One of the traps people fall into on teams is withholding information that’s critical for the team to function. Sometimes the information is about friction between team members. When team members don’t have a way to talk about small frictions, they turn in to big events, damage relationships and spill over onto the team. So here’s how to have one of those difficult conversations.
Not long ago, a developer approached me for advice about a problem team member. The developer reported that one team member was causing resentment, alienating other team members, and generally making life difficult for all. No one wanted to work with him.
“What is he doing to cause all this?” I asked, wondering what sort of wildly dysfunctional behavior was going on to cause these problems.
The answer surprised me. “He picks his nose,” the developer said.
“He picks his nose? Have you talked to him?”I asked.
“Of course,” my developer friend replied. “I talked about the importance of manners at our team meeting. And I talked about how we all had to be careful about spreading germs.
“He still picks his nose,” he continued. “It’s gross. The only thing I can think of is to start picking my own nose to see how he likes that.”
Nose picking is an unattractive habit. But the real source of this team’s problem isn’t nose picking. The real problem is that team members don’t know how to have an uncomfortable conversation—peer-to-peer.
How to talk about a difficult subject.
Remember, the over-arching goal of feedback is to improve working and social relationships. When you think of it that way, it’s easier to find a respectful way to deliver a difficult message.
Use “I” language.
Talk about what you see, and what you feel. Start your feedback with a sentence that starts with “I,” rather than with “you.”
Describe what you have seen and heard.
Stick to the facts of what you have seen and heard. Describe behavior rather than applying a label. For example, “Yesterday in our team meeting I heard you call Sara an idiot.” rather than “Yesterday you were rude.” Labeling the other person only puts him or her on the defensive.
Own your own feelings about the situation.
Some people advise using this formula to give feedback: “When you do X, I feel Y.” But this construction implies that one person is the cause of another’s feelings. No one else can make you have feelings. To remove the implied cause and effect, you might say, “When I hear you call Sara an idiot, I feel like you are disrespecting her,” or “I want to tell you about something that you do that’s a problem for me.” Then describe the behavior.
Talk about the effect the behavior has on you.
People often don’t realize the effect their behavior has on other people. Explain (briefly) how the behavior you are talking about effects you. Explaining the impact gives the feedback receiver information so they can choose what to do with your feedback. If there’s no impact, then a request seems arbitrary. The conversation could start with “When I hear you call Sara an idiot, I feel like you are disrespecting her. I worry that you talk about me that way when I’m not in the room.”
Make a request.
Most people don’t like to be told what to do, even by a peer. (Telling someone what to do implies that you are not actually peers.) Ask for joint problem solving to work out a different way to work together. But there are times when you want a particular behavior to change or cease. Then make your request clear: ”I want you to stop calling Sara and our other co-workers idiots,” or “Please check with me before you commit my time to a meeting.”
Don’t sell past the close.
Sales people warn about “selling past the close.” Selling past the close happens when the prospective buyer has made the buy decision, but the sales person keeps selling. This breaks the relationship because the buyer feels pressured and senses that the sales person isn’t actually listening to him. And there goes the sale.
The same think can happen with feedback.
It’s helpful to prepare what you want to say–as it is in any situation where you feel anxious. But don’t just stick to your script. Pay attention to the other person, and listen to his response. When he signals that he’s gotten the point, zip it.
If you open with “Laura, I want to talk to you about the meeting yesterday,” and she responds “Oh, it’s about how I interrupted it you…I’m so sorry, let my enthusiasm carry me away. I know I do this, and I’ve asked Sara to help me monitor myself….” Stop. She’s got the point and continuing your feedback message won’t help your relationship. Sometimes the feedback receiver gets it at the description, or when you state the impact (“Oh, I didn’t know my speaker volume irritated you. I’ll turn it down.).
Don’t expect an admission of guilt or contrition. Often, people need time to absorb what you’ve said, especially if this is the first time they’ve heard about a problematic behavior. And after all, the feedback is about you, not the Truth about them.
It’s not always easy to give feedback. I still feel anxious when I prepare for a difficult feedback conversation. I have almost always found that the pre-conversation anxiety is worse than the actual event. And the pay off for having the conversation is well worth the effort.
So what happened with the nose-picker?
I advised the developer to have a private conversation with the offending team member. “Give him the benefit of the doubt,” I said. “What if he’s unaware he’s picking his nose? It may be an automatic habit. And even if he’s aware he’s picking his nose, he may not be aware of how if affects you and other people on the team.”
The developer agreed reluctantly, and we worked out a little script. Here’s what he decided to say to his nose-picking colleague:
“Joe, this is really awkward for me. I want to tell you about something that you do that’s a problem for me.”
“I’ve noticed that during our team meetings, you pick your nose.”
[Pause and wait for a response. This may be all you need to say.]
“When I see you picking your nose, I feel worried about you spreading germs. My reaction is getting in the way of our working together.”
[Pause and wait for a response. This may do it.]
“Would you please stop picking your nose while we’re working together?”
The next week, he reported back.
“You’ll never guess what happened,” he said. “You were right, he wasn’t even aware he was picking his nose. But it was really awkward,” he continued. “He was embarrassed but he was also grateful I told him. I guess I shouldn’t have waited so long.”
It is hard to address interpersonal and work issues directly-even when the issues aren’t as awkward as someone picking his nose. Respectful feedback can improve working relationships. And handling issues directly keeps little irritations from growing into major divisions.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Stickyminds.com.
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