One of my clients is a co-CEO, and in a coaching session I remarked upon the strength of that partnership and how effectively the two of them collaborated in what is often seen as an unworkable arrangement. "We learned to yield," she said, and I was struck by what a valuable interpersonal skill that is--and how little training we get in it.
We associate the term "yield" with driving, of course. When we yield on the road we slow down to assess the situation and determine who should have the right of way. We don't automatically come to a full stop, nor do we hit the gas. We might decide that another driver should proceed ahead of us, or we might decide that we should go first. The ability to yield allows for more efficient movement while also insuring safety.
So what does it mean to yield in our relationships? My client was careful to distinguish "yielding" from "capitulating," and I want to emphasize that distinction: I'm not talking about simply letting others get their way, or avoiding conflicts, or being nice. Instead, I see yielding as finding the right balance between deference and assertiveness, between inquiry and advocacy. What does this look like?
See the Signs
When we’re surprised by an impending collision, it’s difficult to yield gracefully—we either hit the gas aggressively to escape the threat, or we panic and jam on the brakes. This is often the result of a failure to be sufficiently attentive. Yield signs are posted at dangerous intersections to catch our attention and change our behavior. They aren’t as obvious interpersonally, but we can learn to recognize the situations, topics, and relationships that are hard to navigate safely and that require a more mindful approach.
For example, most of my clients have a talented but challenging employee—typically someone who’s highly intelligent with deep expertise in their field, but poor interpersonal and leadership skills. My client can’t afford to fire this person at the moment (although they might if they could), and every conversation with them is an accident waiting to happen, particularly when there’s a need to discuss their counterproductive behavior. It’s essential to go into these conversations feeling well-rested and without being rushed; it may also be useful to choose the setting to either heighten the leader’s authority or, alternatively, to create a greater sense of connection. (In some cases like this I recommend going for a walk—this allows for privacy and physical proximity, which can enhance feelings of closeness, while lowering the amount of eye contact, which can trigger an emotional response.)
In the personal domain I’ve talked with many coaching clients and MBA students about the challenges posed by conversations with their spouses or significant others at the very end of the day. This is fine for everyday topics, but it’s often problematic when there’s a need to discuss a sensitive subject likely to trigger strong feelings. Both parties are tired from a long workday, and they may have had a few drinks over dinner, so their capacity for emotion regulation is at its lowest. There may be no alternative time available to talk, particularly if they’re parents of young children, but even then it’s possible to be more mindful of the risks and to proceed with caution. (Which may mean avoiding drinking—it doesn’t mix with difficult conversations any better than it does with driving.) And sometimes they realize that the topic is so fraught that they need to plan ahead and make time earlier in the day or on the weekend to address it effectively.
Tap the Brakes
When we’re driving attentively and spot a yield sign, we instinctively hover over the brakes, prepared to slow our progress at the first sign of trouble. And having entered into a potentially difficult conversation with some thoughtfulness and care, we need to be able to do the same thing interpersonally. Again, note that yielding skillfully doesn’t mean coming to a full stop or simply giving way to the other person—tapping the brakes is a much more subtle process.
We need to bear in mind that our sense of timing isn’t always accurate—as I’ve written before, “the reflexive responses we feel under stress—for example, in a crisis, or when engaging in conflict--can be counterproductive, making it more difficult for us to achieve our goals. We react quickly and impulsively, when we would be better served by slowing down and choosing a more thoughtful response.”
At the very outset of the conversation we can accomplish this simply by deferring the formal agenda and engaging in a few minutes of small talk. In some settings this is a necessity; getting right to business would be considered hasty and rude. But even in more direct cultures, some initial conversation about essentially meaningless matters can be a valuable way to slow down and create a stronger personal connection in the process.
Once we’re engaged in the discussion, we need to remain attuned to our speed, in a very literal sense: Our thought processes, our speech patterns, and our heart and respiration rates all tend to speed up under stress, and they can serve as useful indicators of whether our overall pace is well-suited to the situation. This degree of awareness requires the ability to self-monitor and to manage our attention, skills that can be enhanced by practices such as meditation (and which are significantly impaired when we’re not well-rested.) We can then use this data to consciously decrease our speed—taking deeper breaths, speaking more deliberately, and compelling ourselves to reflect further before reaching conclusions are all ways to tap the brakes in the midst of a conversation.
Note that while I emphasize the value of yielding here, there are occasions when we do need to come to a full stop in order to address an underlying communication problem that’s blocking progress. For example, if someone’s constantly interrupting others and preventing them from completing their thoughts, it’s important to acknowledge this dynamic so it can be corrected. This requires both a set of norms that make it acceptable to “talk about how we’re talking” and as well as some skill at delivering feedback, but under these conditions this need not derail the conversation.
Hit the Gas…Lightly
An accelerator isn’t an on/off switch, and if we’re sufficiently sensitive and skilled, it has a wide range that allows us to subtly adjust our speed to suit the conditions. Once we’ve determined that we have the right of way, we begin accelerating gently, checking to be sure that other drivers have reached the same conclusion. It’s not a race, and we’re not trying to beat the other drivers—the goal is insuring that we all continue our forward progress safely and efficiently. The same is true in many difficult conversations.
After we’ve recognized the potential for conflict, and slowed down enough to engage the other party, we need to look for opportunities to achieve our goals for the conversation. We can struggle with this in a number of ways. I’ve had clients and students who, for various reasons, were uncomfortable asserting themselves and feared that if they did they’d automatically be viewed as overly aggressive—they were hesitant to accelerate at all. I’ve also worked with many people at the opposite end of the spectrum—they were insufficiently restrained, and when they decided to press ahead they floored it. It’s critical to be aware of our tendencies here—if we’re too cautious, we need to increase our comfort with discomfort, and if we’re too heedless, we need to learn to calibrate our assertiveness.
Pressing ahead, firmly but sensitively, is ultimately an exercise in influence, and becoming comfortable with the need to assert ourselves is just the starting point. From there we have to make our case in a way that’s likely to be accepted by the other party. It’s helpful to be aware of concepts from social psychology regarding openness to influence, such as Robert Cialdini’s “fundamental principles of persuasion” and Howard Gardner’s “levers of influence.” Note that I’m not suggesting that we misrepresent ourselves or manipulate the other party to win their approval. But simply being mindful of people’s psychological tendencies and incorporating that awareness into our approach need not result in unethical behavior.
Because most of my clients are CEOs, a factor that they need to take into account is the added emphasis that their role can give to even casually expressed preferences. Even when we’re seeking to actively persuade the other party, we don’t want to overdo it, and we need to be mindful of the impact of our positional power on the exchange.
Photo by Tim Lenz. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.