Ask 20 Rock: How do I get them to talk?

by Kathi Antonson

Ask 20 Rock is your opportunity to peek into the minds of other rad leaders. What are they wondering about? Where do they struggle? What are they navigating? See a bit of yourself here and get inspired.

Dear 20 Rock,

I am a Director at a Bay Area company. In my role I find myself working with a variety of individuals across the organization. I usually rely on open conversations and setting clear expectations with colleagues – I think your team calls that ‘Rules of Engagement’. Having those conversations is something I believe in for my professional, and also personal, life.

The challenge I’m hitting is this: It’s very tricky to practice this when someone is not used to, or willing, to talk about how they feel and what they need. This often holds back the whole team from reaching the next level of efficiency, success, and enjoyment in our projects. I would love to understand at a more sophisticated degree how to navigate that blocker – the person who will not sit down and really talk about how to work together.


Wanting to Level Up

Dear Wanting to Level Up,

Ah yes, we know well the challenge you ask about. How do we have aligning conversations with those that are not quite ready, or perhaps are not yet equipped, to articulate their feelings and needs?

Hitting that same block with a colleague repeatedly can feel defeating. The blank stares, the seat-shifting, the snowballing miscommunications and bad vibes.

I empathize with the frustration in this situation, having rammed against it, and know our clients are frequently pressed to work through similar dynamics. I assure you there are steps that can be taken with your colleagues.

A few approaches to consider:

  • Introduce the conversation in a way that underlines why it matters and/or what it is on behalf of. “Hey Bruce. In our next one-on-one I would love to talk about how we will work together on our project. The team had great success on the last round with this client, and I would love to work with you to keep that going.” Or perhaps . . . “Hey Bruce. I am getting the sense that we keep misunderstanding each other. Are you willing to schedule a time to get on the same page and talk about a plan to move forward?”
  • Take an honest reading of the trust in the relationship. Is there something that needs to be cleared up between you and the other individual (or possibly the entire team)? A great question to start with is, “What do you really need from me?”. And in the team environment, “What do we need from each other?”.

Ask these questions with an open heart, when you can truly listen to whatever you hear back from your team. So yup . . . that means trust yourself, too.

  • Allow the other individual some time to ponder that they are going to have this conversation. After the invitation, allow space for them to gather their thoughts.
  • Offer some structure for them to push off of. Provide 3-5 areas for the discussion ahead of time. Below is something to build from, and do customize the areas of discussion to the individual and the environment.

Which leads me to . . .

  • Meet them where they are. Tailor your Rules of Engagement conversation to the individual with whom you are looking to partner. Get the sense that your colleague is not comfortable talking openly about ‘feelings’? No problem, talk to them about the ‘ideal work experience’ instead. Have a sense that your colleague will be challenged to articulate their needs? No problem, give them options to choose from. “Is it this? Could it look like this? Would this serve the team?”

Some individuals just need a bunch of things to choose from, or even the spark of saying “No, not that.” in order to articulate what it is that they actually need. And of course, don’t take their No’s personally.

And lastly: With some people, you may just have to go first. That’s what leaders do.

You can start small and be inviting. “Hey Bruce, I know we have a big project together coming up. What can I do to make your life easier?” Fulfill that commitment and soon enough you will be able to expand on it: “Hey Bruce, we are halfway through the project and surprise – there are scope changes. What does success look like to you with the new client parameters? What support would help you get there? One thing I really need from the team is . . . Will you help me with that?”

And voila! That would indeed be your first micro-sized Rules of Engagement conversation with Bruce. From that place you can continue inviting him to collaborative conversation

It may not always go perfectly. You will likely continue to have misunderstandings to tend to. That is the nature of working with humans.

Do your best, open your heart, and look for the humanness in your colleagues. Their humanness is complex and valuable, as is yours.

Wanting to Level Up, your question is already pushing you into the next level of Rules of Engagement conversations. You are clearly a leader who wants the best for your team, and you are boldly modeling compassion. High five!


20 Rock

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