4 practical tips to mindful leadership

Mindfulness seems a little intangible – immeasurable even.

It isn’t one of the first things that comes to mind in leadership circles and it is often an afterthought in workshops and continuing education events.

But, that’s changing.

Leadership and mindfulness actually go hand-in-hand and more and more organizations are embracing the benefits of incorporating mindfulness into their leadership practices.

Wait, what is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”

It’s the learned ability to focus 100% on what is happening in the present moment and choosing to apply all of your attention on a particular thing or person.

It’s conscious and focused attention. It’s being present. It’s channeled intention. And, it’s something that I highly encourage you to get behind.

How does that apply to leadership?

It’s easy to see myriad ripple effects within an organization with leaders who embrace mindfulness. Not only does practicing mindfulness lower stress and improve our ability to focus and manage our time, it shifts neurological patterns in our brains that can impact overall health and wellness.

The culture of multitasking and juggling all the balls in the air all the time is slowly becoming a thing of the past and for good reason. Multitasking is simply divided attention – the exact opposite of mindfulness and it’s no longer serving us. I’d argue it never was but we’re just now realizing it. We have enough demands on our time and attention. Applying mindfulness at work (and other areas of our life) is a relief from the chaos of the blinking and beeping of notifications that beg for our attention.

Mindfulness also fosters self-awareness and leaders who are self-aware are able to clearly see their role, their strengths, and how to best apply themselves to serve their team and their organization.

Mindful leadership is a way to take care of yourself and your team at the same time.

Four ways to incorporate mindfulness into your day:

If you’re not used to practicing mindfulness, there are some excellent tools and techniques that you can use to get started and gradually build your capacity as you find (or make) space.

1. Headspace and mini-meditations

Yes, the Headspace interface is a little bit, well, um, cute. But, I assure you – it’s very effective. I’ve been using it and loving it.

You can download the app onto your smartphone and you’re given 10 days of 10-minute guided meditation for beginners. Over the 10 days, you practice being completely present and it guides you, in stages, to increase the amount of time you spend with focused attention. I continue to be completely surprised at how effective that 10-minute investment is in turning my day around.

2. Body scans

Our days get away on us. Phone calls, emails, and meetings can completely take over and before you know it, it’s 4pm and you’ve barely looked up.

Set a reminder on your phone for a few times a day to stop what you’re doing and move your attention from the top of your head to your toes, one bit at a time.

This can take two minutes or ten minutes (or as long as you’d like, really) and will quickly bring you into the present moment. Notice how you’re feeling. Part of practising mindfulness is recognizing how you’re feeling and how things are affecting you — recognizing the often unconscious reactions we have.

I know you may be thinking that it’s hokey, maybe a bit hippy-ish, but what can I tell you — it works.

3. Deep breathing

Do you always take the same route from your car to your office door? Or walk by the same bookshelf a few times a day? Make a mental association between a physical thing that repeats throughout your day and mindfulness. Every time you see that thing, take three big deep breaths. Check in with yourself and notice what’s around you.

4. Predetermined phrases

I had to resist using the word mantra but, yah, that’s what I’m talking about. Do you have negative thoughts or limiting beliefs that auto-play in your mind when you’re not paying attention?

Take a day to simply observe which thoughts repeat.

What is your self-talk? Do you criticize yourself? Do you use harsh, judgemental words? Do you presume you won’t be good at things?

Once you’ve identified one or two thoughts where you are negative, choose an opposite statement that you can repeat to yourself whenever you catch yourself on auto-play.

Instead of thinking, “oh, that was stupid,” when you forget something or you make a mistake see if you can get yourself in the habit of thinking “oops, that was a mistake — good lesson learned for next time.”  This simple mindful practice does two things: it keeps you present in the moment because you’re aware of what you are thinking and it disrupts negative patterns at the same time.

Coach’s Questions: Where or when would you like to be more present in your day?  Where would being more positive boost not only the moment but the rest of your day?  What are you committing to do, today, to accomplish that?

Do your organization’s vision and values really line up?

At Padraig, we work with a lot of leaders.

Sometimes they lead a unit or a group of frontline staff within their organization, sometimes they have layers of managers and staff reporting to them, and often they are the CEO with everyone reporting to them.

One of the most frequent challenges our senior leaders talk about is the struggle to deliver on their organization’s vision — to make real the ideal. Often that comes down to the culture in the organization.

Culture is a direct result of the values you exhibit

Many of our client organizations have rock-solid vision statements. They clearly define what they’re aiming to do, where they want to be as an organization, and ideally, why they want that. The why is essential because it helps to define the values they live by in their organization.

Some organizations excel in accelerating toward their vision. It seems as if everyone in the organization knows where they want to be and why they want to be there; they’re driven to deliver on that vision in their day-to-day work.

Having a well-crafted vision statement is an essential starting point. But, why is it that some organizations, with great vision statements, are excelling and others don’t seem to be getting there?

It often comes down to Values and Culture

How do you work together? How do you treat each other? Do we value conflict around ideas or do we value people who keep their issues to themselves and do the job they’re given. The key is to be able to name the values you strive for and then to live them. That means modeling those behaviours as the leader and truly welcoming the behaviours in others.So why do I say that — who wouldn’t welcome someone living

So why do I say that — who wouldn’t welcome someone living up to the values they asked for?

Well, I’ve worked in a couple of organizations where we defined our values, we debated what we wanted to see, we put them down on paper, heck we sometimes even made posters for the boardroom wall. And then we sometimes forgot about them when they were most needed. But, not intentionally! Sometimes competing pressures drew us away from what we thought were our values.

Take, for example, a company we worked with recently whose values were aligned with some of the most successful value statements out there:

  • We have high aspirations and a desire to win.
  • We are focussed on our customers.
  • We think like owners.
  • We drive toward action.
  • We each see ourselves as key members of multiple teams.
  • We bring our passion and excitement for (…) to work every day.

These are pretty good values — one can see where they could really help an organization achieve great things if tied to a great vision. However, when push came to shove, as they say, some of these values weren’t always being lived. For example, “we think like owners” seemed like a great idea at the time, encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset in staff at all levels of the organization. The challenge was two-fold: preparing people for that expectation and then actually accepting it when it was needed.

