Moving From Theory To Action

To support you in reflecting on your “no”, here are some reflection questions:

-How did my background (culture, gender, race, socio-economic status, education, work history, personal experiences, etc.) influence my relationship to saying no?

-To what extent can I appreciate how this perspective was trying to keep me safe?

-What are the risks and costs to saying and not saying no generally?

-From the voice of my inner wisdom, what do I want to remind myself the next time I want to say no?

To say no to a specific request:

-What is the yes, behind the no? For the sake of what do I feel I need to say no to this?

-What do I want to say/have them understand? (although “No.” is a complete sentence, so you may choose not to say more.)

-What might be my opening lines?

-How can I prepare your body to be centered (vs. tense, rigid, collapsed, etc.)?

Why Saying No is Good

This time of year always seems particularly full: work projects to be completed before summer begins in earnest, end-of-school activities, yard work and planting that needs tending and gorgeous weather that calls me to go outside for a bike ride, walk, or a casual drink with a friend. “Can-do” attitudes are admired at work and at home. Saying “yes” when someone asks you for something makes you a team player, an ideal employee, and an all-around productive human being. But in deeper reflection, maybe it’s doesn’t?  Taking on too much, losing priorities and trying to be something to everyone can not only leave an individual exhausted, but can compromise our personal capacity as well as the capacity of an organization.

This year at the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility conference, I co-presented a workshop on “Why Saying No is Good for Business.” Learning how to successfully navigate a “no” and communicate more honestly and effectively when given a request is an essential skill for everyone wanting to create balance and focus both in work and in life generally.

The first distinction I want to offer comes from Fernando Flores, an Argentinian professor, entrepreneur, politician and management consultant. He created a model on types of conversations, including Conversations for Action. In it, he asserts that there are five possible responses to a request, not just two, “yes” or “no”. (And many people, especially at work, may think that no isn’t an option, so there isn’t really much choice).

Responses to a request:

Request for clarification -For many of us this step is critical. I think I’m not alone in having said yes, and then realizing I don’t really understand what was asked for me, or it turned into something much bigger or different than I expected.

Ex: “I’m not completely sure what you’re asking for. Could you give me more specifics of the changes you want to see in this month’s report?”

Accept – The tricky thing here is for your “yes” to truly be a “yes.” Align your word and actions. When we say “yes” and then don’t follow through, it breaks trust and puts our integrity into question.

Ex: “Yes, I can do that by 4pm today.”

 Decline -Many people think that a “No” isn’t allowed or appropriate, but if we don’t say no to active requests sometimes, then we may be saying no to things that are actually more important to us. If I say yes to every non-profit board request, I’ll be at meetings most evenings, and then I’ll in effect be saying no to family dinner. Getting clarity around your “yes” behind the “no” can give you the grounding and energy to be willing to give the uncomfortable “no”.

Ex: For a tech-savvy person who gets asked to solve everyone’s computer problems: “I’m sorry, I know I’ve helped you with that before, but I really think you need to ask someone in IT about that.”

Counter Offer -This is helpful if you want to say yes to at least part of it, but you have other constraints or considerations. What I appreciate is that it’s more honest than making a promise you can’t keep. People would rather have the truth than to have you say yes, but then not fulfill. Counter offer is stepping into a negotiation to find common ground on what works for both of you.

Ex: “Sorry, I can’t get that to you today. However, I could get you a draft before my meeting starts at 2pm. Or alternatively I could get you a finished draft by 10am tomorrow.”

Promise to commit -For those situations when you just need a bit more time to process and consider the request, promise to commit offers a pause button to center and consider what you really want and can do. I often invite people who tend to be “automatic yes’s” to master this strategy.

Ex: “I need to check in with my supervisor first. Can I give her a call and get back to you in an hour?”

What I appreciate about this model is that if offers me more choice and agency in responding to a request.

That said, applying these strategies isn’t necessarily easy. Social context matters. This is the deeper aspect of understanding why no can be so difficult and why we all won’t just go forth with the above-mentioned suggestions. We need to recognize that our backgrounds and experiences are going to have a profound influence on how much agency we think or we have to say no. As an example, generally speaking, women are “supposed” to be helpful and kind- and saying no goes against the norm, and thus may carry greater negative consequences. One’s positional power (boss makes a request of subordinate) or social context-cultural upbringing, race, social status, education, etc. will all influence our relationship with “no”. What is the fear behind saying no? All of this comes into play. It makes it more complex than we’d probably like, but it needs to be considered when we enter this topic. See below for some more reflection questions.

