Bridging Communication Gaps in a Transforming, Time-Challenged World 


e x c e r p t s


Healing Conversations
What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say




From Chapter One
Please Don't Ask Me How I Am, Unless... Beginning a Healing Conversation

From Chapter Three
When Staff Don't Get Along:  The Power of Listening

From Chapter Three

You People Are Incompetent!  Turning angry customers into loyal fans

Excerpt from the Getting Started chapter of Healing Conversations

Conversations. We have them every day. We may rehearse what we'd like to say. Or we may just blurt our thought out. Before we know it, the rhythm begins, like a ping-pong game: I speak, you listen. You speak, I listen. My turn. Your turn. Ping-pong. Ping-pong. All the while, I'm thinking about what I'm going to say. You may be wondering what you're going to say. Eventually one of us starts wondering where this is leading. And yet we're trying to have a conversation. We speak. We listen. But do we ever really hear what someone meant or perhaps what they left unsaid? Are we able to say what's in our hearts? Can we listen through the layers of what someone is feeling? To what we are feeling, too?

When someone needs our help, or when we need theirs, it's easier than ever to just start talking or to say nothing at all. How do we have a healing conversation of the heart, not just the head? How can we show up for that conversation-body, mind, and soul?

When you want to comfort someone or you need comfort, the guidelines for healing conversations presented in this book may help when you are unsure of what to say or how to be. As you read the stories in these pages, you'll discover how you might: listen; pause; be a friend not a hero; offer comfort; be in touch with your feelings; be there over the long haul; show up even when it's awkward; be a helpful resource; take the initiative; and be compassionate.

The book outlines 10 principles for healing conversations
Among them is principle #2: Pausing

There's a time to speak and a time to listen between the lines. When we hear ourselves saying, "I don't understand.," that's a clue to pause and ask, "What am I missing here?" It takes a special commitment, though, to slow down our often automatic reaction to someone's need for comfort. Our mind wants to speed past the discomfort of their discomfort so without thinking about it, we'll often shift right into taking action-saying or doing something that we think can help. Taking the time to pause and reflect allows us to stop judging, stop reacting, and get curious. It allows us to tap in to compassion at the very moment when, if we didn't pause, we might find ourselves saying something we'd later regret.

There's a sense of timing in offering comfort. When the timing is right, the doors can open; when the timing is off, it may be a long time before they will open again. Pausing gives us the clues to determine whether or not this is a good time to offer support. Pausing is just like putting the clutch in when you are driving a car with a stick shift: it lets you slow down just enough to engage the gears before you speed up. The art of speaking is not just knowing the right thing to say at the right time but also not saying the wrong thing at the tempting time. When we can pause even briefly, to tune in to another person's often unspoken needs, it helps us tune out the internal conversations that may drive us to move too quickly into action.

To learn more about pausing.
Most of us want to offer a quick solution to any problem which is why, throughout the book, I explain the importance of listening and which is why teaching the lost art of listening is at the core of our workshops and consulting. Listening is a rare skill that most of us never learned-pausing, and trying to understand if what someone said is what you heard and what you heard is what they meant-before offering advice, feedback or consolation.

From Chapter One, When You Need A Friend

Please, Don't Ask Me How I Am, Unless...
Beginning a healing conversation

How are you?

We ask that question all the time. It's usually a polite little greeting, just another way of saying hello. But we may not realize that this innocent-sounding greeting can cause stress for people who are going through difficult times. In these instances, it's important for us to be aware that when we ask that question, we need to consider if we're really willing to hear whatever the answer might be.

I had an unforgettable conversation with a woman whose mother was very ill. Maria's father had died a few months earlier, and her mother was at the point in her illness where she had signed a living will and was refusing life support. Maria's brother didn't agree with this decision. Maria was spending her days holding her brother's hand and comforting her mother. In the midst of all this, people were asking her, "How are you?"

"What goes through your mind is this," Maria explained. "You really want to know how I am? I'll tell you how I am. I feel like I'm losing it most of the time! I want to scream at my brother, scream at the doctors. I feel sad and empty. I've got to deal with medical policies, insurance, hospital administrators, my family, my mom, and somewhere in there my so-called normal life. So tell me, just how do I answer this question? Do I tell you how I really am? Or do I do what most of us do and smile or grimace a little and sigh, 'Oh, I'm fine, holding up.' Do I just keep the conversation flowing past any sticky points of emotional meltdown?"

