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

Emotional intelligence (EQ) How-to Self management

Four Signs Your Working Relationship is Going Sideways

One of the challenges of conflict is that creative teams or workplaces are often fully engulfed long before they’re even aware something’s happening. Therefore, a crucial first step in dealing with conflict is to simply recognize the signs it may be occurring. This is easier than it sounds, but it’s critical because the earlier an emerging conflict can be detected, the sooner steps can be taken to resolve or manage the issue(s) effectively and prevent further harm.

There are four categories of warning signs: emotional, physical, behavioural, and relational. Think of these as concentric circles spiraling outwards from within and progressively manifesting externally if unnoticed or left unchecked. Each successive set of indicators, if ignored, inevitably leads to the next level, with ever-increasing consequences. Four warning signs of conflictIt’s like your cat trying to tell you it’s feeding time, going to greater lengths to get your attention, only it’s not funny (and hopefully will never wind up on YouTube).
Let’s examine what each of these sets of signals mean and why they happen. The analysis can provide useful insight into the individuals involved in a conflict at a personal level. In observing and interpreting the warnings we can apply the knowledge not only to ourselves but also to others (namely, our colleagues) and take appropriate, timely action.

Emotional signs

The first indications of a problem in a working relationship are internal: our emotions. Feelings are a reliable barometer that things aren’t OK. If my normal state is one of comfort, happiness, relaxation, engagement, calm, and/or contentment, then it’s easy to tell when I move away from that baseline. I can usually identify or describe any uncomfortable feelings I’m having. When trouble is brewing between myself and another person, this discomfort is going to be the first sign that all is not quite right. We may have a conflict, which itself is simply a signal that something needs to change, occurring when something we care about is about to be affected in some way. Time to pay attention!
Feelings will, of course, vary according to each individual involved and each situation. For example, a situation that might seem humorous when it happens to someone else is usually not so amusing when it happens to you. The intensity of the feeling might also vary from one instance to the next. You might feel confused by multiple feelings occurring simultaneously. The range of possible emotional reactions is virtually limitless; there is no definitive feeling or combination of feelings. The bottom line is that any emotions at all outside the normal comfort range are probably a warning.

As such these feelings should not be ignored or repressed. Some find it easy to overlook them because society prefers that we avoid expressing unpleasant feelings. We may downplay what’s going on inside when we experience them; we put on a brave face and say everything is “fine” when we know it’s not. Whether or not you choose to divulge them, it’s important to recognize that these feelings are a kind of internal gauge of whether or not the person you are dealing with, or the situation you are in, is psychologically healthy and safe. They’re like the VU (volume unit) meters on a mixing board: when they’re pushing into the red zone, you know the signal is “clipping” and you need to do something because unwanted noise and distortion are being introduced into the signal. If your emotional VU meter is tipping into the red when you are with a particular person or in an uncomfortable situation, that’s your signal to act.

Sometimes this means temporarily stepping away from the person or situation causing the discomfort, taking a time-out, and putting some physical or emotional distance between you. That may be all you need for your feelings barometer to return to its baseline and to once again feel calm, relaxed, engaged, happy, or whatever your normal state happens to be. If that’s genuinely the case — after a good night’s sleep the discomfort is truly gone and not merely repressed— then you may not actually have conflict. But if the feelings persist, it could mean there is a problem between you and that other person. Avoidance or masking feelings with food, distractions or addictions won’t help. Trying to “rise above” or “be professional” about the uncomfortable situation are among the countless ways to cope with unpleasant feelings. But when there is a genuine conflict between two or more people—one in which the relationship is being challenged (if not damaged) in some way—then the feelings are not going to go away on their own.

Physical signs

If the emotional warning signs continue unheeded, another natural protective mechanism kicks in. The manifestation of physical symptoms is your mind and body’s way of issuing a more urgent set of signals that are more difficult to ignore.

