Surviving the Conference Call Battlefield: A Contentious Case Vignette - Part I
John Dewey, "The Father of American Public Education," observed that, "Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity." Wow, did I walk right into some conflict the other day…And I suspect this particular interpersonal arena is ripe for passive and aggressive clashes and competitive contests - the multiparty phone conference. Before articulating some of my hard-earned illumination (in Part II), let me paint the not so pretty picture. There were four parties to this conference call: A principal of a National Human Resources Consulting firm (George), two "subject matter" experts/consultants (Allen, an IT Design Consult and yours truly, the Stress-Communications-Team Building Consultant), and the client, a Vice Chancellor (VC) of a major Atlantic Coast University, who reports directly to the University President. The VC provided a needs overview: She has become head of a pivotal university division in the past six months. She is interested in installing a major IT systems upgrade and wants to hold a communications-team building retreat for her managers and front-line supervisors. She's aware that on top of everyday demands and performance pressures, her people are feeling the effects of regime change. And a technical and operational paradigm shift significantly adds to the uncertainty and stress!
The VC did not have a lot of time so introductions were brief; there was little chance for small talk, though the VC and I connected around her being a program officer for several years at my alma mater, State University of New York at Stony Brook. (SUNY at SB is playing in the College World Series elimination. Go Seawolves!) George and the VC had previously met. In fact, George's consulting firm has a successful project ongoing for the VC. (Allen and I had never engaged with one another or with the VC.) Allen, the IT point person for most of this proposed business contract pie was instructed by George to begin his presentation. Allen laid out a technical analysis of the potential problems when attempting such a major IT upgrade. He also reinforced how he could help avoid the pitfalls while also highlighting background info on previous successful projects. And while Allen may have strained his arm a bit patting himself on the back, as I'm writing this, his marketing method all seems so practical, knowledgeable, and logical.
A Communication Consultant's Quandary
However, in real time, Allen's approaching five minutes of non-stop talking and he's not flagging for a second; also some of the language is pretty abstract in nature. Of course, the communication challenges are magnified as it's a non-Skype call, and obviously we can't read people's facial expressions or body language... IT guy is not pausing, let alone checking in with the VC; he's pounding her with an interminable laundry list, and my throbbing head senses trouble. In addition, somewhere lurking in my psyche was a quivering question mark quickly morphing into a theatrical stage hook: was my sometimes impatient Type A "New Yorka" mode getting the best of a complex judgment call? Is the Stress Doc about to become a villain or hero?
Earlier, George had noted that during these "contract development calls" the key is to "connect to the client's pain." I don't know about the VC, but I'm not just squirming; I'm getting uncomfortably anxious, and beginning to wonder how the VC could not be feeling a bit overloaded, if not in palpable pain. Ah, the challenges of having acutely sensitive auditory and empathy channels.
Deciding not to contain myself any longer, I stammer, "Allen, you're making a lot of essential and excellent points; I'm wondering where the VC is with all this information." Well the silence on the phone was deafening. Oops, I immediately intuited crossing a conference call protocol boundary line.
After the pregnant pause, the VC gingerly went into the abyss, paraphrasing some of the key points that had been articulated; she acknowledged that Allen was addressing relevant issues. (While the VC's tone was not one of obvious relief, she didn't brush off my interjection by telling Allen to simply continue. As will be apparent shortly, the meaning of this interlude and the VC's comments were subject to varied interpretation and fuel for further contention.) Allen now smartly wrapped up his presentation.
George proceeded to give me the green light, and I began by underscoring the danger and opportunity to bond as a team in the face of "change and performance pressure." Again connecting to a previously stated concern, I provided an example of successfully breaking down military silos and fostering unprecedented team planning-coordination at a Ft. Hood Brigade Senior Officer/Senior NCO Retreat. Upon sharing a strategic point or story, I then walked my talk, checking in with the VC. I closed with some research on factors contributing to executive "Psychological Hardiness" during times of major reorganization. Finally, I asked the VC if the material presented was relevant to her concerns for the Team Retreat and received strong confirmation.
The Elephant in the Room and in the Forest
After George's closing remarks and upon the VC leaving the conference room, I asked George and Allen if we could debrief. I immediately addressed the elephant on the phone line: "I guess we need to talk about my decision to break into Allen's presentation."
George quickly focused on my interruption as potential evidence for the VC that we are not on the same page as a team. He reiterated that both Allen and I had not asked about the "client's pain." Initially I was frustrated by George's "broad brush" observation, though on one level he was right: I had not specifically asked about her concerns. Instead, with time limits in mind, I had used the VC's words, such as "organizational and staff pressure" and "silo issues," as springboards for my targeted presentation.
