This is a transcript of episode 127 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
A reader points out that our example conversations often show people masking emotions, but we don’t say as much about what to do when someone is being rude or when you yourself feel your emotions are out of control. We suggest ways to increase your sense of safety with an escape plan, but also demonstrate methods for staying in the conversation and learning from it even if it’s challenging to do so.
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.
Squirrel: So this week we’re going to be responding to a listener, and this is a listener who came to us…actually, I don’t know if he’s a listener to the podcast.
Jeffrey: I think he’s just a reader.
Squirrel: Yeah, I think that’s right. So he’s a reader of our book and a participant in our Slack community. So we have a Slack channel and community instance, whatever you call it, where lots of people come and discuss Agile Conversations, Troubleshooting Agile, problems they have, lots of different puzzles. And Sergey has come along there, and actually I’d say I’d even upgrade him from reader to critic. So he’s been very helpful in giving us some challenging feedback. And that’s, in fact, the sort of thing we want to talk about as well. What happens when you’re hearing something that might be hard to hear? Sergey had some criticism of various parts of the book, and one particular one stood out to us and we wanted to look at it today. Here’s what Sergey says. ‘I remember multiple examples of conversations in the book with low transparency and low curiosity, where there are negative emotions under the surface, that the phrases that are coming out are still respectful of the other party hiding the real feelings. What if we have a situation where the transparency and honesty is high, that the emotions are coming out in a rude way? There is standard advice, of course, to step out from the conversation, cool down, collect the thoughts, and only then re-engage. Interestingly, such situations are not mentioned in the book.’ Well, I think that’s a very helpful criticism and it caused me to go back and look at the book. I think I did find some examples of rudeness. So I think we do cover it some. But certainly something we haven’t done is to think in a concentrated way and share with our listeners and our audience: ‘What do you do when someone is rude to you, or when you feel like you’d like to be rude to them?’ What do you think they should do? Jeffrey, what should we do in that situation?
Jeffrey: I find this really interesting and definitely worth discussing, so I’m really excited to talk about it on the podcast this week. The thought that immediately came to mind when I read what Sergey was reading, what he’d written, is I actually kind of agreed overall, on balance, most the conversations we talk about are more where people are hiding their feelings rather than being openly rude and disrespectful, sharing their negative thoughts. I think that’s on balance. And I think about why that might be the case. I thought of an article that I’ve used many times in various talks which we’ll link to the show notes, which is a Stratechery article on the uncanny valley of the functional organisation. And in there, the author provided a very nice model that I often cite when talking about what a good conversation looks like. And it’s the classic two by two matrix. And on one side, you have ability and willingness to disagree. And then on the other dimension, you have mutual trust and respect. And the idea is that real collaboration, really productive conversation, comes when you have both ability, willingness to disagree and mutual trust and respect. Then you get genuine collaboration.
Squirrel: Hey, we must be consultants. We’re picking the one in the upper right on the 2x2 matrix. Perfect. OK. We ticked our box for consultancy now. Good. But it’s actually got some real benefits for understanding there. So the two cases where you’ve got one high and one low are really, really interesting.
Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly. And very often I think of the two failure modes. I think in the book and in our consulting, we most often engage cases where what’s low is the transparency, that there is mutual trust and respect. But at the same time, there’s low transparency people and those people are not able or willing to disagree. Very often it is that they don’t know how to disagree without having conflict, they’re worried about maybe ruining the team dynamics. Those concerns about other people’s feelings lead them to hide their own feelings, their own concerns. And so you end up with–in the model what they described as–‘groupthink,’ where what goes ahead is a suboptimal decision that people would have criticised if they had felt safe to disagree. I think that’s normal. What do you think? Do you think I’m right about that? I think that’s most of what we talk about. I mean, I think about even the training that we often do, which we call ‘mining for conflict,’ because I think that shows that our biases are there. What’s your thoughts?
Squirrel: We want to look for conflict and find a way to make it productive conflict instead of unproductive. Yeah, I think that is a bias for us. I also wonder whether it’s cultural, because I know that there are some cultures and Britain is very much not one of these, where conflict is sort of part of the normal behaviour, and the stereotypical ones that I know of are Australia and Israel. And I’ve worked with people from both who are more willing to engage in conflict. And that’s very uncomfortable for us kind of reserve British people, despite the fact that we both have this funny accent. Both of us are here in England. So I wonder about that. It’s not as clear to me whether it’s cultural bias, whether it’s the types of organisations that we’re in, that certainly when I look for examples, I was looking for examples here and I’ve come up with one, but I had to think pretty hard. I wasn’t like, ‘oh, yeah, last week, let me tell you,’ which I often can for many of our topics.
