Perhaps it’s because we are in the middle of a deep-freeze and spending less time outdoors, but it seems that the amount of drama in the workplace is increasing. Don’t dismiss it as something that only happens in all-female teams or creative marketing/sales teams, my coaching practice proves that drama happens where ever groups of people are together. I think of drama in two ways: First, the unhealthy and exaggerated demonstration of emotions. I’m talking about shouting, aggressive domineering displays, as well as the weepy, overly-distraught reaction to events. The second type of drama involves story-telling – complete with sinister plots and characters – that distract us from our real work.
As a leader, you can lament the time wasted as you deal with drama. You might try to lay blame on certain people who are prone to go there. More productive is to watch for it and take action to end the drama. Here are some healthy and productive communication tips which you and your team can use.
Tip #1: No storytelling allowed. Ask that everyone on your team minimize the dramatization of events. Listen carefully to discern if you are hearing a sinister plot and stereotypical characters, like the strict manager, the unreasonable customer and the rude co-worker. Typically, our stories involve a victim, a villain and a hero (from Karpman’s drama triangle). Each of these positions is based in judgments about the goodness of each role. Labeling people this way creates drama. A better and more professional practice is to separate the facts (what you can observe concretely) from an assessment of others’ motives.
Tip #2: Help people express feelings plainly. Many of us aren’t used to describing our feelings, beyond the basics such as sad, mad or glad. There are many variations on these themes, and some people will use dramatic gestures and tones in order to be understood. Or they use non-feeling words such as guilty, harassed and overworked to lay blame and contribute to their story. There are lots of words that describe the nuances of our emotional states: Sad could mean lonely, disappointed, discouraged or vulnerable. Mad might be frustrated, impatient, irate, resentful or pessimistic. Worried can be concerned, overwhelmed, tense or wary. Find a reference list of feelings (I like the one in The Empathy Factor by Marie R. Miyashiro) and start using it. Replace dramatic gestures and tones with words.
Tip #3: Encourage more questions. Questions are a great way to stop gossip and the scenario-spinning that occurs during rapid change. Questions should be asked at the time they occur and in a curious tone – much like the way kids ask questions. The questioner should have permission to ask anything – and the person being asked has permission to say that they can’t, or won’t, answer. Questions are requests for information and should be delivered as requests, not demands. Be curious and gentle – and able to let it drop if need be. Instead of guessing at what is going on and what is being felt by others, ask questions. Sometimes people over-compensate in their expression of emotions because they need to be seen. No one should have to have a temper tantrum or a melt-down before someone notices their distress.
Tip #4: Own your interpretations. Most leaders are paid and encouraged to make meaning out of what is going on. When you do this, clarify that it’s your opinion – based on the facts and your experience. Help others on your team by sorting facts from opinions: When someone says, “He was rude to me” ask them the details of what actually happened from which they drew that conclusion. Encourage people to use the word “I” when they share an opinion or feeling. Some will hide behind a generalization or using the collective “we” all the time. When they say “everyone thinks so” ask for personal ownership: “Do you mean that you think so?”
Tip #5: Make direct requests. Drama is created when we hint about what is going on for us or what we want to have happen. Often questions are used to soften requests, for example: “Don’t you think it would look better this way?” or “Do you think we have talked about this long enough?” Model directness and ask people to be crystal-clear in their requests of you: “Are you asking me to shorten the meeting?” You may have to stop people in the middle of a story and ask them directly to explain why they are talking. If you can feel yourself in drama-mode, use the acronym WAIT to remind yourself to be direct and not waste time….it stands for Why Am I Talking?