“I can’t say that!”

I just talked with a client, Annie. She and her co-worker, Joe, were co-leaders of a project. Annie observed that Joe was taking actions, such as sending out emails, without first informing her and getting her input. As a result, Annie felt Joe was trying to “take control of the project,” and “look good to senior management.” She wanted to go to Joe’s boss with her concerns. I asked her, “Have you spoken with Joe directly?” She said, “No! I couldn’t do that, he might get offended.”


How Our Meaning-Making Shapes Our Avoidance Of Straight Talk

Let’s unpack the pitfalls here. Annie doesn’t know why Joe didn’t consult her. Her beliefs about his desire to “take control” and “look good” may be valid, and they may not. As it turned out, they had never explicitly discussed how they would work together, so it’s possible he didn’t know she expected him to get her input before emailing team members.  Perhaps he didn’t want to add another task to her plate and was trying to be helpful.  And, if he didn’t know she expected this prior communication, then he may not know she’s upset by the lack of it.

Also, Annie is making assumptions about the bad things that would happen if she were to talk with him directly. (I wondered aloud, “How offended do you think he will be when he finds out you went to his boss and complained about him?”)  When she played out what she would have said in such a confrontation, she imagined saying things like, “You’re trying to take control,” “You’re trying to look good to senior management.”  Well, yes, if she shared those judgments, he might get angry.

As we talked, she realized that the problem was largely a result of her own meaning-making. “He should have known I expected to be consulted without me telling him.” “If he didn’t consult with me, it was because he had ulterior motives, like trying to appear in control.” “If I talk with him about my feelings, I will damage our working relationship.”


Some Alternative Beliefs That Enable Constructive Straight Talk

Annie is now working on replacing that meaning-making with different beliefs:

  • Nothing I want a person to do for me is “obvious,” unless I talk with them about it and get agreement.
  • Making assumptions about someone’s motivations, based on their behaviors, can be dangerous.
  • Having an authentic conversation with someone about something they’re doing that doesn’t work for me can actually deepen the relationship rather than damage it. It’s not talking about it that can create damaging ripples.
  • If I do have this conversation, I’m more likely to get engagement (not anger) if I describe their behavior and what I expect, rather than sharing judgments about the person’s motives.
  • If I believe this is about the person being bad or wrong, that belief will leak out in my conversation with them.
  • I probably have contributed to the situation in some way.

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