Creating the Space for Honesty

Last night, Sunday, I was returning to work for a late night recording session with my 2015-16 apprentice. He was asking how a meeting with 4 entrepreneurs went on Friday night as we drove north towards my office. I said, “I created the space for them to be honest with one another about how they felt about the project and their own capabilities. Two of them decided they want to own the project and two of them decided they want to support the project.” He then asked, “What do you mean you created the space?”

Creating the space

This is a term/phrase I use a lot, “creating the space.” Creating the space for honesty. Creating the space for success. Creating the space for learning. What I mean is setting the stage, prepping the kitchen, mowing the field. Life happens in contexts and we often do life in the wrong context.

Here is what I mean.

Let’s say you are having a meeting with your staff. You are reviewing your 2015 numbers and some of them really excite you and some are troubling. You have a key employee that oversees the production in the area where the low numbers are. You are talking to the whole group but that person is on your mind. And then, without warning, you blurt out your frustration at that person and their performance. The discussion went from focusing on the business to focusing on them. This is not creating the space, this is a sneak attack, a sucker punch. What is that person suppose to do? I guarantee their instinct is to save face in front of the team. You have not created the space, worse yet, you violated the previous space of collectively reviewing the company’s performance. This practice creates animosity, awkwards, frustration, embarrassment, but certainly not honesty, or healthy discussion.

Back to my original example. Three weeks ago I was on a coaching call with these entrepreneurs and I sensed a bit of tension about the pace of the project and the sharing of the duties. There wasn’t anything clearly raising its hand as a problem but rather a perceived tension or hesitancy as they spoke and answered one another. If they hadn’t created the space to be open and honest in real time now as co-owners it wasn’t going to happen at the right time later. I knew from experience that the @#$% would hit the fan at the wrong moment later, probably over money. So I scheduled a meeting, at my house, with these 4 individuals, and their spouses, and their children. My goal was to create a space where everyone who had a stake in the success of the project was in the room at the same time to have the same discussion. The project couldn’t afford misread texts or Slack updates.

My strategy was simple:

  1. Feed them.
  2. Explain my “cards face up” methodology.
  3. Say what I thought I perceived.
  4. Ask open ended questions.
  5. Shut up.

My goal was to create a space where each individual felt comfortable to be frank, honest, and vulnerable about how they felt about the project. Let me break down each strategy.

Feed them

I like food. You like food. People like food. And better yet, your body likes food. I have set through way too many meetings where everyone is over-caffeinated, underslept, and having a blood sugar crisis. This is not a great environment to make critical decisions. Professional athletes careful guard their diet so they have the right energy at the right time to get the job done. Rarely do I hear of professional “anything else” taking daily diet into consideration for getting the job done. So I safely made the assumption that if I could stabilize their blood sugar and lower their cortisol that I had done what I could to help them physically be ready for the meeting. So 8 adults, 12 kids, and 3 boxes of spaghetti noodles later everyone was fed.

Never underestimate the power of eating before having a serious meeting. I find in business we have serious meetings and then go eat afterwards, this does not make sense. Dine and then debate. Trust me, the debate is way more productive after food than before.

I also think there is part of the human DNA that responds to eating in a group that creates a space for community. If you want to bring people together, feed them. This has ALWAYS worked throughout all of humanity. I wanted these four people to come to the meeting as equals. Breaking bread around the same table does this faster than anything else. If you don’t know your neighbor, eat with them. If you are having trouble with an adult child, eat with them. If you and your boss aren’t getting along, eat with them. It just works. Side note: only include adult beverages AFTER a decision or an agreement has been made. Alcohol rarely increases people’s ability to say what they mean and others hear it and appreciate it.

So I fed them, they seems happy based on the smiling and laughing, so on to strategy 2: cards face up.

Cards face up

I met my wife in the summer of 1999. She lived in Brookings, South Dakota and I lived in Moriarty, New Mexico. We met working on a project in Denver. In 1999 there was no texting, booting up the computer to send and email was a hassle, so we spent every night talking on the phone, for hours. Remember calling cards? They were a godsend since our cell plans came with 30 whole minutes a month.

We talked about everything imaginable. One of the topics that came up was how we resolve conflict. My guess was that our methods would be informed by how our parents resolved conflict, like it or not. Her parents were super private during conflict, so that wasn’t very informative. My mom wanted to hash it out and my dad did everything to avoid conflict, so that wasn’t healthy. We weren’t off to a great start.

I told, my now wife, that I felt my parents handled conflict like poker players handle their hand. Each person has a secret hand of cards and it is their job to trick the other player into showing their hand first. It is a game of deception and disinformation. Player hold their hands where only they can see them. This might work for poker but it doesn’t for communication and conflict resolution. I felt each one of my parents had a trump card or cards that they played after the other one played their best card.

I remember having the visual of playing “52 Card Pickup” during this conversation. I am sure you had a father or crazy uncle who at some point convinced you to play this trick of a game. As you recall, all 52 cards are shot into the air via one-handed shuffle method and go flying all over the room in a huge mess. If your job is to reset the deck then your first task it so turn all of the cards face up. This is the only way to reset the deck. To create order. To right the wrong. Open, face up, honesty.

So I said I want to resolve conflict by communicating in those times with our cards face up. It might be messy at the beginning but it is the shortest path to restoring order.

I shared this story at our post dinner party. I was setting the stage for open and honest communication. Now there are some ground rules for this, which I will go into in another post, but the goal is to seek understanding first and respond second.

What I did was create the rules of engagement for the next 2 hours. The rules did not include beating around the bush, back-handed compliments, or getting upset. Now that they rules were established it was time to lay my cards face up first, a peace offering if you will. I was also demonstrating the behavior I wanted by being an example. Kind of a see it, do it model.

