A Tale of A Contaminated Relationship

The Story And The Problem

A recent professional experience with two brothers (David and Keith) in business together reminded me of the importance of ongoing, clean and clear communication. When this doesn’t happen, subsequent conversations and interactions become contaminated by emotion and confused by historical experience and expectations.

It began during a negotiation when older brother Keith demanded an answer to the question, “How much money should I offer?” As I probed further, I discovered that David had already given his recommendation with calm clarity. I should say that this was relatively new behavior for David. Keith had already disagreed with David’s answer, ignored it and persisted in demanding his answer again. David, believing this was another no-win situation with Keith, “shut down.”

Years of unresolved issues and emotions blocked Keith’s ability to even acknowledge David’s answer. This impasse was not caused by malicious intent or lack of intellect. In fact, Keith was oblivious to the fact that the conflict was not the result of an argument about this question, but due to the residue of years of ineffective communication, negative emotions, mistrust and lingering resentments between them. To say the least, their relationship was not “clean.”

Keith’s first challenge was to recognize the extent to which the lack of equality and mutual respect in their personal and business relationship was interfering with the execution of this simple business transaction. Unfortunately, his assumptions and emotional contamination rendered him unable to even “hear” David’s recommendation.

The Path To Resolution

When a relationship is years in the making, experiences are shared and varied.  We learn about each other’s personality, character, attributes and shortcomings. If serious issues and negative behaviors are not resolved, they collect and lurk in one’s unconscious — kind of like a pressure cooker.  As a reputation (positive or negative) is earned over time, we come to expect that behavior to continue: a default, so to speak. So it is not surprising that David’s recent new behavior would not be automatically taken seriously by Keith.

Fortunately, Keith finally realized that his determination to demand an answer (again) from David was really more about his own pain and frustration about their past experiences and his fear that things would never be different or good between them.

I think of this as getting “under the radar,” enabling folks to identify and address the real problem. Despite Keith’s genuine desire for a more collaborative and equal relationship with David, his assumptions and resentments made it nearly impossible for him to deal with David differently.

It remains to be seen whether these brothers will change the rules for how they engage with each other, professionally and personally. It is possible if they adopt willing attitudes, have patience and follow a few tips.

  • Listen actively! The purpose of communication is understanding.
  • Paraphrase your understanding of the meaning, even if you don’t agree.
  • Provide the freedom to be heard.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s perspective.
  • Identify and address the core issue.
  • Discover areas of agreement.
  • Know your intention: resolution, convincing or winning.
  • Recognize there are no guarantees.

And, the most important thing to remember is that everyone wants and needs to be heard – to feel valued.

Annual Women in Leadership: Work-Life Balance Conference

How do culture, religion, finance, and politics impact women leaders around the world? 

The Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology’s 4th Annual Women in Leadership: Work-Life Balance Conference will feature the visionary stories of women leaders in diverse locations and situations, facing different struggles, locally and globally. 

I am thrilled to be a presenter, along with many other engaging scholars and business professionals from all sectors. My presentation, “Manage Work-Life Tension with Clear Communication,” is scheduled for Friday, March 18 between 10:15 and 11: 45 a.m. I hope to see you there. For more information and to register visit bit.ly/WIL-2016 #GSEPwlb.

Candor In The Workplace: Good News, Bad News

A recent Wall Street Journal article* about the need for blunt feedback in the workplace got my attention. I immediately posted it on Facebook, hoping to start a conversation about it.

The writer’s premise? “It’s time for workers to drop the polite workplace veneer and speak frankly to each other, no matter what.” Referred to as “radical candor” or “front-stabbing,” it is believed to help employees “stop trying to be nice all the time and start speaking up about sub-par work or work-life balance.”


Here’s the thing. Transparency and candor in the workplace are absolutely good and important. The tangible and intangible costs of lack of engagement and collaboration within an organization are substantial. Unfortunately, candor and honest feedback can be destructive when used as, or perceived as, weapons.

Creating and sustaining an honest and transparent culture where individuals are safe to speak truthfully without doing or sustaining damage is the challenge. Most people understand how to recognize and resolve a problem. Many do not realize that respecting the dignity of others or repairing a compromised relationship is often at least as important as solving that problem.

I have no quarrel about the benefits of constructively addressing performance and conducting issues with open and honest communication. With radical candor however, employees are expected to defend themselves or change when confronted with a direct, painful critique of their ideas or behavior. While it is better to address someone directly and honestly, people need to believe in the good intentions of the person providing the feedback.

