Author & trainer Mark Murphy explores the intersections of diplomacy, truthfulness, and difficult conversations at work.
- Top reasons why people don’t tell the truth at work
- Common phrases that create defensiveness
- Why having a difficult conversation is better than just fixing the problem yourself
Mark Murphy is a New York Times bestselling author, weekly contributor to Forbes, ranked as a Top 30 Leadership Guru and the Founder of Leadership IQ. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, the Clinton Foundation, Microsoft, MasterCard, SHRM, and hundreds more organizations. He has written several award-winning books on leadership and been featured in many premiere media outlets.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored message: Save on shipping with Pitney Bowes
- Mark’s Website: LeadershipIQ.com
- Mark’s Book: Truth At Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages
- Book: The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
Mark, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Oh, Pete, thanks so much for having me. I’m excited.
Oh, yeah. Well, I am intrigued by so much of what you have to say here, so I think this will be a great one. And I wanted to start, though, I learned a bit about you that you once addressed the United Nations. What’s that story?
Well, yeah, that was a pretty cool experience. So, for several years, I was a faculty at the UN. They essentially developed an academy to develop leaders within the UN, and so their focus is on really teaching all the people that are working in diplomacy how to, (a) lead more effectively, but, (b) how to communicate, how to be diplomatic, how to deal with difficult conversations, tough situations. And it was part of a program that they have put together to really develop the leaders within the United Nations.
And so, it’s a pretty exceptional program they had going, and they would bring in experts, like myself, to come in and talk about particular aspects. So, I talked to them about different kinds of tough conversations and why people resist tough messages. And you can imagine, given the kinds of situations we face across the globe, that, yeah, the United Nations has a little bit of experience in dealing with tough conversations.
Well, that’s awesome. Yeah. Well, I was a loyal Model United Nations Secretary General when I was in college so I keep a little bit of an eye as to what’s going on with the real one. And so, I guess, now I’m thinking, if you are teaching diplomats how to be more diplomatic, well, you must be quite a master diplomacy yourself.
Well, you know one of the things I have discovered that it’s not always perfect, right? We can go into conversations with the best of intentions, and that’s part of handling tough conversations and difficult situations is, (a) knowing what to do but then, (b) making sure that you have some handy reminders in place that you can pull on it any moment, because the reality is that most difficult conversations don’t take place on your schedule.
Most of the time, whey they happen, you get blindsided and that’s it’s so important, no matter how sophisticated your methods are, to have something that you can fall back on quickly. And that’s really one of the essential lessons, is distill it down, get something you can fall back on because that difficult conversation is not going to come most of the time when you’re fresh and you’ve just had a nice cup of coffee. It’s usually going to come at the end of a long day when you’re wiped out and this is the last conversation you want to have.
Understood. Okay. Cool. Well, I’m excited to dig into some of these. And it’s so funny that we talk about diplomacy and difficult conversations, I have this weirdest temptation just to be super rude to you to see how you’ll respond, but I’m going to reel it in because that’s not how I am. It’s just a kind of a silly cartoon-like fantasy of mine which I’m going to put it aside for now. You jerk. Okay, that’s it. That’s it.
Okay. So, then, now you lay out some of these things to fall back on in your book Truth at Work. So, tell us, what’s that about? And kind of what’s the alternative? Are we all just lying at work?
So, one of the things that I found in doing research for this and some of my own studies is that it’s not so much that we lie in that we walk in every day and are telling blatant falsehoods, but rather we’re avoiding telling the truth. When I ask leaders or employees, “Do you avoid having difficult conversations with people?” And somewhere between eight out of ten, or nine out of ten, depending on who you ask, of people, say, “Yeah, I avoid telling my boss tough things. I avoid telling my colleagues tough things. I avoid telling my employees because I’m just afraid of how they’re going to react.”
And that’s the real reason we avoid difficult conversations. It’s not so much that we are afraid of letting the words come out of our mouths, rather we’re afraid what’s going to happen when this person hears what it is we have to say. And that’s the coming up with techniques for mitigating some of those bad reactions and calming people down, and creating conversations rather than confrontations is ultimately what we’re after in this.
And that’s really what the book is about, how to tone down some of those negative reactions and deliver messages that would, otherwise, be tough to hear in a way that the recipient will actually engage with you and talk to you about this stuff.
