengthened relationship with each other.  If the situation has been going on for some time, trust has been eroded and either party is not open to the 10% shift, you may need to call in a third party to help out with the conversation.

What tips do you have for difficult conversations?  We’d love to hear from you!

8 Steps to Protect your Team from Disengaging

What are the chances of you being actively disengaged when your manager primarily:

  • ignores you
  • focuses on your weaknesses
  • focuses on your strengths

Drum roll please …40%, 22% and 1% respectively according to a 2005 Gallup poll.  Translated, that means to me that managers who are too busy to spend any time with their employees are at risk of them being 40% less productive … that’s pretty staggering. In my experience this stat translates equally well with teams. Those teams who focus on and play to their respective strengths are highly engaged, productive and enjoy their teams. Those teams who ignore the conversation about strengths and/or do not ever revisit roles run the risk of losing momentum and energy.

The best resource we’ve seen about uncovering strengths is StrengthsFinder 2.0, developed by Tom Rath and based on years and years of Gallup research. The most powerful aspect of this framework is its definition of strengths – those activities we find energizing. Most of us think of strengths as the things we are good at … seeing strengths as those things that energize us is a subtle but powerful shift.

So how does a team go about exploring strengths in a structured and meaningful way?  Here’s what we suggest:

  1. Each member buy the StrengthsFinder 2.0 book, complete the online assessment, and read the customized report.  Amazon online has it available for $15 per book, a great deal!
  2. Set aside 2 -3 hours (depends upon the size of your team) at a next team meeting to work with the results.
  3. Draw up a big wall chart … listing the 34 strengths horizontally across the top and team member names vertically along one side.
  4. Each team member then places an x in each of their strengths.
  5. Based on the results, organize your team into groups of 2 people, each group of 2 exploring a shared strength by identifying what it means to them and some concrete examples of the strength.
  6. After the report out, have a broad discussion of the team’s strengths.
  7. Then, list all of the projects your team is engaged in and identify the strengths most needed in those projects.
  8. Finally, have a conversation about roles/accountabilities … are the right people doing the right things? Can you shift your team work to more readily accommodate team strengths?

We have facilitated this activity with dozens of teams and are inspired by the conversations that people have and the level of excitement and engagement.  It is one of the most useful tools we have seen to protect a team from disengaging, or to put it more positively, Play to your Strengths, our teamwork tip of the week.

Play to your Strengths

Jack of Spades – Play to your Strengths

Everybody performs better when they play to their strengths. Make sure that individuals’ strengths are taken into account when roles are assigned and tasks allotted. One way to do this would be to have the team discuss what strengths would be needed to accomplish a role or task before it is allotted. Also check out Gallup’s Strengths Finder book for a more formal approach to discovering your strengths.

What % of time do you think your team is playing to its strengths? What might happen if you increased that by 10%?

Would you like more help re-engaging your team?  We offer customized teambuilding and team coaching experiences. Contact us today for a free consultation.

Don’t Read This If Your Team Is Stressed

Well, here you are reading this so your team (or perhaps more accurately you) are stressed. And I just know what you’re going to say … you have too much work and too little time. So if I suggest anything at all to you at this point, you might just rip my face off (you laugh but I just had that happen and not that long ago). But I will risk it anyway and suggest that at your next team meeting, you ask for 5 minutes and have everyone do the following:

  1. Write down all of the things that you can celebrate right now about your lives, your work and your team. And yes, do feel free to tweet, text or email each other if you simply can’t pull yourself away from your technology.
  2. Make a list of the things you are stressed about that you can control and ask yourselves for each one – 6 minutes from now will this be important, 6 hours from now, 6 days from now, 6 weeks from now, 6 years from now. I’d like to humbly suggest that you put all of the 6 minute, hour, and day things into perspective.
  3. Then, make a list of things you are stressed about that you can’t control and banish them from your heads. As someone once said (and I’m sorry I cannot remember who said it or where I read it), don’t let them live rent free in your head. It’s like giving someone you don’t trust the passwords to all of your accounts and that’s just plain crazy.
  4. TAKE A MINUTE, AN HOUR, OR BETTER YET A DAY OFF!!!! If your team is stressed, you have opened just one too many programs and your computer will crash (I know this because my husband watches me do this all the time and, yes, even that brand new super dooper computer will crash at some point if you just keep installing software on it.)
  5. Next, get reacquainted with the original passion and intent of the team. What is your team being called to do? How does that fit into the overall goals of your organization? How and where does your team need to prioritize its work?  How can you reignite how you all work together?
  6. Now that you’ve rebooted, take a deep breath and prepare yourself for the final bit of advice …

LOOK AFTER YOURSELVES!!!! Instead of winding yourselves up like the Ever Ready Battery Bunny, try to keep our teamwork tip of the week top of mind, or better yet the wallpaper on your iPhone.

