Communication Conflict resolution Self management

The (Difficult) Conversation: What’s your contribution?

How often have you heard the following complaint: “I’m not the one with the problem, S/HE’S the one with the problem!” If you had a nickel for every time, I bet you’d be retired by now. But we all contribute to a conflict in some way, even when we don’t think we do. Moreover, there’s a good chance that we are fuelling a dispute especially when we don’t think we are. (Think of it as the conflict resolution equivalent of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.) No one is completely faultless in any given conflict situation – otherwise, there likely wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. Although each is 100% responsible for their 50% of any interaction, few are eager to fully own their half.

Even when someone genuinely believes they’re trying to defuse a situation, there’s a good chance they’re stoking it. Telling someone to “Calm down!” or minimizing the issue usually has the opposite effect. And aside from obvious button-pushers like interruptions, sarcasm, or insults, there’s paraverbal communication: tone, volume, and body language. Subtle and mostly unconscious, these signals can trigger a negative reaction as easily as a hasty choice of words. Seemingly small things can make a big difference, shutting down receptiveness as effectively as accusations or judgments. (For examples, see my previous posts on “I” language and “Kick ‘But’.”) Every claim of “You’re not listening to me!” can be countered with, “The message wasn’t delivered in a way that I could hear it!”

Because factors like language and paraverbals are external, it’s relatively easy to monitor and manage them, with the help of some corrective feedback and focused attention. But there are more insidious, internal things people may unwittingly contribute to conflict, including their beliefs, values, assumptions, expectations, and subjective notions of “truth.” Too often perceptual filters screen out inconvenient information when it might help solve the problem.

This is beautifully illustrated in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 film The Conversation. In it, surveillance expert Harry Caul (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) develops a theory about his current case. He’s committed to his interpretation of past events to the point where it prevents him from discovering the real meaning of a particular phrase that he has caught on tape. Even though he listens to the eight simple words over and over again, he fails to really hear them. He’s so convinced of his rightness, in fact, that it deafens him to what’s actually happening until it’s too late.

Art imitates life, and this same dynamic is played and replayed offscreen in homes and workplaces around the world. It’s hard to shift out of our own perspectives and see things from another angle, especially when emotions run high; blaming is easier. So the next time you’re embroiled in a conflict and you find yourself instinctively blaming the other person, take a few moments to consider your own role. Ask yourself the following questions as part of an essential reality check, to help you assess your contribution to the problem:

• What have I said, done, or not said, not done? (For example, as long as you avoid a difficult conversation with someone about their problematic behaviour, the issue may be more yours than theirs.)

• What might my perspective prevent me from seeing or hearing, and thus create a barrier to understanding? (Think Harry Caul’s obsessive take on his overheard conversation.)

• What awareness would be useful for me about my tone, body language, or other signals I may be sending consciously or unconsciously?

• What feelings, prejudices, stereotypes, prior experiences, or other obstacles might be preventing me from assessing the situation differently?

• What might I need to give up or let go of if we are to achieve any sort of agreement?

• How is my pride, identity/self-concept, shame, embarrassment, etc., influencing my thinking or fueling my reactions?

• What assumptions am I making, or expectations that I have, that aren’t necessarily shared by the other party?

• How well can I truly distinguish objectively observable and independently verifiable facts and events from my interpretations of them?

• How deeply am I entrenched in my position? To what extent am I genuinely willing to collaborate on a mutually satisfactory solution?

• Is being right about something that happened in the past more important to me than a more friction-free relationship in the future?

• What am I prepared to contribute toward the resolution? (Be honest.)

There are other internal and external mechanisms that can stoke a conflict, not least of which are individuals’ conflict response roles, but there’s little point in cataloguing them all here if they’re just used to find fault in others. First, we should be willing to admit that some of the responsibility for a conflict might be ours. When we are finally able to examine and adjust for our contribution to the problem, we get that much closer to achieving real understanding. Unfortunately for him (and some innocent victims), that’s a lesson the renowned Harry Caul didn’t learn soon enough.

Communication Emotional intelligence (EQ) Teams and group dynamics

A Time for… Po?

“The significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein (attrib.)

