If there is one simple ability that makes the most difference in effective leaders who are able to enroll other people in their projects, it is the ability to initiate and reach resolution in areas that arouse anxiety in either party. That same skill enables people who are not formal leaders to move from feeing frustrated and powerless to empower themselves to address something that is a important to them—something that others may not wish to address. Using this skill, both leader and followers are able to get results in territory where things that matter may be difficult to achieve.
Human cultures tend to desire social harmony by not talking about upsetting, difficult, or conflictual matters. We learn from childhood that this is the essence of good manners. But the purchase of calm comes at the cost of not addressing issues. In the world of turmoil and action, the cost of avoidance is high. In addition, when we are upset about something and do not address it, feelings and emotional distance build up, which limits trust in other areas. Like tooth decay, avoidance builds quietly until it erupts in pain.
At the opposite end, ineffectiveness arises when a leader has such deep faith in his or her point of view that he or she pushes this view without sensitivity to how it affects others. Leaders who belittle, blame, or berate others find their wishes undermined or ignored. Their assumptive manners lead to unshared negative feelings and the effects mentioned in the previous paragraph. Too often the leader is so enamored of the correctness of her or her own position that he or she becomes blind to the effect this behavior has on others. True, many people resist change and new ideas—indeed, one might argue, that is why they are not leaders—but to be effective, the leader has to be sensitive to this reality and deal with it compassionately.
The ability to address an emotional issue that others would rather not touch, or to have others adopt your own ideas when initially they are reluctant or disagree—the realm of interpersonal difference and conflict—has been called emotional intelligence. It is an essential skill for effective leadership. Leaders are utterly dependent on others to get things done and, unless they are aware of how their actions come across to others, they are flying blind. The ability to address emotional issues is also crucial to non-leaders when they disagree with a decision or have an issue that needs to be addressed but feel silenced by their lower position. How many leaders have missed getting warnings about potential disaster because staffers felt uneasy about opening up to them?
I don’t want to use this space to debate whether emotional intelligence is innate or can be learned. I believe that while we develop it at different levels, like any skill, we can add to our capability by practicing interpersonal skills, even if they do not seem natural to us at first.
In working with leaders and followers who want to exercise leadership, I find several steps can be taken to raise such issues with another person. A difficult issue is anything where another person disagrees, may get upset, and may close down by not listening. If the other person has less power than the initiator, it is perhaps easier for the leader to raise the issue. A real challenge happens when the avoider has greater power, for example, and can punish or fire the one initiating the conversation.
There are four steps an initiator should take to begin such a conversation. In the following explanation, I will mostly consider that the person raising the issue has less power and faces a more challenging situation.
1. Start with yourself, your feelings, and what you want.
When you are upset—no matter what your position—your attention is drawn outside yourself to the person whose actions affected you. By shifting your attention to yourself and what you can do, you move from blame to responsibility. Blame feels good, but it doesn’t do anything. You are the one who wants to address the issue, so you are the one to initiate it. While you may have a history with that person that may consist of things that have hurt and upset you, isolate what you want to talk about now and separate it from other issues. It is so easy to start to talk about one thing and find yourself sharing a whole bundle of old hurts and issues that confuse the focus. You blame “them” and want to vent and share your hurts so the other person will acknowledge them. But the intensity of the feelings you share may make that outcome unlikely.
Pick an issue you want to address. It may be something you want the other to do—you want them to change a behavior, for example, that upsets you. So ask yourself, “What do you want them to do about it?” They cannot undo the past, so the challenge is to move forward together along a new path. Maybe some repair work can be done. What would that look like? The shift from what you want to what you want them to do is often more difficult than you think. Making the shift from what happened in the past to what you want in the future is the starting point for an effective conversation.
2. Invite the other person to talk.
Before you can begin a conversation on a difficult issue, you have to get the other’s attention and his or her agreement to talk. This takes work and thoughtful preparation, which is often neglected. Because of this, when the two people confront each other, it is in the wrong time and place, and their purposes are far from clear to each other.
To start a conversation you must create a safe setting. The other often needs some time to think about it, so asking in advance and setting a time and place is helpful. It should be a safe, quiet, neutral place where time is set aside and there are no interruptions. This should be negotiated in advance so the other knows what is happening and is not surprised. Surprise just triggers emotional outbursts and resistance.
