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There's no nice way to Poke Someone in the Eye: Leading Conflict Principle 2

When I began my career as a professional educator and trainer I was young, arrogant and stubborn. Now I’m just arrogant and stubborn.

One day, early in my career, I was co-training a group of professionals with my supervisor. He was an experienced consultant, trainer and a top-shelf presenter. He was a truly gifted speaker and mentor who could work a room like nobody’s business.

During a Q&A session, one of our trainees asked an insightful question about how to give tough feedback without permanently damaging a relationship with a coworker. It was an excellent question. After playing second-fiddle for most of the training, I felt I had some original ideas. I was excited to finally speak up.

My supervisor answered first and gave a few concise pieces of advice. I then shared my ideas. However, I also decided to go the extra mile and disagree with one of my supervisor’s comments. I gave some clear supporting reasons and then made a contrasting suggestion.

He responded by gently reiterating his point and giving a further rationale for his original suggestion. Though he gently tried to make a transition to the next activity, I decided to double-down on stupid by going back to my point and making it more strongly this time.

We went back and forth a few times before I finally realized things were getting tense ­– and for the trainees…awkward. We clumsily moved on.

After the training, my supervisor tried to process what had happened. He explained that he didn’t have a problem with me having a difference of opinion or even sharing it with the group. He explained that he, knowing the particular trainees much better and more intimately than me, had very distinct reasons for giving the particular advice he had shared. The advice was related to some much larger development goals he had established with the trainees’ organizational leadership.

He asked me to trust his judgement and follow his lead in situations like this in the future – at least until I learned more about our clients’ history and goals. All very sensible, strategic and professionally delivered feedback on his part.

And what did I do? Yep, I told him why he was wrong – again.

The next day at the office, I was asked to come to meeting in one of the conference rooms. As I walked in, I saw that there were four chairs arranged in a circle. In three of the chairs were my supervisor, our unit director, and the president of the company. The empty chair was for me.

My supervisor asked me to come in a have a seat. I was told that they all wanted to talk to me about what happened at the training on the previous day and – for now – they just wanted me to listen. My supervisor reiterated his points from the previous day. He also added how frustrated he was with me. He said he was devoting a lot of time to help mentor me, but I was often resistant to advice. Next, the president of the company said he’d like to speak. After a thoughtful pause, he looked at me seriously and said:

"I put your supervisor in charge for a reason. He is our most experienced and talented trainer and consultant. I’ve worked with him for more than ten years, and I trust him completely. If I wanted you in charge, you’d be in charge. From now on, you follow his lead with clients whether you agree or not. You’re a smart, talented guy with a lot of potential. But you can also be arrogant and hard to teach. If that doesn’t change, you won’t make it here."

I felt like I was punched in the gut. And it was exactly what I needed and deserved.

Our unit director then talked a little bit about the potential she saw in me, but she also shared some related concerns. I was then asked to share what I would explicitly do differently from now in similar situations. They helped me develop a few clear commitments. Then we ended the meeting.

It was hard for me, but I did what they asked and followed through on my commitments. And I learned a lot about myself in the process.

The number one thing they did right was not pulling any punches. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, “There’s no nice way to poke someone in the eye.”

If they had even mildly sugar-coated the feedback or phrased everything as polite suggestions, I frankly wouldn’t have heard it. And I wouldn’t have changed. I needed to be told I was wrong, and that while my opinion might be valid, it wasn’t the most important one in the room. It was great that I wanted to lead, but first I needed to learn how to follow with grace. And if I didn’t develop in this area, I’d be gone.

That was all true. I needed to hear it straight – no chaser.

Feedback often fails to make an impact or change behavior because its overly diluted. Wrapping feedback in cautious niceties only helps the giver, not the receiver.

Sometimes people, like me in the story above, are just wrong. And if you need to poke them in the metaphorical eye, it’s best and most effective to just get it over with as quickly as possible. Then you can get on with making things better.

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