Missing Facts: What Everyone Else Knows That You Don’t
Meet this wise leader (2:00)
Staying in the zone … and the start of my confusion (3:45)
The stories we invent (and why we invent them) (7:15)
What everyone knew that I didn’t (10:40)
Your turn… (12:25)
Missing Facts: What Everyone Else Knows That You Don’t
I recently co-facilitated a team development workshop at an organization located in a small community. The executive director, Cynthia*, brought me in to help the staff (including herself) reduce conflict, engage in tough dialogue, and increase the communication chemistry within their workplace.
After years of coaching, consulting, and facilitation, I know that when I’m asked to work with a team, what’s shared with me is often just a symptom of what’s keeping them from having positive communication chemistry and not the root cause. Knowing that, we focus on actual scenarios that the team is facing day-to-day – and this training was no different.
In these workshops, emotions can run a little high at times, and some emotional hotspots can get triggered. Luckily, my training team and I put a lot of work into developing skills and experience so we can hold a safe emotional space for those moments.
But on this day, I was missing a vital fact. There was something going on that everyone else in the room knew about that I didn’t, and I made an assumption that had me completely off base.
Meet This Wise Leader
The executive director of this organization is highly motivated to learn and grow so she can be a better leader for her team. When I asked her for some scenarios that we could work on as a group, she shared one about a time when she wished she’d done things differently…
Over lunch, she privately shared a story with me about the time she tried to protect her team from overwork by working solo on a large project and not communicating with them about it, and she gave me permission to revisit it with her team in the afternoon. She knew I was going to do some spot coaching and that they were going to reflect upon the scenario and learn some strategies that could be used for a better experience next time.
I get chills when a leader shows up in this way, with a willingness to be fully vulnerable so they and their team can grow together. I have so much respect for them because I know that everybody in the room is going to grow and learn and have an opportunity to connect differently.
That is navigating challenging dialogue!
Staying in the Zone … and the Start of My Confusion
After lunch, I asked Cynthia to share the scenario openly, and as she did, I felt a rising discomfort in the room. As she talked, there were moments when tears welled up in her eyes, and her voice cracked. From hearing the story earlier, I knew that these were the moments where she believed she had failed as a leader.
As the team listened to her, some people giggled nervously, some nodded knowingly, and one gentleman became red-faced and increasingly stressed.
All Navigating Challenging Dialogue® facilitators are trained to view the room with a soft gaze and a wide view, monitoring where each participant is in terms of emotional safety. We always want people to participate from their stretch zone – a bit uncomfortable, but in a way that fosters new learning – as opposed to their panic zone – which results in shutting down or lashing out.
The stressed and red-faced gentleman, Marco*, appeared to be heading into his panic zone. When I notice someone going there, I try to engage them with empathetic curiosity—
I asked, “Marco, how was this situation for you when it was happening?”
He answered, “It is water over the dam. It happened. We’ve moved past it. Why are you bringing it up today?”
“That is a great question,” I said. “Cynthia offered it up as an example we could explore as a group, and then identify some tools you all could use to approach similar situations more effectively when they come around again.”
I noticed that he kept looking over at Cynthia and then looking at me. I thought to myself: This is so sweet. He wants to protect Cynthia because he perceives that I am pushing her too hard and it’s emotionally difficult for her. I also noticed he was repeatedly glancing at the woman sitting silently at his right. I had no idea why, I just observed it.
The group continued to work through the scenario, and at one point, when I was standing close to him, Marco whispered to me, “Just drop it, will ya?!”
The Stories We Invent (and Why We Invent Them)
I was so confused!
Others in the group were expressing gratitude for the dialogue about the scenario. They stated that, at the time, they were completely puzzled by their leader’s behavior. Many said they believed that she believed they weren’t capable of doing the work or that she didn’t trust them, and that’s why she didn’t communicate with them about the project.
Cynthia’s rationale for being what she perceived as “secretive” was she felt the team already had so much work on their plates, and to add on this new project (mandated by their board of directors) felt like she would be asking too much.
So, she decided, without consulting anyone on her team, to tackle the event solo and shield them from the extra work. It was a noble thought, but it backfired because, in the absence of information, we create stories.
I asked for volunteers to share what their thoughts were, at the time, in regard to why Cynthia was being secretive, and their comments ranged from relief – “I thought she didn’t trust me” and “I thought she didn’t think I was capable” – to empathy – “Wow, I can’t believe you took all that on just to try to save us.”
But Marco was still red-faced and continuously looking between Cynthia, the woman next to him, and me. I decided to become curious with the woman, and I asked her what she experienced during this time.
She took in a big breath then said something like, “I thought that after all these years I’ve been here, she didn’t think I was still valuable, and I wondered if my job was secure. It was a really hard time.”
For the entire staff, except perhaps Marco, there was great relief in the dialogue and the identification of new strategies to put in place around proactive communication was welcome.
Cynthia made a public commitment to her team about how she was going to proceed differently in the future, and she invited them to question her if they saw her behaving in the same way again.
This was a fantastic moment for this team.
What Everyone Knew That I Didn’t
As we were nearing the closure of the day and people were sharing their reflections, I heard Marco refer to the woman on his right as “my wife.”
WAIT … WHAT? His wife?!?
I suddenly realized that I had been missing a very important fact.
Marco wasn’t trying to protect Cynthia; he was trying to protect himself. His wife had shared how difficult the whole ordeal had been for her, and how she had wondered for several months if her job was safe.
Marco didn’t want me to bring it up – not because he didn’t want Cynthia upset but because he didn’t want his wife upset again.
Holy bananas! I’d missed that entire fact.
After the workshop, when my co-facilitator and I were debriefing, I asked if she had known the fact that Marco and the woman next to him were a married couple.
“Yes,” she said, “Marco said that early in the day, we were talking about it.”
“How did I miss that!?” I wondered aloud.
“Oh,” she said, “I think you may have left the room for a minute, Beth.”
“Holy bananas. That was such an important fact.”
That day ended really well, and the feedback from the workshop participants and the director has been that there have already been positive shifts in their communication.
But isn’t it amazing how our assumptions – even mine! – can get us focused on the wrong facts?
Over the next few days, spend some time noticing where you may just be perceiving and making assumptions based on wrong – or missing – facts.
* Names have been changed to protect our workshop participants’ privacy.