I’ve been reading and rereading Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton and Heen. I find it particularly useful because it identifies the thing that has always baffled me about “those” conversations: they’re not about facts and logic. Even though we spend inordinate amounts of teeth-grinding time on “But you said…” and “I don’t remember saying that, but if I did that’s not what I meant”, what happened is just one of three conversations we are really having.

The book tells us there are 3 conversations:
The “What Happened” conversation – what was the intent, who’s to blame and what is the truth
The Feelings conversation – we both have feelings and if we don’t make them explicit in a non-threatening way, they can take over, leaving us overwhelmed and confused.
The Identity conversation – what does this say about me? Am I a good person, am I worthy of love, and am I competent?

They follow on with examples, words to say, and ways to correct common mistakes.

It’s exciting to think that conversations that seemed so obscure and confusing actually were! Have a look.


20-30 Years Old and Suddenly Sitting at the Boss’s Desk

I was recently interviewed for an article in the Wall Street Journal for the column You at the Boss’s Desk. Here’s the article

I wanted to expand on the topic a bit. For people in their 20’s and 30’s a sudden promotion to a management position can have its joys and challenges. Of course there’s usually a higher salary, perhaps some company perks, and even a corner office. Your friends and family will be expecting you to be feeling thrilled and fulfilled.

What most people won’t understand is the anxiety and even depression that can come with a promotion. You are no longer with your peers, you must get to know your new management peer group, you may be asked to do things you’ve never done before like budgeting, hiring and firing, and you may be feeling like you have to be seen as strong and successful without help, or they will give the job to someone else.

Here are some tips:

When dealing with your old peer group, especially if you have to manage them, say the truth that everyone is thinking anyway. Tell them you know this is a strange situation and you’re hoping they will stay open to talking. Tell them the good news is you know what their job is. Ask them to understand that being the boss requires some objectivity, and that will mean you won’t be as involved in the day to day work as you were. Tell them you’ll miss their company, and that you’ll be demanding their best because you know how good that can be.

With your new management peer group, start getting to know each one over lunch or coffee. They will be important support to you as you build skills in your new position. They can help you with who to talk to, how to navigate company hierarchy, and how to make successful presentations. They can also give you objective feedback and will welcome your openness to learning. And over time, they will become friends, too.

When you have to build new skills, go to the source for the best advice. If you have to put together a budget, find someone in Finance or ask your boss to walk you through the steps. For hiring and firing, connect with the HR department for company policies and even ask someone to tag team with you as you go. The company may have an internal training and development department. Seek them out and take advantage of their services. No one will expect you to know how to do these things, and your boss will welcome your effort to get what you need.

There are two final tips that are really at the bottom of all success.

The first is to ask for help. It seems simple, but is often the hardest thing to do when you think your reputation depends on being seen as smart, capable or in control. When I say “ask for help” I don’t mean get someone else to do your job.  Laziness is different from strategic delegation. What I mean is asking for help with your own performance through feedback, ideas, opinions, information, advice on how to get something done more quickly, asking for mentoring, coaching, or clarification. People who ask for help with good intent are often seen as open and worthy of respect. They create webs of support and trust and encourage others through their own modeling of openness. The act of asking for help may be briefly uncomfortable, but almost always results in more and better connections, skills and ideas, than if you don’t ask. And most people like being able to help.

The second thing is not to let the the sometimes negative emotions of transitions dissuade you from doing what needs to be done. Transitions are times when people leave behind an old way, live through some uncertainty as a new way is being developed, and then begin to behave in the new way. Your transition from your old job to your new job is a transition not just for you but for all the people around you. You bring new ideas and ways of behaving, and those are absolutely critical to the health and success of the company. At the same time, people within the company may behave as if they don’t want the transition to occur.

Sometimes in business we call this reaction to transitions “resistance to change”. My belief is that people aren’t resistant to change unless the new way is obviously detrimental to them or people they care about. Instead, in most cases the “negativity” we see is grieving for the loss of a way of life in which they have invested energy, spirit and passion. They may be losing special relationships – a friend and mentor if you are replacing someone who is retiring or moving on, you as a peer, or the retiring manager as a colleague. They may be losing a successful way of communicating and a shared language of understanding they worked hard to build up. They may just be losing the ideas they committed to and that have served them in the past as you bring and represent new ones. They will grieve those losses, and there is nothing you can do to control or change that process except respect it. They will feel what they need to feel. What you can do is be honest, consistent, and show integrity in all your interactions. Help them believe that there is hope for the future. And ask them to co-create that future with you.

It sometimes seems easier to compromise your ideas to, you think, help someone else feel more comfortable with generational or style differences. I’ve seen many young managers shaking their heads but staying silent in meetings where the same old bad policy was promoted. They were afraid to deal with the reaction to promoting their new ideas. Instead they became passive resistors, doing, but hating, the things they knew could be done better.