We don’t live in a black-and-white world. We have unprecedented globalization but increasing protectionism; technological breakthroughs but major disruption; and increasing wealth but greater inequality. In an era of astounding complexity and paradox, we thirst for simple answers. Retreating into our social media bubbles, we separate ourselves along partisan lines. Clinging to familiar ideas provides comfort when it feels like the very ground under our feet is shifting. The problem is, reality seldom conforms so neatly and cleanly to our need to label things and put them in handy conceptual boxes, but we behave as if it does. The time is ripe for a better, more creative way to navigate the challenges that confront us individually and as a species.

In 1972 Edward de Bono published Po: Beyond Yes and No (NY: Simon & Schuster), proposing a method to check our perspectives and improve our problem-solving abilities. Po, as he called it, is a framework for thinking in a more open and flexible manner, a “de-patterning device” and a “counterbalance to the yes/no system.” Po is deliberately non-binary: generative rather than discerning, it invites possibility and eschews predetermined categories. This is critical because the wondrous human brain, wired for pattern recognition, bumps hard up against its limitations when faced with nuance and newness, which is to say constantly. If you’ve ever used a digital user interface, you know the frustration when even a broad menu of choices doesn’t address your specific situation.

Po book cover
Now imagine that anguish, amplified on a global scale. We need another adaptive strategy if we are to survive the next century. Or at least survive the difficult conversations necessary to get us there.

It was de Bono who also gave the world Six Thinking Hats, another deceptively simple approach. The technique was designed to focus the collective brainstorming genius of any team and to streamline analysis of the results. It’s very effective for maximizing full team input while minimizing potential for conflict, and we continue to use it in our work with clients today. Po, too, might withstand the test of time for similar reasons. It mitigates the all-too-human need to be right and, more generally, to assume that there can only be one “right” solution. Citing the “arrogance of logic,” de Bono offers Po as a “tool for change,” and an antidote to confrontation and clash, thesis and antithesis, argument and counterargument. As the default modus operandi of academia and science, the dialectic has worked well enough. Unfortunately, it fails is pretty much everywhere else; in many other domains (including our legal system, for example), a win-lose mentality can be as counterproductive as it is pervasive. (For an aptly titled and thought-provoking critique, read Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture.)

Po is the difference between the normal, vertically constrained way of thinking (i.e., bounded rationality) and lateral, imaginative thinking. It embodies four attitudes: exploration, stimulation, liberation, and anti-rigidity/anti-dogmatism. Among other applications, de Bono proposes several ways to implement it using language, such as inserting the word Po before another word or phrase, to signal that what follows is simply a possibility. It identifies any assertion as merely one way of looking at a problem or issue, without proclaiming it “truth.” Another use of Po is to introduce an “intermediate impossible,” i.e., an unlikely idea that can be used as a springboard to challenge the status quo and inspire innovative options. These verbal signposts could be helpful in our daily interactions with those who don’t inhabit our bubbles or otherwise share our viewpoints.

Po is analogous to the power of open-ended questions. These typically begin with words like “How,” “Why,” “What,” etc., inviting dialogue and curiosity. In contrast, closed questions – those beginning with “Do/did,” “Is/are,” or “Are/were,” etc. – can only be answered with “Yes” or “No,” and are intended to produce a definitive conclusion. Because they limit and control the flow of discussion, closed questions are to be avoided during contentious negotiations or difficult conversations, or else risk escalating tensions. Po is an effective way to initiate discussion, and not shut it down.

De Bono offers Po as a way to shift perception which, he notes, is really a type of thinking that we don’t generally consider as such. Instead, he says, our yes/no system of categorization essentially bypasses perception, thus committing a fundamental error: we ought to examine how we actually see and experience information before we can even begin to process it, never mind correctly discern between boxes and labels. Po creates a space to question our preconceptions.

This is important because we may be witnessing the widening of a dangerous, us-versus-them divide. It’s most obvious in political systems, including those theoretically designed for pluralities. We also see it in the broader public discourse, which appears to be driven less by a genuine desire for mutual understanding than by a growing desire to score points over the “other” side. But “being right is not enough,” de Bono warns. “Any idea, no matter how right, should be re-examined from time to time,” because circumstances change, and may demand it.

