Recently, Elon Musk’s interplanetary ambitions were thwarted when his SpaceX starship was launched and very rapidly exploded. I listened to this on my radio with only passing interest (I am of an age which allowed me to watch man land on the moon for the first time and nothing has quite matched it since). But my attention was piqued when a Musk spokesman described the event as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly”. Somehow that sounds far more technical and less apocalyptic than “it blew up” but that is no doubt what they meant.
At about the same time, the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, chose to resign after an enquiry by a barrister suggested that some (but by no means all) claims by civil servants that they had been bullied by him had some substance. I don’t know about you but in my lifetime, I have worked for some tough bosses – one of whom is now a knight of the realm and one a member of the House of Lords. These people set very high and very exacting standards, for themselves and for those who worked for them, they felt that any failure on my or my colleagues’ part was a failure on their part, too. Inevitably there are times when you miss the performance mark and you can be confident that these demanding bosses don’t let that event slide by without comment. In my experience of this – which I am pleased to tell you was not too frequent - it was treated as something from which I could learn. I was asked what I thought of my project or piece of work and then subjected to probing questions which resulted in me saying: “Well, yes, looked at like that it should have been better/clearer/more cogent” and so on. Interestingly, the conversations usually started with the boss saying something like: “I want to understand your thinking here” or “Can we discuss the implications of this for the client…”. The suggestion of course was that I had not thought it through or that I had not taken the client’s perspective. But I entered into the conversation reasonably willingly, knowing that it would probably challenge me but not belittle me – I would be needed again the next day! I was always chastened but never, ever felt bullied. I learned and did not do it twice!
The reaction to the Raab affair has been varied but at one extreme, there has been an implication that those on the receiving end of the behaviour were weak ‘snowflakes’ unable to tolerate criticism. I can’t comment, I wasn’t there, but if the boss’s critique was a justified one – that work was not well or properly carried out, as Raab has suggested, can we draw any lessons?
Here is one. When we speak in a situation which is emotionally charged, has high stakes or is threatening, there is a significant risk that we may be misunderstood. This misunderstanding is not about what we say, but about what those we say it to may conclude about what we mean by what we say and what is the intention behind our words. If I say to someone: “Your recommendations were not in accordance with policy and you should know that”, the recipient is likely to be immediately en garde. Why? Because the implication is that they think I am suggesting that they may have been any one of stupid, negligent or deliberately provocative, or indeed many other things. They become defensive. The best form of defence can be attack and the stand-off begins.
This is an important human reaction for negotiators to understand – when you say something in a negotiation, an event which will often meet the emotionally charged, high stakes criteria, the person you speak to not only hears you but is also likely to ask themselves why you said what you did. It is by no means impossible for the answer they give themselves when considering your motive to be that you are disagreeing, challenging, even intimidating or bullying. You had no such intent but because you lazily require them to define your motive for themselves they choose the worst one and, very importantly, the consequence is often that the tone you wished to have in the discussion becomes much less amicable or collaborative.
It takes practice, but it is worth ensuring that in key moments in negotiations, you indicate why you are saying something: “Perhaps you can help me to understand…; can you clarify…; will you take me through your thinking on…” are among the many simple behavioural expressions you can use to defuse a potential misinterpretation and its time-consuming and often damaging consequences. And remember, the one time when you invariably indicate your motive is when you say: “I disagree…” which is always certain to put people on the defensive thus proving that no rule will always apply! Give your factual reasons for disagreeing first.
Try to use these hints to prevent your negotiations from experiencing a rapid unscheduled disassembly or crashing and burning as most of us would probably say.