By: Lynn Carnes
In the last several months, I have had a series of difficult conversations. What made them difficult for me was this: I was afraid that the other person would be unhappy as a result of the conversation. To some degree or other, I was delivering “bad news”, and just that characterization set me off into “I-don’t-want-to-have-this-conversation-land.”
For almost every leader I’m working with right now, that is familiar territory. Whether delivering the “bad news” of budget cuts, unwelcome mergers, constricting regulations, or failed business deals, they are leading people through change that they would rather not have to do.
Often, no one wants the change – yet they have to lead through it.
Just the thought of delivering bad news can send people into one of two reactive roles. The first is placating. I know this one well. When I go to placating, you get the power to negotiate all kinds of concessions from me. When I’m playing “Patty Placator”, my stance is “Please don’t cry – here, have a lollipop.
The second is to disregard. When I go into disregard, you will get the message loud and clear that I don’t care about you, what this news means, or how you are impacted. When I’m playing “Debbie Disregard”, my stance is “Get over it.”
Both of these stances are great – for making me not have to deal with emotions of the situation. Neither will lead to real change. Why? Because both let the other person off the hook. If I give you a “lollipop” to make you happy, you get to keep rocking along as is. No change required. If I disregard how my news is impacting you, you are justified in fighting the change, either above or underground.
It’s difficult to envision another path. How do you both care about how your news is impacting someone and still move things forward?
It takes practice, self-awareness and wisdom to stay on the “change tightrope” and move things forward without resorting to tactics designed to keep you and everyone else comfortable.
Change is not comfortable and neither is delivering unwelcome news.
Several years ago, we spent the day on the lake with two sets of friends who had young children. One of the families brought along a puppy they were helping find a home. I smelled trouble early on, because the kids from the other family quickly fell in love with the puppy. As the day wore on, I started thinking that this puppy might have found his new home. Also, in the back of my mind, I was wondering “are they really going to take this puppy on their 7 hour drive home?”
The drama came to a head when we dropped the first family off. The big question was this: would the puppy go with the original family or stay on the boat to go home with his new favorite children? “Please Mom, please, can we keep him?” echoed over and over again.
That was when I witnessed the change tightrope in action more clearly than I ever had until that point. The mom gently looked at her kids and said “No.” All kinds of wailing and moaning and begging could be heard across the water. They were SO upset. I’m waiting for her to tell us to go back and get the puppy. (I would have gone back to get the puppy.)
She didn’t yell, tell them to shut up, capitulate or explain. She simply circled her arms calmly around both kids and let them cry it out on the short ride back to their boathouse. By the time we pulled up, the eyes were dry and the children moved on.
When I reflected on the incident, I realized that she helped those kids accept that they would not get what they wanted by deeply embodying her decision. She left no room for argument yet she still stayed connected to their pain. She was ok within herself with them not being happy. This is an incredibly difficult balancing act.
It’s so tempting to…
…explain – we don’t have enough room in the car
…or capitulate – ok, we can have the puppy
…or yell – are you crazy?, we don’t need a puppy
…or tell them to shut up – I don’t want to hear it
…or do any of the other actions we develop to avoid feeling uncomfortable.
This mom tolerated her discomfort to support the right decision and by doing so, ultimately helped the children accept that decision.
When we are under pressure to lead in situations where people are not doing to be happy, we need good strategies for managing our discomfort as well as theirs. Here are some tips I’ve found useful over the years:
What is your favorite strategy to avoid your own discomfort? (I go back and forth between placating and capitulating) How do you deal with delivering bad news? What practices do you have to keep your inner strength in place for moments like this? Where have you compromised relationships because it was easier to cut the other person off rather than tolerate the discomfort of disagreement? What conversations are you having right now that involve delivering bad news or have high stakes?
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The year was 1983 and I was a baby banker working for THE bank in my hometown. About six weeks before the cookie event, our group found out we would all be getting off work early Friday to go to a “pool party” at one of the executive’s houses.
Woohoo! An afternoon off! Wait – a pool party? That would involve bathing suits (that’s what we called them back then) No thank you – I will just stay at work and hold down the fort.