Indeed, given the current state of things it might be time to reexamine how we perceive the world, and overhaul the ways we think and talk about it. The challenges that lie ahead require a higher level of insight and problem-solving, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) may not achieve it fast enough. Until then, Po may be more relevant than ever.

Communication How-to

“I” Statements: use with caution!

My previous post recommended the use of “I” statements as a tool to prevent conflict escalation. In the interest of brevity, I omitted an important caveat that I would like to address here.

To recap, “I” statements enable us to avoid using the common trigger word “You.” That simple pronoun is often heard as a form of accusation because it’s usually followed by some form of blame (“You screwed up!”), exaggeration (“You’re always holding up rehearsal!”) or attribution of motivation (“You’re trying to sabotage the project!”). It’s easy to assume bad intentions based on the negative impact another’s words or actions have on us, and that assumption is usually incorrect. Thus an otherwise productive conflict becomes personalized, and the downward spiral begins. However, using “I” statements forces the speaker to speak from and about his/her own experience, which is inherently personal and necessarily subjective. In owning your feelings, you acknowledge yours as one possible perspective (not a universal “truth”), and avoid adding guilt to the potent brew of emotions the other person in the conflict may be feeling.

Recall that our proposed “I” statement model was as follows:

“I am/feel ______ [describe feeling] about/when ______ [describe issue] and I would appreciate if ______ [invitation to discuss a resolution to the problem].”

For example, “I feel angry when I’m interrupted in meetings, and I would really appreciate if we could take a few minutes to discuss how we can debate more respectfully.” Note how this is a much less incendiary statement than, “You’re always interrupting me!”

This brings us to the caveat – or caveats plural, because there are two: The first is that “I” statements require practice, like any other conflict resolution skill. The second, and more problematic, is that when framed improperly they can increase the risk of conflict escalation. In other words, they can accidentally trigger the very thing we are trying to avoid.

Thoughts & judgments can be triggers too

Conflict can be inadvertently escalated when we insert a thought or a judgment into our “I” statement, instead of a genuine feeling we’re experiencing. Again, this is easy to do in the midst of emotional turmoil when it’s hard to identify exactly what we’re feeling, or when we don’t want to admit to fear, anger, or other unwelcome emotional states. The problem with thoughts or judgments is that they are easily mistaken for blame or accusations, which we know are conflict escalation triggers. If your “I” statement is, “I feel ignored,” for example, that’s a thought or judgment about your predicament; it’s not how you feel about it, which might be frustration, anger, sadness, etc. So this statement can have the same effect as, “You’re ignoring me.” Ignored is a verb in the past tense. The implication is that someone had to do the ignoring, and obviously it must be the other person in the conflict. It’s still an accusation, albeit indirect.

Note, however, that anger, sadness, and most other genuine emotions are nouns. The word cloud below contains some of the common negative feelings in the human emotional spectrum; chances are if you’re experiencing any of them you’re probably in a conflict situation:

Word cloud of negative feelings

Now compare and contrast that list with the following selection of thoughts or judgments:

Word cloud of blaming words

You can see how the second group of expressions can be interpreted as blaming words that can perpetuate or exacerbate a conflict, even when used in an “I” statement.

It’s important to zero in on the actual emotion(s) as best you can, because that’s one thing about which you can never be wrong; you feel what you feel, and no one can claim otherwise. Identifying the feeling is often easier said than done in the midst of the upset, so it’s OK to take the time to experience the feeling, process it, then resume the conversation when safe to do so. Another option is to simply say that you’re feeling full of emotion (another noun!) and then follow up with the description of the issue or problem and an invitation to discuss it, as per our model. – kda

Communication How-to Self management

Three things that trigger conflict escalation – and how to avoid them

How often have you found yourself muttering, “Well, that escalated quickly”? Despite the humorous memes it’s seldom funny when you’re on the receiving end of an unexpected outburst. But we can keep disagreements from spiraling out of control if we understand how conflicts typically escalate, and thereby avoid doing the things that cause them to become conflicts in the first place.