Maria continued explaining how difficult it was for her to know what to say when people wanted to know how she was doing. "I know they mean well, but do you know what often happens? If I start to tell them how I really am, they interrupt and try to make me feel better by telling me their stories. Sometimes they want my sympathy for them. Sometimes they give me advice. Sometimes they try to take over and fix things. Sometimes they say, 'Oh,' and change the subject."

"What's hard is that I figure it's OK to say, 'I'm fine,' to the folks I don't really know, because I don't feel it would be fair to burden them with the truth. But with close friends, I'd like to be straight. Instead, sometimes I feel that it's my job to keep them from feeling too bad about what's happening with me. Most days, I say as little as possible and figure that no one really wants to know how I am. It would be too depressing, and they'd feel that they'd either have to walk away or try to fix things for me. All I really want is for people to listen to me. Not to fix. Not to advise. Not to tell me their stories yet. To be a harbor where I can bring my boat in and toss about and eventually settle down for a while."

Sometimes people want to talk and unload all the overwhelming, scary, frustrating stuff that's happening. Sometimes people would rather share a little silence with you. Other times it's nice for them to be able to say, "Right now I don't really want to talk about it—maybe later—but thanks for asking."

Struggling with "How are you?" can present an overwhelming number of choices of what to say and what not to say. It sounds like such a little thing, to avoid asking someone such an open-ended, all-encompassing question like "How are you?" To signal that you are open to hearing back from them something more than a weary "Fine," you can try "Do you want to talk about anything that happened today?" Or "Is there anything I can do to support you after the day you've had today?" Or "I don't know what to say right now, but I'd like you to know I care about you. Is there anything you want to talk about?"

People in difficult situations appreciate it when you don't ask them to give you the big picture. That's why asking them a question about how things are at this moment is easier than asking them how they are. Focusing in on the smaller picture enables them to tell you, "Well at this moment I'm OK; yesterday was rough, though." Or they could respond by saying something as straightforward as "Right now I could use a nap and a neck rub."

Another way to make an opening connection is to just let them know you care and that you aren't seeking information at all. You can tell them: "You've been in my thoughts." Or, "I wish I were there to give you a hug…help you pack…take you where you need to go…" Or, "I've been trying to think of a way to support you. Would this help…?"

Once the conversation is open, you might wonder what to say next. Remember that conversation isn't always a back-and-forth exchange, taking turns to talk and listen. It's not just about you being quiet so that then you can say what you've been thinking about while the other person was talking. Healing conversations are about pausing to tune in to what others need or want to say and what, if anything, they can hear from you at that moment. Healing conversations also make room for comfortably sharing silence.

There's another factor to consider when you want to take a healing conversation to the next level. Consider your relationship to the person. Sometimes the fact that you know each other well may make the person feel more comfortable in being blunt with you. Oddly enough, sometimes it will make the person feel too vulnerable. Don't assume you know which way they'll feel. When you don't know someone well, you may actually be able to provide what is needed most: compassionate listening without judgment. If you are uncertain of how deep to get into a conversation with someone you don't know well, just pause and acknowledge, "I don't know you very well but I'd like to do whatever I can to support you, even though I'm not sure what that would be. I'm willing to try." If you know the person well, you might take the conversation to the next level by reflecting what you sense they are feeling, not just what was said.

When people are having a rough time, usually the first question we ask them is "How are you?" because we think it's a way to open up the conversation and to show that we care. Here's another way to look at it: if you are trying to comfort people who are dealing with difficult situations, they will bless you for not making the "How are you?" question the first one. Ask about their work or their family or talk about almost anything else to give them a little relief from once again explaining how they are having getting through this trying experience. They want to be treated like whole individuals, not just as people in a challenging situation that is taking over their identity. Perhaps after listening carefully for a while, you may not even have to ask them how they are, because they will have told you in their own way.

From Chapter Three, Healing Conversations at Work

When Staff Don't Get Along: The power of listening

"If I have to work with Roger, I'm outa here!"

When employees don't get along, it can cost a company more than money. Workplace personality conflicts can erode someone's self-esteem and force managers to face an awkward situation. Logan's story shows that consciously applying the principles of healing conversation can build constructive relationships between people who think they are hopelessly at odds with one another.

One evening, Mark came into my office and announced that he'd "had it" with Roger. Roger had warned us that he was tough to work with, but we hired him anyway because we needed his knowledge to compete in an industry where things were changing dramatically. When Mark confronted me, my instincts were to do what I'd normally do: assume that I knew what the problem was, agree that Roger was challenging to work with, persuade Mark to just tough it out, and move on. I was like a lot of managers—the last thing I wanted to deal with was personnel issues.