Book Review: The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

By: Michael Bungay Stanier

 A client raved about the impact this book is having and I want to share it with you. It’s a highly pragmatic book that offers a clear structure on how to have coaching conversations with your subordinates that will have impact. It is based on seven basic questions:

 Question 1: “What’s on your mind?”

Question 2: “And what else?”

Question 3: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”

Question 4: “What do you want?”

Question 5: “How can I help?”

Question 6: “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”

Question 7: “What was most useful for you?”

This is one of those cases of simple doesn’t equal easy, otherwise we could just end here. In the book the author helps you understand why these question are so powerful, how to use them in a work context, and put them into practice (this is the hard part). A great read and reference to have on your management shelf. And when I think about it, my sense is that these questions would really work at home, too!

Moving From Theory To Action: Rethinking Critical Feedback

To support you in preparing for giving critical feedback, here are some reflection questions:

 –What is my mindset going into this conversation-how do I remind myself that feedback is my interpretation and not necessarily a fact? Where can I be curious? Can I hold that I might not have all the information?

 –What does this person care about that would make the feedback important for him/her to want to know? How can I frame this conversation from that perspective?

-Who am I in relation to this person? What is my level of power? How can I be responsible for my social context such as race, gender, age, etc. in offering this feedback?

-What is my mood right now and how can I put myself into a frame of mind that will be helpful? Is the other person in a mood to be able to listen? What is the mood I want to create in through this conversation (shame, blame, accountability, possibility, empowerment)?

-What is my first sentence to “enter” into the conversation in an honest, straightforward way?

Taking Apart the Feedback Sandwich

I have been working with several individual coaching clients recently on improving their coaching skills with staff. One aspect that always comes up is how to give critical feedback. One of them told me recently that she is known for her sandwich feedback with one of her subordinates in particular. (He’s the one who struggles the most). The standard format of the feedback sandwich is praise-criticism-praise. She said that whenever she gives him a compliment he now jokes and asks what it is she really wants to say to him. The sandwich isn’t really having the impact it is supposed to. He doesn’t really hear or believe the positive acknowledgement because he knows that the meat of the conversation is coming, and then doesn’t really hear the compliment on the other side because he’s thinking about the critical feedback and knows that the praise is just designed to soften things anyway.

That said, the sandwich approach to feedback, “praise-criticism-praise”, is a well-known strategy in management training. For those who are giving feedback, many believe it feels a bit easier to “soften” the negative feedback by adding in some positives. Some people think it will give balance to the feedback, and others think it’s easier for the recipient to hear it when presented this way.

Roger Schwarz in his Harvard Business Review blog, “The ‘Sandwich Approach’ Undermines your Feedback” offers an alternative view. To summarize:

  • “Easing in” to sharing negative feedback can actually increase discomfort and anxiety for the person giving the feedback as the longer one talks without giving the negative feedback the harder it can become. This may also result in the recipient sensing the discomfort and becoming more anxious themselves.
  • In his work with teams interviewing direct reports, it turns out that almost all say they want just the meat-not the bread on each end. It undermines trust.
  • People learn better when receiving feedback, positive or negative, in a timely manner, so rather than holding positive feedback for a time when you need it as a part of a “sandwich”, offer it when it happens. Employees report not believing the positive feedback anyway if it’s presented as a part of a feedback sandwich, so to increase one’4ts trust, authenticity and transparency, offer the positive separately from the negative feedback.

So what’s a better way to approach giving negative feedback than serving a lukewarm, stale, overdone sandwich? Try two things. First, don’t assume that you necessarily have all the facts. Sometimes you can start with an open-ended question—“Bill, I heard that the client was unhappy that you didn’t get that to her by the deadline. Is that right?” Maybe you don’t have all the information.

Furthermore, a mind shift may be helpful for you in giving negative feedback. We try to soften it with a sandwich, and sometimes dread giving it, because we worry that it will hurt them and our relationship with them. But if you can identify what they care about and anchor your feedback in that, then you’re not hurting, you’re helping them with their goals and helping them to improve.

Not easy, but certainly worth trying if it might have a deeper impact. Let me know what you learn!

