A secret skill for difficult workplace conversations

A “secret” skill for difficult workplace conversations

Today, I am sharing a secret skill with you many don’t think of. Well, actually it is not a real “secret”. Often, we are just too busy with ourselves and not clear-headed enough to make use of it as the following case study shows:

Case study

I was leading a workshop with bank managers, their CEO expecting feedback on the general atmosphere and current situation. There was such a lack of trust and the atmosphere was so bad that the CEO agreed in advance to getting anonymous feedback. The managers could express their opinion by putting stickers on a graph with various questions.

Later, the CEO visited the group and looked at the graph: Most stickers accumulated in negative areas. He was upset. Despite our former agreement of respecting anonymity, he started to point on stickers, asking for names: “Who’s put the sticker there…” – deathly silence in the room. He kept going with asking, building up pressure. Fairness is one of my highest values…and integrity, fighting for justice, Mother Theresa, you get the idea. I reminded him of the agreement we had and of his promise not to ask for names.

He was not amused at all, left the room. I got kicked out of the project and lost the client. You don’t tell off a CEO in front of his managers.

If you like, you can stop reading now for a moment:

  • What would you have done in this situation if you were me?
  • What should I have done differently?


What I learnt as a result of this hard lesson

There would have been a far better outcome for everybody, if I had allowed myself to take a breath, have a little pause for thinking and a less impulsive reaction. I didn’t connect at all with the CEO’s needs and feelings. He expected a better outcome and was so shocked about the result. I could have helped him to articulate his frustration. I also took over responsibility for his managers and probably underestimated their ability to resist the pressure he built up. Instead I activated his self-defence by correcting him in front of his managers. A precious opportunity was lost: rebuilding trust and a meaningful dialogue between CEO and managers about what was going on in their organisation and what they could do about it together. Just because I wasn’t able to “zip it” and think…

This lesson taught me far more than just to pause more often. Anyway: today, pauses / little “thinking breaks” are one of my most favourite strategies in conversations. You don’t need to attend courses to learn it, you just need to practice.

“Zip it” more often in conversations and think:
a little pause for better results and relationships.

Try it yourself
  1. How could you experiment and “play” with little “zip its”?
  2. Can you think of workplace conversations where you should allow yourself more “thinking breaks” in order to get a better outcome / to connect better with the needs of others?
  3. “Thinking breaks” are just one way of using a little gap or pause in a conversation. What else could you use them for?
  4. What stops you from pausing? What can you do about it? Sometimes you need to be brave for pausing.


Please leave a comment here and share your thoughts

What are your experiences with pausing in difficult conversations?


Image: Created with tagxedo.com

© Jutta Nedden, Lead & Connect, 11/2016


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