Not surprisingly, Allen's feedback took a different tack/attack: First, he emphasized that the IT info provided was critical for such a large and complex project. Allen also labeled my comment unwarranted as the VC's paraphrase indicated she was following his argument. (I believe such an absolute assumption is questionable without clarification from the VC.) Allen continued, affirming that he was trying to help the consulting firm win a multi-million dollar contract; not so subtly implicit in his message was that in contrast my part of this "buy" was small potatoes (my words not Allen's). Allen's ego was definitely bruised, as he kept reiterating the critical value of his expertise.
At some point, perhaps trying to show he was not just a "nerd" and that he also had a degree in psychology, Allen interjected during my presentation, linking IT and OD (Organizational Development). (Was he also playing "tit for tat"? Anyway…) Allen claimed that his IT "vision" would reduce stress levels for the VC's people as it would improve lines of communication and coordination. (I resisted the quip about the "fine line between vision and hallucination!") Acknowledging this likelihood, at the same time, I also asserted that during the team retreat her folks initially don't want to be presented a fait accompli - upper management's "game changing" solution. Employees at all levels want to be heard and to have input in this magnitude of change process. During times of major transition, people first want recognition for their TLC, that is, they want to know that someone is carefully trying to: a) understand and address their feelings of "Threat, Loss, and Challenge" and b) preserve their position and/or help enhance their role responsibilities and identity, competency and self-esteem in the new and evolving operational ecosystem. (Speaking of ecosystems, perhaps a barrier to Allen's and my communication was our differing perspectives in addition to personality temperament. Breaking it down into a simple - probably a too simple analogy - Allen was looking at the long-term adaptive viability of the "forest" and I was concerned about the healthy and interdependent functioning of the "trees." Clearly, an optimal strategy cultivates Yin-Yang integration of the two perspectives.)
When Message Sent Is Not Message Received
While reaffirming my respect and admiration for his IT Design knowledge, I reluctantly acknowledged having to accept that Allen might not hear my two interrelated concerns: that he was not checking in or sufficiently connecting with the VC and that by talking without pausing, by overloading his communication, he was undermining "message sent being message received." (Perhaps I needed to talk his language, e.g., by noting a less than optimal "noise to signal" ratio.) Alas, at some earlier point, getting frustrated with not being heard, I unnecessarily upped the emotional-competitive ante by saying, "I just felt you were shooting yourself in the foot." My bad! With his ego already bruised, Allen once again took my comments as a dig at his competence. (While his systems knowledge was clear, it's not a stretch to say I was critiquing his "emotional intelligence," interpersonal-client awareness, and marketing savvy. And believe me, I'm no marketing maven.)
Triangles, Egoals, and Growing Pains
During this debrief George and I also disagreed over some points of my presentation and team participation. But at the heart of the back and forth, in so many words, both men were questioning whether my ego needs, a need to impress, to outshine, or ally with the VC, contributed to my disruptive action. While "triangulation" or "two against one" is a frequent interpersonal ploy or trap in small group interaction, and allying with mom over dad and brother often makes for intriguing fiction writing, I didn't think this was the basis for my action. I believed and affirmed that my intention was concern for the contract by connecting with the client. I also emphasized that it was not easy for me to break in. I knew I was taking a risk not playing according to "script." But I felt my motivation was the greater good, not personal aggrandizement or "egoal" needs. I also mentioned that "George knows we have a 15 year history of disagreeing openly, but when all is said and done, I follow his lead." (Allen's and George's working relationship is of a much shorter duration.)
George agreed with my self-assessment as a passionate and opinionated "team player." (I don't do group think very well.) George also reminded us that being a "unified team," "pausing while presenting" and "connecting to pain" are all vital for winning the contract, and we began wrapping up. I may have surprised Allen by saying warmly in closing, "I look forward to two quirky guys meeting in August" (the time frame for the retreat assuming we win the contract).
Upon hanging up, I definitely was uneasy and made two decisions, one quickly, the other a bit more gradually: first, I would send George a follow up email, and later I would try to capture key tactical points from this intense half-hour learning laboratory. Here's the email:
Sometimes I wish I wasn't so passionate, but that's me, I guess.
I really appreciate that we can verbalize our different perspectives and opinions; and know that I respect your knowledge/lead and will follow your lead.
But I will be more restrained when a colleague is talking. Though based on your feedback, I suggest a telephone conference rule: no non-stop talking for more than 2-3 minutes without pausing; and when you pause, if the client doesn't immediately comment, ask if the info shared was clear, or ask if they have any questions; have their project issues/goals been addressed, or are there any outstanding questions or concerns?
I would say this was another growing pains learning opportunity. If you have any additional thoughts, I'd like to hear them. Thanks.
To George's credit his Smart Phone response was prompt, wise, and to the point: "You are still part of the team. Disagreement and conflict will only strengthen our final process and product."
Building on George's observation, Part II will provide tools and techniques for helping one and all bridge communication gaps and to…Practice Safe Stress!