If you are clear that you want to address the issue and talk about it, you have to tell the other person why you want it. You have to say that this issue is important to you and that you want to talk with them. You also might tell the other person why you think it might be useful for them to listen to you. Why? If your purpose is to convince them to change, then tell them. But for them to be open, you also have to communicate that you are open to listening to them. If you respect them, you cannot move them until you hear their concerns, objections, and their own point of view.
Leaders often have trouble understanding why they need to listen to others. They want what they want, but emotional intelligence and respect means that they cannot get what they want unless they hear and understand what the other sees and wants. This is something we try to teach young children in kindergarten, but it’s a lesson adult leaders often forget. Even thought they want something or assert a point of view, they still have to be open to learning from the other person about their reactions and what the other person wants. Many people in power are not used to being open to ideas from others. They think that leadership means telling people to do things and not listen. These leaders are usually missing pieces of the puzzle. So raising a difficult issue means that you have to be open to listening to the other person and maybe changing your own perspective. This aspect of emotional intelligence—being open to learning—does not take away from your own needs, but it potentially expands to include other ways than the path you chose initially.
It may take time to get the other to agree to talk and set aside the time to do this, but this step is necessary to prepare the ground for conversation. Taking time to set it up means that there is greater engagement and readiness to talk. Sometimes the other person needs time to think. This approach may take several attempts. Sadly, many people giving up after the first and do not persist in their quest.
3. Deliver your message in a direct and useful manner.
The time has arrived and the exchange is about to begin. The ball Is in your court; it is time for you to initiate the conversation. You have to say what you want in a way that does not blame the other, does not push them away, does not attack, but which nonetheless states directly what you want to say.
The delivery of a clear message is best done through what is called an “I” statement because it begins with yourself. You state what you see, including how you feel and what you want. Using the word “I” makes it less likely you will blame the other person for what you feel, although this distinction is hard to see at first. If you are upset by what the other person has done, isn’t it his or her fault? Not so. You see what you intend in an interaction, but you do not see the other person’s intention. You only see their action. So while the action may have been upsetting or hurtful, you may not understand what the other person intended, unless he or she tells you. If you assume what they intended, you will probably be wrong.
This dynamic—seeing each others action without understanding each others’ intentions—is the source of much unproductive conflict. People need to talk to each other about what they intend and their goals because so much human interaction is about how people misunderstand intentions by seeing actions and assuming intentions rather than listening to the other. Emotional intelligence means knowing that your intentions are not always clear in your actions and those of others. The conversation is about unraveling this miscommunication. Taking responsibility allows you to start off along a positive path.
4. Listen to the other and learn about their concerns.
You must deliver your message about what is important to you in such a way that you do not push the other person away, but invite them to respond. In your message, you have to communicate that you are open to hearing their intention and reasoning just as you want the other to understand yours. The emotional history between two people may make it difficult and take several go-arounds to achieve, and a coach or facilitator may be needed to get started.
After you have delivered your message the focus must shift, totally. Now it is time to be quiet and listen. Listening is not being silent, but about asking questions, probing for more, and allowing the other to talk without your intruding and interrupting them by restating your position or arguing. It is difficult to become a listener—it takes patience, practice, and intention.
You will find yourself being triggered emotionally by the things the other says. These emotional triggers lead you to get upset and want to lash out or withdraw—the flight or flight response. But this is where you have a choice. The other person sets up an emotional-depth charge in you—do you “have” to respond now or can you be patient, set it aside, and try to learn the other’s intention? When two people have a complex emotional history—such as being family members—they may need a coach to help them keep from getting tripped up by these triggers that lead the conversation astray.
After each person shares their intention and point of view, then the exchange can begin. There is a lot more that can be said about productive exchanges, but the outcome that matters is when each person learns something and when the ultimate agreement is not something that either person expected to begin with. The two people are enriched, they mutually learn from their exchange, and they develop trust in each other so that they can develop ways to move forward taking each one’s perspectives and desires into account.
There is much more that can be said about holding a crucial conversation. In this post, I have tried to define the first steps that you can take to talk to someone who may have more power—a person who you believe (rightly often) does not want to talk about something. Rather than feel powerless and stuck, you can use the skills of emotional intelligence and communication to open up the issue and create a dialogue where both parties work together to find a resolution.