I sit with couples at my conference (f/k/a dining) room table while one of them sobs. The wife desperately tries to change her husband’s mind after he’s decided to pursue their divorce. Drowning in her sea of fear, she clings to the forlorn hope that it’s not over yet. But he’s comfortably ensconced in his separation already, robed in his decision.
If she was distanced enough to be honest with herself, she would have to admit that, for some reason, she just wasn’t what he wanted. And she is likely better off without him.
Could he have broken the news in a better way?
Even as a professional, it can be difficult for me to separate the logical implication of people’s words from my own emotional reaction to them. For this wife, not being what he wants is different, in the emotional sense, from being “unwanted” or undesirable. But she’s not ready to hear that, not now.
If we are to assist our clients through their most crucial conversations, we must know how to pace ourselves through our own difficult dialogues. However, it’s not just about how I walk myself through discussions in a divorce team environment (whether it’s my own office team or an entire team of collaborative professionals). I must also consider how the team will react to my feedback.
It took me a long time to stop fearing how colleagues will receive necessary criticism and even longer to stop being afraid to give it.
We can’t control people’s baggage or their abilities to regulate their own emotions, but we can control how we deliver our feedback. LeeAnn Renninger, a cognitive psychologist, suggests following a four-part formula when approaching difficult conversations. How we communicate our expectations is the toolbox of our professional life. Would you trust a surgeon who enters surgery without any medical equipment? Then why should your teammates trust a collaborative professional who is familiar with the four elements of constructive feedback?
Offer the “Opt-In”
The first step is Renninger’s “Micro-Yes.” Start your conversation with a question. Something like “Do you have a minute to discuss how that last phone call went?”
Beginning with a question allows the feedback recipient to clear the headspace to hear you, rather than to become defensive. Asking a question also sets the tone for the conversation. Rather than telling him how this will go, offer him the opportunity to have a say. Maybe he’s having a bad day and doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to receive feedback in that moment. This gives him the ability to exercise some control before the conversation starts. If he does say “Yes,” however, then he’s taken the opportunity to invest in the conversation before it begins.
What might be improved? I’m a fan of the compliment sandwich. In creative writing workshops, we summarize the story before we offer our critique. Feedback is not helpful if you don’t understand the back story.
It’s the same in any collaborative setting. Did you understand what’s going on? Summarize the situation first to ensure that you did.
So, first, talk about what is working. Is your collaborative teammate really observant? Did he notice that one spouse is wearing her wedding ring while her husband is not? Does his insight help you understand your client better? Did he ask great questions that helped the clients communicate their values or concerns or goals? Tell him!
After you tell him why you value him, tell him where he might improve; be specific. Did you email him on Tuesday, and he didn’t reply until Saturday? Did he interrupt your client while she was speaking? Did he misquote her husband? If you don’t tell him what’s wrong, then he has no path to fix it.
If you don’t tell him how to fix it, all you’ve done is complain. That’s not constructive feedback.
Make an Impact Statement
How does the problem impact the group? The dynamic? The communications? Were you annoyed that he didn’t return your email or was it a problem because you were trying to coordinate a full-team meeting with four other professionals? Your client may not have noticed that he interrupted her, but now she hesitates before she speaks. Maybe now she’s cautious about asking for what she needs. Perhaps her husband is touchier than before because the team didn’t “hear” him. So now he’s more difficult.
Remind your teammate that his actions represent all of you. If one professional takes an action that makes a client distrust him that could lead to mistrust of the team and the process. Each member has to do his part; if not, it hurts everyone.
Ask For Feedback
Is there something your teammate is not sharing? Maybe his assistant, who handled his scheduling, is on medical leave. Perhaps he is going through a divorce of his own? Maybe he doesn’t know how to separate his professional reactions from his personal emotions.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know what everyone else is going through. We need to be open to starting those conversations.
Our teammates need to show up for us, but we also need to show up for them. Maybe you can spare an intern for a few weeks to help your cohort to catch up. If you don’t ask what your teammates need from you, they may not volunteer the information.
If you want your teammates to trust you, then you have to trust each other.
If you’re interested in learning how to be a better teammate, reach out to me at Joryn@JorynJenkins.com or find me at Your Collaborative Marketing Coach. Your marketing is my marketing! And if you’d like to learn more about how to become a Collaborative Champion or a Legal Influencer, buy my toolkit or attend my training!