You Can’t Solve Problems You Can’t Talk About

The authors of Crucial Conversations wrote, “Respect is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all that people can think about.” Dr. John Gottman, the famous researcher at the University of Washington, can observe a couple’s behaviour and predict with about 93% accuracy whether they will stay married. He has said that contempt (a symptom of disrespect) in a marriage is the most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.

This is how you can help people move from emotions of disrespect to a place of understanding and dialogue, because you can’t solve problems you can’t talk about.

Get to the Source of the Emotion

The truth is that other people don’t make us mad, we make ourselves mad. Our emotions are not a function of what other people are doing, but of the stories we tell ourselves about what they are doing. The best way to dislodge strong emotions is to stop focusing on the emotion and instead focus on the source of the emotions—the story. What stories are your people telling themselves that cause them to feel so much disdain and disrespect?

Soften Emotions by Separating Facts from Stories

Clearly their respect issues are based on something they observed. Help them challenge their disrespectful narratives by asking “I understand you feel about. What did you hear them say or watch them do that led you to feel this way?” If you can help them see the facts behind their stories, you can help soften their emotions.

Ask Them if They Need to Hold a Crucial Conversation

People often complain and vent instead of dialogue. Your employees likely have some issue they need to address with others. And unless and until they address it directly, they’ll probably continue to complain. So when your employees come to you complaining, you can set a new norm by asking “Have you talked with yet?” If your team member hasn’t had the conversation, don’t have it for them—and don’t tattle to the other person’s boss. Coach and encourage them to have open and direct conversations.

Teach Them to Challenge Negative Stories

Stories can be bad, but collective stories can be worse. It’s not uncommon for teams to have stories about other teams. (“Those people in accounting have no clue.” “Those engineers are too lazy to fix the problem.”) And those stories can cause issues. When your people start telling a negative story about someone not in the room, what does everyone in the room do or say? Do they stay quiet? Do they agree? When we don’t challenge negative stories, people start to believe them as irrefutable facts. Teach your people to challenge negative stories.

Seek for Solutions

When you hear someone on your team complaining about another person or leader, ask this question: “I’m curious, what’s your goal by talking about__ this way? I’m not trying to attack you or suggest you can’t complain, I’m just wondering what you hope to accomplish.” People complain because they want something to be different than it currently is. But complaining doesn’t change outcomes. Your employee might acknowledge this. “It makes me feel better for a little while.” You might say “Ok, well, how would you like things to be? And what is the next action our team can take to move toward that outcome?”

Create Commonality

When we feel disrespectful toward others, our tendency is to look at how they are different from ourselves in order to justify our disrespect. This is how we justify bad behaviour, like ignoring concerns, labelling others, even attacking their character and ideas. This is the easy approach. This is the convenient approach. It’s also unproductive. If you want to effectively work with people who have beliefs or behaviours you disagree with, you need to do the opposite: look for commonality. Rather than emphasising differences, focus on and emphasise common interests, goals, and values. Does this mean you have to agree? NO. Does this mean you have to ignore bad behaviour? No. The point is, when you find common ground, you can find respect. You begin to see others a little bit more like you see yourself—a normal, reasonable, rational person with opinions, ideas, and flaws.

Remember, when it comes to your team, you set the tone. What you permit, you promote. So promote dialogue and action, and don’t permit complaining and stewing.

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