April 28, 2015

One of the most effective but counter-intuitive techniques I ever learned for negotiation or for building consensus is to just keep my mouth shut and my mind in neutral.

I was reminded of this critical point as I listened to the latest This American Life podcast, notably the opening segment in which political canvassers learn to change voters' intentions on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion. The story is really about the incredibly persuasive power of listening, and the resulting sense of connection.

Shut up
Image copyright Fifth House Group. All rights reserved.

Before going further it must be said that you can't always change someone's mind or achieve agreement simply by listening. Actually, you can't always achieve agreement, period. But you can achieve mutual understanding, and the latter goes a long way toward making the former possible. The numbers in the research cited in the podcast bear this out. The research also indicates that it's much harder to shift someone's opinion or attitude on a subject by sheer force of logic or rhetorical argument.  If anything, the reverse may be true; the more someone tries to convince another by piling on facts and figures, the more the recipient entrenches in their own point of view. We selectively screen out information that don't fit our model of the world, or bend them so they do. Agreement becomes even more elusive.

But if you want to soften someone's stance so they're at least prepared to entertain your side of the story, they need to feel like they're being heard. The law of psychological reciprocity demands it. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, they also need to feel a fundamental sense of belonging, acceptance, love, and a host of other things that are impossible as long as their beliefs or opinions are being denied, rejected, and negated. So talking, never mind arguing, never works. Listening (especially active listening, a process that involves paraphrasing, checking for understanding, and clarifying) creates empathy.

The sad truth is that most of us seldom really listen.  In any conversation, as the saying goes, we're mainly waiting for our turn to speak. We're building arguments or counter-arguments; trying to identify loopholes; making judgments; and doing a thousand other things at the speed of thought. In our book (which is really for anyone in the arts, entertainment and creative/media industries and not just for musicians) my co-author and I analyze the many reasons people find it so hard to actually listen. Unfortunately, our lack of training in proper listening skills is why so many teams are undermined from the get-go, brainstorming sessions are derailed, and collaborations break down.  We think we're listening, but we're really preparing rebuttals or trying to tell our own story. Or we're being distracted by social media, noise, or shiny objects (real or metaphorical). Listening is a skill that needs to be honed like any other, but because we're born with ears that never sleep we think we have a natural gift for it.

What the TAL story demonstrates is that genuinely compassionate, active listening works because it creates a sense that the speaker is truly being heard.  Give it a listen.

- kda


June 8, 2015

A strategy is, in its most basic form, an approach to a problem or opportunity. There are corporate strategies, military strategies, financial strategies, and so on. Entire academic disciplines have grown up around strategy and countless volumes have been written about it. Strategy development is a particularly hot topic in business circles. But what most of us fail to realize – including those charged with formulating and implementing business strategy – is that we all have strategies we apply every day, unconsciously. More importantly, these strategies are most likely working against you, robbing you or your team, group or business of creative vitality, energy, and opportunity.

These same strategies may have worked in the past, perhaps very recently. But there’s a point at which they inevitably stop serving you and start undermining you. These are the strategies we employ to serve our individual needs in dealing with other people.

VU meterTo give a personal example, I’ve noticed that my strategy for avoiding the discomfort of asking others for help (and the possible disappointment of getting a “no” for my efforts) is to try to do everything by myself. I justify it by telling myself, “It will take much longer to explain what I want done anyway.” Clearly at some point this rugged individualism must have worked for me; it may have strengthened my self-esteem, proving (to myself if no one else) that I could Do It, whatever “It” is. And so I continued to apply it, long past the point where the DIY mindset was helpful. I still find myself falling back on it again and again even though it comes at a tremendous cost in terms of my energy levels, focus, and ultimately my ability to generate results. I’m pulled in too many directions, and it's unsustainable.

The good news and the bad news is that I’m not alone in this.

