Thinking Out Loud

What Can You Control?

Daniel becomes easily irritated when Jon speaks. The two men sit on a community development committee in the town where they live. Both are well respected and valued for their participation. They don’t know each other personally even though they have served together for years. Each represents a different constituency, but that’s not the source of their friction. 

Daniel and I talked about his frustration with himself for getting irritable. So, at a recent meeting, Daniel challenged himself to pay closer attention to when his irritation level began to rise, hoping this would help him understand why he felt that way. He wanted to find a way to overcome it.

As the meeting progressed, Daniel realized that he immediately reacted to Jon and frequently felt the impulse to stand up to him. It seemed that Jon tried to dominate the meeting, exerting power for the purpose of having control, and Daniel rushed to speak out right away, almost interrupting Jon and trying to match what he perceives to be Jon’s intensity. Daniel considers himself a leader and was perplexed by this competitiveness with Jon, with seeming to need to prove he is equal in stature to Jon.

When we talked this over, Daniel realized that his true goal was to collaborate and that competing for “stature” was not the way to get there. More importantly, he realized that this dueling interfered with the collaborative spirit of the committee as a whole. Having this awareness shifted the focus from Jon to himself, which gave Daniel an opportunity to improve the situation. Focusing on Jon, what Jon was doing, and how he could stand up to Jon was clearly a dead end.

Together we looked at the different approaches Daniel could take to change the dynamic. I shared with him a concept I developed to use in workshops for business professionals, a tool that can help them assess their behavior and determine what a business relationship needs. The concept is simple: Business relationships involve authority, education, empathy, and collegiality. Identifying the area(s) where we are most comfortable and those that need to be developed can help us build and maintain successful ones.

As we talked about this concept and the individual areas, Daniel acknowledged that he regularly spoke from a place of authority when he talked to Jon. He believed that was where Jon was coming from and that he had to match it or Jon would get the better of him. He realized that if he paid more attention to the other three domains, making sure his communication reflected more empathy (demonstrated understanding), collegiality (willingness to collaborate), and education (reinforce purpose), he could avoid an adversarial pattern of interaction and create a more constructive pathway to the goals of the committee. So that’s what Daniel did, and he immediately felt better: His exchanges with Jon were more collaborative discussion and the committee moved more smoothly toward their goals.

Daniel’s intentions were good when he was “standing-up” to Jon. He really believed that if he didn’t, Jon would dominate the meetings and they wouldn’t benefit from their collective wisdom as a group. And it seemed common sense to him to match Jon’s energy to achieve balance. But of course, that didn’t work, and Daniel found that entering the communication through other doors helped create a more collaborative environment, which is what he really wanted.

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