Let me explain.

When a customer had a problem, frontline staff didn’t feel equipped to make important decisions to address the need themselves. And, when fixing that customer’s problem meant costing the company financially, management got very uncomfortable with the idea of frontline staff making those decisions. YET, allowing staff to fix the customer’s problem quickly, on the spot, would have definitely lived up to, “We are focused on customers” AND “We think like owners.”

So what was the result?

The customer didn’t feel like they were the focus, frontline staff felt ill-equipped and uncomfortable to live up to the values the company espoused and, perhaps worst of all, staff at all levels of the company saw this unfold more than once and concluded that these values weren’t true. They concluded that the values were platitudes on the boardroom wall that management didn’t actually believe which led to a culture of mistrust, uncertainty, and underperforming.

So what’s the solution?

Well, the company above was great at the first step — agree among yourselves what you value.

Then, brainstorm how that might unfold. When you come up with an example where push comes to shove, share your concerns openly, debate what that value would look like, and whether or not there is an overriding value that is more important

For example, if the client above had proactively thought through the potential conflict around fixing customers’ problems, they could have then decided if they value cost-savings and profit on individual transactions more than a customer first and entrepreneurial approach. If they chose to stick with their original values, the brainstorming would have helped them figure out, ahead of time, what they needed to do to make that real by putting parameters in place. If they were better prepared, they could have lived up to their values and, thus, formed the culture they aspired to much more successfully.

Accountability is another important piece in ensuring that behaviour is consistent with the vision. If you ignore the behaviour of others who act inconsistently with the vision, you threaten the trust and alignment of the people who are behaving consistently with it. Accountability does not mean finger-pointing and accusations. It means having Essential Conversations to keep everyone on the same page. It means learning together from mistakes because you care about each other. Help each other stay on track by celebrating wins and catching each other doing things right.

Communicate your organization’s vision and values through multiple channels.

Whose job is it to remind us of our vision and values? Many believe it is the CEO’s job. Others see it in the HR Director’s job description. But in the best organizations, it’s clear that every leader and every function sees it as their responsibility to own and communicate the vision.

When the communication comes from leaders throughout the organization, the possibility of having the it understood, embraced and executed increases substantially. When staff hear about values from the CEO and no one else, they often feel they have no one they can question about it, no one they can challenge to help them solve a real-life problem like the customer service situation above. Whereas if all leaders are united in their talk about the vision and values, staff have many people they can turn to for advice, coaching, and guidance.

Ultimately, as people see the greater good that comes from aligned vision and values, a strong and successful organizational culture develops, employees know how they fit into that culture and can decide if it’s the right place for them, prospective employees know what you stand for, words spreads about your culture and work life and soon you’re racing towards success on your vision.

Coach’s Question

What are your organization’s vision and values? Are they well known? Agreed upon? If so, are you all living up to them all the time? If not, what needs to change?

4 steps to empowering your team

We talk a lot, these days, about empowering our teams.

That probably sounds like it’s a good thing — giving our people the authority to make decisions, to take initiative, and to guide the direction of the organization.

But, there may be a couple challenges with that:

  1. Some of us may feel uncomfortable giving up control.
  2. Some people may not be ready to be responsible and accountable for decisions and direction.

On top of that, you may have heard of an empowerment project going terribly wrong or maybe you’ve experienced it first hand and you can’t help but wonder – is it worth it?

Well, I’ll admit it, sometimes it isn’t easy.

But here at Padraig, we’ve had a chance to work with a lot of organizations and a lot more leaders and we’ve seen empowered teams make huge gains and achieve incredible things.

So, like most good things, it takes some investment, it takes a bit of effort, but if you make the investment, and you give the effort, the return on that investment can be enormous.

It’s about thinking about what “empowered” looks like to you — and what it doesn’t look like — and share that clearly with your team along with your expectations.

If you think empowering your team might be a good idea but you’re worried about some of the pitfalls and wonder what should you look out for – here are our 4 steps to an empowered team.

1. Paint the picture of what empowered success looks like

Clearly define the vision. What are the big-picture, longer term goals of the organization or your part of the organization? Having the vision clearly defined allows us to keep that in mind as a team when we’re making day-to-day decisions. If we all have our eyes on the same destination, we can stay relatively well aligned.

Talk about your values. Talking about vision and goals is essential, but just as much, your team needs to know the ground rules and the context that they’re working in. If the goal is to sell 10,000 units this year and the sales team is off to the races securing orders from clients while the production team is caught up on a design flaw, we have a problem.

Perhaps one of our values is that we communicate regularly, before getting too far along the path. Or, may one of our values is that we work as a team and help each other overcome hurdles. Or maybe it’s a simple as agreeing that the goal is 10,000 units sold to exceptionally happy customers. Either way, we want to be clear to the sales team that closing deals on 10,000 units in isolation from production or shipping actually didn’t achieve the goal the way it needed to be achieved. We all had to work together.

2. Provide the tools

Clearly define roles. People who don’t know what they’re supposed to do aren’t going to do it well. If roles are clearly defined, the team knows the parameters within which they can move freely.

Customize the tools to each individual. As you define the role for each person, ask questions and pay attention to how they analyze information and make decisions. Are they analytical, or driven by emotion? Are they self-aware? Are they goal-focused? Do they see opportunities or tend to notice the risks?

Knowing how each person sees the world will help you find the right person to handle and empower with a specific responsibility.

Provide Context. Lots of it, and often — help people to see the bigger picture and the greater implications will empower them to make decisions which consider more than they have previously had to consider.

3. Demonstrate Trust

Give them the opportunity to make decisions, and don’t second guess them. A lot of us as leaders are willing to allow our team members to make decisions, but want to step in as soon as we see something done differently than we would do. Try to take your hands off the steering wheel while observing where they take us.  You can (and should) still build in milestone checkpoints along the way.

Assign responsibility for key projects from start to finish. Allowing someone to make decisions means allowing them to own some projects and feel the responsibility of completing that project.

Appreciate their efforts. This is the one some of us often forget. I know I do. I tend to keep pushing when folks are doing well with new tasks, without stopping to show my gratitude. But, encouragement can go the furthest in creating team chemistry, longevity, and commitment.

