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.

I’ve learned a thing or two as a parent of adult children.

As parents and leaders, we need to teach our children and our teams how to do things and to be clear about what we expect of them. We need to set boundaries and to enforce those boundaries when the need arises.

People need to know where they stand. It helps them to feel safe.

One of the greatest challenges is working out which boundaries are absolutely non-negotiable and which ones are less important and a guide only.

Because when we enforce rules and boundaries that don’t make sense, seem unnecessarily punitive or are condescending we will get push back – I guarantee it.

Our children (particularly our teenage children) and our staff are not robots; they do not exist to please us or to do what they are told. They have feelings and thoughts and their own belief and values systems. They are less likely than ever before to do what they are told because you are their parent or their boss.  We live in a world where we all have a lot of information at our fingertips, where we can share a story in the blink of an eye. Our society is less hierarchical than ever before. People expect to be treated fairly and with respect.

So it is most likely that they will challenge your ‘dumb’ rules; they will act out and rebel.

And you will probably respond strongly. You will be frustrated, angry, insulted and stressed by their “terrible behaviour”. Chances are you will impose further penalties, turn to some form of disciplinary action. A mini-war will ensue.  

Your charge will probably be thinking about you in the negative. You will return the favour.

You will be watching out for them to do something else that is against the rules and they will start playing with fire and daring you to challenge them further.  

The relationship will deteriorate or go into a stalemate.

So how do we stop this all too familiar pattern of behaviour?

 

  • We develop the rules with them as much as possible; or we give a clear explanation as to why this is the rule, why it needs to be a non-negotiable

 

That way your child or staff learn that the rule wasn’t created just to make their life difficult. And we can test out some theories with them. Get them to consider the risks if this rule wasn’t in place. Get them to problem solve a related scenario.  Importantly, you might learn something at the same time. And you might, through this process, even recognise that the rule is over the top.

This process will also make our charges feel valued and respected. They will feel included in the process, and they are way more likely to abide by a rule or a boundary that they have developed.

 

  • We focus on the behaviour we want

 

We make a fuss if our child or employee does what we want the way we want them to do it; we don’t give energy the behaviour we don’t want.

For example, we want our employee to complete the Occ Health and Safety forms in a certain way to make sure the documentation meets legislative standards. The employee believes this task is onerous and stops them from getting on with the job. They regularly “forget” to do it or they do it poorly.

So every Monday at your team meeting you give a chocolate frog or make a fuss about the person who was best at completing their paperwork correctly the week before. Let them know how this has added value to the company because they would pass any audit. The staff member might not have done it perfectly but you have to start somewhere.  In due course, you will train all of the staff that this is a non-negotiable and they will do it because they recognise the value of completing the paperwork, even if it is onerous.

Despite everything we know, I constantly see parents and leaders use discipline to change behaviour. It rarely works.

It’s so easy to punish people. To deprive them of their rights and privileges, to dock their pay or whatever nasty thing you can think of to “teach someone a lesson”.

I challenge you to think differently; to bring your people with you. To be on the same team and working towards the same goals and outcomes.

I accept that there are times when it is necessary to impose consequences; particularly if someone is deliberately breaking a non-negotiable rule. We do have to keep people safe, and they have to be standards.

But in the main, our lives and the lives of our children and staff will be significantly less stressful and far more enjoyable if we focus on the positive.

I was recently asked for advice about how to end a relationship.  There is often a lot of conflict around failed relationships. It doesn’t have to be that way.

My friend felt bad. The other person in the relationship had not done anything wrong. They were not a bad person. They hadn’t lied or cheated.  They had been incredibly thoughtful and charming throughout their relationship. You couldn’t fault them.

But my friend and the other person just didn’t click. There was no fire.  There was no point pretending the relationship was going somewhere.

I said there are three rules to having “that conversation” to end the relationship and you can apply it to any situation where a personal relationship has broken down.  

The three rules are:

  1. Lovingly tell the person that the relationship is over

Don’t blame yourself or the other person.  We generally don’t go into relationships lightly. Neither of you are bad people. You liked the other person when the relationship started. Chances are you still do. But the situation has changed – you don’t feel the way you thought would. It’s not working.  End the relationship you started it – lovingly. And remember it’s your decision; so they’re still catching up emotionally. Give them time to process the information.

  1. Do it in a timely manner

Rip that bandaid off. Just do it.  It’s not fair to you or the other person to drag this process out. If you’ve made the decision to end the relationship, then just do it. You’ll both be grateful that you had the courage to call it.  It’s not healthy or fair to stay in a relationship that you know is not working.