Even white lies are lies. Time for a little candor?
Even white lies are lies. Time for a little candor?

Accurate evaluations and comments are important for career advancement and personal growth. “Mokitas” — truths that everyone knows and are afraid to say aloud — are often used. Employees are encouraged to speak up and share them without fear of retribution.

Frank, truthful and honest feedback is a good means of getting things out in the open so people know where they stand — their roles and responsibilities, as well as their contribution to the enterprise. However, criticism without consideration of another’s feelings can be hurtful and destructive. Individuals need to trust the constructive purpose of the feedback in order to receive the critique as intended.

Honest, accurate feedback and critique are valuable commodities because we can never see ourselves as others see us — usually everyone sees us differently. Having the opportunity to repair, recover, learn and grow is priceless.

Of course, many subjects are controversial and need to be discussed. Individuals want to be heard, to at least have the existence of their interests and beliefs recognized. Resentment grows when employees feel intimidated, keeping their mouths shut about subjects that management decides are beyond discussion or dispute. The lack of transparency causes people to disengage, feel devalued and alienated, become distracted and stressed while sins of omission become commonplace.

Open dialogue shines the light of day on workplace conversations and relationships and inspires collaboration, commitment and loyalty.

* “When Nice is a Four-Letter Word,” by Rachel Feintzeig. Wall Street Journal, Thursday, December 31, 2015

“PinocchioProfile” by Mrkgrd – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Clear, Credible Communication

Would you choose to build your house on sand or on a rock? Since sand shifts and erodes, it’s clearly the rock that would provide a solid and predictable foundation.

Building on a rock won’t eliminate issues such as wind, rain and storms, but in most cases, your well-built house will withstand the elements.

In much the same way, a relationship based on a foundation of trust and consistency can also withstand and recover from storms of misunderstandings, disagreements and confusion.

Because mind reading is not possible, we need to rely on and learn how to communicate clearly and concisely with words and actions that are congruent and devoid of discrepancies or conflicting messages.

Also critical to a clear message that gains trust is the alignment of words, non-verbal cues and actions. Said another way — Do what you say! Trust, respect and credibility are earned by consistent congruence between words and actions over time.

All too often, however, what you communicate to someone is not necessarily what they “hear.” While you may know what you meant, the other person may have understood something different. It is, therefore, incumbent upon you to verify that a listener received your intended meaning. And, the best way to do that? Ask the listener to restate what they understood in their own words.

Sad to say, most of us do not confirm our understanding of messages. Rather, we often tend to assume shared meanings of words and an approximation of the information conveyed.

Understanding is the purpose of communication! And so, the speaker and listener should mutually engage to reach common ground as a basis for discussion. Agreement is not required, but acknowledgment of another’s perspective is.

A little negotiating may be needed in order for each person to be clear about the essence of the issue or the topic, the objective facts, or even the purpose of the talk. The main thing is to keep the main thing as the main thing — have only one conversation at a time. Stay focused and on track. An attitude of openness, good will and a desire to learn is needed for successful communication.

Tips for rock-solid communication

  1. Talk about one issue at a time.
  2. Be clear about the specific outcome you seek.
  3. As a listener, paraphrase the speaker’s message.
  4. As a speaker, ask what meaning has been understood.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  6. When things don’t add up, clarify.
  7. Notice whether non-verbal cues match words.
  8. Be present; give your complete attention.
  9. Do not react; think before you respond.
  10. Be honest. Be authentic. Be yourself.

A sign on an office door in a neighborhood church reads,

For anyone who has children and doesn’t know it, there is a childcare center on the first floor.

You see the problem? Even though this sign is kind of funny, the message is not clear and does not inspire confidence.

As a speaker, be clear about your meaning. Then, stand in the listener’s shoes to imagine how your message will be received.

Build your relationships on a solid foundation of clear, credible communication that will earn trust — a priceless commodity.

Authentic Leadership

Authentic Leadership 

Would you tell the truth to your competitors? Why or why not?

Honesty is a value that many leaders aspire to embrace, and if that were true of you, how would you answer this question?

Must you tell the truth in every situation, or is it important to consider and accommodate the needs of different constituencies, audiences and stakeholders such as General Counsel and CFO, Chairman of the Board, investors, operations managers across the country, competitors, employees, customers, intimates, children, spouse? [Read more…]