Again, everyone will experience physical warning signs of conflict differently, but some are quite common. There are those that seem trivial, such as nervousness or sweaty palms. Others are more noticeable and worrisome, for example, difficulty in sleeping. Depending on the individual, the opposite may also be true: you may find that you begin to sleep more than usual, either as a way of avoiding the conflict or recovering from the stress and anxiety it brings. These are two opposite but equally valid physical signs that are more evident than emotions, precisely because they affect not only your mind but your body. Frequent headaches can be among the common physical warning signs of conflict, as are subconscious activities like smoking, eating, or drinking more than usual. These strategies provide bodily sensations to mask the unpleasant emotions we may be experiencing, if only temporarily. (Here the standard disclaimers apply: always check with your doctor if you’re experiencing physical symptoms of any kind; there may be other physiological causes that should be ruled out.)

Not surprisingly, the physical indicators have their own knock-on effects, especially when piled on top of the emotional stuff. Consider the consequences of eating, drinking, or smoking to excess, for example. The short-term results may be stomach aches, hangovers, or smoker’s cough, and the longer-term impacts can be far more severe, even deadly. There are many possible causes of physical ailments, one of which is that the original problem hasn’t gone away of its own accord. The physical manifestations are harder to ignore so that you’ll finally be moved to do something about it before worse things happen. Even sleeping too little or too much can have consequences extending beyond personal health. In workplace scenarios, one typical result of unmanaged conflict is an increase in chronic lateness or absenteeism.

Behavioural signs

If the physical warning signs of conflict go unheeded and the core issue remains unaddressed long enough, the next set of signals kicks in. These behavioural indications are overt and more readily observed by others. The subtle logic of the psyche’s strategy is this: if you can’t (or won’t) take care of yourself, you will get someone else to do it for you.

How does your subconscious enlist others in your conflict caretaking? Here, too, the range of possibilities is wide, but examples of the more common tell-tale behaviours might include a normally calm and serene person appears agitated and on edge; a typically patient individual becomes short-tempered and easily triggered; someone who is otherwise engaged and outgoing begins withdrawing; and so on.

You might notice, for example, that a team member who usually goes out socially after work starts making excuses to go right home, or one who normally participates in team discussions and decision-making stops contributing. They may just shrug and say, “Whatever. I don’t care.” Conversations tend to become more difficult, more tense, more strained. Electronic communication may take much longer to get answered, if at all, or responses are more tersely worded than usual. Eye contact may be avoided. You don’t need to be an expert at conflict resolution to detect behavioural changes; the untrained eye can usually spot the signs. We just don’t always recognize them as indicators of conflict.

Abnormal behaviours could be symptoms of another issue or problem, but you won’t know for sure unless you ask. Even then, they may not respond (at least not immediately or candidly), but a change in communication style is sometimes a cry for help in disguise. Unusually difficult behaviours may be indirect and inarticulate invitations to assist, but nonetheless that’s what they are. Uncharacteristic conduct is a way to draw others in because it inevitably affects them one way or another.

Relational signs

If left too long, the logical consequence of behavioural issues are the relational warning signs that manifest. The relational signs are the most difficult of all to ignore because they’re the most public. Now it’s not just the individual who is affected but others in the relationship. Like the previous three categories they may also appear different for everybody, since no two individuals, conflicts, or situations are identical.

Still, you can spot some common relational warning signs. A person feeling uncomfortable or in conflict may begin avoiding specific people, primarily the person(s) with whom they are in conflict. In a work setting, this might mean he or she takes a different route to the cafeteria or the washroom in order to bypass the other party’s office. They might ask the boss to put them on a different team to reduce the likelihood of interaction with the other person. There are many variations on this avoidance behaviour that people typically employ when in conflict, but they might be hard to spot at first precisely because “out of sight is out of mind.”

