HR Management & Compliance

Say It Right the First Time

Employment law attorney Michael Maslanka reviews the book Say It Right the First Time by Loretta Malandro. Review describes Malandro’s tips for how to manage  and communicate emotionally charged people.

In Say It Right the First Time Malandro talks about how to have hard conversations and improve your motivational techniques by improving communication. The section on dealing with emotionally charged people is terrific, so we wanted to pass a little of it on.

Stop discussing content; switch to process

Malandro’s first advice about how to deal with someone who’s emotionally charged is to understand that there’s the story on the surface but there’s also a story beneath the surface. When you suggest going to a Chinese restaurant and your spouse blows up in anger, chances are it’s not because she’s tired of going to the same Chinese restaurant. There’s no difference with employees. Her advice: Don’t act on your first reaction, which is to strike back. Instead, stop discussing the content — the Chinese restaurant or the new reporting system or the reorganization or whatever — and start talking about the process — how you’re communicating with each other.

Here’s an example:

Employee: “There’s no way this plan is going to fly! I won’ t ask my people to do this! This is insane!”

Manager: “Something’s really bothering you. Let’s set the discussion on reorganization aside and talk about what’s going on with you. Is it something I’ve said or done?”

Whenever you get a disproportionate response to what you say or ask, try taking accountability (Malandro makes a sharp distinction between accountability and blame) by asking yourself, “Is it something I have said or done?” Then ask the employee that question.

Separate symptoms from problem

Malandro hits the nail on the head — and may have diagnosed the problem with the well-intentioned regional manager in the San Antonio case: “Pep talks, perks, incentives, or new opportunities are a manager’s arsenal for solving problems. They seldom work. This approach treats the symptoms, not the problems.” Here’s her example of one approach that focuses on the symptoms:

Approach one: “Your last project was two days late and, frankly, is very disappointing. What’s going on?”

Malandro says that approach focuses on the symptoms, and attempting to solve symptoms only compounds the problem. Instead, try it this way:

Approach two: “You’re always focused and on task, but lately you seem preoccupied. What’s on your mind? Maybe I can help.”

With that approach, the manager starts looking for the story beneath the surface by focusing on behavioral changes.

Validate all feelings

The author draws an important distinction here: Validating isn’t the same thing as agreeing. A feeling is a feeling. It’s not right or wrong, good or bad. It’s just it. Instead of judging and criticizing the feeling and arguing about whether someone should even have certain feelings, try to acknowledge them. If you don’t, the employee won’t feel heard or understood. And truth be told, every single one of us — everyone reading this newsletter right now — doesn’t want to be listened to; we want to be heard and understood.

Here are some of Malandro’s tips:

Avoid Saying Replace With

How can you feel I didn’t realize youthis way? were feeling this way.

I can’t believe I’m glad you’re you’re saying this. telling me your concerns.

That’s not true. You have a validYou know better and different experiencethan this. than mine. I want to understand what’s going on for you. Please tell me more.

Check it out

Ive provided just a small sampling of the valuable and concrete advice Malandro gives in Say It Right the First Time. Other chapters deal with how to make your point so that what you say is what an employee hears, how to eradicate 15 irritating word habits, and how to be direct and handle people who aren’t. It’s a great book — we even gave some copies to clients and friends as New Year’s gifts. Check it out.

Michael Maslanka is the managing partner of Ford & Harrison LLP’s Dallas, Texas, office. He has 20 years of experience in litigation and trial of employment law cases and has served as Adjunct Counsel to a Fortune 10 company where he provided multi-state counseling on employment matters. He has also served as a Field Attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.

Mike is listed in The Best Lawyers in America and was selected as a “Texas Super Lawyer” by Texas Monthly and Law & Politics Magazine in 2003. He was also selected as one of the best lawyers in Dallas by “D” Magazine in 2003. Mike has served as the Chief Author and Editor of the Texas Employment Law Letter since 1990. He also authors the “Work Matters” column for Texas Lawyer.

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