1: Choosing a Discomfort Zone Conversation

The chapter opens with a common scenario: an employee approaches her manager with a plethora of complaints about her peers, which is suddenly disrupted when the manager asks if there is anyone other than herself who is not dysfunctional.

This question lead to an epiphany, which caused the employee to consider that much of the stress she feels in relationships is always focused on the behavior of the other person. It extended beyond her workplace even to dating and relationships wither family. There was never an instance in which she paused to consider that she, herself, was the common factor - and never considered that her own behavior might be the cause of tension in these relationships.

This is a very common phenomenon in western culture: that a person seeks to control their relationships and does not consider their own behavior. When a person realizes this, they may dismiss the notion and continue with their previous way of thinking (that other people are the problem and that they are blameless) - but if they take it to heart, the effects can be quite profound.

Unfortunately, this tactic is often misused - as are many. Unless the situation is appropriate and the timing is effective, the suggestion that "the common factor is you" seems dismissive, judgmental, and clumsy and is practically guaranteed to have the opposite effect - to cause the other person to become entrenched in their opinions, and to regard the person who posed that question as manipulative.

The point in this example is exactly that: people who read books such as this one looking for a "magic" phrase or question that will flawlessly bring another person around to their way of thinking are not going to be successful. The timing is as critical as the tactic, and while certain phrases are very powerful, their power depends on their being used masterfully rather than clumsily.

Not Another Conversation Book

The author seeks to avoid the perception of this book as just another "conversation book" that is intended to provide "magic" phrases that can be used to manipulate other people. Granted, the authors of such books rarely intend for their techniques to be used in quite that manner, but readers looking for a quick fix tend to extract their tactics and ignore the context in which they are effective or appropriate.

Said another way, the tools of persuasion do not substitute for knowledge of persuasion. A tool that is used appropriately will be effective, but one that is used inappropriately can often do more harm than good. Whether the author has failed to provide appropriate training or the reader has simply ignored the context is situational.

Another problem with conversation books is that they are written (or read) with a focus on the speaker. Invariably, the reader is focused on achieving an outcome for himself without consideration of the interests of the other person. And when a person is focused only on their own agenda and fails to consider the interests of others, they are by definition manipulative.

Reynolds means to avoid this problem in her book by focusing on the "receiver" of conversation rather than the person who initiates it.

The difference between influence and manipulation is the focus: when your interest is to get the other person to adopt your way of thinking, especially when you have a goal in mind for a change in behavior that suits your own needs, you are manipulating. When you seek to help a person become aware of something, and to cause them to reconsider their perspective - accepting that they may choose not to change it - then you are facilitating a process.

This is an effective approach that is often discouraged by corporate culture, which focuses on "straight talk" and "getting right to the point" in a manner that has the results that the speaker wishes to achieve in as little time as possible. Anything else is seen as inefficient.

And while in some instances you can be direct and candid in proposing a solution to a problem, his results in compliance without acceptance. It has a very short-term effect, and you will find that you are having the same conversations with the same people again and again because they have changed their behavior, but not their minds.

This might be sufficient when there is a one-time interaction that is not in the context of a relationship. A car dealer seeks to manipulate a prospect into making a one-time purchase without any concern for a long-term relationship with a customer, or takes for granted that the customer will have forgotten the negative aspects of the conversation a number of years later when they are in the market again.

But a manager who must deal with the same people, every day, over a long period of time cannot be indifferent to the negative aspects of the manner in which he interacts with others. To be an effective leader, you have to influence thought rather than manipulate behavior, and to do so in such a way that serves the interests of the other party.

And to do this without giving people the impression that you have used "tricks" that undermine their autonomy and integrity, you cannot seek to change behavior - but must seek to change the mental models that guide people to behave. This is best done by more subtle and insidious methods that cause the other person to consider their point of view, and discover on their own the changes they must make.

This process must be handled delicately - to invest considerable time, to exert less personal control, and to accept that the outcome may not be precisely what you intended.

Differences from Traditional Management Techniques

Recently, "coaching" has been promoted as a new way of leading people - though the quotation marks are merited because the term is very often misused and traditional command-and-control methods of management are still being promulgated under a new label.

Done properly, coaching is about engaging the minds of workers, to influence their thinking rather than their behavior. It uses an open inquiry approach - asking question that lead people to make realizations, to discover their own solutions rather than merely obeying the orders they are given. Proper coaching requires a person to be supportive, encouraging, and nonjudgmental.