Jeffrey: Right. And so I think Sergey is describing something that is very much in the other failure mode, which is high ability, willingness to disagree, but low trust and respect. And so therefore, people are sharing their disrespectful thoughts. And I think it might be useful, before we go further, to maybe give some examples of what we what we mean. And you had one particular example. Like you said, you had to think hard, but you came up with one. And I think I have similar ones, where you could remember an actual example. Maybe you could share that. We’ll talk about that.
Squirrel: Absolutely. So there was the classic debate between co-founders, and the one who was more senior and felt more in control was vetoing the other co-founder in a start-up, and they were deciding whether or not to launch their website for the first time. This is very early stage for them. And the more senior one, the one who felt more confident and certainly was willing to share and be transparent, said, ‘you know, you’re always just waiting around for design. You’re just a designer at heart. You’ve been doing that forever. You’re not going to change. But we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to wait another week. We’re launching this whether the design is right or not. And, you should just suck it up and deal with it.’ Not very polite. Definitely very transparent. So sharing the emotions, you know, I think there was something in there about, you know, ‘I’m really annoyed that we’ve had to wait this long.’ You know, there was plenty of emotion sharing, plenty of evaluation. I’m not suggesting this is a good model. I’m not suggesting it!
Jeffrey: Oh, no!
Squirrel: Not suggesting listeners write that down and use that as a way to express their emotions, but I did find that it was transparent, and that the person certainly was willing to have a conflict. What we didn’t have was sort of the more reserved groupthink way of dealing with it, which might be to say, ‘I really respect your opinion, I recognise that the design is not quite perfect. But the decision we’re going to make is to release next week despite those difficulties. I’m sure sorry about that. But we’re just going to have to release anyway, we need to get moving with this.’ That would be much lower temperature, but much less transparent, because what might be happening in the left hand column of the analysis, the thoughts and feelings the person isn’t expressing might be just the same as in my example, which really happened. But they’re not being expressed in that more reserved example. And that actually, I think is less productive.
Jeffrey: Yes, exactly. So the high transparency one is, at least you understand the direction of someone’s concern. So you have some sense of what’s behind it. And so I think what we want to get to is how to work productively in this scenario where the other person is being transparent but negative and disrespectful, or where you actually are maybe the one who’s feeling these disrespectful feelings, and you’d like to know how to use them appropriately. So we’ll come to that. But I think before we go further, I thought it was important to introduce something which we’re going to call the escape plan. So in the book, we talked about the importance of having preplanned actions, and this kind of scenario, and especially if you’re an environment where this happens frequently, where there’s a lot of open disrespectful conversations of the type that maybe has been like, ‘you always do that. This is typical of you. You obviously don’t care about success of the project’. These kind of phrases, and these these are things that I have over my career heard, not very often, but occasionally you’ll hear something like, you know, ‘you’re you’re only in this for how you look. You don’t care about the actual what’s good for the company.’
Squirrel: ‘You’re just one of those designers who always has to get it perfect.’ Those kind of evaluative statements.
Jeffrey: That’s right. Could be anywhere! You know, as a salesperson, ‘you just you don’t care about what happens long term. You only care about getting the deal right now. So, you don’t care about the damage it’s going to do.’
Squirrel: It could be any role.
Jeffrey: Exactly. We could move this around where the very common unexpressed thought and occasionally expressed thought is ‘what you’re doing is bad for the company, but you’re doing it for selfish reasons.’ Another thing someone might have the view of is, ‘you’re incompetent.’ You know, ‘you’re disagreeing because you’re inexperienced.’
Squirrel: That would be too polite. In this case, you’ll be saying something like, ‘you just don’t know what you’re talking about. Wait 20 years and then you’ll understand.’
Squirrel: That would be really insulting and ageist and everything else. But how can our listeners plan to escape in this situation? What would they do? What would an escape plan look like?