Recognize people in ways they appreciate — for some that will mean recognition in group meetings, for some a sincere and heartfelt thank you face-to-face, privately. In either case, be specific. What is it, specifically, that you are recognizing and acknowledging?

Encourage Safe Failure. Many employees, and certainly many organizational cultures, are risk-adverse. If they work in an environment where the boss is always correcting them before they have a chance to execute, they will constantly look for approval before taking action or, worse, simply avoid any new or dynamic action.

Present your team members with opportunities to try new things in a way that doesn’t put the organization in danger. And, this may be the hardest part, when failures occur — remind yourself this is a learning opportunity that will make this employee even more valuable going forward. That is, if you review and help them learn what went wrong, and why.

4. Model the Behaviour

Ask questions… often. Your organization’s future leaders need to understand that great conversations lead to great decisions. Meaningful, purposeful dialogue not only develops skills and knowledge but also good decision-making and sound judgment. As the leader, ask thoughtful, curiosity-driven questions to get the conversation started.

Listen with intent. People feel valued when they’re heard and when they feel valued, they’re more confident. You’re asking them to take on more responsibility and accountability so provide the opportunity for them to engage you, to seek your counsel and to affirm their choices. More on that here.

Drive to solutions while talking about the bigger vision and values you’ve already shared, encourage your team to share their struggles and their challenges, AND encourage them to share their potential solutions.

One of my mentors used to insist on three solutions when we came to him with a problem. He would then help us choose and implement the best solution (which, interestingly, was sometimes a fourth option that combined elements of the three)!

Coach their thinking. Do you remember the best teachers you ever had? Chances are they were the toughest; they challenged you to question your assumptions, guided you to new ideas, encouraged you to consider other perspectives, and pushed you beyond the limitations you perceived for yourself.

Become that teacher.

By challenging your team members’ thinking and assumptions, you set the stage for their breakthrough moments.

Respect Their Boundaries. This is another one of those points where we need to remind ourselves of different behavioural types in the workplace. While you want to push your team members to embrace new experiences, and to push themselves beyond their comfort zone, you don’t want to shove them so far out of their comfort zone that it becomes a negative experience. If you’re ever unsure about an employee’s comfort level, don’t hesitate to check in and ask, and then coach them to help them decide whether they are pushing enough outside their comfort zone, or too much.

Coach’s Question

Do you use all four steps in empowering your team? What areas could you practice more of in your organization?

What is your listening style?

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

– Stephen R. Covey

Such a simple and powerful quote. I love it because hearing it was an a-ha moment for me. It really sunk in: our listening style says a lot about us.

I find that my mind is always racing to the next challenge or goal. I’m always on a deadline, always aiming for something, always ready to respond, advise or solve — both, to be helpful, and to achieve and to progress.

Since learning, a little bit, to tame that thinking and since becoming an Executive Coach, I’ve met a lot of leaders like me.

There’s probably some correlation between fast thinking, goal oriented people, and early success in leadership. I say early because those characteristics often serve only to get you to a senior role, they then, regrettably, often work against you when you try to succeed as a senior leader.

And, I think Mr. Covey struck the nail on the head in discovering why that is.

Often, in a webinar I offer, I ask participants to think of the best boss they ever had. To close their eyes and think of that person and then tell me what quality or attribute it was that they most admired about them.

I would estimate that of all the many answers, probably 50% or so say something like “they listened to me.”

So if listening, with intent, is going to engage your colleagues and employees, while helping you succeed and achieve good things for your organization, how do we do it?

We pay attention to a few things:

Physical presence

How we physically and emotionally show up to others can have a big impact on whether or not they felt heard. I’m sure we’ve all had a time when we were speaking with someone and they said they were listening but they were looking elsewhere or clearly off in their own world.

Try these tips to demonstrate your listening style:

  • Make eye contact. Try hard to “digest” the words as you hear them. Listen for the themes and the threads.
  • Use body language such as subtle nods when you feel you understand, leaning in when you’re listening closely, arms uncrossed.
  • Pay attention to their body language. Are they worried? Uncomfortable? Eager? Pleased? Tie-in their body language to their verbal cues to better understand their intent.
  • Don’t multitask. It’s tempting in this digital era, to try to finish that last email as you listen (can you hear it: “Go ahead, I’m listening, I just have to get this email sent…”) or to steal a glance when your phone makes that “Ping!” sound.
  • Come out from behind your desk. A colleague of mine makes a point of walking around her desk and sitting side-by-side when her staff come in to tell her something. She finds it helps put people at ease and allows her to step away from her distractions.
  • Switch from “Yah, but…” to “Yes, and…” Once someone has shared something and you respond with “Yah, but” it has a way of negating what the other person said. This can shut down a conversation, sometimes before the person has made their case — particularly if you are the senior person in the room. Instead, try something like “Yes, I can see where you’re coming from, and I would add…”  See how this can reframe your interjection. It often helps keep people engaged and validates their contribution.
  • Know when you’re not going to be a good listener. If you’re distracted by other pressing matters, let the other person know and see if you can better schedule a time to talk (and then be sure to keep your commitment to that time).
  • Put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine the conversation, as it is taking place, from the other person’s perspective. How must they be feeling? If you were in their shoes, what would you appreciate from the boss? See if you can give them that.
  • Know their objective. Ask yourself what the other person would like from you — perhaps ask them that. Are they wanting to unburden, do they simply want to be sure you are aware of a situation or do they need your input? Your advice? Your decision?

When it’s time to speak

This might seem like it’s no longer part of the job of listening but it’s one of the most important ways that you can show the person you’re speaking with that you heard them loud and clear.

  • Paraphrase. Start by paraphrasing what the speaker said to make sure you heard correctly. Ask questions to confirm your understanding and not just of what was said, but what you understood their goal to be.
  • Confirm you heard properly. Ensure you’ve got this understanding before you dive in to your response.
  • Demonstrate collaboration. Again, try to replace the word “but” with “and” to show collaboration on the conversation, not opposition.
  • Build, don’t negate. Build on what they said before taking the conversation to a new place.

There’s always room for improvement in our listening style and the way that we interact with others and, yes, communication is a two-way street. You don’t always have to accept or agree with the other person’s points but the first step to resolving disagreements is reciprocal understanding.