Generally, the relational warning signs are easier to detect because they impact multiple individuals, entire teams or companies. As with the other three sets of warning signs they will vary greatly, from deliberate unresponsiveness to singling others out for criticism or verbal attacks, belittling others’ perspectives and contributions, or shooting down their ideas. There may be open disagreement, challenge, argument, or outright hostility. Other nonverbal cues may include eye-rolling, crossing arms or other defensive postures, and deliberate distractions. There may be rumour-mongering, idle gossip, or complaints to others in an effort to win sympathy and support. You can probably identify other examples from your own experience.

Clearly, the relational symptoms affect not only the person with the initial conflict symptoms, but they also impact the others in the group, team, or company. Innocent bystanders often become embroiled. Stakes are much higher by this stage, and if things don’t get resolved soon the whole workplace gets involved one way or another.

Pay attention now, or the pay consequences later

In the midst of a conflict, it’s hard to stop to take proper stock of the situation or retrace steps to figure out how things devolved to the present state. But in learning to recognize these early warning signs, you can remain alert to whatever may be happening right now that requires immediate attention. The internal warning signs tell you it’s time to take care of yourself in some way – often just by asserting your needs – and the longer you put off taking action, the more intense they become. Invariably they will become more outwardly noticeable, which can only cause further discomfort or damage.

It’s understandable that many are uncomfortable talking candidly about their feelings with colleagues or co-workers, because of the additional sense of vulnerability it can bring. Some are only comfortable discussing their feelings with therapists or other professionals, if not with life partners. (Some find even that hard to do). But feelings should be acknowledged and honoured, if not celebrated, because they play a vital role as part of an early warning system. The initial discomfort may be unpleasant but the alternative is greater pain and distress for everyone in the long run.

How-to Teams and group dynamics

4 quick & cost-effective tools to accelerate team development

In the creative industries, teams frequently need to get from zero to sixty almost instantly. This is typical in the film & TV business, where production crews are routinely shotgunned together and required to make audiovisual magic in as little as thirty days (sometimes less). These high expectations may be unrealistic but they aren’t impossible, usually because the more seasoned veterans can turn on a high level of professionalism like flicking a switch. The early break-in period can also be greatly reduced if some crew members have worked together on previous projects.

But not everyone has a shared history, pleasant or otherwise, and few crews exclusively comprise battle-hardened pros. Even when they are, there are still issues. Creative teams, no matter how short-lived, are still subject to the same process of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning (or “mourning”) as any other team. So how do you accelerate them through Tuckman’s stages of development when you simply haven’t got the time or budget to send everyone on a team-building retreat? Today’s post looks at a number of surprisingly inexpensive but effective tools that can be used to help teams survive and even thrive through that first crucial phase.

In a nutshell, the Formation stage is characterized by (among other things) a general lack of prior history and unfamiliarity with other team members; concomitant low levels of trust; a steep learning curve with lots of checking each other out; and a lack of established norms for communication, handling conflict, and other behaviours. Therefore, the kind of tools that are appropriate at this stage are those that are not only cost-effective and quick but can also help the team get to know each other without being too in-your-face and personal. In addition, these tools would also help identify the most effective ways to manage essentials like communication and inevitable conflict. It’s a tall order, but there are a few:


Arguably the best-known of the personality inventories is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) which, according to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, aims to “make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people’s lives.” The MTBI assesses preferences along four dimensions: Extraversion/Introversion, which is the extent to which individuals focus on their external or interior worlds; Sensing/Intuition, or how we relate to incoming information and the extent to which we interpret and add meaning; Thinking/Feeling, how we make decisions by focusing either on pure logic or whether we take emotions into account; and Judging/Perceiving, which is about how we structure our relationship with and make sense of the outside world. Knowing how we differ in the ways we relate to the world through our sensory, analytical, perceptual and emotional mechanisms can help us be more patient and tolerant – not just with others but with ourselves as well. It can, for example, be helpful in matching an individual’s natural gifts with appropriate career options, among other applications. That’s probably not relevant in the scenario described above, but it’s useful for helping team members get to know each other without having to reveal anything too personal in nature. It can also encourage bonding by identifying commonalities among team members and setting norms that respect individual differences.

