“What did he say?” Bill (not his real name) was eager to find out what his partner had talked to me about. Bill and Abe (not his real name) were in the middle of a fight that threatened the productivity of their employees and gave the whole company and uncomfortable edge – even their customers had picked up on the tension.
“He is open to an engagement to facilitate your board meetings” I responded.
Bill and I had been introduced by his attorney because the attorney could not get these two partners talking and he knew that I did facilitation work. In the weeks preceding my conversation with Abe, Bill and I talked about the power of facilitation and the way it could help he and his board overcome the gridlock they were in. Bill had been consistently open and optimistic about the potential of facilitation – that is until I reported on the results of my conversation with Abe.
Bill jumped from calm and measured to intense and angry, “He’s not sincere – he will tell you anything you want to hear. It’s his pattern. I won’t continue this charade of change. I need to buy him out and get on with things.”
“Bill,” I queried, “Abe sounded pretty sincere to me. He asked probing questions, wanted to know how facilitation had worked in other organizations and expressed his own frustration with the gridlock. Why don’t we engage a face to face and define what facilitation looks like for your company and what objectives we need to hit?”
Bill continued his tirade about Abe. What I didn’t tell Bill was that Abe had spent the first forty-five minutes of our conversation expressing his frustration with Bill. These two men fell into the same pattern of offense, accusation, counter-accusation, and rejection in every conversation they engaged. I wondered what had started this down-spiraling pattern that now held each of them prisoner to their own silence about what they needed. In fact, it was their silence about their need that was most astonishing to me in the face of their loud protests about the suspected motives of the other.
Is there a way out of a toxic conversational pattern? The answer is yes, but with some significant conditions.
First, will you stop and recognize that the pattern that emerges in every conversation is predictable and toxic? Employees in Bill and Abe’s company told me that they could predict each board meeting’s conversational pattern. They actually had a pool on the side that predicted when the conversation would go off the rails and they could recite the “script” that Bill and Abe used on each other when the meeting decayed into hostility. It was the same script every time with very little alteration. People “addicted” to anger and one-up-man-ship, like an alcoholic, must first admit they have a problem. Once a person is willing to see that the toxic communication pattern is their problem, not the problem of their nemesis they take the first healthy step – they break the pattern.
Second, will you be vulnerable enough to talk about what you need from the conversation? It’s interesting to me that Abe insisted that he told Bill in every meeting that he needed real numbers to make sound decisions. “Abe,” I responded, “may I give you some feedback on that?”
Abe looked at me askance for a moment and then agreed, “Ok” he said.
“You don’t ask for what you need, you accuse Bill of massaging his numbers to manipulate the decision,” I replied.
“Yea,” Abe retorted, “I can’t make strategic decisions with numbers that I know don’t include realistic sales forecasts. I need clear cost analysis and projected gross profit that takes into account our history and the current market conditions. I tell Bill in every meeting this is what I need.”
“Abe, do you see the difference between a request for specific parameters and an accusation that Bill is trying to manipulate the meeting?” I asked. “Listen to what you just said, you don’t tell Bill what you need you tell Bill his numbers are wrong. He defends his numbers, you show him your numbers and the conversation disintegrates from there.”
“Ah,” Abe reflected for a moment, “I think I see what you mean.”
“Abe is the problem the numbers or is the problem that you don’t feel Bill respects your expertise and perspective?” I asked.
“Geese Ray, where do you get that?” Abe responded.
“You told me that in our last lunch meeting,” I replied.
Abe’s eyes turned to the carpet and he grunted. “Humph, I hate talking with you.” He looked up, “I need to think about this.”
Third, exercise low-level inference rather than high-level inference listening skills. How much do you infer from the verbal and nonverbal communication you receive? Low-level inference doesn’t “read into” what is said, rather it asks for insight into the reasons something is said or done. High-level inference assumes an understanding of unstated motivations and intentions. If a listener cannot listen to understand rather than listen to respond and if they assume they understand unstated motivations – the conversation rapidly disintegrates into a volley of accusations and counter accusations.
Will these three skills resolve embedded and toxic communication patterns? No, but they are a significant first step to that end. When practiced they open the door past conflict to communication where the real work begins. Can toxic communication patterns change without these three skills and the decision to employ them? No. Without these first steps, the organization will limp along toward its ultimate demise while it sheds its best talent and misses its best opportunities while the principals in the conflict continue their charade of power.