Conversations – It’s Your Turn Now

Dear Everybody,

I’m at a conference in San Francisco this week. I’ll be presenting at the Conference for Global Transformation, then visiting relatives, then skibbling around the city with my sister for a few days.

While I’m away, it’s your turn to practice some stretch exercises with The Four Conversations. I recommend that you try my 3 favorites:

Make some unreasonable requests – either ask people you don’t usually ask, or ask for more than you usually do. Stretch your conversational muscles.

Close out some old issues with people – pick someone that is a little annoying to you, or who you avoid because you don’t want to have that same old conversation again. Prepare your thoughts for using the “four A’s” of closure: Acknowledge the facts of where things stand with your past relationship, Appreciate something about him/her or your relationship, Apologize for something (like for putting this conversation off for so long), and Amend any broken agreements (if you have any). Then go ahead and have that conversation with the intention of clearing the past out of your present relationship. The point is not to have a new super friendship with them or anything, but to get that twitch out of your stomach every time you see or think about them.

Make some unreasonable promises – look at something you would really want to accomplish or take action on, then tell someone you’re going to do it by a specific date. Don’t just tell any old person – tell someone who matters to you. Let them know you will follow up with them to let them know if you did it or not. This is “putting yourself on the hook” to take action, and it works better than simply “trying” to do something on your own.

That’s it. I’ll be back and tell you about a “nuclear conversation” with the Indians (the Tribal Elder kind, not the baseball team kind). But only if you practice at least one of those 3 things over the next two weeks, OK?

Mr. Chicken Talks to the Boss

“My performance review is due next month,” Edwin said. “I’m going to wait and see what happens, and if she gives me a bad review, I’m going to take it to the union or sue her. She would be totally out of line, and I’m going to turn her in.”

That’s a recipe for a lot of stress, it seems to me. And Edwin acknowledged that over the last year he has had some health problems that are likely related to the tension in his relationship with his boss. He explained to me several incidents that have accumulated to build this strained situation. But he seemed curious that I thought he shouldn’t just wait for that performance review.

“Maybe you could talk with her next week,” I suggested, “close out your past relationship with her. See if you can start a new way of working with her.” I gave him the recipe for a closure conversation:

First, acknowledge the facts. Remind her of those three incidents that you think have contributed to a buildup of baggage for you and for her. Just itemize what happened in a short nutshell, no story-telling.

Then tell her something – more than one, if you can think of it – that you appreciate about the way she works or how she manages your unit.

Apologize for at least one mistake you’ve made, or misunderstanding you may have created by your own behavior. Be genuine, and be brief.

Finally, if there are any promises or agreements you have failed to keep with her, own up to it and either let her know you won’t be keeping it or make a new promise for when it will be done.

Edwin said, “She won’t allow any of that. She’s very controlling, and won’t let people talk to her that way.”  He thought for a few minutes, and must have realized he was afraid of her, because he said, “I’m a chicken”, and he agreed to talk with her the next day.

“It was worth it,” he told me later. “I’m not worried about that performance review now. I don’t know what kind of ratings I’ll get, but at least it won’t be because of our past disagreements. I think she was relieved to have our negative interactions brought out into the daylight, and now she knows I will give her more respect and honesty than I did before. It’s taken a load off both of us.”

The Cost of a Failure to Appreciate People

One of the Four Conversations that get results is a Closure Conversation. There are four ways to have a Closure Conversation, but the second type of Closure Conversation can be especially costly if neglected:

Appreciate the people who are working on a project or goal, recognizing what they have accomplished and/or contributed and saying why their participation is important, both to you and to the larger project or the overall process of reaching a goal.

When people do not feel their work is appreciated, or that their situation is not recognized as being an important factor in affecting their performance, they may withdraw and further reduce their effectiveness. Or they may seek to punish you.

Two sculptors were commissioned to complete their statue of Nelson Mandela in South Africa on a very tight deadline. They were denied the opportunity to add a small trademark on the bottom leg of the sculpture in recognition of their work. This lack of acknowledgement apparently didn’t sit well with them.

The two sculptors inserted a bronze rabbit into the right ear of the 30-foot bronze statue of Nelson Mandela to serve as their signature. They said it was too small to be visible without binoculars. The rabbit was to represent how fast they had to work: the Afrikaans word for “rabbit” also means “haste”.

