Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Difficult conversations by Anne Dickson

Hi Readers,

While one of my favourite quotes by Dr Seuss is: "Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind," unfortunately in the real world we do need to be more careful about what we say. Conversations can sometimes be difficult, especially for people like me who want to be honest and can end up hurting the other person. This book "Difficult Conversations" by Anne Dickson was a godsend. I read it almost at one go and have sent a review for publication to the Journal of the Bombay Chartered Accountants' Society - hope they do publish it. (PS: Yay, this appeared in the April 2009 edition)
I so agree with what the author says: Open your heart, find your voice and tread lightly!
Here is the review.

Warm regards

Book Review: Difficult conversations
Reviewed by: Lubna Kably, Chartered Accountant
Title: Difficult conversations
Author: Anne Dickson
Price: INR 450
Publication: Piatkus

Picture this:

* An article clerk has been assigned to two different audits simultaneously and a tax advisory project. All three have tight deadline and seem to overlap. He does not know how to bring this up with the seniors in his firm. This is not a one-off incident. He feels bullied all the time. If he looks around him, other article clerks are given projects that are more manageable. Two or more seniors are not breathing down their neck all the time.
* A manager is trying to convince his team member that she needs to pull up her socks and ensure that repeated mistakes are not made. The team member is intelligent and technically good. Her biggest flaw – the ability to get bored with non-technical nitty-gritty. Thus, each slide on a recent power point presentation to be sent to a client carries the wrong date, yet again.

Yes, the success of the article clerk and the manager depends upon the ability to communicate correctly. So how should they deal with the above? Well, the article clerk definitely has to improve the reality of the situation he is caught in. The manager has to speak in a manner that he is able to get the message across without generating repercussions that he may regret later.

The summary on back of this book states: Anne Dickson tells you how. She describes a range of difficult conversations that frequently occur in intimate, social and work situations, and reveals simple but powerful techniques that will help you to transform the situation. You'll discover how to: communicate directly and honestly without damaging your relationships; keep to your point without backing down or getting into a fight; initiate a discussion without encountering resistance or attack; offer criticism without antagonising the other person; manage your anxiety and develop genuine confidence in your authority; and much more.

So, as this pleased reader and book reviewer says – Let’s talk.

This book underlines two concepts which are at the heart of effective communication. The first is seeing and respecting others as equals and the second is personal power. Personal power means interacting with others from a base of genuine confidence, which is grounded in self trust and honesty. According to the author, the challenge of this approach is making a genuine commitment to eschew the use of aggression.

Now let me dive straight into the above two examples. This book does not provide these very examples, but there are enough illustrations which relate to the above two situations.

What can the article clerk do? (Let us look at the example in the book of a junior chef in a busy kitchen). Well, the article clerk can keep wishing that he were a different sort of person, with a different sort of temperament, but in truth, he is shy and reserved and not naturally extrovert. He cannot change who he is, but he can choose to start setting limits once he sorts out what is happening.

Anne Dickson describes the situation:
* What are the others doing to him? They are not letting him finish one job before he has to start on another;
* How does he feel currently? Frustrated and furious;
* What does he want? To set limits.

Thus, the article clerk has to visualise himself and the seniors as an equal human being and with full confidence improve the reality of his situation. Thus, he can ask Senior 2 who has assigned him another audit of the actual deadline. If it clashes with the audit project he is already on, he can firmly state that perhaps someone else can be assigned as he will not be able to do justice to two audits at the same time. Or he can offer to start on this audit only after he has finished his first assignment. He can also point out to the office manual which shows he is already on one audit which requires him to be at a far off client location, almost daily. As regards Senior 3, who wants to involve him on a tax advisory project, he can repeat the same thing. He can perhaps add that he will go out of his way, to spend some time post audit doing the required tax research. He has to learn his own value and not get pushed around, but at the same time not compromise on what is required of him.

Let us now see what the manager should do. Anne Dickson advocates adopting a new approach. It means not resorting to aggression, but asking three questions:
*What is happening?;
*What does he feel about it?; and lastly
*What would he like to be different?

The book describes a scene between a department head and her secretary. However, the same is equally applicable for our case.

The manager will find the replies to the above three questions to be:
*What is happening: My team member is not as careful as she should be; Now the answer has to be fine tuned to specifics. Thus, it could well be - My team member doesn’t check everything thoroughly;
*What does he feel about it: If the manager wants to avoid the “confrontation”, his answer could well be – She is usually very competent, this is just a small lapse. On the other hand, if he feels superior, it could be – she should be much more conscientious. The author says, avoid coming from a moral high ground as it could be perceived by the other person to be an “attack”. We have been taught not to expose our feelings in the workplace. However, in this scenario it may be best for the manager to identify whether he is feeling angry, anxious or just sad. He must identify the predominant feeling. He may also like to put off speaking, till his emotions are in check and he can articulate the message better. This does not mean brushing the entire issue beneath the carpet. It may just mean speaking with his team member an hour later.

*What would he like to be different: This question, the author says, is the acid test. However, most answers are straightforward. In this case, it could be: I would like you to check everything before you give it to me for review. However, in getting the message across, the manager has to be assertive and respect the other individual rather than being plain aggressive.

“Most of us will respond positively to being asked to change something that is within our capability of changing. If the request is reasonable and clearly stated and is not an attack, most of us respond with co-operation” states the author.

In this case, the manager has legitimate power over the team-member. At the same time what he wishes to avoid is the feeling of ill-will that could develop between them, if the situation was not handled properly, which would in turn adversely impact their working relationship.

The manager needs to balance his authority with an equal regard for the team member being an individual entitled to her own rights and dignity. In this case, the manager could call the team member to his cubicle, so as to keep the boundary firmly around the actual conversation and state honestly that while she is very competent on the technical front repeated careless mistakes, such as use of wrong dates, are not acceptable. A question such as: Do you have any idea what went wrong?, could lead the team member to introspect and accept the fact that she was careless. The closure could be a simple, “I am glad we were able to talk about it”.

Handling difficult conversations is all about developing the habit of personal power. This entails:
*Acknowledging the truth;
*Facing and managing anxiety;
*Learning to express and communicate feelings;
*Learning to disagree without a fight;
*Challenging unfair criticism;
*Setting limits;
*Taking the initiative; and lastly
*Making the choice

The last paragraph in this book perhaps sums up the core of this book: Criticism handled properly, can be a real gift. It’s a gift because someone cares enough to actually say something to me. This means that our relationship matters enough. It means that working with this person matters enough for you to open up and speak up your mind. The enrichment that can come from a renewed understanding between people is surprising but inevitable. Open your heart, find your voice and tread lightly!


Relyn Lawson said...

This does sound like a wonderful book. We all have difficult conversations that we must participate in; like it or not. I find you to be so lovely, I have a hard time imagining that you hurt other people. I think the fact that you are sensitive to it likely indicates that this doesn't happen very often. Could be wrong, of course, but that's what occurred to me when I read your words. Happy weekend, dear Lubna.

Lubna said...

Thank you, Relyn, for your wonderful comment. 8-)