Practicing effective listening techniques and prioritizing listening before speaking can go a long way to improving the flow and quality of communication between you and your team (or you and anyone in your life).

Coach’s Question

Can you think of a recent conversation where you weren’t listening with the intent to understand? What would you do differently next time?

Five steps to catering your communication style

It’d be nice if what we meant to say was always received as such.

Not just nice, it’d be an absolute miracle to businesses and personal relationships alike.

There’s an entire industry built on translating between people speaking the same language. Just let that sink in for a second… people who speak the same language OFTEN don’t understand what other people are really saying.

And we all know it’s true, don’t we?

Effective communication is hard. Really hard.

People understand things very differently. We all have an entirely different lens through which we view the world (and hear the world)!

So how then, do we effectively communicate with different people who receive things in an entirely different way?

Well, most people don’t. Most people don’t spend the time to consider who they’re talking to and cater their message to have the highest chance of absorption. In fact, a lot of people don’t even know that they need to do this.

But, as leaders, we know. As leaders, we know we have to cater to individual communication styles. We have to consider our audience. We can’t assume that people understand things as we say them. We have to make sure that everyone gets what we’re saying – even if it’s hard to get it across.

At Padraig, after years of helping clients to resolve communication breakdowns, we’ve come up with five simple steps to help make sure that what you’re trying to say lands on the right ears and as you intended it.

1. Identify your goal.

It may be as “simple” as – getting to know some of your colleagues or staff. Maybe you want to give performance feedback or perhaps you want to engage in problem-solving or brainstorming. If you’re leading others, you have to be particularly mindful of your goal and help them understand what you’re looking for.

If you’re looking for brainstorming but you’re not clear about that, your effort at thought-provoking questions…

“Why do we do this?”

“What might change the way we’re seen?”

… may come across to a nervous junior employee as accusations or dissatisfaction.

Think about the situation or the moment. How do you adapt your style to a casual gathering versus a more formal meeting?

2. Consider your position (and theirs).

You may not realize how your position or the perception of your position impacts what you’re trying to communicate. Something that may seem very straightforward to you, may come across as very stressful to a staff member who is trying to make an impression or is new to their role. Are you more senior in the organization? Do you underestimate the amount of knowledge you have on a particular subject?

Sometimes, in an effort to please or make an impression, people take on more than they should, nod their head in agreement when they want to ask questions and smile when they’re terrified. Think about the information you’ve provided and what you’re asking of your audience – do they line up? If they haven’t had your experience, do they have everything they need to complete the task successfully?

3. Know your audience.

Are you long-time work friends, or relatively new acquaintances? Is the other person new to their role, or new to your team?

Even deeper than that, what’s their behaviour type? Are they driven and goal focussed, or sociable and team oriented, or perhaps they’re caring and focused on the well-being of others, or maybe they’re detail and task-oriented – they like to be left alone to focus on specifics.

If you contemplate where the other person is on that spectrum, you can try adapting your communication style to them. If they’re direct, driven and goal focused, try starting with the end-goal, and then fill in with details.

If they’re more methodical, you might try diving into the details or where you need their help with details.

If they’re sociable and engaging, see if you can communicate in a way that highlights their importance in the conversation while giving them time to digest the details.

Think about your audience’s priorities and deliver your information accordingly.

4. Consider HOW you communicate.

There are a few moving parts on this one – how you communicate in terms of what medium you use but also the words and tone you choose and body language.

We all hate meetings about meetings and “reply-to-all” emails that aren’t relevant to us.

Is more than one person important to the conversation? If so, you may need a meeting. If the topic is clear but requires many to be engaged, email might work. If the topic is sensitive or challenging, if you and the other person are not going to see eye-to-eye and “agree to disagree” is not an option, then face to face is the way to go.

See last week’s column for details on how to succeed at those Essential Conversations.

Then there are the words you choose. Are you prone to exaggeration? Superlatives? Expletives? Think about the others you’re talking to. What will land with them and still get your point across? Is it ok to use technical jargon, or do you need to be clearer?

Watch your body language. Many of us speak louder with our body language than with our words. If you’ve ever been advised “you shouldn’t play poker” you’re probably giving away a lot of thoughts and emotions with your facial expressions.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but regardless of whether you are highly emotive in your body language, or the opposite, be aware of how that is received by others. Are you aware of your body language only when you want to be aware? What about the other times – when you’re nervous, uncomfortable, angry, shy, embarrassed or tickled pink — how do those show up on you?

5. Observe your audience and their feedback.

This is especially important as a follow up to point number two. If your role in your organization is superior to the person you’re communicating with, it’s so, so important to remember that there are a lot of other thoughts, feelings, and emotions at play. They may be trying to impress you or are fearful of disappointing you.

What silent cues and spoken cues are you receiving from the other person? As the expression goes – are you picking up, what they’re putting down?

Consider where they’re coming from and pay attention to the things they’re NOT saying.

Communication is a two-way street but as senior leaders, it’s up to us to make sure that our messages are received as intended.

Coach’s Question

Can you identify two members on your team who require different communication styles? How do you adjust your approach?

How to turn difficult conversations into Essential Conversations

Have you ever had occasions at the office where you knew you had to confront someone and you were avoiding it? Maybe you were angry with them, maybe you were unhappy with their work, or maybe you felt disrespected or offended by something they said or did.

You spent A LOT of time thinking about how the confrontation was going to go and dreading it.

Maybe you played all the possible worst-case scenarios through in your mind. You KNOW she or he is not going to take it well. They might get angry, maybe they’re even a yeller or worst of all – they tend to respond passive-aggressively. Ugh.

You twist it around a few times in your head and decide, “Maybe it’s not such a big deal, maybe I should let it go… just this time. It will be easier for everyone if I just forget about it.”

But, then, it happened again or got worse. It started to feel like it was too late to say something and now it sort of seems like you’ve been sitting on this and if you challenge them about it now, it’s going to feel like you should have said something sooner. But, you’re also growing more and more frustrated or upset.

This happens way too often.

Why? Because we’re human. Because we all see things differently. Because one person’s expectations are often different than another’s. And because many of us avoid conflict.

