The board of directors had two armed camps: camp one—fire the CEO; camp two—retain the CEO. The upcoming board meeting would decide his fate. With lines drawn and sides taken, tensions were high. Trouble brewed.
The board brought me in to facilitate the meeting. As everyone took seats around the conference-room table, board members sat according to the side of the issue they were on. Small talk was very small, and strained.
I began the meeting by stating the issue before them, and the importance of how they addressed and resolved it. I then said, “Let me share a story about a European monastery that had a problem. When the monks got together to discuss scripture, the exchanges often got out of hand. Debates would become heated, personal, and leave wounds.
“Let’s say, for example, we’re monks at that monastery, and the topic is the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.”
I looked at one of the board members and said, “Let’s say Jim here asserts that it’s Eve’s fault.”
I looked at another board member and said, “Gabby vehemently disagrees with Jim’s view. She thinks it’s Adam’s fault. Gabby’s free to express her disagreement however she wishes so long as she first confirms with Jim his view.”
I continued. “Now let’s say that after Gabby finishes stating her position, Jim wants to return fire. He likewise can do so provided he first confirms Gabby’s position with her.”
I looked at another board member and said, “Now let’s say Erica disagrees with both Jim and Gabby. She thinks it’s the serpent. Again, Erica has the freedom to do so provided she first confirms with each of them the views she’s about to disagree with.”
At that point, a prominent and outspoken board member frowned and raised his hand. “Yes?” I said.
“I have a problem with your rule Jathan. I’ve got other things to do after this meeting. If we do all this confirming about what we disagree with, we’ll waste a lot of time. I don’t have all night!”
“I agree with you,” I said. “We don’t want to waste time, and we don’t want to be here all night. However, I believe the Monks Technique will actually prevent those things from happening. I also think it will enable the board to make a decision in the best overall interest of the company, drawing on the experience and insights of everyone here. And it will help the board function cohesively after this meeting. That includes the board members whose position prevails tonight and those whose position does not.”
“But I tell you what,” I added. “If the technique starts to bog us down, we’ll abandon it.”
The meeting proceeded. Results? The tension in the room left almost immediately. No angry outbursts. No ad hominem arguments. Instead, the exchanges were thoughtful, respectful, and substantive.
Although the board didn’t always follow the technique religiously (pardon the pun), there was enough confirming and clarifying that all sides of the issue were fairly vetted, including the pros and cons of letting go or retaining the CEO, the steps that would need to be taken in each scenario, and how the board would work together after the meeting.
Score one for the monks.
Readers of “If You Want Engagement, Lead by Listening” will observe that the Monks Technique is a variation of the EAR listening method. Instead of starting with the “E,” for “explore,” you begin with the “A,” for “acknowledge.” If the other person confirms your understanding, you move to the “R”—your substantive “response.” If the other person says, “No, that’s not my position,” you move back to “E”—“explore”—using open-ended questions such as, “What did I miss?”
Contrary to the one board member’s fear of prolonging the meeting, the Monks Technique did the opposite. It promoted efficiency. No erroneous assumptions were made. How many times have you experienced or participated in an argument where people made assumptions about each other, their positions, views, motives, etc., that were vigorously denied as accurate? You then had a battle over what the person’s position was, as opposed to its merits.
In addition, the technique creates an environment of respect, which happens naturally when people really listen to each other. Instead of erroneous assumptions heating up the debate, emotions cool, enabling people to focus on substance.
The Monks Technique works not only in meetings but in any encounter where you can anticipate strong disagreement. You don’t have to announce it or propose it as a rule of discussion as I did with the board of directors. The main point is to follow the sequence, confirming your understanding of the other side’s position before stating yours.
One of my favorite examples comes from a manager who learned this technique at my workshop and applied it later that day at his son’s school. His son Johnny was in a special needs program. A dispute had arisen between Johnny’s parents and school officials regarding the boy’s treatment. The parents felt the school was not doing what it was morally and legally obligated to do for their son, whereas school officials felt the parents were in denial. A meeting had been scheduled between the parents, the school principal, and the head of the special needs program.
The manager explained, “As my wife and I walked into the school, I could see she was gearing herself up for battle. So I asked her if it would be okay if I spoke first. She said okay.
“We sat down on one side of the table, and the school principal and the program head sat down on the other. I said, ‘Before we get going, I want to be sure I fully understand the school’s position on Johnny.’ I then summarized it as best I could from their perspective, making the case for them as if I were in their shoes.
“When I finished, I asked them, ‘Have I summarized your position accurately?’ They said, ‘Not entirely.’ To my surprise, they clarified their position in a way that made it closer to and more supportive of our side of the issue.