Say what I thought I perceived

This is where the rubber meets the road. I began to recount several specific instances that I felt were symptoms of a larger set of problems. This is tricky.

My role is to say not only what I was perceiving but what I think others are thinking. I want to throw the words out there and be able to own them as an “outsider.” The most extreme example is that during the evening I told one of the owners that they will make a terrible owner of the future business. Those are words you have to own. I may be wrong but I would guess there were others thinking the same thing. I was able to own that honest sentence. And guess what, after a funny face the person agreed with me. This let some serious tension out of the room and removed some future anxiety from the group. It removed pressure.

I often start into my different points with phrases like:

“I could be wrong, so stop me and tell me if I am off base here.”

“What I am about to say is me thinking out loud, if anything is wrong, let me know.”

“I perceived/heard/saw X which made me think Y is true.”

If I have any feedback from participants prior to the meeting I will often own that feeling or concern as my own. This frees up the actual concerned party to agree or disagree.

Often I will be over dramatic on my words so that others can disagree which allows the freedom to unite against me. A group of people will often unify around a common enemy. Sometimes I am that common enemy for the sake of group unity.

After I am done dishing my thoughts/concerns/perceptions it is time for some questions.

Ask open-ended questions

This should be given when facilitation discussion but doing it right really matters. Typically after I have spilled my perceptions on the group I will ask something like:

“So what do you think about what I just said?”

“Where was the truth in what I just said?”

Or if I see someone squirming during my talking time I point it out.

“So and so, I noticed that you didn’t seem very comfortable when I was talking about X. What was going on in your mind when I was speaking?”

Here are some other questions I often ask:

“How will we know if this meeting is a success?”

“What do we need resolution on tonight in order to move forward tomorrow?”

“If I could wave my magic wand and solve anything for your group in an instant, what would that be?”

“In what areas do you feel clear and what areas feel fuzzy?”

I also have another technique, though I didn’t use it in this meeting, that helps boil down what the group is doing well and what they need to work on in just a matter of seconds.

I ask, “On a scale of 1-15 how well is the group doing?” or “how well is the process going? or “how well are you getting along?”

I say 1-15 because people are bad at math and they have to stop and think about where the middle is to know if they are above failing. Otherwise on a scale of 1 – 10 you often get 7.

Then I ask two questions. I ask the second one only after the first one is fully answered.

  1. Why so low? No matter what their number is, short of 15, this is designed to get them to fess up to what they think they are doing wrong. They are always correct. It is funny how people always know or have the correct hunch. Let them talk here.
  2. Why so high? This is designed to get them to fess up to what they think they are doing right. This is always very interesting because it more or less explains their actions. More often than not they give a great answer here. I will then follow it up by asking:
  3. So do you think that if you did less of the stuff that drove your number down and more of the stuff that propped it up you’d be better off? Watch what happens in the moments after answering this questions. Shoulders drop. Faces relax. Posture changes. A burden is lifted. This over simplification helps people bite off chunks they can handle.

Shut up

Typically by this point I am 15-20 minutes into me talking and everyone else following my lead. I will often then say one of the following to pass the baton to the members of the group.

“Wow, I just noticed what time it is. I have been yapping and not letting you speak. Someone else take the mic and I will shut up.”

“I gotta go pee/send a quick text/blow my nose/get a drink of water. Someone else talk while I am gone.”

Or if anyone in the group has covered their mouth, is using one hand to hold back the other, has a foot or leg bouncing or anything else that shows me they are dying to speak I ask them to talk next.

And then I shut up. I listen intently, but I shut up. Silence is a powerful motivator to get someone to speak up. People hate silence. Enjoy watching them squirm.

Sometimes I will circle back to 3) Say what I thought I perceived during this time to keep the discussion clear and healthy.

So let’s say Person A is diving into this honesty thing and something pops out of their mouth that is either a personal slam or ignorant or causes others in the room to have a physical reaction. At this moment I will usually interject. I will typically repeat word for word what I just heard them say and ask them if that is what they said. Then I will say, “Ok, so, if you don’t mind, I am going to translate what I think you mean.” This is my point to correct them or clarify.

Let me give you an example outside of a group meeting like this. I have a 9 year old son. He is almost a 2nd Degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. Pound for pound he is a tough little fart. I grew up doing martial arts so he and I like to fight/wrestle often. Every once in awhile he will get really excited during a tough moment in our match and haul off and punch me. Now keep in my that we are going pretty hard and he is a little guy. So chances are I have pushed his buttons pretty hard before this point so he is having a natural reaction. Twice I have been punched in the face. Hard. At this point I always immediately stop the battle and say, “Are we punching now, cause I don’t remember us discussing the punching rule. I love to punch. If you want to punch, let’s do it.” To which he always quickly replies, “No, no, no, I am sorry, I don’t want to punch. I shouldn’t have hit you.” To which I reply, “Are you sure, because I love to punch. If you want to fight like a grown man and punch then you have to be willing to take them as well.” He usually then says, “No. I promise I don’t want to punch. Just wrestle dad.” At which point we resume trouble free.

What I did here is clarify his actions and intentions. He violated our initial ground rules, spoken or unspoken. I gave him a chance to own that decision. I am willing to redefine the rules if that is what he wants, but I am just clarifying. I am allowing a takeback. A redo. I do the same thing with a group of adults.

If a punch is made or something seems out of whack I call timeout and clarify, and then move forward.

Takeaways

At the end I often ask each person, “What are you taking away from this meeting?” This is to ensure that people understood each other. We don’t want folks to walk away confused on more issues.

And then I always ask, “Is there anything else. Anything we didn’t discuss that you think we should have.” From this point there are really two paths, everyone goes home content and clear or you just opened a new can of worms and your start the process over. You are basically checking to see if your deck was returned cards face up in order or shuffled.