How to Talk When the Heat is On: Four Critical Steps

When pressure intensifies, cracks emerge in our relational systems. Here's how to handle them.

Last week my wife and I had words.

She said something I didn’t like, and I said something she didn’t like. Then she said something I didn’t like, and I said ...

You get the idea.

The crazy thing is, we can count on one hand the times this has happened to us. Why now?

Why indeed. There’s the threat of COVID-19 and the collapse of the consulting marketplace. There’s our aging parents, who are extremely vulnerable in this pandemic, and our youngest daughter who just lost her job. Then there’s the recent death of a close family member.

Is that enough?

This isn’t unique to us, however. This is the human condition. When external pressure intensifies, internal cracks emerge in our relational systems. At home, at work, at school, at church.

What are we to do as leaders?

We can learn how to communicate, and communicate well, when the heat is on. Here are four steps to doing just that, each beginning with the letter A, so you can remember them when another A, adrenaline, seeks to hijack your brain and crash your relationships.

Step One: Assume best intent.

Communication goes awry before any words are said when we assume the worst and not the best in others.

Consider these scenarios:

  • You're leading a weekly staff meeting. Two of your employees whisper in each other's ears during the meeting. You're convinced they're talking about you.

  • You need an important piece of information to finish a report that's due by the end of the business day. You've sent multiple emails to a colleague asking for this information. She hasn't sent it to you. You're convinced she's trying to sabotage your career.

  • You present your business plan for the next fiscal year to your company’s senior leaders. One of the managers in the meeting remains quiet during the entire presentation, saying nothing to you or anyone else about it. You're convinced he opposes the plan.

All of us have done something like this. When faced with a situation we're uncertain about, we fill the vacuum with a story. And that story is never a positive one. Psychologists call this The Fundamental Attribution Error, and it destroys communication.

One simple discipline can keep us from stumbling over the tripwire of The Fundamental Attribution Error. Suspending our stories. That is, not filling the vacuum that an uncertain situation creates with a negative interpretation but assuming the best of intentions.

Then take the next step.

Step Two: Ask neutral questions.

What is the next step after we've suspended our stories? Asking neutral questions. This takes a bit of explanation, so hang in there with me.

We've all heard of closed-ended and open-ended questions. A closed-ended question is designed to receive a simple yes or no answer. As in, "Do you like soup?"

"Yes."

End of discussion. The intent of an open-ended question, however, is just the opposite.

"What kind of soup do you like?"

"Well, I like minestrone and French onion and chili. I guess chili's technically not a soup, so let me add clam chowder to the list. Minestrone, French onion, and clam chowder."

More. Information.

We assume, then, that closed-ended questions are bad and open-ended questions are good. The problem with that simplistic approach is you could ask an open-ended question that's closed-minded. For example, "How in the world could you like French onion soup?" This question elicits more than a yes or no answer, but it's not neutral. There's implied critique that puts the recipient of the question on the defensive.

Asking neutral questions, then, looks like this, "I noticed you were quiet during the presentation of my business plan for next fiscal year. Is there input you'd like to give me one-on-one? What can I add that would make the plan even better? Is there anything I can do to improve my presentation skills?"

Notice in that series of questions that there are no accusations, no implied criticism. Just simple, open, authentic inquiry.

Step Three: Actively listen.

Not much explanation is needed here (unlike with neutral questions). We know what it means to actively listen, and we also know that most of us suck at it. But when you ask a neutral question, the only meaningful next step is to listen, really listen, to the answer.

"It is impossible to overemphasize the immense need humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood,” writes Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier. “Listen to all the conversations of our world, between nations as well as those between couples. They are for the most part dialogues of the deaf."

Volumes have been written on active listening, but here are the basics. Remove all distractions. Be fully present. Make eye contact. Lean forward. Focus on both the words being said and the emotions behind them. Ask questions for clarification. Dismiss misstatements. Don't formulate what you're going to say next. Leave room for silence.

Step Four: Advocate with care and candor.

Now the time has come to talk. Not just talk, but advocate for your position. We needn't shy away from that term as being too strident. Advocacy, even strident advocacy, will be received by others when it's offered with care and candor.

Care attends to the humanity of the situation and approaches conversations with compassion and humility. The focus of care is on the relationship. It is safe. Candor communicates honestly, without exaggeration and accusation. The focus of candor is on the issue at hand. It is sound.

Some of us are more comfortable with care than with candor, others of us are just the opposite. But you can't choose heads or tails on this one. You've got to do both at the same time to communicate effectively as a leader, especially in a crisis.

The next day, my wife and I worked out our differences (as we always do). We did it by using the four A’s above, plus a fifth—apologize humbly. With these, we found our way back to wholeness.

With these you will in all your relationships as well.


Other Great Reads This Week

More sound WFH advice from Forbes: Five Habits for A Morning Routine If You Work from Home. Great read!

This is week two for my friend and mentor, Andrew Sobel, and his book launch. If you haven’t picked up It Starts with Clients, do it today. It’s a 100-day plan for building lifelong business relationships and it’s awesome.

Here from The Ken Blanchard Companies are 12 New Habits for Leading in a Virtual Environment. This is a thorough and well-researched article, totally worth your time.

Best video of the week: Check out this hilarious Zoom staff meeting. Priceless!


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