Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Replacement Ref Asks "Dear EB"

Dear EB:

I have a co-worker who has a bad habit of interrupting people. At first, she was just interrupting conversations or instructions. It was frustrating, but it wasn't anything that we couldn't simply acknowledge and then go back to the conversation at hand. Also, no one has really been too upset with her as it's quite obvious that she does not realize that she's doing it. However, a few days ago, a few of us noticed that she has started to interrupt people when they are talking to clients. 

Recently, I was meeting with a client to discuss some of the new services I could offer her. I had just finished explaining one of our new services - and when I say just finished, I mean the final word in the sentence had just left my mouth - when she jumped in to remind me about another service we provide. She was not a part of the conversation, but she inserted herself into it nonetheless. I felt fortunate that the client I was working with knew me well and has a lot of respect for me. Had I been meeting with a new client, it's possible that she could have thought that I was not familiar with all of our services and it could have made her less likely to have confidence in me and what I can do for her. A few hours later, I saw her interrupt another co-worker who was meeting with another new client. This co-worker was telling the client about a service package we provide and she interrupted our co-worker mid-sentence to tell this new client about some service options. Again, she was not part of the conversation. The new client actually gave her a harsh look that she seemed to be oblivious to.

This is my problem. I think that this woman genuinely thinks she's helping us out and has absolutely no idea how her behavior is effecting our communication with our clients. Despite her good intentions, we need to figure out some way to address and put an end to the behavior. My boss and I have discussed it and he would like me to talk to her about it. I am not her superior per se, but I am senior to her and in the event of my boss' absence, I am in charge. My boss has told me in the past that he would like to see me get into management, so I think he wants me to take this on in order to give me some conflict resolution experience. Do you have any suggestions on how best to approach this subject with her? 

The Replacement Ref

Dear Replacement Ref:
You have a few challenges in this situation! First, since you don’t know what your co-worker’s intention is when she is speaking up in these situations, you may be making some assumptions that may or may not be true. Those assumptions could impact the way you interact with her. Second, the fact that nobody has told your co-worker that her behavior is inappropriate, has actually reinforced the bad behavior – that may be why you have seen it expand to more situations. Third, since you are not your co-worker’s superior, feedback may be more difficult for you to give and for her to receive than if you were her boss.

Don’t despair. Even with these challenges, here are some strategies and techniques for you to consider.

Let’s start with the first challenge – intent. When faced with a person behaving in a way we deem “wrong,” it’s helpful to spend some time considering the person’s intent. In this case, let’s imagine what her intent might be when your co-worker interrupts. If we focus on negative reasons, we might include; she wants attention, she thinks she knows more than anyone else, or she wants the client to like her better than her colleagues. If we focus on positive intent, we might include; as you said, she thinks she’s helping, she wants to be part of the team, she wants to be sure the client knows all of the options, or she’s just excited and can’t contain herself. You may have other thoughts about what her intent might be.

When we ascribe negative intent to someone’s behavior, we tend to respond to them in a negative way. On the other hand, when we assume a positive intent, we are more likely to approach our conversation with them in a positive way. So, I recommend you start by imagining a positive intent for your co-worker’s behavior to focus on as you prepare to meet with her.

Now, let’s look at the second challenge. As you indicated, your co-worker probably isn’t aware of her behavior. And, if she is, she certainly is unaware of the impact her interrupting is having on her colleagues and the clients. This is a situation that could call for a couple of strategies. First, you may need to clarify roles, and second, you may need to have a feedback conversation.

While the interrupting is a behavior that is showing up in a variety of settings, let’s look specifically at the client situations. I wonder if your co-worker and you both agree on her role in client meetings? If she doesn’t have a specific role or place on the agenda of the meeting, she won’t know when or how to participate. So, a first conversation might be to clarify roles in an upcoming meeting. That might sound like “In our meeting today, I’ll take the lead role with the client. Your role is to observe and make notes. Also, I would like you to respond with your ideas or thoughts when I ask you if you have additional comments to add to what has been said.” You may find role clarity is all that’s needed to shift her behavior with clients.

The reality, however, is that you are likely to also need a feedback conversation. I say this since the behavior seems to show up frequently and in a variety of situations. The most successful feedback conversations are dialogues rather than one person telling the other what they’ve done wrong. When you can get the person engaged in looking at the situation with you, you increase the odds that she will listen and help identify a solution.

A model I like to use is Observation, Impact, Options, Agreement. Let’s look at how you can use this model for a conversation with your co-worker.

You might start with; “I noticed in our client meeting this morning that you spoke up before I finished what I was saying. Did you notice that too?” (Observation) Wait for her to respond.

Then to continue to engage her, you might ask, “If you were the client, how might you have interpreted the way that interaction went?” (Impact) Your goal is to get her to start thinking about how she is perceived when she interrupts.

You might also say, “I’m sure you don’t intend to cut people off. I wonder if we can identify a positive way for you to contribute to meetings without interrupting.” (Options) Let her share her ideas if she has them. Then you can offer your own. You might say, “May I share an idea with you?” Then, “It would work well for me, if you would wait until I ask you for your input.” Or, “If you have something to share before I ask you, would you wait for me to complete what I am saying before you speak?”

“What will you try in our next meeting?” (Agreement)

As you have acknowledged, the fact that you aren’t your co-worker’s superior is an important factor to consider. Choosing a neutral location for the conversation rather than your office is important to keep her from feeling that you are “bossing” her. Also let her choose the time. You can say, “I’d like to debrief our client meeting with you. When’s a good time for you?” You can also start the meeting with, “What did you think went well about our client meeting this morning.” Then ask “What do you think we should do differently next time?” After she responds to each question, you can add on your thoughts, and that will transition you into the above conversation. Notice how location, timing, and letting her share first all create a more equal playing ground for the conversation.

My final thought is this. Be clear on your intent for this conversation. If you are clear that you want to help your co-worker learn and grow and be successful, you have a much better chance of seeing her change her behavior than if your intent is to put her down, put her in her place, or something else negative!

About Our Dear EB Author: Susan Gerke is an accomplished consultant specializing in facilitation, coaching, and curriculum development. Susan is the co-developer of Go Team Resources, a complete team-training and team building resource.

If your organization is experiencing or anticipating changes in leadership, organizational structure, or any major shift in operations, contact Escoe Bliss (949.336.6444) to find out how our team of experts, like Susan, can help you achieve project success.

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