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Turn Your Reactibity Into Productivity

I am a member board for a non-profit educational professional development center. Recently the Center was dealing with a student who was quite upset and seemed relentless in his pursuit of being heard. As a result, the board was now being brought in to the situation, and a lengthy letter was being read out loud at our current board meeting. The letter stated complaints regarding one of our long-standing, respected faculty members, Joe.

As I sat and listened to the concerns, I noticed myself getting reactive and tight. Let me be more honest, I didn’t really notice the signs and signals that I was getting reactive until I blurted out, "Okay, how long is this letter? Jeez, could we get to the main issue?!"

Of course, the woman reading letter was put off by my interruption. I acknowledged that I was out of order and silenced myself. However, now I was much more aware of the bubbling reactivity I had towards the negative feedback about the Center.

I am sharing this because I am someone who believes feedback is vital to success and that getting feedback, even difficult, corrective feedback should be highly valued and considered. Yet, here I was getting my back up as a listened to someone's dislike of a service our organization had provided.

I knew it was going to be important to settle myself and gather my resources so that I could be present. I took a moment to utilize a couple of tools we wrote about in How to Be Your Best In the Midst of Conflict. The first tool is grounding. I took a minute to feel my feet on the floor, and my bum and back in the chair underneath me. I let myself rest into the support of both. I felt that downward grounding energy that comes with this noticing. Then I used the second tool, orienting. I stopped focusing on the woman reading the letter and slowly turned my head to look around the room. I paused to take in my environment. I noticed my body spontaneously took a deeper breath as my nervous system settled. Now that my body knew there were no saber-toothed tigers around, meaning my fight/flight system was settling, I was able to listen.

At this point, Larry, another board member spoke up, "I agree with the student. I’ve had some concerns about Joe too. I think we need to step in and do something about it." Larry often questioned either the credentials of the faculty or the depth of the curriculum. So his reaction did not surprise me, but I did catch myself rolling my eyes.

Another clue, that even though I was calmer, I still had quite a bit of my own internal reaction and tension building about the feedback. I decided I would use the self-check tool before I spoke up about my thoughts regarding the next steps related to the complaints.

As many of you know, we discuss the two magic ingredients that can transform conflict in an instant in our TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! After watching the talk, people often ask us, “How do I use these concepts in real life?”

We thought we’d give you an example here.

One simple way is to track where you fall along two axes, vulnerability and curiosity, on a scale of -10 to +10. First, we suggest you measure yourself on the vulnerability axis, which is a measure of your willingness to show up and reveal what you are honestly thinking, feeling and wanting in the moment. When you are high on the vulnerability axis you are being Real, a +10. When you are withholding and not revealing, you would be Hidden, -10.

For me in this scenario, though I had spoken up, I wasn’t being very vulnerable. I was attacking the length of the letter with anger. I wasn’t revealing what was really going on inside me. I showed the top layer, my irritation. So I would give myself a -5 on the vulnerability axis.

What I wasn’t saying was how uncomfortable I was hearing that he was so upset about Joe, a faculty member that I respected and thought of as a mentor.

The second axis is curiosity, which is the measure for how open and interested you are in the other person and their point of view. When you are high on the curiosity axis, you are being open-minded and engaged, or what we call Open, +10. When you are low on the curiosity axis, you are closed-minded and what we call Defended, -10.

I gave myself a +2 on the curiosity axis, primarily because I was interested in hearing what was underlying what I thought was a very strong attack from the student. I wasn’t particularly curious about what I judged as his blame and that was bringing down my score.

When I took the time to reflect and score myself on both vulnerability and curiosity, it continued to calm my reactivity, and I spoke up, “I’ve got to say something here. I know I sounded reactive earlier. I have to admit I am a bit protective regarding Joe. I have a lot of respect for him and he was a mentor of mine. So I think I am having a hard time being objective.” As I spoke I noticed a few nodding heads and at least one other board member taking a long exhale.

“Having said that, I would really like to be more objective about this situation. I think we want feedback, even the hard stuff. So I am wondering if someone less rattled than me can say what they think are the key issues.” I did sincerely want to be curious.

Melissa jumped in, “Susan, I really appreciate you saying you were getting reactive. I feel that way too, and I agree the letter brings up some important concerns that we should discuss.”

We had a great discussion about the situation and what we could do to proactively move it forward. I believe my open acknowledgment of how I felt, and Melissa’s after me, created a much better dialogue among the board.

When the meeting was closing, Larry wanted to chat. He said that he was often annoyed at my reactive, intense style and that today he valued how he thought I handled myself quite differently and appreciated the difference. I said, “Thank you.”

As someone who is regularly passionate about my opinion, I have been given regular feedback over the years that I can be a difficult team member. The tricky part is that I don’t want to deny my passion or try to water down my perspective. Instead, I want to ensure that my passion and opinion do not block my ability to take in new information, or block people hearing my concerns or giving me feedback to improve my performance and that of the board. When I take a moment to self-check my own willingness to be vulnerable and curious, I am able to make adjustments.

We encourage you and your team to consider doing a vulnerability and curiosity axis check when addressing hot topics. This can transform your team’s ability to produce successful bottom-line results. As a leader, it is powerful if you go first and model the behavior you want your team to adopt. You don’t need to be perfect. Instead, be human – be vulnerable, real, curious and open, and see the powerful impacts on your team’s performance.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.


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