Article by Jim Jensen...
Do you agree with me that there are many challenging conversations that should happen at work that don’t take place, even in healthy relationships and even on healthy teams? Why is that?
One of the biggest reasons is that we tend to avoid the things that make us uncomfortable.
The next question you might ask is, what is it that’s making me uncomfortable or anxious about this important conversation? What are my concerns? Am I concerned I might hurt someone’s feelings and possibly damage the relationship? Am I concerned he or she will get angry and/or defensive? Am I concerned I’ll be misunderstood?
The specific answer to that question is important in order to make conscious use of a tool that I teach in my team-development training sessions. It’s called front-loading.
I define front-loading as making a statement or asking a question that sets the stage for effective communication.
In other words, it's what people say before they say what they actually want to say.
It sets the stage by opening the door to a discussion, subtly communicating intent or concerns, and helping others be in a place of listening.
Front-loading statements or questions pave the way making it easier, safer, or more comfortable for you to share your thoughts. Therefore, you are more likely to take the risk. Front-loads can also disarm the person or people hearing what you have to say so they are more open to hearing it. Often times the intent of a front-load is to avoid pushing those ever-so-easy-to-push buttons that we all have that create defensiveness.
Once you learn about and start thinking more about front-loading, you’ll notice that people do it all the time… naturally, without necessarily being aware they’re doing it. So why talk about it if people do it naturally? Two reasons. First, we explore front-loading in my sessions so it becomes more conscious. If you are more conscious about a tool you are more likely to use it.
Secondly, we explore front-loading to help leaders and team members enhance the skill of reading interpersonal dynamics, a critical skill for highly functional, cohesive teams. When you hear a front-load, what does that tell you? Often it tells you that the person has a concern. It may be a small concern, it may be huge; but there’s a concern. If people are aware of the concern, it can help them listen better and seek more to understand. And, if people are seeking more to understand, both the message and the intent, it’s more likely that they won’t go quickly to “reaction” mode. For example, how often in team meetings do you hear someone say, Can I ask a question? That was a front-load. Most likely they used that front-load because they did not have the focus of the group. That was the concern. A small concern, but a concern. Otherwise, rather than ask that front-load question they would have just asked THE question.
Here’s another example you’ve probably heard or perhaps even used yourself: I’m going to take a risk here. What’s the concern that might be driving that front-load? A statement like that is usually driven by discomfort or a feeling of vulnerability. Your hope is that the other person, or members of the group understand that what you’re about to say is not easy for you, and that they'll pay more attention to what you say and to how they react. Here are a few other variations of the same front-load driven by the same concerns. This is not easy for me to say; It feels like I’m walking on thin ice here; Can I take a risk and ask you a question?
I’ve compiled a list of potential front-loading statements for you to consider as you ponder the concept, what fits with your style, how to use the tool more effectively, AND how to appreciate others as they use this tool, consciously or not. The list is a bit long (that was a front-load ☺️), but I want to provide plenty of examples for you to ponder. For each example, think about what concern might be motivating the front-load and how the front-load might impact that concern. Remember to pay close attention to how a front-load is said. If your intent is truly authentic, respectful and supportive then you are likely to sound authentic, respectful and supportive. Remember too that no tool will work as well as it could without having a trusting relationship already established. That said, this is one of many tools that can be used to build trust.
These front-loads could indicate concerns about focus, listening, or understanding your discomfort.
These front-loads could be driven by concerns about not being heard, being misheard, or concerns about your own communication.
These could indicate concerns about hurting someone or making them angry.
These could indicate concerns about giving feedback, misunderstanding intent, or someone not being open to what you have to say.
And finally, these front-loads could be driven by concerns about people not being straight with you, or reacting too quickly.
The list could go on. Also, don’t forget the value of circling back if you have questions about your impact or how you came across. How did I come across just now (or in yesterday’s meeting)? What was your reaction to what we talked about? Can you give me some feedback? (Perhaps the most underutilized question in the workplace because it requires not only a trusting relationship, but also a willingness to be vulnerable.)
And now, in case you’re interested in taking this a step further I’m going to suggest a brief assignment. Take a minute right now and think of a discussion you might be avoiding that would allow an opportunity for healthy conflict, constructive dialogue or support. Think about why you might be avoiding that discussion. What are your concerns? Write down or think about a potential front-loading statement or question that might acknowledge that concern and make it easier for you to begin the discussion, or might make it easier for someone else to hear what you have to say. Then try it out. You don’t have to get tricky. Most often just telling the truth is a healthy and effective way to start. Feel free to make healthy use of the “water cooler” if you are open to someone helping you with this. I’ll really know this post has had an impact when I get a phone call or email from one of you letting me know how it went. If it went well…great. Let me know. If it did not go as well as you would have hoped…that could be great too. Another learning opportunity. And at least you took the responsible risk and tried it. Maybe I can help you debrief the interaction and think of ways you might approach it differently. Or, you could also discuss with your coworker what might have been better than what you tried. That might be fun ☺️. Remember too that a front-loading statement or question should just be the beginning of a meaningful conversation.
I hope you found this helpful.
With a home base in Michigan, we provide leadership team development and team building programs, and organizational culture and consulting services worldwide.
A version of this blog post first appeared in Crux Move Consulting’s blog
Dynamic Teams: Leadership Team Building. Building healthy culture by building healthy leadership teams
Jim Jensen, MA LPC is the Principal and Founder of Dynamic Teams LLC, specializing in helping leaders of companies build healthy culture through dynamic leadership teams.