The other day I had a great conversation. It was life-affirming, easy, and clear (“everyone was on the same page”). Each person honored each other with deep respect and curious inquiry. It made me smile for a long time afterwards.
I was grateful because I was still harboring a wound from elsewhere, a harsh conversation. Gosh, we all have them at one time or another – bad meetings full of hurt, anger, blame… When these feelings blow up at work, it’s hard to make amends and reconcile.
A little while ago, I had such a meeting. It was with someone who intimidated me. We were going to talk about why he abruptly resigned from a project team. Expecting to hear contempt and criticism, I felt like a squirrel going in to the bear’s den. As I expected, the bear attacked. I went through all three stages of stress at once – freeze, fight, and flight. I hung up the call in the middle of a tirade, unwilling to hear anymore.
I had gone into that meeting neither ready nor willing. I had gone in with a closed heart.
A constructive conversation requires an open mind. A meaningful conversation requires an open heart. In this particular case, I had neither. I had already concluded, “This person is a jerk and I don’t want to talk to them.” Funny how our perceptions influence our behavior. We act a certain way, and this shapes how others treat us. Lo and behold, I braced for the meeting, this person acted like a jerk, and I’m sure he thought I was a jerk too.
An open mind is one thing, but more than an open mind, what this person needed was an open heart. A curious, secure, and fearless heart. A heart willing to set one’s ego aside to go in search of the other.
It’s easy to think, “This person treats me badly and they don’t deserve it.” We forget that harmful behavior is a product of one’s pain. But if I am open-hearted and I want a shift to occur, I must put aside my own hurt and suspend my judgment. I imagine putting my “Book of Judgment” on the shelf, storing it there and not in this conversation. (It will be there waiting for me afterwards.) For now, I can pretend this person is new to me and I am just now getting to know them. I’ve come to the table with a fresh, clean slate.
If this sounds like too tall an order, think of a time when you were having an argument with a loved one – a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent – and in that conversation something clicked for you. The quality of your listening shifted. Your own wants and needs aside, you focused entirely on them. In this laser focus, you might have been silent, letting them speak freely, or you might have asked questions whose answers you wholeheartedly wished to know.
I think we can be more intentional about bringing this quality of listening into our work settings. Better once or twice a year than never. This requires that we come to the conversation with no outcomes in mind, no expectations, no results, no goals. And that’s really hard to do when our work conversations are supposed to be “productive” and our meetings come with agendas. Nonetheless – throw the agenda aside. Just talk.
It’s also difficult when, at work, our selves can be quite fragile. A sense of safety and security is not common. When who we are and what we do is conditional upon getting the job done (often, according to someone else’s terms), our jobs and identities are at stake. So, it’s especially important to know what we have to bring before a tough encounter. If any part of me is feeling fragile, I can’t bring an open heart to the conversation. I’ll be too busy defending myself to listen or pay attention to another’s needs. Instead of authentically engaging, I’m protecting myself. At least I know that, today, this conversation is about self-preservation.
Tomorrow, I might be ready for a different conversation. Maybe I can listen, inquire, and also be honest about why we’re really here. The meeting may have a pretense, but I acknowledge the real conversation is elsewhere, and I can invite the person to it. I hold my ground and I’m not shaken if I feel attacked.
Let’s imagine a “do-over” of that meeting. I’m hyper-aware of my closed-heartedness. I have very little to give today. Knowing this, I decide to keep this meeting short, despite the laundry list of talking points. Then I see my colleague is aggravated and, like me, really doesn’t want to be here. So I suggest we postpone the meeting; the agenda can wait. I say I’d be more “present” at another time. We reschedule, before any “words” are exchanged.
Imagining this outcome is calming and motivating. When you are feeling uneasy about a conversation, consider: What am I bringing with me? Can I put my views on the shelf? Am I interested in learning the other person’s needs, in deepening the relationship?
If not, tread lightly and carefully. End the meeting early, and start fresh another day.