If it’s not hurting, it’s not working!

Throughout my years of developing training materials people have challenged my ideas and opinions on many occasions. I can still remember a meeting in the Huthwaite boardroom in the early days of developing  the PITCH Selling intellectual property. My two colleagues objected strongly to my question definitions. I had identified two distinct question types. They viewed them as one and the same. Several hours later I emerged battered and bruised to go back to the drawing board. They forced me to rethink and redefine my question types. From that challenge the most crucial element of PITCH was born.

It’s the same with feedback. My own experience tells me that when I get really painful feedback I then go on to achieve my greatest successes. But this notion of feedback is a bit of a tricky subject. Coaching theory says avoid negative feedback at all costs. My own coaching behavioural research suggests the same. This Guardian opinion article raises the question of feedback around school nativity plays. It highlights the breakthroughs that brutal feedback can offer but also suggests that perhaps we need not be so harsh on our children.

But that’s the thing about challenge. It’s only through challenge that we can truly test ourselves and discover the truth about ourselves and what we have to offer. Because we all have our shadow side that our Ego would prefer us to bury and ignore. But digging into our shadow means we have the potential to find some real gifts. Putting ourselves through the pain of receiving difficult feedback is a path to progress. Assuming of course that we are in an environment that allows us to fail, pick up the pieces and move on. In so many organisations failure is something that can only happen once. Which doesn’t help anybody learn. 

In systemic coaching we say that problems contain the solution. If we avoid problems and difficult situations we will never solve them. But how many people would rather skirt around a problem or difficult issue than face it head on?

The reality of perception

Fundamentally for me challenge is about learning. We all believe that what we perceive as the reality around us IS reality. But the truth is that it is simply a perception. We view the world through the filtered lens of our eyes and brain. Everything that we see is inevitably coloured by our life experiences. Which is why no two people can ever have completely the same perspective on something.

It’s the difference in perspectives that creates the gem. In the Challenger Sale book they call it “reframing”. We use the same term in coaching. In my own coaching research I found evidence that contradicted the traditional coaching theory that the coachee has all the answers inside themselves. Yes, good coaching enables the coachee to reach a deeper state of self awareness. Coach insights can also help really shift perspective. This does not mean that the coach is there to tell the coachee what to do. Insights need to be credible, relevant and provide a different way of looking at the situation. Then they can help the coachee see the world in a whole new way.

The power of disagreement

We also know from research that good dialogue contains disagreement. David Kantor’s research identified that effective conversations has to contain a balance of these four behaviours:

“moves” – ideas or proposals for action,

“follows” – support for the move (agreement) 

“opposes” – resistance to the move (disagreement)

“bystand” – objective observation on what is happening in the conversation.

So “opposes” or disagreements are essential for effective dialogue. Huthwaite International’s verbal behavioural research also identified that people need to display a certain level of “reaction” in a conversation. Ideally reaction is a balance between agreement and disagreement. Agreeing all the time means people will see you as a “yes” person. Disagreeing a lot means people will see you as difficult. If you don’t agree or disagree people won’t know what you are thinking and will find it very difficult to relate to you. Huthwaite call this type of person a “low reactor”.  Negotiators and senior management often behave as low reactors. It is a powerful way of making the other person feel very uncomfortable and give away more than they should.

Suspending judgment

Healthy opposition (or challenge) does not mean disagreeing or offering an alternative opinion straightaway. Bill Isaacs talks about opposes needing to come from a place of respect. I can relate to this. If somebody challenges me whom I know respects me and my ideas then I will listen to them. If someone always challenges me straightaway without ever seeming to listen to me then I am more likely to resist their challenge. When you take the time to suspend judgment and consider the other person’s perspective then they are more likely to listen to your own perspective.

Huthwaite’s behavioural research provides further evidence of this. For example skilled negotiators avoid “Counter Proposals”. This means that they don’t immediately respond to a proposal with one of their own. In meetings a behaviour called Building was extremely effective. Building means taking a proposal put forward by somebody else and adding to it, rather than offering something different. So you can agree with what you like in a proposal and use Building to change the part of it that you don’t like. For example, I could make a proposal to meet in the pub for some drinks after work. If the other person is happy to meet but not in the pub they could agree to the meeting. They could then suggest an alternative venue, which would be a Build.

So the message is that we should encourage challenge, rather than avoid it. Consider that meeting I had in the Huthwaite boardroom. If my colleagues hadn’t challenged my thinking so hard Huthwaite would not have ended up with such a good product. But to be truly effective challenge needs to happen in an environment that feels nurturing, supportive and respectful. So any Egos that do get battered and bruised in the process can be safely restored.