Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Mind Confront


I have already enjoyed success with a systematic way of improving communication within relationships. My book defines a face-to-face, accountability discussion. If someone has disappointed you and you should talk to him or her directly. When handled well, the problem is resolved and the relationship benefits. All too often, however, we shy away from dealing with the problem or mismanage the process. What lies at the heart of most family, team and organisational problems is the inability to hold effective communication. If you walk away from disappointments or handle them poorly, the costs can be horrendous. (The two space shuttle disasters where a repressive organisational environment made engineers afraid to raise technical and safety problems.)

Too often our response to performance problems is to go to extremes. We slip from awkward silence into embarrassing verbal ‘violence’. My book suggests that there is a third option that lies between the poles of ‘fight or flight’ and which provides better ways of dealing with failed promises, disappointments and other performance gaps. If you learn one set of skills i.e. how to master Mind Control Systems, you can look forward to significant and lasting change in every problem you to choose to confront. When people learn these skills, both they and their organisations benefit. According to my research, organisations lose between 20-80% of their potential performance because of leaders’ and employees’ inability to master crucial confrontations. By teaching people how to improve their ability to have those confrontations, they claim to have routinely achieved 20-40% improvements in performance. And these results are just the tip of the iceberg.

When we approach a crucial confrontation, we have to work on ourselves first. Before we say anything, we need to ask ourselves what crucial confrontation to hold and if we should hold it. Think ‘CPR’ - Content, Pattern and Relationship. The first time a problem comes up, you should be prepared to talk about the original problem or the content. If the problem continues, talk about the pattern. As the impact spills over to how you relate to one another, talk about your relationship. To help pick the right level, explore what comes after the behaviour (the consequences), as well as what comes before it (the intent). As the list of potential problems expands, ask what you really do want and don’t want for yourself, the other person and the relationship.

To determine if you are wrongly staying silent, ask these four questions: Am I acting it out? Is my conscience nagging me? Am I choosing the certainty of silence over the risk of speaking up? Am I telling myself that I am helpless? On the other hand, to determine if you are wrongly speaking up, ask if the ‘social system’ will support your effort. If you are going to speak up and hold others accountable to a new standard or one that is different from the masses, you have to reset their expectations this means sending out a warning and differentiating yourself.

Master my stories. A person’s behaviour during the first few seconds of a confrontation sets the tone for everything that follows. You have no more than a sentence or two to establish the climate, if you set the wrong tone or mood, it is hard to turn things around. 

The explanation for this is what I call “Path to Action”. Another person does something and as a result, we are propelled to action. We see or hear what the other person did or said and then tell ourselves a story why he or she did it, which leads to a feeling, which leads to our own actions. If the story is unflattering and the feeling is anger, adrenaline kicks in, blood leaves our brains to support our genetically engineered response of ‘fight or flight’ and we say and do stupid things. So, as you approach a confrontation, take care not to establish a bad climate by charging in half-informed and half-cocked. Work on your own thoughts, feelings and stories. Tell yourself the rest of the story, ask why a reasonable, rational and decent person would do what you have just seen, as well as if you yourself are playing a role in the problem.

Look at which sources of influence you can draw on the things that either motivate or enable people to keep their commitment. The notion here is that in order to take the required action, the person must be willing and able. Motivation and ability will be affected by the force of self, others and things (i.e. the environment) as follows:

Self (Motivators: pain and pleasure; Enablers: strengths and weaknesses). 
Others (Motivators: praise and pressure; Enablers: helps and hindrances). 
Things (Motivators: carrots and sticks; Enablers: bridges and barriers). 

So, for example, ask whether others support the desired behaviour or provide pressure against it and whether the reward system is aligned. Can others do what is required? Does the task play to their strengths or weaknesses? Are people around them a help or a hindrance? Do the things around them provide a bridge or a barrier?

Confronting with safety, describe the gap. When we have finished working on ourselves and are speaking for the first time, the overall goal is to confront with safety, i.e. we have to make it safe for people to discuss problems. Rather than leading with harsh conclusions or making accusations, we simply describe the gap and then listen carefully to see whether the problem is due to motivation, ability or both. Maintain mutual respect and establish mutual purpose. Ask for permission to discuss a problem and always discuss it in private. Use the technique of ‘contrasting’ to address misunderstandings and as a pre-emptive tool for stopping disrespect. The process here is to imagine what others might erroneously conclude, immediately explain that this is what you don’t mean and as a contrasting point, explain what you do mean.

Share your path with the other person, start with the facts and tentatively share your story. Continually watch for safety problems. If the other person becomes defensive, step out of the content and restore safety. End with a simple, diagnostic question, a sincere invitation for the other person to share even completely contrary opinions with you.

