Saturday, September 22, 2007

Vital Conversations - Narrow-cast or Broad-cast

Years ago, when I started working on strategic conversations, strategic planning and forward thrusts in organizations I realized that any model that takes people into "judging backwards" or "finding weaknesses" or "analyzing why things don't work" or "obstacles to success" all focus our minds on what we can't do, not what we can do.

From this perspective, we feel, on a conscious or unconscious level, that we can't achieve our goals. We often "narrow cast" the opportunities without knowing it, and we call that reality and we limit what we imagine could be possible.

Instead, what we should be focusing on is what we want to do -- and when we do that what happens is we open our minds to new energy and we "broadcast the opportunities" in our minds. In other words we expand what we imagine could be possible.

Creating the Future

My business focus is working with CEO's and their teams, and organizations to create the future. Most of my clients are Fortune 500 companies. When I started to use words like "aspirations" and "wishes" in the mid eighties, some CEOs and their senior teams thought I was quite "woo-woo" and some didn't want to enter discussions with this framing.

Others found it intriguing and did experiment with me on how to shift energy and shift mindsets. This lead to two decades of research, projects, initiatives and incredible growth inside of large companies who many would say "could not change."

Aspirations are the Key:
Those executives who were willing to enter a new space and search inside themselves (that's where aspirations live) for their most treasured hopes and dreams, and then experimented with articulating these deeper aspirations, became tougher mentally for the journey ahead because of the internal touchstone that was created by being courageous and willing to find their own place of greatest desire -- and share it with others.

Unfortunately, life teaches us that hoping for too big a dream creates disappointment -- especially when we don't get it, and so we often give up the dream for the reality. My two decades of work with transformation has taught me that when I am successful in helping create space for aspirations to surface, and when we can create the support team to hold the space open, and for redirecting our the energy and learn along the way, then big dreams do happen and everyone involved lifts to the next level of their growth and evolution.

This may sound a bit spiritual for some, yet those who experience it find the words to explain it and sometimes what is required are more spiritual or energetic words to capture the feeling of growth. Some clients call this a rebirth ... others transformation. Client's who have experienced this want more experiences like this because they energize, catalyze and create a positive ripple effect in their organizations.

Anyone who wants to read more about the approaches I'm experimenting with, please refer to my website for case studies, or to a variety of books and articles:

Growth and Health – Cells and Organizations have Similar Needs
Also, I have a series in Executive Excellence Magazine on partnering. In the first issues of my series, I have linked three key principles, or conditions for growth. The principles that I've discovered came out of my husband’s research on cancer. He and scientist from NYU have found a disruptive technology for curing cancer by "reinstructing cancer cells how to be normal." They are an early stage research and development company and their work is an incredible contribution to the field of oncology, and with the inspiration of their work, I've connected it to how to create conditions for growth in individuals, teams and organizations.

I hope my work will add to AI's community of thought leadership by defining the conditions for AI practices to thrive.

I welcome further conversation... Judith

PS: My husband's site is:

Difficult Conversations Don't Have to Be So Difficult

No one could believe it – Radio Shack let thousands of people go and they did it through email! Most people dislike delivering bad news in person, and will find any way to avoid it.

Making eye contact with another person who you care about, and with whom you need to deliver a difficult message – probably creates disappoint, upset or hurt – and is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do. So, rather than confronting these challenges, we often take to many alternatives which at the time seem to be less challenging or hurtful but later turn out to cause more pain.

Discussing/Delivering/Moving Through Bad News

Clouding the Issue
Two years ago I was asked to coach a CEO who was one of 6 reporting to a chairman. The difficult message the chairman wanted to give the leaders was that if she didn’t raise the performance of her team she would be asked to leave. Rather than giving that message, the chairman wrote a 6 page report that provided feedback and 98% was about how good the leader was. Embedded in the document were 2-3 lines which briefly stated that the chairman expected a higher level of performance from the leader. When I asked the leader what this document communicated to her and what she would do as a result, she said she was doing everything right and therefore was on the right track for her bonus.

Failing to be candid with others is one of the largest reasons why people ultimately leave companies. When we think we are doing the right things, we keep doing them. When key messages are embedded into larger messages, they get lost, are “sandwiched in” which means we can easily discount them or deal with them as less important.

