The Doing and Being of Difficult Conversations

Years ago, I bought—and read—every book I could find about challenging conversations. Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and Fierce Conversations—all of them. Each added to my understanding of how to have (and why not to avoid) the conversations that we least want to have. I attended several workshops that focused on shifting difficult conversations into productive ones. The most intensive of these workshops was three days long and involved meticulously analyzing a single conversation that we knew we needed to have. We focused on reframing our thinking and mindset and precisely examined the impact of the words we chose for the conversation. At the end of the three days, I was able to have that conversation in a way that shifted the relationship I was working to improve. At the same time, it was painstaking and I wondered if that particular process could be consistently replicated.

Over the years, I began to design and conduct workshops on the topic of difficult conversations—including this as a core topic in any leadership program I offer. In my workshops I drew most heavily from Sheila Sheen’s (and her co-authors’) Difficult Conversations, and from her second book, Thanks for the Feedback. More recently, I added powerful ideas garnered from two wonderful books by Diane Musho Hamilton, The Zen of You and Me and Everything is Workable.

My commitment to improving—and supporting others’ improvements—at having hard-to-have conversations is premised in the belief that our ability to speak candidly, openly and with compassion allows us to create better relationships at work. And, if we can create those stronger, more open, more honest relationships, we can work more productively, with greater ease and get better results. The same is true in our personal lives, as well.

The most important thing I took away from these authors and from the work I had done was the importance of shifting from a mindset of “it’s about them” to “I’m a contributor to what is occurring.” In some way, small or large, we are missing part of the story and have a blind spot about our contribution in challenging relationships.

I also realized that to successfully transform a conversation from just plain difficult to productive and constructive, we needed to genuinely be able to hear the other person—to listen deeply, see their perspective, and shift our own, accordingly. It’s not about one person being right and the other wrong. It’s simply that we each see the world through our own eyes and, by definition, our view is limited. Bringing this awareness into a challenging conversation is essential–and not easy. It goes against our default mode of “listening to win” rather than “listening to learn.”*

Over the past few years, as I expanded my coaching toolkit to include embodied leadership, I began to rethink the way I approached, and taught, difficult conversations. Embodied leadership asks us to consciously bring our whole soma (body) and not just our heads into our work and personal lives/relationships. Wouldn’t this then require us to bring our whole soma into difficult conversations? If we are to genuinely shift our frame of mind to allow ourselves to see multiple perspectives and to respond rather than react to the things that trigger our defenses, then we need to think not only about the “doing” of the conversation, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the “being”–and that’s where the body can be an enormous resource.

Until I started doing somatic work, my preparation for a difficult conversation was almost entirely focused on the words I would use. What questions would I ask? How would I frame the conversation? What would I do to ensure that I was communicating that I, too, was a contributor and that together we were looking for a new way of seeing? I took the same approach with my clients. Both in coaching and in workshops most of the energy was on planning the “what” or the “doing” of the conversation. Using our heads.

If we expand and include the soma then we arrive at the “being” of a conversation. We attend not only to what we say—but also to how we show up energetically, physically and emotionally. The preparation we need to do to show up in a state that is open, receptive, and present is quite different from the planning of the “doing.” It’s not surprising that I missed this. In general, we have learned to be better at—and put more emphasis on—doing than being.

Growing our leadership capacity and developing as humans requires that we create a better balance. I’ve written about the distinction between complex and complicated—it is relevant here as well. When things are unpredictable or unknowable we are in the domain of complexity—and our job in complexity is to navigate, not to know where exactly we’re going (we simply can’t know.) By definition, a conversation—especially a challenging one—is complex–unpredictable. Two of the most powerful tools in complexity are openness and curiosity which come not only from our heads, but from our whole self.

When we prepare to be present and curious, then we can be prepared for the response that we didn’t expect to hear. We can navigate in the moment when the other person does not conform to our predetermined script. And, let’s be honest, no one aside from the imaginary people in our minds will ever adhere to the predetermined scripts we write. If we are unprepared for the complexity of the conversation, wed to our plan, then the instant the other person veers from our script, we are thrown—we lose center and presence. The conversation is far less likely to move forward in a meaningful or satisfying way for either person.

