Busy is a Conversation

Meredith Fineman titled her article, written in September 2013, “Please Stop Complaining About How Busy You Are”.  I looked it up recently, after listening to a colleague go on – and on – about how many appointments he had, how many deadlines, and how many staff had been cut in his organization.  He told me he was “like an octopus, with all 8 arms working on something all the time.”  Poor guy, I wanted to throw him a few shrimps and crabs for sympathy.

Not really. As Meredith says, “So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that “I’m busier than you are” means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am “winning” at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero.”

I looked that up. Inbox Zero is a “rigorous approach to email management that aims at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times”. It was developed by Merlin Mann, who says that time and attention are both limited, and our productivity suffers when we confuse our inbox with a “to do” list.

Which reminds me – I know a group of people in one organization whose way of saying “I’m busier than you are” is to tell people how many emails they have in their inbox. They all have thousands of them – and they brag about it!

Being busy is a popular conversation, but it’s a little like bragging about having bad work habits. I know four conversations could be deployed to turn that around.

  • Initiative: Tell people you’re going to upgrade your scheduling system in 2 ways. (1) You will maintain a Do-Due List of what needs to get done and delivered, including due dates; and (2) You will take 60 minutes every Friday afternoon to schedule the tasks you intend to accomplish in the following week.
  • Understanding: Ask co-workers for ideas on how to implement this. Talk about what their concerns are, and make minor adjustments to your plan as needed. Beware of getting pulled into the “It Can’t Be Done” conversation: this isn’t about doing more work, it’s about giving yourself the satisfaction of completing some tasks while at the same time giving up the boring “too busy” conversations at work.
  • Performance: Get clear requests from people who want something from you – what do they want, when do they want it, and why does it matter? Then, if it doesn’t fit into your schedule, make a counteroffer instead of a promise. “I can only do that if I drop this other thing off my schedule. Which do you think is more important?”
  • Closure: Tell people some of the most important things you have on your Do/Due List, when they’re due, and why they matter – to you. Thank them for their support in your being more effective with your time and tasks. Apologize for any inconvenience this change will be for them.

Then give up the “I’m busy” conversation. You’ll come to grips with the fact that there will always be more things that could be done than there will be time to do them. That’s life. And you’re responsible for your schedule and your productivity. You have to choose and plan. The good news is that it’s fun to accomplish things, even small ones. See if you can schedule and complete an accomplishment or two every day!

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?

Only 58 Weeks Until I Can Retire

That’s what a friend, Earl, said to me two months ago: “I can retire in 1 year and 1 ½ months.” I could tell this wasn’t a simple fact for him, because it was accompanied by a sad face and a sigh of defeat. This guy can’t wait to leave his job behind.

We talked about this, and what was beneath his “Escape Goal”, as Earl called it, was the fact that he had lost the good relationships he had once enjoyed at work, and was now surrounded by people who had little respect for his talent in handling details and complex problems.

“They don’t see why to bother with things that used to be so important,” he said. “People aren’t trained well, and when they don’t cut it, they are replaceable. Nobody takes time to listen or help people these days.”

Earl had given up. The saddest thing is that it looked like he would spend the next 58 weeks having this same conversation, to himself and with other people. Pretty soon nobody would want to talk with him at all, because every conversation would go the same way: sad and boring.

Could an Initiative Conversation be useful here? Maybe start something new at work and get out of the pits? Earl and I talked about how to invent some kind of game or goal that would have him be more positively engaged with his co-workers. He resisted the idea that anything would be worthwhile, until he mentioned the documentation problem.

“Our documents are all out of date,” he complained. “My bosses don’t even realize it, and wouldn’t care even if they knew.” It was obvious this was something he cared about, but he hadn’t seriously considered taking any action.

How long would it take to fix those documents? Probably more than a year, Earl admitted. But then he got a light in his eye. “I could do it,” he said. “I’m halfway out to pasture anyway, and can do most of what they expect from me with one hand.” I encouraged him to take on the document-update project, even though it wouldn’t be recognized or rewarded. It was a sanity-protection plan.

I checked in with Earl yesterday. He didn’t say anything about his retirement date, and he didn’t look defeated. In fact, his office was bustling with people bring in papers and flash drives, and taking other ones away.

“I’ve got everybody working on this,” he said with a grin. “I had an Initiative Conversation in our staff meeting right after we talked. I told them what I wanted to do – update the 11 documents that are relevant to our job in this department. And I said by when I wanted it – before I leave here. And I explained why it matters – because I want to do something that will make life easier for the people who come after me.”

“About four people wanted to get in on this project, “Earl continued. “Now there are six of them, making the changes and editing each other’s work. We’ll be done by the end of next month. Guess I’ll have to think of something else to accomplish, just to keep everyone happy!”

Earl’s tip: When you’ve got the blues, find something that needs to be done. Then get busy and get it complete. No excuses.

Hold Your Seat: Dialogue Is 2-Way

The understanding conversation is the one that some senior-level managers and executives dislike. A VP in a financial firm once asked me, “Why should I ask people who work for me to give me input on a plan? Won’t they think I don’t know what I’m doing?”

The difficulty is that it is a dialogue, with listening – and maybe even accepting on what the other person says – a key ingredient. Talking is easy and quick. Listening takes time and attention. Plus, whenever you really listen, sometimes you have to change your mind about whatever you were thinking at the beginning of the conversation. Maybe that’s what people don’t like about it.