In this context, a conflict escalation means an increase in the level of emotions – fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, distrust, etc. – for those involved. Left unchecked, overheated emotions can have deleterious short- and long-term consequences for any creative team or organization. (The costs of conflict are widespread, significant, and largely hidden, which is a topic for a future post.) The illustration below shows how emotions can blow up quickly– and unintentionally – even in a simple disagreement or misunderstanding:

Conflict escalation diagram

At the first level, a productive conflict devolves into personalized conflict when the focus of debate shifts from the original topic, problem or issue at hand to the individuals involved. It’s “personalized” because it’s no longer about the original problem, it’s now about the people. This stage is characterized by frequent use of the pronoun “You” followed by some form of blame, accusation, exaggeration, or insult (ex. “It’s your fault,” “You screwed up,” “You’re always doing that!” etc.). There may also be an assumed (and probably incorrect) attribution of motives (ex. “You don’t care about what I want,” or, “You’re trying to make me look bad.”). When thus accused, the natural inclination is to defend against such attacks, and our fight-or-flight mechanisms kick in. Up goes the adrenaline and intensity.

Destructive conflict is triggered when one or more parties starts dredging up the past or issues that are unrelated, or only tangentially related, to the topic at hand. Suddenly the person on the receiving end finds him/herself fending off attacks on several fronts, and you can imagine how this too provokes heightened emotions.

Hostile conflict occurs when outside parties are dragged into the fray. Common forms of this include “triangulating” (evoking sympathy or validation from a third party); “forum-shopping” (seeking a friendly arbiter, like a child playing parents off each other); and rumour-mongering (“S/He must be sleeping with the boss!”). Hostile conflict can also be triggered by copying others on email, back channel conversations, and going straight to the boss without first trying to resolve the conflict with those directly involved.

At the highest level of intensity, polarized conflict is activated when one or more parties refuses to work or communicate with the other or their associates. In these cases, battle lines are firmly drawn. Clearly this is the costliest form of conflict at a personal, team or organizational level because interaction can grind to a halt. In the creative industries, this can spell disaster.

In summary, there are three main reasons conflicts escalate:

1.    Using the word “You” followed by blame, insult, accusation, exaggeration, attribution of motives, etc.

2.    Proliferating the issues by bringing up past problems or arguments, unrelated issues, etc.

3.    Involving others through gossip, back-channel conversations, copying others on email, etc.

There are other potential triggers including interruptions, which are irritating enough when a conversation is light and congenial. Some are subtler but equally powerful, like closed body language (defensive postures such as arms crossed in front of the body), or using the word “but” because it negates anything that has come before it. For example, “I know you think we should do it that way, but I think we should do it this way.” In its place, use the word “and” because it’s inclusive; it allows both perspectives. Note the difference: “I heard you say you think we should do it that way, and I think we should do it this way.” The effect of these triggers is magnified greatly when used in conjunction with the big three.

Avoiding the conflict escalation triggers

Knowing this, there are three specific we can do to help avoid triggering an escalation:

1. Speak using “I” statements. This can be challenging for many of us, because families or cultures may encourage modesty and teach us that talking about ourselves is impolite. Or it may be that we’re simply uncomfortable expressing and asserting our own needs.

The power of “I” statements is twofold: in addition to avoiding use of the trigger word “you,” “I” statements allow people to say what they need to say without compromising the dignity or safety of the other. They allow individuals to be both assertive in expressing their needs and respectful at the same time. Furthermore, you can never be wrong if you speak about your own experience, whereas it’s easy to assume incorrectly when imputing others’ motives or actions.

Here is one model of an “I” statement:

“I am/feel ______ [describe feeling] about/when ______ [describe issue] and I would appreciate if ______ [invitation to discuss].”

For example:

•    “I’m nervous about how fast the decision was made, and I’d appreciate if we could set up a side meeting to discuss it before implementing it.”

•    “I am embarrassed about being reprimanded in the meeting in front of the group, and I’d appreciate if we could sit down and talk about what happened and how to avoid it in future.”

•    “I feel frustrated by interruptions, and I would really appreciate if we could take a few minutes to figure out how we can discuss and debate respectfully.”

