Friday 29 May 2015

Negotiating Skills In Practice

It is always heartening to demonstrate (to myself) that the skills I train others to use do actually work in practice.

Last week, three of my children and I went to France to walk from Paris to Chartres (and that's another story). Jane (née Plasom) had booked the flights, and I realised a few days beforehand that she had booked them all in the name of Plasom-Scott. For reasons with which I won't bore you, my driving licence, and the kids' passports, are all in Plasom-Scott, but my passport is still in Scott. Realising that this might cause problems at the airport, I phoned the airline to explain the situation.

They said I would indeed have to change my ticket so that the name on it matched the name on my passport, and that they would do that: for an £11 admin fee, and a £40 something-else fee - ie £51 in total.

That struck me as excessive, but I went ahead as I wanted first and foremost to ensure that I could get on the flight with the children.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt ripped off, so I got back to them, using the approaches that I cover in my negotiating skills workshop - based on Harvard's model of Principled Negotiation.

That involved being very clear about my concerns, and asking them to explain by what criteria they had reached the conclusion that £51 was a suitable fee for a small administrative change that must have taken them all of two minutes.

Their response was a positional one: that we had a contract; the terms were that alterations were charged for; the fee was comparable with their competitors' charges.

So I replied that I understood that we had a contract; but what I failed to understand was how they had arrived at the level of the charge. It seemed to me that they were simply exploiting the fact that they had the legal right to charge a fee.  However, I made it clear that I was open to their explanation justifying the level of charges. I also made it clear that if they were unable to give me a satisfactory explanation, I would continue to feel aggrieved, and would consider a variety of possible actions as a result.

I listed a range of possible actions I could envisage taking, from amusing myself at their expense online, to using them as a case study in customer care training, as well as contacting the regulator. For, as I told them, if we were unable to reach an amicable settlement, I might as well get some value, if only entertainment, for the money they had taken from me.

The result was a refund of £40.  £11 still seems a bit steep for a 2 minute alteration, but I can live with that. 

So once again, the investment in Getting to Yes (Fisher and Ury) paid off...

Saturday 16 May 2015

The Dynamics of Confrontation

Have you ever had the experience where you have, gently, raised the same issue again and again, and then, eventually, lost your patience and shouted at someone about it? It is a fairly common pattern, and is explained by this model of the dynamics of confrontation, which I have adapted from John Heron's excellent book The Facilitator's Handbook. 

Confront, in this context, means to put something squarely in front of someone, so that they recognise the need to change: typically it is used to address destructive or inappropriate behaviour or patterns of thinking.

1 You identify the need to confront someone

Be clear about the purpose of confronting - to help the other person to change his or her behaviour. That implies that the individual needs to understand what change is required and why, and also that he or she needs to leave the discussion feeling motivated and able to change - not beaten up or shamed.

2 You experience anxiety

There is always some anxiety at the prospect of these difficult conversations: that may be worsened if you have a bad experience of confrontation in the past, either with this person or someone else. Recognising this anxiety is the first step to counter-acting it.

3a Anxiety distorts behaviour

It may be that your behaviour is distorted by your anxiety in one of two ways:

• Pussyfooting: you may be so concerned not to cause offence that you avoid dis- cussing the issue altogether, or you wrap up your message in such woolly or apologetic language that the message or its importance get lost. This will lead to no change in behaviour - and growing frustration in you. If you find yourself thinking “How many times do I have to tell him...?” it may be that you have been pussyfooting.

• Clobbering: you may be so concerned not to pussyfoot - or so frustrated with the problem behaviour - that you deliver your message too forcibly and are perceived as aggressive. This will leave the other person feeling beaten up - and while he or she may comply in the short term, you will leave a legacy of resentment and disempowerment. If you find yourself thinking “Why are they so defensive?” or “Why can’t they decide things for themselves...?” it may be that you have been clobbering.

3b Behaviour freed from anxiety

To detach yourself from your anxiety and other emotions (eg annoyance), use any personal strategies you have for detachment, and focus on steering the middle course: telling the truth as you see it without compromise and with compassion. 

Without compromise means no apologising, no ‘praise sandwiches,’ and short, direct and factual statements.

With compassion means no anger, no blame, and a sincere intention to help the other person to learn and change his or her behaviour.

4 Learning for other person

When you get it right, you are likely to cause a sense of shock or recognition in the other person, that will be very noticeable to you. If you are then quiet and listen (resist the temptation to move into apologetic mode), you will be able to help the other person to consider what you have said and decide what and how to change. This is uncomfortable for both people, but can lead to genuine insight and learning.