Appreciation is useful, as it re-engages people in their work and in communication while possibly preventing subterfuge or hostility. Include appreciation in your regular workplace communications to reduce the likelihood of finding a bronze annoyance hidden inside one of your department’s major accomplishments. You can see an example here: Mandela’s Bunny  .

Clean up Grudges and Get Back to Work

The instructor explained that a “Closure Conversation” is when you talk with someone to complete what happened in the past. “Just because you don’t like someone is no reason to be ineffective with them,” he said. “It’s like erasing a blackboard – you take all the old issues out of play and make room in your relationship for some new future, instead of the old one you were going to get if you just let things drift.”

Greg made a list of all the people he needed to have a closure conversation with: Jennifer, to clean up the complaints she had about her last performance review; Darryl, to get to the bottom of why his productivity has dropped so much, and why he isn’t talking in the team meetings anymore; and about 7 other people.

Then the instructor explained the four ingredients of a Closure Conversation: (1) Acknowledge the facts of what happened; (2) Appreciate the person or group for what they have accomplished; (3) Apologize for any mistakes or misunderstandings; and/or (4) Amend, revise, or revoke any broken agreements between you.

“I can’t have a Closure Conversation with Jennifer,” Greg said. “I really don’t like her or respect her. I bet she’s just waiting for me to apologize about that performance review, but she deserved it. She hasn’t met the standards of our unit, and she didn’t meet even half of the targets she promised. And I can’t see that she’s accomplished anything to appreciate her about. Plus, she’s the one who broke the agreements we had, not me.

The next week, Greg came back to class and said he had done all four steps. Here’s what he said to Jennifer. “First, I gave you a bad performance review. Second, I forgot to thank you for the work you did on bringing in the quarterly report on time and already formatted for the board meeting. Third, I’m sorry you were upset about the review, and I apologize that I didn’t talk with you about the targets I thought you should have met, because we could have made new plans for what to do about them. Finally, I’d like to take all the past targets off the table and start fresh with creating new ones in a conversation with you.”

“It worked,” Greg said, surprised. “She was glad to be able to re-start the whole performance discussion on a new footing. And even though I still don’t like her much, I have to admit she’s smarter than I thought she was. This is going to work.”


Put down the grudge, Put in a correction

Two people this week have complained to me about someone else’s failure to do something. One was Dan, a mid-level manager, who felt that another mid-level manager should have informed him of a decision she made. “She should have known it would create problems for our service team”, he said. “Why didn’t she call me to talk about it first?”

The other was Candace, a member of a service team whose boss had asked her to work overtime during the holiday season to help handle extra customer requests. “A boss should make those scheduling plans at least a month ahead”, she groused. “Now I have to find a baby-sitter with only three days notice.”

Both of these people owe themselves a good “closure conversation” with the other person involved. It may be too late to fix the situation in either case, but it’s never too late to put down the grudge and put in a correction. I suggested this to each of them. Here’s what happened:

Dan said, “I was afraid I’d let her know how mad I was, and it would turn into an argument or her getting defensive. So I blew off some steam first, then sent her an email to set a time to meet. When we talked, I asked her to be sure to include me in decisions like that in the future. She seemed fine with that, maybe even a little glad that I came forward instead of being upset. It worked well.”

Candace told me, “No way am I going to confront the boss about this.”

I couldn’t make her see that communicating about the timing of a request to work extra hours didn’t have to be a confrontation. She couldn’t imagine anything other than a bad outcome. Maybe the difference is that Dan’s relationship is a peer, where Candace’s is a boss. But it still seems it could have resolved something for her to get into communication instead of carrying the resentment. Closure isn’t confrontation, it’s completion.

Paula Deen’s Non-Apology

Paula Deen, the celebrity chef and cooking show host, continues to have problems because her attempts at apologizing for making racial slurs are really not apologies – they are explanations, denials, and justifications.  This is evident in her recent interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show.

Apologies are closure conversations in which one admits making a mistake or engaging in a wrongdoing, accepts complete responsibility for it (e.g., “I did this, and it was wrong/a mistake”), acknowledges the impact of the mistake on others, asks for forgiveness, and promises a change in future behavior.

Paula Deen has mistakenly been using understanding conversations in which she is explaining how she was brought up, her distress over how young people talk to each other, that she is not a racist, and so on.  In other words, she is trying to get people to understand that she is not a “bad person” and that it is all really a misunderstanding.  Understanding conversations are not closure conversations.  Apologies stand on their own and do not need to be explained.

