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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

How do you give feedback without causing offence?

When you think about it, "feedback" is a strange term isn't it? However, as a trainer and a coach I prefer to put all thoughts of reciprocal feeding aside and to focus on the extremely valuable tool that it can be...

The trouble with feedback is that unless it is used responsibly, sensitively and ethically, it can also be quite destructive - to the person on the receiving end and also to the on-going relationship. That's probably why so many people decide to opt out of giving feedback unless they're absolutely cornered to do so... and even then, they'll try to think up something bland and non-committal to say for fear of offending. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those people who just can't help themselves... putting others down, sharing their pearls of wisdom with: "Oh, you don't want to do it like that", or "If I were you...". Well you'll never be me, so what's your point actually?

All that aside, feedback that is well thought through and timely can be extremely valuable as a proactive method of sharing your experience, views, needs and preferences. Managers and Team Leaders who learn how to give feedback to their reports in a supportive and constructive manner are able to motivate and inspire performance improvement and achievement of challenging objectives. Failure to give feedback on performance issues not only does not tackle those things that can be the difference between success and failure of a task, but it can also lead to the continuing deterioration of performance. There's nothing quite so insulting to an employee to criticise or chastise them after months or years have gone by when you've never told them clearly what they were doing wrong. "But why didn't you tell me?" is a common cry of despair...

And feedback isn't only a management tool. It's a skill that everyone can benefit from improving and regularly using. Think of it as the ability to share your experience with people with whom you work. Is there a colleague who regularly inconveniences you? Is there someone whose support you appreciate, but you wish it were given in a slightly different way? Maybe there's one person who you really rely on and don't want them to stop what they're doing... Feedback enables you to communicate with them - to translate your thoughts into words and to positively influence how the people around you think and behave.

Then there's the person on the receiving end of the feedback. Let's spare a thought for them as after all, feedback is actually a two-way process - not just a broadcasting tool for manipulating others. (Well it shouldn't be!) Anyone who is conscientious about their job role, who strives towards excellence and who seeks continuous improvements will be delighted to receive feedback - indeed, they will make it their business to seek it out! The only proviso is that the feedback they are looking for must be honest, transparent and constructive. They're not looking to be manipulated with fake praise, or damned with feint praise. They would simply like to know a bit more about the impact of their actions and their approach - so they can make adjustments where necessary.

It's clear that although feedback can be extremely valuable, there's a variety of reasons that people often find it difficult to give. Here are a few guidelines that may help you to ensure that the feedback you give is constructive and supportive:

• Always ensure that the purpose of your feedback is to be genuinely helpful to the other person, as well as to yourself. It should never be used as a punishment.

• Before launching in with your observations, it is respectful to ask them if they have any areas of particular concern that they'd like your feedback on.

• Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head. Take some time to think about your comments to ensure that they're fair and balanced.

• Most people feel very vulnerable while receiving feedback and so will be very sensitive to your comments. Be aware of this when deciding what to say. It’s a good idea to think about how you would feel if the same comments were made about you.

• Speak directly to the person. If you're in a meeting, or with others, don’t talk about them to the group.

• Remember that your feedback is your view, so say ‘I...’ rather than ‘We...’ or ‘The team...’.

• Think about your non-verbal communication. Make eye contact and ensure that both your posture and your expression are non-threatening, relaxed and informal.

• Be honest but non-judgmental. For example, ‘I noticed that you interrupted the other person five times,’ rather than, ‘You were so full of your own opinions that you wouldn’t let the other person get a word in edgeways’.

• Talk about the specific behaviour rather than your personal opinion of them. For example: ‘No dates were set for the next meeting,’ rather than ‘You’re not very organised are you?’.

• Make sure that you comment on the good points as well as the development areas. It’s important that people are made aware of their strengths too.

• Avoid using a formulaic approach (such as the unfortunately named "s**t sandwich") It will only look false and manipulative.

• Don’t overload the person with a list of issues. Being given two or three areas to consider may be valuable; 15 is demoralizing and pointless.

• Don't avoid giving 'negative' feedback. It’s unfair to refuse help because you feel awkward about it.

• Remember that only poorly given feedback is negative.

• Make your remarks specific. For example, ‘You had a friendly approach’ is of little value. A better example would be, ‘You made good eye contact, had a friendly smile, and your posture was open and relaxed. All these things made me feel that you were looking forward to the interview’.

• Remember that feedback is something the other person has the right to consider. They should be free to consider it in context with other feedback they’ve received as well as with their own observations and views. They may or may not accept any or all of what you say.

• If you're in a position of authority, make sure you distinguish between your 'feedback' and your managerial 'instructions'. This way, the other person will be clear about what they need to act on, and what they are free to consider.

If you have any further ideas, thoughts or experiences about feedback-giving, do let me know!