Social Styles

Merrill & Reid’s social styles theory, as its name suggests, offers insight into our social interactions. It identifies four main archetypes (Analytic, Driver, Amiable, and Expressive) and their respective sub-types based on a two-dimensional matrix of social Assertiveness and Responsiveness. The Assertiveness continuum is the extent to which we are more comfortable asking or telling in a social context, mainly as it pertains to expressing individual needs. Responsiveness is the extent to which we react to others by empathizing or openly emoting, or whether we are more likely to rein in our feelings. Awareness of a person’s relative ease or discomfort with asserting their needs and desires, for example, can allow us to see past the stereotypes we might otherwise apply (“bully” vs. “wimp,” etc.) and communicate more sympathetically, allowing for differences in social style.

Both of these models have been in use for many years and provide valuable insights into how people behave, and why, under most normal circumstances. There are, however, a couple of tools that offer more specific, situational insights that I have found particularly useful in creative and/or business environments:

Team Roles

Based on the work of Dr. Meredith Belbin, Team Role theory identifies nine basic roles that we all unconsciously adopt, to varying degrees, when operating in a team environment. Each of these natural roles – as opposed to any formally assigned team roles – makes a unique contribution to the team and comes with concomitant allowable weaknesses. Knowledge of team roles can allow for more strategic and effective team formation; conversely it can help avoid team dysfunction or outright conflict that is almost inevitable when roles are over- or underrepresented on a given team. This is no less true in the film & TV industry, where crew roles and workflows are very clearly defined.

Conflict Response Roles

The five Conflict Response Roles – Loner, Decision-maker, Moderator, Diplomat, and Friend – describe the clusters of behaviours we tend to adopt when in conflict. These roles vary according to the extent to which the individual naturally focuses on the self, the task, and/or the facts of the matter in a conflict situation; and the extent to which the focus is on the other, the relationship(s) involved, and the feelings of the people in the conflict. The Conflict Response Roles (CR²I)™ self-assessment instrument has been used successfully for over a decade to identify, among other things, common escalation triggers; needs that are being protected in a conflict; and conflict behavioural patterns, both helpful and potentially destructive. This increased self-knowledge can help individuals make the necessary adjustments so that conflict situations are prevented, or at least managed earlier and more skillfully, in a conflict situation.

Of course there are other tests and inventories that can be used to assess and analyze everything from decision-making preferences to leadership styles and other aspects of our personal and professional selves. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior (FIRO-B) is also commonly used in organizational contexts. Remember that the purpose of these tools is not merely to categorize or classify people; it’s imperative to avoid lazy assumptions based on handy generalizations. Reducing individuals to labels and objectifying them makes it far too easy to demonize and see them as “other,” which defeats the whole team-building purpose. And while these tools offer a kind of shortcut through the team’s formative stage, they are by no means a panacea.

Still, when used wisely these mental models can help us appreciate what makes each other tick, and see how and why we behave the way we do in certain situations. They can be invaluable tools for establishing a solid foundation for more effective and lasting working relationships. We may not always achieve agreement, but we can always achieve greater understanding and empathy. And we even can do it more quickly and cheaply when time and money are in short supply.

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.

Accountability How-to Teams and group dynamics

Is accountability your team’s Achilles heel?

Accountability – or the lack thereof – is the Achilles Heel of many a potentially great team, group or organisation. Part of the problem is that accountability has become just another buzzword. (It’s like the weather: we love to talk about it but we seldom do anything about it.) It’s also an uncomfortable subject, being frequently confused with blamestorming. When the going gets tough it’s easy to forget that accountability is simply the ability to account for one’s actions. It’s holding others able to describe a chain of events, for better or worse.

