When a colleague drives you nuts

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The following blog post is excerpted from my new book Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly.

Martin loved his new FitBit. And everyone in the office knew it. Co-workers adored Martin. He was friendly and outgoing and a dependable colleague. And in the past 12 months, Martin lost over 50 pounds and became very focused on his health. He had another 30 pounds to go to reach his goal weight and he was very motivated. The whole office was incredibly proud of him. And then he got a FitBit and began tracking his steps.

In his role as an account manager, he spent most of his workday on conference calls with clients and colleagues in other locations. Once he began  wearing his FitBit, he became  obsessed with getting as many steps in each day as he possibly could. He began taking his conference calls on his headset while walking around. If his work area had been all offices with closed doors, that might have been fine. But Martin worked in a sea of cubicles. As he walked up and down the cubicle hallways on his conference calls, he talked. Loudly. Coworkers were distracted as they tried to focus on their own work, amidst the sound of Martin’s roving voice.

While complaining to others and ruminating about the situation are tempting, neither one will change the situation for the better. In fact, both can do damage. Ruminating reinforces the frustration and anger you feel about the situation, causing you to unnecessarily relive it and reinforce it in your brain. Not helpful. Complaining to others not only marks you as a complainer, there’s also a good chance your negative comments will get back to Martin and do damage to the relationship.

What should one do, rather than ruminate or complain to others? Approach the situation head on, of course. Let’s start with how you might use the head on approach with Martin, the walking, talking FitBit fitness fanatic:

“Martin, I know your health is extremely important to you and you must be very proud of the progress you’ve made in taking better care of your body. Your FitBit is a new addition to the mix  . . . and as you take your “walk and talk” meetings, you come by my desk frequently talking rather loudly. It’s distracting to me and is interfering with my work. Can we schedule some time to talk about it and come up with another solution that works for both of us?”

What situations with colleagues drive you nuts? 

Check out my new book Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly for more case studies and specific techniques for addressing difficult situations. 

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    Jon just received an offer for his dream job: a more challenging job (in a good way), a bump in salary and a plum location.

    The only trouble is, he enjoys working for his current boss Sarah, and he’s unsure how to explain that he’s leaving.  Hired directly out of college by Sarah, Jon hasn’t had to navigate a resignation conversation before.

    As Jon speaks with Sarah, there are two types of rules that will govern how their conversation unfolds. Constitutive rules help us understand how to create meaning. Regulative rules guide the behavior of the conversation and communicate what happens next in a conversation.

    Jon begins his conversation with Sarah by sharing how much he has learned from her in the five years he’s worked for her.  He mentions that she has been a role model in navigating office politics and securing resources.  Sarah must determine how to interpret Jon’s praise of her leadership (constitutive rule). She will draw on past experiences of being complimented on her leadership style and what those remarks meant (as well as her relationship with Jon) as she applies constitutive rules to make sense of what he means.

    “However,” Jon continues, invoking a constitutive rule that suggests Sarah will need to make additional meaning out of what comes next. “I’ve made the difficult decision to take a role with a new firm.”

    Sarah must compose some sort of response, governed by a regulative rule.  She may ask for more information about the new opportunity Jon is pursuing or if there’s anything she could do to persuade him to stay.

    As the two engage in the conversation and co-create their social reality, they will discover each other’s rule systems. Some rules they have known from working together and some will be discovered in this novel situation.

    While these rules are not spoken of aloud, they are constantly being negotiated in the moment, drawing on the life experiences and world views of the conversational partners, which may vary markedly. They may not agree entirely on the rules they are choosing to enact, but at least they can make sense of their conversation and what will happen next.

    What conversational rules can you identify – either constitutive or regulative – and how do they shape meaning making or turn taking in the conversation?

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    Doug and Jenny were at it again.

    Another staff meeting where Jenny and Doug were on the opposite sides of the same coin: Jenny, advocating for an engineering schedule that was realistic and didn’t compromise the health or safety of her crew and Doug, fiercely arguing for a faster delivery to their clients.

    It went like this every week in the project management meeting.

    Morgan, the project manager, had spoken to each of them privately just before the meeting.  They each shared a genuine desire to be more amicable and see the situation from the other person’s point of view before reacting.

