I was in a kick-off meeting on a new project that took an unexpected turn.
My team was sitting at a very large conference table − six of us if I recall correctly − overlooking the river and expansive cityscape. I was enjoying my decaf soy latte while we made small talk with our client; by the way, small talk is a recommended approach to breaking the ice with a new client, actually with any team members. In one recent study I recently discovered that using small talk with groups reduces social distance, that feeling we have of emotional disconnection with our colleagues, mainly when we don’t often see them. Also, small talk encourages social sensitivity and cohesion. So back to where I was. In the room with us were 9 stakeholder-clients, and joining via video conferencing was the remainder of our client’s leadership team, including the executive sponsor. We had a lot of people in this kick-off meeting but I didn’t think much of it; we were starting on a large-scale effort. So to get things started, our Lead introduced the project, scope and schedule. He turned it over to me and I began outlining our research activities and outputs within the design process.
And then out of nowhere…
Without warning the client’s domain lead “Ansel” raised objections. She had doubts about the validity of our approach. Actually, I knew she thought the approach was inappropriate and it really concerned her. I’m pretty good about intuiting these things (i.e., felt emotions). She asked, “How is this approach really valid when…?” I sensed a growing tension in the room as our conversation flow took a detour. You could have heard a pin drop and (oh yeah) all eyes were on me! The tricky part of being in the spotlight in such a situation is the human tendency to do one of two things. Freeze for an awkward period of time, or worse in my opinion, blurt out the first response that comes to mind to appear as if you’re in control of an out-of-control conversation. Okay, now what? As I was rapidly thinking through the right response, “Maybe we can talk about that offline in a separate meeting,” (a deflection and somewhat dismissive), or “We have time to modify our approach,” (yet another deflection and a cop out), I knew I had a better way to acknowledge her concern and briefly address it with the leadership team.
Take a different slant…
Diffusing a tense situation when you’re put on the spot requires a certain focus. For starters, avoid the natural tendency to view it as a confrontation or a personal judgment. This mindset only serves to make us respond defensively; we almost don’t have a choice to act this way because it’s wired into us. I am learning from Mindsight by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a fascinating book by the way, that overreacting revs-up the limbic area of our brain (fight or flight) and that’s not helpful. It’s his understanding that, “…when we go down the low road, moving directly from limbic impulse to speech and action…we flip our lids.” So through my lens I saw this as a just another problem to be solved, with no need to knee jerk react. As consultants we solve simple and complex problems for our clients all the time. With the right mind sight, I used a simple 3-part framework to get to the heart of Ansel’s objection, outlined in Rapid Problem-Solving with Post-it® Notes by David Straker.
- What am I trying to achieve?
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I needed to know where I wanted to go. My goal was reducing doubt about our research methods and getting the meeting back on track.
- What is the real problem?
Before I could suggest a solution, I needed to draw out Ansel, a skill I’ve developed as a researcher, to clarify, develop and refine information. Drawing people out is a go-to technique for me, and there are different phrases I use to paraphrase someone’s statement, and then ask that open-ended non-confrontational question: “Can you say more about that?” “Can you give me an example?” Another go-to is simply, “How so?” I needed to make sure I had the core of what she was trying to convey, so I asked, “Help me understand, what matters to you about that?” Her response indicated two things to me. One, Ansel had not seen the proposed research methods so it caught her by surprise. Also, her background in market research framed her idea of design (user-centered) research.
- What is the best solution?
Moving forward, I realized our team needed to ensure Ansel stayed informed about decisions as we were considering them − not after they were made! And while she was the domain lead, Ansel was not directly involved in designing the new solution and I felt for her. As Dr. Siegel says, “my own internal state shifted to come to resonate with the inner world of another.” From that point on, one of my priorities was reinforcing “attuned communication” (i.e., social engagement and sensitivity) with her and the leadership team. And, I took a few minutes during the meeting to explain our approach to user research. Ansel was intrigued but not completely on board so I followed-up with her and the larger team with supporting materials, and we added an additional low-budget research activity into our plan.
Being mindful does not come naturally to me, although being aware of the need to be better attuned to colleagues and clients does. In addition to having a ‘framework’ to use to diffuse tense moments and practicing attuned communication, I am learning to be more mindful of “staying clear and focused in the face of storms from both inside and outside” of me. Dr. Siegel labels it emotional balance, feeling alive and at ease and not out of whack. Further, I’ve learned that taking a pause before I speak or act (“a temporal space between input and action”) helps keep me focused on one train of thought, it actually retrains my brain (i.e., see neuroplasticity) and it is an important part of social intelligence. Siegel refers to it as response flexibility.
Take the high road
So what would you do if you find yourself taking the low road with a client or colleague? Imagine the next time you want to be more mindful. Start now to reflect on what happened, but more importantly reflect on what was going on inside of you at that time. And, practice mindfulness as openness – recognizing restrictive judgments and releasing your mind from them. We need to sense things clearly and closed-off thinking inhibits us from doing this.
Also, to avoid reacting a certain way try disengaging from the automatic tendency you have learned. You will find that when you do this, you’re more observant of the “larger frame of reference” that broadens our perspective moment to moment. And finally, to avoid being swept away by emotions, practice objectivity (i.e., discernment). Don’t forget that a present situation, no matter how serious it might seem, is merely temporary and it doesn’t define you. As Dr. Siegel points out, “Our awareness of awareness is a powerful skill that can liberate us from the prison of automatic reactions.”