Thursday, April 09, 2009

The secret life of excuses

As I write this I am sitting in first class on a United Airlines 777, on my way back from training over 350 great people at Cal State Fresno (with deep appreciation to my brother John, an alpha frequent flyer, for the upgrade). So I'm having a rare chance to stretch out, literally and figuratively, with my thoughts for a couple of hours.

So where are these thoughts taking me? Right now, to an interesting exchange with some of CSF's key service leaders, a very talented group, during this morning's coaching skills program. Among other things, I had a role-playing simulation where one person who chronically comes in late to work holds forth with every excuse in the book, while the (poor) other person is asked to do nothing but acknowledge and validate what the other person is saying.

The late person, ably played by CSF's associate director of financial aid, weighed in with a truly world-class litany of excuses while the other person gamely acknowledged everything he said. ("You're right, children sometimes do take a long time to get ready to leave." "I hate it too when I get caught in traffic and then get a flat tire.") Then the first person closed in for the kill by saying, "And worst of all, my boss is always getting on my case about how often I'm coming in late. I don't see why it is such a big deal." Finally caught off guard, the other person could not bring herself to acknowledge this directly - which is exactly what I wanted to show people as a teaching moment.

You see, I will validate people all day if I need to - even when they make statements like this one. My response would have been something to the effect of, "No one likes to feel they are constantly being criticized." I would have taken direct aim at the other person's concern - which, by the way, I violently disagree with - and hit it right between the eyes. This person would see that I knew exactly how he felt, and that it was safe to talk about it.

This exchange stirred up some great questions from the audience. For most people, talking like this to someone who comes in late - or is rude to customers - or makes a pain in the anatomy of themselves - feels like drinking poison. To the uninitiated, it feels like you are being a buddy with someone who is behaving badly and accommodating them. But you aren't. Instead, you are gaining power in a situation where most people have very little power.

The reason lies in how we process language. Each of us has an instinctive friend-versus-foe reflex that is an instinctive survival trait. So when you criticize people who do bad things, you almost always get an equal and opposite reaction. But when you acknowledge and validate them every time they open their mouths, they process this language on the "friend" side of their brain and can't argue with you. Which completely takes the wind out of their sails when you finally set expectations with them. Compare these two exchanges:

Most people's approach:
Larry Latecomer: Wow, the traffic was so bad today, there was no way I could make it in on time.
You: That isn't good enough. You are expected to be here on time each day.
Larry Latecomer: Look, you have no idea what it's like to commute from where I live in East Timbuktu. Or be a single parent and get three kids off to school. Or have a sick dog. Or ...

My approach:
Larry Latecomer: Wow, the traffic was so bad today, there was no way I could make it in on time.
Me: That sounds terrible. Traffic is often hard to predict, especially with a long commute.
Larry Latecomer: Sounds like you've been there before.
Me: I have. And I respect how hard it is in situations like this. Meanwhile, here's what were dealing with: most people come in late, on average, once a month. You come in late roughly three times a week. And I can't have different standards for people, or it would impact morale. Where can we go from here?

Which of these two people are more likely to get Larry to actually change his behavior, instead of just getting defensive or "yessing" you with no performance change? I'll betcha that I do. All you have to do is change how you respond in a way that, for most people, feels about as natural as hanging by your thumbs. But once you see how well it works, you'll never, ever go back to the old way.

I didn't just make this approach up. It's based on concepts of strength-based psychology that are sweeping the way we communicate, all the way from psychotherapy to major league coaching. If this example whets your appetite to learn more, check out my new book How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, available for pre-order now at all major online retailers. Meanwhile, I'm about to land - talk again soon!

1 comment:

elsie said...

This is one of those keepers, makes sense. Thoughtful responses make all the difference, don't they?