Okay. Cool. Well, so I want to dig into these tactics and your great acronyms and such to those ends. But, first, I’m thinking, when it comes to that fear, we’re concerned about how the other person is going to react and what will become of it, I’d love if we could sort of take a bull’s eye aim at that one right up front. And, say, when it comes to the fear what are some perspectives that folks should bear in mind in terms of managing that right before we even begin to say a word?
So, there’s a number of things. So, one of the things we discovered is that there’s these things we call truth killers, and they’re really the reasons why people resist the truth. And there are four big ones that we really identified in this and there’s a thousand reasons why people won’t listen to tough messages. But if you kind of clump them all together – the big four. Number one, there’s what I call confident unawareness. Sometimes it’s known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
And what this means is, essentially, people think they’re right, they think they know what they’re doing, they think they know what they’re talking about, but in reality they’re absolutely clueless. So, I think about it like this, if I grew up on an island with no other humans around me, I might think that I’m a fast runner. I might run across the beach on this little deserted desert island and think, “Wow, I’m really fast,” because I’ve never seen another fast runner.
But that’s not my life, and I’m married to a woman who is a significantly better runner than me, I’m incredibly slow. And so, I watch her run and now I don’t have confident unawareness. I watch her run, and I say, “Oh, yeah, that’s what fast looks like. Oh, I’m really slow.” But there are lots of people walking around the planet who think that they’re really fast, or think that they’re really smart, or think that they have high emotional intelligence.
And if you’ve ever seen somebody that talks with great confidence that they know exactly what they’re doing, and in reality they’re an idiot, that would be confident unawareness. And that’s a tough one to overcome. And sometimes when you give somebody feedback, like, “Listen, you’re not doing such a great job with our customers over there. You’re not doing such a great job advancing your career.” They’re like, “I’m awesome. I’m fantastic.” “Well, okay, we’ve got to…” That’s a tough one to overcome.
Another reason that people resist hearing tough messages is what we call psychological resistance. And this one of the things that happens when you have a tough conversation with somebody whether it’s a friend, a spouse, a colleague, a boss, whoever. Oftentimes you’re telling them something that is at odds with their self-image, with how they view themselves.
If you came to me, Pete, and said, “You know, Mark, I think you’re kind of dumb and I think you’re not a very nice person,” well, that’s at odds with my self-image and so I’m likely to turn around and attack you, or attack your message, “Well, Pete doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Pete, how does he know that? He didn’t hear that last conversation I had before I hopped on the phone with him. What does he know? He’s a jerk. I’ll bet you he’s real nasty in his life.”
And it’s this, whenever somebody tells us something that is at odds with our self-image, it is just by human nature it’s going to engender what’s either psychological resistance or cognitive dissonance. It causes us to attack the message and the messenger.
Okay. Well, that’s powerful. And so, you zeroed in on it there. It’s like, what is it that’s likely to trip a wire or an explosion versus not, and I think that’s interesting when it comes to the running. It’s like I think folks could criticize any number of things about me, like, “Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I don’t know anything about that. Yeah, you’re true, true, true, true, true.” And then there are a few things, it’s like, “Hold up right there, sir.” And so, it’ll spark a different reaction.
So, I loved it when you talked about, you have zeroed in, in fact, on seven key phrases that are sort of actual scripts or verbiage that create defensiveness within people. So, could you lay those out for us in terms of what are some of those phrases that we should not say? And what do we say instead of those?
So, one of the things that was interesting is that when we talk about having difficult conversations is that oftentimes having a tough conversation is as much about listening as it is talking. And a lot of conversations go off the rails before we ever say anything, we issue a command, a directive or anything like that. It begins with how we listen or rather don’t listen.
So, a friend of ours comes up and says, “Oh, I’m having such a tough time at work. My boss is such a jerk and I think there might be layoffs at the company.” And when they say that, what we’re trying to do, if we do it correctly in that moment, is build some empathy. Take their perspective so that we can give them some guidance, we can just listen, we can be empathic, we can do whatever we need to do.
But there’s seven things that humans generally say to each other that basically tell this other person, “No, I don’t really want to help you out here.”
So, things like, “Well, you know, listen, griping about it is not going to make it any better.”
Or, “You know, you just need to suck it up,” or one of my favorites, “Well, life is unfair. You know, sometimes crap happens. It’s just bad stuff,” or one that we’ve been seeing a lot more lately is, “Well, you know what, maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Maybe this is all for the best. There’s a reason for everything and you don’t worry about it. It’s just that all those concerns, they’re not important. This is all going to work out just great.”