That directive, command-and-control leadership style you’ve mastered may have worked well in some instances; it can be efficient and effective in times of crisis when quick, decisive action is required. (A fire is no time for long, drawn-out consensus-building meetings.) But over time your employees have probably come to resent it, and you may never know it because they’ll never tell you. That same approach deprives your staff of their autonomy, a sense of achievement and satisfaction they might otherwise experience identifying opportunities or solving problems on their own initiative. Their all-important sense of purpose and mission is greatly diminished when they need to do things just because the boss says to do it.

Similarly, your hard-driving, competitive negotiation skills have probably won you many a contract (and perhaps some praise from your superiors), but you may have also noticed that those contracts are seldom renewed. That’s because over time, the unyielding toughness has extracted a heavy price from the other party and weakened the relationship. Your counterparts get tired of being doormats, so they look elsewhere to do business. You can see how the very strategies that serve us well in some situations can be highly counterproductive, or even destructive, in others.

Strategies come in many forms

Self-defeating strategies aren’t just the province of Type A bosses. The quiet, self-effacing avoidance behaviour of the Team Player that means you never have to step into the discomfort of potential conflict also means being unable to express your feelings and needs to the people who most need to hear it, whether it’s your boss, significant other, or collaborator. Internalizing it eventually takes a heavy toll in the form of stress, illness, absenteeism, or other physical manifestation.

Strategies are developed or adopted subconsciously, so they come in so many different forms.  Chronic lateness, for example, may give some people a critical sense of control over their lives – a covert way of saying, “I’ll show up when I damn well want to”.  For others, habitually showing up late for meetings or rehearsals may be a mechanism for getting attention, because even negative attention is better than being completely ignored. It’s no wonder strategies are hard to recognize for what they really are.

Chances are the strategy is intended to meet a need from Maslow's classic hierarchy (e.g. safety/security, love/belonging/acceptance, status, self-actualization, etc.). It’s hard to identify the underlying need when the outward behaviour (i.e. strategy) is so confounding, or we incorrectly attribute it to something else. For example, we may ascribe a team member's chronic lateness to laziness or disorganization. But beware of labels. Mostly these are just symptoms masking a bigger issue.

Strategies meet needs

Regardless of their particular form, each of these strategies manifests as a series of behaviours and is designed to get us something we want or need. And these strategies have a way of alienating the very people we need to work with on a regular basis.

So why do we continue to use them? Think of an infant who, unable to use of language, cries when in need of food, burping or a diaper change. When it works, the infant begins to rely on the behaviour to meet its other needs, too. But to the man armed only with a hammer every problem begins to look like a nail, and so a baby continues to respond to every situation by crying because they simply haven’t developed a more sophisticated approach. Adults aren’t much better at developing new, more appropriate strategies, especially when the tried and true keep working, however dysfunctionally and fraught with unintended side-effects. We develop ruts in our neural problem-solving pathways.

In our book (which, as many readers have told us, is written for a specific audience but is much more broadly applicable) we discuss strategies and how they serve needs in the context of conflict between creative people. These needs often boil down to a variation on one of a few basic ones: the need to be heard, feel validated, acknowledged, appreciated, to win, etc. The conclusion is very much the same: the behaviours we adopt in conflict situations are designed to meet certain needs and, to the extent they might achieve this goal, they’re successful. But they eventually derail even the best and brightest of individuals and teams. If not already in conflict, eventually these strategies will bring them into conflict with others, and that's when things really get messy.

Our job, then, is to learn to decode these strategies, discover and satisfy the unmet needs, whether our own or the other person’s (if not both). This is not easy and requires skill-building. And it’s as critical to your own long-term career success – and that of your group, team or business – as any other strategic issue.

- kda


June 17, 2015

One of the most frustrating experiences anyone can suffer is not being heard. That's because we all need to feel valued, validated, and have our voice count. So it's that much more maddening when we feel we're being misunderstood as a result of someone else's inability (or apparent unwillingness) to hear us. It's is a source of enormous stress, anxiety, and counter-productivity in our work and personal lives, and a consistent cause of conflict. Tragically, surveys show that while most of us consider ourselves good listeners, we're actually quite poor at it.

