I’ve been debriefing a lot of 360-degree assessments recently, which means I’ve been talking to clients about their blind spots and things they want to work on—especially around the area of workplace communication. And in those debriefs, when we get to the part of the conversation when I ask how they plan to work on a specific development opportunity, I often hear something like:
“Yeah, I just need to keep that front and center, really focus on it”
While that approach may sound good—after all, at least you’re focused on it, and that should count for something, right?—I’ve coached enough people around change to tell you that the “just focus on it” approach tends to fail. Why? Because it’s like being in a constant state of vigilance.
“I need to focus on it” turns out to be too broad
If someone asks you to watch out for trespassers on your property, and you say, “Yeah, I’ll just need to be vigilant,” how long will you realistically remain vigilant? Probably until you lose focus or something else catches your attention, right? Same with trying to change something in your behavior or your communication patterns. Saying, “I need to focus on it” turns out to be too broad to be helpful.
So what should you do instead? Let me tell you about a client I met with a while back who wanted to express herself more assertively in team meetings at work. She felt she’d gotten into a pattern of introducing ideas she thought were good, and it’d all go well up until the point when someone seemed to express some resistance. At that point, she’d immediately back down.
During our coaching meeting, she identified a couple of thought processes that were contributing to the issue: first, a general lack of confidence and second, her perfectionism (as in, “Maybe I didn’t think my idea through to the very end and people are attacking it because it’s imperfect.”) But while understanding what’s getting in the way of changing her pattern certainly helps, awareness alone doesn’t change it.
How will you remember to do something different?
I asked her what she’d do to work on her assertiveness, and that’s when she gave me the answer I’ve heard many times before: “I’m going to focus on it.”
I said, “OK, definitely, focus on it,” but then I invited her to visualize the next time she’s in one of her meetings and is introducing one of her ideas to the team. A person asks a question or makes a comment that makes her feel like she wants to back down. I asked her, “At that point when your pattern to back down and let the idea fade is about to kick in, how are you going to remember to do something different than what you always do?”
There’s not a single right answer to that question. But the key is that, in answering it, you force yourself to get specific about what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. And at that point, your plan to change a long standing pattern just went from the broad “I’ll focus on it” to the much more concrete “At point X, I’m going to do Y.”
Get specific about what you’ll do
My client and I brainstormed a few ideas that could work for her:
- Set the intention to notice – Before meetings, she could go through a checklist that includes a reminder to recognize the moment when she’s about to back down from her idea.
- Schedule check-ins – After meetings, she could ask herself, “Did I present an idea? If so, how assertively did I do it?“
- Ask others to help – She could enlist allies on her team and ask them to observe her in action. She could then circle back with them periodically to get objective feedback about her progress.
These ideas may or may not apply to your situation. But think about the particular workplace communication issue for which you haven’t gone beyond the thought of “I need to focus more on that.” Maybe you want to create some constructive conflict. Or maybe you want to provide timely feedback to your team members. Or maybe you want to listen more actively and let people finish their thoughts before jumping in with your own.
Whatever your development opportunity, how are you going to remember to do something different than what you always do? Hint: It’s not a rhetorical question. Answer it for yourself, and come up with a concrete plan that you can implement to break your habit.
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with Purpose to get the business results they want.