Then there are the classics, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get over it,” or, “Well, you think you’ve got problems. Let me stop listening to you and tell you about what’s going on in my life because mine is a lot worse than yours is,” and it becomes a competition of who’s got it worse. And then, of course, there’s the classic, “Well, yeah, but.”
And it’s funny because the word “but” gets used constantly but – there it is – it’s an absolute conversation killer when it’s used in this kind of a scenario, in a difficult situation where somebody is opening up, they either want a sounding board, they want somebody to listen to them, maybe, down the road, want somebody to give them some guidance.
But these are all phrases – and you can come up with a hundred variations on these – that people say that just tell, whoever you’re talking to, “I don’t want to hear any more. What you said is stupid. I’m not really paying attention to you and, you know what, I don’t want to listen to you. I want to talk. I just want to tell you stuff.” And that’s a quick way to end any conversation, let alone a difficult one.
Oh, yeah, I like that. Okay. So, quit griping, suck it up, life is not fair, stuff happens, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, don’t worry, you’ll get over it, you think you got problems, well, yeah, but. And so that is the theme, it’s like any of these is just sort of like dismissive, like, “Okay. Well, yeah, no need to really hear any more of what you have to say. We’re moving on.” And it sort of conveys, “What you’ve said is not really consequential or does not really matter to me. I don’t take it all that seriously or it doesn’t have much weight or importance to me.”
So, I could see that theme coming clear. And it’s funny, I’m thinking about my wife right now. I’ve said a couple of times what I thought was reassuring, that’s really what my intention was in my heart, it’s like, “Oh, honey, we’re going to make it through this just fine.” And so, she interpreted it in that kind of a way which is, “I don’t care to talk more about this. I am sort of not proactively encouraging you to tell me more about what you think and feel with regard to this scenario in so far as I’m trying to kind of move on.”
And I wasn’t trying to move on, I’m in big belief that we were going to get through it just fine, and I thought a show of confidence and support would be the thing, but it wasn’t the thing in that moment.
It happens a lot. And there are kind of two things I think go on with this a lot whether it’s at home or at work, is that, one, we’re taught to be solution-oriented, so, “Just solve it. I don’t want problem-bringers around me. I want problem-solvers. Just solve it. Just get right to it.” And, too often, what happens is, in trying to skip to the solving stage, we basically kill off the empathy stage which is a problem.
The other thing that happens, and this is a fairly recent phenomenon, is that you think about social media, and what social media is training us to do; social media is not encouraging us to respond with additional questions, it does not encourage us to respond with empathy. It basically says, whenever somebody shares an issue, what does Facebook want? What does Twitter want? They want reactions. They want you to jump in.
And if somebody says they give a little soliloquy, they want you to match that with a soliloquy, and they want it emotional, intense, and everything else. They don’t want dialogue because that’s calming and that takes longer. What they want is quick reactions because that’s what gets eyeballs. And it’s interesting that social media has essentially trained us to respond the exact wrong way to difficult conversations.
And the next time one of your friends post something a little sketchy on Facebook, and you’re tempted to jump in with what I would call reciprocated diatribe, that is one person makes a speech and you make a speech back. Instead, try just asking a question, “Well, tell me more about that. I’m interested as to how you came to that conclusion. Tell me what data backs that up. I’m just looking. Or are there any facts that underlie your assertion here?” Something that engages them in more conversation rather than shutting down the debate instantly.
Oh, that’s good. Reciprocated diatribe is a great turn of a phrase. Is this a Mark Murphy original?
It’s one that I came up with and then as I was doing research, I discovered that it had actually been coined about 30 years ago, and so I actually can’t take ownership. Yeah, there were some sociologists actually talking about it about 30 years ago, yeah.
Well, those sociologists had no idea the amount of reciprocated diatribe that was to be unleashed in the decades to come.
Oh, yeah, they had no idea what was headed our way.
Okay. Cool. Well, so now, I’m thinking a little bit now and talk about don’t do reciprocated diatribe, and you have a couple other kind of tools or techniques. One is called de-layering a conversation into multiple parts. Can you walk us through what’s that about, what’s the value of doing so, and how is it done?
So, this I think is actually probably the most important part of having difficult conversations. So, if you think about it, most conversations have really four components to them, there are four layers to them. There are facts, that’s sort of the initial objective reality; somebody said something or somebody did something. You could videotape it, you could audiotape it, that’s a fact, it’s verifiable.
