Your team member falls into your office. They are emotional. Something has happened and they need to get it off their chest. You know that you just need to give them the opportunity to vent.
During that venting process, there is a lot of blaming, regret, frustration…but at least they are getting it off their chest. You look at your watch, an hour has passed, no sign of letting up, and you are feeling like crap now…the negative energy is contagious.
So here’s the thing…venting is not useful.
Yes, we have been taught that it is necessary and of value, but my belief is that it serves no useful purpose.
- It wastes valuable time that could be focused on moving to a solution or resolution – like when you stuff around getting ready to go somewhere, then are late and miss it anyway, so why did you bother – nothing gained.
- It reinforces the issues by going over and over them – like a child over-doing the colouring in to the point where the paper tears
- It reinforces and extends the emotional experience associated with the issue – by keeping it alive, even taking it to new levels of negativity – like when you use a magnifying glass to use the sun to set an ant on fire (no I never did that – someone told me about it).
So why do vent?
- It feels good. It feels like problem-solving. But it’s not.
- It alleviates stress and tension in the moment, but not long term.
- An inevitable sympathetic response makes you feel better, like you are not alone.
I believe there are two things that are really happening here. Firstly, the ventor is avoiding the effort and accountability associated with owning the situation and owning progression to a solution i.e., they want to pass the buck. But most importantly…
‘People vent, whinge and blame because they haven’t felt heard!’
If you have a team of ventors, or whingers, or blamers…begin with taking the time to let them feel heard. Here are three steps you can take to help them feel heard and then redirect their energy to more useful places.
- Validate what they are saying, but ‘shrink wrap’ it into factual, manageable chunks – ‘So what you are saying is that John didn’t deliver for the third week in a row’
- Focus on their emotion, not the content – ‘I can see that you are disappointed in this outcome.’
- Redirect their focus – ‘So what is it you need to do to move beyond this…’ or ‘So what is the thinking you need to do, or action you now need to take so this situation changes?
You will find your own language around this, just follow the general approach.
Sometimes it’s useful to get back to basics.
On a daily basis I hear of the motivation and engagement challenges that leaders face. We live in an evolved, sophisticated social world, yet our brains have not evolved at the same rate and are still designed to survive and respond in a relatively primitive social world.
All humans have a one-track mind.
The fundamental role of the brain is to ensure the perpetuation of the species …
which is, actually, just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. To achieve this important goal your brain does two things:
it seeks to protect you from threat
(anything that might lead to your death or disablement), and
it seeks reward
(anything that will keep you alive and thriving).
When you are in ‘threat’ mode (i.e., checking to make sure everything is safe) your capacity for logic, creativity, seeing possibilities and being open-minded and curious is significantly inhibited. Your brain will instruct all non-essential functioning to go ‘on hold’ till the threat is managed or gone. It’s like a fire alarm or bomb threat in a high-rise building…until the ‘all clear’ is given, all non-critical work and activity (ie, except for getting people out of the building and making sure all is safe) is abandoned.
BUT…the circumstances that impact our perception of threat have changed significantly. The brain does not distinguish between physical and psychological or social threats – they are treated with a similar ‘threat’ response in the brain.
Primitive threats tended to be more physical and included …
- wild animals
- crazy neighbours with spears
- commonly occurring famine, floods and drought
- abandonment or ostracisation from the tribe which potentially led to no food, water or shelter.
The more common threats we experience today in a country like Australia tend to be more of a social nature and include…
- social or contribution rejection;
- discrimination, loneliness, embarrassment and humiliation;
- changing goal posts and the rate of change;
- lack of control over our work environments;
- financial insecurity;
- social media jealously (everybody looks like their life is better than mine);
- high social expectations and the impact of media on our sense of ’normality’ and our ability to achieve that normal (i.e., driving a fab car, huge house with a pool, looking like a model) and so on.
The problem is that the definition of ‘threat’ is ‘anything that is not expected’.
Think about it…how many times in a day do you experience something you didn’t expect? How many times do things not go to plan? How many times do you and others react in ways you didn’t predict? And as a result, how much time and energy in your day is channelled into making sure that these potential threats check out to be ‘ok’?
The answer: more than is useful in terms of us remaining productive and engaged. Way too much time in our day is ‘wasted’ on responding to the calls from our primitive brain. Until we feel physically and psychologically safe, we cannot function to our potential or learn or adapt.
The solution: we must understand and learn how to manage and change our habitual responses and shift to more useful ones. This is where taking a neuroscience approach to leadership can help.
