We've Discussed This Already (But Only in My Head)

Is one of your goals to improve your relationships? Whether you've colleagues, clients, friends, family or new romances in mind, often we have ongoing 'conversations' with them that are taking place just there: in our mind. Jennifer invites you to distinguish between the conversations you've actually had out loud and those that have only happened in your head.

I was coaching a manager in a large organisation who was trying to address 'poor performance' with a team member. She'd had one conversation and it had not gone well, so she decided to get some support for her next step. When we spoke, it was clear to me she was well-intentioned, so what had gone so wrong?

Everything was 'obvious'

Our coaching session went like this:

Manager: I started off by just summarising the position, covering Mark's persistent lateness and how he struggles with deadlines as well how he doesn't communicate very well with clients. But he just reacted really badly and started defending himself straight away, which seemed a bit extreme because I was only just setting the scene...

Coach: Okay...so you were summing up ground that you'd covered previously with him, right?

Manager: Well...everything I was saying was obvious. I mean I've been watching this going on for months.

Coach: And you've flagged it up before?

Manager: Well maybe not as such. But honestly, my mind goes over and over it in the evenings at home. It really bugs me - and it should be obvious to him too.

Whether or not we are people managers, this is a classic error that we've all made. I know I have, repeatedly. The manager I was coaching had had several conversations with Mark, but only in her own head. So by the time she finally got to speak to him about it, it felt like the last straw. Yet, to Mark, it was the first punch in a fist fight that he didn't even know was coming.

Earlier on, in my head

Where does this apply in your life? Are you working up to a conversation with someone? Perhaps a team member who keeps passing information on to you too late? Or who always uses your special mug? Maybe it's a chat you need to have with messy flatmates? Is there a discussion you want to have with your 'other half' about the washing up? You've gone over that thing, or maybe a whole list of things, in your head so many times, so when you finally address it out loud, you're tempted to (over)use words like 'obviously', or phrases like 'as we all know' etc, etc.

How about asking yourself: have we - you, and the person in front of you - actually discussed this before? Or is the heated conversation just mine alone at this point? If it is only yours, then start simply. It's new news. It's not obvious, it's not old ground. Look for the reaction as it plays out.

And another thing...

The other classic error, which our friend, the-manager-being-coached, made (and haven't we all?) is to pile in and keep adding. There were so many criticisms: the lateness, the deadlines, the client communications. It was not only an unexpected fight but one that began with a series of punches.

Feedback is best delivered with specific examples, for sure. But one or two at a time is best, not a list of everything that ever went wrong. 

Again, you'll perhaps recognise this from conversations - with colleagues or with loved ones at home - that ended up getting derailed. Whether it was a messy PowerPoint at work or an untidy kitchen at home, maybe you had to pluck up a bit of courage to raise the topic. Once you got started though, you may have found it strangely easier than you expected to let rip: it felt good to be airing this; you were on a roll.

But that's the warning sign. If you're feeling too good about venting your list of domestic (or workplace) crimes, then it's probably time to stop. And listen for the response.

Me, I was doing okay that time I let my partner know I felt tired, being the only one doing the laundry, as well as the dishwasher and the cleaning. I even got away with slipping in the bit about him having more time to exercise than I ever had at the gym. But when I made the leap to covering all that I did for his mother, including all those birthday gifts I'd arranged, I'd lost any ground I had gained. All he could do was defend. He was not even hearing.

Stop. Look both ways. Listen

So, as we resolve to improve our relationships at work or at home, maybe giving good feedback is a bit like crossing a road.

Whether I'm a manager opening a 'difficult conversation', or a partner who's a bit fed up about the balance of power at home, I need to remind myself of some common sense when I'm about to launch into some juicy moment of truth.

First, 'stop and look both ways': take a look at me as well as the other person. Who is already aware of this point? Who has already discussed these things? Just me, then?

Next, and, equally importantly, 'listen': see how they respond after one point I've raised. Resist the thrill of the list. One point at a time. Pick your battles. 

If I feel that I'm on a roll, it's likely to be the kind of roll a bulldozer experiences. And the outcome might at best be a bit flat...


Jennifer Liston-Smith

Jennifer heads up My Family Care Coaching, Consultancy and Advisory services as well as our Thought Leadership activities. With many years' experience in large organisations providing leadership coaching and management development programmes, Jennifer was one of the UK pioneers of maternity coaching in the early 2000s. More recently, she was the architect and overall author of the Parental Leave Toolkit and Parental Leave Toolkit for Managers, My Family Care's dynamic online coaching programmes.

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