Book Review: Change Anything

By: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

 This award-winning team of writers does it again. What I like about Change Anything is that it breaks down how we make change happen from six main sources: 1. Love what you hate- learn to like the changes you make; 2. Do what you can’t- learn the skills through deliberate practice in order to make the changes you want; 3&4. Turn accomplices into friends- we all have people in our lives who sabatoge our best efforts- turn them into supporters. 5. Invert the economy- by bribing yourself and raising the cost of bad behavior you can actually get yourself to act in ways you want 6. Control your space- use the environment to become an ally for the change you want rather than a barrier. It’s an engaging book, with good examples and really breaks down the change process which will increase your likelihood of success! (Their book Influencer does the same thing in an organizational context).

Moving From Theory To Action: On Planning

To support you in moving toward action, here are some reflection questions based on the recommendations by Richard Wiseman:

1. What are the benefits to me of taking on this goal? How will my life be better?

2. How can I break down this goal into manageable steps? What are some realistic dates for completing these dates? What is one action, no matter how small, that I can take today?

3. After looking at this concrete timeline, what are small rewards I can give myself to celebrate milestones along the way?

4. How will I track my progress? Visual calendar? Phone app? Handwritten journal? (set this up now)

5. Who do I want to tell about my goal, and what are the specific ways people can support me in reaching it? (accountability partners can be very helpful).

Moving From Theory to Action: Curious vs. Convinced

To support you in deepening your curiosity with those who hold different views from you, I offer some questions reprinted with permission by my friend and colleague, Howard Ross. These come from his company’s resource guide: Inclusive Responses in Times of Fear. See this and other resources on cookross.com.

 1. How do you feel about people who think differently than you about this?

2. What are you afraid of? What is more inspiring to you than fear?

3. How can you engage in these conversations authentically and whole-heartedly? What might get in the way?

4. What are you committed to? How do you see your role/contribution in any conversations or actions?

5. What is your desired outcome for these conversations?

Curious vs. Convinced

I’m going to go out on a limb and talk about politics. This presidential election season has been hard for me. The name calling, rudeness, and divisiveness of this campaign has me disheartened, and I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. I just can’t wait for it to be over. The major media outlets including The Huffington Post, The Atlantic and even Fox News are writing about how to manage election stress. It feels like the negative election energy is seeping into our pores, and to try to prevent that, we armor up and get rigid in our views and stay in our camps of righteousness in order to not feel the fear, and the pain of not understanding one another. Yet I don’t want to harden myself against half the population. That feels like a very high cost to us as a nation, and I’m in the inquiry of how to hold my dignity and the dignity of others through this election period.

“I’m right, they’re idiots” is what it boils down to in our political dialogue, not only with the candidates but also how we look at our neighbors, colleagues and family members who disagree with us. Recently I’ve been thinking, “Where do I go from here? How do I get out of this righteous mindset?” Rather than convince myself more that my side is right, how might I open the door to curiosity instead? Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (click to his fascinating 19-minute TED Talk) offers a path of understanding. He explains that reasoning with others doesn’t work because our beliefs are based more deeply than that. He asserts that there are six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Republicans and Democrats vote based on these moral interests, and how they weight each in importance tends to define their vote.

For me, this premise helps me to be a bit more curious and less judgmental. Fundamentally, I believe that fear is a prominent driver in our life, as our brains are hardwired to sense danger and to protect. And if we fear that our moral values are at stake we will fight to protect them. In this case, fighting is the rhetoric we hear in the election arena. But instead of fighting the Other, if I can understand the fear behind others’ view I can then find a place where I can connect with them– what do they fear losing? What are the values they hold dear? It doesn’t mean I’m negating my views, but for a few moments, it allows me to pause and connect with their humanity and mine. Haidt’s research helps make it more concrete for me.

This topic feels risky for me to put out here, and as I reread it, I know that I risk being misunderstood, or considered preachy, naïve or something else. But ultimately I want to share the value in upholding the dignity of all, which is sometimes lost in the Red versus Blue war. If it serves as one small drop in the well toward understanding and healing, then it will have been worth it.

Book Review: Everyday Bias

By: Howard Ross

Howard is a dear friend and colleague, and I am glad to have the opportunity to share this book with you as it delves into the neuroscience of our own bias and how to work with it in a work environment and our personal lives. This book is filled with powerful examples and research on unconscious bias that draws you in and gets you more curious about how our mind operates.

From sports, to healthcare, music, and power in our society, Howard navigates us through these charged topics without shaming anyone, and offers ways that we can individually and organizationally begin to explore and work with our bias. It’s an eye-opening book that leaves me hopeful in times when we need it. Sending a prayer for the victims of Orlando and the countless numbers of those before them. May we each contribute in some small way today toward creating a more caring and kind world.

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