In our "always-on" environment the obvious distractions include smart phones, email, and ubiquitous TV screens. But the problem is more insidious than that; even the most disciplined among us who manage to put away the devices long enough to hold an uninterrupted conversation struggle to listen. For one thing, we speak much more slowly than we can think so in the span of time it takes for a speaker to get a sentence out, the "listener" has experienced thoughts containing three to four times as many words.

Not listeningThe moment another's words enter our auditory canal we're already busy processing: interpreting, judging, evaluating and decoding them. All this parsing interferes with our ability to truly hear. Our expectations and assumptions fill in any blanks, often inaccurately. (In some workshops I conduct an exercise that illustrates this point starkly; few participants score more than 20%.)

But mostly when we think we're listening we're really just waiting politely, if impatiently, for our turn to speak. We pay lip service to listening. Sure, we might remain silent for a while, but we're more likely to be preparing our rebuttal, commentary or defense than to be truly hearing what the speaker is saying. This shouldn't surprise us; our culture clearly values speaking much more than it does listening. (You've probably had public speaking courses in school, attended Toastmasters or taken a workshop in delivering powerful presentations, but when was the last time you were educated in effective listening?) Small wonder there's so much burnout: we keep trying to get our point across, to little or no avail. "If only they listened to me..."

The solution is simple and, yes, easy too. It lies in cultivating our ability to hear by listening actively: paraphrasing, summarizing, clarifying, and providing empathic responses that encourage and validate the speaker. (These critical tools are described in detail in our book.) The only difficulty in implementation is that we're seldom taught how to hear. We assume that just because we're born with ears that never switch off, we're experts. Wrong! Practice makes perfect.

In conflict we can't always reach agreement -- our opinions, beliefs and attitudes may be too solidly entrenched -- but we can achieve mutual understanding. These are two different things. The latter does, however, go a long way towards the making the former possible. Even if you are unable to see eye-to-eye with your boss, colleagues, employees (etc.), allowing them to feel heard and understood can take the sting out of a disagreement or deadlock. Active listening will also allow you to move forward and find other ways to work together more pleasantly and respectfully.

- kda


June 26, 2015

About a year ago when I saw the first teasers for Pixar's Inside Out I rather impulsively declared it the film of the year for 2015. My faith and optimism was not misplaced: in its opening week it has already earned tremendous box office and critical acclaim, and deservedly so. What excited me so much about the film was not so much its artistic or commercial appeal as its potential to open up a public dialogue about our emotions and how they serve us (and often don't). I'm pleased to see that some of the media coverage has indeed begun to do just that, such as this succinct piece on NPR.

Inside Out FearSure, we could quibble with the number of emotions depicted in the emotional command center, or which feelings are represented (the research isn't entirely unanimous on these important questions). And as some coverage has indicated, the film's treatment of the role of memory may not be entirely accurate, at least not according to the current psychological literature. Of course Inside Out is not a documentary. Its creators may not have set out to provide a lesson in leadership, but it does give us valuable insight into the interior life of its 11-year-old protagonist and, by extension, all of us. It reminds us that our feelings -- including fear, sadness, anger and disgust -- are really just protective mechanisms to help guide our decisions and actions. In a visually stunning, engaging (and occasionally tear-inducing) way, the movie illustrates how our emotions let us know when basic needs for things like safety, security, affection, etc., are being threatened in some way. And depending on to what extent we let which emotion rule our actions, the response may or may not be appropriate.

This is something we would do well to remember in our daily work lives. Our feelings are just a barometer of whether any given situation we face is good or bad for us -- nothing more and nothing less. Feelings of joy or happiness mean everything feels OK; situation normal. Anything other than that indicates that a need isn't being met, whether it's a desire for connection, understanding, recognition or something else. And whether or not a threat is real (i.e., potentially harmful to our mental or physical health), our feelings should not be feared and certainly not ignored. They present vital information, just as your smoke detector warns you when something is smoldering or when your gas gauge signals you're about to run out of fuel.  So when we experience frustration, anger, disgust, or any other negative feeling, instead of numbing it with our many addictions or lashing out and looking for someone to blame, we should instead ask ourselves what need isn't being met in that moment. When we forget this we soon find ourselves in conflict.