But that’s not what gets us into trouble. What gets us into trouble is that based on that fact we, then, make an interpretation. The human brain is very much an interpretation engine. We do not look outside our window, and say, “My, isn’t that interesting? Today the weather is 39 degrees and 60% cloudy.” No, we look outside the window and say, “Ugh, I’m so sick of it being gray. Oh, my gosh, it’s so cold outside.”
And we’re making a judgment about it. We’re interpreting it. The fact is it’s 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Our interpretation though is, “That’s cold,” or, “That’s hot,” or, “That’s better than I thought,” or, “That’s worse than I thought.” Based on that interpretation we then have an emotional reaction, “I’m happy to go outside,” “I’m disappointed,” “I’m feeling depressed now because I haven’t seen the sun in a few days.” And then based on that emotional reaction we have this desired end. We want something to happen, “I want to move to Hawaii. That’ll be so much better.”
And so, I think of this as this four-part model. I call it the FIRE model; it’s facts, interpretations, reactions, and ends. Now, here’s the thing, when we’re having a difficult conversation, it is the first step, before we do anything else, the first thing we want to do is strip away anything that is not a fact. So, let’s say, for example, that one of my colleagues, I asked them to work on part of a report, and they bring me the report, and I noticed there’s a couple of typos and a mis-formatted chart.
And so, if I’m dealing just with the facts, I might look at this and say, “Hmm, isn’t that interesting? There’s three typos on the first page, and there’s a chart that’s incorrectly formatted.” Now, my natural human reaction is to say, is to interpret that, and say, “You know what, it’s like they didn’t listen to anything I asked them to do.” Now, my emotional reaction is, “You know, that’s just so irritating. Like, I can’t trust you.”
And now my desired end is, “You know what, I’m not going to ask you to do anything in the future. I’m just going to avoid you entirely. I’m going to ask Bob or Sally instead because you clearly can’t do this correctly.” So, that’s my normal kind of human reaction. So, what I want to do is, as soon as I feel myself starting to head down that path, what I like to do is literally write a little “T” on a piece of paper. Just make myself a little grid, and basically four boxes, right? So, put an “F” in one, an “I” and an “R” and an “E”, and I write down everything I want to say.
What I want to say is, “There’s two typos in the memo,” or, “Three typos in this thing and the chart is not formatted.” Now, my interpretation is that, “You didn’t listen to anything I asked you to do.” My emotional reaction is, “I’m irritated and angry.” And my desired end is, “I don’t want to give you any more work to do.”
What I’m going to do is, after I write these all down and put everything into its respective little box, I then want to draw a big “X” through the “I”, the “R”, and the “E” because essentially, if I go into a conversation and I start out with, “You know, Pete, I just have to say I’m pretty disappointed in the work I got back from you because it’s like you didn’t listen to anything I said. And when you don’t pay attention to my request, it makes me feel like you’re disrespecting me, and that makes me feel like I don’t want to work with you anymore.”
That’s the worst conversation we can have because two things have happened.
I was hoping that was the bad example because, I don’t know, he’s using a lot of “I” statements and emotions, so I felt it was bad because it feels very bad to me. Okay. Good. We’re on the same page.
Yeah, exactly. And two things, two big things happened. One is we are now going to have a conversation about hurt feelings and judgments, and judgments that could easily be wrong, and so we’re completely into this ugly emotional hard-to-manage territory. But the other thing that happens is that we’re no longer talking about the typos. I mean, honestly, all we want to get fixed here is we just want a memo without typos and a good-looking chart. That’s it. There’s nothing else we really need to discuss at the moment.
And that’s the very first thing that I encourage people to think about when they’re going into a difficult conversation, is before you open your mouth, strip out all of this stuff that is going to cause you problems in this conversation. And that stuff is the interpretations, reactions, and ends. You want to talk about the facts; those are safe. We can problem-solve like grownup adults and without ever having a raised voice if we talk about the facts.
But the whole “I” statement and “making me feel like this,” oh, there’s two bad “F” words in tough conversations. One is the obvious one, but the other bad “F” word is feel. If you’re saying the word “feel” in a difficult conversation, we’ve probably gotten off track because now we’re not talking about stuff that we can easily fix. Now we’re into a deep emotional ripping off some scabs, and that’s just not going to help us.
Okay. Excellent. Thank you. And so, now I’m thinking a little bit about, okay, the fact, interpretation, reaction, and ends, I just want to make sure I get this dead on in terms of distinctions amongst them. So, fact is the thing that happened, we could all agree, we can see this; interpretation is the meaning I affix to it, like, “You are lazy”; and then reaction is my emotion about it, like, “I am enraged at this person who’s ignoring me,”; and then ends is the desired outcome or decisions, like, “Therefore, I plan to no longer assign any important work to him.”
