One of the biggest obstacles to team performance is when people don’t communicate. Usually people don’t communicate because a) they’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings (or otherwise wounding them) or b) they’re afraid that if they were completely open and honest the other person would wound them. In either case, people avoid these conversations or, if they don’t, often have them ineffectively and in ways that breed resentments and upsets.
But seriously, who is getting wounded? In the vast majority of cases, it isn’t as if you’re actually going to physically assault someone. And it’s unlikely they’re going to physically assault you. Usually the fear of hurt is a little more abstract, something like damage to one’s reputation, sense of self, or some kind of reprimand.
That’s a point that’s worth getting interested in. Usually what people are protecting isn’t an actual thing, but an abstraction. As humans, we all walk around as though there’s really a “me” here. We tend to think it’s our bodies, but when we talk about things that have hurt or angered us, a lot of the things we mention left no actual physical damage. Not even for a minute. In a very real sense, the thing we’re talking about when we say things like, “I” or “me,” is not a physical thing, but an idea. How do you hurt an idea??
I don’t want to get too deep into that question. I’m working on a book length treatment because that’s about what it takes. Right now I’ll just ask you to trust me when I say that, when our feelings get hurt our insulted, what’s actually happening is that we have some idea of ourselves and whatever we’re hearing runs counter to that idea. There is no “thing” in there (“there” being your skin) that’s actually getting hurt.
However, we live like there is and when we do, that’s when we avoid having important conversations, withhold critical communication, and do other things that drag performance – the organization’s and our own – down.
In positive psychology, they talk about a flow state, which you’ve probably heard referred to as “being in the zone.” This is when one is fully absorbed and engaged in an activity. In this state of engagement, one effect is that the person experiences a loss of reflective self-consciousness. That “idea” of self that gets offended and insulted? Attention isn’t on that in the zone. For as long as someone is in the zone, that idea of self isn’t even an afterthought. One’s attention isn’t on the idea of “me” or “I.” One’s full attention is on what’s going on in the world and the task at hand.
Now, normally when people talk about “the zone” it’s in reference to athletic performance. However, it’s possible to get there with people and with teams. Getting there reliably, while it takes practice, is actually pretty simple. All you have to do is move your attention from whatever concern you have for your self and identity to a larger purpose. When you communicate in a way that also draws the attention of those around you to a larger purpose, it can also pull them into the zone. In that space, communication is natural and easy. It’s no longer two or more identities each trying to get their own way and manage their personal concerns. It’s people working together toward a larger, common purpose.
The trick is to make that purpose as big as you can. Though a “purpose” is also an idea, like an idea of self, they can seem very real. The bigger you can make a purpose, the more gravity it has, and the more power it will have to pull you and others away from your personal concerns. It starts with the question: “what is this conversation for?” Then, answer that at as many levels as you can. Here are a few to get you started.
The world. This is about the biggest purpose a conversation can have: what difference will this conversation make for the world? When I work with companies, I encourage them create a vision that, if they were fulfilling their mission at a global level, would make a real and lasting difference in the world. One of my favorites is Coca-Cola’s mission of refreshing the world in mind, body, and spirit. One company I work with has the vision that all people are living valued lives and empowering the people around them to do the same. Every meeting starts with sharing that vision and I am blown away by how that team deals with challenges.
The organization. What difference will this conversation make for the organization? Will it be a demonstration of your company’s values? Will it create cohesion and build culture? Will it expand capacity to deliver on mission and vision? Whatever you say in the moment, say that the conversation will make a difference for the organization.
The team. Now we’re getting into the more immediate reasons for having the conversation you’re having. There’s a result you’re out produce. What works here is to focus on more than whatever that result is. If the immediate result is to generate clear next actions and by when those will be complete, look at how you want this conversation to impact team performance going forward. Are you out to build greater cohesiveness? Do you want free and open communication? Make the conversation for those as well.
The relationship. When you walk away from this conversation, what experience do you want each person involved left with? That they’re appreciated and valued? That they’re clear on the difference they make? That they know they’re supported and the team has their back?
I had to have one of these conversation recently. I’m on a volunteer board and someone wrote something on Slack® and I got offended. After stewing for a good half a day it occurred to me – I wouldn’t let one of my clients get away with this. Then I took my own coaching. I called the other member up and said, “I want to have a conversation, and I want it to be for our organization building a community where are members are connected with each other and fully supported in making the difference they’re out to make. I want it to be for building a cohesive and aligned board. And when it’s over I want our relationship whole and complete with no distance between us. Can you align with that?”
We then had one of the easiest, most productive conversations I had in weeks. It took about a minute to resolve the miscommunication, and in the next nine minutes we addressed all of the issues that were at the source of the problem in the first place and left the conversation total partners in getting them resolved. When we got off the phone, I couldn’t believe it had only been 10 minutes. That’s what it’s like to be in the zone.
The other thing I want to point to is that it wasn’t about me getting my way or making her see my point of view. With a larger purpose that we both aligned on, I didn’t have concern for my way or my point of view. The concern for both of us was that big, weighty purpose. And in that, what I discovered was that this board member had really important things to contribute. If I was focused on my own hurt feelings, I never would have been able to hear.
I’ll close with this. This isn’t only for times when there’s a tough conversation to have. This practice scales. Use it in meetings. Use it for strategic planning. Use it with your kids! The more your conversations are for something bigger than your own immediate concerns, the easier communication get and the more rewarding and fulfilling it will be.