Monday, March 23, 2009

Dealing with Pinocchio

Last month I did a session of my How to Tell Anyone Anything program for a great group of people on the East Coast. Later, over lunch, one of my hosts posed a fascinating question to me: what do you say to an employee who isn’t doing his job well, and then lies about it when you try to discuss it?

I responded without hesitation with an answer that made everyone choke on their tuna sandwiches: validate the liar. People immediately had stunned looks on their faces as they turned to me and asked, “Really?”

Yes, really. But I'm not asking what you think. I am not suggesting that you agree with people who lie. Nor am I asking you to imply that lying is OK. I am just asking you to dispense with trying to "catch" the other person, at least at first, and validate (e.g. acknowledge) how they are saying they see an issue.

Just answer the following question, and then you tell me: Imagine the last time you told a white lie. What would have gotten a better outcome from you: someone catching you in this lie and making you squirm, or being a little more gentle and focusing on the real issue? I thought so. And guess what, the same thing is true with the people you deal with.

You see, one of the fundamental principles I teach in How to Tell Anyone Anything is that you can never successfully criticize anyone. The minute you start putting someone on the defensive or calling them out, you’re toast. That’s why my book focuses on starting in a safe place, asking questions, validating the other person, and then discussing even very tough situations factually instead of emotionally. It feels like sucking on a lemon for most people at first, but once people see in live role-playing how incredibly well it gets people to buy in and change their behavior, they’re hooked.

But even so, the idea of validating a liar seems a little wild to most people. So let's walk through a couple of scenarios:

Scenario 1:
Peter Pinocchio: I haven’t been able to get work done because my co-workers keep asking me to help them. (Note that his nose is growing longer.)
Supervisor: That isn’t true. I see you talking about sports all day with people, while everyone else is trying to get their work done.

Scenario 2:
Peter Pinocchio: I haven’t been able to get work done because my co-workers keep asking me to help them.
Supervisor: So you feel that you are getting interrupted a lot, and it’s keeping you from getting your work done. Given how important this project is, what can we do to make it easier for you to finish it?

Which of these two scenarios is more likely to help Peter meet his deadlines and build a productive working relationship with you? And which one is more likely to lead to sullen compliance, bitterness, and more excuses? Ring-a-ding-ding.

Now, are there times you really shouldn’t validate a lie? Sure. When they are big, fat lies that cross important boundaries , or when chronic lying is the issue itself. When someone lies about how much money is in the company account, for example, you have my blessings to dispense with strength-based communication, if not call the police. But for everyday white lies and performance issues, trust me on this one - you ultimately need to use lots of empathy and validation if you ever want anything to really change.

Meanwhile, do you feel stuck dealing with employees who won’t cooperate and won’t be honest with you? Get in touch with me at gallagher -at- and let’s talk. I can help you – and that’s no lie.

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