When we focus primarily on the doing of the conversation then we may know, intellectually, that we are contributors, but we are still likely to be hooked into responding defensively. Seeing multiple perspectives is not what we were wired to do—being reactive when we feel threatened is a more “natural” response—even if it is unhelpful. Despite our best intentions to not be hooked and defensive, it takes time and practice to respond differently. When we focus exclusively on what we are doing and don’t give equal weight to our being we aren’t resourced to be fully present and capable of navigating the complexity inherent in a challenging conversation.

So, what does this look like in practice?

It’s about putting as much, and often more, focus on the question, “How do I want to be in this conversation?” as on “What do I want to say?”  I do this by taking a moment and finding center—the process I use to center (described here) is one I learned over six years ago and has been an anchor for me ever since. Once centered, I ask myself the following questions:

  • What qualities do I want to bring to the conversation?
  • How do I want to show up?
  • How will I find that way of being before I begin the conversation? (This may involve a commitment to center before starting the conversation.)
  • How will I return to that way of being if I feel triggered during the conversation?

This process does not offer a magic bullet—it’s a practice. Like all practices, it requires repetition and reinforcement. It can be immediately helpful and when it becomes part of our way of operating it can positively impact every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Once it is ingrained in our being, and we can access this process rather than react defensively, even the challenging conversations that are not initiated by us, the ones we unexpectedly find ourselves in, will no longer be as difficult or daunting.

As I’ve embodied this practice, I’ve come to see “difficult conversation” as simply conversations. This simple, and yet not so simple shift, enables me to be curious, attentive, and open-minded while growing my relationships.

Here’s an example:

I worked with a client who needed to speak with a colleague who, based on all the data available to her, was not delivering on an important commitment. This was not the first time she’d had this experience with her colleague.

At the start of the session, we centered. After centering, and becoming more open and present, she noticed that she had never broached this topic with her colleague. Her colleague was unaware of how his actions, knowing or unknowingly, affected her. It was from this reflection and realization that my client was able to sense that her limited perspective of “this is how he’s disappointing me” only told half the story. My client then consciously set the intention to remain open and curious so that she could genuinely, and without bias, discover where things were breaking down. She made a commitment, from center, to hear his perspective, to learn more about her own contribution, and to figure out together how to move forward.

The preparation for her discussion went as follows: centering and setting intention, recognition that she is also a contributor, and committing to find center before, during, and after her conversation. She would also need to remind herself that her colleague would not follow her predetermined script and that she would not be able to control the ultimate outcome of that conversation. She felt ready to enter the conversation with genuine openness and curiosity, prepared to be surprised.

And another example:

I recently worked with a client who had to let staff go for the first time in their organization’s history. As I worked with the leadership team to prepare for these conversations, we brought the dimension of being into the process. The leaders reflected on how they wanted to be in the conversation to support the people to whom they were delivering hard news—and to support the people who were remaining. In this case, even when the words had to be quite precise, there was an opportunity to attend to how they could use the practices of centering and the emphasis on bringing their whole self into the conversation to convey the genuine compassion that they felt.

And…

Sometimes we are called upon simply to listen, to be present for another person. It is often all that is being asked of us. Our work begins and ends with the question of how we want to be. If we simply allow ourselves to be present and caring listeners, then that is enough. Our need to do or say the “right” thing or to fix a problem is often the thing that gets in the way of what is most important.

And finally…

The next time you find yourself carefully planning your words, take a step back and make sure you are also attending to how you want to be in order to best serve the intent of the conversation. And then, do that again, and again, and again.

We become what we practice.**

* See Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps–my favorite book of the past several years for more on this distinction (and so much more than that!!)

** Gratitude to Richard Strozzi Heckler and the teachers at the Strozzi Institute for helping me to experience the power of practice.

My series of posts exploring what I’m learning as I become a somatic coach begins here. You can also find a post here that explores ways to think about practice or, to be more precise, “micropractices” that might make this just a little easier to incorporate into an already busy life.

For the Sake of What?

Joshua Tree, Superbloom, Susan Hendel PhotographyOne of the emphases in the somatic coaching program I’m now immersed in is making powerful declarations that orient us towards a vision of what is possible. A declaration or commitment anchors our growth and development. One of the critical pieces of the process of creating those commitments is having a strong why. One way to frame our “why” is to ask, “for the sake of what?”

