Avoid the “low-EQ blues”. One subtle yet powerful habit in your change leadership arsenal
I tried to learn how to “read the room” early in life. When I was 12 years old, I read “Body language” by Allan Pease. I assumed Pease’s book would unlock the secrets and motives of people. I soon learned that body language is only the tip of the iceberg.
There is so much to learn! Body language may, in part illustrate what people are thinking or feeling. Yet we know that the subtle art of “reading the room” is far more complicated. I still marvel at the complexity of human nature and the nuances of social interactions. I learn from those with superior emotional intelligence.
I learned a powerful lesson in emotional proofreading from a simple exercise as an adult. This exercise involved a conscious effort to do the opposite of active listening.
“Reading the room”.
In the fast pace of projects, it is easy to be transactional. Getting stuff out the door, adapting to project scope changes. Your focus is on the task. We deliver and continue to earn, right? This feels especially true when you’re working in a stressful environment. Yet a focus on how you come across to others doesn’t have to oppose high performance. Miscommunication is easy and mistakes can have serious consequences. Then we realise how our actions make others feel does have an impact. This lasting emotional impression influences our career trajectory and longevity.
Emotional proofreading is a technique that involves shifting perspective. You make a habit of stepping back before you press send on an email. Or where you ask someone to do something for you. This perspective includes their understanding of what you are trying to communicate. It also includes their current emotional and mental state. This state serves as a lens; how will your message filter through this lens?
How do you undertake emotional proofreading when leading organisational change?
- You check in with a group of “friendly” employees involved with your change. You run any planned communications past your group. These planned communications include the message medium, timing and content. Your group may interpret the message tone or give you a heads-up of valuable context.
- Many of your stakeholders may hold back critical feedback when promoting an idea. Group size and composition play a big role in whether people feel comfortable speaking up. Don’t attach to your opinion. Step back for a moment and seek critical feedback. I tend to ask “what is wrong with this idea?”
- Shift your attitude to one of a steward or facilitator rather than an owner. This subtle mindset difference means you don’t attach or invest in an idea or approach. You remain flexible and balanced instead of mentally rigid. This flexibility and balance infuse your communications. This applies to organisational change messages and both peer and stakeholder interactions.
Stress strikes us. We often know when we’re feeling the burn of stress. The change to our body and mind. The thinning of any buffer to slights and added strain. Do we step back for a moment? Take a breath? Let’s move forward with this idea of taking a moment. Can you take moments throughout the day to perspective take?
Perspective moves you out of your ego. Imagine or seek to understand the world through another. Leading organisational change becomes more straightforward if you can shift your perspective this way.
Your focus must be on the person you are talking about. Not yourself or even your feelings.
When delivering a message, how do you expect others to respond? What are their likely first impressions and likely objections? Do you find it easy to see your actions and words through the eyes of another?
If you can detect others’ emotional cues, you have a foundation to respond. Perspective also means you trim and clarify. Making a habit of perspective-taking helps you deliver a clear and sharp message.
Emotional proofreading needs active listening. Are you engaging with people in a way that will help them feel safe and comfortable? Can you listen to what others are saying … and not saying? Changes in voice tone and tremor and the words they choose to use? Or physical signals, like the red which forms around their neck when they feel stressed?
How about the person’s environment? How do they relate when others are in the room…compared with when they leave? How do changing environmental variables affect the conversation?
Being aware of your surroundings has an added benefit. Your mindfulness helps ensure that everyone feels heard and respected. Being listened to and respected is a huge part of emotional proofreading.
When engaging with others, ask open questions such as: “What do you think?” or “How would you describe your experience?”. Asking follow-up questions like: “Why?” or “How does that make sense?” shows interest in what others say. Yet you can provide people space to ponder and answer in time.
Be curious. Ask questions that bring out the emotions in your team members. Ask them how they feel about the change. What their hopes are for it? What does a successful change look like to them? What might be holding stakeholders back from supporting organisational change ahead?
Don’t interrupt. When hearing outright falsehoods or emotional rants, still keep an open mind. Even if you hear brutal truths about your change, keep an open mind.
You can use the following questions to help you check for understanding:
- What do you think?
- Can I clarify anything?
- Do you have any other thoughts, questions or points of view on this matter?
- Respond to the emotional needs of your audience.
- Use the information you have gathered to guide your response.
- Be proactive in identifying emotional triggers that may emerge during change initiatives. You don’t always need to respond immediately. You can buy time by getting back to stakeholders. It is possible to let people know that you want to give the answer the respect it deserves. You will get back to everyone with a reply.
- Be honest about how you are feeling and its impact on others. Even if providing an answer is uncomfortable for you or goes against what others want from you. Sometimes you won’t have a response to unpalatable organisational changes. There may be parts of the change which run against your values. Or there is a considerable shortfall in people’s expectations ahead — and you have to be the bearer of bad news.
- Sit with uncomfortable emotions. Sometimes it’s best to acknowledge people’s feelings about an unpalatable situation. You can hold a space for people to sit with these feelings. Validating these feelings is often far better than trying to rush in and save the day when no answer will help.
Reflect on your message and make sure it is clear and concise.
- Re-read your message with a fresh pair of eyes. If you intend to change behaviour, then you need their attention.
- See if the content makes sense to someone who is not in the detail of your message before sending it out. You may need to simplify concepts. Each of your organisational change communications should have a clear call to action. How clear is it?
So make a habit of stepping back before you press send.
Before you press send, or make a statement in a stakeholder meeting. This habit? Stepping back and thinking through the impact of your words and actions. If in doubt, opt to sound kind or tentative. Suggest, check in, and appreciate others’ patience or flexibility.
Can we play our small part in making others feel safe? How about understanding and connecting with others in our workplace communities? Our work in helping this happen acts as a virtuous circle. We can make better choices about how to respond to the unexpected.