Even so, conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing either; it too serves a vital purpose. Conflict is just a signal that something needs to change. It simply lets us know that we need to do something to restore our physical or emotional well-being. Whether we're in need of validation, compassion, or a sense of stability, identifying the unmet need allows us to ask for what we need to rectify the situation. If we feel overburdened, we can ask for support. If we feel ignored, we can ask for a fair hearing. If we feel left out, we can ask to be included. Whether it's a hug or to be copied on a memo, small remedies can often avert bigger disasters by meeting individual needs in a timely way. Simply figure out what needs to change in order to prevent or further escalate the conflict, and ask for it. (I know, easier said than done, right?)

I usually dread sequels but in the case of Inside Out I would be genuinely curious about a potential follow-up. As an 11-year-old, the character of Riley hasn't yet learned to drink, take drugs, smoke, overeat, or indulge in any of the other unhealthy strategies that teens and adults employ in order to mask or avoid their feelings. It would be interesting to see how Pixar, in its abundant creativity, might deal with such scenarios although I admit it doesn't sound like the most light and entertaining of possible directions for an animated feature. In the meantime I'm grateful for Inside Out and what it shows us about our amazing internal operating system.

- kda


July 3, 2015

It goes without saying that conflict often comes at a terrible price: War is the obvious, extreme case where the human and economic toll is immeasurable. But on a more mundane level, the costs of conflict to a business, production crew or orchestra can include chronic absenteeism, stress-related health issues, withholding of creative and innovative ideas, role confusion, reduced productivity, loss of skilled team members, inferior decisions, damaged relationships and tarnished reputations, among other things. These costs can be equally immeasurable, if only because so much of the damage is disguised or otherwise difficult to capitalize. So it’s natural to assume that conflict of any kind is bad and should be avoided.

I propose, instead, that conflict can be a boon to any group or organisation – provided it’s managed well, of course. When mishandled (and even when ostensibly avoided) conflict can easily and rapidly spiral out of control and wreak havoc. More insidiously, it can simmer quietly below the surface and undermine that same group or organisation. Here, then, are five reasons to embrace it:

  1. Conflict is a sign of caring. The first and perhaps most important reason conflict isn’t inherently bad is this: it only begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. If we didn’t care about an issue we would simply shrug it off because we would have no real personal, emotional or financial investment. Having a stake in a project, decision or process necessarily means we have an interest in a good outcome. The challenge is that “best outcome” may be defined differently for each stakeholder. The good news is that the interests of those concerned can be powerful motivators inspiring the co-creation of an effective and lasting win-win solution. But if your team or organisation doesn’t suffer from conflict at least occasionally, it’s a danger sign. It means you’re overlooking something potentially disastrous or else your people just aren’t sufficiently engaged.
  2. Conflict can improve creative output (and other products). Conflict is an essential ingredient of all literature and film. Without conflict there is no plot, and plot (action) defines character. So on one level the quality, intensity or believability of the conflict depicted probably bears some relationship to the overall strength of a book, movie or graphic novel. Behind the scenes, real-life conflict can also inform and infuse creative output. For example, the well-documented differences between writer-director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Charles Brackett may well have contributed to the success of more than a dozen films they created together including Ninotchka and the Oscar-winning classics Sunset Boulevard and Lost Weekend.

