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Of course, I'm right

Last week I was invited to speak at the Annual Project Management Conference. My topic: managing difficult conversations with stakeholders.

It wasn’t until I’d read the title of my presentation carefully that I realised that in fact I was going to talk about managing conversations with “difficult stakeholders.”

How interesting, I thought. We always think the other person is the difficult one, don’t we? Of course it’s not me – I’m never difficult. I’m capable of managing strong emotions, I’m always in control of the situation, and I’m perfectly able to communicate rationally and logically, no matter what I’m up against. I only wish that were true. The other day I was talking with a project manager who told me that on one occasion she’d had to leave the room in the middle of a meeting to calm down. She said “It didn’t look good, but it was the right thing to do.” It takes courage to do something like that.

On other occasions our amygdala takes control in a more sophisticated way and we opt for trying to convince the other person about something they aren’t initially inclined to think or do. And this is, excuse me, still a way of fighting: an intellectual one, but a fight nonetheless. When we’re told that we are wrong, our amygdala perceive it as danger. This is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, and it’s what we experience when a belief about ourselves (“I’m kind,” “I’m a generous person,” “I’m a good citizen”) is confronted by a contradiction (“I’m shouting,” “I’m only thinking about myself right now,” “I’m not paying my taxes”).

In their book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson say:

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification. When we began working on this book, the poster boy for "tenacious clinging to a discredited belief" was George W. Bush. Bush was wrong in his claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he was wrong in claiming that Saddam was linked with Al Qaeda, he was wrong in predicting that Iraqis would be dancing joyfully in the streets to receive the American soldiers, he was wrong in predicting that the conflict would be over quickly, he was wrong in his gross underestimate of the financial cost of the war, and he was most famously wrong in his photo-op speech six weeks after the invasion began, when he announced (under a banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED) that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

And do you know what advice they give us on avoiding cognitive dissonance? Have friends and colleagues who disagree with you.

But when argument occurs in an environment where people don’t feel safe, it feels like a personal attack. So don’t expect a good outcome from a brilliant argument when emotions are running high and people don’t feel ready to be confronted.

There are two lessons here:

  • Cultivate environments where people feel free to talk and disagree ( especially with you !) and especially if you don’t want to become another poster boy/girl for “tenaciously clinging to a discredited belief”

  • If people don’t feel that the environment is safe, don’t introduce arguments – create connection first.

Every time we create better conversations we contribute to the kind of culture we all want to belong to at work and in the rest of our lives. As Amy Edmondson says in The Fearless Organisation:

“You don't have to be the boss to be a leader. The leader’s job is to create and nurture the culture we all need to do our best work. And so anytime you play a role in doing that, you are exercising leadership.”


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