Have courage!  The workplace needs the ideas of new people, new managers and employees. Workplace transitions will play out in time, and in the meantime, you need to believe in the ideas that will generate a real, sustainable future for you and your employees. Your ideas are just as valid as those of older, more “experienced” workers. They will come to trust you if you are open, approachable, and trustworthy, or they will leave. In either case, the future demands your commitment and leadership, and your modeling of progressive behaviour. With help and with time you can make a new future.

Millennial Leaders: Will they survive?

Margaret Wheatley (http://www.margaretwheatley.com/) has said

“I strongly believe that the old leadership paradigm has failed us and that our current systems will continue to unravel.  This has changed what I do and whom I choose to support.  I no longer spend any time trying to fix or repair the old or to improve old leadership methods.  I spend all of my time now supporting those giving birth to the new, those pioneering with new approaches to organizing and leading.

“New leaders must invent the future while dealing with the past…They must invent new processes and organizing forms, and simultaneously also solve the complex problems of this time.” Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time, Wheatley, Margaret. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005. pps. 166-7

I love the tag line for her Berkana Institute (http://www.berkana.org/): “The leaders we need are already here”.  But, will they survive to revolutionize the organizations of today?

I recently read a story from CBS news that had a very different view of new leaders.  

The reporter described Millennials as having “been raised with a mouse in one hand and an iPod in the other – and the talent for driving a lot of people crazy.”  (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/11/21/eveningnews/eyeontech/main4626122.shtml)

Apparently, managers everywhere are frustrated by this generation’s lack of interest in meetings and long documents, and are frustrated by their expectation that if they are finished work, they should be able to choose to stay or leave.  

It seems to me that with an economic crunch, managers should be thrilled to have employees who get results without putting in time, don’t waste time in meetings or writing long reports that become shelf-ware, and don’t spend downtime in the office bending the ear of other busy employees.

“Accounting giant Ernst & Young says by 2010, 60 percent of its employees will be Generation Y. So it’s holding ‘generational dynamics workshops’ as well as scheduling a face-to-face meeting with each new hire to introduce concepts like … meeting face-to-face. 

“‘That is our workforce, that is what we are going to build our firm on – they’re the leaders of tomorrow,’ said Ernst & Young’s Billie Williamson. 

“It’s all about flexibility and teamwork. In other words, Generation Y-ers could lose the stereo headphones once in a while, and the rest of us could lose the stereotypes.” 

Will this be enough?  Will companies like Ernst and Young also seek out the new approaches of young leaders as well as requiring old behaviours in order to comfort older employees?  Will new leaders be able to survive the onslaught of ridicule from old media like CBS long enough to help the world make the changes only they have the energy and skills for?  Will we all get past the tools and gadgets long enough to see the ideas and potential underneath and tap into that for our collective future?

Perspectives and Emotions

Changing perspectives is a great way to open doors to new understanding.  After all, our perspective is what creates our reality.

“Pretend” was the biggest perspective-changer in my life.  A great coach and friend, Michele McCarthy, told me, “Pretend that everything that happens to you happens because you want it to happen and you always get what you want.”  Good and bad.  Conscious and unconscious.  Now, if I always get what I want, and I don’t like what I get, I know I have to change what I want.  

Pretend can also get me past the “It’ll never work” stage.  If I can pretend that it will work, I can quiet the critic and begin to take action.  If I have a bias toward action, and am willing to contain my impatience for the thing to be finished, before I know it, it’s done!

Another perspective that has helped me is that “Emotions are transitory and each has a purpose.”  Mad means there’s a problem (take action to fix it); Sad means something is lost (comfort yourself until it passes); Glad means things are going well (take action to use the energy you have now); Afraid means something is unknown (take action to get information, or comfort yourself until you can get information).  

In a business environment we are often told to “leave your emotions at the door”.  But we have all seen the result of that obligatory suppression – hidden agendas, resentments, turf wars, high turnover, and poor performance.  By making emotions explicit and understanding how they work, and what to do with them, we can use what they give us to get results and make better and healthier connections with people and build more trust in our lives.  This is especially true between bosses and employees.  By naming and explaining what emotions are and how to use them, they lose their mystical and unruly aura.  If we understand that emotions are inevitable outcomes of people interacting with their surroundings, and we can communicate with awareness and responsibility to people who matter to us, we can use the energy they create to get what we want.  An example is using anger to change a situation that is unsustainable, or using sadness to communicate a lack of trust or disappointment.  If no action can be taken, we can at least realize that the emotion will pass, and give ourselves comfort, or use the energy constructively.

The Adaptive Coaching Framework

I have observed the following skills of people who successfully adjust in a highly volatile environment:

  • Knowing what matters
  • Noticing what matters
  • Knowing when and with whom to connect
  • Taking action to connect
  • Knowing when and how to respond
  • Taking action to respond
  • Learning and adapting to the results of their action
  • Committing to repeating the cycle to grow and become strong

From my observations and discussions with those adaptable folks, I’ve developed the following simple approach for thriving in a world of constant change:

  • Notice
  • Connect with others
  • Respond 
  • Learn and adapt
  • Repeat

Of course, “simple” doesn’t imply “easy”!