  1. Say what you need to say and get out of there

Don’t hang around to debrief your decision. If you do that, you’ll suddenly come up with a heap of  reasons or excuses that are bound to be misunderstood or taken out of context. Chances are the conversation will become increasingly complicated and you may start doubting your decision or worse still you will start rescuing the other person and telling them a lot of platitudes to try and make yourself feel better.

We do not owe anyone a detailed explanation of our decision. The only fact that is important is that you want to end the relationship.

And be kind to yourself. It’s always stressful to end a relationship.  So take extra good care of yourself whilst you deal with the emotional fall out.

In the long run, it will be okay.

Want an emotional lift? Have that difficult conversation and get it out of your head.

Do you have a conversation going on in your head? Is there that person you keep conversing with privately, in the sanctity of your brain? Do you replay this conversation over and over?  Do you wake up in the middle of the night and continue that conversation?

Have you also experienced the relief of finally getting something off your chest? The realisation that it wasn’t as bad as you thought it was going to be? Did you discover that the other person didn’t respond as negatively as you thought that they would?  Ahh, the relief. The emotional and physical relief of dealing with an issue.

How much are we damaging ourselves when we don’t speak out, when we don’t deal with situations but sit on them? How much time and possibly money do we waste by focussing on something that is not productive?  How is this unresolved issue messing with our sleep and our overall wellbeing?

Wouldn’t it be great to deal with the issue at hand and then move on. If you have this conversation you will finally find out how the other person is going to react (no more fantasising about it) – you can then deal with that and manage the situation. The stress will be released. The conversation had. Emotional release reducing the toxic energy that goes into holding onto all those unresolved issues.

And you don’t have to do it alone.

We here at ACM can help you if you need help to take that next step, to plan that difficult conversation and then to finally deal with those issues which are holding you backing.  Have a coffee with Kate and start the process.

My father didn’t talk to his sister for 30 years all because of football.

There was no love lost between my dad and his sister. Dad was one eyed Norwood supporter and his older sister was a die-hard Port supporter. My aunt thought the rivalry was funny; my Dad thought it was treacherous.

My aunt was married to a terrible Port supporter. My dad despised him. My uncle represented all that was wrong with the world. He was a big beer drinker, who was into cars and fishing. Ugh!

My dad was much more sophisticated. He was a big red wine drinking man who was into football, cricket and arguing loudly about politics.

On one auspicious late September day sometime in the 70s my uncle rang my dad to gloat about Port beating Norwood in the grand final that had been played the day before. My dad lost his shit; abused my uncle and never spoke to him again. I think the only conversations my dad had with his sister after that day were when she attended my wedding and children’s baptisms.

I maintained a close relationship with my aunt despite her being a Port supporter.

My dad said he could never forgive my uncle for the way he spoke to him about THAT grand final. He was offended and insulted and that was that.

In reality the dispute about the football was a faux dispute, a nothing, nonsense. It was a cover for a much deeper problem. My dad had for a long time referred to my aunt as “black cloud”. My dad had a number of conspiracy theories swirling around in his head about how his sister manipulated their parents, that she treated him badly when he was a child, that she was the favoured bossy big sister. He was jealous of the relationship his sister had with their father. He accused her of being petty, small minded and ignorant.

It was an extraordinary situation because my father was a priest and a psychotherapist. He had a greater awareness of how people tick than most people I know. He was scholarly and intellectual in his own way; but at the same time he was rough around the edges having grown up on a sheep station and having done most of his schooling by school of the air. But dad got people; he knew that people regularly hide their true selves. He could read peoples’ energy and moods and pin point what was really going on as soon as a person walked into a room. He knew better.

And yet he couldn’t see that he was playing the victim in this ridiculous argument about football and lack of respect.

And sadly about 30 years later my aunt, completely disabled with dementia, eventually died. It was too late. My dad and my aunt never had that difficult conversation. They never spoke their own truths. They both died at war with each other…all because Port beat Norwood in a grand final some time in the 70s.

My sadness about this situation was profound. I loved them both. Due to the appalling relationship between my dad and my aunt – we were not invited to my aunt’s funeral. About three months later we held a memorial service for her and my dad was there – finally. It was incredibly sad.

We can hide our real pain behind fake disputes. We sometimes re-invent history. We catastrophise a situation and blow it out of all proportion because it serves another purpose. We don’t have to do that – it takes courage to have difficult conversations. It is sometimes hard to work out what is the real issue; what is the underlying problem. But if we value ourselves and other people, it is worth the pain. On the other side of that pain is often relief, joy and healing.

PS: I now support both Norwood and Port Adelaide Football Club (but I am not a Port Magpies supporter!)