“We ended the meeting with a fully agreed game plan for Johnny. My wife, who’d been ready to declare war, instead walked around the table and hugged the two school officials.”
The Monks Technique: Give it a try.
Divided by the Willamette River and Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon, is known by its four quadrants: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. On a Friday night following a play my friend and I had attended at an out-of-the-way theater in the Northeast quadrant, we stopped for a beer at a nearby pub.
Shortly before midnight, we got up to leave. A considerably younger and bigger man accosted us. Although well dressed, he was, as the Brits say, clearly in his cups.
Thrusting his face in mine, he said harshly, “What are you two talking about?!”
Although my danger light lit up, I remained calm. I didn’t back away or counter his aggression. Instead, I said, “I don’t know—the usual: sports, politics. Why do you ask?”
“You’re not from around here!” he responded. “What quadrant are you from?”
“Quadrant?” I said. “What do you mean? Quadrant of the universe? Quadrant of the planet?”
“No!” he said, “Portland. I’m from Northeast, and I haven’t been shot!”
Before I could respond, the man again said, “I’m from Northeast, and I haven’t been shot!”
“That reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill,” I said.
“I don’t like Churchill!”
“Yes, but you might like this quote: ‘Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at, without result.’”
He paused, evidently pondering the quotation.
I said again, “Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at, without result.”
He extended his hand. I took it. We briefly exchanged small talk while over my shoulder, I gave my friend a look that said, “Time to gooooo.” We left the pub without further incident.
Many years ago, I studied karate. We drilled endlessly on block-strike techniques. The attacker strikes, you block the attack and strike the attacker. Notwithstanding her repeated admonition that “the best fight is the one you avoid,” our sensei had us do pushups on the hardwood dojo floor—on our knuckles. This was to harden the striking surface of our fists, which would improve our ability to break boards and, at least theoretically, bones.
Many years ago, a Japanese martial arts expert, Morihei Ueshiba, departed from conventional martial arts because even if intended as defensive, they trained actions that could result in injury or death to attackers. Ueshiba developed a martial art form called aikido designed to defend against attack without causing injury to anyone.
In aikido, when the attack comes, instead of block-strike, you blend with the attacker and flow with the person’s energy. You turn with the attacker and see what the attacker sees. While conserving your energy and maintaining your balance, you lead the attacker to a position where the person can’t hurt you, and you don’t inflict injury either.
Aikido can be applied to verbal attacks. Let’s say you present an idea in a meeting and someone responds, “That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard!” According to neuroscience, that comment will light up the threat-recognition area of your brain just as a physical threat would.
You could go into flight mode: become quiet, withdrawn or placating, or literally flee the meeting. Or you could go into block-strike fight mode: “My idea is not stupid!” (block) “You’re stupid!” (strike)
Or you could engage, blend, and flow with the attack by becoming curious and genuinely inquisitive. “Oh really, the stupidest ever. What specifically makes it so stupid?” Or if you want to work a little humor in, you could say, “Oh really, the stupidest ever. What’s No. 2?”
The point is to ask open-ended questions that draw out your attacker in ways the person will probably not anticipate. The attacker continues to expend energy and struggles to stay balanced while you stay relaxed and centered. Often what the attacker says in response to your questions will give you new openings to settle things down and find a resolution point. “So if I understand you, what makes my idea stupid is ‘X.’ If we can resolve ‘X,’ then my idea is no longer stupid, is that right?”
In my Portland pub encounter, without thinking about it, I went into aikido mode. I engaged and blended with the man’s hostile words. He opened with a question. I responded with a question. He mentioned quadrants. So did I. He mentioned the concept of being shot. So did I. Finally, with the Churchill quote, we found common ground, and the hostility ended.
I’ll confess I didn’t know where any of this was going, and it remained a distinct possibility that I would be served a knuckle sandwich. Yet I kept probing, blending, flowing, and channeling until we ended up where he was no longer hostile. The key was to get into an aikido frame of mind. That enabled me to engage without fight or flight.
The next time a verbal attack comes your way, don’t freeze up and don’t return fire. Instead, look calmly at your attacker. Blend with the attack—flow with and channel the attacker’s energy to where the anger dissipates and the two of you can agree, or reasonably agree to disagree.
After my presentation, the young woman approached cautiously. “Excuse me,” Susan said. “May I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I have a difficult situation at work and wonder if what you call the Triple Two might help.”
“I work in our customer service department. There’s a process where I have to coordinate with three people in other departments. However, we don’t function well. Cooperation is poor, which affects the work and causes a lot of stress. Unfortunately, management has been no help.