    Perhaps a more obvious example of a successful and productive conflict is the Beatles’ catalogue of Lennon & McCartney songs. Whether their songwriting styles clashed or complemented each other may be a question of opinion but it’s safe to say that the blend of their distinctive influences and approaches resulted in an artistically and commercially significant body of work. Whether it was the contrast between tracks on the same album or even the constituent parts of the same song, the interplay between Lennon’s and McCartney’s respective contributions remains as aesthetically appealing as it is financially rewarding. So creative tension can be a positive factor, just as healthy competition can be a strong motivator when band members try to outdo each other in the writing department.
  3. Conflict can help generate buy-in. “Buy-in” is wholehearted acceptance and endorsement, which is far more powerful than mere agreement. And in order for people to buy into a proposed change, idea or decision they need to feel it’s been truly battle-tested. If there is a pervasive sense that input has been stifled or withheld for any reason, or that a proposal hasn’t been sufficiently analyzed, debated and evaluated from every angle, the decision will not stick; individuals and teams will be unwilling to fully commit to a course of action. Movement will be begrudging; lip service will be paid. Support will wane and factions may form outside the meeting or rehearsal room, sniping and complaining. Absent buy-in, any support for a chosen direction, decision or plan of action will be lukewarm at best. So well-managed conflict (or at least open and vigorous disagreement) can be productive instead of destructive because transparency, rigorous peer review and (partial) ownership of the outcome breed confidence.
  4. Conflict can provide a healthy outlet. Avoiding conflict may feel good in the short term because it means not having to experience the anxiety or fear that normally accompany it. It also means that at least one party will pay a heavier individual price over the longer term. Whoever goes out of their way (literally and figuratively) to avoid dealing with another with whom they have an ongoing, unmanaged conflict will eventually suffer in some other way. Avoidance saps vital energy. It requires continually finding new ways to escape the person or situation. It involves bottling up any ill feelings. The avoider will either refrain from speaking up, experience physical manifestations of their “dis-ease,” quit in frustration, or all of the above. Inevitably these personal impacts start to affect the rest of the group or organisation, and there is an opportunity cost to learning and growth for all parties directly or indirectly involved. Engaging in conflict – and managing it effectively – can allow all parties to assert their needs while minimizing or eliminating any negative fallout. Differences can be channeled into more productive outputs (see reason #2).
  5. Conflict can increase trust. A paradox of conflict is that if it’s managed well – if process needs and personal needs can be met – it can actually enhance trust and create a safer work atmosphere. Bringing it into the open and dealing with it head-on rather than letting it fester eases lingering fears and anxieties. Groups, teams and organisations that can weather a storm together invariably grow more close-knit as a result of their joint trials. Conflict offers a common bonding experience; the key is to ensure they are not united against each other internally.

How to keep conflict productive, not destructive

Clearly, then, there are advantages to be gained from taking a proactive approach to managing conflict. There are many relatively simple things that can be done to ensure that conflict is productive, positive force and not a destructive one.

The best brainstorming protocols, for example, involve a multi-step process beginning with a “no bad ideas” approach, leaving judgment and debate aside until input from all quarters is on the table. (Remember, too, that not every personality type thrives in the sturm-und-drang of a whiteboard session.) Conflict norming means determining how we handle conflict collectively – what’s OK and what’s not OK – if and when we find ourselves in conflict. These conflict norms and boundaries should be established early and explicitly, with the standards developed, agreed and upheld by all parties. There should also be clear, consistent policies and procedures for dealing with conflict more formally should it become necessary, including pre-emptive training programs, conflict coaching, mediation, or making some other form(s) of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) available.

Too often conflict in the arts and entertainment industry is dismissed as the product of ego or some stereotypical image of the creative genius. It's not that simple. We forgive the eccentricities of the combative colleague – the “difficult” artist, manager/agent, or star employee – because of the overall value their work brings. But left unchecked, this indulgence can erode co-workers’ self-esteem, trust, or sense of safety and security necessary to a healthy working environment. This is as true in the rehearsal studio as it is in the corporate boardroom.

This is not to say that creative types should have all their rough edges removed. On the contrary, they should be nurtured, celebrated, and have their needs respected – while respecting the needs of others. Ignoring or otherwise tacitly permitting destructive, personalized conflict can soon be fatal to your group, team or organisation. Productive, well-managed conflict can be far more profitable.

- kda