The inherent problem with command-and-control management is it has no regard for the intelligence and creativity of the employee - people are human resources, like natural resources, that must yield to the will of the manager. This is effective with low-level employees who perform tasks as directed, but is ineffective with knowledge workers whose responsibilities include not merely doing tasks but discovering the ways to achieve objectives and solve problems. It tends, instead, to alienate intelligent and creative people by limiting their ability to apply their intelligence and creativity.

Coaching methods may have begun that way, but have become corrupted over time into a sneaky and manipulative way to practice command-and-control management: the manager still has a very specific behavior and wishes to achieve compliance, but he does not candidly say what he means, but instead seeks to communicate his will through intimation and inference.

Not only is this inappropriate for knowledge workers, but it is highly ineffective. If your goal is to gain compliance to a command, the best way to ensure this is to be direct and candid in communicating your expectations.

Intelligent workers dislike being commanded and controlled, and expect that it is their profession to apply their knowledge and skills to defining solutions to a problem - but it takes a great deal of courage and trust on the part of the leader to give them the latitude to apply their knowledge and skills. The fear and mistrust that managers feel toward their subordinates leads them to fall back on command-and-control management: they do not trust their people to come up with a solution, and fear that the solution they discover may not be effective, so there is greater security in simply telling them what to do and making sure that they do it.

It is also very gratifying to a person to see others do their bidding: it gives them a sense of power and superiority to control and manipulate other people. To trust people to follow their own intelligence requires abdicating that control, and acknowledging that your "subordinates" are more intelligent than yourself. This is entirely unattractive to the narcissistic individual for whom "leadership" is but a method of gratifying their need to have personal control.

This discomfort also applies in situations outside of formal authority: a boss may be uncomfortable trusting in his employees, but the employee who has difficulty working with others is guilty of the same kind of mistrust in other people. They wish to control rather than collaborate.

The problem is compounded by the "do as I do" perspective on the part of managers. A boss who wants to control his people will "coach" (again, inappropriate use of the term) his employees to attempt to control others. As a result, the entire culture of the team and perhaps the entire organization becomes dysfunctional - people attempting to control others rather than collaborate with them.

And while a boss holds authority over his subordinates by means of threat, his subordinates do not have the formal authority to threaten others into compliance. Hence, their attempt to bully others is ineffective - and the behaviors to which they are "coached" are not effective.

This is a critical way in which the author wants her book to be different: she intends to teach true coaching methods, without quotation marks, that enable people to persuade others by means of logic rather than control them by means of threat.

As an aside, it is only in this "safe zone" that people are capable of thinking at all. When threatened, they turn to primitive defense mechanisms that lead them to comply mindlessly with orders they know to be effective, or to seek to escape their situation. A boss that uses threat-based authority and command-and-control leadership, even if they call it "coaching" and are indirect, succeeds in reducing his staff to mindless obedience, or runs off those who have a desire to apply their intelligence.

Timing and Purpose

A good technique, used at the inappropriate time, will not have the intended results and may in some instances be counterproductive. The best times to use the techniques suggested in this book are situations in which a person is having a communication issue or a cognitive block that is preventing them from considering whether another option might be more effective or appropriate - but even within those situations, the circumstances may be inappropriate.

The Right Time to Confront

The individual who is doing something you think is wrong is likely of the opinion that what they are doing is right - though it may be that they are applying a tactic that has been successful in the past to a situation in which it is inappropriate. But they do not recognize this.

For a person of integrity, nothing is more annoying than those who wish to meddle in their affairs - to tell them to do something different when they are pursuing a course of action that they expect will lead them to success. They will see this assistance as interference, and will defend against it.

Your overture in such a situation must then be to understand their perspective before inflicting your own upon them. Ask questions to gain an understanding of what they are attempting to accomplish and how their actions are intended to accomplish it. In some instances, the conversation will need to go no further, particularly when a person is following habitual patterns all that is needed is for them to recognize that they have not put much thought into it.

In some instances, it is an issue of knowledge and skills - the person is doing the best they can based on their current systems, but lacks knowledge. But more likely, the problem is not one of knowledge or skills but of perspective: they have misinterpreted the situation, or are working toward the wrong goals, or have simply failed to consider all options before dedicating themselves to a course of action.

Your Belief in the Person's Potential

The conversation must be based on your belief in the other person's potential to self-correct, rather than a need to control them. The key to the conversation is to call their attention to the things they may be ignoring or undervaluing, with faith that they will correct their own actions if they become aware of them.

