Dear Crucial Skills,
Yesterday I led a discussion on crucial conversations with my ten-member corporate and public affairs team. When we examined everyone’s “Style Under Stress,” eight out of ten of my teammates discovered they go to silence. Do these results indicate a big concern for us because there is not an equal distribution of silence/violence? Or, now that we know each other’s style under stress can we learn to look for the signs and establish safety? Any words of wisdom for us?
Surrounded by Silence
Dear Surrounded by Silence,
So, you lead a team composed almost entirely of members who go to silence when under stress. What does this mean? What should be done? Let me share some ideas and perspectives.
The Style Under Stress test is a self-report survey that can be accessed on VitalSmarts.com under the tab “My Resources” (click here to access the survey). There is no charge for taking the test. It identifies whether or not you tend to become silent or react violently when you find yourself in a crucial conversation.
Silence describes people who withhold their ideas and opinions from others. It could be that an individual “sugar coats” or “waters down” their meaning in order to keep some hidden. Or, perhaps they share none of their meaning and withdraw completely.
Violence describes people who compel others through attempts to control, being disrespectful, or making harsh, verbal attacks.
When you consider functional teams or groups of people, the goal is not to balance the dynamics of silence or violence. Both are hurtful and dysfunctional. Rather, the desired result is to move your teammates away from both silence and violence and toward honest and open dialogue.
The costs of silence are enormous. If, when the meeting becomes stressful, teammates clam up, don’t fully advocate their ideas, or understate the importance of issues; then the problems cannot be solved, progress is very slow, and innovation and creativity are almost impossible.
I would recommend that you challenge the team to adopt dialogue as an operating principle. The goal is to create a free flow of meaning, unhampered by defensiveness, anxiety, or political calculations. The goal is to be open, honest and 100 percent respectful in all your communications with the intent to help and not hurt. This resolve can help people think in new ways about their communication.
The key to overcoming silence is to make it safe for people to express their views and opinions. As teammates agree and are encouraged to use dialogue with each other, they are creating Mutual Purpose—an essential condition of safety. As teammates are respectful with each other, they are creating the other condition essential to safety: Mutual Respect.
When you see disrespect among team members, immediately bring it to the attention of the team and the individual. For example, if Bill were disrespectful to Jill, you might say, “Before we continue discussing the budget, I’d like to talk about what just happened.”
Next, factually describe what happened. “Bill, you expressed your view but when Jill disagreed you called her a yellow-bellied sap sucker.”
Now compare what happened with what you expected. “As a team, we agreed to be respectful with each other.” Share your interpretation of Bill’s comment. “I think your comment crossed the line.”
Finally, invite Bill to share his view. “Bill, how do you see it?”
By confronting disrespect when it occurs, you create a new norm that requires your team to discuss respect and never let disrespect slide. This can quickly discipline a team and increase mutual respect.
Another important way to get silent members of the team to participate is to invite their participation. Inquire individually as to their views and opinions. Here are some examples:
“Linus, do you have any concern with this deadline?”
“Sasha, we haven’t heard your view on this issue; would you mind sharing?”
“Phil, I noticed you rolled your eyes when Mary said she is short staffed. Do you see it differently?”
By inviting individuals to participate, you create an expectation of participation and teammates are less likely to hide out. You create a new team norm and overcome habitual silence.
In helping members of your team overcome silence by engaging in dialogue, I would encourage you to build the teams skills using training or forming a book discussion group.
Turning a team from patterns of silence to effective dialogue is a lot of work, but concentrated effort and discipline will pay rich, rich dividends.