At the root of many of our interpersonal or team conflicts is a failure to communicate. Sometimes the problem is that information isn’t shared broadly enough and people become resentful because they weren’t included. Other times we say things that come out wrong and people are offended, even though we may have had good intentions behind our message. Regardless of how the situation was created, if we don’t take the time to thoughtfully address it, the miscommunication evolves into the “elephant in the room” that everyone knows is present but isn’t willing to address.
Recently I worked with a client where the elephant in the room had been present for nearly a year. The issue within this team had led to a fracture in what were previously very close relationships, had tarnished the team’s reputation within the organization, and was causing strife and turmoil that was affecting the team’s performance. Everyone on the team knew the elephant was in the room, but no one wanted to talk about it.
To break the communication logjam and get the team back on the path to restoring an environment of openness, trust, and respect, I used a facilitated discussion process called Heart to Heart Talks, adapted from Layne and Paul Cutright’s book Straight From the Heart. If the participants are committed to the health and success of the relationship, and approach this process with a desire to be authentic and vulnerable, it can be a powerful way to discuss difficult issues and allow everyone to be heard.
The process involves three rounds of discussions and the speaker and listener have very specific roles. The speaker has to use a series of lead-in statements that structure the context of how they express their thoughts and emotions. In order to let the speaker know he/she has been heard, understood, and allow additional information to be shared, the listener can only respond with the following statements:
- Thank you.
- I understand.
- Is there more you would like to say about that?
- I don’t understand. Could you say that in a different way?
The first round involves a series of “Discovery” statements designed to create openness among the participants and to learn more about each others’ perspectives. The speaker can use the following sentence starters:
- Something I want you to know about me…
- Something that’s important to me is…
- Something that’s challenging for me right now is…
The second round comprises “Clearing” statements that allow for the release of fears, anxiety, stress, and to increase trust. The speaker can use the following sentence stems:
- Something I’ve been concerned about is…
- Something I need to say is…
- A feeling I’ve been having is…
- Something I’m afraid to tell you is…
The third round involves “Nurturing” statements that create mental and emotional well-being in the relationship. These statements allow the participants to put closure to the difficult issues that were shared and to express appreciation for each other that sets the stage for moving forward in a positive fashion. The speaker can use the following phrases:
- Something I appreciate about you is…
- Something I value about you is…
- Something I respect about you is…
The facilitator can structure the process in a number of ways, but the important thing is to establish a rhythm for each round where the speaker gets a defined amount of time to share (using the lead-in statements) and the listener responds after each statement. It’s important for the listener to respond each time because it sets the proper rhythm for the discussion and validates the thoughts being shared by the speaker. The speaker should be encouraged to share whatever comes to mind without censoring his/her thoughts or saying what he/she thinks the other person wants to hear. If the speaker can’t think of anything to share, he/she can say “blank” and then repeat one of the sentence starters. Encourage the participants to keep the process moving and the thoughts will flow more quickly. At the conclusion of the three rounds, it’s important to close the discussion with a recap of the desired outcomes and any action items the participants want to pursue.
As “Captain”, the prison warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke, famously said to Paul Newman’s character, “What we have here is (a) failure to communicate.” That’s often the case when it comes to interpersonal or team conflicts, and using the Heart to Heart process can help people confront the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there but is afraid to discuss.
Reblogged this on Think CEO.
Thank you! Not only a good article but full of helpful discussion points.
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Thanks Louise, I’m glad it was helpful for you.
