When teams are under pressure, e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck. Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them feels blocked.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that feel deadlocked, ping-pong back and forth without making progress or go round and round in circles. Both parties may state and restate their views or positions, wishing the other would really hear.
If unresolved, responses may include anger/frustration (fight) or disengagement/withdrawal (flight).
If such situations occur, a simple four step process can make a positive difference, releasing the stuck-ness to move things forward. It can feel hard to do in practice, however, if caught up in the drama and the tense feelings that ensue! I’ve found that jotting down questions as an aide memoire can help, especially if stuck-ness is a repeating pattern.
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves metaphorically (or literally) stepping back from the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening. E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be talking at cross purposes.’
2. Awareness. (‘What’s going on for me?’). This stage involves tuning into my own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage involves inquiring of the other person in an open spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage involves making requests or suggestions that will help move the conversation forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of achieving results.
Do you ever find yourself talking at cross purposes with a client, resulting in bemusement, confusion or frustration? I met with a team recently to explore their work with others. I noticed how they would sometimes describe themselves as a ‘service function’, a title that implied and created a specific type of role and relationship in their own minds as well as in the minds of others.
As we explored the nature of their work in more depth, it became clear that they aspired to relate to clients as business partners, not simply as service providers. In fact, they already relate to clients in a number of different modes but they hadn’t yet stopped to reflect on and articulate this clearly. As they moved between modes implicitly rather than explicitly, it risked confusion.
We separated the modes into a conceptual map, drawing this on a flipchart with ‘quality and accountability’ as an overall goal. Sometimes they operated as consultants, helping others to think through, understand and do things well for themselves. Sometimes they operated as co-leaders, running joint initiatives, events, projects or processes in collaboration with others.
Sometimes they operated as service providers, providing information, advice or services or doing specific tasks on behalf of others. Sometimes they operated in governance mode, ensuring that clients are aware of and adhere to legal, policy and agreed good practice. The trick as a business partner is to navigate between modes according contextual opportunities and demands.
It’s one thing to feel clear about your own role and chosen mode in a particular situation yet important, too, to ensure the client is also clear. One way to do this is to pose a simple question: ‘This is how I see my role and your role in this situation. Is that how you see it?’ Posing the question in this way opens the possibility for discussion, clarification and negotiation.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.