I am the third of three siblings, each four years apart. Looking back, that played a significant role in what I do today. When my two older siblings flew the coop, I felt like an appendix – a vestigial remnant of my family with no apparent function.
As the precursor to the Empty Nest, I was the last human that stood between my parents actually having to have a conversation with each other. Like many in The Greatest Generation, opening up and sharing emotions and feelings proved difficult for my parents. If they argued, rather than talk their way through it, there was a mandatory cooling off period where we all retreated into separate corners. Everyone, that is, except me. I went from feeling like an appendix to feeling like a set of jumper cables.
I was the connector that transferred energy. Many days, I wore a path in our luxurious shag carpet from the kitchen to my dad’s faux leather recliner to tell him, “Mom says supper is ready. Come on.” To which he replied, “Tell her I’ll come in a sec. And while you are up, change it to CBS. I want to catch the end of Andy Griffith.” (No remote control)
My father’s return message was always met with contempt. Mother’s response, “Tell him there will be a plate in the oven for him.” (No microwave) Back to my father, who now equally dismayed, upped the ante. “Can’t she just bring it to me in here?”
I rarely relayed that message.
Years of being a set of jumper cables taught me a lot, specifically the positive and negative of communication. Get the communication wires crossed and sparks would fly. Building the right connection, however, charged the soul and fueled the relationship.
I was reminded of this while coaching two executives early in my consulting days. After working with the company a bit, I recognized the pattern. Only instead of wearing a path in the shag carpet, I found myself mediating between email threads. So I dusted off my old jumper cables and called for a meeting.
As we started, both parties focused all their energy on me. Questions, accusations, assumptions were flung in my direction hoping that the intended party would pick up on the indirect line of questioning. I remember thinking – why are you looking at me, but talking to him? Then it hit me. I wasn’t doing anything extraordinary here, I was simply letting them talk. I was able to absorb all the emotion, feelings, angst, like a sponge without firing back because I was a neutral party. And that is the first rule of communication – create an environment of SAFETY.
Leaders who provide a SAFE environment aren’t in competition to prove their point. They do not point out the fault lines in a discussion to crumble another person’s position. Leaders who practice this principle focus on conquering the problem, not the person. Often, the conversation is more valuable to the person bringing you the problem than your solution. When viewed this way, safe dialogue is much more likely to occur, and the leader will undercover a solution that builds the relationship.
I have more to say, but my dad just called and I have to take it . . . he can’t remember where to find his favorite reality TV show–Keeping up with the Kardashians. It’s on E! dad, but you could have asked mom. She’s probably sitting right beside you…