The solution to essentially all leadership problems can be found on the other side of an uncomfortable conversation.
And believe it or not—the best way to have a successful conversation that solves your problem is…
to stop looking for a solution.
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Why Listening solves so many leadership problems.
I need to make a bit of a confession this week. I HATE difficult conversations. It’s a bit of an awkward confession, as I’m currently working on that free guide to mastering challenging communications. But I also know that the solution to essentially all leadership problems can be found through those uncomfortable conversations. And believe it or not—the best way to have a successful conversation that solves your problem is…to stop looking for a solution.
Clear as mud? Hang in there, I’ll explain this after the intro.
Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge, where I empower educational and library leaders to heal your organizations! I’m Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild. My PhD in higher ed Leadership, my experience coaching, consulting, and presenting to library leaders all over the world, and a career working in academic libraries from the front desk to the Dean’s office taught me that leaders don't have to be perfect to build a better world, and in this podcast I’ll teach you how to do just that.
Here's the deal. Educational and library leaders like you give me 5-10 minutes of your Monday morning. In return, I'll share short stories and simple challenges you can implement this week to heal yourself and your school or library. No long interviews, no celebrities, no lectures, no nonsense. Each challenge is designed to coach you in the confidence, skill, and trust you need to let go of a little control. You and your team will begin growing humanely, managing effectively, and partnering collaboratively, and your school or library will build a more informed and educated world along the way.
As I mentioned above, On May 30th I’ll be releasing a free Kind Leadership Guild Guide—Mastering Challenging Conversations. This guide is gonna come in two versions. The free version of the guide is a set of annotated checklists that you can use to plan for, conduct, and move forward from a challenging leadership conversation. This guide will be released to all current and new email list subscribers starting on May 30,2022. But I’m also recording a bonus 5-part mini-course that will walk you through typical case studies of difficult conversations so you can practice ahead of time! When Mastering Challenging Conversations launches, that mini-course will be offered alongside the checklists as a $19 upgrade. But if you join the mailing list between now and May 30th, you’ll get the checklists and the course both for FREE. Just head on over to the link in the show notes.
Back in the early aughts, after I was laid off from that toxic telecom company I mentioned a couple of episodes ago, I knew exactly one thing. I NEVER WANTED TO WORK IN CORPORATE AMERICA AGAIN. Period. I didn’t know what I did want to do, but it absolutely was not that. The only thing I knew for certain is that I wanted—and in some ways felt obligated—to use my skills to make the world a better place.
So naturally, I became a welfare caseworker for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Now, I didn’t grow up rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we were solidly middle class. I really had no clue what real poverty was like. It was also the first time I worked in a “majority minority” neighborhood, and my caseload was filled with people who for one reason or another, are mostly overlooked and ignored by society. And once every 3 months, I had to sit down face to face with them and a stack of their paystubs, punch some numbers into the computer, and tell them how much they would receive in food stamps or health care for the next quarter.
Talk about an awkward conversation. Who was I, this clueless middle-class white girl who practically had Suburban College Graduate tattooed on her forehead, to pry into the financial details of their life?
So even though it wasn’t in the forms on my computer screen, I always started off with some low stakes chit chat, especially once I’d been there for a while and was seeing a client for the second or third time. This wasn’t some grand heroic gesture on my part—it was more that I’m a socially awkward person who was trying to make a situation that was uncomfortable at best and humiliating at worst a little more bearable on both sides of the desk.
Now 80 percent of the time, I offered my niceties, they responded with some small talk, and we got down to business. But every so often, a client opened up. Sometimes in a way and to a degree that told me they hadn’t been listened to in a very long time. And, to the degree I was able, I listened. Again, not because I’m some noble rescuer, but because too often they were telling me stories so alien to my life experience that all I could do was listen and bear witness, and maybe hand them a brochure for a relevant social services resource. I rarely had more than 5 or 10 minute to spare either, so all too often I eventually had to steer the conversation back to their recertification, because I knew my next two clients were already in the waiting room.
However, during my two and a half years as a caseworker I discovered something. When I was in an interview where a client opened up, and I had enough time to listen to their joys or struggles, even if it was only for those 5 or ten minutes—those interviews always went smoother and felt less awkward on both sides. And more often, we both had smiles on our faces at the end.
After two and a half years of listening to challenges I was unequipped and un-positioned to fix, I realized to my surprise that most people, most of the time, don’t want you to fix anything. They just want to feel heard. Think about it yourself--when do you get the most frustrated or despondent about a work challenge? More likely than not, you feel as though nobody's listening. The good news is that any difficult conversation offers you the chance to break the cycle of arguing past each other and deeply, intentionally listen to other people's concerns, especially if you don't agree. And doubly especially if there’s a real or perceived power differential. By listening You'll gain their trust, make them feel safer to bring you their concerns, and create an environment where productive conflict and negotiation can lead everyone to the best possible solution.
So here’s your challenge for this week. Think of someone at work who has been getting on your nerves. Now, I’m not talking about serious toxicity here, just the garden variety annoying person who leaves you rolling your eyes behind their back after an encounter. And I want you to ask them about something they care about—their pets, their families, a hobby, an interesting life tidbit they mentioned in passing—and then, I want you to listen, and maybe share some things about yourself in response. It may take a few times before this feels natural, but it will help you find the humanity and connection in your relationship—and that can become the foundation of a stronger working relationship that will serve your school or library well.
Come on over to the facebook group and share how your chat went in the episode thread. Don’t worry, it’s a private group, and we even have anonymous posting and commenting options if that makes you more comfortable. In the group, we’ll dig deeper into this week’s topic, and answer any questions you may have as well.
Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. If you found this week’s episode insightful, give us a like or review—or even better, share this challenge with a colleague! Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.