Look After Yourselves

Jack of Hearts – Look After Yourselves

Our work lives can be challenging, and demanding. Make sure you take time for yourself on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Ensure that you are in touch with what really matters in life and strive to separate challenges and failures at work from your own personal sense of worth and efficacy. Take time for exercise, rest, leisure activities, family, friends, daily time-outs, and vacations.

How is your team doing?  How do you encourage each other to look after themselves?

Curious about the rest of the tips and want to know all about them now? Find out more.

Team Trust Buster #2

There’s nothing that breaks trust faster and contributes to organizational miscommunication, angst and lost productivity than triangulation, our Teamwork Explorer Tip this week. Not the map related kind or the research related kind but the all too common and human kind where you talk to your husband about how much your friend has hurt you or vice versa. Or the organizational kind where you tell everyone you know how much of an idiot your boss is but never have the courage to actually tell him to his face. Or the even more destructive kind that gets going on a group level contributing to silos in organizations.  Bad mouthing another department or unit in your organization to another unit or department might be human, a fun past time and a way to release your frustration, but it’s also really bad business.

On teams, triangulation is poisonous. You know it’s happening when there is more talk about the meeting AFTER the meeting in hushed voices in offices. There are two guilty parties in triangulation … the one telling and the one listening.  If you really want to improve trust and productivity on your team, you need to implement a no triangulation zone which means that a) you don’t talk about anyone else behind their back and b) if someone else is doing it, you challenge them to stop.

It might sound overly simple … but it’s amazingly difficult to live consistently. Having taught this concept for close to 15 years, you’d think I would have mastered it, but I am still working on it myself. What I have discovered about triangulation is that the more centered I am, the less likely I am to engage in triangulation because I am strong enough to see my own role in situations and not blame others.  When I get stressed or off balance and don’t create time to focus on the things I am doing well or the successes I have had, the more likely I am to blow off steam and avoid difficult conversations.

Queen of Diamonds (communication) – Triangulation. (Need to know more about our approach to teamwork?) See our Teamwork Explorer blog post.)


A common response to conflict on teams is to speak to others about the situation. This sets up an indirect communication pattern (often called triangulation), encourages people to not see their own roles in the problem, and leads to unresolved conflict in the team. The essence of any productive team building and effective organizational learning is de-triangulation.

Is your team guilty of triangulation? How can you encourage people to talk directly to each other?

Curious about the rest of the tips and want to know all about them now? Visit our store!

Why I Love Gail Vaz-Oxlade

Ok here’s my guilty little secret. I love Gail Vaz-Oxlade and all her various TV programs, books, blogs and tweets.  If you don’t know who she is, she is the Queen of Realty TV about debt and since I’ve gotten my Shaw PVR, I tape all of her programs and watch them obsessively.  While her ideas around debt and saving money are no nonsense and informative, that’s not why I watch her over and over.  I watch her and love her because she is the kind of creative no nonsense coach that I aspire to, and her insights about helping couples get back on track applies equally well to teams.

Gail is gifted in her ability to hold up a mirror and force people to face up to reality … her weekly challenges that get people out of denial, into perspective shifting and into action are creative and funny. Consider the one where she makes a couple carry around a backpack of 50 pounds for a week so they physically “get” how their debt is weighing them down.  Or has another couple remove all of the items in the house that don’t add value (because they wasted so much money on “stuff” that literally cluttered up their house) and while doing that limits the wife to only 30 sentences because she talks too much at her husband.

The show often starts with the couple being interviewed about their problems and challenges around money. What is most fascinating is often the couple knows what they are doing wrong, but just can’t quite get past the denial of it to make some changes. It takes Gail to help them see what their behavior is REALLY costing them.

This is so true of teams as well. I often interview individual members of a team before I actually do a team session with them. They all have a pretty good sense of what’s happening and even what they might need to do to make it better.  But they don’t know how to disrupt the routine of the team to put challenges/issues on the table.

So that’s my team tip of the week.  Use regular check-ins to take the temperature of the team and create alignment with your vision and goals. Once a month at a team meeting, do a round table on questions like “How are we living our vision/values?” “What are we doing well?” “What conversation do we need to have?” “What are we avoiding?”

It’s a whole lot easier to facilitate low risk type conversations and catch things early than wait until you hear Gail say something like “And if you keep this up, in 5 years you will be $650,000 in debt!”

3 of Hearts – Devote Time to Alignment (Need to know more about our approach to teamwork?) See our Teamwork Explorer blog post.)