5 Appropriate support

At the end of the discussion, end on a sincere and positive note - expressing appreciation of the person’s commitment to address the issue and offering any appropriate support. 


So to come back to my original example, when you have asked someone repeatedly to change something (gently) and then ended up shouting at them, this model would suggest you have done this: pussyfoot, pussyfoot, pussyfoot, CLOBBER!

(Ask my kids for further details...)

Friday 8 May 2015

Learning from experience

I have long been an advocate of learning diaries and similar reflective writing as a stimulus for learning. Today I had an interesting experience of the power of using them.

I try to write a reflection at the end of each week: whatever has caught my attention, raised a question, left me happy or unquiet... 

Some weeks it seems fairly banal, and I wonder about the value of it. Last week was one such week. All I could think of to record was a particular coaching session, in which I was not sure I had been as effective as I could have been.

The issue was that I had been talking with someone who was very unclear what he wanted to discuss in this particular session, so after a little probing, I had referred back to the original objectives we had agreed and asked which of them we might explore further. He had chosen one, and then again had little energy for exploring his experience and hopes around it (the poor chap was jet-lagged after an inter-continental flight). So I ended up giving him an overview of some of the theoretical stuff concerning the topic, and he then discussed how that made sense of some of his previous experiences, and how he could think - and act - differently in the future. He said it was a very helpful session.

But what was niggling with me was the degree to which it had been directed by me, rather than client-led, which many experts, (such as John Whitmore) insist is the better way.

It wasn't a big issue, but it was, as I say niggling. And because it was niggling, I noted it down. And because I had noted it down, I discussed it with my coaching supervisor. 

We discussed a number of things: the degree to which I had in fact involved him in the decision of what to discuss, what he learned from it, and how he might apply it - it was not a completely coach-led session; the fact that over the series of coaching sessions, most of the discussions are coachee-led  not coach-led; the fact that I don't agree with non-directionality as a philosophy, merely as an approach which is often helpful (ie if I have useful information, theoretical knowledge etc to share, it is sometimes helpful to share that, rather than try to draw everything out form the coachee); and the fact that he did find the session helpful, which is a primary consideration (though again, we also discussed how that is not the sole criterion, along with issues such as dependency etc...).

So that proved to be a very rich and thought-provoking session, leading to a much more valuable reflective note in my learning diary this week. QED.

Friday 1 May 2015

Creative tensions?

I am currently working with a number of senior teams who are developing their strategies. This is always fascinating work, not least because of the balancing act that is so often required..

On the one hand, planning is clearly essential; but on the other hand, 'if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans.' (Incidentally, is that really Woody Allen (and just a singular God)? - I'd always heard it as 'gods' and assumed it was a Greek quotation...)

There are several other tensions I observe and try to help people find a way through. For example, subsidiarity versus standardisation. On the one hand, there are many merits to making decisions at the local level wherever possible: people on the spot know what will really work, and will be more committed to making decisions work when they have been part of them. Yet there are also cogent arguments for standardisation - to reduce risks, manage costs, and ensure equitable treatment of staff.

A related, though distinct, tension is that between innovation and risk, on the one hand, and quality and consistency on the other. Most organisations I work with want to be both innovative and committed to quality; and indeed set some people off on one path, to develop new ideas, whilst giving others the mandate to ensure that quality standards are observed. Then they wonder why these people irritate each other so much...

Just listen to any conversation between a procurement professional and a first line manager to see what I mean here.  This is also related to the issues of a patriarchal versus entrepreneurial culture, about which I blogged here (and in a couple of follow up posts, here and here).

And then there is the strategic versus opportunistic argument. When do we ignore the stuff that arises, and commit our energy and resources only to those priorities identified in our strategic plan, and when would it be reckless to ignore opportunities that arise unforeseen?

And there is another one related to decision making: collective versus individual. When is it better to treat the team as a collective body which reaches a decision by consensus, and to which all team members commit (cabinet responsibility), and when is it best for the decision to be owned by an individual, with team members acting as advisors?

There are no right answers to these questions for all organisations in all circumstances; indeed the answers both depend on and start to define the organisational culture. But in my experience, addressing these questions explicitly as part of the planning process is very valuable. Then the strategic team can reach an explicit understanding, which may be temporary and subject to review, but which by virtue of being explicit is both understood and discussable.