014 (Sometimes) Face The Problem By Not Facing The Person
This is Dr. Tori. Welcome to the Influence Every Day show where we make every day better and we influence for good.
Let's face it, sometimes the best way to face your problems is to not face them (the person) at all.
I was once consulted by a woman who was a rising CEO in the nonprofit world. She had jumped from one large health care organization to a nonprofit that needed to scale, and they really needed her skills and her expertise. But what was happening was she was coming into an organization that its original CEO was its founder and the main developer of its technology and remained on staff. He was a scientific lead. And now here comes a young woman taking his place, hired by the board of that particular organization.
I had been working with her. I was helping her with influence and leadership skills, public speaking, rapport, persuasion, these sort of things. And now she called me and she said, "Hey, Ed, I need your help. I'm coming into this organization where this person, who is the technical and scientific lead previously the CEO, basically doesn't really have the skill set to scale an organization, and that's why they're bringing me in now. I'm coming in as this new CEO young woman. There's potentially age issues, potentially gender issues. There's certainly some feeling of loss and perhaps grieving and these sort of things.".
So she's explaining this entire context to me and she said normally she'd be able to handle that. She's handled that time and time again. But what was different this time was that the person in question, the one who everyone in the organization knew was the meat and bones of the organization. He was being really disruptive. He would sit in meetings, huff and puff and sigh and roll his eyes. He'd make side comments whenever she would talk about the direction that the organization was going to go in.
Although everyone supported her and said they love the direction she's taking it in, in those meetings, everyone was visibly uncomfortable. She said that the entire room was palpably on edge. Sometimes he would even get up and pace while she was talking, sometimes even purposely walk up and grab stuff that's right in front of her or leave the board table and then go to sit off to the side and look out the window and huff and puff. She had said, "Look, I've tried multiple influence strategies. You know, I've tried all the things that you taught me in some of the trainings and things like that. And now I am struggling because I'm not getting through to this guy. I feel like I've reached every other person in the organization except him. So what can I do?".
So I asked her about the context. So tell me some of the things you've tried. Tell me what was the setting in which you tried them? Were you on the phone? Was it text? Was it email? Was it in-person? Where was it in-person? What was the setting? All those things. Right. And it turned out that obviously she had the sense to do these things in person. But when she did them in-person, she was always facing him. Now, why am I bringing this up? Well, the popular "literature" in Facebook and LinkedIn and all these things where people post quick memes and carousels to scroll through with things that they took from other locations and sort of package them in a different way and say, hey, look, check this out.
Oftentimes they're saying, lean in. They're saying make eye contact. Well, guess what? That doesn't always apply. For sure, most of the time, those things are great advice, but not all the time. And so we always need to have this little caveat where you adjust for context. For example, there may be a cultural context in which eye contact is not appropriate. There may be another context like this one, which is when somebody feels threatened and vulnerable and they are the alpha and they are now no longer being the alpha. In that moment, eye contact is threatening. Whatever is coming out of the mouth is not heard. Primarily, they experience threat and therefore it's one of three responses. It's fight, it's flight, or it's freeze. One thing you can do there is you can disarm by not making eye contact in this context.
Eye contact may not be the best path forward... Meaning you have to be judicious about it. Haven't you ever seen movies like The Truman Show? I don't know if you've ever seen that, but there's one scene where they're sitting on a sort of like a dock or the edge of a bridge, and they're looking out, they're having drinks and they're just having a deep conversation in the middle of the night and they're looking out over the water.
Haven't you noticed that most of the time when you see two men having a deep heart-to-heart conversation, they're not looking at each other? They're looking at a game. They're sitting there next to their friend and they're having this heart-to-heart conversation while the game is going on, or they're watching a football game on TV and they're and they're having this conversation or they're on a porch or they're by a lake or by a river, fishing, golfing, or they're out playing whatever sport, and they're having this conversation while they're not making eye contact.
