Leaders Clear the Air – second in a series

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Last week I wrote about the need each of us has from time to time to clear the air, to get something off our chest that is creating stress for us, and likely diminishing trust, enthusiasm and collaboration for work with a key colleague – or friend or family member.

In that first blog, I recommended two essential preparatory steps: (1) Value yourself enough to raise an issue; (2) And realize it is YOUR issue . . . at least until you find a way to share it. Onward to a formula and its deep rationale:

There is  a rather secret formula.  I learned it from my wonderful mentor, M.A. (Mary Ann) Hastings.  It is SO EASY to explain and remember, yet so challenging to do well, because of the way it runs against a deep grain in the wood of our nature. So, for today, I will introduce it and then explain the heavy work required to execute it against that human grain – that powerful tendency both in ourselves and in the recipient of our feedback.

The simple formulation:  I … feel/felt … when you… because … (or IFWB for short):

  1. I
  2. Feel (or felt) . . .
  3. When you . . .
  4. Because . . .

A simple example can help.  I explained this formulation, then begged my 70 undergrads for an instance where I had “triggered” someone in class. A student courageously came to the front of the class and addressed me:  “I felt disappointed, when you didn’t show up for lunch, because I had moved things around in my day to meet you, and because I was really looking forward to getting to know you.”  Exquisite job!  Look at why, and how we often don’t follow this formula.

Hearkening back to last week’s steps. First, he valued his feelings and experience enough to share it.  I’m sure I’d offended others (hopefully inadvertently), but he had the courage to step up.  Second, last week I suggested, “It’s your issue,” and so he owned it.  He didn’t start by saying, “You stood me up.”  Or, “You were inconsiderate.” He started with “I.”

Second, he expressed a feeling.  He didn’t say, “I think it was inconsiderate of you.”  Or, “Teachers act like their time matters more than ours.” He shared his feeling:  disappointed.

Third, he was specific about the behavior:  I didn’t show up.  He didn’t characterize, “You say you really care about students, but your behavior doesn’t show it.” He didn’t lump me in with others, “It’s amazing how professors grade class participation, but they can blow off a meeting.”  He didn’t even say, “It hurt that you blew me off.”

Fourth, his because statement had a perfect hook, he was disappointed, he said, because he “was looking forward to getting to know” me.  I call it a hook, because there was something for me in it. There was an implication of a desire for (a good) ongoing relationship.

This may not seem like a magic formula, but here’s why it is.  At a deep instinctive-feeling level, each of us wants to be protected, safe in my skin, and also wants to be in relationship.  So when person A feels hurt or afraid and says so to person B, the latter is almost always going to feel that person A is attacking them.  Now, both feel hurt!  And the conversation can so easily spiral downward.

Take the most simple example, repeated thousands of times a day:  he’s driving and changes lanes quickly; she feels frightened.  It’s the most basic understandable instinct-feeling in (animal) life: the self-protection impulse is triggered.  She says, “why are you driving crazy?”  He feels . . . attacked, because his most basic instinct is to protect, and she’s saying “you’re not a protector.”  At least that’s what he hears.  So, he says, “I’m fine. In fact, I’m a great driver!  You’re the one with the problem. Chill out.”  Peel away the self-justifications and rationalizations and you’ll find this loop of  insecurity and resulting defensiveness at the bottom of almost all interpersonal conflict.

The magic of the formula is that you build in three keys to a safe and positive conversation.

1.  You know you need help, and you own this.  This takes courage and practice and practice. It is so much easier to say, “I would be fine if it weren’t for you (you bad driver, or you bad passenger). You are to blame.”  It’s harder to say, “I’m good, but I’m a little hurt, scared, confused, etc., and I’d like to see if you can help me out.”

2. You try to talk about behaviors not their character, not characterization.  It’s so tempting to say, “Why are you men so crazy behind the wheel?”  Or, “You make us late, then you drive like a madman.”  These characterizations, rather than statements of specific behaviors are so easily taken in as attacks, prompting counter-attacks.

3. The hook at the end clearly implies that you matter to me, that there is a “we” here that matters.  “I look forward to getting to know you.”  Or, in the infamous example, “I feel nervous when you change lanes quickly…because I know you care about our safety and I know you don’t want me to feel unsafe.”

We’re all insecure.  Drivers are insecure (their inner critic tells them they take crazy risks sometimes).  Passengers are insecure (they have no hands on the wheel and no feet on the pedals).  Students are insecure (they know the teacher can grade them down).  Even professors and bosses are insecure (they worry that you’re talking behind their backs, to their bosses, etc.).  We’re wired to want security, so our defenses are so easily triggered.  And when we “complain” or “accuse” or “give feedback” we can trigger insecurity in the other.

Clearing the air requires some wisdom, some magic, and a whole lot of practice.

Next week: Even magic formula feedback doesn’t always do the trick.  More ju jitsu then to

Lead with your best self.