“The problem’s not getting better; it’s getting worse. I’m starting to think I need to find another job.”
I said, “Perhaps something like the Triple Two would be helpful. What do you think about going to each of them separately, identifying the problem, and asking them what two things you could start doing that would help, two things you could stop doing that are currently getting in the way, and two things you should continue doing because they add value?”
Susan thought for a moment and said, “I can see doing this with Jane and Elizabeth but not with Monique.”
“Why not Monique?”
“Because she’s horrible! I don’t dare make myself vulnerable. If I ask her what I should stop doing, she’ll probably say, ‘Breathing!’”
I laughed and said, “I suppose there’s a chance of that, but I don’t think it’s likely. I predict a very different response, that Monique responds favorably.”
Susan looked at me skeptically, so I said, “You see, you and Monique actually have a lot in common.”
“No we don’t! I have nothing in common with her!”
“Yes you do,” I replied with a smile. “You both have in common the fact that you make each other miserable, and that you undermine each other’s job satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. And you both have in common the enormous payoff if someone breaks the current pattern of behavior. That’s what I predict the Triple Two will do.
“And besides,” I added with a chuckle. “If she tells you to stop breathing, you can always ask her to show you how.”
Susan took my advice and later shared the results with me. Monique not only permitted Susan to draw oxygen, she offered concrete suggestions to improve their situation. To Susan’s great surprise, Monique even offered Susan the opportunity to Triple Two her.
Susan had similar results with Jane and Elizabeth. Subsequently, all four women met and worked out a successful interdepartmental game plan.
Susan’s stress level went way down while her sense of job satisfaction went way up.
And she breathed easy.
The Triple Two technique involves asking three questions that call for two responses each:
1. What two things should I start doing?
2. What two things should I stop doing?
3. What two things should I continue to do?
The technique focuses on specific behavior. “Start” and “stop” identify obstacles that are often hidden as well as opportunities that are being neglected. “Continue” preserves what is working. There’s no magic to the number two; it just means the other party isn’t limited to a single response.
For long-standing or structural conflicts with recurring flash points, the Triple Two is a great tool to change the status quo. It does mean making yourself vulnerable since you’re asking someone you don’t yet trust what you should start/stop/continue, not what the other person should start/stop/continue. The “stop breathing” response is a possibility. However, in my experience, it’s not been the reality. A great many Susans have been pleasantly surprised when their opponent didn’t use the opening to attack but instead accepted their invitation to constructive problem solving.
There are four reasons why other people aren’t likely to respond in the negative way you might fear:
1. As I explained to Susan, chances are they are experiencing as much pain or frustration as you are and will recognize your opening as a way out.
2. Human beings are wired with a reciprocity gene. When you open yourself up to them, there’s a natural inclination to reciprocate, giving you the opportunity to Triple Two them while they’re receptive.
3. The “continue” part ensures there will be something positive in the message.
4. You’re not asking them for their overall opinion, evaluation, or characterization of you as a person, the kinds of topics that get the blood boiling. Instead, you’re simply seeking to identify specific behaviors in a solution-oriented context.
I’ve used and coached the Triple Two to resolve individual, team, and interdepartmental conflicts, and it has worked quite well in many settings. The key is that no one judges anyone else. Attention and effort remain focused on how to make things work.
The Triple Two has applications beyond conflict resolution. One of the best is in performance reviews. When used by the supervisor, it creates a permission-to-speak-freely environment in which the employee says what the supervisor could start doing, stop doing, and continue doing that would help the employee succeed in meeting the supervisor’s expectations. Many employers have built the Triple Two into their performance review process. Some have jettisoned forms, categories, and ratings and instead created a process that combines the Star Profile (“Beating the Coin Toss”), a mutual Triple Two, and the Same Day Summary (“Texas Wes”). The idea is to promote collaborative goal setting and goal seeking versus the teacher’s-report-card form of feedback described in “Performance Review Follies.”
Employees have used the Triple Two to manage up, such as with bosses who tend to undercommunicate (leaving employees guessing about expectations), or over-communicate (i.e., micromanage). Periodically asking the boss to Triple Two you while making it clear the purpose is “so that I can help you achieve your goals” does two things:
1. It gives you valuable information about the boss’s priorities.
2. It signals the boss that you’re an employee who can be trusted.
I’ve experienced too many success stories to overstate the value of this tool. It’s as powerful as it is simple. So when it comes to getting feedback from others, stop your current practice, start using the Triple Two, and once you do, be sure to continue.
