I constantly hear from leaders and other parents that their staff or teenage children won’t tell them anything. (I mention both leaders and parents of teenagers in the same sentence because the way to manage this issue is the same for both groups.)

You know that there is a problem but when you ask that perennial question “what’s wrong?” the answer is always an emphatic “nothing”.

So you get agitated by this answer. Of course there is something wrong. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.

So you press on. “Come on, I know there is something wrong. Tell me, I might be able to help.” Deafening silence.

You start to feel angry. You might have a bit of a passive aggressive moment where you say “OK, well don’t tell me” and you punish them with the silent treatment.  Two can play at this game.

They won’t tell you anything because they don’t think it is safe to tell you. Simple. They may be wrong, but in their mind, after weighing up all the evidence, they have decided not to tell you.

As leaders and parents, we have a responsibility to create a safe environment for our team or our children to tell us information. We are in a much better position to lead if we know what is going on.  And as parents we usually need to know what is going on.

But no-one is going to tell us anything if they think that you are going to be critical, explode, use it against them or suffer.  We must create an environment where people feel comfortable to tell us things; remembering that most people feel really embarrassed when they stuff up or when things go wrong.

So how do you make a safe environment for people to tell you what is going on?  

  1. Listen

You listen, you empathise, you ask questions and you show that you care. You do not need to make any decisions at this time; you are just in the moment. Listening and being with them. They feel valued by your presence in this moment. They feel that they can trust you because the moment is about them; not you.

And remember, we do not make mistakes on purpose. We usually want to please people and do the right thing. But we’re also human, things will happen, we might want to please the wrong person, we may get distracted and make a mistake, we might be in the wrong the job, a whole host of things that happen.  If someone makes a mistakes, they didn’t do it to annoy you. It’s not personal.

2. Manage your emotions

On many occasions the thing that is causing your team member or teenager to be so down and worried is because they have made a mistake or they have seen something that shouldn’t have happened.  

This is information you need to know, so you can help fix the problem. The reason they can’t tell you is because they think you are going to lose control of your emotions in that moment, that you are going to get angry or seek to punish them.

If you feel yourself feeling angry and getting agitated, take some really deep breaths.  Your feelings are just that – feelings. You don’t have to impose them on someone else. They are your response to the information. They are not facts; they are feelings. Don’t let them dominate the moment.

3. Don’t try and fix the problem straight away

Chances are you can’t fix the problem straight away, so don’t try to.  If you do tend to get overwhelmed with emotion, chances are you will make a decision that is based on emotion and not fact.

Thank the person for sharing the information with you.  Tell them that it’s going to be okay; that there will be a way to deal with the issue. Ask them to come up with some ways in which they could deal with the situation; what could we do next. Help them take responsibility for whatever has happened without punishing them. In most situations, you do not have to “fix it” in that moment. So don’t.  

4. Sleep on it

When in doubt, say everything will be clearer tomorrow – because it will be. Let’s discuss this further tomorrow when we’ve had some time to think about it.  After you’ve had a good sleep you will be better able to think about the problem (if there is a problem) instead of reacting to the problem. Tomorrow you are less likely to fly off the handle or yell.

The issue will still need to be addressed. There will be no magic wand but after a good night’s sleep and maybe a long walk, you will both be able to revisit the conversation in a calmer state and then you can deal with it.  

Chances are you won’t feel the urgent need to punish the next day.

Chances are you will have a better understanding of what was going on and why the problem happened in the first place because you were listening and you were being curious.  This will help you and your team member or teenager to avoid this problem happening in the future.

Chances are that if you apply this approach every time there is a problem, your staff or your teenager is likely to tell you next time there is a problem.

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