by Simon Robinson
Sarah and I first met at Nottingham University in the late 80s, where we were both psychology students. After graduating, we lost contact so I was extremely happy last year when I discovered that not only had she become successful as an occupational psychologist, but she had also written the best-selling book Life Changing Conversations: 7 Strategies for Talking About What Matters Most.
Sarah is one of the UK’s leading experts on dialogue, appearing regularly on BBC radio in the UK, and her work has featured in the national and international press, including in the Financial Times, the Guardian and Marie Claire.
After discovering and reading Life Changing Conversations, I got back in contact with Sarah, both as a friend and also as someone who is also facilitating dialogues here in Brazil in relation to the implementation of programmes of profound transformational change in organisations.
I took the opportunity to ask Sarah some questions for Empower Women, asking her especially to consider the role of conversation and dialogue in relation to the challenges many women face in the workplace today.
Simon: Could you tell us a little about yourself, and what led you to writing Life-Changing Conversations?
Sarah: I’m a professional psychologist who’s passionate about conversation. I’ve worked internationally as a dialogue consultant for over 12 years, helping people to talk about what matters most.
My real masterclass in communication was marrying a south American. I found that cultural differences were real things! I discovered that attending carefully to the other person’s personality, needs, desires, triggers and indeed their cultural background – is vital in order to communicate well and respectfully.
When my (now) ex-husband and I separated 7 years later, it was difficult but not traumatic. Over the years we’d found a way to talk that was real, honest and open. I was able to leave a relationship that no longer felt life-enhancing by being able to talk – and to listen. We remain firm friends to this day, even though the relationship has changed form.
I wrote Life-Changing Conversations to help people to navigate critical choice points in their lives. Many of us struggle to communicate, particularly when the stakes are high. We don’t want to hurt others feelings or to damage a relationship we have. And we need to be true to ourselves otherwise we’re not at peace inside and our lives aren’t aligned. I wanted to equip people to have conversations that will enrich their lives – conversations that they might, like me, have waited not weeks or month but years to have!
Simon: Could you tell us what a life-changing conversation is?
Sarah: A life-changing conversation opens a new door in your life. Without having that conversation, you don’t cross the threshold to your next life chapter. It’s like an aperture through which life unfolds. You bring something new into the world through having a life-changing conversation.
Because we are all inter-connected, and increasingly so in our digital 24/7 world, a “Big Conversation” affects not only your life but the lives of people around you. For example, if you ask for a promotion at work and get it, this might affect the whole of your family. If you decide to tell someone you love them, or that you no longer love them, this could change a relationship right at its core. If you find a way to talk to a family member and clear some unfinished business, you may heal a relationship that was broken.
A conversation is not just an exchange of words. Talking together does something. It is an action. It carries power. It affects material reality. The more intentional we are in how we communicate, the more likely our co-creations are to delight us rather than disappoint us. As Juanita Brown, the creator of the World Café, says, “Just as fish don’t see the water in which they swim, we rarely notice the larger systemic influence of the webs of conversation in which we participate.” When we pay more attention to the “water” of conversation we swim in, great things can happen!
Simon: Your book covers many different situations in people’s lives. How could your advice help people in relation to how people relate to the people they work with?
Sarah: In the workplace, good communication is critical. It’s vital in family life too, but in the workplace we are charged with creating something together. Without good communication, the whole enterprise suffers. Work gets duplicated, mistakes fall through the cracks, conflicts arise and fester.
Learning how to have better dialogue builds more robust relationships. To produce quality goods and services, we need the creative tension of different points of view. The art is to find a way to mine the creativity without triggering reactivity. Each one of us is unique. We all hold a piece of the puzzle. The only way the jigsaw will come together is if we find a way to talk and think together.
The other complexity of work life is that there are usually power differentials at play. “Speaking truth to power” – such as giving your boss some feedback or speaking out to more senior colleagues – is a challenge that many of us find difficult. There is, therefore, a great need to find ways to talk that are productive. When each one of us expands our capacity to be both courageous and receptive, the greater whole benefits too.
Simon: What are the particular challenges women have in organizations?
Sarah: I don’t wish to stereotype and I think that there are particular challenges that women face as more and more of us enter the workplace. Having worked with many women leaders over the years, as well as reflected on my own struggles and challenges, here are 3 particular challenges that I believe women face, and that the research also points to.
Firstly, some women need to learn to be more assertive. We are often brought up to be “nice” and this can translate into people-pleasing. The problem is that we may overlook our own needs, wants and desires! Added to this, there is a greater risk that a woman being assertive gets labeled as “bossy” by colleagues as she breaks the stereotype that women should always be nurturing, care-giving and mindful of the needs of others. A woman can be all of these things and embody the qualities of being focused, ambitious and assertive, qualities more typically associated with a man. Finding a healthy balance is a real challenge for many women I’ve worked with, and indeed myself.
Secondly, a woman in the workplace needs to be authentic. We are not men in skirts! The most powerful women leaders I know are those who bring to the table their full deep femininity: their emotional intelligence, their intuition and their ability to “read the room” and see the deeper dynamics at play. They are not trying to make it like a man, they are engaging on their terms as the embodied, open-hearted, wonderful, women they are.
Finally, women typically run the risk of underselling themselves. The research shows that men are more comfortable with displaying their credentials, whether this is on a CV or at a job interview. As women, we have to “compete” with men who are more likely to feel comfortable doing some self-promotion. We therefore need to find ways of talking about ourselves that does us justice without puffing ourselves us.