I’ve been in this situation. Many times. I tried to keep the peace by not saying anything. Sometimes I was worried if I said something I would get too angry (my Irish temper had been a challenge at times). Or, I wondered if perhaps I was overreacting and should let things slide. I’d think, maybe it’s me, not them.

The trouble is, if I didn’t say anything I would never know. And, a number of times that I did avoid the conversation, things continued to get worse and eventually I did lose my temper or react strongly or out of utter frustration.

You can probably see where I’m going with this – stuffing the emotions back in, keeping things under your hat, avoiding confrontation – they’re all pretty common traits and they almost always lead to a worse situation.

So, how do we fix this?

Enter Essential Conversations.

We fix difficult and frustrating conversations with a roadmap – a path from frustration to clarity.

Essential Conversations is a conflict resolution model that we’ve developed based on many other great models including Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott and Kerry Patterson’s book Crucial Conversations.

We took what we loved about the models we used in our coaching approach and weaved in other ideas that we learned over time from working with senior leaders and executives.

What we offer is a series of steps that you take to prepare, address, and resolve whatever issue it is that you’re facing. It ensures that the concern is detailed, emotions are understood, and the desired outcome is clear.

Essential Conversations make room for dialogue by building in space for listening to the other person and helping them to articulate their perspective, their emotions, their concerns or frustrations. We interrogate our own reality and we interrogate theirs – we seek to understand and to be understood.  We help them share their thoughts as much as we help ourselves.

Most importantly, Essential Conversations help us to commit to a solution.

We wanted to give you the opportunity to see the exact steps and try them out for yourself. Scroll down to download the step-by-step guide to Essential Conversations to help you:

  1. Think through the conversation that needs to be had and
  2. Keep you focused as you initiate the Essential Conversation with the other person.

By all means, download them, share them, use them as often as you can. Let me know how they’ve helped you – I’d love to hear from you. If you have questions, add them below and we’ll respond.

Coach’s Question: What conversation have you been putting off, that you need to have? Grab our handouts below and see if you can have it.

To learn more about our team workshop where we help you and your team learn how to have Essential Conversations.

How changing your perspective could change your career

As an executive coach, I get to work with leaders of all levels in organizations across the public and private sectors. I get to really know the issues they face and the successes they realize.

From working on leadership skills, self-perception, career trajectory, responsibilities, promotions through to ego, anxiety, stress, and perfection, I get to support leaders to become stronger and their organizations and teams to thrive.

Of all the issues I’ve heard, of all the challenges that I’ve helped people to navigate through, there is one that rises above the rest in terms of its potential to take people down: interpersonal relationships with colleagues.

Few things challenge us more than when a relationship with a colleague or a supervisor isn’t going well. It seems subtle, but struggling with a colleague or boss can have a huge impact on how happy we are at work and, in fact, how well we perform.

The dangers of confirmation bias in the workplace

Something I often pick up in conversations with my coaching clients is how much we all believe our own perspective – how embedded our own “reality” is for all of us. We often don’t see things from the other person’s perspective, even if we think we do.

That might mean we don’t realize how they’re seeing us, or we don’t realize how we’re being heard, and how that’s affecting the other person.

We get so wrapped up in what we think is right or good or how things should be and it damages our ability to make clear and objective decisions in the workplace. If we’re looking at things through our own lens without taking others into account, how can we see a situation from all sides?

Then, through our narrow view, we find ways to validate our perspective and stick with our vantage point. But, there’s a way around this.

Changing perspective: meet them where they are.

This is a concept that we use in coaching to help our clients consciously shift their perspective. By looking at the situation from the other person’s angle, we can broaden our view.

Let me explain this in a concrete way.

A client of ours, we’ll call him Jeff, is a Manager with a large financial institution. His colleague, we’ll call her Sarah, was recently promoted to Director, which means she’s now Jeff’s boss.

Jeff had noticed that his colleague, who used to be sociable, outgoing and encouraging of him had changed. She seemed to be unhappy with him, avoiding him at the leadership meetings, and almost snapping at him with her responses when they were in a group. Jeff was certain that the “power had gone to her head” and that Sarah was defensive in her new role and trying to assert her newfound authority by “acting like a boss.”

As we talked, Jeff even acknowledged he had started to complain to a couple of his peers and was looking for them to support his view. When one of his colleagues agreed, he felt vindicated.

As we talked I used coaching questions to probe with Jeff what Sarah’s point-of-view might be like. It was challenging for Jeff to step away from his own views and his own beliefs but eventually we got to a point where he started acknowledging where Sarah may be (meeting her where she is).

First, that stepping into the Director’s role would be difficult and that Sarah likely had a lot of pressure on her. Digging deeper he was able to reflect on what Sarah might need to rise to the occasion and feel successful in her new role — and was he providing the support she needed?

As we explored that a bit further, Jeff mentioned a sales report that Sarah had asked him to do. It was a tedious thing that Jeff felt took him away from his clients. He saw little value in the report and had put it to the side a few times. But, Sarah had pushed him for it more than once and he had started resenting that.

As we continued to try to see the world from Sarah’s point of view in her new role, Jeff had a bit of an “a-ha” moment. He realized that Sarah, in her new role, might rely on that report to “manage up.” In other words, that report was likely important for Sarah to demonstrate to the VP that she, and her team, were succeeding with her as Director.

While this wouldn’t explain why Sarah didn’t talk to Jeff about her concerns and explain the importance of the report, or her frustration with him, it nevertheless might explain the rift that was occurring.

While we couldn’t yet be sure this was the cause of the rift, Jeff was able to see it could, quite easily, be a key source. And, his resentment around it might have contributed to furthering the problem.

So while it would have been ideal for Sarah to have a courageous conversation with Jeff about her concerns, Jeff was prepared to start the conversation himself. In trying to look at the world from Sarah’s perspective Jeff viewed things from a different angle and even learned a few things about himself in the process.

If you’re facing a challenging relationship in the workplace, see if these steps help:

Shift your perspective.

Meet them where they are, looking at things entirely from their perspective. Yes, it can be tough. It means resetting every time your hear yourself thinking, “Yah, but…” because that means you’ve shifted back to your own view again.

