Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lessons from the Bully Pulpit

Yesterday afternoon I endured trial by conference call—a kind of New Age endurance test. I had back-to-back calls set up, running from 1-7 pm and consuming all but 20 minutes—about enough time to pee, get a glass of water, and shake off the first call to get ready for the second.

Because I'd be tying up a phone for so long, I took both calls from the FIC trailer. While I was undisturbed (good) and not disturbing others (also good), there was a decided downside to my choice. A late winter storm rolled in and I experienced the folly of sitting for six hours in an unheated space. Despite being bundled in a down vest and a woolen cap, the rainy 35-degree weather inexorably sucked the heat out of my body, to the point where I was unable to record notes during the last hour because my fingers were numb. Shivering, I was ever so thankful for the restorative warmth of the woodstove in the main house afterwards!)

• • •
Both calls were attempts to untangle conflicts. While the second was work I was doing for a client (facilitating conversations about someone else's troubles), the first was about a conflict I was a party to. And that's the one I want to explore in this entry.

It was essentially an attempt to understand better why a colleague (whom I'll call Dale) and I were having so much difficulty working together the last 18 months. While being in conflict is not new territory for me (having a facility for assisting others through struggle hardly means I'm proof against being reactive myself, or triggering reactions in others), it was sobering to listen to the Dale's story. Here's what I got out of it:

1. As an administrator, I'm often in the position of drafting agendas, presenting issues, focusing conversations, and formulating proposals. In the process, it is not uncommon for me to be in the position of asking pointed questions, trying to keep the ball rolling. If you are on the receiving end of those questions, it isn't always a pleasant experience. One of Dale's first interactions with me was in such a dynamic, on a conference call, and he felt isolated and pushed around. Strike one.

2. A couple months after this exchange, I visited Dale's community in an attempt to work further on the issues over which we were tussling, this time with half a dozen of Dale's community mates present. On the key issue, it turned out that everyone from Dale's community saw the issue the same way, and I saw it differently. Because it was something I had worked hard on (for more than a year) and was one that I felt was fundamental to the program's future, I was highly frustrated with the community's position. I spoke passionately in making a plea for my thinking, yet persuaded no one. Dale was shaken by my behavior and felt I had disrespected the community. Dale began to see me as someone who gets carried away with his emotions and lets his feelings cloud his judgment. Worse, I was seen as a bully; someone who has no qualms about pressuring people into agreeing with him and is used to getting his way through intimidation. Strike two.

3. It took a while for me to understand the damage that had been done, and the ways my behavior (first during the conference call, and then during the meeting at Dale's community) had left bad impressions. When, subsequently, I rasied questions over the appropriateness of some reimbursement requests submitted by Dale (that came to me as administrator to process), things got worse. Where I thought I was just doing my job with diligence, Dale thought I was selectively punishing the community for disagreeing with me months earlier. In short, I was abusing my role and out of integrity. Strike three.

4. In yesterday's call, I learned that Dale had gotten advice from others about how best to deal with me: don't give me direct feedback; be as careful as possible about how communications with me are worded; pick your battles; and let me "win a lot." In short, I needed to be coddled, presumably because I tended not to handle critial feedback well, and was prone to being reactive. Ouch!

What Is My Part in This?
As painful as this conversation was—and as different as Dale's story is from mine—my task is to sift through it for what I can use to understand the ways in which my choices were poor, and can be improved.

Lesson #1: As someone who is often in a leadership role, or a position of power, I need to be scrupulously mindful about context—especially when I feel strongly about something. I think Dale is right that I can come across as intimidating, and I need to do a much better job of checking with my audience about how to be with them when I'm an advocate. I can't count on people being open to hearing passionate statements from me. It's not about authenticity; it's about overwhelm.

If I'm upset, or otherwise having an emotional response, then the opportunity for misinterpretation is even greater. Most groups don't discuss or have a common understanding about how to work emotionally, and it's not smart to just bring my feelings into the picture without setting the stage. I should be saying something like, "I'm having a reaction to what's being said and am unsure how to proceed," and then taking cues about where to go next from the responses I get to that disclosure. In my haste to express my views, I still tend to forget that the fundamental need in that moment is to proceed in such a way that the channels of listening remain open. What good is "my truth" when the only thing people are hearing is my tone and volume?

Lesson #2: I waited too long to check in about the damage. Never mind that I had frustrations that mirrored Dale's, if I want better relationships it's on me to initiate. It's my job as administrator to keep lines of communication clear and I got lazy. Pouting doesn't help.

Lesson #3: While I'm thoroughly familiar with the potential trap of commingling the roles of facilitator and presenter, I allowed myself to slide into it during that conference call where the damage with Dale first began. While it was efficient to have me both run the meeting and present the issues, it was a false economy. In the end, it was way more expensive for me to attempt to manage a conversation about an issue on which I was clearly not neutral. Dale has been a strong proponent of securing neutral facilitators for subsequent meetings, and that's good thinking.
• • •
Of course, at the end of the day, stumbling is humbling. Fortunately, it's also human. While I'd much rather not have had the experience, now that I have it's on me to make the most of it. My challenge is to use the scars to help remember to do it differently the next time I'm about to speak passionately, the next time I'm aware of tensions with my behavior, the next time I'm setting up a meeting about which I'm a stakeholder on the issues.

I'm reminded of a bumper sticker that encapsulates my choice here: "Experience is mandatory; learning is optional."

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