Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I’ve entered that magical world of senior management, but now I feel I know less than I did when I was a middle manager. I have to dig harder for the truth, and work harder to prove it is still “safe” to talk with me. Two months ago a lot was shared with me–now that isn’t the case, and even my staff members, who were once my peers, share less.
How do I demonstrate “it’s still me”?
Outside Looking In
You’ve described a situation that lots of people have experienced–that is, when you have power, how can you help others honestly share what’s on their minds? This situation can arise when you move to senior management, when you are the person on your team with the most experience or the most technical knowledge, when you are the new manager, or when you are the parent. All of these require some insight and skill to help others feel “safe” talking with you.
Here are a few tips we’ve learned as we’ve studied people who are very effective at helping others feel safe.
1. Remember the past. The situation you’re facing might have been created by the other person’s past experiences–with you or with someone else. I recall just such an experience. We were doing interviews in an organization that was, to be delicate, struggling. People were tight-lipped, nervous, and cautious. Occasionally someone would share the example of a manager who yelled at employees–Murphy. Another would tell a story of how employees were belittled by a boss–Murphy. Still another got emotional about how some supervisor had limited an employee’s career–Murphy. Later that afternoon, we asked one of the new executives if we could interview Murphy. We couldn’t. Murphy had retired seven years earlier. But his ghost, his memory, still stalked the halls of this organization. Many of the new managers, newly promoted managers, and even old managers who had never mistreated an employee were treated like they were Murphy–or at least next of kin. Managers and supervisors had to deal with this history when they asked others for input.
Sometimes we are living with a past that we personally created. I remember a man sharing with a group as he was going through Crucial Conversations training, “I’ve got it. Finally. My kids are nervous around me. Why? For 99.9 percent of the time, I’m Dr. Jekyll, and only .01 percent do I lose my temper and become Mr. Hyde. But my children are always looking for Mr. Hyde.”
When you have to deal with situations clouded by the past, remember to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act nervous or unsafe?” Are there situational or historical factors that are influencing him or her?
2. Share your intentions. We learned from dialogue masters to clarify issues by Contrasting. A Contrasting statement clarifies what you don’t intend and what you do intend. This helps the other person understand your good intentions and dispels worries about selfish or harmful motives. Often the “don’t” part is the most important. For example, when you’re beginning a talk with a person who is hesitant to share, say something like, “I’d like to talk about this topic candidly. I wonder if there has been some hesitancy on your part because I’m now in senior management. I don’t want to let my new position get in the way of important communication that needs to be shared. My intention is to be a good listener so that I can hear the issues that affect you and the job. What do you think?” It may take a time or two–or three. The main issue here is to deal with mutual purpose–what do both of you want?–rather that dealing first with the content of any particular issue.
3. Be consistent. If you want to get input from people who are hesitant or feel unsafe, you have to be consistent. After you share your intentions and try to understand others’ points of view, keep up the process of engaging them in dialogue. Ask, listen, and respond. Sometimes the response will be “Great idea, let’s do that.” Sometimes it will be, “Interesting, let’s discuss what that means to our budget or to customers.” Once in a while, it will be, “Let me repeat what I heard. Is that right? I see that differently. Can we compare our points of view?” The main point is this: To have people believe that you are really interested in hearing their thoughts, you have to consistently make it safe for them to share over time. Then come trust and credibility.
Safety is not easy sometimes. But dealing with it is essential.
May you have terrific results from your efforts!