Like accounting, accountability is concerned with (literally) summing up positives and negatives to determine a net result. Accounting is emphatically not about finger-pointing, judgment or shaming, and neither is accountability. Balance sheets and P&Ls are just tools for analysis, a means of figuring out how to make a business more profitable. Similarly, accountability can and should be an instrument for making teamwork more effective and productive. You wouldn’t shout at the numbers and call them names, but that’s the kind of pointless exercise that is sometimes passed off as accountability in many a meeting. Judgment and blame do absolutely nothing to rectify the issue or prevent a recurrence. We need to take the heat out of accountability and approach it more like accountants approach their numbers: respectfully and free from emotional baggage.

Of course this is easier said than done. We’re all human and we have feelings; no one likes to be the bearer of bad news that might let the team down, never mind admit to personal failure. For those on the receiving end, frustration and anger are equally enervating. As Dr. Brené Brown notes in her must-see TED Talk about vulnerability, “The psychological literature describes blame as a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” No wonder we so often wind up playing the blame game.

How many meetings or rehearsals have you attended where precious time and energy were wasted defending actions or deflecting feelings of guilt or shame by making someone wrong – preferably someone else? When our identity or self-concept is threatened, it’s easy to double down on our righteousness. It’s much harder to admit fault and learn from the situation. The latter demands humility and vulnerability; the former just requires ego. Guess which is typically in greater supply?

Accountability as learning

This is why leaders need to model accountability. Learning is critical, not just for the individual but for the entire team or organisation, and it’s hard to learn if you’re busy justifying, defending or deflecting. By admitting to your own mistakes you make it OK for others to do so. This is the paradox of trust: only when we allow others to see our weaknesses do they reciprocate and trust us in kind. (Consider the origins of the handshake, a symbolic show of unilateral disarmament and vulnerability.)

Disclosure also creates empathy and allows others to close ranks around the vulnerable party. If this sound counter-intuitive, consider the following: Who is more trustworthy, the person who proactively calls for help when a project is in danger of going sideways, or the one who tries to cover up until the problem spirals out of control? The sooner a issue is identified, the sooner it can be fixed. In the short term it’s aggravating when a team member screws up, but in the longer term being accountable leads to greater learning, group cohesion and trust. The flip side – denial – risks collective failure by maintaining the illusion of individual infallibility.

Accountability is a team sport

Leaders are not solely responsible for maintaining accountability, however. It must be a team sport. Having only one or two team members repeatedly play the “bad cop” sets up a straw man scenario, particularly on a team of equals where there isn’t a clear supervisory or managerial relationship; instead of being seen as allies, team mates become the enemy. If everyone holds each other accountable then no one can get away with thinking, “Oh, it’s only John – he just doesn’t like me,” or “There goes Jane again, she thinks she runs the place.”

Here are a seven additional principles to help build a culture of accountability in your creative team or organisation:

  • Stay out of judgment. As indicated above, judgment doesn’t accomplish anything – but offering assistance, feedback, and support does. Flag judgmental language if and when it happens in team meetings and elsewhere.
  • Equate accountability with learning opportunities. This is sound advice in most situations but it’s particularly true where personal and team accountability are an issue. The question is not, “Who screwed up?” but, “How can we fix it and move forward?” Discuss it openly to improve communication and strengthen the team bond. When things go right, acknowledge the win and build on team strengths.
  • Ensure role and task clarity. Too often team members simply aren’t clear on their job or role boundaries, expectations, and desired outcomes. Meetings often end with only tacit understanding of what these are, but they must be made explicit.
  • Adopt an “accountabili-buddy.” Having a partner to help keep you on track and offer support in between meetings or formal reports increases the likelihood of attaining individual objectives. While the psychosocial risk of admitting failure in front of the larger group can be a motivator for some, for many it’s a terrifying prospect that can lead to avoidance of accountability.
  • Consistency is key. Inconsistently applied, accountability devolves into blamestorming. You can’t selectively apply a rule and expect everyone to follow it uniformly. Similarly, the least acceptable standard for one person sets the bar for everyone on the team. Either rehearsals always start on time or they don’t; it shouldn’t matter which orchestra member is late – including the conductor.
  • Ownership & input correlate with accountability. Given the opportunity to set their own milestones, deadlines, performance criteria, etc., team members tend to rise to the occasion more often than those whose every move and progress report is micromanaged. Our own personal standards are often higher than others’ anyway, and self-evaluation can be a powerful tool (especially when combined with #4 above). The difference between having someone check up on you and voluntarily checking in with that person is empowering and lead to improved accountability.
  • Be response-able as well as accountable. By this I mean that everyone should be held able to consciously choose an appropriate (i.e., solution-focused) response to every situation. Emotional reaction is nowhere near as effective as a considered response; anger and frustration are understandable but not productive. Establishing explicit ground rules for having difficult conversations, including conflict norming (a topic for a future post), is highly recommended. Teams should check in regularly to ensure they are mutually upholding those standards.