Candor is Golden
In the July – August 1997 HBR article called Fair Process, the authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne state that “people do care about outcomes, but they care more about the processes that produce those outcomes.” People want to know where they stand and why. If there is a difficult message they need to hear, employees would prefer to know the truth rather than a watered down or clouded version of it.

Candor supersedes fluff in situations where truth is the medicine needed. Fear of telling a person they have failed, or are about to be fired, or they didn’t make the cut are realities in life. We all know this. Yet we do more harm to an individual by trying to soft pedal our way through a difficult conversation.

Here are some questions to ponder, and address:

How should a leader address customers; shareholders; the press; employees? Are there different components of the message that should be shared with one group and not another? Who needs what type of information?
  • Unmet Expectations: Most difficult messages come from a very common origin - unmet expectations. I failed to deliver the results you expected. You failed to deliver the results I expected. It is difficult because it contains embarrassment and disappointment – two things human beings dislike the most. It is a social embarrassment and when this is the core of the context, then people want to deflect the message, minimize it, blame others, avoid it – or any other tactic they can think of.
    Every difficult message has some dynamics that are unique to the situation. And each group of people may have different messages that are required to share, however there are a few things in common with all. These are all people – and in each case they are important relationships that you want to preserve and sustain even thought the message you need to discuss or deliver is different. If you don’t care about the relationship then you can say anything you want.
    In this case you can “data dump” or get the situation off your chest and act mindlessly about how you say it. Sometimes this can be venting or letting it all out if the issue is about your relationships with them.
  • Caring: However in most other cases, if your goal is to share something that is considered “difficult” and you want to sustain the relationship, you need to set the context for a sustained relationship up front so the person knows that this may be difficult for both of you… and that you care about them regardless of how difficult the message will be.
  • Candor: In addition you want to be explicit and honest about what you are sharing. Candor communicates respect, and that is what people want most. Not candor that looks like blame or anger, but candor that looks like the real truth.
  • Failure to Deliver Results on Your End: For example, your company failed to make its numbers this quarter and it’s because of a delay in the launch of a product. There will be an impact on stock price, or deliveries, on employee bonuses - so the impact is across the board with employees, shareholders, press and even customers. Identify where the impacts lie, take responsibility for the event, ask people to accept your apology, explain your new strategy for making it better, and asking for their on going support or help in any way that is needed.


  • Do be specific and clear about what is happening, rather than clouding the message with hyperbole
  • Do focus on outcomes and especially those that may be good or better for the person down the road. They are focusing on the loss and you want them to focus on how to use this situation to grow and to gain something better than what they had before.
  • Do deliver the message in person whenever you can. It’s felt as honest caring and does make a difference. It also allows a discussion about feared implications which are what often cause people to spiral down. Fear implications are “mental imaginations of the worst” and they can be controlled by a dialogue around the news. Conference call is next after face-to-face. Again it allows for dialogue. Emails or newsletters are last on the list. It turns something that should be personal into something very impersonal – and that is the wrong message to be sending. Some employees have learned their company is going down, or they will be losing a job in the newspaper… that is the worst example of how to do it right.
  • Do be open to discussing the impact and implications of the news. People will always say after the fact, that when a leader was open to discussion, it makes them feel that the difficult news was palatable. They feel if the process of exchange is fair and open, with candor, respect and caring, then they can accept the news. Also, if there is dialogue they may come up with other ways of handling the situation that had not been revealed before.

A Process for Discussing Difficult News with Candor and Caring
When bad news can be set in a context for future growth, it is no longer seen as bad news - it’s seen as a new way to achieve success. Too often, we project “feared implications” onto a difficult conversation, and make it mean the worst case scenarios that our mind can conjure. As a result, we begin to fear the encounter so much that we either avoid it or we project fears into it that are beyond what is healthy – thereby shaping the actual impact in negative ways.

We can minimize the impact of this difficult situation by setting the context for the conversation first. First we need to start by asking ourselves a set of questions even before the conversation so we are prepared to move ourselves mentally from fear and protection, to a state of partnering.

