Are These People Trying To Make My Life Difficult?

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I’m sitting here at a hotel lobby in New Jersey. While preparing for today’s blog post, an employee sees me and asks if I want cupcakes….YEAH! There are pockets of good service out there. But too often, we seem surrounded by difficult, challenging characters.

Every now and then I get asked to conduct a team-building session where it’s really one person on the team who makes things difficult. Too often, leaders herd everyone into a team-building session where individual coaching or feedback would be the best solution.

I have learned the hard way to look for this tendency ahead of time. This story describes the incident which taught me about feedback, abusive characters, and the challenges of facilitation.

I was asked to facilitate a team-building session at a local community college. It’s been my experience when working with college faculty that sometimes it feels very much like herding cats (See Herding Cats blog post). For one thing, college faculty seem to be independent and accustomed to being in charge. Perhaps, it stems from being dictatorial in the classroom. Perhaps, it stems from a paradigm that “Life is like a PHD dissertation”.

The larger group was divided into smaller groups and they were discussing ways to work together more effectively. One man said to his female colleague, “I’ve been teaching communication for 20 years, I think I know the right definition of communication”. I watched the female recipient of this comment exhale and look to heaven for help. During a break, I went to her and asked, “How did that feel when he said that to you?” She said, “Oh, he’s always ripping somebody”. I said, “Would you ever be willing to talk to him about how you like to be communicated with?”. She said….I think I could do that. I said….I encourage you to.

At the end of the session, I had asked members of the team to offer actions/commitments which improve the team effectiveness. The same man who had made the earlier statement said, “WELL I KNOW THE REST OF YOU WILL FIND THIS HARD TO BELIEVE, BUT WHAT I WROTE DOWN IS TO MORE OPENLY SPEAK MY MIND…..AND TO ALLOW OTHERS TO DO THE SAME THING TOWARD ME”. As I captured this comment on the flip-chart, I thought…….”He just gave you permission to give him feedback”. But in my heart I thought, “But do you have the guts, cause he would just as soon rip you as anybody!”. In that moment, I reminded myself of my purpose, “Feel the fear and do it anyway when it’s the right thing to do“. Was it the right thing to do? Hell yeah! That’s why they hired me to facilitate the session.

What’s the best way to give difficult feedback? Privately……and intervene in the least threatening and embarrassing way, and increase the courage until the behavior improves. As everyone was leaving, I asked my target, “Hey, do you mind sticking around for a second?”. Now it was private.

My goal is to give feedback which is descriptive and not evaluative. Descriptive involves describing the facts just exactly as they happened. Evaluative is to say…..what the hell is wrong with you?

I said, “When you said to your colleague, ‘I’ve been teaching communication for 20 years, I think I know the right definition of communication’, did you happen to notice her body language?”. He said, “As soon as I said that, I knew I shouldn’t have said that, I need to apologize to her”. I said, “I encourage you to do that”.

Several weeks later, I was back doing some more work with this organization. An individual from the team, told me of another tense interaction with the challenging individual. He said the individual was being his normally abusive self…..then seemed to stop himself….apologized….and self corrected. I said, “Great….early warning signs of self-control”.

I bet that guy came from a family where every night they had some knock down drag out fight around the dinner table. Somebody went to bed in tears as a family member said, “They can’t handle the truth”. He then came to work thinking that that’s the way you communicate. He had never had a work group before that was willing to train him. Until now! Most people are trainable. Very few people get up in the morning, look in the mirror and think, “My goal today is to be difficult”.

Learn to say what needs to be said while preserving a good working relationship.

In future blog posts, I’ll discuss the balance between courage and consideration. But tonight, I’m taking my cupcakes and going to bed, because I’ve got a bit day tomorrow.

If you need help forging a more effective team, let’s discuss your strategy.

About Dale Perryman

Conduct workshops and seminars on leadership, management, and employee development. Founder of Center for Organizational Learning. Co-founder and creator of MyMeetingPro, a suite of apps for iPhone and iPad that create simply effective meetings. Specialties include leading change, meeting facilitation, developing R&D leadership, merger integration, and social media marketing. Enjoy playing poker and stock investing in spare time.