Acknowledge, and try to accept, different styles.

Each person has their own behavioural style, their own way of looking at the world. They’re not necessarily trying to be difficult and rarely do people behave completely irrationally. When we think something is irrational, we’re probably seeing the world differently than the other person sees it. That’s a good cue to try to meet them where they are.

Think about how you’ve been seen and heard.

When a relationship seems to have shifted, think about exchanges you’ve had with them – email, in person, and phone calls. Is it possible some of your communication could have been misunderstood?  Is it possible you’ve missed something in the communication from them?

Pushing back is a cue.

When you feel yourself getting resentful, or frustrated, and pushing back to someone (especially your new boss!), think about WHY you’re feeling that way. When did it start? What thing(s) generated your response? Try to reflect on those events from the other person’s point of view.

Think about the good times.

Was there a time when your relationship with this person seemed stronger? What was different? How were you showing up differently? How were they?

And finally,

Start the process of fixing things.

That may mean getting the sales reports in on time. It likely also means, have a conversation where you acknowledge the tension or frustration and your desire to find solutions.

As Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, said:

“While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship or a life — any single conversation can.”

The Coach’s Question for this week: What relationship might benefit from a new perspective?


Communication breakdown? How does it happen and how to avoid it.

Communication breakdown. It happens all the time.

You know the one – when you think you’ve delegated something to someone on your team and it turns out they misunderstood completely what you were looking for. They show up, deliverable in hand, and it’s so hard to understand how they got it so wrong.

Shoebox Comic


I mean you were pretty clear, weren’t you?

Maybe it only happens when you’re in a hurry or preoccupied (or your team member is). Maybe it’s when things are shifting rapidly and there hasn’t been enough time to adjust to new protocols or processes.

Those types of situations are easier to understand but what can be really frustrating is when it happens over and over again with the same employee or two.

So, you start to avoid giving important tasks to “Bill” because he never seems to get it right. It often feels like you spend more time explaining and fixing a miscommunication than the task itself takes.

Well here’s the tough-to-take news: It might be that Bill isn’t the strongest employee, or it might be you.

Not that you’re a bad leader, or a mumbler, or a poor delegate-er because obviously other members on your team understand your direction.

So, where is the breakdown?

It could be that you’ve got a strong communication style.

Let’s take a look at what that actually means because, at first glance, a strong communication style doesn’t sound like a bad thing (and it’s not, necessarily).

We don’t all understand, process, and hear things the same way. Depending on my experiences (over time and that day!) and the lens through which I view the world, you and I could hear the same sentence and understand it in very different ways.

The problem with a singular strong communication style is that communication, even when delegating and giving direction, must be two-way. The employee receiving the direction must receive and understand the message in the same way you think you’re giving it.

For example, imagine that you’re managing a team and there’s been a big delay on a really important project that has to be addressed today. You decide to ask “Bill” to take care of it right away. But, Bill has been swamped all day and another project lead he reports to has already demanded more of him than he can deliver. But, Bill’s trying so hard to do a good job and doesn’t know how to say no to a superior (to his detriment).

Because your communication style is strong and it didn’t take the receiver of the message into account, the task was given to Bill and Bill is overcommitted.

A receiver-based communication style, in this case, would take Bill’s communication skills into account. As Bill’s manager, you would know that he tends to take on too much. You might recognize he gets intimidated by you, particularly when you are fired up, so you make sure to give him an opportunity to fill you in on what’s currently on his plate before piling on more.

You may have noticed this in other situations.  

When someone is angry, they tend to look at the world resentfully. When someone is joyous and eager, they tend to hear things optimistically. You could give the same message to these two people and they would each hear it differently.

Learning to adapt our leadership to the individual requires a bit of work. It requires observing and listening to the employee to start figuring out their behaviour type, using emotional intelligence to adapt our style when required, and communicating in ways that we can confirm the message is received as intended.

What do you do to adapt your communication to the individual? What more could you do?

Five things to avoid becoming an executive bully

You’re not an executive bully, right?

Surely you’d know if you were. You don’t scream at people or threaten them. You don’t needlessly intimidate them.

And maybe you’re not an executive bully but, once in awhile – maybe under stress – some bully tendencies show up.

Or, maybe you are a total bully, but you have no idea.

Perfectionism, strength and determination can sometimes feel like bullying to those who look up to us.

Even if it’s not how we mean to come across.

Are you inadvertently being an executive bully?

If you want to be certain that you’re not participating in executive bullying, take a moment to reflect on these thoughts. Do they describe you or someone you know?  No scoring needed – you’ll know where you are.

  • You tend to dismiss those who disagree with you or assume that they don’t have the big picture perspective that you do.
  • You fall in love with an idea, position, or deal and have a hard time letting it go or stepping away from it.
  • Your staff doesn’t challenge your point of view very often.
  • There is little disagreement or debate within your leadership team.
  • When your team does debate an issue, there is a clear divide between the points of view and the same people usually end up on sides together.
  • You have success but you’re not sure if your team enjoys working with you.
  • You often feel like you’re the smartest person in the room.
  • Your team rarely reports bad news.
  • You often feel like if you had the time, you’d rather do everything yourself.
  • You don’t consider your contribution when things don’t go to plan.
  • You don’t remember the last time you apologized for something.
  • You find yourself correcting others – a lot.

So what if some of these resonated with you? Or you can see some tendencies of yours in the above? Here are five things you can do make sure you don’t turn into an executive bully.

Set and enforce a “no bullies rule”

How many senior teams have a member who shuts down everyone else’s ideas, is driven to win every argument, never gives credit to the troops and excels at touting his or her own accomplishments. If your company puts up with this, you are enabling executive bullies. If YOU do it, you’re setting the tone. Give team members explicit permission to call out this behaviour — even when you are exhibiting it yourself.

Remember, your instinct may be to react negatively or to deny. Try instead to absorb the feedback while remembering “if I get better at what I do, this whole team will be better in what it does.”

Pass the ball

Business is a team sport. No single leader can be expert at everything. Most of us, in fact, have glaring blind spots. The best executives recognize that and call on others with different strengths to help. Just as executives have content skills, they also have process skills.

