The amygdala in our brain senses threats and tries to prevent them from harming us. It senses where we are in the pecking order, who is bigger, who is more powerful, and who is friend or foe. This kind of subconscious listening is fundamentally I-centric by nature.
Listening I-centrically causes us to be apprehensive in our conversations with others and cautious about their intentions and motivations. Because most of us fear confrontation, and because one of our least-developed skills is the ability to confront another person and have a difficult conversation, we reactively take on the posture of being an enemy ourselves when we sense that we are facing an enemy.
Even thinking of the word confrontation causes our blood to boil, or our fears to rise. The word is fraught with meanings that keep us at a distance from others. The dictionary defines it as “to stand over or against in a role of adversary or enemy.” While the word also means “to meet or to face someone; to encounter another person,” we often project onto the word all of the bad experiences we have had when we face others. Over time the word itself has become tinged with fear and apprehension.
When we think of “confrontation” or of having a “difficult conversation,” it takes most of us to the edge of our Comfort Zone and we will do everything imaginable to avoid it.
Having difficult conversations scares most people into thinking they will lose a friendship, and so we avoid confronting the truth. When we feel frustrated or angry with someone who has stood in the way of our success or undermined us and caused us to lose face—at least from our point of view—we get so upset that we just can’t find the words to express ourselves. We end up angry and express our most reptilian behaviors. Worse than that, we hold it all inside until we boil up and over with frustration and then we blast that person.
Confronting others honestly requires we share mutually in building our relationship, with both parties feeling the power of the exchange; these are power-with relationships. When we feel others want to own us or take our power away —a power-over relationship—we fear harm and cannot open up with honesty. If we think of our conversations as a power-over experience, it’s impossible to be comfortable confronting others honestly.
Additionally, when confronting another person brings up potentially volatile emotions, we move with caution and keep our real feelings close to our chest. In the most extreme cases, when we are faced with situations that stir up highly charged emotional content, most of the tension and drama is actually taking place in our own minds. This is our “story” and how we have put words to the drama of our experience. Much of our frustration is coming from the words we use to tell this story to ourselves and to others.
Yet behind the scenes is the reality of the challenge: How do we communicate with each other when we feel we are being excluded? How do we deal with others in a way that builds relationships rather than erodes them? How do we masterfully keep ourselves in a state of openness, with our assumptions and inferences in check? Susan, President of an International Design Firm, faced the challenge and discovered how to open the space for Creating WE—even though she faced some extremely powerful obstacles.
Designing the Future From the Inside Out
Susan was a senior executive. She climbed the ladder of success early in her career in retailing, and with each new career move, had the opportunity of being president of increasingly larger and more visible design manufacturing firms with well-known brands. Sharp and quick-witted, she was extremely candid. Her intuitive merchandising talent plus her leadership capabilities were both her strengths and her weaknesses. At times, these talents gave her more power and influence; at times, they rubbed people the wrong way. Because she was not fearful of authority, she was good at pushing back against resistance and achieving results.
She was hired as CEO of a medium-sized retail manufacturing company known for its handbags and accessories. The company decided to radically expand its strategy from 100% leather goods to 70% design-oriented accessories, which meant a dramatic change in everything from how product was sourced and made, to how it was sold into retailers. Few companies change their product profile or brand so dramatically – yet this was her carter – and her goal was to win.
Knowing this industry inside and out, and with previous successes, Susan was well equipped to become the leader of this company. Within the first three weeks, however, having completed her internal due diligence of the culture’s readiness to change, she realized that the organization she was about to lead in a new direction was mired in the past, caught up in groupthink, fearful of change, attached to old ways of working. Whenever she communicated with the organization about the necessary changes that lay ahead, they confronted her with all the reasons they felt change was impossible.
She was so frustrated. Knowing she had to deliver, she began to rant and rave at every meeting, at times even insulting people – trying to get them to “wake up” and “get on board” with the challenges. Within 3 weeks fear invaded the hallways. People were afraid to attend meetings for fear they would be singled out and yelled at for not producing.
When she got no results, she considered firing everyone, yet give her turn around timeframe it would have been impossible to find a team to replace them.
Susan had exhausted all her power-over strategies with no success, so she turned to her power-with approaches. She realized that having Vital Conversations was her only strategy for success.
Susan was relentless. She set up critical strategy sessions for her team to discuss key customer accounts and what they needed so they could get on board with the new system. She created clear-cut leadership challenges for her teams to work on and provided them with forums to discuss how to get customers excited. But first, she talked about “conversations” and how to work together as a team to create breakthroughs.
Judith E. Glaser is the Author of two best selling business books:
Creating WE: Change I-Thinking to We-Thinking & Build a Healthy Thriving Organization - winner of the Bronze Award in the Leadership Category of the 2008 Axiom Business Book Awards, and The DNA of Leadership; and the DVD and Workshop titled The Leadership Secret of Gregory Goose
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