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5 tips to abolish that elephant in the room

If we have an issue with someone or something, we should take it back to the source

My job allows me access to lots of different companies around the UK and abroad – and the chance to observe people in different cultures is very exciting.

What I’ve noticed is that ‘corridor’ conversations are no respecter of country, company or culture – by that I mean, situations where people stop and chat to each other. Sometimes they’re just chewing the cud and having a laugh or catch-up, but often they’re griping about someone, or something else going on in the business. The latter for me is potentially damaging because of its impact on culture.

If you listen carefully to these corridor conversations you will often hear things like ‘I can’t believe my boss said that to me… he is useless’ or ‘I really don’t like the way John speaks to me’.

Taking the opportunity to feedback how we feel and the impact it has had on us, coming from a position of curiosity, we start to create a culture where feedback is a normal and healthy part of daily business life. A culture where difficult conversations are had at all levels, where internal politics is minimised, anxiety is reduced and where we can all learn from each other.

Sometimes we think it is our boss’s role to raise and resolve difficult issues that are hindering our team’s performance, yet we go with the flow in meetings and then speak up in the corridor to express our frustration that they either don’t see the issues or don’t address them to our satisfaction. We think it is our boss’s role to give feedback to our peers whose behaviour is problematic, yet we complain to others when we don’t see any changes in how our peers act. We think it is our boss’s role to see how they are contributing to our team’s problems, yet we don’t provide them with the information that would help them see this.

But is it just a leadership responsibility? Or, are we all accountable for voicing our gripes to the right people so we can identify ways to resolve the differences that are impacting on how we think, feel or perform?

Next time you find yourself griping about someone else, stop and think about how you can have the same conversation, but this time with the actual person (the source) who’s causing you to feel disgruntled.

There are many great feedback models out there that can help you have this conversation – and AID (action, impact and do) is one such tool. Easy to use and very effective. Now I’m not saying we have to take every gripe back to the source; we all need to let off steam and have a moan on occasions. The thing to consider is, if we are always griping and never take things back to the source, we can expect an erosion of culture where things don’t change for the better.

Here are five top tips to consider when taking things back to the source

1. Be brave

If you ever find yourself having a moan about someone or something to a colleague, consider if you’re talking to the right person. Take things ‘back to the source’ where they can be explored and fixed. When having this conversation consider the following:

  • Let the person know immediately what you want to talk about and what your intent is
  • Ask the person what concerns, if any, he or she has about discussing this issue with you
  • Tell the person why you’re concerned about talking with him, focus on behaviours and not issues linked to their identity
  • Share the unsaid, say it with skill, and don’t hold things in your head that you want to say
  • Share your reasoning and check it out at each step
  • Ask for his/her interpretation of the situation
  • Jointly determine the way forward, if possible
  • Be transparent, avoid giving the kind of feedback that involves sandwiching critical, truthful feedback in between two ‘slices’ of praise.

2. Be specific

Before feeding back to the source, gather specific evidence that you know to be true so you’re sharing an objective view. Not being specific often creates unnecessary misunderstanding, conflict and defensiveness. Be timely with your feedback, don’t let things fester for a long period of time

3. Accept feedback

Being easy to give feedback to serves us all well in life – accepting it graciously with a view to making personal behavioural changes is what we need everyone to practice doing every day (it’s really inspiring)

4. Challenge corridor conversations

Challenge people when they want to gripe, ask them ‘have you spoken to that person about it?’ Support them if they are feeling anxious about having the conversation

5. Stay curious before having the conversation. 

Most of us go into challenging conversations with a semi-conscious, counterproductive programme: we’re sure we know what others are thinking or we don’t care what they are thinking. We just want things to go our way and we believe we are right.

To make the conversation useful, be curious about what you don’t know for sure. You know the other person’s position, but do you really know their underlying interests? Do you know what assumptions they are making? Do you know what their reasoning was that led them to the conclusion you think makes no sense?

Practise completing this sentence as many times as necessary to identify what you need to learn: “One thing I don’t understand about how you are thinking about this situation is…” When you’re done, you’ll have a list of questions you can ask that are part of a conversation that helps you understand how they are seeing things differently.

Only when you really understand how their thinking differs from yours can you begin work on bridging the gap and finding a solution that works for both of you.

First published by Blue Sky, part of Capita People Solutions

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Sean Spurgin

Director of learning design, Blue Sky, part of Capita People Solutions

With over 20 years’ experience in operational and sales management, Sean uses the invaluable knowledge he's gained when designing performance improvement solutions. No matter the company, industry or programme level, Sean is ready to create the perfect solution for each and every client.

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