I was coaching two senior executives in improving their trust, collaboration and communication. They were the heads of two businesses that had to work closely together. In fact, the success of the entire company depended on it.
They were both seasoned, effective and knowledgeable executives who commanded large organizations and achieved great results. Both were highly respected within their respective teams as well as among their peers.
However, they had very different personalities and styles, and they had an acrimonious relationship for a long time.
Even though their team members had to work closely together, the two executives went out of their way to minimize their interactions and limit them to mission-critical activities. Many times they dealt with issues, conflicts and opportunities via email rather than walking down the hall to each other’s office to talk.
While the business continued to push forward, the two executives continued to avoid dealing with their personal conflicts, lack of trust and overall contentious relationship, even though it negatively affected the people under them, as well as the overall effectiveness of their company.
When I talked with each of them alone, they always had blunt criticism and negative comments about each other, as well as an ear-full of stories and examples to justify and back-up their sentiments. But, when the three of us got into a room together, their accusations always seemed watered down and they were no longer communicating in a straightforward, bold and honest way.
In addition, every time one of them criticized the other in front of me, I would ask them, “Have you told your colleague how you feel and what you want/need?” and if the answer was “No!” (as it often was) I coached them to go do so.
On several occasions when one of them would report: “We had a blunt conversation and I told my partner exactly how I feel and what I want,” the other would contradict the story and say: “We talked, but we didn’t discuss anything new.” It was as if they were living on different planets… definitely living in different conversations.
When I have challenged leaders for not communicating directly, openly or authentically sometime they would fess up and acknowledge: “I know! I chickened out at the last minute…” But, many times they attribute their lack of following through to the circumstances: “We didn’t get to it…”, “We didn’t have time…”, “It wasn’t the appropriate time…”.
I see this type of dynamic happening in organizations all the time. People can engage in straight talk with me, but then when they talk to the person with whom they have a problem or need to have the blunt and direct conversation, they sell out and water the communication down.
Does that ever happen to you? Why does this happen?
From my experience, this happens due to one of the following reasons:
- People are not clear about what they want to say. When people ‘beat around the bush’, stumble on words, or when they are ‘lost for words’ it is often simply because they don’t know what they want to say. Many times, people enter conversations feeling confident about what they want to say, but then during the conversation, they become overwhelmed or simply realize their thoughts are still half-baked and unclear. Some can power through it and use the chaotic space of the conversation to form their thoughts. However, many don’t feel comfortable doing this.Many times people are unclear about what they want to say because they haven’t taken a stand. It’s not that they are confused. It’s that they haven’t made a choice about where they stand. The minute you become clear about what you believe and want, you always find an appropriate and effective way to say it.
- People are not willing to own what they have to say. Sometimes, expressing what you feel and/or what you want could be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Perhaps, you don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or you are afraid that if you say something tough they may retaliate with something that will hurt your feelings too. Perhaps you feel guilty for having such strong criticism or emotions about another, or you are simply trying to avoid conflict. When people are not willing to own how they feel, their feedback or what they need, they tend to not speak up or water down their communications.
- People lack the courage to express what they want to say. At some basic level, communication always boils down to personal courage. First, having the courage to be honest with yourself about what you feel and want. Then, having the courage to express what you feel and want to others without filters. Also, having the courage to be open and vulnerable, including listening openly with your ears and heart to what someone else is saying and receiving their feedback.
So, next time you find yourself stuck or lost in a conversation ask yourself: “Am I really clear about what I am trying to say?” or “Am I avoiding owning what I have to say?” This will help you move forward.