Had Paula used a closure conversation and given an authentic apology, rather than using an understanding conversation to try an explain herself, it is very likely she would be having far less difficulty.  Don’t make the same mistake Paula did.  When you apologize, apologize and don’t try to explain or justify while making the apology.

Why the NRA Blew It Regarding Newtown

Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, made a fundamental mistake when responding to the massacre in Newtown CT last week. He used an understanding and an initiative conversation when he should have used a closure conversation.

Rather than use a closure conversation to acknowledge the magnitude of the tragedy, appreciate the shock, suffering, and heartbreak of the families and community, or offer any real condolences, he went right to attempting to explain, justify, and rationalize why Newtown had nothing to do with him or the NRA. Where people were looking for closure and some acknowledgement that perhaps it was time to step back and think newly about assault weapons, LaPierre offered only his arguments for why guns were not the problem, but that video games, Hollywood, and “bad people” were. And then, using an initiative conversation, he proposed putting more guns in schools.

It is no wonder people are upset and shocked by LaPierre’s response. He committed the same mistake many leaders do – they misuse the four conversations and are then surprised by the result. LaPeirre failed to provide any sense of closure, making both him and the NRA seem cold, detached, and out of touch with reality.

I suspect the public response would have been much different had he used only a complete closure conversation.

Worst Employer Needs Closure Conversation

When the employer-review site recently designated Dish Network the country’s worst employer, Dish Network CEO Joe Clayton called the worst-employer label “ridiculous.”

Unfortunately, Joe’s denial won’t change what employees or, now, the public think.  If he really wanted to change how Dish has been branded, he would start with a Closure Conversation.

Closure conversations are one of The Four Conversations and are used to complete the past and open the possibility for something new.  In a closure conversations, people acknowledge the facts, appreciate the people, apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings, and amend broken agreements.

Rather than dismissing the worst employer label as ridiculous, Joe could acknowledge that this is how employees see the company and its current management practices.  He could then appreciate their honesty and thank them for pointing out something that he, Joe, finds unacceptable.  By apologizing for the current state of affairs and accepting responsibility for them, he could commit to creating a new Dish Network with the help of employees and promise that things will change.

Of course, Joe could only say all this if he were really interested in ending the current era at Dish and building something new.

On Building Accountability

Laurie and I recently led a leadership training session for a state agency.  During that session, one of the questions participants wanted to address was “How do we get greater accountability from people.”  The answer, you build it through the combined use of performance and closure conversations.

Accountability is not a personal characteristic; it is a characteristic of the working relationship between people.  It is not whether Janet, or Frank, or Evan are accountable people, but whether the working relationship they have with clients, co-workers, and bosses are ones that are built on accountability.

When we consider accountability as an attribute of our relationship with other people, it makes it easier to build accountability into that relationship through the conversations we have.  Performance conversations, in which requests and promises are made, establish agreements between people.  When I promise to post an article of yours on a web site, we have an agreement.  And, if I fail to perform, we have a broken agreement between us.

By having a closure conversation, in which the broken agreement is acknowledged and amended, we are holding each other to account for the status of our agreements.  Naturally, I am the one who has to account for the failure to perform, but that you had the conversation with me makes it evident agreements are important and will be accounted for.

It is the combination of performance and closure conversations that builds accountability in a relationship.

Closure Can Save A Reputation

I have a friend who’s reputation is being damaged by not having a closure conversation.

Jay, the friend of mine, was recently accused of lying by Colleen,.  According to Colleen, Jay agreed to print and assemble materials for a training session on community service.  Since this was something Colleen was used to doing, and was prepared to do this time, she was hesitant to turn it over to Jay.  However, after several phone conversations and emails to get the details worked out, Colleen agreed to let Jay prepare the materials.

A few weeks later, Jay informed Colleen the materials were not getting done because he could not find anyone to do the work.  Shocked by what she was hearing, Colleen reminded Jay of their conversations regarding what would be required and that he had ensured her he would get it done.  To her surprise, Jay denied having made that agreement.

In response, Colleen sent an email to the session organizers informing them of the problem with materials and that Jay was misrepresenting what had happened.  Jay, who was sent the email, replied to Colleen “I am sorry you think I misrepresented things.”

Some of the people who received Colleen’s email know the facts and that Jay did misrepresent what happened.  And, they express their disappointed that he has never tried to clean up the “misunderstanding” with a closure conversation.  As a result, Jay is now known as someone who lies to cover his mistakes – a reputation he could have avoided.