Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Am I too emotional at work?

Question: My boss says I’m too emotionally volatile and that this is the one obstacle preventing him promoting me. It’s mainly to do with a few occasions when he totally undermined me in meetings with clients. I stayed calm in front of our clients, but then pretty much let my boss have it after the meetings. I’m good at my job and I say what I think. My boss even admitted he saw my point on these occasions. But… I don’t want this reputation. What do you suggest?

Answer: My guess is that you expressed some very strongly worded language of blame and criticism. After all, you think he did something wrong, so you told him. However, few people enjoy hearing blame and criticism, so your boss was probably struggling to hang in there and listen to your point of view. When he says you’re too volatile he’s joining you in the criticism game, because, well, it’s a popular game. You can step out of the game any time, however.

Blame and criticism are your thoughts on what another person is doing wrong. You will become a more powerful communicator if you learn to “tell it like it is” without without expressing those thoughts. For starters, mention the other person or their actions only in strict observation language. For example:

“Boss, can we talk about the moment when you said to the client ‘I can throw in the customer service package at no extra charge’.” There’s no blame or criticism here, just an observation about the words spoken by your boss.

Now, describe how you were affected, or how you see the implications. For example:

“I was shocked, because my understanding was we were to give no further cost-free incentives. I told the client this in earlier talks. I’m concerned that the trust I’ve established with them will be undermined. Can you understand my concern?”

This is a statement about you — you’re still speaking your mind. “Telling it like it is” does not mean delivering unfiltered blame and criticism, it means telling the truth. So you tell the truth about your concerns. Be succinct. Use 40 words or less if you can manage it, and certainly stay under a minute no matter what. Any more and the other person will probably start putting more energy into their defense or “rebuttal” than listening to your words.

Complete with an immediate request for a response from your boss. In a potentially tense conversation like this you want to keep inviting the other person to respond, you want to stay current with whether they’re understanding you, and how they’re responding.
So, what about the “emotional volatility.” Well, you’ll notice that to speak in the way I’m suggesting would require you to take a few breaths. (We’re much quicker to come up blame and criticism than true words about ourselves.) If after a few breaths you still don’t feel ready to use the approach I’m suggesting, I’d say it’s better for you to take some more breaths rather than to start speaking. My prediction is that you will no longer be described as “emotionally volatile” with this approach.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I have no time for your opinions

Question: My new boss is initiating a change in the software we use for email, calendar, project flow etc. which will affect everyone in our team. My old boss gave me the job of researching this same issue before he took off for greener pastures. Yesterday my new boss called a meeting to inform us of his decision about the new software. Based on my research I think he’s missing some important facts and rushing into the decision, but when I tried to raise this he said “I have no time for your opinions right now, we just need to move forward.” That shut me down at the time, but I still want to say something to him about it…

Answer: I want you to have the opportunity to raise your concerns, so the next thing I’m going to say may seem counter-intuitive. Have you stopped to wonder what he’s “up to.” I don’t mean analysis of his psychology, nor am I assuming he has sneaky, ulterior motives. I just mean, what’s motivating him to speak, and to speak like that.

In this case I’d say your boss feels pressure to get “up to speed,” and is looking for an easy decision making process, and for support. You may guess some different motivations, but either way, just giving attention to this question is likely to help you move past any “enemy image” thoughts you’re having about him (”control freak,” “jerk” etc.).

Meanwhile I’m guessing you want some respect for the expertise you’ve developed through your research, and I bet you also want to make sure the software chosen is of maximum benefit to you and your co-workers.

OK, so now how do you speak up in a way that aims at a satisfactory outcome for you both?

“Boss I really want to support you in reaching a quick decision, and at the same time I’m seriously concerned that the solution you proposed will not best serve team efficiency, and will actually cause a lot of headaches for us all. I’m nervous about speaking up but if I ignore my opinion on this I think I’ll regret it. Is there any time today when you could give me 10 minutes to lay out my concerns to you?”

This will take under 30 seconds to say and makes reference both to your own needs and to needs that you guess he has. And if he says, once again, that he has “No time for your opinions” ….

“I’m speaking up in the hopes of avoiding a situation where your time, and mine, will get more crunched as a result of software that’s not best suited to our needs. Is there anything I could do today that would support you in sparing ten minutes to hear my concerns.”
However it goes, after this conversation be ready to take a walk around the block with a co-worker or on the phone to a friend - choose someone who can hear you without taking sides. It takes courage to speak up and you may need to calm the adrenalin afterwards.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why am I opening my mouth?

Question: I've been reprimanded by my boss a few times lately for saying inappropriate things to clients. I'm maybe just making conversation before a meeting starts, or making jokes at business lunches, then later I hear that someone got really offended and has requested that I be taken off the project. The problem is, I don't know when I'm about to say something offensive to someone, and I don't even know when I have done so, so how can I change it?

Answer: It's my belief that everything we do and say arises from some inner motivation. I'm saying nothing particularly revolutionary here. Think about it - if you get up from your couch and walk to the fridge it's because you're motivated by a need for food, or because you're planning on going to the grocery store and need some clarity about what you want to buy. When you crack a joke at a business meeting you're motivated by the desire to create a connection, or to put people at ease, or just to enjoy a fun moment with other people.

Much of the time it doesn't seem to make that much difference whether we're conscious of our inner motivations or not. However, if I ever sense tension creeping into a conversation, or if I'm in a professional setting, I want to remain very aware of my motivations every time I open my mouth. Just like you switch on the spell-checker before sending out a professional email, I switch on my "motivation checker" before speaking in a business context, or in a tense conversation. Before speaking I ask myself "Why am I opening my mouth?"

Let's take an example. You're chatting with a client and you're about to say "I never use the Google search engine because I don't like their privacy practices." It's just an opinion, right? It's based on something you've read or seen.... Sure, and it's just one of any number of things you could be saying at this moment. What's motivation you to say this? Are you hoping to influence or to educate your client? Are you raising an issue which may be relevant to your business together? Do you want to be known as someone with a strong sense of individuality, or known for how much you value privacy?

This self-check can be used at home just as much as at work. It can become second nature and take only a matter of a few seconds or less, while saving you untold time and energy. We probably all have examples of things we've said unconsciously which resulted in damage to a relationship which took a very long time to mend. Once you've connected with your underlying motivation you may often find that you reword what you're about to say, or find a different thing to say which more directly or effectively conveys what you want, or is more likely to achieve whatever you're motivated to achieve.