A related strategy for avoiding inadvertent conflict escalation is active listening, which involves paraphrasing or restating the other person’s words to reassure them that they’ve actually been heard, and understood accurately. If there is a misapprehension, it allows for correction. This alone can bring the temperature of a conflict down a few degrees.

2. Limit the conversation to a single issue. Focus on the problem or subject that originally sparked the conflict. Remain alert to any temptation to dredge up past grievances or throw other complaints into the mix, especially if or when you feel yourself being triggered.

3. Work it out between you first. It is perfectly acceptable, in many cases advisable, to express your emotions and your needs to the other party(ies) in a conflict, as long as you assert yourself respectfully. Resist the urge to vent to a third party or CC the whole office, otherwise you risk inflaming the situation. Most people have the capacity to negotiate a satisfactory outcome to a conflict without having it spiral out of control, but they don’t always feel they have the skills. Or they fear the strong emotions that come with conflict. Now that you know how to avoid using escalation triggers or how you can be triggered, you have some basic tools to enable a calmer, mutual problem-solving and decision-making process.

That said, there are legitimate instances where a third party may need to be involved. You can find a free Conflict Assessment Worksheet available for download here; it will help you determine whether you should seek outside help navigating a conflict, and what type of assistance may be appropriate.

The strategies discussed here are not guaranteed to work in all situations, and they require practice to be effective. It can be tough and lonely taking the high road, but someone has to take the lead and set a positive example; too few people have the necessary skills for successful conflict resolution, especially in the heat of the moment. It’s not easy when someone is pushing your buttons. But the short-term challenge is worth the longer-term peace of mind that comes from preventing a conflict from spiraling out of control.  – kda

Communication How-to Self management

How to Keep Your Head From Exploding

Have you ever stared in disbelief at someone’s completely incomprehensible actions? Been bewildered by another’s disproportionate reaction to events? Or felt like your head was going to explode because a colleague kept making the same mistake over and over again? Every now and then we all experience the frustration of behaviour that seems utterly irrational or bizarre, whether it’s misplaced anger, resistance to ideas or change, sabotage, or some other form. If this sounds familiar, keep reading — this post is for you. I’ll consider it a public service if I can prevent at least one more exploding head and, I hope, generate a little more empathy and understanding.

The solution is in these four words: All behaviour makes sense.

Repeating this short phrase to myself like a mantra has helped me through many a difficult encounter. It reminds me that no matter now challenging another person’s demeanour, words or deeds, there is some underlying cause that I simply don’t yet know — and it often has nothing to do with me. This simple statement of fact always piques my curiosity, opening my mind (and heart) to whatever might be going on for him or her beneath the surface.

This is important because as long as my curiosity is actively engaged I stay out of judgment. Otherwise it’s far too easy for me to label the other person, objectifying them as a “jerk,” “lazy-ass,” or “crybaby,” and seeing them as the problem instead of attacking their behaviour which is invariably the real issue. I also sometimes make it about myself, when in many cases — if not most — the behaviour really has little to do with me, at least not directly. Or I make (incorrect) assumptions about what’s causing the other person to act out. My false attributions might be based on how I would act (or react) in a similar situation, but of course we all have different perspectives, cultures, family histories, and other baggage that shape our responses. Any such assumptions are bound to increase the mutual misunderstanding and frustration in an already fraught encounter. Curiosity is a powerful antidote.

Even if it doesn’t make sense to me immediately, any questionable behaviour still has its own logic. Considering all possibilities keeps me from rushing to an unhelpful conclusion. The only thing I need to do to avoid getting sucked into an emotional vortex is to stay curious about that driving force. It sounds hard, especially when feeling triggered by the behaviour, but even the most outrageously incomprehensible behaviour is essentially the outward manifestation of an inner need: We satisfy thirst by drinking. When tired, we sleep. Picking up the phone to order a pizza is just one of myriad behaviours that can address a hunger, and so on. The same is true for whatever is bothering you about the other person’s behaviour: there’s a motivation, it’s just hidden from you. “All behaviour makes sense” is an effective reminder that he or she is just trying to tell you they need something, albeit in an awkward and uncomfortable way. The trick is to figure out what the unmet need is or, where necessary, help them do it.