Hatching an Escape Plan
Jeffrey: The reason you need an escape plan is so that you don’t need to use your escape plan. This is because our goal is not to escape the conversation, but to turn it productive. However, my belief is that you’re more likely–and certainly my expertise is I’m more likely–to feel like I can stay in a conversation and be productive if I know that I can leave the conversation when I need to. And the ultimate escape plan is one I picked up from Berne Brown. And I really, really like this escape valve. She talked about using this, her line is: ‘I’m sorry, I’m unable to have this conversation right now,’ followed by leaving the room. You can use it in any situation. She describes having used it in a wide range of situations, including a group therapy session where she was co-leading and she was able to use this. And for me, since I learnt about this from her, this has become my ultimate escape plan. I know that if things go terribly, terribly wrong, in the end, I can simply say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not able to have this conversation right now’ and leave, and that’s it. Now, the question then becomes, well, how would I know when I need my plan? And for me, it’s a question of ‘do I feel out of control? Do I feel like I’m no longer able to stay in the conversation productively?’ Because that’s really my goal, is to try to be more productive and to be able to make positive choices. Now, one choice I could have is to leave the room. Perhaps I would have multiple ways, multiple paths. And this escape plan is there, if I can’t come up with a better one.
Squirrel: And that’s a really important point, because what I wouldn’t want listeners to confuse–and this is one of the great insights, this is something that has really helped me so much over my career. I’ll have something…not quite as well thought through as an escape plan. I like Berne Brown’s, I might use that–but I’ll get into a conversation that is as toxic and difficult and challenging as the ones we’re discussing and I’ll feel really angry or I’ll feel really scared. And that’s not the same as being out of control.
Squirrel: And I think that’s one thing that people have a lot of difficulty with–certainly I do, is–distinguishing ‘I’m really feeling furious right now,’ from, ‘I’m about to say something I’m going to regret. I’m going to pound on the table. I’m going to really be out of control in a way that’s not productive.’
Squirrel: And what’s been really, really productive for me in a few of these difficult situations is being able to express the emotion. ‘I just can’t tell you how furious I am. I cannot believe that this happened.’ I remember one just came back to me where I could not believe how badly someone had performed. And he took me aside and said, ‘hey, how did I do in that meeting?’ I said, ‘well, frankly, I have to tell you, I think that was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen. And I’m furious that you performed in that way when we had discussed very different things before.’ And expressing that calmly and clearly, but with no doubt whatsoever that I was absolutely incandescent, was really productive, for getting that person to understand where I was, and then for moving us both together to something productive. Whereas either yelling and shouting at them–which would have led to their escape plan triggering, I suspect–or saying, you know, ‘I really don’t think it went so well. I think there are some things we could improve.’ Both of those would have been much less productive. But that takes a lot of practise and skill to be able to perform. I just want to make sure listeners know that’s possible. And that’s something that I aspire to. And I hope that they will.
Jeffrey: And that’s great. I’m really happy you shared that story because it fits exactly with what I thought of when I read what Sergey wrote, especially, let’s go back to the part he said, which is ‘the standard advice is to step out of the conversation, cool down, collect the thoughts, and only then re-engage.’ Now, that’s good escape valve advice. However, I think this is often over-applied, where people feel they need to do this escape from the conversation when they feel any emotion at all. And there’s the idea, There’s, I think, the mistaken belief that expressions of emotion are unproductive or out of bounds, which I think could not be further from the truth.
Squirrel: ‘Jeffrey, what I’m going to do is I’m going to leave this conversation until I can be rational, because then when I’m rational, then we’ll have a better conversation. I really can’t be rational right now, so I’m just going to leave, then when I’m feeling more in control and rational, then I’ll be ready to have it.’ That’s that’s not what we want to do. That’s not what we’re suggesting. Because I often will say the emotional signal is extremely important and the strength of the signal is important to communicate as well as the signal itself. And erasing it all by saying ‘I’m just going to be rational’ does not help.
Jeffrey: That’s right. But there’s a feeling that to talk about and show emotions is unprofessional. In fact, one of the London Organisational Learning Meetups, where were we talking about how to recevie empathetically and how to use emotions–it was particularly a session on working with emotions–one of the people who was attending kept saying, ‘well, no, I’m not emotional at work, I’m professional.’ And he meant that as a contrast, that to be emotional in the office would be unprofessional.