Okay. Cool. So, I got that clear. And so, then, all right, noted. So, if that’s the wrong way to go in terms of just laying it out there, in terms of your feelings and what you think all of this means, what is the model pathway to engage in that conversation well?
So, once we’ve stripped away all the other stuff and we’re left with the facts, so now I want to go talk to you about these three typos, let’s say. So, I have essentially two approaches. If, let’s say we worked together for 20 years and we have a good relationship, I could walk up to you and go, “Hey, Pete, two typos.” And then you’d go, “Okay. Oh, dang it, all right. All right, man. I missed those but let me go fix those.” And that’s, honestly, all we need to do.
Okay. Facts alone. That does it.
Exactly. It’s there, pretty easy to take. Now, that’s not always the case, right? That’s not always the case, you’re having this conversation with a buddy, and you can just go up and say the facts and call it a day. So, when we need to do a little bit more, we created what’s called, what we call the idea script. And it’s essentially five parts that it takes about 12 seconds to do and it’s essentially a preamble to having a tough conversation.
And it goes like this. Step one, just invite them to partner, so basically that means just say, “Hey, Pete, would you be willing to have a conversation with me about that memo you wrote the other day?” That’s step one.
“No, Mark. You’re not my real dad.” I don’t know. How can you say no? Okay.
Exactly. That’s the thing, you know, people will say, “Well, what happens if somebody says no?” If, in once in a blue moon, somebody will, when they say no you just say, “Well, do you mind if I ask why?” And now we’re going to get to the heart of why they don’t want to talk to us but most of the time people will go, “Okay, fine.”
And then, step two, I’m just going to disarm myself, I’m just going to throw the guns down, raise my hands and say, “Listen, I just want to review this situation, make sure I’m on the same page as you.” Step three, I’m going to say, “And if we have different perspectives, well, we can talk about those and figure out a plan for moving forward.” Step four, I’m going to say, “Does that sound okay?” And then, step five, “Do you want to talk now or do you want to talk this afternoon?”
So, in essence, what I’m doing is a couple of things. Number one, I’m coming to them in a gentler way. I’m opening the door to talk about whatever these facts are, but what I’m communicating to this person is that I want an honest-to-goodness conversation. And, here’s the thing, most conversations have a mix of statements and questions.
And so, just in this little quick script, “Would you be willing to have a conversation with me about that memo you wrote yesterday? I’d just like to review the situation, make sure I’m on the same page as you. And, listen, if we have different perspectives, we can talk about those and figure out a plan for moving forward. Does that sound okay?”
Essentially, I’ve got two questions, two statements, so I got a good 50-50 mix, and in doing that, what I’m communicating to them, is, “This is not a me talking to you like you’re a child. I’m not coming to yell at you. I’m not looking for a fight because they only way we’re ultimately going to solve this is if we come to this as equals and hash this out, and both get to some level of agreement about how we’re going to move forward and fix this issue.”
Because if all I do is say to you, “You know, Pete, the memo stunk. Fix it.” Well, you may go fix it but our relationship, even if it’s subtle, has just taken a little bit of a hit because, now, you’re buy-in isn’t all that high. You’re walking away at some level thinking, “Ah, boy, he’s kind of a jerk. He could’ve said that nicer, and disrespected me a little bit. I have taken away some of your agency.”
But if, instead, I come to you, one adult to another, and I say, “Hey, would you be willing to talk with me about this?” Well, now, you’re going to have to ante up and actually participate in this. And that’s what I’m after.
That’s cool. I like it. And so, then, thinking through the framework again, I was following with, okay, we invite, that’s the “I”; we discern, or disarm the self, “D”; and the last one, I guess, is schedule, “S.” But the “E” and the “A” what are the words you’re using for those?
So, it’s invite them to partner, eliminate blame is the “E” and is, “I just want to review,” and then affirming their choices. So, that’s basically the, “Does that sound okay to you?” And, again, some of this is incredibly subtle in that I want them, because even if they begrudgingly say, “Yeah, okay,” I’ve at least gotten them to say, “Yeah, okay.”
I’ve gotten them at some level to agree to participate in this with me. And, one of the models I think about it is if you have a, let’s take a football example, if you have a superstar coach and a superstar quarterback. If the quarterback makes a bad throw, throws an intersection, comes over to the sideline, the coach and the quarterback, the coach does not come over to the superstar quarterback and say, “Hey, that was a really stupid throw,” because the quarterback is going to go, “Yeah, I know. I saw it.” “Well, no, I mean, I need to make sure you know that was a stupid throw.” “No, I get it. That was a stupid throw.”
Instead, what they do is, it may be a little terse, but they’re going into a conversation of the form, “All right, how do we fix this? How do we not do that again? What needs to change?” And they’re actually having a dialogue because the thing that they’ve each realized is they can’t solve the problem without the other person. The coach cannot win the game without the quarterback, and the quarterback cannot win the game without the coach.
And, in this case, if we apply this to work case, or a relationship with our spouses, I can’t fix this issue if, let’s say, you know, one of our kids is doing something, I can’t do this without my wife. We have to, even if we have different perspectives on this at first, it’s going to take both of us to figure out what to do next. If I have a problem with that memo you wrote, I can’t fix the memo without you.
And one of the big kind of a-ha moments about difficult conversations is that it’s not something you can fix by yelling at people. These are not issues where one person can fix it. It takes both parties to actually have a dialogue come together and hash it out to come up with a workable solution. Otherwise, I’m just yelling at you, and that’s not going to get us anywhere.
Well, so I want to address, if any listener is challenging that in his or her own mind, like, “Well, I could just fix their mistake for them, and just do it myself.” What’s your reply to that?
You can. And the problem is you haven’t actually resolved the issue. You’ve just taken their issue over and put it on yourself. And, listen, if you do that, ultimately what’s going to end up happening is you’re going to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders, and that’s problem one. Problem two is that the people around you aren’t growing and developing.
So, imagine if every time your kid has an issue, you jump in and solve it for them. Okay, well, that may get them through this week’s problem. But what happens – not to get morbid here – when you’re dead? Now, all of a sudden, we have a kid who is ill-equipped to live on their own, to go out and survive the world.
We’ve taught them nothing because every time this happens, even if it’s an employee, if every time one of my employees has an issue, say, and I jump in and I do it for them, I’ve pretty much guaranteed that they will never grow and develop beyond where they’re at. And whether it’s my role as a parent, or my role as a leader, or just in my role as a friend, I haven’t helped this person. And so, it’s not until they own 50% of this issue, and partner with me on it, it’s not until they do that have I actually given them some real tools to do better out in the world.
Okay. Understood. Appreciated. That makes sense. You talked a lot about how to say things but you said a huge part of this game is the listening so I want to make sure we give a little bit of airtime to that. Tell us about your take on structured listening.
So, the first part of, of course, structured listening is basically not to say all those things we talked about earlier, the “suck it up” “life is unfair.” That’s the what-not-to-do. The what-to-do, structured listening, think of it as a step beyond what we were all taught years ago as active listening. And active listening sort of became a bit of a cliché where you nod your head and go, “Mm-hmm,” and, “Oh,” “Yes,” “Oh, wow,” “Mm-hmm, interesting.” You know, we grunt a little bit and we furrow our brow, and that’s supposed to mean we’re there.
And what we found is that that’s just insufficient. So, structured listening really involves, e-listening, so encouraging this person to talk so saying something to them like, “Well, I’d really like to understand your perspective here. Can we just review this and I’d like to learn more so I can get on the same page as you?”
And so, when I talk about Facebook, when one of your friends says something a little bit provocative, going back to them and say, “Well, I’d like to understand your perspective a bit more. I’m not sure I totally get it. Would you share a little bit more about them?” Get them to reveal where their head is at, that’s step one of listening.
Step two of listening is to actually just listen. Now, one of the things that we have found is when people sit there and they furrow their brow, that’s usually insufficient to make them truly present. And while it is a dying art, honest to goodness, especially, and it sounds weird. I know this sounds hokey, but when you’re having a tough conversation, even with your spouse, saying something to them, like, “Listen, do you mind if I just jot some notes down? Because I want to make sure I actually get everything you’re saying.”
And what’s interesting about this is not only does jotting some notes down, and again I know it sounds weird if you’re like talking to your wife about X, Y, Z, “Like, do you mind if I take some notes?” It sounds weird. But it puts you in the moment, because when you take notes it forces you to pay more attention than just sitting there does.
The second thing that happens, though, is, even though it’s weird, it communicates to the other person, “I, honest to goodness, want to understand your perspective here because I’m paying attention. I’m paying so much attention that I actually want to write this stuff down. That’s how important what you have to say to me is.”
And then the third step is to confirm. And confirming means we want to spit back to them what they said. Now, this is a little bit different than the old paraphrasing that we used to be taught, “So, what you’re really saying is…” No, no, I don’t want to do that. Because if I do that I run the risk that I’ve completely miss the point.
So, I want to go back to my little FIRE model, and what I want to say to them is, “Okay, I just want to make sure I got this. The facts as you saw them are this. You, then, interpreted that to mean blah, blah, blah. Based on that you had the following emotional reaction, and because of that you now want this outcome, this desired end. Did I get that right?”
You know, it’s so good. It’s like even as you’re saying this, I imagine if someone says something just like outrageous, and you like play it back for them, they may very well say, “You know, I’m sorry, Mark. Never mind, it’s fine.”
And, honestly, Pete, that is a huge part of it, and that’s where structure comes from. Because when you spit this back to somebody, and you force them to listen, so many people do not listen to the words that come out of their mouth. When you spit it back to them, and you’re not passing any judgment, you’re just restating it with a little bit of structure, half the time they look and they go, “Ugh, that doesn’t sound good. That’s, yeah, no. As you say, I’m sorry. No, let me retract. Just forget I said anything.”
And, it’s funny, so much of these difficult conversations are about holding a mirror up to the person who sparked this in the first place. Now, if we have a legit disagreement maybe about the typos, we disagree on phrasing, whatever, okay, well, let’s just, like adults, come together and hash that out. But if something does something where it’s nasty or it was emotional, and in the heat of anger they said something bad, when we hold up the mirror we’re essentially saying, “This is what you just said. Is this what you want to go with?”
And quite oftentimes when they look at it, they go, “Ah, no. Nope, I would rather not have that on the record because I can see that that was just bad.” And just the repeating back solves half the issues with this.
Perfect. Now, Mark, tell me, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
The one other thing that I would just share in the context of difficult conversations is whenever you’re going into it, it is always a good idea to pause for a second and ask yourself one simple question, “What do I really want to accomplish with this?” And I tell you that a lot of people go into difficult conversations, and what they want to have happen is they want people to apologize, they want people to feel bad for what they said.
And I can tell you that in looking at these conversations, all the research I’ve done on this, that that almost never ends well. That the real goal of a difficult conversation, of a true talk, is to create some change, to come to some resolution so we can both move forward into a better place. And if my goal is to just make you feel terrible for that thing you said, all of it is going to end up as hurt feelings on both sides. Whereas, I don’t care if you apologize or don’t apologize. What I do care is that we’re able to move together, move forward together better.
And if we can do that, eh, I don’t want to make anybody lose face by having to give an apology because that’s just going to make them angry and drag this thing out. Let’s just fix it and life gets better.
Okay. Very good. Thank you. Well, so now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
You know, there are a number of things that I have found incredibly helpful as going through this. And I should back up for a second because one of the things, one of the books that was an influence on me early on was Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive, and this is an old, old book, this is 40 years. And one of the things that came out of this book is that some of the simplest things are the things that make us most successful.
Things like, “Where does my time go?” and, “How am I spending my life?” and, “What am I doing?” and, “Who should I be talking to?” And when I think about this, sometimes there is a tendency to overcomplicate everything. And, honestly, that is a big a problem in difficult conversations as it is anywhere else.
And one of the things that we’re trying to help people do is essentially simplify it, is just say, “Listen, you know what, this doesn’t have to be super complicated. If we just focus on some basic issues, if we focus on some simple things, let’s talk about facts. Let’s not muddle this up.” One of the things that I found is that a lot of people seem to make their career off of making things more complicated than they need to be.
And, you know what, honestly, if we can avoid doing that, we’re going to be in much better shape. So, in terms of where some of the inspiration for this, Peter Drucker died years ago, but that was one of the great things he did for anybody that we’re essentially we’re trying to have any kind of conversation or be a better person, be a better leader, whatever, is just focus on some of the simple things. So, that’s a very long answer to your question.
But given all of that, one of my favorite quotes is actually not even a leadership quote. So, Peter Drucker has a million and one great concepts, but there’s another one that actually comes from Kurt Vonnegut, and he said – I’m trying to get this right – he said, “We are what we pretend to be, so you need to be careful about what you pretend to be.”
And I may have missed that slightly, but, in essence, it’s, listen, you turn into what you’re pretending, so be careful about what you’re pretending. So, going back to the Peter Drucker concept for a second, where you put your time, how you talk to people, all of it ultimately informs who you really are. So, if you have jerky conversations, it’s not just a jerky conversation, that’s actually turning you into a jerk. If you’re spending your time all day not actually helping people become better, well, you’re turning into somebody who’s not helping other people become better.
And this idea that the words that come out of your mouth, they turn you into who you are. The actions you take on a daily basis, they turn you into what you are. I think the Vonnegut quote is sort of a cautionary message for all of us that, at the end of the day, and I’d mentioned this with having difficult conversations, if I’m somebody that goes into a tough conversation and I just want to make you feel bad, well, I’m becoming somebody who just makes other people feel bad.
If I’m somebody who goes into a conversation to try and make the world better for both of us, well, then I start to turn into that. And these words, these actions, where we spend our time, how we have conversations, all of this ultimately turns us into what we are, and they’re not separate things. The words you say and who you are, they’re not separate. They ultimately become the same thing.
Okay. Awesome. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?
So, there’s a number, but it’d probably be the one that is the single most effective, the one that I do no matter what day of the week it is. It’s, one, I don’t check my email before I do this. So, technology stays off until I’ve done this one thing. And the one thing is I ask myself the question, every morning, “What do I need to accomplish today for this to be a successful day?”
And the reason I ask that question is my to-do list can become a mess, but my to-do list is not necessarily a barometer of what drives my success. My success is going to be driven by one or two things. At any given day there’s one or two areas where I can really make a difference. Now, I may do 30 other things, but those are, eh, they’re not giant inflection points, they’re not bending the curve, they’re not making me more or less successful; they’re just kind of checking things off a list.
But asking that one question, not only does it help me focus my energy for the day but, I will tell you, if you’ve ever had that experience of waking up in the morning and the first thought you have is all the work you didn’t get done yesterday, and you know how awful that feeling is, I hate that feeling. By asking myself, “What’s the thing I need to do today for this to be a successful day?” I do that one thing and, even if I didn’t kill off the rest of my to-do list, I can still go to bed with a feeling of accomplishment that, “You know what, I did that one thing today. That, I got that done.”
And that allows me to sleep better at night and wake up in the morning, and my first thought is not, “Ugh, I didn’t get so many things done yesterday. Yesterday was such a waste.” I don’t have that feeling because I know that, yeah, I may have 30 other things I still got to do today, but I did the big one. I did that one thing and so yesterday was a successful day because of it.
Perfect. Thank you. And is there a particular nugget that you share that you tend to hear back often as being super helpful and transformational for folks?
One of the big ones actually is the FIRE model, the idea that just strip out the interpretations, reactions, and ends, write it all down. That’s fine. Get it out on paper. Make yourself feel better. But then draw a big giant “X” through it and say, “I am not allowed to say that stuff because it is going to cause me problems.” It forces us to dial down our conversations, to de-layer them so that anytime you speak, you’re speaking factually.
And not only does it reduce angst, and anger, and vitriol in conversations but, from a career perspective, man, it makes you look smart because you’re somebody that isn’t walking around making hairbrained interpretations and saying stupid things because you’re forcing yourself to be calmer and more rational and more factual.
It ends up building up your expert power, and you become more of a person that people turn to simply because not only do you sound more intelligent but you end up becoming more intelligent because you’re forcing yourself to stay away from all of the stupid rush to judgments that humans generally make.
Awesome. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them?
Our website is one big place at LeadershipIQ.com. And there’s a section on our website called Quizzes and Research, and there are a whole bunch of free tests and quizzes on this and other leadership topics, and a whole bunch of research, over a hundred articles there. It’s a good source where we’ve stuffed a lot of tools and expansion on all of these topics we’ve discussed today.
Oh, perfect. Thank you. And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
The one big challenge would be to identify a conversation that you’ve been putting off, and map it out for yourself. Think of what we talked about today, take that FIRE model, write down what you want to say to this person, and challenge yourself. Listen, I’m not saying you have to do it the day before a major holiday, but force yourself, within the next week or two, to actually sit down and have that conversation.
Pretty much every one of us has a conversation that we’ve been postponing because we don’t feel comfortable that we can pull it off successfully, but we need to. Make yourself have that conversation and simplify it. As I said, keep it simple, just focus on the facts and see if you can’t start a dialogue with this person. It doesn’t have to be a confrontation, just a conversation about it.
Awesome. Well, Mark, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing this wisdom. I wish you tons of luck with all your conversations, tough and fun, and anything in between.
Pete, thank you so much. This was a blast.