Although I wanted to get right down to solving the problem, which as a boss was what I thought I was expected to do, I decided to try something else instead. I started off by saying something so simple: "You seem pretty upset, Mark."

"You're darn right I'm upset," Mark said. "Roger treats me like a five-year old!"

Then I hesitated. I asked myself, What was he really trying to tell me? Maybe if he was feeling like he was being treated like a child instead of a grown up he didn't feel that he was being respected. So I said to Mark, "It sounds like you don't think he respects you."

Mark paused for a few seconds and slowly said, "Well, no, not exactly. It's not that he doesn't respect me. It's that he doesn't understand how much I've learned."

His tone had changed. He was more relaxed. That's when I got a valuable insight. Just sincerely trying to understand him calmed things down. For the first time, I realized how profoundly we all want to be understood. If I didn't get it right, he would keep clarifying what he meant. Instead of saying anything else, I decided to let Mark keep talking.

"Look," he continued, "I've made a lot of money for this company. You've seen my sales records. Don't you agree?"

I was tempted to agree but I stuck to trying understand. "Mark, it sounds as if you feel that you've learned what you need to learn and are ready to get back out on the road with the customers instead of being in the back office training."

"Yes, that's it," he said, "and Roger is too busy to even notice how much I've learned!"

Mark was beginning to see Roger in a new light. And I was beginning to see the problem in a new light. We were getting to the root cause of the problem, and it wasn't, to my surprise, Roger's personality. "So it seems that because he's so wrapped up in what he's doing, Roger wouldn't know that you're ready to get back out there and start selling the new products."

Mark paused again. Then he said, "You know, you're right, Logan. He hasn't had time to look at the progress I've made. It's up to me to fill him in. I think I'll go talk to him about my scheduling a road trip and see if he can help me plan it. I'm all set now. I'd like to go talk to Roger now. Will you authorize a sales trip?"

Logan's conversation took only a few minutes, but for him it was an epiphany. What he thought was the problem—a difficult yet talented employee rubbing another one the wrong way—wasn't the problem. Instead, by not rushing to agree with the angry employee, and by not deciding to go off and lecture the difficult one, he realized that the problem was that the two employees weren't communicating. Roger didn't realize how much progress Mark had made and Mark didn't realize that his nemesis had been too busy to notice that Mark had learned what he needed to learn and was ready to go back to doing his regular job (where in fact he went on to make record sales).

Executives are expected to take action; listening seems so passive. Logan's story demonstrates that hearing the feelings beneath the words can be the best, first response to conflict. As Logan discovered, people have an amazing ability to fix their own problems if we'll listen.

What if being a leader is about ensuring the quality of relationships—among employees, customers, and strategic partners or vendors? What if the role of a leader isn't about having the answers all the time—it's about being able to consciously sift through the conflicting currents of employees' reactions and misunderstandings? What if a leader's role is to be a bridge between employee differences, producing a caring environment where coworkers and the company both benefit? What if being a leader is having healing conversations—even at work?

From Chapter Three, Healing Conversations at Work

You People Are Incompetent!
Turning angry customers into loyal fans

What do you do when one of your best customers is on the phone yelling at you for a mistake you aren't sure was your company's fault? Do you let the person vent? Calm the person down? Patch up the situation as best you can to stop the yelling? Defend your company's right to investigate? Say you're sorry and do whatever you can to make the caller happy?

No matter how much experience you've had, it's hard to deal with angry customers without taking their verbal assault personally. Yet that's what Donna, the director of reservations for a major hotel, had to deal with one morning when she came to work. Her story of how she shifted her attitude—from reacting and defending to investigating and mending—offers insights into coping with customer snafus.

One of our biggest customers, a tour company, had booked a client into one of our two hotels. That's what their director, George, claimed when he got me on the phone. He was screaming at me right from the start. Apparently, his client, Tom, had tried to check in at our three-star property, only to be told there was no record of a reservation. Tom insisted he had a reservation, and although he had no confirmation number from us, he did have a piece of paper from the tour company saying that he was booked at our hotel. To make matters worse, our hotel was completely sold out.

George was screaming at me about how incompetent we were: Didn't we know how to run our hotel? How could we tell a guest there was no reservation? Didn't we know that reflected badly on George's company? What were we thinking? "Your hotel is going to comp the guest for two free nights for both rooms."