A Tibetan lama, Sakyong Mipham, makes some important points about listening in a recent article in the Shambhala Sun:

  1. True listening is not always easy. It is a skill we develop.
  2. For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must both play leading roles.
  3. The best way to practice listening is to learn to “hold your seat”.

Hold your seat. When you’re listening, he says that power has been handed over to the speaker, who will now direct the conversation’s mood and content. When you are listening, you hold your seat by calmly refraining from interrupting, by being engaged and self-assured, and allowing someone else to take charge. If it’s hard to stay present and really hear the other person, try taking a gentle in-and-out breath or shifting your posture in some way, uncrossing your arms or dropping your shoulders. Bring yourself back to listening.

When you want to engage people in accepting something – say, a plan of action or a suggestion – you can’t just hand them the plan, ask them to read it, and believe they will adopt it as their own. You’ll need a dialogue, and a willingness to accept the others’ input as useful. You might even change your mind about something. Learning and updating our ideas is what understanding conversations are all about.

How Hard is it to ASK?

I’ve heard two complaints recently that seem to come from the same root cause: reluctance to make a request.

#1. A technical specialist– let’s call her Sara – tells me that both she and her Supervisor agree that the Senior Manager of their department is a jerk. This Senior Manager makes decisions without consulting the parties involved, dodges any sign of confrontation (i.e., straight talk), and, when under pressure to explain her decisions, lies about what she did, pointing the blame toward someone else.

#2. An external consultant – let’s call him Derek – says he has offered to provide an analysis for his client that would improve the effectiveness of the program he will be leading next month. His client seems interested, but won’t commit. Derek needs to know, because parts of his program depends on the results of the analysis, and the clock is ticking.

In both cases, there is a reluctance to approach someone head-on and ask them for a decision. Maybe it’s because Sara and Derek don’t think they’ll get the decision they want. Or maybe it’s because they don’t think that asking will produce any result at all.

Making a request sounds simple, but it isn’t. You have to think about it: what action do you really want them to take?  This thinking is made even more difficult if you believe that making a request won’t do any good, or could even cause bigger problems than you already have.

After some consideration about how to get a decision made, Sara and Derek agreed to find the right person and go ahead and ask. Here’s how those two situations were resolved:

#1. Sara went over the “jerk” Senior Manager’s head and asked the VP of her company, after a recent meeting he led, if he would want to know when one of his VPs was causing problems for underlings. The VP said of course he’d want to know. So Sara asked, “Would you be willing to look at this recent change of scheduling for client advisory meetings, and let me know if you think some of the managers of those client accounts should be included in that kind of schedule changes?”  The VP looked at the situation, and a week later told Sara that new rules were now in place. “Scheduling decisions”, the VP said, “will now be made to include all the people involved in client account management and service. Thanks for calling my attention to this.”

#2. Derek went right to his client and asked, “Can we schedule this analysis for next Tuesday and Wednesday? Those are the only two days I have available to collect the results in time to summarize the results before the program”. His client, faced with a real deadline, said No. Derek was disappointed, but at least he had the one thing he wanted most: certainty. Now he knew how to schedule his time and how to prepare the program.

Complaining about a workplace problem is much easier than looking to see who can actually solve the problem, and then figuring out how to phrase the request to get that person to take action.

“I didn’t think I should have to ask,” Sara told me. “I thought the VP should already know what the Senior Managers are doing, and he should fix it when they do stupid things. I guess that’s a little naive.” In an ideal world, people would know everything we think they’re supposed to know. Alas, none of us live in that world.

Learn to make good requests and you’ll improve the quality of your life. I promise.

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.

How Important Is Communication?

Kristen Piombino reports that subscribers to the Harvard Business Review rated the ability to communicate “the most important fact in making an executive promotable.” They even ranked in more important than ambition, education, and hard work.

But what exactly does the “ability to communicate” mean?  We have found that most people believe they are communicating, even when they are not getting the kinds of responses they expect.  Rather than consider that there is something off in their own communication, many people believe there is something off in the person (people) they are communicating with.

Clearly the way you deliver a communication matters.  Few us of like to be talked to in a rude manner.  But the types of conversations you use also make a difference.   Well delivered but inappropriate or incomplete conversations will not get you what you want.  Even worse, they will leave you with the impression that you are communicating when you aren’t.

Communication is important.  But like anything else we deliver, it is both the packaging AND the content that matters.

Influence Requires Using Different Conversations

Influencing others – having an impact on their ideas, opinions, and actions – requires using different types of conversations and not recognizing this limits our effectiveness.

I recently read an article in which the authors maintain that effective leadership requires influencing others and that leaders can influence those others through five different influence styles. The authors point out that we each have preferred influence styles and that we use them even when they don’t work.  Increased effectiveness, therefore, comes from learning and using other influence styles.

Influence, however, is more than a matter of style, it is also a matter of using the appropriate type of conversation.  If you want someone to consider a new idea, for example, an initiative conversation is appropriate.  However, if you want to influence their understanding or opinion, then an understanding conversation is the way to go.  If its action you want to influence, then partnering performance and closure conversations are what’s needed. And, if you want to influence someone’s opinion of you, then closure conversations are your best bet.

Clearly there are lots of ways in which you can have conversations – aggressively, timidly, etc. – and these ways of conversing contribute to your influence style.  However, if you use the wrong type of conversation, style won’t make up for it.  Influence depends on our ability to use the appropriate conversations as well as the manner in which we have those conversations.