Because we are human we have a number of fairly predictable reactions and behaviours in given situations.
All people, regardless of culture, gender, experience, job or position in the hierarchy, operate according to the same set of principles when under even fairly mild levels of stress. [For a more detailed treatment of this area I refer you to Chris Argyris’ work on double-loop learning ]
- We seek to maximise comfort and minimise negative emotions – that means both our own and also the other person with whom we may be interacting at the time.
- We will, at the same time as aiming to maintain a position of comfort, still aim to maximise our chances of winning and avoid losing – in other words, we typically want to get our point across, and let others see where the problem lies or solution should come from
- And third, we seek to maintain control – we typically try to put out a feeling of rationality and self-control (even when it is lacking) and aim to maintain control of where the discussion or outcome is going so that we can ‘steer’ others to the outcome we want
All of this adds up to a heady mix of potential problems in our everyday dealings with people – especially when stakes are raised, when emotions rise and when threats start to emerge. The ways in which these principles and values emerge in our behaviour can differ from person to person – sometimes overtly and sometimes beneath a veneer of control, respectability and respect. The underlying purpose of these strategies is to avoid vulnerability, avoid risk, and avoid appearing incompetent.
But, before you go away with an overly pessimistic view of the human race, don’t worry. First of all, this is natural, and is, to a large extent, a strategy that has helped us survive as a species through our evolution. These strategies were necessary in the primeval world our ancestors navigated, but they are deeply defensive strategies, and rooted in a desire for self-preservation. When they show up in our everyday lives, in meetings, in performance reviews and in relationships, they undermine our effectiveness and get in the way of building productive relationships, they are “anti-learning”, and damage the chances of constructive outcomes.
The good news is that we know about these de-railers and how and when they show up, and we can do something about it.
Fundamentally the approach to overcoming these is simple…..
- Put issues on the table in an open and honest way. In other words, make sure the ‘problem’ is the issue and not the people talking about it. Be alert to points where people (including yourself) slip in to ‘personal’ judgements or comments.
- Be clear about what it is that concerns you about the situation – and if that is someone’s behaviour do not shy away from that. Make it clear that it is the behaviour that is a concern (not the actual person), and follow that up with rationale – i.e. give a reason why it is a concern. It is not enough to simply say “your behaviour stinks”…..you need to say what it is that is of concern. For example, it could be a concern about “checking your smartphone during meetings”. You could raise it in this way. “I am worried that it sends out a signal that you are not interested, and that you are disrespectful to the others in attendance. That reflects badly on us as a team, as well as on you as an individual.”
- Always invite the other person to tell you what they think about what you have just said and encourage a conversation that flows in a similar way. In other words do not make this a one-way conversation, where you are “maximising your chance of winning and maintaining control”. You may actually learn something new about the situation by opening it up and listening to the other person’s perspective.
By bringing this openness and honesty into the discussion, we can limit the effects of our naturally evolved behaviours. We will not eradicate millions of years of evolved behaviour as easily as that, of course, and when our guard is down these defensive behaviours will ‘leak’, but simple awareness of them, and strategies to deal with them can bring you great results.
To learn more about how you can become expert in this area, how you can build skill for you and your team, and how you can transform your working environment to one built on constructive conversations, please do get in touch by submitting your details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you.