Estifania was thirty days into leading a large division of scientists and doctors. We were discussing her direct reports. In general, she seemed pleased.
“Except for Michael,” she said. “He’s already pressuring me to re-organize the division. Ha! I barely know where the bathroom is! As if I’m ready to think about a re-org. I think he’s going to be impatient with me. I move a lot slower than he does.”
“How do you imagine handling that with him?” I asked.
“The way I always deal with people like him. Flex my style.” She said, “Listen, Tom, I’m well aware that I am slower than many people. I am. So I have gotten used to flexing my style. But I can only flex so much.”
“Okay, so one thing you’ll do with Michael is flex your style a little. Great. What else?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want it to get to the point where I have to confront him, but it may come to that if he pushes too hard.”
“What would a confrontation sound like?” I asked.
“Oh, boy. Just thinking about it stresses me out. To be honest, Tom, I pretty much avoid those conversations if at all possible. I always have.”
We sat in silence a moment. Then I smiled, and asked, “Do you suppose Michael avoids confrontation?”
“I am sure he doesn’t,” she said. “The entire way he approached the topic of a re-org was, well, not confrontational exactly, but I’d say forceful.”
I raised my hands, one at a time. “So we have a direct report who’s comfortable with confrontation. And we have a boss who isn’t. Pretty different styles, I’d say.”
“Are you saying I should confront him?” she asked, eyes wide.
“No, I’m saying these are just different styles. I’m saying that I think it’s possible to talk about differing styles in a way that will help build the relationship, not undermine it.”
“Maybe in some idealized world. Not in mine. I really do not like that kind of conversation.”
“Because why?” I asked.
“Because I want people to get along. When they don’t, it makes me anxious. And my anxiety rubs off on others. They get anxious, too. The whole cycle is bad.”
“I understand, Estifania. I really do. I know that harmony is important to you. I’m just wondering if it’s possible to have this conversation and have harmony, too?”
“Possible? I’m sure it’s possible. But it’s certainly not anything my mother taught me,” she said with a laugh.
“Mine, either!” I agreed. Then, more seriously, I said, “I’m proposing a script for this conversation – a model you can follow to help you have a harmonious conversation about your different styles.”
“Really? Okay!” She adjusted in her seat as she shifted into learning mode.
The Style Script
I put up my hands, ready to make air quotes. “The title of the script is ‘Style.’ The script contains not even a hint of anything being right or being wrong. No person is right or wrong. No style is right or wrong. Style is style. It just is. We all have one. And some styles flow more easily together than others.”
“As I well know from my own life,” she said, good-naturedly.
“As we all know, right?” I said, with a laugh. “And that is the magic of the style conversation. Style conversations help different styles flow together more easily.”
Drily she muttered, “I’ll have to see about using this script with my sister.”
I said, “So let’s start with the trigger. When do you need a style conversation? The trigger I use most is when I notice I’m annoyed with someone. Someone is consistently late. I get annoyed. Someone consistently does not do what they say they will do. I get annoyed. And when I notice I’m annoyed, that’s the trigger. I say, ‘Wait! Before I start down some angry, blaming rabbit hole, let me try a style conversation.’”
She said, “Blaming others isn’t really my thing. Most often I think I’m the problem.”
“You know what? Style conversations can help with that, too. Maybe you could use that as your trigger. When you notice yourself thinking you’re the problem, try a style conversation.”
“Well, I think that way a lot of the time,” she said.
“Okay, then. Maybe this script will be an antidote. Here’s how it goes. You begin by creating two poles, one for each of your styles. You find the first pole – Michael’s pole – by starting with the irritant. So let’s think about Michael. What’s the irritant?”
“He thinks I’m too slow,” she said.
“That might be what’s irritating him about you. But what might you find irritating about him?”
“He’s impatient. And a bit forceful.”
“Great. Impatient and forceful. That’s what irritates you about Michael. That was step one. Naming the irritation. Now we have to take whatever that irritation is and make the name into something that adds value.”
“You’re joking!” she said.
Irritant becomes valued
“We’re following that script called ‘Style,’ right? ‘Style’ demands that both poles be aspirational. Neither of you is the hero or the villain. You both just have your own styles. So the script asks you to imagine how the irritant – which is what prompted all this in the first place, right? – sometimes has a positive impact. What do you think? How does Michael’s impatience and forcefulness add value sometimes?”
