In some conversations, you can feel that the other person is trying to outdo you by telling you what they know or what they think you should do. Are they being competitive? Or perhaps you are the person sharing information and you are sensing the other person is refusing to listen. Are they getting defensive?
Quite probably, yes and yes. Whether you are the person sharing or receiving, the difficulty with those conversations is that it is hard to get much value out of them. It’s hard to really connect with each other. We can feel irritated either way. Stress builds up to the point where you may even come to resent the other person. Either you stop talking or you stop listening.
Let’s be honest. Some of us tend to do one or the other most of the time, and all of us do it some of the time. If you can recall times when you have done both, you will also recall that you simply reduced your level of engagement with that person. It doesn’t feel good because it’s a big demotivator.
If you are sharing information, it’s likely that you hold great value in your approach and, on some level, the other person’s defensiveness feels unwarranted. It’s easy to feel disrespected.
If you are receiving the information, you might be feeling that you are being told what to do about something you feel is yours to own or decide on. It’s easy to feel under threat.
In a team, this is a high-risk behaviour on a number of fronts. It sets an atmosphere that is counter-collaborative, poor on trust, and ripe territory for behaviours characteristic of misaligned teams.
Your choice of words, your approach (enquiry vs telling, listening vs shutting down), your tone of voice and your body language amplify what you actually say. Whichever persona you find yourself being, here are some things to consider in these conversations:
1 – Are you respecting the right/freedom of the other person to determine how they go about the task, how they best learn, how they best lead or mentor, how they grow, how they contribute, or how empowered they feel?
2 – Can you truthfully say that this is how you share or receive information with everyone on the team regardless of their role or function or personality?
3 – Are you exercising self-control and patience in the conversation? Are you being the best version of yourself, without limiting the other person’s right to share information or right to self-determine their approach?
4 – Are you being mindful of the greater impact on the team by sharing or not sharing, or receiving or not receiving? Which is of greater importance to the team’s success: sharing of information or empowerment to do? Is there a middle-ground where both of you contribute in different ways towards an effective approach?
5 – Is your objective in conversations with team members to always build trust – a primary building block for collaboration? How often are you acting with intention and full awareness of the impact of your approach to the team as a whole? Or does your approach often lead to conflict or low-level counter-collaborative behaviour more widely within the team.
So, how do you get through a conversation like this knowing that it is critical to the team that everyone feels valued, has the opportunity to share their knowledge, and is able to exercise their choices with a large degree of autonomy?
For both people, the first thing is to notice. Notice when this is happening. The more you put energy into noticing, the sooner you will catch yourself in the moment and have a chance to course correct, in the moment, in future conversations.
The next thing is to articulate what you’ve noticed.
“Sorry, I realise this topic interests me and I’m getting carried away telling you what to do. That’s not my intention.”
Why would you say this?
It’s humbling and deeply refreshing when someone has the courage to catch themselves and to share that thought and observation of themselves with you. It’s impressive. It also has the effect of limiting damage to the relationship and building trust really quickly.
“Wow, you seem to have a lot of ideas about this topic. I wasn’t fully engaged with what you were sharing. Can we start again?”
Why would you say this?
It says that, yes, you may not have been in receiving mode but that you do appreciate them generously sharing their knowledge and experience. It also shows your agility in switching tack, overcoming your own emotional bias (which invites them to do the same, by the way), and quickly recognising “this is part of collaborating” for the sake of the work at the hand and the team charged with successful delivery.
You always have these options too:
- If you need more time to mentally reframe, agree to catch-up at a later date to discuss further – set a date and time there and then so the combined value is not lost. Say something like, “I’d like us to discuss this further once I’ve got a rough plan. When next week can we meet?”
- Take a quick break, get a coffee alone or together, to give yourself a chance to reframe and mentally get into the zone of brainstorming and sharing. While you are getting a coffee, take the opportunity to get to know each other better – don’t keep talking about the topic. Ask them about their weekend or family or what they do out of work. The more you connect on a personal level, the easier your conversation will be.
- Take the opportunity to tell each other how you each like to work or collaborate, or why this piece of work is personally important to you. Something like, “I like to share my experiences in the hope that something in there is useful to others – so-and-so did that for me and I always thought it was a generous trait… so I’m hoping to pay it forward.”
These are such critical skills in teams and it’s always okay to notice when our actions and our behaviour are off-track and not conducive to great collaboration, delegation, and people generally having a strong sense of purpose that propels them to give their best.