This is entirely different to the manipulative approach: the manipulator has little faith in the intelligence of others, and believes that they must be controlled or tricked into doing things a certain way. Even if this is successful, it tends to be a one-time solution: the individual will follow directions in this instance, but does not recognize their value.

Generally speaking, people want to be effective - and if they are oriented to the proper outcomes, they have the capability. And if they do not have the capability, they are eager to gain it. Each person is naturally motivated to follow the most effective and efficient path to success, but before they can follow it they must identify it. They will do their best on their own, but "their best" may be uninformed.

To be successful in leading others, you must help them to find the right path. The focus is on "to find"- as to be put on the path that someone else demands is not the same as finding it for oneself. This is a critical difference between leadership and manipulation.

Trust is a major component in persuasion: the other party must have belief in you as well. They must trust in both the motives and abilities of their leader and this trust must be reciprocal. It is improper to demand that others place their trust in you while you refuse to place trust in them.

Overcoming Assumptions

May people have certain assumptions which they apply to others, though this is often based on assumptions and beliefs that are not true. This leads them to shortcut conversations and act in ignorance of the actual situations. The author identifies some common assumptions and their potential implications.

1) People know what they do not know

A common assumption is that others share your own knowledge and perspective, and are aware of all the things that you are aware of, which is obviously incorrect. Moreover, there is the assumption that they know enough about a situation to be aware of the gaps in their own knowledge. Very often, this is not the case.

2) People will ask for help when they need it

Very often, a person who is neglecting to do something or is doing something entirely wrong is proceeding on the assumption that they are doing everything, and doing it correctly. They are very often unaware that they need help in solving a problem, or that a problem even exists.

Or in instances where they are well aware that something is not going as well as it should, but have a cultural bias against approaching authority - whether they feel it is inappropriate for a subordinate to approach a superior, or believe that they will be perceived as weak if they ask for help.

This is a very common problem, so widespread that many managers feel the need to announce an "open door" policy - but in many instances the behavior of management does not conform to the spirit of this alleged policy and employees distrust it, recognizing that the culture of the firm is still geared to keep superiors aloof and distant from their subordinates.

3) People just want answers

This is a myth of convenience that tends to be short-sighted, and it is very often a projection of a person's own desire to avoid investing time in a conversation with someone: the easiest path may be to give them a solution to a problem rather than helping them to solve their own problems - but this can be manipulative or, even if it is not, it fails to develop their problem-solving ability.

4) If no one is complaining, then everything is fine

This seems to make sense, until you consider the previous misconception about asking for help when it is needed. Leaders, especially those who are aloof from their people, tend to react to complaints by punishing the person who complains rather than addressing the situation that is causing them to complain.

The practice of shooting the messenger discourages people from speaking up, even when things are going horribly wrong, to avoid the consternation of managers who simply want to silence their complaints. For the manager, it cuts off a vital line of feedback - if employees do not complain about problems, then the problems tend to fester until they become crises. Meanwhile, the manager remains blissfully ignorant and is then blindsided by a huge problem.

5) Good people do not repeat their mistakes

A common rationalization for avoiding interacting with employees in a bad situation is the belief that they will figure out how to solve the problem without any assistance - and this is especially true when it is similar to a problem that has been solved in the past.

The problem here is a matter of perspective, particularly when a manager is in the habit of giving orders without explanations and expecting blind obedience. The solution for the subordinate was merely to follow the orders of a superior, and he does not understand the reasons or mechanism of the orders they followed without thinking - and they become incapable of solving the problem for themselves in the future.

6) People want to be left alone to do their work

The high-achieving employee is entirely capable of working autonomously and seems to be happiest when their superiors stay out of the way and let them apply their own expertise, but there are a couple of reasons they should not be left completely alone.

First, people need feedback. Even when they are making excellent progress and sound decisions, they periodically need an indication of success. Sometimes, they receive this feedback directly from the nature of the work - but very often, particularly when there is no physical work product, there remains a sense of uncertainty that creeps in, even when things are going well. Positive reinforcement from a superior is helpful in maintaining their confidence.

Second, the person who is autonomous does not develop. The achieve results by applying what they already know, in an automatic fashion, and do not learn or grow in the process. If you never challenge their thinking, then they do not improve their thinking - and even if they are doing well, there is always room for improvement.