“It’s a little early for me to be sure about Michael, but I’ve known a lot of people like him. To be honest, even before med school, people like him have been tough for me.”
“So they don’t add value?” I asked.
“No! They do!” she protested.
“Like how?” I asked.
“Well, they speak up. I’m slow to speak up in a group. People like Michael have no fear of speaking up. So they raise topics that need to be raised. That adds value.”
“What else?” I asked.
“They make decisions faster than I do. Actually, that helps keep me moving forward. I don’t think those people know they’re having that effect on me, but they do. And I appreciate it. Most of the time. Well, some of the time. Some of the time it’s too much. I don’t like that.”
I nodded and said, “That’s a perfect understanding of style. Sometimes a style can be irritating and sometimes it can be great. What’re you going to call it when it’s great?”
She gave a thought, then spoke slowly, weighing it as she said it. “I think I’d still say ‘forceful,’ but in a positive way.”
“Okay, so on one pole we have ‘Forceful.’ To be aspired to! Now let’s shift to the second pole. Your pole. When your style is adding tons of value, what does it look like?”
“I make peace. I like people to be happy. I do that by solving lots of problems and working my ass off.”
“I’m just curious, as a side note. Would that describe you at home, too?” I asked.
“In a lot of ways, yes!” she said with a bit of surprise. “Being a peacemaker is really how I live my life.”
“Nice!” I said admiringly. “So you’re the peacemaker. That’s your pole. So we have our two poles. ‘Forceful’ and ‘Peacemaker.’ Now we add a continuum connecting them. These two poles are far apart,” I said, pointed in either direction with both arms stretched out fully. “But running between them, all the way, is a line. And you and I, in this script, are standing right on the mid-point. And in either direction is one of you. Neither of you is all the way out at the end, but you’re definitely on opposite sides of this mid-point. And out there with you are other people, too, because ‘Forceful’ and ‘Peacemaker’ are just styles. There are lots of other people who have that style, and each has their own place on the line somewhere. You with me so far?”
“I see how this is a helpful way to think. I really do,” she said. “What I’m waiting for is what’s supposed to come out of my mouth.”
The Script’s Sound
“Ah, the script! Okay. The script is dependent on you talking from the mid-point, not from your place as a Peacemaker. So the Estifania that is standing on that line somewhere is going to step off it and come to the mid-point, and invite Michael there, too. The two of you are going to talk about the versions of Michael and Estifania who, at the end of this conversation, are going to resume their places on the line.”
“What are you talking about?” she said.
That made me laugh really hard. “OK. Let me demonstrate. Here’s what the opening of a style conversation might sound like. ‘Hey, Michael, thanks for bringing up the re-org. I promise it’s on my radar. It may not happen as fast as you like, but it is not forgotten.’ Then he says whatever he says, and you talk about that. Then, at some point, you say, ‘Michael, I want you to know how much I appreciate working with someone who has your style. People like you really help keep me moving forward. And I’m going to trust that you will raise topics that need raising. You need to know that I do hear you even if I don’t always move as fast as you’d like. That is just my style. It’s how I am in the world. I promise I’m not trying to annoy you. And if I do, feel free to call me on it.’”
“Holy cow,” she said, “I would love to talk like that.”
“What did you like about it?” I asked.
“It was just full of appreciation. And self-awareness. And non-judgmental.”
“Talking from the mid-point gets you that,” I said.
“Plus it was completely optimistic. That makes the peacemaker in me very happy.”
“Oh, good,” I said. “I’m glad it sounds that way.”
“Is someone like Michael going to think it’s sappy as hell?”
“Actually, Estifania, I think there’s a directness in it that he might appreciate.”
“So the script is about saying, hey, I’m this way, that’s my style, and I’m okay with it. And you’re that way, that’s your style, and I’m okay with that, too. Is that it in a nutshell?”
Estifania reported that her style conversation with Michael was a little bumpy but ultimately productive. She was planning a style conversation with her sister, too. She was excited to find a script that so clearly helped her display The Look & Sound of Leadership.