If your skill is achieving success or driving a project hard until it succeeds and you’re worried your weakness may be how you engage others in that success — find a colleague who is willing to “speak truth to power.” In other words, they’re willing to call “BS” when they see it and ask them to help you observe yourself and give you feedback regularly.

If it’s too difficult to ask a colleague, engage an executive coach to be your thinking partner.

Welcome contrarian voices

Have you ever considered hiring people because they have a different point of view from you? How about formalizing the role of “Devil’s Advocate?” A high profile investment firm executive, interviewed in the Wall Street Journal put it this way:

“We have formalized the role of the devil’s advocate to force a structured dissenting view in our investment meetings…. By designating another senior member of our team to argue against an idea with the same rigor with which it was researched by the industry specialist, we ensure a balanced argument is not only presented but also heard.”

It reminds everyone that contrarian views can be shared without repercussion.

Take a look in the mirror

Try your best to honestly see yourself as others see you, and then ask, “Is that the way I want to be perceived?” One great way to learn how others see you is to have a coach conduct a 360° exercise — so your peers, staff and boss can all share input for you. It can also be helpful to make video recordings of yourself during meetings and watch them with an outside observer who has no stake in the game — perhaps an executive coach. Or, ask your coach to sit in on a couple of meetings to assess.

Are you willing to accept harsh realities and confront the problems that your direct reports bring to your attention? Did you respect the ideas of others? Did you encourage thoughtful debate, or did you squelch it?

Create and enforce a charter

This one can be a challenge, but well worth it.

Creating a charter isn’t the hard part — getting input from all levels of the organization to define what is acceptable behaviour can be a great exercise. But, who enforces it? Who calls out, and coaches, the senior leader who isn’t living up to it? How do you build a commitment to the charter in your day to day work?

In other words, when the stakes get high and the going gets tough, how do you make sure you’re still living up to the charter? If you can answer those questions, you’re well on your way to a solid charter.

Most leaders want to do the right thing for their companies, their people, and their communities. They don’t set out to be bullies. It’s doubtful that even the worst offenders think of themselves that way but, they may become executive bullies anyway.

Is there someone in your organization who could be an even stronger contributor if they were less of a bully? Are you willing to do everything you can to make that happen – even if it’s you?

What makes the holiday season so challenging?

One reason the holidays can be challenging is that for many, they are a HUGE departure from normal routines. There are large gatherings to prepare for, vacations to plan, planes to catch, gifts to decide upon, buy, wrap, give and receive, houses to decorate, children to care for, work to catch up on, traffic and crowds to navigate.

And don’t forget the many healthy and unhealthy relationships with living and departed loved ones rekindled during this special time.

What did I miss?

Oh yes, I almost left out that many of us cast ourselves into award-worthy roles: the perfect host, child, parent, partner, citizen….

From a cognitive perspective, the holidays are equivalent to Santa using his wish list as kindling, sending his elves, reindeer and Mrs. Claus on vacation, having the sleigh break down, and then trying to pull it all off without a hitch.

The result: Santa argues with your dad. He snaps at the children. He shouts obscenities at a mall Santa. He gives the everyone the wrong gift and when they let him know, he tells them how unappreciative they are.

In short, Santa finds himself in many more interpersonal conflicts than he’d like to.

When it’s all over he goes back to the North Pole to unpack his many mixed emotions, and then he starts writing his new year’s resolutions list.

How does this happen to us (and Santa)?

Harvard Negotiation Project cofounder and bestselling author William Ury has examined this question. Ury explains that when faced with interpersonal conflict, we rely on ineffective strategies: “we attack, we accommodate (in other words, give in), or we avoid altogether…. Or we use a combination of all three approaches.”

Normally, like in the workplace, the fact that these strategies are ineffective isn’t a problem – everyone knows and plays their part – e.g., boss and subordinate – and the show goes on. But during the holidays, as with solo Santa above, we are under more stress, and have less to lose. After all, we’re going back to the North Pole (until next year when we can make up for it all or threaten to cancel the holiday season altogether).

Would you like to keep yourself off of the naughty list this year? Me too. To that end I invite you to join me in sleighing through a short process framed by three key questions and one challenge (and informed by the wisdom of William Ury, mutual-gains negotiation pioneer, and Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication) that will increase the chances you bring holiday cheer to those around you.

First, ask yourself:

What is happening?

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Language like this is so common you may not even think twice about using it:

“He cut me off.”

“You make me so mad sometimes.”

“She ruined my holiday.”

“You’re always such a….”

“She should stop complaining.”

But language like this is where interpersonal conflict starts.


Notice how full of judgment it is. Also notice how it implies that someone has done something to someone else.

And when we have judged someone to have done something (to us) worthy of punishment, what follows both logically and practically is that we punish them. We have also given power over our emotions to someone else.

And then we honk the horn at the ‘idiot’ who has cut us off. We scold the unappreciative child. We lash out at our critical parent. As many of us have seen it can get much worse.

This holiday season, instead of using judgmental language, do what William Ury, author of Getting to Yes with Yourself and Other Worthy Opponents calls Going to the balcony, or observing without judgment.

I’m a Star Trek fan so I think of it as channeling my inner Vulcan.

So, when the kids ‘complain’ that the Wi-Fi at grandma and grandpa’s house ‘sucks’, or that driver ‘cuts you off’, or your uncle ‘interrupts’ you, try describing the situation as Dr. Spock might:

“About 10 seconds after I began speaking, Uncle Kirk began speaking too and then we were both speaking at the same time.”

Then, once you and your inner Vulcan get comfy on the balcony, ask yourself the next question.

What, specifically, are you feeling?

Luckily, you’re not really a Vulcan, and have the benefit of experiencing a vast array of emotions.

So try to notice what you are feeling. Is it anger? Disappointment? Frustration? Irritation?

Many of us are unable to label our feelings because we haven’t had much practice, or have yet to learn how. According to Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and co-creator of the Mood Meter app, perceiving and labeling emotions is one of the five critical components of emotional intelligence, and doing so increases our chances of success across a wide range of personal and professional settings…. like the holiday season!

So here’s a practice for you as you prepare for the holidays:

When [something happens – neutral observation – channel inner Spock], I feel [emotion].