Accountability is an opportunity to celebrate successes and recognize strengths. It’s also a way to minimize the likelihood of mistakes and to reduce damage to team trust and cohesion when they happen. As with accounting, the pluses and minuses inevitably impact the bottom line.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) How-to Teams and group dynamics

Five Reasons to Value Conflict

It goes without saying that conflict often comes at a terrible price: War is the obvious, extreme case where the human and economic toll is immeasurable. But on a more mundane level, the costs of conflict to a business, production crew or orchestra can include chronic absenteeism, stress-related health issues, withholding of creative and innovative ideas, role confusion, reduced productivity, loss of skilled team members, inferior decisions, damaged relationships and tarnished reputations, among other things. These costs can be equally immeasurable, if only because so much of the damage is disguised or otherwise difficult to capitalize. So it’s natural to assume that conflict of any kind is bad and should be avoided.

I propose, instead, that conflict can be a boon to any group or organisation – provided it’s managed well, of course. When mishandled (and even when ostensibly avoided) conflict can easily and rapidly spiral out of control and wreak havoc. More insidiously, it can simmer quietly below the surface and undermine that same group or organisation. Here, then, are five reasons to embrace it:

  1. Conflict is a sign of caring. The first and perhaps most important reason conflict isn’t inherently bad is this: it only begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. If we didn’t care about an issue we would simply shrug it off because we would have no real personal, emotional or financial investment. Having a stake in a project, decision or process necessarily means we have an interest in a good outcome. The challenge is that “best outcome” may be defined differently for each stakeholder. The good news is that the interests of those concerned can be powerful motivators inspiring the co-creation of an effective and lasting win-win solution. But if your team or organisation doesn’t suffer from conflict at least occasionally, it’s a danger sign. It means you’re overlooking something potentially disastrous or else your people just aren’t sufficiently engaged.
  2. Conflict can improve creative output (and other products). Conflict is an essential ingredient of all literature and film. Without conflict there is no plot, and plot (action) defines character. So on one level the quality, intensity or believability of the conflict depicted probably bears some relationship to the overall strength of a book, movie or graphic novel. Behind the scenes, real-life conflict can also inform and infuse creative output. For example, the well-documented (if extreme) differences between writer-director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Charles Brackett may well have contributed to the success of more than a dozen films they created together including Ninotchka and the Oscar-winning classics Sunset Boulevard and Lost Weekend.Perhaps a more obvious example of a successful and productive conflict is the Beatles’ catalogue of Lennon & McCartney songs. Whether their songwriting styles clashed or complemented each other may be a question of opinion but it’s safe to say that the blend of their distinctive influences and approaches resulted in an artistically and commercially significant body of work. Whether it was the contrast between tracks on the same album or even the constituent parts of the same song, the interplay between Lennon’s and McCartney’s respective contributions remains as aesthetically appealing as it is financially rewarding. So creative tension can be a positive factor, just as healthy competition can be a strong motivator when band members try to outdo each other in the writing department.
