Keep Calm and Carry On

One of the leading questions from my class this week was: how do you stay calm? And how do you not get emotionally involved in conflict? I usually respond that this is a journey for many of us. It certainly has been for me. I know that when I perceive a threat I run, or freeze in the moment and am never quite sure what to say. I find it very difficult to engage when emotions are running high. The key is full body listening, and a desire to change, or to at least engage in conversation.

I will never forget my first conflict resolution class. It was quite a revelation to discover that conflict could be good. I still remember that sense of disbelief and awe that anyone could feel that way.

My initial light-bulb moment led to a journey in confidence and skill-building. It has been valuable to me to intellectualize it. I was relieved to learn about the hard-wired physiology of fight and flight. Once I could describe my reactions biologically and normalize them, I was free to get practical.

I offer my students the analogy of a stake in the sand. I remember planting that stake as a child and measuring the creeping or receding tide. Our path to better communication in conflict is like that. We have to take small manageable steps and measure them against a marker. It is a skill-building journey that, like that of the tide, creeps further up the beach as we practice, and then gently recedes again when emotions are running or we are not deliberately working at it.

The practical skills that are most important to me now prepare me to listen without being defensive. I have moved that stake in the sand a long way up the beach. And preparing myself to listen means that I also have the skills to keep calm and carry on.

I set a time for important conversations, and do not let myself get dragged in on the spot.

I walk to clear my mind, and enter a room in advance so I can sit at the blank table and lay my hands palm down in a meditative posture, allowing my busy thoughts to run away through my hands into the table.

I know and remind myself constantly that listening is a job. It is a job you can only do well when you do not have anything else to do.

I write a list of things that are important to me, or that I have to learn, decide on, or do, before the conversation begins. Setting them aside gives me the freedom to listen to another side and ideas while knowing my own thoughts are safe.

I convince myself to be open new stories. Once I have written my thoughts down, I have to remind myself that I may change my mind or alter my thinking. I have a judging hat which I can remove only with difficulty. When I feel judgmental, I deliberately tell myself to be curious. What motivates this person to act or behave this way? Why am I reacting so strongly to it?

Listening acutely and with full body attention is an act of suspension for me, because the act of allowing myself to fully take in what I am hearing and empathize with the speaker, forces my own thoughts into suspension. I think it helps to visualize full detachment from your thinking. Maybe thoughts are tidied into a tethered hot air balloon which is allowed to float up into the sky. You can retrieve them easily, but they are out of reach.


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Full body listening is hard work. It can be exhausting. But once someone feels heard, understood and acknowledged, they will be ready to hear your side, and you can bring that tethered hot air balloon of thoughts back to earth, and sort through the pieces that are most relevant and appropriate to share. You have won yourself a hearing.

Duty to Accommodate and Gentle, Honest, Open, Specific Talk

An engaged employee is held capable and trusts that you will consistently treat them with integrity, impartiality, and respect. Gentle, honest, open, specific, talk with your staff will set the ground work for a relationship that will pay dividends when the tide turns and it comes time to ask the difficult questions.

As a supervisor you have a duty to accommodate, and you have a right to know. We may feel backed into situations where we hesitate to ask the difficult questions, or we confuse a person’s right to privacy with our own right, and indeed duty, to foster an open, constructive and productive working environment.

Let’s take the example of a suspected addiction. You notice increasingly erratic behaviour with a particular employee, and their sick days are on the rise. How do you balance your need to know with their right to privacy? How do you identify when your duty to accommodate kicks in? Under Alberta Human Rights legislation addiction is considered a disability and the duty to accommodate may apply. If this is the case, you need a doctor’s note, even as you cannot inquire about a staff member’s complete medical history. How do you verify your hunch? What if, based on past experience with the employee, you are wondering if the poor behaviour is simply workplace foolishness? How can you be sure? It is also not unusual for biases to get in the way of sound decision-making. Our own view of, or experience with, addictions may be getting in the way of our approach.

In this procedural and legal minefield it is imperative to discuss your proposed actions with your HR department and/or a senior manager. Once that has been done, and you have decided on a procedural plan, the relationship you have built with your staff member will stand you in good stead. If you have consistently conducted your conversations with a gentle, honest, open, specific protocol, and if you consistently hold your staff member capable and trust that they are doing the best they can with what they know, then you have the foundation in place to conduct a conversation to learn what you need to know to move forward. You will be able to discuss a medical condition frankly, and in a safe space, and determine if it is indeed a condition which limits the staff’s ability to perform their duties.

The gentle, honest, open specific, talk (or GHOST) protocol is a protocol for speaking and listening:

  • Gentle: to say what needs to be said in a manner that does not raise defenses in the other party;
  • Honest: to be true to what is on your mind, and your emotional reaction to the situation;
  • Open: to be open to new information, and to allow it to influence your thinking;
  • Specific: to illustrate what you have to say with clarifying examples and to avoid generalizations;
  • Talk: to take the opportunity of a confidential, safe space to say what you are thinking when it is important. Thinking not Talking is TNT – dangerous!

Modeling GHOST, describing GHOST, and inviting others to use it will set the foundation for improved communication and better information. With each conversation you will build your foundation for establishing and maintaining employee engagement and a productive working environment.