At the basic biological/physiolgical level the causal connection can be relatively plain to see. (That said, it took me years to finally join the dots linking my cranky mood swings with low blood sugar. Who knew “hangry” was an actual thing?) Where the need-behaviour connection becomes more opaque is in the higher reaches of Maslow’s hierarchy: abstractions such as self-esteem, belonging, or self-actualization are more difficult to surmise from a person’s outward behaviour, even to the well-trained eye. We can appreciate another’s anger and defensiveness when their physical safety or security is threatened, but it’s tougher to comprehend when it’s their identity, self-concept or some other invisible, interior thing that’s at risk. All it may take is the slightest suggestion that he or she may be wrong, for example, and the self-preservation instinct kicks in with a vengeance. Even though it’s just a cognitive threat, the primal brain still delivers a burst of adrenaline and the injured party can react as if life itself were on the line. When that happens we can only be certain of the visible, external signals: we can generally interpret the tense facial expressions, harsh language, sour tone, and other cues. What we can’t know for sure is the underlying cause.

Diagnosing the root problem is a challenge because the presenting symptoms can have a number of possible motivations. The aggressive bully might crave a winning feeling, or he might be seeking respect; the chronic latecomer may be exerting a semblance of control otherwise lacking in his harried life, or he may secretly like the attention that follows his habitual tardiness; the apparently shy introvert who seldom contributes to meetings may be retreating into safety and security amid the noise and chaos of brainstorming sessions, or may simply want time to collect and process more data. Depending on the people and situational specifics, the unmet needs could be more process-oriented (ex. the need to ensure equal input in a creative decision) or people-oriented (ex. the need to be right, to save face, to preserve a relationship, etc.).

Caution is key because asking direct questions to surface the unmet need(s) risks unintentional provocation and can result in defensiveness; gentle, appropriate questioning is both an art and a learned skill. Further complicating matters, the person exhibiting the difficult behaviour may not be consciously in touch with their own underlying needs. They’re frequently unaware of the problem behaviour in the first place. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that in typical creative collaborations, team or organisational situations the list of most commonly frustrated needs is relatively short. It includes the need for validation or recognition; the desire to be heard and understood; the hunger for acceptance and belonging; and variations on these themes. With the right sensitivity and training you can learn to better identify the underlying needs and therefore satisfy them, reducing or eliminating the unwelcome behaviour. Getting to the precise root of the issue is easier, of course, if you have a trusting relationship and an environment that encourages open, honest dialogue.

Absent those, genuinely seeking to make sense of another’s behaviour nonetheless forces us to shift into a different, more productive problem-solving mode. Rather than trying to change the person (which is never successful anyway) we can refocus on influencing the behaviour. The alternative is being triggered by the behaviour and getting dragged into a downward spiral. So when you’re struggling to understand someone’s words, actions or inactions, remind yourself that all behaviour makes sense (yes, even Twitter and Facebook trolling). Remaining curious makes room for empathy and reduces the likelihood of conflict, blame, or other counter-productive, enervating attitudes — including Exploding Head Syndrome.

Communication Self management

You’re not listening (you just think you are)

One of the most frustrating experiences anyone can suffer is not being heard. That’s because we all need to feel valued, validated, and have our voice count. So it’s that much more maddening when we feel we’re being misunderstood as a result of someone else’s inability (or apparent unwillingness) to hear us. It’s is a source of enormous stress, anxiety, and counter-productivity in our work and personal lives, and a consistent cause of conflict. Tragically, surveys show that while most of us consider ourselves good listeners, we’re actually quite poor at it.

In our “always-on” environment the obvious distractions include smart phones, email, and ubiquitous TV screens. But the problem is more insidious than that; even the most disciplined among us who manage to put away the devices long enough to hold an uninterrupted conversation struggle to listen. For one thing, we speak much more slowly than we can think so in the span of time it takes for a speaker to get a sentence out, the “listener” has experienced thoughts containing three to four times as many words.

The moment another’s words enter our auditory canal we’re already busy processing: interpreting, judging, evaluating and decoding them. All this parsing interferes with our ability to truly hear. Our expectations and assumptions fill in any blanks, often inaccurately. (In some workshops I conduct an exercise that illustrates this point starkly; few participants score more than 20%.)