At one of its properties, a company employed a leasing agent, Jill. She had a lengthy disciplinary history. In addition to performance and attendance problems, she’d twice been sent home for wearing overly revealing clothing.
One day at work, Jill told a group of coworkers that she had accepted a job working weekends at “Buddy Bill’s Bar & Babes.” As the name implies, Buddy Bill’s featured exotic women dancers.
A maintenance worker, Otis, asked her, “Will you strip?”
Jill did not reply. Instead she went to the property manager and complained. “Otis just humiliated me in front of my coworkers!”
“What happened?” the property manager asked.
“He asked me to take off my clothes right there in the break room!” Jill replied. “I’ve been sexually harassed!”
The property manager confronted Otis. “Did you ask Jill to take off her clothes?”
“No!” Otis replied. “I asked her what job she would be doing at Buddy Bill’s.”
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” the manager said. “I suggest you go and apologize to her.”
Otis agreed. He went to Jill and said, “I’m sorry if I offended you with my comment about stripping.”
After a pause, he added, “But you misunderstood. I was talking about your job at Buddy Bill’s.” Looking Jill up and down, Otis said, “I probably didn’t need to ask. It’s pretty obvious you won’t be working the cash register.”
However, Jill’s performance problems continued. After she misapplied several rent payments, the manager put her on final-warning status. Jill responded by saying, “I’m being picked on! It’s not my fault!”
Two weeks later, Jill got into a shouting match with one of the residents. For the property manager, this was the last straw. She fired Jill.
Jill responded by filing claims of sexual harassment and retaliation, which the company successfully defended, but only after much time and money had been spent.
While serving as president of a nonprofit organization, I attended a social function for organization members. As I pleasantly conversed with several members over wine, cheese, and vegetables, a member, Roderick, approached. In the presence of the others, he said, “You know, Jathan, your presidency has been a failure.”
Stunned, I said nothing. The other members looked down at their plates of food.
Roderick added, “I just thought you’d like to know,” and wandered off.
I went home that night and told my wife. She knew Roderick’s wife. An exchange between wives produced a phone call from Roderick.
The following week, we met outside a restaurant. I was in a suit. Roderick pointed at my tie.
“Where did you get that from?” he said, his voice dripping sarcasm.
“Why do you ask?” I replied.
“So I know where not to shop!” (So much for breaking the ice.)
We went inside, sat down, and ordered our meals.
Roderick got down to business. “I’m sorry if my comment offended you. But you misunderstood me. You see, I wasn’t saying that you were a personal failure, only that your presidency was. I was simply pointing out that in an organization as functionally screwed up as this one is, any president would fail. Jathan, you need to understand. There’s an important distinction between individual failure and collective failure.”
I thanked Roderick for his clarification, although the look on my face should have told him my gratitude wasn’t sincere.
The server put the check on the table. I stared at it. Roderick stared at it.
“I’ll get it,” I said. I reached for the check, slowly.
“Let’s split it,” Roderick said.
I shook my head. “No, I insist. This experience has been worth it.”
When I got home that evening, I told my wife what happened. At a loss for words but sweet soul that she is, she pointed at my tie and said, “I really like it!”
Early one Monday morning when I managed my law firm’s Portland and Seattle offices, I got a call from Rich, a powerful partner in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office. Rich was not happy.
“Jathan,” he said in an agitated tone, “I have a complaint to make about a partner in one of your offices.”
“What is it?” I asked.
Rich explained that Natalie had dropped the ball on an assignment, which angered the client’s CEO. Rich added, “This is a highly important and lucrative client for our firm. Natalie has jeopardized this relationship!”
After questioning Rich further, I learned what really infuriated him. After the problem arose, Rich requested an explanation from Natalie. She responded in an email. The first part of her message acknowledged dropping the ball. The second part listed mistakes others had made, including Rich and the CEO. The message concluded, “In any event, the client’s substantive position was not adversely affected.”
Natalie’s “apology” prompted Rich to call me and say, “I’m prepared to take my complaint directly to the board of directors!”
I promised Rich I’d look into it. I went to Natalie and shared my conversation with Rich. Natalie became defensive. “How dare he complain to you! If he has an issue with me, he should call me, not you!”
She added, “I think I’m being scapegoated here. Sure, I could have handled things better. However, other mistakes were made including by Rich and the client’s CEO. It’s unfair to pin the blame on me. I have a good mind to call Rich right now and let him know exactly what I think!”
I said, “Okay, Natalie. Call Rich. Give him a piece of your mind. And let’s see how that plays out. Tell me if you disagree, but here’s what I see happening. You call Rich and let him know how upset you are that he contacted me instead of you, and that you’re being scapegoated. What’s the likelihood Rich escalates this issue to the board of directors? My guess is 100 percent.