Having a Specific Purpose

If you do not know what you are attempting to achieve, chances are you will not achieve it, and may even be doing harm. This is particularly true when it comes to tinkering with people's thoughts and behaviors. A manager cannot "just wing it" at all times - and especially when a difficult situation arises, he must have a clear sense of purpose in his conversations with employees to achieve a positive outcome.

Largely, it is a matter of panic over a problem: the manager wants "something" to be done but he does not know quite what it is. He sees that there will be negative consequences, and wants to escape the blame by making it someone else's responsibility.

In those situations, managers often have very un-strategic conversations with their subordinates that convey a sense of panic rather than a sense of purpose, and which leave the employee without a sense of what they need to do, as well as the recognition that they are being used as a scapegoat by a weak manager.

Having a specific purpose does not mean having a specific behavioral goal - again, your purpose is not to provide a solution to the problem, but to coach the employee find a solution. If the encounter ends with an employee who is aware of a problem but still has no clue as to where to begin solving it, then the conversation has done more harm than good.

It is also important to consider not only the immediate effects, but the long-range effects of a conversation with an employee. In addition to solving the immediate problem, the conversation should contribute to the development of the employee's competence and the development of trust in the superior-subordinate relationship.

This is where many managers fail: the fastest route to success in the short term may disempower the employee and damage their trust in their manager. And a pattern of unfocused conversations completely cripples the employee and undermines their regard for their superior.

Check Your Emotions

The value of a face-to-face conversation over a written communication is that people engage emotionally - but this is only "a value" if the emotions are supportive of the goals of the conversation. Particularly in conversations about a sensitive topic, emotions can enhance or detract from the message that comes across.

It's also worth remembering that a conversation is about resolving different perspectives. If your perspectives were the same, your conclusions would be the same, and there would be no need for a conversation at all. As such, you should consider that your emotions and those of the other person are out of synch when you enter the conversation.

Finally, in power relationships, the person in a disadvantaged position tends to react to the emotions of the person in an advantaged position. This does not mean that there is "emotional agreement," merely that they are conforming to the role of the subordinate, regardless of whether they agree.

So as a leader, you will set the emotional tone of the conversation whether you mean to or not. And if your emotions are inappropriate to the goal of the conversation, your message may be misinterpreted or ignored, or superficially accepted by a person who does not disagree, but who feels threatened by the power of your position.

When coaching a subordinate, patience is critical. Your desire to achieve the goal of the conversation quickly may lead you to take shortcuts - to give orders to follow rather than supporting them in making their own decision. And it is their reaction to your emotions rather than the content of your message that will cause them to shut down.

The best mode for a manager is to be "calm and intentional" throughout the conversation - but in some instances this may be impersonal. Your emotional responses cue the other person to reinterpret your message. While being emotionless is less likely to cause problems than displaying the wrong emotions, it is not as effective as displaying the correct ones.

And this may at times occur naturally, or it may need to be contrived. Your natural emotions are likely displeasure at the negative situation that has caused the conversation to be necessary - and a hint of that may be necessary to get the other person to take the conversation seriously - but too much and it is no longer a conversation, but a lecture that you are delivering to a passive and non-thinking audience.

Willingness, Desire, and Courage

The author suggests that willingness, desire, and courage are three critical conditions to have a productive conversation - without them, there is little chance of achieving anything meaningful.

Willingness to Talk

The difference between a lecture and a conversation is that the latter involves two people exchanging information whereas the former involves only one. A person may listen to a lecture, but is not engaged by it - and if in the course of conversation someone stops taking and simply listens, then it has become a lecture.

Having a conversation requires you to be genuinely curious about and accepting of the other person's perspective. If you only ask rhetorical questions, or seek to "correct" their thinking rather than discovering what they really think, then you are not having a true conversation.

Desire Based on a Personal Value

The difference between conversation and manipulation is that a conversation must consider the desires of the other party rather than merely your own, whereas manipulation focuses on getting you want of another person without regard for their interests.

Again, you must be open to hearing that their goals are not aligned with your agenda - and you should never assume you know someone so well that you understand what they want without asking.

The Courage to Find the Roots

A comfortable conversation is often very superficial, and involves an exchange of information on topics where two parties disagree on negligible matters and there is nothing at stake. Many conversations remain at the superficial level because people are inclined to avoid areas of disagreement - and avoiding disagreement is entirely different to settling it.

A meaningful conversation requires you to muster your own courage to delve into areas that are uncomfortable for you, as well as encouraging the other person to enter territory that is unfamiliar to them. This is the reason that trust is essential.