Devote Time to Alignment

While devoting time to creating understanding among team members about your vision is important, regularly checking in with and creating alignment is even more important. Regularly check in with the vision through asking the following:

  1. What do you think we should start/stop doing on this team (project)?
  2. What are the three best and three worst examples of us living our vision?
  3. On a scale of 1-10 how are people doing, how is our stress level, how do we feel about the progress on the project, etc.?
  4. What is one thing we need to do to better align our actions with our vision?

What other tips do you have for keeping a team on track and raising issues?

How to Keep Teams Motivated

Today’s Teamwork Explorer Tip is the Queen of Hearts (heart) – Celebrate Success. (Need to know more about our approach to teamwork?) See our Teamwork Explorer blog post.)

Celebrate Success

We do a lot of work with the high tech sector. We love working with them as they are curious, engaged, motivated and voracious learners who keep us on our toes. When we do teambuilding workshops with them and ask them to identify their 5 card winning hand from our Teamwork Cards, they almost always choose the Queen of Hearts, Celebrate Success.  We think this is common across high performing teams who are working on complex projects where it’s not always possible to see that you’ve made progress. In our experience, everyone needs to experience some sort of success and celebrate it somehow in order to remain focused and motivated.

Queen Hearts – Celebrate Success

High performing teams can sometimes get into the habit of constantly striving for faster or better outcomes, thereby creating a subtle message that says ‘we are not good enough’.

Make sure you add celebrations into your project plans, both at the very end of a project but also along the way to celebrate small wins. Nothing motivates people more than acknowledgement of work well done. Find creative ways to celebrate that are meaningful for your team.

Do you celebrate your small wins, successes, and/or milestones? What has been the most memorable celebration you’ve had?

Curious about the rest of the tips and want to know all about them now? Then download the free Teamwork Explorer iPhone app now! More interested in the actual paper based set of cards?  Visit our store!

Blind Decision Making

Today’s Teamwork Explorer Tip is the King of Clubs (decision making) – Gathering all Information. (Need to know more about our approach to teamwork?) See our Teamwork Explorer blog post.)

Gathering All Information

Today’s blog is very related to last week’s on the Baby in the Back Seat.  Because we often jump to conclusions, our decision making may not be all that accurate or helpful.  I was coaching someone last week who was being asked by her CEO to attend morning huddles.  She was newly promoted to the executive leadership team and was finding the changing requirements of the position challenging.  She was sceptical about the value of the huddles and thought they would really disrupt her day … she had made a number of assumptions about them and was really leaning towards just not attending. I asked her if she knew why her CEO wanted her to attend and why he thought they were important. The lightbulb went off … she had no idea and had not thought to ask.  By the end our session, she had decided to try a few and have another conversation with her CEO about the importance of them. She also realized that if she were going to go to these morning huddles she would need to remain open to them.  She came up with the following questions to guide her “What can I learn from the morning huddle?” “What can I contribute to the morning huddle?”

While this example is about an individual, teams are guilty of the same sorts of knee jerk reactions in response to requests. Ensure that your team has the right information to make informed decisions.

King of Clubs – Gathering All Information

Gathering as much pertinent information as possible prior to making a decision may involve bringing in expertise from outside the team. Teams have to beware of spending too long gathering information prior to making time-critical decisions.

How does your team handle the information gathering phase of your decision making?  Do you make decisions too quickly or procrastinate too much?

Curious about the rest of the tips and want to know all about them now? Then download the free Teamwork Explorer iPhone app now! More interested in the actual paper based set of cards?  Visit our store!

Baby in Back Seat

Today’s Teamwork Explorer Tip is the King of Diamonds (communication) – Ladder of Inference. (Need to know more about our approach to teamwork?) See our Teamwork Explorer blog post.)

Ladder of Inference

What does a baby in the back seat have to do with teams and our communication tip this week?  Well, read on …

Despite the fact that I value learning and know that patience is a large part of learning, I am not a patient person.  A story I read in Anna Maravelas book helps me slow down and communicate better with those around me.  It’s the story of a man who stopped behind a woman at a red light. The light turned green and the woman ahead didn’t start moving, so he (being like me) got impatient and started blowing his horn.  Not only that, but she actually turned around and was fiddling with something in the back seat and THEN she actually got out of the car and was trying to get something out of the back seat. Well, the driver lost it at that point, blowing the horn, yelling through the window, just in general carrying on.  Well, we’ve all been there haven’t we? Stressed out, thinking that we are running short of time, etc, etc. Turns out that the woman was trying to stop her baby from choking. That’s why she got out of the car … to save her baby and thus baby in back seat or BIBS as Anna calls it in her book.