Friday, 10 June 2011

How do you deal with difficult meeting or training participants?

There is a wide range of behaviours that even the most experienced meeting chairs, facilitators and trainers find difficult to deal with. Using an assertive communication style together with some specific techniques will help you to deal with most difficult people effectively – and the better you become, the fewer opportunities for disruption present themselves. Here are some useful guidelines for dealing with difficult people/behaviour during your meetings/training sessions:

Agree groundrules: If you can, invest a few minutes at the start of every session to agree and/or reiterate some groundrules that everyone is happy to abide by. That way, you get the added benefit of peer pressure and personal accountability which will help to curb some of the most common types of difficult behaviour - such as people talking over each other, interrupting or talking amongst themselves.

Improve the environment: It may be that part of the problem is with the venue - if it is too hot or too cold, people will become distracted and fidgety, and will lose concentration. If there are strong opinions and emotions are running high, this will only be exacerbated by a room that's too hot. The best temperature to aim for is just on the cool side of comfortable which will keep the majority of people alert. Equally, getting the seating right will encouraging effective communication. If there are individuals who are dominating, or who are getting into one-on-one disagreements, try asking people to swop seats and/or to work in different small groups, as this will change the dynamics.

Agree a purpose: Every meeting or training session requires an objective. Explain at the beginning why a meeting or a training session is the best way of achieving the outcome, and give an idea of how you will work with the group to achieve it. Aim to get group consensus on priorities for the session, or seek their commitment to pre-defined objectives. This will help you to identify and agree a common focus and direction, which you can refer back to if anyone goes off-topic, or loses sight of the overall purpose.

Use an agenda: This can serve as an effective means of keeping the meeting/session on course, and encouraging people to work within a time-frame and stick to the point. Circulating the agenda beforehand will help people to prepare and to think through their contributions or questions. Plan the structure of the meeting or training session by prioritising topics/agenda points so the most important/urgent are dealt with when people are most alert and motivated.

Never humiliate a difficult participant: Try to think of every participant as a ‘customer’, who deserves to be treated with respect. Also remember that the other people in the meeting/training session are likely to feel some sympathy for them, so you may find yourself alienated by the group if you behave in any way other than entirely respectful.

Don’t get into an argument: Although having a one-on-one tussle with an individual may entertain the others in the room, you run the risk of embarrassing them too. If you lose the argument or become too adversarial, you could also lose your credibility. Should the argument go on, the other participants are likely to become bored and irritated. Try to remain positive – don’t get pulled into a negative defence spiral. Instead focus on finding out more about their views by asking probing questions.

Don’t ignore them: The problem won’t usually go away on its own. Most difficult behaviour is exhibited as a result of an individual wanting to be heard or acknowledged. They are likely to ramp up the volume on their difficult behaviour unless and until it is/they are dealt with.

Try to understand them: If you can identify why they are being disruptive or difficult, you are more likely to be able to respond accordingly: If they want to be involved, give them a role such as making notes; if they feel they're not being listened to, use active listening techniques to give them a fair hearing; if they’re clashing with you, ask the other participants to comment on some of the specific points they're making - that way you'll open up the discussion to everyone.

Never lose your cool: If you feel that you are going to lose your temper or to show your frustration, try counting to ten and/or taking a break as soon as it is appropriate - so you can re-gather your thoughts and work out an effective strategy for dealing with them calmly.

Talk to them alone: Try finding an opportune moment, say at lunchtime or during a coffee break. Ask them politely whether there's anything specific that is troubling them that you can help with. Even the most obnoxious person will usually talk reasonably given the opportunity for a private chat.

They may not mean to be difficult: Remember that people express themselves and their feelings differently, and learn and process information at different rates – sometimes it is easy to think that someone is being deliberately obtuse or pedantic just to be difficult, when in fact they are just in their natural style!

People have a right to their opinions: If you ask for feedback or for views and an individual seems to be hyper-critical or negative, accept their right to do so. If you can, turn it into a conversation rather than an argument. "What specifically do you disagree with?" "I’m interested to know why you think that" "What needs to happen/change for you to agree?"

And if all else fails…

Consider encouraging them to leave – If you believe that the person is going to undermine the outcome of the meeting/session, or to reduce other participants' opportunities to contribute or to learn, then this is always an option - it is unlikely that they are achieving anything positive by being there and continuing with their disruptive behaviour.

Have you ever been asked to leave a meeting, or have you invited someone to leave a training session? How do you deal with difficult or challenging behaviour from a meeting or training participant? We'd love to hear your experiences...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Is it time to kill-off the "Killer Question"?

