Tom EschSo there I was, in front of 35 construction workers who didn’t really want to be in the room–thirty-four men and one woman.  They were not in the best mood as a group.   The topic was “Building a Culture of Safety Accountability.”   I realized that this situation was going to require my best communication skills because a number of them were talking while I was being introduced and then also while I was presenting.

I am from Minnesota and have lifelong training in being “nice” (which can mean indirect, conflict avoidant, passive aggressive).   I also am not very tolerant of people speaking to each other while someone else is speaking in front of a group.   This shaped a real conflict for me, as this group had some pretty chatty fellows.  I noticed what they were doing and gave them each a moderately long stare at various points, attempting to use the laser power of the “evil eye” Miss Olmstead used to give us in 8th grade.  My efforts fell far short of Miss Olmstead’s.

The slide I happened to be on read “Giving Verbal Feedback”.   I thought:  this is perfect timing, they need verbal feedback right now.  I also noticed the knot in my stomach: I the conflict resolution expert did not want to attempt to resolve this conflict!  I did not want to embarrass anyone.  I did not want a fight.   And I did not want my intervention to be ineffective.  It is possible to make a strong attempt to get people to listen to you and fail. Failure in this moment could have had serious consequences.  This was a crucial moment.

I knew I had to do something in order to maintain order and to make sure that everyone who wanted to learn could do so. Plus I wanted to maintain my own confidence in my ability to resolve communication challenges.

So, I took a breath and looked right at the two who were the loudest and said “This slide is about giving verbal feedback.  I am about to give some verbal feedback right now.”  Wow, did that one get their attention. Can’t you just see them?   They braced themselves for my comments.  I became aware of the power I held in that moment.

I said, “I am a professional.  I am here for you, to bring you some important information that could make a huge difference for you.  It could save a life. And I am noticing that some of you are talking while I’m talking.  I am concerned that others who want to learn here may not have the chance to do so because of you.  Maybe you don’t want to learn this material.  That is fine.   So I am going to ask you who have been speaking to make a decision: either stop talking or leave the seminar.  It is a sign of disrespect, in most cultures, to speak while another person is speaking.”

They clammed up immediately and no one spoke out of turn again for the next 45 minutes.  It was an energizing moment.   I felt successful and powerful.

Personal Debrief:  How did I do?

  • From the standpoint of silencing the talkers I did well.  Two people came up afterwards to thank me for what I did.  I did notice that at least one person left the room a bit later.  I also got some feedback about “scolding” the group the next day.  So perhaps I could have dropped the line about “disrespect”.
  • I could have intervened far earlier.  I was uneasy with how many of them were talking while their leader was introducing me but chose to ignore that feeling.  I could have addressed their behavior right at the beginning.  So by the time I addressed their behavior directly I was actually a bit mad at them, and couldn’t hide it.
  • I did not have enough curiosity about their points of view and why they were talking?  I judged them as being disrespectful.  Perhaps there was something else.  Was I boring? Did they have important input for me or the group?  I may never know.
  • All in all I believe my intervention was effective.  I got control of the group and they were able to hear the information I brought them.  I could have gone up to some of them after the event to check in to make sure they understood why I did that and to see how they were feeling (no doubt some bruised egos).

Where in your life could you benefit from intervening where others are acting in ways that create difficult situations?  How can you do it more skillfully?

May all your verbal feedback be incredibly effective!  And when it is not may you dust yourself off and learn from your mistakes.