Then I decided there were six weeks and lots of good eating habits between me and the dreaded bathing suit party. So I started dieting and I was really, really good. For six whole weeks, I abstained from every kind of food I loved. Hunger was ever present and I couldn’t wait for the pool party to be over.
The day of the party arrived and my thing to bring to the party was chocolate cookies. Well, I’m pretty sure I decided to bring cookies because I had eaten enough salads to fill the swimming pool.
On the day of the party, the big box of cookies was sitting next to my desk. Every time I smelled them, my mouth watered. The first half of the morning I resisted – I had been sooooo good for so long. Then I decided that one cookie wouldn’t kill me.
So I ate it. It was as delicious as my mouthwatering dreams had promised. Then the floodgates opened. I had another. And then another. After 3, I had to do something with the rising guilt. How could I have lost my willpower so fast? I had a choice. Either stop eating cookies or find a way to make it ok.
Here was my justification: the fat from eating cookies now could not possibly hit my thighs in the next 3 hours. I will look the same in my bathing suit in three hours as I do right now. So eating more cookies will not hurt a THING! Let’s have one more.
I have no idea how many cookies I ate that day – but it was a lot. Enough to make me feel sick. It might have been the last time I ever baked chocolate chip cookies.
I don’t remember if I gained a bunch of weight from eating all those cookies, nor do I even remember the party all that much. I’m pretty sure my good eating habits went out the window for at least another decade.
What I mostly remember from cookie event was the way I made my choice that day. How I justified going back to my old habits. It was years before I learned to make a real change in my eating habits.
It was years before I learned to make real change in anything that mattered.
Instead of changing, I was an expert in justifying. There is a good reason that I did – whatever it is that you tell me I could do better.
My internal logic went something like this: “If you only knew why I did whatever-bad-thing you are talking-to me about, you would agree that I did the RIGHT thing.” So I would proceed to justify and explain and sell and whatever else it took for you to see than I couldn’t, wouldn’t possible change.
Our minds can work that way. It’s so much easier to justify than it is to actually change something.
It’s so easy to take a grain of dissatisfaction (I need to lose 5 pounds, I need to be kinder, I need to balance my work time better) and decide it’s ok when faced with the reality of what it will take to change.
What I have found works for me is to let that dissatisfaction grow instead of diminishing it. I have to recognize the consequences of whatever it is I need to change rather than finding reasons I don’t need to change it.
Does it work all the time? Heck no! But I have made some substantial changes in my life.
The truth is that it works when I really want it to.
Where are you justifying something you really want to change? What is staying stuck, even though you don’t like it?
Where are you living slightly satisfied instead of facing what you really need to change?
We are coming to the end of another year – what is it time for you to truly change?
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Missing an appointment with an IBM Selectric Typewriter most likely changed the whole trajectory of my life. It’s truly mind-boggling to realize that such a small thing made such a huge difference.
I was in high school, and my teacher had signed up me and several other students for a typing contest in a town a couple of hours away. Thanks to the vintage Royal typewriter at my grandparent’s house growing up, followed by my very own typewriter when I was about 8 years old, I came into the class already proficient on the classic QWERTY keyboard.
Quickly I became one of the fastest typists in the school – and accuracy counted in those days. We did not have a “back” button on the typewriter, nor were we allowed to use Liquid Paper. My teacher was quite sure that I would have won the typing contest that day – I was really good.
On the morning of the contest, I slept through the alarm clock. For the first time ever in my life. My mom came rushing into my room about the time the bus was due to leave the parking lot of the school 20 minutes away, prepared to whisk me out of bed and to doors of what might have been the gateway to heaven--or hell. (From today’s vantage point, I pretty sure it would have been hell.)
We had no cell phones at the time and I decided to miss the bus, rather than go into the OMG-we-gotta-get-out-of-here rush. It seemed like an unmitigated disaster at the time. My parents were so upset with me for being irresponsible, and I was puzzled myself. It wasn’t like me to sleep through the clock – in fact, I have always been a pretty early riser.
Yet I am quite sure that my life would have gone in a much WORSE direction had I made it to the school bus that morning.
See, my serious typing skills had me looking for careers that needed fast, accurate typists. In the mid-70’s, guidance counselors were still offering young women traditional women’s roles. We called them “pink collar” jobs back then.