At the end of the initial eight days I spent at the Strozzi Institute in Petaluma, I began working with an accountability buddy, a young man at a very different phase in his life than I am in mine and whose declaration reflects that phase, just as my declaration reflects mine. Our job, as buddies, is to text each other regularly and report on whether we’ve completed our practices. These practices include the “standard” ones that include centering, meditation and practicing an aikido kata as well as unique practices that reflect our specific commitments. My buddy and I began to sense, independently, on about Day Eight, that our practice were beginning to feel like a checklist, that we were doing our homework without a sense of purpose.

As luck would have it, I had a meeting with my program mentor just that day, and we had an opportunity to talk about practices and commitments. I shared the concern about practices becoming rote. His suggestion was to come back to the question “for the sake of what?” That simple addition made a big difference for both of us.Since that call, I’ve brought that awareness of purpose, my why, into practice and have both increased my commitment to completing the practices and the quality of the practice.

My commitment is, ultimately, for the sake of living fully and wholly in this second half of my life. It’s also about being a more present coach, more skilled facilitator and writing more. Both the existential and the more practical “whys” that inform my commitment allow me to prioritize practice in my day.

In his last book, Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg suggested that we tie the small items on our to-do lists to their larger purposes. Even at this granular level, the question of “for the sake of what” can be helpful. A few weeks ago, I had to dive deep into tax preparation. I could no longer avoid it. Due to a year filled with hacked credit card accounts, I encountered a mess I was not anticipating and a spreadsheet of transactions that required hours more than usual to sort through. Even in the midst of this, I did my best to invoke a “why.” It involved my responsibility to my family and my commitment to be a good citizen. It helped a bit.  (As did a glass of wine after I did as much as a could in one evening.) Same question, different scale.

This week I was working with a group of leaders, guiding them in a group coaching conversation. The client realized that the way to address a challenge he was facing was to slow down (note: when in doubt that’s almost always going to be the our most helpful response) and be sure that he asks questions early on that will allow him to avoid problems later on. When this became clear to him, instead of feeling that he was making progress in the conversation, he was agitated. He could not imagine himself being willing, in the moment, to actually slow down. He couldn’t see himself doing the very opposite of what he was now doing–even though he knew his current response was getting him to a result he didn’t want. The need to move quickly, to get things done under pressure felt too great. Slowing down felt nearly impossible. Here, too, the question “for the sake of what?” can help.

When I asked: “For the sake of what would you slow down?” he said that it was for the sake of not doing rework later and for the sake of a good end product. He realized that if he could actively invoke his “why” or “for the sake of what” in the moment, he could do what would get a better result. A few weeks later, when we met again, he reported on a significant shift in both his behavior and his outcomes.

This small example also shows that, in the moment, our habitual patterns of behavior can be strong enough to override our desires for things to be different. Invoking our “why” can be a powerful tool in getting over that hump. (And, like all powerful tools, the key is to remember that it is available to you when you need it.)

So, the next time you set a goal or commitment for yourself or simply put item on your to-do list, take the time to ask yourself “for the sake of what does this matter?” Then, when the moment arises and it’s time to act, invoke your “why?” and see if it isn’t just a little bit easier to make the choice that serves you best.

[Note: This post is the third part of an ongoing series in which I’m sharing what I’m learning as I study somatic coaching at the Strozzi Institute. My first post, introducing the work can be found here and here’s my post on the practice of mood checks.Picture credit to my sister, Susan Hendel, who captured the super bloom in Joshua Tree. Seeing the photos and the immense beauty around us is a big part of my own “for the sake of what?” ]

Mood Check

[Note to readers: Mood Check is the second in a series of posts I’m writing as I study at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership. My hope is that these posts spark curiosity and encourage you to explore even more. The first one introduced somatics and the way that I am learning to understand what somatic leadership means.]

Every day, several times a day, during the workshops at the Strozzi Institute, we did a mood check. All twenty-eight of us quickly shared our mood at the start and end of the day and after any practice that might have changed our moods. While I’ve used mood checks as a facilitator before, I had never done them this consistently. I got more curious about this practice–why it was so foundations and how it could be brought into our daily lives.

In a previous course I attended, one of the Strozzi instructors shared a two-part question about mood that I use frequently in my coaching:

  • What is your mood?
  • What’s telling you this is your mood?

