Dear Crucial Skills,
I work in a group environment with five teammates. Our pay is based on our personal production, yet we have to cover for each other by taking care of one another’s clients when a teammate is not available. Thus, it is vital that we get along and respect one another.
We had a big blowup the other day. Three of our team members demanded an immediate meeting with another and accused him of trying to steal their clients. Rather than approaching him privately, they did this in front of everyone. The discussion got heated. The accused team member felt ambushed. How can I help get our group to talk in a more productive and respectful way?
What a great question. Many people don’t realize that every skill we describe in Crucial Conversations applies equally to groups. It just takes a bit of adaptation to make it work.
First, you might help the group Start with Heart by chatting with people individually and sharing your concerns about the current state of things in the team. Ask each of them what they really want. Often when people are feeling frustrated, hurt or threatened, all they think about is what they don’t want. You’ll hear, “I don’t want him taking advantage of me” or “I don’t want to work around dishonest people.” Listen empathetically, but persist in refocusing by asking, “What do you want?” Then you’ll start to hear things like, “I’d like to be able to trust my colleagues,” and, “I’d like to have a positive feeling in the team.”
Second, ask them what they think your team needs to do to create this positive result. Ask if they’d be willing to participate in a focused discussion to clear the air and clarify expectations for the future. When you’ve got everyone committed, ask if they’d be willing to let you play a facilitator role. Your job will be twofold: 1) to maintain the focus of the discussion on the agreed upon topics; and 2) to maintain safety—so that everyone is heard.
Third, convene at a time and place that maintains focus and safety. Ensure there will be no interruptions. Make the setting one that is comfortable and free of distractions. Ensure that it’s a place where everyone’s on equal footing. And finally, if there is one person who is least likely to feel safe (for example, the person in your team with whom three others have a concern), make sure you establish safety with that person. Ensure that he knows you are there to help him hear what is said and speak his mind too. Let him know your goal is to help him be more effective with the rest of the team and restore the kind of relationship he certainly wants to have. Make sure you understand what he wants out of this dialogue and that he knows you will support these intentions.
Fourth, start the conversation by stating the Mutual Purpose. Describe your synthesis of what everyone wants out of the conversation. There is likely to be a lot of overlap in people’s individual desires and stating this in a way that makes it clear to everyone they have a mutual purpose can have a unifying and calming effect. Encourage everyone to be candid, but remind them that if people are speaking their minds in a way that is unproductive, they have agreed to let you coach them on how to participate more effectively.
As the conversation proceeds, if people make statements in ways that violate STATE principles, stop and restate them in a way that is more understandable and helpful. Model STATE in how you play your facilitator role. If people stray from the topic, politely point out what they are addressing versus what you’ve convened to address. Encourage them to hold the new topic until later when the group can decide if they want to invest more time on this different issue.
If you follow these guidelines, most issues can be reasonably well discussed. And more importantly, if people see how you model good dialogue skills, they’re likely to pick a few of them up themselves.
Good luck! And thanks for stepping into the breach and contributing to the unity and effectiveness of your team.