Part of me wanted to say, "Now look here, you've never had a problem with our company before. You can't assume it's our fault. There's no confirmation number, so just hold on there…." But instead of doing my usual routine of defending the hotel I paused and remembered the training our group had had about a week earlier. There were some role-plays about dealing with upset customers. The first thing we'd learned to do was listen. The second thing we'd learned was that when you start justifying or explaining your reasons for something going wrong, the customer just gets more upset—even if your company did nothing wrong! I decided to try to use the new tools instead of reacting and taking this personally.

I let George vent. He was really angry; nothing I could say was going to help or even be heard. After he unloaded all of his complaints, I took a few breaths and slowly said, "George, let me take care of your customer, check things out and get back to you once I know what happened. We can work this out."

"Don't bother to call me back—just comp the rooms," he answered and hung up.

First things first. I made sure the guest was given a premier room at our four-star hotel around the corner. Then I investigated what could have led to this problem. It occurred to me that maybe the tour company agent had mistakenly booked the client into a nearby with a name similar to ours. And indeed, that's what I discovered: the tour company had made reservations for the guest at a hotel with a similar name. At that point, I asked my counterpart at the other hotel if she would do us a favor and not charge the guest a no-show fee.

Armed with what I had learned, I decided to pause once again before calling George back. I knew I'd been right that we had done nothing wrong, but I didn't want this attitude to come across in my tone of voice. I also wanted to try to practice something I'd learned in my training a week earlier: to put myself in someone else's shoes. So I thought for a moment about how mad I'd be if I'd made a reservation for someone in my family, knew I had booked the rooms, talked to someone at a hotel, and then was told there was no reservation. I'd be mad too. And maybe embarrassed. So with that outlook, I called George back.

I wanted him to know that his client was happily relocated in two upgraded rooms at our four-star property. Then I told him what I'd learned. At first he didn't believe me and said, "Are you sure that's what happened?" I quietly told him that I had the paperwork from the other hotel and would fax it over to him. I noted that he hadn't been the one to make the reservations for his client—someone else on his staff had made the call. Suddenly George started apologizing, telling me that he was sorry he'd yelled at me for a mistake that his company had made. He admitted that his office was short-staffed and he was trying to do the work of four people. But, he added, being short-staffed was no excuse for being short with me.

I told him, "Look, mistakes happen. I'm glad we were able to put your client up in our other hotel and get to the bottom of what went wrong. Thank you for apologizing. I appreciate that."

What I learned in dealing with George and his client was that you never know what's on someone else's plate. In the past, I would have spent more time up front insisting that our company had done nothing wrong.

"What would have happened to your guest?" I asked.

"We probably would have gotten him a room at another hotel, but it wouldn't have been our hotel, and he wouldn't have come back." she admitted.

"And what about the tour operator?"

"Oh, he would have taken his business elsewhere," she explained, being candid about the cost of being right. As it turned out, the tour operator wrote a letter to the owner of the hotel telling him how impressed he was with the way the snafu had been handled. "I'll be sending you all of my business," he wrote.

Here are some things that employees should keep in mind to help them manage their reactions when a customer gets upset:

  • It's more important to understand the situation than to be right.
  • Take the time to step into someone else's shoes if you want to understand what went wrong.
  • Even if you are right, would you rather be right or in relationship with your customer?
  • Pause to get your breath when someone is yelling at you, because at first all you want to do is either yell back, interrupt to explain, or fix the problem fast. A few deep breaths give you "breathing room" for perspective.
  • When someone's venting at you, all you can do is listen. No listening will occur if you speak at that moment.
  • You don't have to admit that your company is to blame, but you can say that you are sorry that it is happening.
  • Do what you can to make things right for the customer while honoring the customer's dignity and your company's budget and principles.
  • Once you know what went wrong, explain the cause of the problem graciously, giving the customer a chance to save face while acknowledging that we're all human and mistakes happen.

What was the most challenging thing Donna had to learn in handling difficult customers? "Oh, that's easy," she said. "To keep my mouth shut. To listen and let someone vent without needing to immediately defend my company. Since learning this way of dealing with customers who think we are to blame for every problem, we've seen a huge decrease in losses we'd normally incur. These days we listen to them first, investigate second, put ourselves in their shoes third, and then reconcile the misunderstanding.

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Above excerpt material is © 2002 Nance Guilmartin    All Rights Reserved    No Unauthorized Duplication Permitted
Excerpts from Healing Conversations: What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say (Jossey-Bass 2002)


Power of Pause® is a Registered Trademark    Copyright © Nance Guilmartin     All rights reserved