All roads were pointing towards “legal assistant”, something I embraced because – I don’t remember why. It just sounded good because I was a screaming fast typist. Of course I would want to leverage that skill.
Then on the day of the contest, I slept through the clock and did not make the bus. It was an event soon forgotten as just one of those tiny disappointments in a normal life. Until I had a reason to remember it 30 years later.
Someone asked me why I started my career in accounting. I had all these reasons, like being good with numbers, understanding basic bookkeeping and so forth. But then I remembered my screaming fast fingers. The 10-key adding machine was the gateway. I was as fast at adding a column of numbers as I was typing a document.
When I didn’t go win the typing contest, I started winning in adding up numbers. My career choices started leaning towards accounting because my flying fingers were also good at the adding machine. What a way to choose a career, right?
A seemingly innocuous disappointment pivoted my career from a “pink collar” job in a typing pool to a “white collar” role in the backbone of business. Who knows where I would be today had I gone down the other path. While I have long been a recovering accountant, that career laid a strong foundation for the leadership work I do today.
Disappointment can be like that. And it’s so much deeper than “one door closes, another opens”. The paths we don’t take, for whatever reason, shape us as much as the ones we do. I am always trying to sort the difference between a test and a signal. Sometimes, disappointments test our resolve. Sometimes disappointments signal our lack of commitment. They show us that the path we think we want will actually leave us flat.
Knowing the difference between a test and a signal is priceless.
In my typing story, I made two choices, mostly unconscious, that revealed typing to be the flat road. I decided not to try to make it to the bus that morning when my alarm failed, and more importantly, I never pursued another chance at winning a typing contest. No commitment there. I heeded the signal and moved on.
It other situations, disappointment has led me to double down on my efforts. I spent the better part of year paralyzed with writer’s block a few years ago. The easy answer would have been to quit writing. Clearly in my paralyzed mind, I had nothing to say. If there was something in there worth saying, it would be coming out already.
Writer’s block tested my resolve. It made me realize that artistic expression was something worth fighting for. I had to dig deep to restore the flow and face the debilitating fears under the frozen fingers on the keyboard. It was painful, illuminating, ravaging and freeing all at the same time.
Disappointment paved the path, as it has for so many of the pivotal moments of my life.
As our community was building a charter school, I watched the people rally around the idea, only to be disappointed by a variety of setbacks and challenges. More than once, these setbacks could have been seen as a signal but instead were seen as a test of resolve. I called this resolve “Grit” in a post by the same name. Many, many children in our community are benefiting because the founders of the school saw tests instead of signals.
Where do your disappointments test your resolve? What signals are you getting that what you think you want will not give you what you really want? How do you know the difference?
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It started at dinner with eight of us discussing stories of fixing a starter relay, or how we always make sure we have an extra impeller in the boathouse, or sharing challenges we have had trailering our boats. Eight WOMEN talking about the normal things that happen when water skiing is your addiction. It’s Women’s Week at Coble Ski School, and a total of 13 of us are here for the seventh year in a row, encouraging each other to push our limits, overcome fear and yes, feed our addiction.
After the first morning, we already have some sore muscles, at least one broken blister, and a few breakthroughs. Connections are being made with each other, with new concepts, and between life and water skiing. Yes, we are talking about skiing. We are also talking about next chapters in life – what does one do when you lose a son to a tragic accident? What is possible after you sell your business? And the big question that skiers always come back to:
Where can one live a good life - near a ski lake?
Whether we voice it or not, we are also aware that how we do anything is how we do everything. When we talk about fear of going over the wake, we are also talking about that dread of starting a new chapter in life. We recognize that fear is the very thing that makes things bumpy. When we talk about our discouragement over not skiing as well as we know we can, we are also reflecting on life’s disappointments. When we call on our strength to finally run that full pass, it comes from the same deep well that has shaped us through birthing babies, supporting families, starting businesses, taking care of parents, and somehow claiming our right to capture joy on the water. Most importantly, we are carving out deep and lasting friendships made from inspiration, deep conversations and light hearted silliness. We as thrilled for a friend’s new personal best as we are for our own.
It’s early in the week and so much is yet to come. One thing is for sure.
The ski addicts will hit the water tomorrow!
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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