But mostly when we think we’re listening we’re really just waiting politely, if impatiently, for our turn to speak. We pay lip service to listening. Sure, we might remain silent for a while, but we’re more likely to be preparing our rebuttal, commentary or defense than to be truly hearing what the speaker is saying. This shouldn’t surprise us; our culture clearly values speaking much more than it does listening. (You’ve probably had public speaking courses in school, attended Toastmasters or taken a workshop in delivering powerful presentations, but when was the last time you were educated in effective listening?) Small wonder there’s so much burnout: we keep trying to get our point across, to little or no avail. “If only they listened to me…”

The solution is simple and, yes, easy too. It lies in cultivating our ability to hear by listening actively: paraphrasing, summarizing, clarifying, and providing empathic responses that encourage and validate the speaker. (These critical tools are described in detail in our book.) The only difficulty in implementation is that we’re seldom taught how to hear. We assume that just because we’re born with ears that never switch off, we’re experts at listening. Wrong! Practice makes perfect.

In conflict we can’t always reach agreement — our opinions, beliefs and attitudes may be too solidly entrenched — but we can achieve mutual understanding. These are two different things. The latter does, however, go a long way towards the making the former possible. Even if you are unable to see eye-to-eye with your boss, colleagues, employees (etc.), allowing them to feel heard and understood can take the sting out of a disagreement or deadlock. Active listening will also allow you to move forward and find other ways to work together more pleasantly and respectfully.

Communication How-to

If you want to change someone’s mind, shut up.

One of the most effective but counter-intuitive techniques I ever learned for negotiation or for building consensus is to just keep my mouth shut and my mind in neutral.

I was reminded of this critical point as I listened to the latest This American Life podcast, notably the opening segment in which political canvassers learn to change voters’ intentions on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion. The story is really about the incredibly persuasive power of listening, and the resulting sense of connection.

Before going further, it must be said that you can’t always change someone’s mind or achieve agreement simply by listening. Actually, you can’t always achieve agreement, period. But you can achieve mutual understanding, and the latter goes a long way toward making the former possible. The numbers in the research cited in the podcast bear this out. The research also indicates that it’s much harder to shift someone’s opinion or attitude on a subject by sheer force of logic or rhetorical argument. If anything, the reverse may be true; the more someone tries to convince another by piling on facts and figures, the more the recipient entrenches in their own point of view. We selectively screen out information that doesn’t fit our model of the world, or bend them so they do. Agreement becomes even more elusive.

But if you want to soften someone’s stance so they’re at least prepared to entertain your side of the story, they need to feel like they’re being heard. The law of psychological reciprocity demands it. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they also need to feel a fundamental sense of belonging, acceptance, love, and a host of other things that are impossible as long as their beliefs or opinions are being denied, rejected, and negated. So talking, never mind arguing, never works. Listening (especially active listening, a process that involves paraphrasing, checking for understanding, and clarifying) creates empathy.

The sad truth is that most of us seldom really listen. In any conversation, as the saying goes, we’re mainly waiting for our turn to speak. We’re building arguments or counter-arguments; trying to identify loopholes; making judgments; and doing a thousand other things at the speed of thought. In our books (which are really for anyone in the arts, entertainment and creative/media industries and not just for musicians or filmmakers) we analyze the many reasons people find it so hard to actually listen. Unfortunately, our lack of training in proper listening skills is why so many teams are undermined from the get-go, brainstorming sessions are derailed, and collaborations break down. We think we’re listening, but we’re really preparing rebuttals or trying to tell our own story. Or we’re being distracted by social media, noise, or shiny objects (real or metaphorical). Listening is a skill that needs to be honed like any other, but because we’re born with ears that never sleep we think we have a natural gift for it.

What the TAL story demonstrates is that genuinely compassionate, active listening works because it creates a sense that the speaker is truly being heard. Give it a listen.