    Publicly in the meeting, their behavior was nowhere near amicable. It was the same pattern repeating itself. Again. Their pattern was not one of sharing respectful differences.  Rather, their behavior was unprofessional and ego bruising, their words like daggers.

    Frustrated, Morgan spoke to each of them privately after the meeting. She had to get to the bottom of this disagreement before it put the project in jeopardy.  How could they have earnestly promised to comport themselves more professionally and then act like small children throwing sand in the sandbox?

    Doug and Jenny were caught in an unwanted repetitive pattern or (URP), a sequential and recurring episode of conflict that is considered unwanted by those in the conflict (not to mention those around them!).

    URPs develop because two people have fallen into a pattern or script that demands each of them to behave in a conflicting manner. Often, the pattern one person is following serves to fuel the negativity of the other and the other person follows a pattern of responding in a negative manner.

    Doug and Jenny, separately, both told Morgan “I couldn’t help it, I had no choice but to stick up for [the customer/the engineering team].”

    Doug and Jenny will continue to enact their URP until the script gets interrupted. Either one of them could deliberately choose to behave differently or Morgan could choose to structure the meeting and the conversation such that the URP doesn’t get a chance to take hold.

    URPs are difficult to stop and change. The first step is to identify that they are occurring in the first place. Where do you experience an unwanted repetitive pattern and how might you interrupt the script?

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    The six directors sat with Jim, their VP, brainstorming ways to get out of their latest technological dilemma. Several features on their flagship product would not work with the new database upgrade they were undertaking. The ideas were flowing, but the “breakthrough” idea that would solve their problem remained elusive.

    “How about re-writing the code in R?” Sharon asked, proposing they use a relatively new statistical programming language that’s particularly useful for visualizing big data.

    “Yeah right, like Rrrrr’s going to magically fix everything. Do you even know how long it would take to rewrite the whole thing in R?” Steven muttered.

    Sharon was at a loss for how to respond. The spirit of Steven’s comment broke from the collaborative nature of their brainstorming meeting. There wasn’t anything in Steven’s berating of her idea that was easy to respond to or challenge directly. Rather, the comment felt like a dig, and it felt personal.

    “What do you mean?” Sharon put forth, working hard to manage her emotions and not become defensive.

    “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” Steven shot back snidely.

    “Let’s take some time to think through the ideas that we put on the table today,” Jim said, curtailing a situation that was likely to go from bad to worse. “We’ll regroup tomorrow, same time.”

    Sharon left the meeting feeling defeated, both personally and professionally.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    What happened in the meeting? Steven broke the frame.

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    What frame, you ask? Well, every conversation has a frame, or a set of indirect and implicit messages – or meta-messages – that tell us what is going on.

    Framing, a concept developed by anthropologist and communication theorist Gregory Bateson, provides context. It gives clues about what we mean when we say something. Much like a picture frame wraps around a picture and provides a style for the picture (classic, antique, modern, etc.), a frame provides stylistic cues and meaning in conversation.

    The frame in conversation, indirect and unspoken, sends messages about what we think is going on and our attitude about the messages in the conversation.

    The initial frame in the conversation above had a spirit of collaboration and trust. Steven’s remark broke the collaborative frame.

    If you try to name a frame, you indirectly invoke another one. For example, when Sharon asked “What do you mean?” she questioned his changing of the frame. That provoked Steven and he went on the defensive, shooting back a snide remark. In effect, he was saying ‘How dare you challenge me and my reframing?’

    When we feel reframed by others, like Sharon did by Steven, there are two choices: accept the reframe or resist it.  In order to do either one effectively, we must recognize that a reframe has occurred. That means, we need to be paying attention to not only what is being said but also how it is being said.

    In asking Steven about the reframe (“What do you mean by that?”) Sharon challenged his reframe. In order to resist his reframe, Sharon could have said something like this (in a most collaborative tone): “Steven, thank you for keeping us grounded in reality. We do have to account for the resources of our potential solutions. Could you provide us with an estimate of how long it would take to rewrite the code?”

    In every turn of the conversation we are either accepting the frame or rejecting it and reframing. Listening for the frame can provide great insight as to the dynamics and the power of those in the conversation.

    When was the frame switched on you? What were the results?

    Share your thoughts in the comments.

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