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Smoothing Harsh Edges


December 2006

When a leader gets feedback about being “abrasive,” he seeks help from his coach. They discuss a tool called “Talk To Be Heard.” Adopting this communication style smoothed his harsh edges.

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December 2006

Smoothing Harsh Edges

Tom Henschel

When the same word crops up over and over in someone’s feedback report, it’s arresting. The one word that cropped up repeatedly for Ahmad was “abrasive.” I understood why. Ahmad was absolute.

“That was the best training ever,” he said about a seminar he attended.
“She’s the best assistant in the whole company,” he said of his boss’s aide.
“Those meetings suck,” he said of the weekly staff meetings he sat through. “They’re all a bunch of blood suckers,” he said of a sales group.

Whether he spoke high praise or complete dismissal, Ahmad was all or nothing. Black or white. Right or wrong.

Because of his extreme positions, his personal interactions were contentious. He’d say, “How could you think that? That’s ridiculous.” Or “Don’t be stupid. I would never do anything like that.” Or “Of course they’d think that. They always say things like that about me.”

When I reflected his right or wrong style back to him, Ahmad said, “I’m passionate. That’s the way I am!”

“Yes, it is the way you are, Ahmad,” I said. “And the feedback is telling you that it’s not getting you the results you want. People know you’re smart but they don’t much like working with you. This is becoming career limiting.”

Coaching often forces a client to decide whether sticking with old behaviors is a bigger liability than the discomfort of changing. Ahmad took three sessions before asking how he might modify his style without losing his passion. At that point I introduced a tool I call Talk to be Heard.

Talk to be Heard blends confidence and humility. It shows that you recognize your thinking is just that, your thinking, not the only way to think. It lays the foundation for open dialogue which, in turn, leads to trust.

By contrast, an “all or nothing” position creates conflict by implying, “Agree with me or you’re wrong.” When we display “right or wrong” thinking, people become defensive. It’s ironic that as our style becomes more forceful, we often become less persuasive.

Talk to be Heard changes, “The fact is,” to “In my opinion.” “Everyone knows that,” becomes “I’ve talked to three or four Directors who think…” “It’s clear to me,” becomes the more inquiring “I’m beginning to wonder if…”

One of the hardest adjustments for Ahmad was to understand that all the “facts” that were so obvious to him were not at all obvious to others. His “truth” was actually just his experience. When he said, “Jack is so out of touch he wouldn’t know an opportunity if it bit him,” he believed it. But not everyone believed it. Jack, for one, didn’t. Neither did Jack’s boss. Or Jack’s team. But Ahmad really did.

I wanted him to be able to confidently say what he felt while acknowledging that his experience of Jack might be different than the experience of others. Ahmad worked on crafting an alternative sentence for a long time and finally came up with this sentence: “It’s been my experience that Jack often leaves a lot of money on the table.” If asked, he was prepared with examples. More importantly, he was also prepared to listen to what other people thought about Jack. His willingness to accept that his experience was not a grand universal truth was a huge shift for Ahmad. Suddenly he was not abrasive.

Before you think that Ahmad’s case couldn’t possibly apply to you, try to recall a discussion when you felt strongly about something. I’ll wager you moved pretty quickly to an all-or-nothing, absolute, superlative, right-or-wrong way of speaking. Most of us do. It’s hard to hear this behavior in ourselves because it tends to happen when we’re caught up in the moment. And when we’re doing it, it feels strong and assertive.

Talk to be Heard is very well explained in the indispensable book, Crucial Conversations. Kerry Patterson and his three gifted co-authors say be tentative, not wimpy. Wimpy, to them, is when you add a disclaimer to your statement that diminishes what you’re saying. “Call me crazy but…” or “I know this probably isn’t true but…” They urge you to use language that says you’re sharing an opinion, not that you’re a nervous wreck.

They go on to illustrate the Goldilocks Test:

Too soft: “It’s probably my fault, but… “
Too hard: “You wouldn’t trust your own mother to make a one minute egg!” Just right: “I’m starting to feel like you don’t trust me. Is that what’s going on here? If so, I’d like to know what I did to lose your trust.”

Talk to be Heard moves you away from being right and moves you into being heard. A very persuasive place to be.

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