The GHOST protocol is a foundation of the PULSE Conversation. To learn more about PULSE Conversations for Change, discovered and developed by Dr. Nancy Love, please visit

Managing Trust and Transparency for Engagement

It is not an unusual scenario: a new supervisor inherits a bad and undeserving reputation based on staff members’ previous experiences. Every move of a new incumbent is evaluated against the poor communication and bad decisions of a predecessor and the scene is set for “stay-but-go” or even worse, active disengagement. How do you rebuild trust? Trust is built with transparency in our actions (process), in our emotional reaction (response), and in our thinking (content).

Transparency with actions requires a clear and open management process. This may include a predictable and regular routine for employee feedback and performance reviews for example, and extends to the methods used to manage meetings, and to make complex decisions (such as setting annual budgets). A transparent process for decision making will contribute to a climate in which staff are clear on the past, present and future implications of decisions.

The supervisor who is transparent in their actions is aware of not only what they are doing or deciding, but why. When they speak to staff, they communicate clearly their decisions, and the route they used to get to there. Transparency in actions requires taking a deliberate step with each important decision to decide how to decide and then communicating that rationale.

Emotionally mature managers will have the tools to build trust through their response to any given situation. A workplace devoid of emotion is a workplace devoid of passion, and where there are people there is emotion. So trust in the response is also based on trust of the people, and an open and transparent communication about the relationships and the underlying needs and interests between the people in the work environment. A supervisor who experiences a strong reaction can choose how to relate to that emotion. Stepping back and detaching from the situation to look at the business problem will help to determine the right steps to take. Acknowledging others’ emotions without taking responsibility for them will help staff know they are heard.

Transparency with content requires a thorough awareness and sensitivity to context and subject. As with decision making, deliberately deciding what information can be shared and then sharing it in an environment that provides a safe space for discussion will build trust.

Content is also about context. For example, shared confidence in technical or knowledge expertise will provide a strong structure for building trust in actions. A common goal, such as servicing clients exceptionally, building quality widgets, or a united search for innovation for example, will provide a positive force for trust based on content.

Rebuilding trust will take time, patience and open communication. It will be necessary to be open about the management process, the emotional response, and the content. Like a three-legged stool, the process, the response and the content are all critical, and one will not be strong without the other two.

The Human Value Connection

An organization is a community. In today’s people-based economy, the human value connection within an organization determines the health of the organization.  We do our work through conversation, and every conversation reflects the health of the organization. “The quality of conversations within an organization reflects the quality of that organization” notes Dr. Nancy Love (  

Gallup’s Employee Engagement Index indicates that engaged employees report the best health. In fact, a self-reported survey done in November and December 2010 reflects that workers who are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace are about as likely as the unemployed to report they are in excellent health – only 2 out of 10 of these actively disengaged workers rate their overall health as excellent.  (

But what happens when emotions are elevated? When we are facing potential embarrassment or are under threat?  When we are threatened with looking bad, we enter what William Noonan calls a “defensive routine”.  With our underlying values under threat, we perceive ourselves as acting sensibly and upholding values of integrity and prudence, but we may not believe that others share those values. We have an emotional reaction to something that is said, and we lash out, or react, governed by our fight or flight instinct. Our reaction begets a trigger in the other party, and they in turn react. We find ourselves cycling away from the relationship, into a downward spiral of retaliation.  Our conversations suffer, communication breaks down, and as stress elevates, our health may suffer as well.

Notice what happens when Dean approaches his employee Melinda with some concerns:

Dean: I have been really happy about your work – it is timely and accurate, and I think you are a real asset to this team Melinda. But I would like to talk with you about your relationship with the others on the team. Some things have come up.

Melinda:  What? What sort of things? What is it about?

Dean: Well, I’d like to be very honest with you. Some members of the team think that you are interfering with their work and publically coming down on them about their performance.

Melinda: Are you serious? I have never, ever publically come down on anyone! Sometimes when I finish a project early, I offer help, but that isn’t exactly welcomed. And once, when Jim seemed to be stuck with something I stopped to talk to him about it, but he pretty much told me to mind my own business. To be honest, I am not sure I fit in well here. They are always phoning in to answer those radio show quizzes and talking about the latest hockey pool. I don’t think there is a lot of work going on here. Two people could do the work of those three! They are just hanging around waiting for retirement.

The conversation spirals out of control and emotions run high. As Melinda’s emotions elevate, Dean reacts as well. He may respond to Melinda’s retort with a “Yeah, but we have experienced a lot of growth in these past few months and…” defending his management choices. Once the downward spiral has begun, parties may need to step away and regroup, ensuring blood returns the brain, before they re-engage in the conversation.

A deliberate approach to the conversation prevents the need to do damage control, and results in a healthier more successful community at work.

  1. Eliminate your “buts.”

I have been really happy with your work – it is both timely and accurate.

  1. Choose a neutral and specific title for your conversation.
    I’d like to chat with you about your role on the team.

  2. Start with a question. Listen to their story first.

                How have things been going for you working on this team?

  1. Summarize their comments, and provide evidence that you have been listening.

So it sounds like you have some concerns about how you are all working together and about how well you have been fitting in.

  1. Make your points firmly. State them gently, so people can keep on listening; be honest, be open to what they have to say; and be specific. Take the opportunity to talk it out.

I have some concerns about the teamwork as well. I have noticed in our last few meetings you have been very quiet in the discussions. I am concerned about how the team is collaborating lately and whether we are making the most of everyone’s expertise.  It is important to me that everyone on the team has input, as each member has something unique to contribute. 

Managers who strive to deliberately structure their conversations will enhance a culture of openness and respect within their workplace community.  These small changes with big impact will result in a healthier organization and a healthier and more engaged workforce.