I’ve discovered that when I ask these two, related, questions of myself or my clients, we naturally notice our bodily sensations. Turns out that we name moods based on what our senses are telling us. A mood check, then, is an embodied practice. It gives as a moment to ask ourselves: “What is happening right now? And how am I making that assessment?”

So, why is that useful? First, if you are convinced, as I am, that “somatic literacy” is a good and important thing, the beginning of being able to shift, this is a way to start developing that literacy. It’s not something that we are likely to have learned growing up so we need to educate ourselves. Simply noticing and naming what is happening to us at the level of sensation and how a collection of sensations creates a mood has been powerful for me. I am observing my somatic literacy grow–the range of moods I name expands, the granular awareness of what makes up that mood is more accessible to me–I feel less awkward with the exercise.

Once you name a mood, a few things become possible. First, you have more choice. Given this mood, what actions do or don’t make sense? Is this the right time for a challenging conversation? If I don’t stop to check in with myself, I am much more likely to plow through reflexively than act consciously, reflectively. I am more likely to drift “below the line” in the language of the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. (For more on that concept, here’s the link to one of my favorite short videos of all time.)

As part of our practice at the Strozzi Institute, we would do a mood check and then, right away, engage in an activity that was physically vigorous for a couple of minutes. We’d then do a second mood check. The words we chose to describe our moods would, more often than not, change. Becoming aware of mood gives you a chance to shift or generate moods—and, as this exercise demonstrated—rather quickly. A quick walk, a tiny bit of physical activity, a few breaths–any of these can be enough. My personal go-to between coaching sessions practice is either to take a 3-5-minute walk with the dogs or, during this past rainy Los Angeles winter, doing one of the online Zumba routines I’ve discovered. The latter, especially the Bollywood ones, have turned into a rapid, fun way to shift my mood (and no one has to see me!)

Another benefit of a mood check is that it’s a way to expand your emotional vocabulary. When I lead this process in a group, I “forbid” the moods “good” and “tired” and insist that people dig deeper, search more. I do this for myself as well. Naming emotions is a powerful way to build one’s emotional intelligence—in Daniel Goleman’s model it falls in the quadrant of self-awareness. And, it allows for a granular, ground-level self-awareness that supports our capacity to move from awareness to self-regulation—which is the next quadrant of emotional intelligence.

Doing regular mood checks isn’t difficult—like most simple practices, the hardest part (at least for me) is remembering. An app like Mindjogger can be helpful. Program it to ask: “What’s my mood?” several times a day. After a few days, keep up the practice either with the reminder of without. If you do keep a reminder, change it up so that you don’t just ignore it when you see it. If you’re a parent, consider adding it to your conversations with your kids. Encourage creativity, make it a game—it can be a good vocabulary builder–and do it yourself as well. If you add the second question—”What’s telling you this is your mood?” you can build your somatic literacy and help your kids develop it at an earlier age as well. Two birds with one stone!

Our moods are a window into our soma—our whole self. Our capacity to show up, day after day, and face the increasingly complex challenges of leadership (and life) can grow as we learn to tap into the wisdom within us. A practice like a mood check can help us in more profound ways than we might expect of something so simple.

So, start practicing. And, as you practice, notice what happens. How does naming your mood support you? What does it give you access to? Be patient. At Strozzi we were often reminded that it takes 300 practices to begin to embody new practices and 3000 to do so fully. So, it might take time and repetition before the learning emerges.

And there’s more…

Since returning from my sessions at Strozzi I’ve started all calls (especially group ones) with a mood check. I’m discovering that it’s the fastest way to create connections between people when time is limited and the group is too big for doing longer check-ins. The other day I was meeting with a group and we did a mood check. It was our first session together. The mood check revealed that everyone was distracted, stressed and overwhelmed (and this was AFTER a centering practice!!) Turns out the following week was a major marketing event and this group was almost entirely marketing people. I hadn’t known that in advance, so the mood check gave me data that allowed me to gauge the group within a few seconds. We collectively decided to reschedule the session—it wasn’t going to serve anyone to be on this particular call in this particular moment. That decision was made and a new date found within less than five minutes. The group was appreciative–they felt heard. So—if you lead a team, the mood check is also a source of data for you and can allow you to assess where the group is in a given moment and how you, as a leader can best move forward.

Ready for more? Here’s the next in the series.