Make it motivating. Having described the gap, we are now listening to see if the problem is due to motivation or ability. If the other person isn’t motivated, we have to help them want to take action. People are motivated by the consequences they anticipate. So begin by explaining natural consequences in a business context, this typically includes what is happening to stakeholders such other employees and shareholders. Search for consequences that matter to the other person. Finish well and wrap up the conversation by determining who does what and by when. Then set a follow-up time.

Make it easy. If ability is the problem, we have to make it easy for the other person to comply. We need tools that make keeping commitments (almost) painless. We have to make impossible tasks possible and nasty tasks less nasty. Jointly explore root causes don’t jump in with your own solutions. Empower others by letting them take part in diagnosing the real cause and producing workable solutions. Ask them for their ideas. Remember the all-important question: ‘What do you think it will take?’

When others can’t identify all the causes, jointly explore the underlying forces including self, others and things. Once you have finished with surfacing and resolving ability barriers, check to see if they are willing to do what is required once you have taken steps to enable them.

Stay focused and flexible. All the above principles and skills have to be woven into a workable script as the conversation unfolds. This calls for an enormous amount of flexibility. If fear is the emergent problem, step out of the original problem, make it safe and appropriate and revisit the problem, returning to the place you left off.

When new problems emerge, remain flexible enough to deal with them without getting side-tracked. Stepping up to a new problem should happen by choice, not by accident. When people don’t deliver on a promise because ‘something came up’, deal with it. Others need to let you know that plans may be changing as soon as they can. When a worse problem emerges, step out of the original problem, leave a ‘bookmark’ so you will know where to return and start over with the new problem. Once you have dealt with the emergent problem, return to the original issue. When others become upset, retrace their ‘Path to Action’ to the original source. Talking about the facts helps dissipate the emotions and takes you to the place where you can resolve the problem.

Gain commitment and move to action. After a crucial confrontation, what can you do to ensure that your efforts to work through a problem will lead to action? The best problem-solvers, say, create a complete plan. They build the foundation of accountability by being specific about what comes next. They piece together all the theories and skills into a complete problem-solving discussion. In effect, they carry a model in their heads, which they apply to difficult interpersonal challenges.

The most important thing is to agree on a plan and follow-up method. The plan must include who does what by when. Each person must be clearly identified with a responsibility. Make sure the ‘what’ is understood. Call for questions and use contrasting where necessary. The less skilled the person or the more uneven their history, the higher the risk and the more frequently you will need to follow up. Talk candidly about your follow-up methods. Then be certain to follow up if things don’t go well, step up to a new crucial confrontation.

Put it all together. This section looks at how to use the Mind Control Systems model to solve ‘big, sticky complicated problems’. It examines what the skills look like when applied by a real person during a real confrontation and shows how someone might pick and choose from the toolbox of skills. Most of us are frightened of failure in these types of situation. But, as you don’t have to leap out of the plane without a parachute. It is not about taking terrible and irreversible risks precisely because the first two skills, ‘choose the if and what’ and ‘master my stories’, take place in the confines and safety of your own head. By stepping up to problems that should be handled and picking the right one, you ensure your effort is worthwhile. By doing your best to keep your emotions under control, you take an important step toward acting rationally and reducing resistance and defensiveness. These actions, taken before a single word is spoken, keep you from charging in and ruining the conversation with your first sentence. In effect, they double your chances of success.

If you are confronting a powerful and selfish or defensive person, I suggest what you need is not more power and more empathy. If you can step away from yourself and consider how the problem behaviour is affecting the other person as well as how it’s affecting you, you will have a greater capacity to produce better outcomes for both of you. Subtle, borderline behaviour, where someone is not bad enough to be called incompetent but you still worry about their work, is particularly difficult to confront. The keys are: 

(1) Careful research to collect data from the marginal performer about their frustrations, concerns and aspirations; (2) Gathering facts from memory and observation that will allow you to describe in illuminating detail the difference between mediocrity and excellence and (3) Connections showing the other person how the changes you are recommending link to their own goals. 

There is also advise here for partners and spouses where one person wants to work through a problem in the relationship and the other person tries to escape talking about it. If ever there was a pattern that needs to be confronted.

None of the skills described in my book are alien and that many people on their best days do much of what every ‘interpersonally smart’ person does. You don’t have to change everything, just reshape a few of your thoughts and alter a few of your actions. To make this ‘tweaking of thoughts and words’ easier, I suggest studying the book in pairs. This involves working with a partner to develop goals, practise together and support each other as you step up to Mind Control System.

The consequences of not facing up to confrontations can be catastrophic. One of the anecdotes concerns a man who checked into a medical clinic for a simple earache. He was wide-awake as he was prepared for surgery. Even when they started to shave him in a place that was far-removed from his ear, the man didn't dare to challenge the doctors. He walked out with a vasectomy.

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