Adaptive beings, whether human or otherwise, notice things happening, connect with each other about what they notice and whether it’s important, they respond to the change, they learn and adapt, and repeat again and again.  Notice that the response occurs before the learning.  Action is important to adaptation.  

In fact, the two most important steps are connecting and responding.

Life on earth doesn’t wait to be told what to do.  It self-organizes, makes mistakes, tries new ideas, and adapts.  If we can give up the machine model of people and organizations, we can learn this too.  

My clients and I work on the goals they want and build their adaptive capability by loosely following the Notice, Connect, Respond, Learn, Adapt framework and adjusting as we go.

It’s a great journey!  

The Adaptive Coaching model – Step 1: Notice

The first step in my coaching model is Notice.

Noticing things gives us subjects to connect to others about, and respond to, thus ultimately learning from.  We tend to notice things that disturb us, just as the rest of the living world does.  Disturb doesn’t necessarily mean something negative, but has the connotation of a thrown pebble disturbing the still surface of a pond.

My husband tends to notice things like people walking close to him or me, or moving vehicles.  Even in the middle of a conversation he will look, turn his head, stop talking, and wait until he is satisfied he has the information he requires to continue.  Some people would call it “distraction”, but that has a negative connotation.  He admits it is probably an adaptation from being a father of 4 small children, the sole income earner in his former family, and from over 20 years of commuting by car into a large city every day.

The capacity to be disturbed is an adaptive trait.  In the living world, organisms that are skillful at noticing things have a head start on those who aren’t.  Now, whether or not they are later able to effectively respond to what disturbs them is another story.  We’ll talk about that in my post on the Adaptive Coaching Model step called “Respond”.

So, when we talk about noticing, what are we talking about with people in a business setting?

Let’s say you are in a meeting with your boss and your peers.  You’re talking about a new project for a team you’re on.  You will notice lots of things: the boss looks tired, the head of another department keeps having side conversations with the head of HR, your rival for the next promotion is sitting right next to the boss and seems to be smiling, the room is stuffy, the coffee tastes worse than usual, there’s a high-pitched whine from the air vent.  The list is endless.

All of those things are external to yourself – the usual suspects.  But do you notice anything about yourself?

Is there tension in your body? Where is it? When do you feel it most?

Are you moved to speak or stay silent? Are there people you choose to respond to and others you choose to ignore?

When you speak, how is your voice? Loud? Soft? Hoarse? High-pitched?

Are you mad about anything? Sad? Afraid? Glad?

This is a very short list of the kinds of things that are important for any business person to add to their repertoire of things to notice in a meeting.  Once you notice them, you have more information about the things that are in your control, the things that matter in business.  Those things may be as obvious to others, including your boss, as the stuffy room is to you.  

Of course, the hard part is staying present in the moment to integrate all the input you are getting from the environment, the people, and your own body and thoughts.  It’s vitally important to keep noticing even when your mind starts to process the information.  You may start to imagine that your rival for that promotion is the boss’s favourite.  You remember how often you’ve seen the two of them together lately.  Without giving you any value, those thoughts are taking your attention away from the present, and you are missing what is actually going on.  Over time, if that is what you accept in yourself, you may make serious mistakes in your interactions with others, mistakes which can create stress, fear, regret and other unhelpful feelings.

But if you can think and feel at the same time, if you can be aware of what you notice and use that information to get the best results for you and your boss, your team, your family or your world, you will be able to take the next steps with grace and professionalism.  That’s noticing, the challenge of now, and the first step to becoming skillfully adaptive in any business environment.

For more information about The Adaptive Coach, see http://www.adaptivecoach.com – 20 years of adapting in business.

A coaching model for adaptive behaviour

Adaptive behaviour:

Any behaviour that enables an organism to adjust to a particular situation or environment.


A simple model for adaptive behaviour:


Connect with others

Learn and adapt




How I, as a coach, use this model with you, as a client:

In my work with teams as a coach, instructor and consultant, I have learned or developed tools to get great results out of each step in this model.  Together we’ll work on questions like the following:  


What things are important to notice?

How can you get really good at noticing those things, things that will be important to you or your team or your family?  

How can you get good at choosing between what is important to notice and what isn’t?  How do you live with the ambiguity that you may be wrong?  Or right?  


Connect with others: 

How can you connect deeply with the people who can give the best help?

Who is the right person to connect to?

What if the right person is someone you are afraid of, like your boss?  

Or someone you don’t like, like a co-worker?

Or someone younger than you, or older, or different, or the same?

How can you use diversity to build the most resilient connections?


Learn and adapt:

How do you learn?  

How can you expand your learning styles to allow you to take in a wider variety of information and retain it better?  

Or give up what you’ve learned when it no longer serves you? 

Once you have learned, how do you apply that learning in the new context?

How do you gracefully give up old paradigms and adopt what will work now and in the future?



When you know what needs to be done, do you do it?

What might hold you back?  What might you be willing to let go? 

What action should you take, if any?  

How do you honour what you’ve learned in the past while you stay open to ambiguity, risk and potential?



Then, how do you stay energized, positive and open to starting all over again?

The Adaptive Coach – for business people at the edge of change