The role of neuroscience is to explain behaviour in terms of the activities of the brain. And we now understand our ‘operating system’ so much more, and indeed enough to understand that we can influence and evolve it’s primitive processes to be more aligned and useful in today’s sophisticated social world.
Leading well requires mastery over the one-track mind. Mastery over one’s own mind, and the skill to support others to a level of awareness around their own primitive responses.
This is about increasing our human skills – our understanding of how humans are really motivated, how they tick. We need to bring back some substance into our leadership.
My thoughts around developing Leaders of Substance are outlined in this video.
The capacity to diagnose and respond effectively to a lack of psychological safety – in self and in others – is now a critical leadership skill. If you are not playing in this space…it’s time to at least take a look.
As a leader you spend 80% of your time in conversation. Many leaders severely underestimate both the power of good quality conversation in getting things done and improving performance…and also how very ordinary we are at it. Here are five myths about business conversations that need to be busted!
Myth 1: I am good at communication and conversations
Conversation is a skill and an art and very few of us are taught how to use conversation to get the very best from the brains of others. Our role models and habits, not to mention the pressure of time and energy also mean that we resort to ‘telling and instruction’ as the predominant means of communication over a work day. The brain does not like being told what to do – even when an individual asks you to ‘tell’. When people are told or instructed – even if they ACCEPT and ACT ON the instruction, they will not OWN the outcomes.
Myth 2: What people say is the truth
Truth in itself is a myth. There is my truth, and your truth, and the version of truth that makes sense. People lie, for all the right reasons. Cognitive bias colours and filters the truth. Our past experiences and behaviours create the unique ‘wiring’ that drives future behaviour, and it’s not always based on an objective reality.
Myth 3: People know what they want
When I begin a coaching engagement, more often than not my ‘coachee’ arrives with their clearly documented ‘3 goals’ that they wish to achieve from the coaching. It usually only takes about 20 minutes to uncover that beneath those goals are some very different goals. We tend to think and exist on our ‘surface’ and it takes effort and skill to help people to delve beneath the surface to find out what people really want and need. But if you can, the rewards are plentiful.
Myth 4: Emotion is destructive
We avoid emotion, particularly emotion that we categorise as ‘negative’. There is no such thing as positive or negative emotion, it is our interpretation of emotion that categorises them. It is much more useful to view emotion as valuable data that can guide us to know the truth (see Myth 2) of what is going on for us. Learn to embrace and regulate emotion rather than avoid and suppress it.
Myth 5: Conflict is not productive
Conflict (in its useful form) is not only productive but necessary. I prefer to refer to conflict as Deliberate Debate and I specifically teach this in my Rewired Teams programs. If your meetings are a round robin of ‘sharing’ updates, then you are either missing a great opportunity for creative thinking and problem solving, or simply wasting precious time. The process of challenging and stretching our own thinking and the thinking of others – of not accepting at face value what is put forward (see Myth 2) and of leveraging off the thinking of others is the critical missing piece in many teams.
Five more myths to come in my next blog…
Have a nice day!
Yes, I read the books and yes, I’ve seen the movies. Moving right along…
I talk a lot. Often about myself, but more often than not about my plans, what I want to achieve, the next adventure I want to go on, or the next task I need to conquer. I’m a raving extravert so what happens on the inside, is totally expressed on the outside without much filtering.
My father will on occasions jump in and comment “It’s just all about you, isn’t it Michelle!”
Well, yes. Why wouldn’t it be?
But from my perspective it isn’t JUST all about me. It’s about an internal drive for perfection and achievement. It’s about appreciating the privilege of the life I have and making the most of it before I die. It’s about showing my kids what life can offer and giving them the confidence to be themselves in the world. It’s about so much that only I, who lives inside my head, can appreciate and understand.
To the outside world, I may possibly (no probably) appear a bit narcissistic. Making it all about me is not my intention, but it can certainly be the outcome from the experience of others.
The biggest mistake we humans make in conversation is that we become conversational narcissists. We make it all about us. Our intentions are good, but the impact can be quite different.
Now the problem here is that this is not only common and normal, but it is how we have evolved (or in this case, not evolved). Our survival instincts drive us to make it all about us – it’s how we are wired.
Unfortunately, it’s a major barrier as we come to understand more about the human brain and its motivating forces of threat and reward.
