Handling well difficult conversations - People's stories
#5. I dislike working with you
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Introduction - People's stories
All People's stories are written in the 1st person to reinforce their impact.
While anonymity is preserved, all stories are inspired by real facts.
People's stories are examples, to feed you with concrete cases of how the Puzzle has been used. They are not to tell you what to think, or absolute truth: they were created with the intent to illustrate how you can transform your life with the Puzzle.
Each People’s story is presented in the following way:
Part 1. The authentic life experience
Part 2. What that same moment could have been, leveraging the Puzzle
Part 3. Decoding the story through the lens of the Puzzle framework
Part 1 - I do not understand you!
I had just been hired for a new role and needed to put a team together. As per the usual process in my company, HR suggested some CVs of existing employees, and I started the interview process! I ended up hiring 2 persons internally to help me do program management, and had 3 other positions to fill. Neither of the 2 men I hired had applied their skills in my business area, but they had good experience so I thought I could teach them about my field on top.
Everything was to be done, as we were creating a new department! We agreed that we would meet once a week on Monday, to update one another with progress and share information about what was going on - as everything was moving rapidly.
Also, I wanted to meet with them individually - both to get to know one another, and ensure we were aligned about their work. As we had no history together, this was my way to validate that I had picked the right people, and that we were also aligned on what to communicate to whom.
It was especially important to me. As this was a new role, I wanted to make sure that we would not create unnecessary tension in the organization, or miscommunicate. And as we would get used to one another, then I would be able to focus more on our external stakeholders. We all agreed this was a good way to start, and got organized accordingly!
As weeks were going by, I noticed that one of my two recruits was getting moody. As I did not know him that well, I was not sure what was going on… But as nothing special had happened at work, I assumed it was something else. I even thought that it was his usual temper, and that he had been hiding it during the recruitment process.
One Monday, as the three of us sat down for our meeting, I started with sharing general information, and then turned to the two of them for their updates. And suddenly, he literally blew up! He shouted that he had enough of these meetings, that he never had felt so belittled in his entire career, that he was an experienced professional and he did not have to report to me anything he was doing! That he really could not stand this anymore! And so he stood up and left.
The whole scene did not last more than 1 minute. I was in shock, still trying to process what had happened! I turned to the remaining team mate and asked if I had done something, or if he felt the same way? He told me not, and that he was surprised too. We ended the meeting and I stayed in the meeting room a bit longer. My heart beat was very strong, and my stress was peaking!! What had I done?? Was I a bad manager?? My self confidence was close to 0, as I kept wondering what mistake I had done to trigger such a strong reaction! And what would people think of me?! This was the beginning of the end: this person had been in the company much longer than I did, no one would believe me!! I was in deep trouble!!
I managed to come down enough, and went to the open space with the intent to have a chat with the drama queen! But I could not find him: he had decided to go home and take the afternoon off.
I also immediately informed HR, fearing how they would react. They told me it was up to me to manage, and that indeed it was not good - which did not help me relax!! They shared that the team was new, and if we already had tensions, then no one else would want to join. And that I had to fix the problem quickly.
For a few days I tried to see him, as I did not want to have a remote conversation. It felt too emotional and too personal to also send an email… But as he kept avoiding me, I thought I should send an email to ask how he felt, and that we should meet and discuss.
I finally managed to get hold of him, but we were not able to talk. He was very closed: he told me that everything was fine and he did not want to talk about what had happened. That joining this team was a mistake, and he wanted out. I asked him to take his time to decide, and that we should discuss how to best collaborate together.
But he cut me and told me he had made his choice. He did not think I was a good fit for him. I was quite stressed because he kept looking at me in a very judgemental manner. Everything in his body language showed that he looked down at me.
Still, I wanted to make it work so I asked what he expected, and shared that I would like to find a way to work together. He told me it would not work. That we just were not compatible. And that he wanted out.
I thought that was unfair not to give me a chance, just like I was giving him another chance! And while it did bug me, as I would rather have had a good conversation, I gave up too. Gave him back the same attitude, and told him it was probably the best solution. And so within a few weeks he left the team, and we never ever talked about it again.
As for the remaining team member, I did check more often how he felt, and whether he was over that memorable shouting episode. He told me so, and we just all moved on.
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Part 2 - It takes two to have a difficult conversation
I had just been hired to create a new department, and form the team that would go with it. I started by recruiting two project managers, who did not know my business - but I thought that I could teach them.
We agreed we would regularly meet, as a team and one to one. That was because we were in a moving environment so we had to keep one another informed, and also because we had not worked together until then. So I felt we had to learn about one another, and also build up trust.
But I noticed too that one of my two recruits came to work more and more moody. I must admit that this is not a behavior I tolerate a lot! I think that if you have something to say, then say it - but don’t pretend everything is well, while giving me attitude! So that is rather a pattern I tend to ignore…. But I was in the mood of trying new things! Plus I was new to this company, so who knows: maybe there was something I was doing wrong?
In our next one to one, I took the liberty to bring it up. I mentioned that I had noticed he smiled less, and I wanted to make sure he was OK. He looked at me surprised, and said yes - in his own depressing way. But as this comment came to mind, I thought I was judging, and maybe projecting my ideas into the discussion. So I decided to be more open, and shared that I felt something was odd - but I could not tackle what it was. But that was not a good move given the reserved style of my interlocutor: he closed up, told me everything was fine and moved to other matters looking clearly dissatisfied.
This conversation got me to think too, as I was getting uncomfortable. Why was his attitude so annoying to me? It is very childish I thought. And why do I find it childish? Because children are the ones that cannot express themselves properly, while adults can. But was that true? Is every single adult able to express themselves well, or have a difficult conversation? OK, not quite! I was being harsh.