Simon: What would be your advice to women who may feel that they need to have a life-changing conversation at work?
Sarah: I would encourage women to do their preparation for having a life-changing conversation. Three things in particular can help:
- Pick your moment. Decide when is a good time to talk. When will the other person be most receptive to what you have to say? Sometimes it might be wise to send an email in advance to say that you want to discuss something. This gives the other person time to gather their thoughts and lowers the risk of them being reactive. Think through situations to avoid, such as having a potentially difficult conversation in an open plan office or first thing on a Monday morning. Select a time and a place when you and the other person will give each other your fullest attention.
- Find your opening. Think through the very first thing you’ll say. It could be something as simple as: “I’d really like to talk with you about something that matters to me. Is now a good time?” Be careful not to do too much “easing in” as this will make the other person nervous. Be as direct as you can while being sensitive to the other person. Practise saying the words out loud so you feel as comfortable as you can before you say them for real.
- Have a “drop line”. When I was a street circus performer, it was important to know what to say if I dropped a juggling ball. Having a “drop line” worked out in advance, helped to reduce my anxiety about what would happen if everything started to go wrong. In a “Big Conversation”, think through the worst case scenario – you bursting into tears, them shouting at you – and decide in advance how to handle this. You could say, for example, “I suggest we take a pause. Let’s resume the conversation once we’ve had time to catch our breath.” It’s better to take time out than have an important conversation derail.
Simon: Your book contains many different practical exercises to help people prepare and then have their life-changing conversations. Could you provide an example of one of them, one that may be helpful for women wishing to move into a leadership position?
Sarah: To have a life-changing conversation, it is vital to speak your truth. A Big Conversation happens only when you express what you are really experiencing. For example, let’s say you have a demanding new boss and an ever-increasing workload. As you look ahead, all you can see are your days getting longer and longer. If you don’t speak out, there is a risk that your work-life balance will get even worse, your resentment will fester and your personal life will suffer, as well as your performance at work.
To help you to stay on track when you need to speak your truth, keep in mind the four-letter aide-memoire OFT’N. This can help you to prepare and sequence what you have to say.
- O is for observations. Begin by sharing your perception of “what’s so”. Leave to one side your judgments, opinions and assertions. Focus on the facts. Start with what you can both agree is the reality of the situation.
- F is for feelings. Share what you’re experiencing. Express your happiness, sadness, anger, envy, shame, fear or other emotion using simple “I” statements, such as “I’m frustrated.” Avoid false “I feel”s such as “I feel that you’re not being fair.”
- T is for thinking. Reveal how you perceive the situation. Speak of “what’s working” and “what’s not working”. Avoid talking in terms of “right” and “wrong”. Own what you say, as in “I think what’s not working here is …”.
- N is for needs. Request what you need. Take responsibility for what you want to be different. Your need could be for acknowledgement, appreciation or a more practical change. State your need without making heavy work of it.
Following this structure will make you more focused and less emotional. Write down the actual words you could say, starting with your observations. A Big Conversation becomes much more manageable once you’ve found some of the actual words you might use. One client, facing the situation described above, came up with the following:
- “Over the last 3 months, my workload has increased significantly so I often stay in the office until past 7pm. Last week, I had to finish off the proposal for the new client, which took me until 10pm two nights in a row.” (Observations expressed as neutrally as possible)
- “As a result of all the extra work I’ve been doing, I’m feeling frustrated at having to stay late so often. I’m annoyed at the way work is cutting into my evenings and stopping me from doing my marathon training. I’m sad that I’m spending so little time with my family while our son’s so young.”(Feelings expressed as authentically as possible)
- “It’s great that the business is doing so well and that we’ve got so many potential new clients. What I think isn’t working, however, is that you’re not being realistic when you estimate how long a project will take. The jobs often take longer than you budget for, which makes scheduling difficult and means I often have to stay late to meet the deadlines.” (Thinking expressed as openly as possible)
- “What I’d like is to be involved in the scheduling decisions for proposals to new clients. I suggest we have a conversation every Monday morning to discuss the project pipeline and our top priorities. If you think you’ll need me to stay late into the evening, I’d like to be told at least 24 hours before so I can plan for this and let my family know.” (Needs expressed as clearly as possible)
While there are no guarantees a conversation will proceed along the lines you’ve prepared, you maximize the likelihood of a positive outcome by thinking through what you will say – and how you will say it. Getting the tone of the conversation right is key. Aim for neutrality, authenticity, openness and clarity.
Simon: Can you share an example of where a life-changing conversation has had a profound impact on a women in relation to her career or challenges she has faced at work?
Sarah: A client shared with me this story of how she intervened differently in a meeting after we’d been working together for a couple of months. I’d been helping her to reflect instead of react and to take time to “read the room” before she spoke out. During one particular meeting with her team, she noticed how everyone was interrupting one another and said: “Not a single one of us has finished a sentence!”
This short comment changed the whole dynamic. By naming what was happening, without any judgment, people started to slow down and let each other finish what they were saying. Listening improved. There were fewer disparaging comments. By the end of the meeting, there was an agreement to have a team “awayday” where they could talk together about how they could improve their dialogue. Learning how to be more mindful in her interactions helped this client to increase her confidence, improve her relationships and expand her capacity to lead a team by gaining their respect and trust.
Simon: I would like to thank Sarah to take time out her busy schedule for this fascinating interview. I recently reviewed Life Changing Conversations on my blog Transition Consciousness which can be read here (http://wp.me/p11Bag-1CB). To find out more about Sarah and her work please take a look at her website www.sarahrozenthuler.com.