Are you a conversational narcissist? See how many of these you can tick…
During a conversation, have you ever thought to yourself (or out loud)…
☐ I know what they want/need…
☐ My idea is better…
☐ There is an obvious answer here…
Or have you ever said…
☐ Why don’t you just try this…
☐ What I would do is…
☐ Why haven’t you…
Or do you…
☐ Set and lead the agenda in meetings, or in a conversation for that matter…
☐ Assume that your team or colleagues have understood your instructions or requests… (only to discover later that they didn’t)
☐ Assume that your team or colleagues have the same goals or desired outcomes that you do… (only to discover later that they don’t)
Or even more importantly, have you been on the other end of a conversation or meeting where…
☐ Nobody asked your opinion or thoughts, or when they did, they didn’t take the time to dig deeper or understand your perspective
☐ You wasted your time because nothing in the meeting was of value to the issues YOU are currently facing
☐ You left the conversation thinking “Well, that was all about them!”
If you have ticked a few of these then you have engaged in, or been the victim of, well-intentioned conversational narcissism. Your drive to get things done, or to help others understand or achieve, overtakes the critical skill and process of supporting others to engage in quality thinking, to self-motivate and engage, to discover, learn and grow for themselves. You may also be missing out on valuable alternative perspectives or ideas, or preventing a useful challenge to your own one-sided thinking and perspective.
Leadership is about conversation, and we need to get it right.
You must begin to notice your conversational narcissism and deliberately move to a place of conversational humility – characterised by conversational curiosity! You don’t, and can’t know it all, so take some time to ask.
Here are 5 shades (sorry, not enough page space for 50 – but the book is coming!) of conversational narcissism that you might find yourself falling into, and a few tips on what you can do about changing it.
Conversational GREY – the AVOIDER
It all feels too hard, so you just sit in the background, agree, say little and avoid rocking the boat. You are scared to evoke emotional responses that may make you feel bad or challenged – defensiveness, anger, sympathy, embarrassment. You may even ‘beat around the bush’ a bit and avoid saying directly what you really want to say…sound familiar?
This is experienced by others as passive aggressive behaviour and they will experience much frustration.
Conversational RED – the REACTOR
You take everything personally and react to what has been said based on your past experience, your values and your future goals – none of which are known to others. When the conversation doesn’t go your way, your response is to walk away, or begin to just ‘tell’ so you can move on…sound familiar?
This is experienced by others as an inability to listen and they will give up trying to engage with you.
Conversational BLUE – the RESCUER
You are good at what you do, so when others are struggling, you know you can get it done faster and better yourself, so you take it on.
This is experienced by some as distrust or by others as an opportunity to pass the buck and take it easy. You will find yourself with too much to do and not enough time to do it.
Conversational GREEN – the HELPER
You are a great listener, and when others are in pain or experiencing difficulty in working through something, you want to heal the pain and just ‘save them’. You have a million different ideas, suggestions and solutions that you bombard them with. You feel great knowing that you have saved another soul from the depths of despair…sound familiar?
This is experience by others as confusion and overwhelm and they will feel more helpless.
Conversational GOLD – the PLEASER
“Yes” “I totally agree” “Really, she did that??” Relationship building is important to you, but your desire to connect deeply with others and be accepted into the ‘tribe’ can lead you to be a YESer.
This is experienced by others as weakness – or if they have narcissistic tendencies then you are simply feeding them! Nothing gained.
In all these shades, you are making the conversation about you – be that protecting yourself, defending yourself, or making assumptions about what others need or want from a conversation. Conversational narcissism shuts down thinking, fuels defensive responses, creates apathy and wastes time.
AND…you find yourself feeling like you are doing everyone else’s job for them, and you are frustrated by the lack of self-accountability and engagement in your team. People cannot NOT be engaged when they are doing the thinking and the talking – so change up the balance in respect of those two things.
So…start making conversations all about others…it has to be all about…THEM!
- Be a conversational facilitator not a consultant – trust that others know what they want or need from a conversation or meeting and ask them.
- Let others make the decisions about a conversation or meeting – What to focus on? What the outcomes need to be? How long to spend?
- Let others do the thinking – What is your perspective? What would be the best outcomes for you? What other perspectives or stakeholders should we be considering?
- Allow others to road test their solutions, even when you know it might not work
- Ask others if they want feedback from you, don’t just give it. And if the answer is yes, then ask what specific feedback they would like and how would they like you to give it.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t express your ideas or needs as well, but only AFTER others, and only if relevant to who has the responsibility for doing the thinking.
Essentially, a conversation needs to work for THEM if you are to get what YOU want – so ultimately, it comes back to being all about YOU anyway. Give these ideas a go in your next conversation or meeting and see what happens…