One more thing as sure as death and taxes is conflict. And conflict almost always involves strong emotion. But it involves something else as well. We all know (because we've been there many times) that when we take a position on something, we invest a lot of ego energy in it. And most times, if we're honest, we just plain can't understand how anyone could view the situation any differently than we do. It takes a lot of ego strength to see someone else's point-of-view when it contradicts ours. Faced with some realities of raw human nature, let's map out a strategy for handling people deftly in those situations, where their egos are on the line. To do this, we need some philosophical and psychological underpinnings—some ideas that will sustain our strategies in ego-threatening moments.
The Real Truth About Human Beings
First, we need to acknowledge some uncomfortable realities about human nature.
Some people have maintained that human beings are logical creatures. For the life of us, we can't understand where they get this idea! Human beings are the most emotional, irrational creatures on the planet.
We see this playing out first and foremost in our own self-perceptions. In our PSSP "Closing the Communication Gap" at http://www.talk2cei.com/ezine/archive/vol2_num3_workplace.htm, we cite three cases of major gaps between how a person sees him or herself and how that person is perceived by others. Invariably, in every case, the person assesses him or herself higher than warranted.
For instance, one of the hardest things for people to do is to say "I was wrong." A good working assumption about this aspect of human nature could go like this:
People never think they're wrong. Even when they are wrong, they are right in their own eyes.
The great human relations expert, Dale Carnegie, encapsulated this idea best when he advised, "Never tell a person he or she is wrong." The fact is, however, that on occasion, we do have to tell people they're wrong, especially when their being wrong will cause negative or disastrous effects. This need to be right is so inbred in our species that we are going to need to find a way around this issue if we're to gain cooperation with others.
The real trick is telling people something they don't want to hear, yet not offending them. Memories of embarrassing criticism often last a lifetime. There's an expression we use a lot at CEI as we discuss some of these touchier areas of human communication. It goes like this:
People may forget what you've said. They may even forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel. [See our PSSP "They'll never forget how you made them feel." (You can read a full treatment of this at http://www.talk2cei.com/ezine/archive/vol1_num1_workplace.htm)]
Think about it. Will you ever forget the slights and taunts from your childhood? Those awkward moments as a teenager? The scorn of a colleague? The pain of a divorce? Or on the positive side, the public praise of a loving teacher? A friend's comfort in time of loss? None of us ever forget these emotional moments. And there's always communication involved.
This is heavy sledding. This view of humanity makes for some genuine obstacles in communication. The person who can overcome them will truly come out on top.
Where Your Ego Meets the Road
Here are some prime situations where a person's ego can most readily be compromised.
1. Giving criticism
When giving someone criticism, our own emotions scream to us to really unload on this person. "Give 'em the straight story. Don't pull any punches. After all, they must see the error of their ways!" And if we do this, we can be pretty sure about the reactions we'll get. What we won't get, usually, is a change of behavior.
How, then, should we go about correcting people without jeopardizing their self-image? First, frankly, we need to acknowledge to ourselves that it's aggravating when people hold ideas or do things patently in error, but won't admit it. So when confronting someone whose views we need to contradict, we'll first need to get our own emotions under control.
Jan and I have created a 7-step method for giving criticism that accomplishes exactly that. [For more information on our approach to handling criticism, see our PSSP article "Navigating Through Pivotal Conversations" at http://www.talk2cei.com/ezine/archive/vol2_num2_workplace.htm.] Through those steps, you get to confront people with their undesirable behaviors but in a way that's acceptable to them. In most of the steps, you spell out the specific behavior or behaviors you want changed. But in step 4, you inject a face-saving statement that wards off a defensive response by the criticizee by guarding her ego. If the issue is a staff member coming in late, you might say, "I understand how bad the traffic can be at that hour of the morning." If a report is consistently turned in after the deadline, you can say, "We all have a lot on our plates." In step 6, you offer help and support. For the first example here, you could say, "I want to work with you to achieve a win-win situation." In the second example, you might ask, "Is there any way I could help you get the reports in on time? Maybe by using technology more effectively?"
Cardinal rule: to guard their egos, never criticize someone within earshot of anyone else.
Other rules are:
- Don't triangulate. Just confront the person whose idea you want to change, no one else.
- Don’t compare the person’s behavior with that of others.
- Don’t talk about other people’s motivations when giving criticism.
2. Offering an opposing viewpoint
Here is where disagreeing without being disagreeable comes in. Following these steps can "guard their egos" when you need to openly disagree with someone.
Step 1: Find something in Person A’s comment that you relate to or agree with, such as the overall goal you both share.
Your colleague, Sue, is strongly promoting cost-cutting, but is advocating eliminating part-time positions, which you consider essential. You need to find some other way to trim costs.
Step 2: Begin your comment by affirming something about what Person A said. "Sue, you're right. We've got to cut back on expenses."
Step 3: State your opinion by starting a new sentence without using “but.”
It's the great verbal eraser and should be avoided at all costs. "Sue, you're right about cutting costs. I want to caution us, though, about relying too heavily on reducing our part-time FTEs. Let me tell you why."
Most importantly: Build rapport with the person before you respond.
Always remember: feelings come first, logic second. As mentioned before, we're creatures mostly driven by emotion. If people don't believe that you generally agree with them, they won't be open to your alternative solutions.
3. Raising a negative publicly
This is one of the most sensitive of all conflict situations. In front of others, a person's ego is really on the line.
Take this example. Your colleague, Joe, is advocating an approach on a project he has been empowered to start. In spite of mounting evidence that shows his approach to be seriously flawed, he clings even more tenaciously to his position. You decide to help Joe "see the light." No frontal assault will do. He'll just grab on harder. Here are some things you can say to Joe that just might get him to open his mind to alternative solutions.
"Joe, I really respect your dedication to the project. We share the same goal: make the project a success. I just want to check a perception. Do you see any downsides with this approach?"
The Ultimate Key
If there's one method for guarding most people's egos most of the time, it's a technique we call
Affirming and Validating
In this method, you always look for something a person is saying that you can agree with. It may be actual agreement ("I totally agree with you. We need to solve this problem right away."), emotional support ("I don't blame you for feeling so strongly about this issue."), or agreement on higher goals ("We're all trying to achieve the same thing."). You may not find just the perfect response to someone's behavior, but affirming and validating will work virtually every time. It's the best method going for helping preserve someone's self-respect, while, at the same time, giving you a chance to turn things around.
We have a belief at CEI that if you knew you could handle any communication situation that comes up in your life, your self-confidence would overflow, and your results would be astonishing. The beliefs and techniques we've covered in this PSSP should help you do just that!
Yours in good communication,
Jan and Neal Palmer