What am I supposed to do I’m so lost . My everything has stopped trusting me for no reason . It’s been a year and a half . I’m heartbroken. Lost confused and he just always out the blue just stopped believing in us. I’m feeling so hurt . After 30 years of undying love and trust being every thing . Never questioned each other . It’s just gone overnight his trust in me . He will defend a statement over me . Then if I don’t agree with some thing as dumb as moving a face mask he gets overly defensive and and angry about it he want me. To as sways take the blame for oyhers mistakes . I have never felt or seen the looks he gives me like it’s all my fault. When I never went any where near these other peoples mistakes . I’m hurt I feel the tension . The feeling of loosing him . The anger he try’s to keep argueeing he’s right over petty stuff. Not worth a conversation but it seems to be bigger issues for him . Like I feel he’s angry at something else ands taking it out on me he almost looks guilty . I feel like he’s not telling me something it hurts cause my trust and faith in us is really being tested . I have blind trust if wrong he’s still right to me . 30 years he’s breaking my heart every day a cussing me of thing that should never be questioned they were not for 30 years I feel anger tension lack of connection just fear I have lost him and don’t know what happened to make him . Look so quilts of him doing the stuff that I’m the one who should have questions the way he’s acting to me . I hopelessly lost without him but being pushed away from him for nothing . My hearts breaks a little every time only cause I’m not lying . I’m not join agree to make him feel better some please help I’m almost out the door I can not be wrong everyday in his eyes . How does this happen so quickly and why and how much longer do I stay lost trust is just not a relationship to me . I have never thought this would come . It’s like killing me every day the way he looks he’s gotta tell me something but argues instead . I’m just exhausted . And every day I’m always wrong about everything its something I thought wouldn’t happen in my wildest dreams. I know there’s something wrong I see it hear it I feel it he’s my other half . What do I do this is not something I should be dealing with 1 1/2 yrs later I have started to loose faith that’s he’s loving me the same it’s not the same I’m just numb he says it’s nothing . But I just know there’s something he’s not saying I’m so sure I’d beat my life on it I see it in everything he does the way he reacts his anger . He just lost trust and I’m trying to hold on but outta roomed .. I am feeling like everyone knows but me and I just know somethings up but I’m still trusting no matter what or how bad my trust and love won’t waiver but his does more everyday … I’m fighting aliasing battle it’s breaking me inside I’m always doing something wrong . I feel like I still need too make sure he’s ok even after I loose him . Totally broken. Like I’m alive but dead inside and not wanna live with out him . I don’t even wanna try . Hurting revert day lies and secrets kill people. Deffinatly relationships mines almost dead I’m feeling it all day every day . I’m nothing with out my other half . It’s a feeling there are no words to describe . No way to make it better . I don’t know what could make him throw away us . I think I’m gonna dye of a broken heart I’m in nots in my tummy and he just don’t seem to be bothered like me . Maybe when he yells get out or says shitty things to me into hopeless to really hear him . What in the world is worth loosing your life long partner for something I have forgiven and trusted blindly even knowing he’s lying to my face yelling so he don’t have to talk . There are no words for my pain and his lack of trust in me. I’m a open book he’s not. Help any ideas
Couldn’t agree more.
“We can’t solve everything we face but we can’t sce anything unless we face it!’
Thanks for your comments David. I agree with your statement!
I agree fully that the elephants must be addressed or they will leave piles of, shall we say, negative emotions thus causing productivity and credibility rifts.
This is a great example of an effective process.
LOL…ah, yes…piles of “stuff” from the large elephant in the room is never a good situation!
I really like the concept. How do you keep this from becoming artificial and behavioristic? What tactics can you advise? Thanks!
Hi Rob. I think the facilitator has to have a good read on the attitudes of the participants and a fair amount of communication/context setting has to occur before the actual discussion so that everyone knows what is needed for success. Additionally, I think regardless of whatever process you use to discuss difficult issues, you’ll always have the element of holding people accountable to their commitments and changing of their behaviors.
Thanks for taking the time to engage in dialogue.
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I’m glad you found it helpful Aamit.
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Very contstructive, and helpfully practical.
It’s my considered opinion that a lot of managers are fearful of hearing information that may cause additional work and concern. Due to such items as span of control and increased workload, these managers would rather go into a denial mode rather than a confrontation mode. Sadly, when an employee addresses the elephants he or she is often pummeled by the manager who is overloaded and overwhelmed.
The solution is simple! When the manager listens, truly listens to the individual describing the elephant he or she may indicate that while they do not have the resources of time, money or even know how, it is at least captured for the future Opportunity of mitigation.
With this “illuminated culture” we minimize the need for “whistleblowers” and create an open sharing environments which is not limited by the egos and fears of management.
Great points David! It’s amazing the power the comes from mastering the skill of listening! Even if the manager is truly powerless to affect any change, simply listening and empathizing with people can make a world of difference.
Thanks for adding your insights.
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Reblogged this on Mercuri International Norge and commented:
Tre trinn for å ta takle elefanten i rommet – et spennende blogginnlegg av Leading with trust:
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Very interesting and useful article Randy.
The approaches are respectful and healthy and I believe the concept of finding good in the other party and expressing it – sincerely – with some genuine feeling behind it – and not just throwing it out there quickly, also can create harmony and buy-in if placed in the proper order in the conversation.
Thanks for your feedback Michael. I’ve found the process to be very effective (assuming the participants are genuinely invested in improving the relationship).
This is great advice for defusing tension and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to share their thoughts/feelings. The I-statements are particularly important in helping avoid the language of blame.
I’m glad you found it helpful Kimberlee. Using “I” language is important to keep the participant’s from blaming others or making excuses.
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