We spend more time with our colleagues than with our families and friends for most of the week. It stands to reason from time to time you’re going to have disagreements with them. But how do you choose the right words with arguments when you’re at work?
I spend a long time thinking about how I am going to speak with the employees at GrowTraffic. Almost every time I get it wrong. It doesn’t go the way I think it will and I stick my foot in my mouth. Whilst it can work, not only do I often regularly accidentally upset my colleagues, I often make matters worse when I try to resolve them.
It’s not easy to deal with negative emotions. We don’t like negative emotions and when they come along – and from time to time in business they will – we can find ourselves stumbling over words and concepts and raw middle finger emotions. It ends up with us saying the wrong things.
Over a great deal of years, I have learned never to act on my first instinct but to frame it and validate it. But there is one situation in which I struggle to follow this rule and that’s when I’m about to get into an argument with someone. At that point, I begin to think about things from the perspective of who’s right and who’s wrong. Then I start to make the case for my position. Of course, at the moment it’s very unlikely that I’m about to take on someone else’s perspective and they aren’t likely to take on my view on things at this point either.
At this point, I’m making the case for my position on the fly and saying a load of things I’ve really not thought through properly. This is when I’m at my most dangerous.
I am most dangerous during arguments because I tend to explore the way I’m feeling about an idea and this can create a misalignment between what I say and what I mean. But it’s the impact of these words that really counts. I can’t remember what I said at the best of times but I can always remember how I was feeling when I said it. What I and most people struggle with, is what your colleagues interpret the things you say, to mean.
So it’s important in the business environment to work out how to deal with potentially argumentative situations. I’ve got better but I’ve got a long way to go. Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is to try to reinforce some of the actions and habits I know will be beneficial in preventing conflict with colleagues and employees.
But these are my thoughts about how to handle potentially explosive moments:
Why You Should Let People Vent In The Business Environment
One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in business is to say less than the person in front of me. From time to time you’ve just got to shut the fuck up.
There is power in silence.
People will talk to fill the silence and you need to let them. In fact, you should non-verbally encourage them to fill the silence and you should listen and learn, but often it’s just a case of letting someone vent because people need to do that.
A lot of time, giving someone the opportunity to vent about a situation will be all you need to do to let them see they’re being irrational or allow them to get to a place where they understand the problem isn’t as big as they thought it was.
You’ve got to hold back the urge to get involved. Because if you’re anything like me, every fibre of your being will be ready to shut someone down and tell them why you know better than they do. If you’ve not given them enough time to get it out of their system you are only going to inflame the situation when you say something.
In this situation, it’s best to use non-verbal cues to let someone know you understand what they’re saying. You might want to try saying things like “I understand” but at that point, you risk them accusing you of not letting them finish a sentence or of misunderstanding your encouragement for acceptance of their point.
Why You Should Use Open Questions In A Business Environment
I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
That might sound familiar to you. It’s the first stanza from I Keep Six Honest Serving Men by Rudyard Kipling. It’s something I remind myself about on a regular basis. I have been using it as a foundational framework of my communication style for about 13 years.
By using open questions based on What, Why, When, How, Where, Who and Which (which being the open question word Kipling left out of his poem), I have been able to tease out of people exactly what’s going on with them, to find out the things I need to know.
And the thing about asking questions when you’re getting into a heated discussion or an argument is it makes you take a step out of the moment. This allows you to think about what you need to learn about the situation rather than what you are going to impose on the situation. Asking a closed question in an argument is about you either proving you’re right or proving someone else is wrong.
Why It’s Important To Take Responsibility For What You Say In A Business Argument
I am generally the first person to own up about an argument. I will almost immediately admit I was wrong for a situation to escalate if it has done. You’ve got to own your shit. There are no excuses here.
One of the other things you’ve got to recognise is the world isn’t a black and white place. Everything you say and do is coloured by your perspective and your interpretation of the world. So when you are making your point about something it’s important that you don’t go laying things down as facts but rather as facts as you see them.
There is one member of the GrowTraffic team who falls back into this bad habit. This person will regularly say things like “You think about these things like…” or “You’re just uncomfortable in this situation…” There is nothing that gets a person’s back up more than being told who and what they are and how they think and feel in a situation.
