Today, I spoke with Holly Weeks, who is a Harvard University professor, as well as an author and writer. She studies and writes about how people communicate in the workplace and, more or less, in general. I think the most important skill is communication, through writing or between people. Think of all the emails you send and respond to on a daily basis. Also, consider how many times you’re on your cell phone and writing a blog post. You need to learn how to deal with other people and communicate effectively, not just your personal brand, but everything else.
What are the common mistakes people make when communicating in the workplace?
Because tough conversations can be emotionally loaded, hard to read, and feel like combat, any of us working with just seat-of-the-pants skills can make our own situations worse. Specifically, people on both sides of a tough conversation use an arsenal of thwarting ploys meant to make the counterpart back off, or to come out on top themselves, or simply to get out of the conversation any way they can.
People on both sides have bad habits:
- avoiding tough conversations altogether
- getting tangled in their own emotions
- swinging from one extreme reaction to another
- or sticking to one old standby response—even when it doesn’t work.
Caught up in patterns of behavior that don’t work, we get more and more sucked into the combat mentality, the sense that this is a fight with a winner and a loser, and we don’t want to lose. At the same time, each side feels provoked by the other and justified in their own reactions. What I call the “delusion of good intentions” makes people certain that they are in the right when the conversation goes wrong.
What results will you notice when you fail to communicate your message? How does it impact the individual as well as the company?
Over and over again, I have seen problems that could have—and should have—worked out, but didn’t because important conversations about them broke down or turned toxic. The counterparts’ emotions escalated. One side, or both, felt disrespected or blindsided by retaliation. The tough problems that were the subject of the conversation were not themselves beyond repair, but the damaging judgments, hurt reputations, and broken relationships sometimes have been.
Our worst experiences confirm our worst behaviors. We remember best the nadir of toxic conversations, when both sides feel misunderstood, embattled, offended, and falsely accused. And the fallout spreads faster, more widely, and more publicly than we imagine.
Why do we turn to ineffective tactics when we have pressure on us to communicate?
Three problems feed into and feed off each other in tough conversations, leaving us using ineffective tactics when the pressure is on.
- First, our strategies are weak and unrealistic, largely because we have the wrong models. We tend to see tough conversations as fights, like those in movies and on TV. That divides us into two schools of thought: those of us who make ready to fight and those trying hard not to fight. In both cases, we’re focused on combat. The combat mentality feels familiar emotionally, but it isn’t good for strategy.
- Second, emotion stands in the way of good tactics, too. We see our range of tactics—what we do in the moment—as simultaneously narrow and extreme. Our choices, like whether to defer or challenge, whether to act “hypernice” or aggressive, whether to take the punch or retaliate, are themselves emotionally loaded, significantly imbalanced, and rarely effective (movies aside). Inevitably, our counterpart’s emotions rise in direct relation to the ineffectiveness of our own tactics. Each side ends up reacting to the other’s tactics rather than moving toward a good outcome.
- Third, caught up in both emotion and the combat mentality, we don’t pay attention to (or we don’t recognize) the contours of a difficult conversation as it is unfolding—and it’s true that they are hard to read. Real trouble begins when there’s a breakdown between what one side means and what the other side hears, or when neither side can make out why the counterpart’s reactions are so unreasonable. But what is going wrong in the conversation itself seems to be unmentionable. Both sides try to cover up their emotions, intentions, ploys, and confusion. The conversation reaches its lowest and most exaggerated moment when the cover-up finally cracks and people start to blurt out what they really think. Respect collapses and we slide into conversational warfare, feeding back into the pattern that brought us to this point in the first place.
How would you structure your message to make it effective for your audience?
I recommend changing unilaterally what we’re trying to do, not trying to get better at the old mistakes, and I’d start with strategy. Good strategy is thinking what we want to do and where we want to go in the conversation, while assuming we’ll face obstacles and be taken by surprise. Good strategy gives us forward motion through the landscape of the conversation and keeps us realistic about what is possible.
It takes a “What have we got here?” point of view—thinking about where we are and where we could move, where the counterpart is and is likely to move, where we want to get and what’s in the way of getting there. It keeps us focused on both the situation we have and the one we want—without blaming our problem on our counterpart or on ourselves. What makes it good is something new and unexpected in tough conversations: unilateral three-way respect. A tough conversation with a strategy based on three-way respect—respect for ourselves, for our counterparts, and for the problem between us—is a conversation in balance. It’s hard to slide from there into warfare, even if our counterpart is not respecting us back.
A balanced conversation based on three-way respect helps with tactics, too. Self-respect in particular helps us stabilize in the face of our own emotional reactions and brings us in from the extreme poles on the range of response. Good tactics keep us from overreacting to our counterpart, and let us neutralize the thwarting ploys to which we’re vulnerable.
When people learn how to avoid treating conflict conversations like warfare, even if their counterpart has a combat mentality; when they can find and keep their balance in tough conversations rather than fall prey to their own emotions, no matter how their counterpart acts; when they can talk about problems between them using what I call “the blueprint for speaking well in tough moments”: clear content, neutral tone, and temperate phrasing; then they can work toward good outcomes without ratcheting up, giving in, or compromising their integrity.
How can people get through the hardest conversations, while still maintaining their reputation and relationships?
“Studies show that the two most common traits of top executives who derail are brittle relationships and inflexibility: they alienate the people they work with and they can’t adjust their style.”
In contrast, the combination of self-respect and respect mentioned above is a distinct leadership trait: how we handle ourselves in tough conflicts defines our reputation and our most important relationships.
In difficult conversations, the keys to success are good strategy and tactics for handling the hard parts well; balance between extremes; and three-way respect: self-respect, respect for your counterpart, and respect for the problem between you.
We can also work toward a clearer view of what happens in tough conversations and begin to see them unfolding in recognizable and manageable ways. (My book, Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them, will get you started.) We can develop the skills to make our way through them, even when the conversations are unpredictable, big emotions are in play, and our counterpart thinks we’re at war. It’s our best way out of failure-prone conversations with our reputations and relationships intact.
Holly Weeks, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, teaches, writes, and consults on communication issues. As principal of Holly Weeks Communications, she consultants and coaches on negotiation and written and oral communications issues. Her book, Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them (HBS Press, 2008) emphasizes difficult communications. Weeks is a keynote speaker, presenter, and seminar leader at national and international conferences for groups interested in increasing their skill and expertise in communications. She is a speechwriter and teaches Vision Speeches in the Urban Superintendents Doctoral Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and has taught Management Communication in the Harvard Business School MBA Program. .