So I suggested to her. You've tried all these other things. And one of the things that was always consistent was you were facing him. Try to have a meeting where you're not facing him. And so we talked about it. We talked about how some of the strategies. My first suggestion was to try a coffee shop because several other times when women that were on the rise in sort of power sort of leadership things, many times I suggest that they go to the coffee shop to have sort of a conversation. Why? Because if you pick a seat along the wall, you can both lean back on your chair and sort of put your arm up and not face each other for part of the time and face each other part of the time. And it's a nonthreatening stance.
But when your shoulders are square, you're leaning in and your eyes are right in. That can be experienced as threatening, depending on who it is and what the context is. Coffee shops are sometimes great for that. While we were talking, we were talking about all the different settings that she could set up one of these heart-to-heart conversations with this person, and she came up with the idea. She's like, "What if I had a walking meeting?" And I was like, "That is brilliant! That's perfect. If that's something you guys typically do." (I happen to love walking meetings, by the way).
If you have a walking meeting, first of all, you're not facing each other by definition. Like that would just be weird, but you're not facing each other and you can choose the setting. It can be along the water, it can be in a path through a park with trees and birds chirping.
And so go for that walking meeting. She did. And she called me back and she was like, "Ed, that was incredible. Everything changed. You know, he opened up about all the things he was experiencing and he was wondering what people were thinking of him. I was able to share that. You know, people were worried about how he was feeling. They were worried for him. They weren't they weren't thinking less of him. If anything, they were caring more for him because they knew what it meant to him and how his whole heart was in it. And she's like and I used reframing techniques about how to reframe this as the path forward, to continue his legacy, to let it grow in a way that can scale. And we talked about like sort of an analogy of climbing a mountain." You go to one camp and you go to another camp or another camp, and sometimes you have to swap out the tools and sometimes you even have to swap out the guide, because that leg of the journey requires different tools and different people.
This is essentially the same thing. His work is going to be lifted up by having her as CEO and she needs him as a valuable scientific and technical partner in this particular role.
The point here is sometimes you face it by not facing. You face the problem by not facing the person.
And in general, that's actually great advice when it comes to having difficult conversations. You put your attention on the issue and the path forward, not on the person, because so it's the path forward that will move you forward. Your attention goes out to a future. And if you drive people's attention to the future, that is where their energy will go.
Remember where attention goes, energy flows and that thing grows. So draw their attention to that future. And one of the best ways to do that is to not face each other when somebody feels threatened.
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Three quick points as I conclude:
(1) The first thing is context is everything. It really matters when you apply this. This doesn't apply to all situations. Therefore, don't try to apply it to all situations. And in fact, I would recommend just simply try this specifically when you have an alpha personality who is being challenged and it's time for a heart-to-heart.
(2) Point number two is when you face the problem by facing away from the person, that has to be natural. It should not be a setting where looking away gives off the vibe that you are either distracted or that you are avoiding eye contact. What you want is a natural setting, like looking at a sunset, looking at a lake, looking off of a porch, walking together, sitting along the wall, relaxed in a coffee shop. It's natural to sort of look away there. You're not avoiding eye contact.
It's really important to not convey that you're avoiding eye contact or that you're distracted because those two will destroy rapport and that will essentially disrupt the entire thing.
(3) And then the third point, and this is just sort of a cue that I use for myself, that when I am having a conversation with an Alpha and I have to yield a little bit to their alpha-ness and remove some of the threat. One of the ways of removing the threat is already the body language and turning away. But another way is the content of what you discuss. So I use the fact that we're looking away as if we're looking out into the future.
And I want to focus on that future state. I'm not focusing on what happened, who did what, why did they do it that way? Why did they say it that way? No, I'm looking out at the future and I'm trying to move us all toward a better place. And so I. Use that as a cue for myself to focus on future and to focus on contribution. How are we going to get there? How are we going to move there together?
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