Before praying or seeing an oracle, the ancient Greeks used to utter the phrase Gnothi Seauton. This maxim literally means know thyself although what it meant to the ancient Greeks at that moment is up for debate. But let’s be honest, most of us have no idea of who we are.
Whenever you’re starting sentences with you, you’re going to have to change your technique and start your sentences with I. Instead of “you’re the one causing these problems” try reframing the sentence as “I really want to help you with this, what do you think we should do?” Often at this point someone will realise they don’t have any suggestions, at this point go back to being silent because they just need to vent.
If they’ve got ideas then great. Try to help them explore those ideas and work out how the best elements can be implemented by the business. And give them credit for their contribution, even if the process was a bit painful.
Language is important and the techniques in the way you communicate is another important part of it, but that’s not all you need to overcome in an argumentative situation. You need to go in with a plan.
What To Do When You Disagree With A Popular Perspective
Whether you’re the CEO or a new entrant to a company, when you disagree with a popular perspective in a business it can be a difficult position to find yourself in.
It always depends on the power relationships and the subject you’re looking to change, but fundamentally you need to understand why the people you have to persuade think their proposition is the right course of action.
We are in the process of building a piece of software. It has been something I’ve been thinking about for the last 5 years or so. My colleague is leading this development and she regularly questions why we are doing this. After all, this software already exists. Each time my colleague asks this we are able to validate exactly why we are doing this and make sure we are all on track. It’s great. But it’s because my colleague approaches it in this manner and doesn’t frame it from the perspective of: “I don’t think we should be doing this” that I don’t get het up about it. Also, I’ve got to be honest and admit that if I was the person questioning this I would probably be guilty of approaching it as: “I don’t think we should be doing this…”
By choosing this way of approaching a topic you are able to present your new options after having to think about them in terms of the original objectives. You may at this point decide you don’t want to challenge things, or that maybe just one part of your argument is valid.
Letting Colleagues Know You’ve Messed Up
I have made so many mistakes in life, in business and in marketing it’s painful. I’ve kept some quiet and dealt with them the best I could, I’ve owned up to others quickly and I’ve let things fester to the point where they have become a major problem that has come out of the woodwork.
You don’t need to inform your colleagues about every mistake you make. We all make mistakes and if you tell everyone about everything you’re about to get a reputation for drama or calamity. But if you think other people need to know about it it’s best you own up sooner rather than later.
If you’ve let something fester then the best thing to do is approach a colleague with the words “I need your help. I should have told you this straight away, I didn’t and I’m sorry, but the situation is….” Remember to own the situation and provide some solutions.
If you’ve let something fester then it’s probably something you could have dealt with yourself but it’s become a big thing and just another pair of eyes will help. After you’ve offered your solutions, ask something like “what do you think?” This last question will focus your colleague on the solutions rather than the mistake.
How To Talk To A Colleague About Their Mistake
I’ve been a people manager most of my professional life and I’ve never been particularly good at it. In GrowTraffic we share out the personnel responsibilities, Rachel does the soft stuff and the task management, Hannah does the more formal side, helps people along with problems and puts processes in place to help people deliver. I try to pass on my expertise and generally ensure we’re going in a certain direction. I’m also the first to call someone out when things have gone wrong. I’m a horrible human being.
I rarely get this right, but I know the best way to approach these situations is just to say you’re trying to figure out what’s occurred and ask what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Just focus on making sure it doesn’t happen again.
Communicating Effectively Is The Business’ Responsibility
The key thing to most of this is being conscious of how you communicate generally and how you want to communicate with your team.
It’s unlikely you or your team is ever going to effectively communicate 100% of the time in a perfectly harmonious manner. That’s just human nature. But there are lots of things you can do to try to reduce the amount of jeopardy in a situation.
Communication is also the responsibility of everyone involved and it should be an important part of your business’ culture. It’s not good enough that you are able to speak openly about the things that are happening within the business, you’ve got to explicitly focus on it and regularly develop and test techniques that can optimise the lines of communication within your business.