Squirrel: And I think we couldn’t disagree more. We would advocate being emotional in the office in a productive way, not in a pounding on the table.
Jeffrey: That’s right. And what’s the problem that we have here when we’re in this–according to the chart–upper left hand corner where we are disagreeing, but there is a low trust and respect, the problem is not the disagreement. The problem is not the emotion. The problem is the lack of respect. And I think that’s a very important part. So it’s not that you don’t disagree. It’s not that you don’t feel strongly. It’s not that you don’t have evaluations, it’s not that you don’t have questions for the other person. But it’s your ability to be productive and to have productive conflict about ideas, about observations, about thoughts, which includes the emotions around them. And to pretend they don’t exist is going to be unproductive in the long run. Recently I had this–I think we already shared this in the podcast, but there was an article I read that talked about how emotion is a very important, necessary part of decision making, that people with brain damage that lack emotions actually suffer from the inability to make decisions. They can’t make the smallest decision because they lack emotions. I found that just a fascinating insight. And I think it plays with the idea that emotions are not a problem, but they’re a very essential part of our decision making process.
Squirrel: Makes a lot of sense.
Jeffrey: So, as I have been saying here, the goal of the escape plan is that I know I can be safe if I need it. So what’s the alternative? Ideally I can feel safe while dealing with these negative emotions and there’s a couple of ways that might happen. One might be the way you described. If I’m very, very skilful on and on top of my game, I might be able to just tell the person, you know. ‘Yes, actually, I am very furious at the moment. We had a plan and I thought we’d agreed and now you’ve done something completely different. I was really caught off guard. And actually right now I’m just really upset and I’m really angry.’
Emotional in a Productive Way
Squirrel: That would be one way, and I think you were about to say there’s another way too.
Jeffrey: Well, I think if I’m not able to be quite that skillful, I might say ‘I actually am…I’m feeling really angry but I’m having trouble being productive about how to say it. I mean, just give me about 30 seconds to think.’
Squirrel: And if you give that person that, if that person is willing to take up the opportunity to give you a break or even to say something helpful, like, ‘gee, I’m aware of that, you’ve seemed angry all day. I’m really concerned about it, and I want to help you. I’ll wait a few seconds for you to get clear, but I want to help here.’ For example, if you got that kind of response, it would encourage you, I think, to express the anger in a productive way and move forward. And you don’t have the opportunity to have that if either you pound on the table and drop the other person out of the room, or if you walk out yourself. Doesn’t mean that the safety net doesn’t help you. Safety valve is very important for you to feel safe, so that you know you can take that step if you need to.
Jeffrey: Yes, that’s right. And I might even, if I’m being very transparent, I’d ideally it might be verbalising what I’m saying, ‘I’m feeling very angry. I’m trying to evaluate whether I can talk about this productivly right now. I’m weighing whether it might be better for us to talk later after I’ve calmed down a bit. Ideally, I’d like to talk about it now. I’m just not sure I’m able to. Can you give me a couple moments to think about it?’ I’m increasing the transparency. But what I am doing here is I’m trying to avoid the disrespect element that’s Sergey highlighted, which is I’m not using the emotions in a negative way to say, ‘yeah, I’m really angry. What you did was completely incompetent.’
Squirrel: ‘You’re a jerk. And this is what you always do.’
Jeffrey: ‘You’re a jerk, you’re hopeless. Doesn’t matter how much we practise, you always mess it up.’ That’s a very different message.
Squirrel: And you might have those feelings, you might have that left hand column, but you might express those ideas in a more productive way whilst not taking any of the emotion out of it. And that’s a difficult skill. I suspect we’ll be revisiting that in future podcast.
Jeffrey: Yes. I really expect this whole episode is one where our listeners are quite likely to disagree with us. I think a lot of our listeners will probably be on the side of ‘Oh, that sounds terribly unprofessional. If someone ever said that to me in the office, I would never want to work with that person again.’ I would love to hear from people about their views on this. So if you disagree with us or if you agree with us, I’d like to hear you. I think this emotional topic is an emotional topic! But we haven’t talked about the last. What happens if the other person is the one who’s being emotional and rude? ‘How might I be able to do it? How might I be productively in the conversation,’ because to me, that’s one of the goals here, in being productive. It’s not just mastering myself, but also mastering myself when the other person is outside the bounds I would choose for them to be in.
