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Open a can of worms

“How do you think the elephant got in the room?” my friend Maria DeCarvalho asked as we were talking about a messy corporate situation.  “Someone lets them in when they’re small.  Most of us see them but don’t have the courage to recognize a potential problem and get rid of it before it grows into an elephant.”

A  frank and generous executive coach, Maria believes that knowing how to have difficult conversations is an essential leadership skill — and one that few of us have ever been taught.

Rather than ignore signs of disagreement, negativity or skepticism, she encourages people to learn how to open  a can of worms. “You find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long.”

Here’s Maria’s recent blog post explaining how to open up a can of worms. More of her sage advice can be found on her blog.

People are always communicating. Always.

I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of conversations or meetings in which you’ve noticed others roll their eyes, cross their arms, raise their eyebrows, press their lips together, pull out their smartphones, look down or away, exchange quick glances across a table, or just sit there and not say anything.

These messages are as clear and real as if they had been put into words.  In fact, they can be the most important part of the conversation because people are telegraphing how they actually feel.

The trouble, of course, is that it can be awkward and uncomfortable to acknowledge these signals because they seem negative and a little slippery.  They are often subtle, and sometimes they go by quickly.  Who wants to open up a can of worms?

You do.  You’re going to find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long at all.

So, grab your can opener and use these two simple steps to increase the honesty and comfort of conversations in which these behaviors are occurring:

1.  Stop thinking about signals like arm-crossing and long silence as criticism or rudeness and start calling them information. The people who are giving you these signals are letting you know how they feel.

2. Do a quick, friendly check in, just as you do when you are using your listening skills:

  • Bob, you look a little skeptical. What are you thinking?
  • Ted and Sarah?  Is there something you’re worried about that it would help us to know?
  • Garry, I’m sensing there’s something about this that you don’t like.  Where are you on this idea?
  • Anna, I’m sitting here wondering if you’ve sort of checked out of the conversation.  Is there something that’s not working for you?

Notice that each one of my suggestions ends with a  NOW WHAT? request for something back from the person.  That reduces awkwardness and helps move the conversation along.