Originally posted April 28, 2015

Communication Negotiation

The one simple skill every creative worker needs – and usually fears

If you’re in the arts, entertainment & media industries there are many skills you can (and probably should) learn that complement your creative chops and will help you succeed professionally. For example, even as a lifelong “mathophobe” I’ve found it invaluable to improve my financial management repertoire (although it took many years and several courses in finance for non-financial managers to finally get it). And given my background in marketing I can’t recommend highly enough that every musician, filmmaker, or game developer learn the fundamentals of the “four Ps” (or six, or nine Ps, depending on which model you follow), however distasteful or daunting the concept of marketing can be to some creative folks. There are others I could list, and the reality is not everyone has the time, money or desire to learn them. Besides, you can always hire an accountant or a marketing consultant. There is, however, one critical skill that every creative worker should learn. And it’s one that most never do, either out of fear or out of false confidence in their current abilities. It’s also one you can’t readily farm out to someone else to handle on your behalf, without substantial risk personal and professional risk.

Handshake image
By Tobias Wolter (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s a relatively simple skill, and it has immeasurable impact not only in the professional domain but in the personal as well. In plain monetary terms, research shows that if you applied this skill you would likely earn an average of $1.2 million more over the course of your career compared to those who don’t (the figures differ for men and women who negotiate their salaries, but that’s a story for another day). Have I got your attention yet?


I’m talking about negotiation. Don’t mistake negotiation for merely bargaining over deals, contracts, or compensation. Sure, in a professional setting, it’s clearly useful for that. In its broader sense, negotiation is something we do every day in almost every facet of our lives without even realizing it. One definition of negotiation is “a mutual problem-solving and decision-making exercise invoked whenever we need at least one other person to do something.” Seen through this lens it means every time we want to borrow the car from Mom & Dad, or get a roommate to clean up their mess, or figure out how to split a songwriting credit, we have a de facto negotiation. It’s ubiquitous; we can hardly avoid it. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re good at it.

Yet people in general, and creatives in particular, often fear negotiation. The very word provokes anxiety, either because they’re afraid of appearing demanding or greedy, or they’re worried that a botched negotiation could lead to conflict, or perhaps they’re concerned that they would “lose” the negotiation due to unequal bargaining power.

Unfounded fears

Like most common fears, these can be crippling – and they are largely unfounded. Most parties in a negotiation have more leverage than they realize. (Hint: it’s about using your creativity to brainstorm and solve problems). And one of the few reasons that negotiations go sideways is if the parties instinctively use the old-school, confrontational approach to bargaining, which is about claiming more value than the other guy. (To get a sense of how this “win-lose” style works – or doesn’t – try pushing a piece of paper across a desk while another person tries pushing it in the opposite direction. Mostly you’ll get stuck in the middle, and the paper winds up crumpled into a ball. Or try pulling the paper; the result is almost always a torn sheet which is seldom fairly split.)

Besides fear, another common reason cited earlier for failure to learn to negotiate is false confidence. This comes from thinking one’s self a great negotiator because s/he consistently make gains at the other person’s expense. But the cost to that other person is not only financial (which is bad enough) but emotional as well. This is a recipe for short-lived, unsatisfactory relationships, whether they’re business, personal or creative in nature.

A better way

There is a better way to negotiate. If you’ve read Getting to Yes: How To Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In by Fisher and Ury then you’re already familiar with this “win-win” negotiation method, one I teach my clients and students. (If you haven’t read it, please do — you’ll be glad you did.)

I say it’s simple because it really boils down to observing the four basic principles. It’s just not necessarily easy. Like acquiring any new skill, there’s a learning curve and it takes consistent practice, review and reflection. But it’s worth the temporary discomfort; it will save you time, money and aggravation in the long run.

What most people don’t realize is that negotiation is also one of the first vital steps to successful conflict resolution. If you have an issue with your co-writer, director, or lead level designer, negotiation is essential unless you want to call in a mediator every time you need to have a conversation. That can get expensive. It’s bad for business, bad for employee/team morale, and it doesn’t serve the parties as individuals and human beings.

Done right, negotiation offers extraordinary (and satisfying) opportunities to exercise your creativity. It also makes many aspects of your life that much more stress-free. So I encourage all those engaged in the creative industries not to fear negotiation but to learn it. It’s a worthwhile investment that will pay dividends over and over.