Repurposed from Diana’s Amazon #1 Bestseller, Consequential Communication in Turbulent Times, a Practical Guide to Leadership
We humans are a bundle of many things. We are intellectual, rationale, and emotional beings. A good rule to follow in the workplace is that “it’s okay to have emotions, since we all do, and it’s okay to describe those emotions. However, it’s not okay to display those emotions or to act them out.” There are many good reasons for this. It helps to avoid saying something that is later regretted. (If we do give in and say a regrettable thing, apologize, since we all make mistakes). It also avoids hurting others and allows for thinking and rethinking an initial tendency to use fighting words. It allows for the rationale part of who we are to overtake the emotional part: Words can be swords or shields, and the words we chose can unite or divide us. Last, it allows us to achieve our goal in the communication, which is never to antagonize a fellow worker or employee, rather to get the best work product out of him or her.
- Avoid communicating when angry. You can always come back another day and describe your anger without giving into it. Very powerful.
- Select words, phrases and language that are neutral.
- Be strategic: remember what the goal is and drive to achieve it.
- Seek outside advice when unsure.
Communicating When Angry
All of us gets angry. It’s not if, rather how we handle it. As someone who is a “trumpet,” meaning idea to mouth and out, sage advice was given to me over the course of my career. “Take the 15-second pause,” meaning think first and speak second. Over time, that bit of advice was elongated into “the cool of the evening,” which translated into taking it home, think about it, and then come back another day to respond. Worked every time. Of course, when one goofs and speaks out of anger, it’s time to apologize.
Select Words, Phrases and Language that are Neutral
Emotionally-laden language in the workplace tends to focus on work assignments and performance. “You’re not pulling your weight,” “what were you thinking?” “how could anyone think this would work?” or “that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” to repeat a few. Not only do these statements work counter to the intended effect, which, typically, is to get the best out of someone else, they also serve to delegitimize the person making those statements, and therefore allowing the receiver to discount the information. “There goes old Joe again, just ignore him, he’ll get over it.” Or, “what an idiot, why would I listen to her?” Looking at two of the offensive statements, how about if they were reframed:
- From “You’re not pulling your weight,” to “I understood this part of the assignment was given to you. Was I wrong?”
- From “What were you thinking,” to “I hadn’t thought about it that way, tell me more. If you persuade me, I’ll change. If I persuade you, will you change?”
Be Strategic: Remember What the Goal is and Drive to Achieve it
Typically, our goal is to get the best out of others in the workplace. If we remember that (and think first, and communicate second), we can reframe our initial/emotional responses to something more palatable. If the boss wants a memo reworked because she didn’t agree with the conclusion, how about: “James, I’m glad you got this in on time, and I like the alternatives you considered. I was a bit surprised at your conclusion. In fact, it wasn’t what I was expecting. Tell me more, persuade me. If not, would you mind rewriting the end and select another alternative?”
Seek Outside Advice when Unsure
Emotions can cloud our thinking. If after exercising the 15-second pause and/or the “cool of the evening” and one is still unclear, pick up the phone and ask a trusted advisor. Lay out the situation, and get his advice. He may agree with you, disagree with you, or come down in the middle, offering excellent advice for the follow-up communication.
Beatrice Benefits Administrator went into Hillary HR VP’s office to complain about a work assignment. “Why should I have to do this? It’s not in my area of responsibility, and besides, I don’t have the time.” Hillary repeated that when she gave the assignment to Beatrice, she would also reassign some of Beatrice’s current work to enable her to do the job. Hillary reminded Beatrice that she had been selected to complete the project because of her technical expertise.
Beatrice again stated that she didn’t want to do the assignment, and besides had too much other work. Hillary responded neutrally and in the same manner as before. The third time Beatrice leveled her complaint at Hillary, she added “besides you don’t like me, so you’re setting me up for failure. “At this point, having stated the acts and facts several times, Hillary was starting to get angry. Afraid that she might act out those emotions by saying something that both of them would regret, Hillary declared “Beatrice, you need to leave my office now.” Beatrice stayed seated, refusing to leave Hillary’s office, so Hillary walked out and went into a conference room.
That night, Hillary thought long and hard about what had happened, about her role in the transaction and whether she would have changed anything. The fact was, Hillary didn’t like Beatrice. Hillary contemplated whether to assign the project to someone else, and what to do next. She called her outside advisor, explained the situation, and asked for advice. Her advisor agreed with Hillary’s handling of the matter. Both agreed that Hillary should discuss the matter with Beatrice the following day. She should specifically reiterate the job expectations, and address Beatrice’s seeming refusal to do the job. Beatrice would be insubordinate if she failed or refused to complete the assignment.
The next day, Hillary called Beatrice into her office and stated “Beatrice, I asked you to leave my office last night because I was angry. I am still angry now, and let me tell you why.”Hillary then reiterated the nature and scope of the assignment, her willingness to reassign other work that was on Beatrice’s plate, and that Beatrice’s failure or refusal to complete the assignment would be insubordination for which she would be disciplined up to and including termination of employment. Beatrice sat quietly, unable to dismiss Hillary’s cool, calm description of her anger or to minimize or trivialize the importance and impact of the content of the meeting. In the end, Beatrice did the project to Hillary’s satisfaction.
Tips that Worked:
- Hillary avoided communicating when angry; she came back the following day and described her anger, rather than acting it out.
- She chose words, phrases and language that were neutral.
- Hillary was strategic: her goal was to get Beatrice to do the work!
- Finally, Hillary sought out a key advisor (who had her best interest at heart) to get another point of view.