Prepare Self

How do I want this person to feel after our conversation?
What can I do to allow them to hear the news with an open mind and heart?
How can I set the context for an empathetic exchange?

Engage with Other

  1. Set the Context for Caring and Empathy: Includes everything from: "I need to have an important conversation with you... and I really spent time thinking about it before I called” to “I really care about you and what you are thinking and feeling about this.... and I believe this will be a very valuable conversation for us.” You can’t partner unless you care!
  2. Explore Desired Outcomes: Share what you hope they will gain from the conversation. “I really hope this will help you grow... understand something important... take away the confusion... clarify... or deepen their understanding of ... what you say depends on the news.” Conversations help us grow!
  3. Share Perspectives with Candor: Be open, honest and non-judgmental. People usually know when they have failed. Be empathetic, yet firm. When you find things that the person clearly missed... say "let me share some thing you can do in the future to make this phase easier to manage.” "What we’re going to talk about are the projects you were working on - I know they were important to you, and to me.... this was a very challenging project with lots of unexpected dynamics.... and at the end of the project the results were not what either of us expected.” Focus on the future so this is a learning experience!
  4. Discover What’s Important to Both of You: It’s important to discuss the news in the context of a larger frame of reference. For example, if it's a person who failed to deliver results and they are scarred that they really disappointed you, you can say something like “I'd like to hear more about how this unfolded for you... what do you think worked well, what did not... what was the toughest part... etc.” Then share your perspective and together get a clearer view of what happened. Be sure you make as few assumptions or interpretations as possible - and listen well!
  5. Agree to Next Steps: Discuss how to do this differently in the future. Make sure the person realizes how to improve, not just that they missed the mark. People are usually more responsive to "constructive foresight" than "constructive criticism" which sends most of us into protect behavior.
  6. Contract for Success: Discuss how what you need to give and receive for this to be successful. How will you measure success? How often will you communicate? What will you each do if the changes are not working?


How to Respectfully Disagree

Our brains are incredibly sensitive to nuances and meta-messages - those very subtle "micro-inequities" or signals we send each other about who is up, and who is down - who has the power - who does not.

When we disagree with another person, we are stepping right into the dynamic "alpha-alpha" conflicts that set off people in the workplace, and sustain conflicts. Too often this dominates an organization leaving people feeling the are in a toxic, competitive environment.

Disagreeing with someone is not just "disagreeing with their point of view, or the information they are sharing. Disagreeing can communicate the following "meta-messages" if not careful:

1. I am right, you are wrong.
2. "You stupid idiot" (YSI) - how could you think such thoughts.
3. How could you see the world that way.
4. You must be blind to the truth

Human beings has a gene for "truth-telling" and when people disagree it is felt at the deepest level. We all want to trust our observations and beliefs, however disagreeing can challenge us at the core of who we are, not just and rarely just at the informational level.


Don't say, "yes - but" - and then deliver your perspective. The "but" negates anything that came before that appeared like an agreement - and turns the conversation into a combat.


Alternatively, saying "yes and" creates an extended conversation that builds on ideas - it says, what you said is really important, and lets take it one step further... the "and" invites further development of the conversation and expands perspectives. I call this type of conversation "co-creating" and when people in the workplace make a shift to this way of talking - even with they don't fully agree with others, it moves people away from adversarial behavior and into collegiality.


With a boss, using the phrase "respectfully speaking" is also a way of saying.... "I know I should respect your position" - "BUT" I don't' so here goes with what I think.


I understand what you are trying to say... help me with this aspect... I'm having trouble seeing how to get from here to there. This is an invitation to talk more deeply about beliefs or observations, it takes you out of the positional dialogue where you are going back and forth one-upping or arguing about what is right, and it invites people to be open to influence.

In summary, when we get into conversations that feel adversarial, we see people in "persuasion" using high levels of Advocating (their point of view). Sometimes they are Inquiring, however the intention behind it is to learn what the other person is thinking so you can turn the conversation back to "winning your point."

Sharing and Discovering
As an alternative, "agreements" come more easily when people are open to influence, and when we get into conversations that feel like partnering - where people share and discover from each other - open the context and framework to both gain new perspectives. Then agreements seem to be the outflow. Even if you agree to disagree - it comes with the spirit of respect.