“So let’s say the issue goes to the board. What’s its likely reaction? Remember that you’ve acknowledged that some fault lies with you. How will you look? Think about who’s on the board. Aren’t these the business rainmakers you rely on to supply you with work? How will this play out in terms of your maintaining their confidence in you and their continuing as an important source of your work?
“Oh,” said Natalie. “I see what you mean. What should I do?”
“How about apologizing to Rich?,” I asked. “Only this time, not through email. Make it a real-time telephone conversation. In fact, if you weren’t so far apart geographically, I’d say face to face. Here’s a method to use, which I call the MIDAS Touch apology:
“M” is for “Mistake.” Acknowledge to Rich the mistake you made, the ball you dropped, and the poorly worded email that inflamed the situation.
“D” is for “Differently.” This is what you will do differently going forward. You told me earlier that you made an adjustment to your calendaring system because of this incident. Tell Rich that.
“A” is for “Amends.” Do something to make amends—perhaps offer to contact the client directly to apologize. Or perhaps you could find out Rich’s favorite restaurant in D.C., to which you’ll provide your credit card information so that Rich and his wife can dine out on you. The idea is take concrete action to show that you really want to heal things.
“S” is for “Stop.” After you finish saying the first four parts, stop talking. Don’t say another word. Let Rich do the talking.”
I wrote “MIDAS” on a sticky note and handed it to Natalie. “When you have that conversation with Rich,” I said, “make sure you have this sticky note in the palm of your hand. Trust me, it will help.”
Two days later, Natalie came by my office. “Jathan,” she said, “I just got off the phone with Rich.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“What?” I asked.
“Rich said the things I was dying to say but didn’t—that other people dropped balls including himself and the client, and that fortunately the client wasn’t hurt.”
“That’s great,” I said.
Natalie continued. “Rich said that things have been patched up with the client, that he’s no longer worried about the relationship, and that he will continue to use me for legal matters in our region.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “A happy ending.”
Natalie turned to leave my office, then swiveled around and said, “One more thing. I have to admit that when I spoke to Rich, if I didn’t have the sticky note in the palm of my hand, I would’ve blown it. I got to the ‘S’ but didn’t want to stop! But I looked at the note and stopped talking. That’s when things turned positive.”
These three stories show the impact of apologies, positive and negative. On the one hand, they can heal rifts and restore relationships. On the other, they can make the original offense worse. Perhaps that’s why we don’t apologize as often as we should: We’ve had too much experience with apologies backfiring.
I came up with the MIDAS acronym as a form of self-discipline. It prevents us from letting our “buts” get in the way. The first element admits wrongdoing—you screwed up. The second element acknowledges that you caused damage—don’t qualify it with “if.” The third element demonstrates your sincerity—it’s not a phony apology. The fourth element means you truly care about restoring the relationship. The fifth element, often the hardest of all, means resisting the temptation to explain yourself—instead, hit the self-mute button.
Since I began teaching and coaching the MIDAS Touch, I’ve heard numerous success stories. Rifts healed, relationships restored, new paths carved. In addition to work experiences, there have been personal ones, including employees who’ve shared with me that a MIDAS Touch apology changed a relationship trajectory from the rocks to the chapel.
Although I am entirely over the incident with Roderick in “Your Presidency Has Been a Failure,” for your edification, I will apply the MIDAS Touch formula to his “apology.”
In his speech to me, did Roderick admit making a “Mistake”? Let me know if you heard one; I certainly didn’t.
What about “Injury”? Recall his “if my comment offended you.” If I was offended? Did he think I was faking it? Also, was he suggesting his “comment” did the offending, not him? So I should be mad at the comment and not at him?
What about “Amends”? Come on Roderick—pick up the check.
Lastly, instead of “Stop,” Roderick treated me to a lecture on the fine distinctions between individual failure and collective failure. Gee thanks for the education.
As I said, I am entirely over this incident. Entirely.
Readers of “A Midnight Encounter at a Portland Pub” will observe an example of Verbal Aikido in my initial exchange with Natalie. Recall her threat to call Rich and give him a piece of her mind. Although I thought this a horrid idea, I didn’t say so. Instead, I turned with her in that direction. Through questions about how things would likely play out, I helped her see that doing so would not be in her own best interest.
In addition, readers of “Discharge from Four Doors Down” will see another example of how not communicating directly adds insult to injury. Instead of a real-time conversation with Rich on a sensitive subject, Natalie sent him an email, which only fueled the fire. I made sure she didn’t repeat that mistake.