Then why was I so puzzled by this behavior? Because I felt it was disrespectful! And why was it disrespectful? Because I did not deserve to be treated this way! When you are in between professionals, you work things out! I felt like I was disregarded! He treated me like a child! And what emotion comes with being treated as a child? It makes me angry! And why does that make me angry? Because I try my best in the office, so I do not deserve to be treated that way. At that point, I realized that I wanted to step up for myself! Until then, I had tried to be empathetic and understanding, but it did not feel right for me! Plus it had not worked with my teammate either, so I might as well put myself first!
So next time we had our one to one, I came in with the firm intention to speak up. The person walked in moody, and so as he sat down I told him that I would not be able to work in these conditions. That I could handle conflicts, though not my cup of tea. But conflict avoidance, and giving me attitude for something you would not even share about? That would not be possible! So either we had an issue, and we would work it out, or he would not be able to remain in the team. We were only a handful, and I did not want to walk on eggs, and have not even a clue why?!
He looked at me, in shock! He said he had no clue what I was talking about. So I shared a few pointed examples about his behavior. And then he exploded! He told me I was incapable of delegating, that I was always on his back checking what he was doing. That he had so many years of experience, and no one treated him this badly. That he could not take it any more!
It came to my mind that it was somewhere funny he felt I treated him as a child, as I felt he did too - for different reasons! I explained to him I felt we needed to know one another better work wise, and that I was not here to control his work - but rather to learn how he was working, and also so that we could adjust to one another. That I felt we were not always aligned yet, but was confident we would over time. He just kept repeating he could not take it, and walked away from the room very agitated.
I informed HR about this conversation - so they could have my version, in case he would go to them too!
And as he had left the open space, I left it there for the day. I was worried what would happen next, and proud of myself at the same time! I was feeling comfortable again, having been able to express myself. And I had not been angry at him the whole time: I managed to remain present and lucid throughout the whole conversation. That was an achievement in itself!!
A few days later, as he kept avoiding me, I asked him for a quick meeting. I asked if he was willing to invest in the relationship to make it work, as I too would. That I would still want to see his work, but if it felt too much then we would talk about it and I would listen. He looked at me, and said that he had made up his mind: he did not see any point in staying in the team. I had destroyed his self confidence, and he would be a lot better without me.
Are you sure I asked? And he was, so I let him exit the team.
Although he only worked for me a few weeks, I will always remember him. This episode showed me that being a manager does not mean that we need to make it work at any cost. That peace in the team is the only outcome to seek for. It showed me that, as a manager, I can also decide what type of behavior I want in my team. And that when it does not suit me, I am allowed to speak up! And if we can’t work it out, then I can change what the team is. It takes two to make it work! It is my duty to make the effort, and try my best. And as I do so in good faith, there is nothing to feel guilty about if it doesn’t work.
Part 3 - The Puzzle decoder
Let's decode this People's story with the lens of the Puzzle pieces.
Being myself implies that I know what is good for me. And I stand for me, when it is about my limits. I can be assertive, when it comes to my values. It does not mean being aggressive, or assuming things and responding back not quite knowing what I am getting into.
Rather, it is about being present, leveraging my Ego to remain come and focused throughout the conversation, and explain clearly what I need or am willing to accept. It is about having a dialogue: we may not agree, but unless we talk about it, we won’t find a solution that suits us both.
The way to handle difficult conversations is also very personal. And evolves throughout the years, as I could for instance learn to be better at it.
Another important consideration is also that the other person could be on a very different level of maturity. For instance, I could be very present in the discussion, while my interlocutor is completely polluting himself! In such a situation, the dialogue could be difficult, as he or she will not hear what I say - but what they think I say.
In a difficult conversation, having options is essential! There are many alternatives and ways to react to a comment. I can either be overwhelmed by my emotions and follow my Ego, or remain in charge and choose what is best for me.
What is key is to know at all times how I feel with respect to the course of the discussion. And to adjust how I react accordingly, putting myself first. Not so much with the intent to win the discussion, rather to take good care of myself. It is not about what you do to me (pointing fingers), but rather about what I want.
In a difficult conversation, I often assume a lot! It is a stressful situation, and that makes it harder to remain present. I may not even realize that I am judging and interpreting what the other person says. Everything feels very real, and it is very coherent to me - though it may not be what is really happening! The real test is to see whether I am in my head most of the time, or carefully listening and interacting.
Conflicts are even more stressful, not to mention that most people do not like conflicts! And accordingly, creating a conflict to protect myself is certainly the last option that comes to mind! Yet, it does matter to step up for myself when it is too much. And it is also a solution worth exploring, as at times it does help solve the conflict! Quite counter intuitive, but as I speak up for myself, I am able to explain how I feel and why I react the way I do. And that means that the dialogue is still on, as I am not pointing fingers but talking about myself.
When I enter a difficult conversation, by definition I am not at ease. Something that matters is bugging me, up to the point that I had to think about it, and I need to talk about it.
From there, it is easy to perceive the other person as an opponent to convert to my opinion. And that they will come with the opposite perspective. While it could also be that they are seeking for something else than I do. Or that everyone has good intentions, and together we will find a solution. My Ego is the one that anticipates a fight, and therefore an opposite perspective. But that is a simplistic view of what a difficult conversation could be.
If you take South Africa as an example: those who hated and killed one another for years, managed to remain in peace afterwards. So it is possible, even in extreme cases, to find a compromise.
I do not control the conversation, nor how the other person reacts, but I do control how I live it. I can choose how to approach a discussion, and where I draw the line. And by doing so, I create space for myself, and to live well.