  3. Conflict can help generate buy-in. “Buy-in” is wholehearted acceptance and endorsement, which is far more powerful than mere agreement. And in order for people to buy into a proposed change, idea or decision they need to feel it’s been truly battle-tested. If there is a pervasive sense that input has been stifled or withheld for any reason, or that a proposal hasn’t been sufficiently analyzed, debated and evaluated from every angle, the decision will not stick; individuals and teams will be unwilling to fully commit to a course of action. Movement will be begrudging; lip service will be paid. Support will wane and factions may form outside the meeting or rehearsal room, sniping and complaining. Absent buy-in, any support for a chosen direction, decision or plan of action will be lukewarm at best. So well-managed conflict (or at least open and vigorous disagreement) can be productive instead of destructive because transparency, rigorous peer review and (partial) ownership of the outcome breed confidence.
  4. Conflict can provide a healthy outlet. Avoiding conflict may feel good in the short term because it means not having to experience the anxiety or fear that normally accompany it. It also means that at least one party will pay a heavier individual price over the longer term. Whoever goes out of their way (literally and figuratively) to avoid dealing with another with whom they have an ongoing, unmanaged conflict will eventually suffer in some other way. Avoidance saps vital energy. It requires continually finding new ways to escape the person or situation. It involves bottling up any ill feelings. The avoider will either refrain from speaking up, experience physical manifestations of their “dis-ease,” quit in frustration, or all of the above. Inevitably these personal impacts start to affect the rest of the group or organisation, and there is an opportunity cost to learning and growth for all parties directly or indirectly involved. Engaging in conflict – and managing it effectively – can allow all parties to assert their needs while minimizing or eliminating any negative fallout. Differences can be channeled into more productive outputs (see reason #2).
  5. Conflict can increase trust. A paradox of conflict is that if it’s managed well – if process needs and personal needs can be met – it can actually enhance trust and create a safer work atmosphere. Bringing it into the open and dealing with it head-on rather than letting it fester eases lingering fears and anxieties. Groups, teams and organisations that can weather a storm together invariably grow more close-knit as a result of their joint trials. Conflict offers a common bonding experience; the key is to ensure they are not united against each other internally.

How to keep conflict productive, not destructive

Clearly, then, there are advantages to be gained from taking a proactive approach to managing conflict. There are many relatively simple things that can be done to ensure that conflict is productive, positive force and not a destructive one.

The best brainstorming protocols, for example, involve a multi-step process beginning with a “no bad ideas” approach, leaving judgment and debate aside until input from all quarters is on the table. (Remember, too, that not every personality type thrives in the sturm-und-drang of a whiteboard session.) Conflict norming means determining how we handle conflict collectively – what’s OK and what’s not OK – if and when we find ourselves in conflict. These conflict norms and boundaries should be established early and explicitly, with the standards developed, agreed and upheld by all parties. There should also be clear, consistent policies and procedures for dealing with conflict more formally should it become necessary, including pre-emptive training programs, conflict coaching, mediation, or making some other form(s) of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) available.

Too often conflict in the arts and entertainment industry is dismissed as the product of ego or some stereotypical image of the creative genius. It’s not that simple. We forgive the eccentricities of the combative colleague – the “difficult” artist, manager/agent, or star employee – because of the overall value their work brings. But left unchecked, this indulgence can erode co-workers’ self-esteem, trust, or sense of safety and security necessary to a healthy working environment. This is as true in the rehearsal studio as it is in the corporate boardroom.

This is not to say that creative types should have all their rough edges removed. On the contrary, they should be nurtured, celebrated, and have their needs respected – while respecting the needs of others. Ignoring or otherwise tacitly permitting destructive, personalized conflict can soon be fatal to your group, team or organisation. Productive, well-managed conflict can be far more profitable.

– kda

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