And this is the essence of Peter Senge’s ideas (based on the original work of Chris Argyris) in the Fifth Discipline around the Ladder of Inference. We take in information and select certain bits of it to pay attention to, attach meaning to and base our actions on.  Because so many drivers don’t pay attention to what they are doing, this man ran up his ladder to actions (blowing the horn, etc).

How often do we do this on teams?  I see it all the time and I do it all the time.  Remaining open and curious about what is REALLY happening for people takes time, energy and commitment, but if you really want to improve the communication on your team, you need to do it.  I try to remember BIBS when I find myself getting angry or stressed … we have a few other tips below in our teamwork card, King of Diamonds.

King of Diamonds – Ladder of Inference (Peter Senge)

To make sense of the world, people have short-cuts or ladders of inference for their beliefs and actions. Analyzing what has led to a particular belief and/or asking others what has led to their beliefs often improves communication.

  1. What are some of your ladders of inference?
  2. How have these worked for or against open communication and building positive relationships?
  3. How might you use the ladder of inference model to check your assumptions about team members and/or help your team members check their own assumptions?

What other tips do you have for suspending judgments and watching your assumptions? I would love to hear them!

Curious about the rest of the tips and want to know all about them now? Then download the free Teamwork Explorer iPhone app now! More interested in the actual paper based set of cards?  Visit our store!

5 Tips for Team Goals

Today’s Teamwork Explorer Tip is the King of Spades, Be Clear about the Goal. (Need to know more about our approach to teamwork?) See our Teamwork Explorer blog post.)

Be Clear about the Goal

The idea of goal setting is not new, but what is challenging on teams (and generally in organizations) is getting everyone aligned and working towards the same goal.  In Built to Last Collins and Porras described the importance of having visonary and emotionally compelling goals, or big hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs). As they suggest a BHAG is “clear and compelling, serves as a unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.” In our experience, here are a few tips for identifying your team’s BHAGs:

  1. An obvious tip … but ensure your team goal is aligned to the overall goals of the organization. If that connection isn’t clear you are on shaky ground.
  2. Identify the common values of your team members.  Goals need to be aligned with common values or you definitely won’t get people buying in. For example, if team members value social causes and your team’s big goal is to increase sales revenue you likely won’t get everyone on board. When you identify and discuss values, ensure you also talk about the beliefs and behaviors behind your value. For example, I value freedom because I believe that freedom contributes to my creativity and keeps me energized. That’s why I have chosen to remain an independent consultant for many years as the freedom to choose projects and organizations keeps me interested, engaged and continually learning. I have turned down many jobs in order to live my value of freedom.
  3. Find goals that tap into the passion of your team members. Start goal setting with a brainstorming starter like “What if we could …” Ensure that you suspend the “we can’t do that because …” critical analysis until you’ve had a good shot at the brainstorming!
  4. Ask yourselves how you will know if you are making progress toward goals and then build in celebrations when you reach them.
  5. At the end of meetings, ask yourselves how the meeting helped to move you closer to your goals. If it didn’t, you need to change your meetings and/or revisit your goals.

King of Spades – Be Clear about the Goal

Amazing results are achieved when team members pull together toward a common goal. Revisit the goal often to make sure everyone understands what the team is trying to accomplish. It’s best to bring hidden agendas out on the table rather than keeping them hidden.

Are you clear about the goal on your team? What tips do you have for helping team members stay focused?

Curious about the rest of the tips and want to know all about them now? Then download the free Teamwork Explorer iPhone app now! More interested in the actual paper based set of cards?  Visit our store!

Team Trust Builder #1

Today’s Teamwork Explorer Tip is the King of Hearts, Fess Up!. (Need to know more about our approach to teamwork?) See our Teamwork Explorer blog post.)

Fess Up!

This week’s blog post follows very closely from the last two … as humans we make mistakes. The biggest trust builder on teams in our experience is to sincerely fess up! While we think that fessing up should be practiced by every team member as a matter of good practice, much has been written recently about the importance of public apologies from leaders … for a great blog post check out Barbara Kellerman’s When Should a Leader Apologize?

King of Hearts – Fess up!

Everyone makes mistakes. The biggest trust buster on teams is people making mistakes and not fessing up, but looking for something or someone else to blame. Help each other be accountable and create a team environment that encourages people to learn from mistakes. Fess up in a timely manner to head off any built up resentments over time.

What’s your team environment like? Do people fess up? Has fessing up been a trust builder for your team?

Curious about the rest of the tips and want to know all about them now? Then download the free Teamwork Explorer iPhone app now! More interested in the actual paper based set of cards?  Visit our store!

Teamwork Explorer