Squirrel: Sure. And in that situation, what I’m often tempted to do, what I often find is very useful is having the escape plan and having something in mind for what I can do. And in my case, I probably haven’t preplanned it, it’s just that I’ve just done enough of it that I’m comfortable that there is an escape plan. And then what I tend to do is try to move down the ladder of inference to try to move to something that’s more observable, including what’s happening in the room. ‘So Jeffrey, I notice that you’re getting a bit red in the face and you’re tensing in your chair. And you’ve also just said that I’m incompetent and all of those lead me to think that you might be feeling an emotion that you would like to share with me? Can you help me with that?’ Or ‘there’s something important for us to discuss there that I’m not meeting for you. I’m not meeting a need of yours. Can you tell me what need I’m not meeting?’ Something of that kind. It’s hard for me to put myself in this situation because Jeffrey isn’t pounding on the table. Some kind of way to make the experience discussable and to help the other person, to give the other person at least the opportunity to come down the ladder with me and explain to me what their reasoning is. How did they get to the conclusion that I’m incompetent, for example.
Jeffrey: Yeah. We could go back to this scenario you brought up where we’ve done the presentation and you ask me how it goes and I say ‘Squirrel, I’m just, I’m so furious with you right now that what you just did in there was was terrible. That was completely incompetent. I can’t believe that you would do that in that meeting.’
Squirrel: And I hope to respond in the way that actually to pay tremendous respect to the person for whom I was on the other side of this. The way he did respond, which is to say ‘that’s really important to me. I’d like to hear more about it. Can you help me understand what was terrible about it in your view? I’d also like to address whatever we can to address the fallout and the consequences of me doing something that wasn’t helpful. I think in order to be able to do that, I need to understand more. Are you willing to give me more information about this?’ A way of bringing us down the ladder and helping us to find a solution to the important problem that the other person is bringing up.
Jeffrey: Yes. There’s a couple elements you mentioned that I like. So as far as receiving well, non-violent communication has this phrase of receiving empathetically. And one of the elements there was to be listening to what I was saying. And I think there’s also a bit of a choice in there, sort of like ‘would you be willing to tell me what it was you saw that you thought was incompetent?’ But there’s another way where you might say, you know, ‘or perhaps you would like to focus on what we do next,’ and offering the person some alternatives. I’d like for listeners who want to know more about dealing with these kind of negative emotions, the two references that come to mind for me. One is I just mentioned non-violent communication and the idea of receiving empathetically, the other would be David Burns and his listening with your ear. And David Burns would have a different kind of response. He would say ‘you’re right.’ He would even use what he calls his empathetic listening. The first thing he’d say is ‘you’re right, that wasn’t competent,’ and he would also then try to name the emotion. ‘I expect you’re probably really angry with me right now.’ And then the last part of empathy would be enquiring for more. ‘Can you can you tell me more? Tell me more about it. What was like for you, what you saw that you didn’t like?’ And those were all part of his ‘the E’ (in EAR, link in show notes) I say listening, it’s actually Speaking with your Ear. His model for getting out empathy, assertiveness, and respect, which is his version that matches somewhat closely to the transparency and curiosity. And, you know, the respect there still being important part, which is how we go back to what Sergey came in with: how can I remain respectful even when the other person is being what I consider disrespectful.
Squirrel: Ok. Well, Jeffrey, I suspect you’re right that listeners are going to disagree with us, have emotional reactions to our ideas about dealing with emotional reactions and I certainly would be very interested, as you are, in hearing from them. So they can always do that at ConversationalTransformation.com. That’s the place to start. And you’ll find Twitter and e-mail and our Web sites and lots of other things. I’m sure you can find us in lots of ways and as Sergey did in our SLACK channel, for example, where we’re frequently responding to listeners and readers. The other thing, of course, is you can come back next week to hear what people had to say. I’m not sure if we’ll respond next week or in a future episode, but we’re here every Wednesday. And if you hit the subscribe button in whatever app you use to listen to us, then you’ll get to hear us next week, a week after that, and probably for another hundred and thirty episodes like the ones we’ve done so far. All right. Well, we’re looking forward to coming back next week and we’ll see if we can cover this topic in more depth. I’m sure we will.
Squirrel: Thanks Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.