For example, “When I am driving and someone enters the lane I’m traveling in at a distance less than 5 meters from my car, I feel angry (frustrated, frightened, etc.).”

You can do this any time. Try starting small with the everyday occurrences that stir up unpleasant feelings in you. Just be careful. As Rosenberg points out, we often use “the word feel without actually expressing a feeling.” Think of sentences like “I feel like you’re trying to provoke me.” or “I feel I am being attacked.” or “I feel she is too aggressive.”

In paying attention to my own feelings I have noticed myself becoming more familiar with my emotions, and the situations that can bring them to the surface. What I appreciate about this is that without any effort I have become much less reactive. And, although it is highly illogical, I’ve had a lot of fun mentally emulating Dr. Spock.

So, once you’ve gained a bit of proficiency in these two skills, try moving on to the next question:

Which needs of yours are not being met?

You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.

Jon Kabat Zinn

William Ury would like us to think of emotions as “the language that your needs use to communicate with you.” So, when you’re feeling frustration, for example, it could be a sign that your need to feel a sense of control or proficiency isn’t being met.

But think back to the way we commonly express ourselves in situations of interpersonal conflict. Everyday statements, like “He insulted me,” suggest that we are quite accustomed to holding others accountable for how we are feeling.

To build the competency of owning how you feel, here’s another ‘simple, but not easy’ challenge: practice expressing what you feel through Marshall Rosenberg’s template:

“I feel… because I….”

So, when Uncle Kirk begins speaking shortly after I have begun speaking, I would say or think:

“I feel agitated because I was enjoying having everyone’s attention.” (need for appreciation, acceptance, etc.)

Be careful! It’s very easy to fall back into old habits by handing responsibility for our feelings and needs over to others, so stay on the lookout for statements like “I feel upset because I feel attacked.”

I have to admit, I was initially uncomfortable with the idea of dwelling in the neighbourhood of feelings and needs because it wasn’t something I grew up doing, and I hadn’t received any guidance on how to do it. But when I thought about how many other needs and emotions I was comfortable thinking and talking about – like rest, exercise, water, inspiration, celebration, etc. – it became a lot easier to accept that these were just part of the gift that is me!

After you’ve had some time to build some skill in this area, move on to the final challenge:

Make a specific request to have your needs met.

Once we have observed non-judgmentally, identified what we are feeling, uncovered what need that feeling points to, Rosenberg would say it is time for “Requesting That Which Would Enrich Life”. In other words, we invite another to do something for us that would meet one of our needs.

There are three key elements to this practice.

First, use what Rosenberg calls “positive action language” and avoid “vague, abstract, or ambiguous phrasing.” In other words, telling someone (or yourself) what you’d like them to do, rather than what you would like them not to do is much more likely to lead to a positive outcome, and less likely to result in defensiveness. I recognize that doing this puts you at risk of rejection, but as we have seen defending what is ‘right’ (i.e. your judgments of yourself and others) often leads to more interpersonal conflict, and isn’t that just a different form of rejection? So why not ask? Rosenberg implores us to imagine ourselves in asking that our needs be met as Santa – have a jolly, cheerful disposition, one that reflects the belief that needs are precious, universal sources of joy and connection: “Ho ho ho!! Let me give you the gift of my needs with you!”

So with Uncle Kirk, I might say something like this “Uncle Kirk, I’m noticing that when I started speaking that you started speaking about 10 seconds after me. Well I wanted to share with you that I’m feeling frustrated because I was really enjoying being listened to. I would like to know if you would be willing to listen to me too?”

Nervous? Me too! I can think of many ways in which Uncle Kirk might attack me, defend himself, withdraw, or accommodate that would lead straight back to the North Pole and my new year’s resolutions list.

But don’t give up yet!

Try this instead: Ask Uncle Kirk to reflected back what he heard you say. “Uncle Kirk, could you share with me what you just heard me say?” In William Ury’s estimation doing this has the potential to “change the cycle of mutual rejection into a cycle of mutual respect.” Appreciating his willingness to do so, and then clarifying any misunderstanding and empathizing with him if he doesn’t want to share demonstrate your commitment to keeping the conversation out of the interpersonal conflict zones of attack, withdraw and accommodate. Here’s an example from Rosenberg:

“I’m grateful to you for telling me what you heard. I can see that I didn’t make myself as clear as I’d have liked, so let me try again.”

And then try again! You can do it.

The last step in this process is, as Rosenberg puts it, to “help others trust that we are requesting, not demanding, by indicating our desire for them to comply only if they can do so willingly.” Rosenberg also shares his method of testing whether we’re making a request or a demand: ask yourself what you would like the person’s reasons for doing what you’ve asked to be? For this to work you must be ready to accept a ‘no’ with empathy, instead of judgment.

So with Uncle Kirk, you can use this process to clarify his feelings and needs, and then respect his decision to do what would meet his needs.

Something like this might work:

“Uncle Kirk, am I getting this right? You’re feeling a bit overwhelmed and are needing a bit of support from all of us right now.”

Of course life can be very unpredictable and this process presents many challenges of its own. As a simplified blend of two approaches, there is much more depth and breadth than I have been able to cover, so please read the books! But, what I appreciate about this process is that steps 1-3 can be done at any time in any place, and by themselves could be life changing. How many of us wouldn’t benefit from gaining more clarity around our own feelings and needs, while at the same time increasing our ability to meet those needs ourselves.

How might you benefit if you tried this, this holiday season? What might the wins be?

Why not nourish the Vulcan within, and give yourself the gift of self-awareness, self-satisfaction, and maybe even connect with those you’ve previously found impossible to please.

And please let me know how it’s going!

Today’s Coach’s Questions Column was written by Tyler Wier, Certified Executive Coach and Padraig Associate.

Want some help improving your conversations at work? Contact Tyler at tyler.wier@padraig.ca or call Tyler’s direct line at (855) 818-0600 x 108

To hear Tyler talk about this post on CBC Morning Radio:
Dec 23 Information Radio Hour 1

Works Referenced:

Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Rosenberg, M. (2003). Nonviolent communication a language of life (2nd ed.). Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.

Ury, W. (2015). Getting to yes with yourself: (and other worthy opponents) (First edition ed.). New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins.