Tip 2: Transforming difficult conversations

When we get into difficult conversations, one of us is suddenly uncomfortable. In fact, we feel threatened. To begin to change difficult conversations into threshold conversations, recognize and respond differently to the freaking out that ensues.Freaking out is normal

In toddlers, we expect pouting and silence, anger, tantrums. In grown ups, the toddler’s emotions still seize us. But they (usually) show up differently. You can probably recall when you were surprised by a difficult conversation. The jolt of adrenaline you felt proves that you were a little freaked out.

Tip 2: Accept that grown-ups freak out, too

This threat grabs us viscerally. You already know that’s the fight or flight response, courtesy the amygdala. In the 21st century, the real question isn’t, “What might kill me?” Instead we need to know, “What does this mean to me?” It’s the identity conversation (Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, Heen) that’s an unspoken part of every difficult conversation. “We conduct an internal debate,” the authors write, “over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, our future and our well being.” The sense of threat is subtler than the risk to life. It’s a risk to my life as I understand it, which is the oxygen I breathe. The risk is real. We are about to lose something.

We’re about to lose our sense of ourselves. Difficult conversations jump us in the alley and rough us up. So, you can expect a reaction.  Fortunately, research is emerging to can help us understand the subtleties of the threat we experience (and subject others to).  David Rock has identified five threats to our self understanding that trigger threat response or brain activity that mimics physical pain.






In future posts, I’ll suggest some tactics to help minimize the reactions when you threaten these five conceptions of self in others, and ways to step back from the grip of emotion yourself.

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You are a center of competitive advantage, from author Dorie Clark


“Make yourself a hub,” said Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You, Reimagining your Future at the TEC forum at Foley and Hoag on February 26.  Clark offered four other great strategies for making sure people see, know, and can say a few good words about your distinctive value.  I’m not going to give them away because she does that at her website and in her book (links below).Be the hub, bub!

“Organizations naturally develop ruts and siloes,” Clark said. It’s a natural result of getting work done.  As teams and functions focus on work, they screen out input that competes with their need to satisfy customers (external and internal) right now. And that opens the door for leaders and contributors who want to create personal competitive advantage.

Hubs are people who remain curious about what’s going on across the siloes and actively develop an authentic network of colleagues, friends, and business buddies.  They can be within and should be beyond the organization.  This network helps them:

  • Interpret different perspectives, including pressures affecting others, metrics and personalities that drive behavior, professional identities that inform at-work values
  • Communicate how things get done
  • Notice and highlight trends and changes
  • Connect influencers across siloes
  • Find the other hub people

For leaders in larger organizations, being a hub is practically a necessity.  If you want to be a strategic thinker, and you do, you need to think about more than one time frame at a time.  Being able to ask good questions about the implications on folks you know in operations and marketing will trigger a real and perceived multiplier effect.  You don’t need to have all the answers, but you need to think across the organization both as it is and as it may be.  Being the hub will help take you there.

For entrepreneurs, being a hub extends your senses.  A challenging part of your role is listening to the rails for the sound of the oncoming train.  You want to anticipate the rumble and the roar before others.  To do that, you need a wide circle of people who are paying attention to other signals.   While you’re listening and reporting for them, they’re helping you notice changes that may have an impact on you, your company, and your prospects.  Your network stretches across ruts to sense the emerging future and recognize its current incarnations.

Get more estimable Dorie Clark goodness at www.dorieclark.com.  And her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future is a valuable and brisk read for the transitions when you need to change people’s perception of what you do, how you do it, and how well you are able to do it.

Ambushed! …By meetings

Talking to a prospective client the other day, he told me he’s ambushed by meetings.

This C-level leader works in a young company with an open work space. Someone periodically pops up and asks a question or recommends a solution to a problem. As a company leader, he cares about how that solution fits with others. Does it reflect our customer proposition? Does it offer value? is it feasible? But the conversation continues, others chime in, debate ensues, “And a meeting breaks out!” he said. He’s getting exasperated by those outbreaks. My colleague Rick Lent is right when he says that if you want to lead, you need to use meetings to get important work done. Hating even unanticipated meetings isn’t really an option.

Con sarn meetins!

The C-leader reminded me, a little wistfully, that he had worked at Kayak, where the CEO keeps meetings small. “If there’s a bunch of people in the room, I’ll stick my head in and say, ‘It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren’t three of you smart enough to do this?'” That’s Paul English, co-founder and CTO of Kayak. To create focus, he’s imposed an artificial limit on people in a room. It’s a rough and ready way to force this question, “Who needs to be present to do this work wisely and well.” That’s one of Rick’s deceptively simple planning questions.

“I just hate design by consensus,” English continues. “No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It’s very easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work. I don’t want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture it, and make it stronger, give it a chance to see life.”  Rick recently showed how other technology leaders are using simple, effective meeting strategies like his.

Of course, small meetings make some things easier. Numbers matter. But English also sees small meetings bringing together supporters rather than critics. And that’s important when innovation is the goal.

But there are other assumptions built into his small meetings principle. First, that the people nuturing an idea are responsible for bringing others on board. For that to work, managers must welcome ideas even if they disrupt the hard work they put in to deliver consistent and repeatable process. And that also means that innovation and other measures of success trump predictability.

Small meetings aren’t the sole answer. But they’re part of the answer to the questions: How do we innovate? How do teams take responsibility for promoting strong ideas? and How do we take action as fast as possible? So when you solve your meeting “problems,” they’ll reflect the values of your organization. If you hate your meetings today, are they sustaining some unspoken values?

If you’re ambushed by meetings, you can use those Rick’s principles as jujitsu by asking some of the planning questions. When you’ve given it a try, I’d love to know what happened.