When delivering training in sales, negotiation and influence, I’m often asked about the use of so-called “killer questions”. I first came across the term about 15 years ago and to be honest, I was a little puzzled by it. I’d heard of the “killer instinct” which I guess is a second-cousin of the “killer question”, but I never did get my head around why anyone would want to “kill” anything? Maybe I’m just not the aggressive type, but the bottom line is that it just doesn’t make sense to me to kill off anyone or anything that may come in useful at a later date!

Giving the “killer question” concept a second chance, I decided to look into it a bit further. Maybe it was just an unfortunate name for concept that’s actually quite useful? What I discovered quite quickly was that the “killer question” approach proposes a series of ‘off-the-peg’ questions that are so dynamic and powerful that you can pull them out and nail a deal in a flash… It sounded too good to be true, but still somewhat appealing to think that there could be a magic question that can get you the result you’re after.

Being a bit of a skeptic, and being trained not to take anything at face value, I began to consider the killer question premise in a little more detail… Firstly, if there really is an ultimate question that can be asked, how can the same question have the same brilliant effect in every situation? Surely an effective sales person, negotiator or influencer needs to be able to tailor their communication style and approach, and not just drag out a one-size-fits-all question? Asking killer questions also seemed to me to be extremely patronizing and disrespectful, as it assumes that the recipient/customer is too dim to realize that they’re being manipulated.

The reality is that the workplace is definitely becoming more pressurized. People are being asked to achieve more in less time. So the idea that we can push our way forward towards our own goals, ignoring the sensibilities, intelligence, needs and values of those around us is in a small way understandable. For anyone looking for quick and easy gimmicks, there are of course many sources of advice on the internet about how to use clever openers, killer questions, value propositions, and the latest genius closing techniques.

So how do you know if you or your colleagues are guilty of asking “killer questions”? Here are three of the most lethal/irritating that I’ve come across:

1. "What do you know about us/me/this project/proposal…?"

If the person you’re trying to influence/sell to/negotiate with is on the ball, they will immediately ask you if this is a test. Nobody likes to be put on the spot, so why would anyone want to risk potentially humiliating and alienating the person they wish to influence, right from the start? Perhaps it’s because they simply want to know what the person thinks of them, their idea or proposal before presenting their side. However, it would be good to remember that whether the person knows a lot, a little, or nothing at all about what you have to offer, nobody knows it as well as you – so it’s your job to tell them and not the other way around.

2. "What will it take to get you to agree/your business…?"

This is probably one of the most unimpressive “killer” questions, as it implies that you are so desperate for a sale or for agreement that you may be willing to do anything in order to close the deal! If you aren’t willing to do anything, then why ask that question? Instead, it would be far more constructive to use a more consultative process of discussion in order to uncover what the person actually needs/wants in a less confrontational/direct way.

3. "Can I call you next week/in two weeks/a month?"

This is another “killer” question that puts the other person on the spot. Firstly, what is so special about following up in 7, 14 or 30 days? It may be a good time-scale for you, but don’t assume that it is just as good for them, or that they even want you to follow-up on your conversation. Secondly, they may not want you to call them at all... So instead of dictating the follow up time-frame, you could ask if it would be helpful to get back in touch, and when would be the best time for them. At least that way you know you won’t be wasting your time or their time, or becoming an irritant to someone who just doesn’t feel able to say “no”.

Anyone who is a keen observer of human behaviour, and anyone who is an experienced business-person will tell you for nothing that investing in long-term relationships is so much more precious than the short-term gains of the smoke-and-mirror, and ‘bullish’ approaches. Surely effective sales, negotiation and influence involves engaging the other person in a meaningful dialogue about their wants, needs, and problems - and how your solutions/proposals might be of value to them. In a collaborative process, the other person is free to make their own considered decisions, and they will also take responsibility for the outcome of those decisions.

So you are convinced that killer questions aren’t actually as wonderful as they’re meant to be. But what should you replace them with? Here are some alternative question formats that you might find useful in the process of uncovering needs:
  • What are the different ways that you...?
  • Can you recall a situation where...?
  • What would you do differently if...?
  • What's been your experience with...?
  • Whose opinion matters most about...?
  • What prevents you from...?
  • What three things stand in your way...?
  • What are the benefits you'd like to see as a result of...?
  • How are you avoiding...?
  • What trends are affecting the way you...?
  • What do you think is the best way to achieve...?
  • What are you missing out on by...?
  • How would you like… to describe...?
  • What would need to happen for you to feel...?
  • What would your three best customers say about...?
  • What are the most common questions that your customers ask when...?
  • In the past six months, how have you...?
  • What advice would you give to...?
  • What are you currently doing to reduce...?
  • What do you think makes the difference between...?

So next time a well-meaning but ill-informed colleague asks you to can share your “killer questions” with them, you know what to do: suggest that using a consultative approach might be more productive, and tell them that a killer question may well kill the deal, but it’s also likely to murder the on-going relationship!