Holly Weeks: A second interview, by Bob Morris

Holly Weeks publishes, teaches, and consults on communications issues. She is Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy teaching the Arts of Communication at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her book Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them (Harvard Business Publishing, 2008) emphasizes handling difficult conversations well.

She gives advice for difficult communications in publications and broadcasts ranging from Harvard Business Review to O, the Oprah Magazine to ESPN Radio and CBS News Sunday. She is an advising expert for Harvard ManageMentor and a Conversation Starter on the HarvardBusiness.org blog.

As principal of Holly Weeks Communication, she consults and coaches on communications issues, with a special emphasis on sensitive and difficult problems. She is a keynote speaker, presenter, and workshop leader at national and international conferences with groups interested in these issues.

Holly was previously an Associate in Communications in the Harvard Business School MBA Program. As a Distinguished Instructor, she taught Management Communication, and Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard University. Holly has a master’s diploma in literature from the University of Edinburgh and an AB cum laude in English language and literature from Harvard University.

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Morris: Who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? Please explain.

Weeks:  Not a person, but books. Reading is how I learned to understand the world.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that had a great impact on your professional development or set you on the career course that you continue to follow? Please explain.

Weeks:  My junior year in high school—small school, small town, upstate New York—the chemistry teacher came down with mononucleosis and for the weeks she was out, I went to her house, she explained the lessons to me, and I taught the class. If this sounds like a weird dynamic, it wasn’t. All of us knew each other, took all our classes together, played sports together, hung out together. I don’t know why there wasn’t a substitute teacher, but it was a small town and we probably didn’t have a very deep bench.

What completely engaged me was figuring out why one or another of my friends didn’t understand something, trying all kinds of ways to look at the problem, asking what she did think that maybe wasn’t quite right. We were all in it together trying to straighten it out and think it through on each other’s behalf. Believe me, we weren’t making great inroads on cutting edge science—I don’t think we were much past the periodic table—but I was very taken by seeing how people were trying to think, and figuring out how to move their thinking. Then our teacher returned and we went back to our conventional passivity. I didn’t forget how engaging it had been, though.

Professionally, this is still what I do: figure out how to understand what people don’t understand. What are we doing in tough communications that isn’t working out? How can I move people’s thinking, increase their understanding and their skill?

Morris: To what extent (if any) has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished thus far?

Weeks: My formal education was more and more reading, figuring out what people were doing, what they were trying to do, and, when the plan broke down, how they might move their thinking to what would work instead. In fact, my formal education continues, formally. I just changed sides; now I teach more than I study, but it’s the same questions, the same engagement.

Morris: It has been a few years since our first conversation and so much has happened in the business world since then. One development of special interest to me, a paradox really, is the proliferation of various communication technologies and devices at a time when people seem to feel more isolated, more out of touch, than ever before.  What do you make of that?

Weeks:  I think there is a current tendency—maybe a real desire—to hold many relationships at arm’s length without losing them entirely. I had dinner with a friend not long ago and we were talking and laughing so intently that we didn’t realize the restaurant was closing. We went on to a bar to continue our conversation and closed that one down, then to another bar and closed it down, too. We stood outside talking longer, but it was cold, so I walked with her to her bike and she walked with me to the corner and reluctantly we said good night. But that’s pretty retro. The people next to us in the restaurant were separately texting. I live in a college city and bars are beginning to go out of business because their clientele are pre-drinking and going to the bar at midnight solely to hook-up and leave. There is lots of posting photos to Facebook and then time spent individually the next day de-tagging them, but the photos seem to be the point, not the time together that they commemorate. Facebook pages look like bouncy, generic, interchangeable Christmas letters. If people feel connected, I’m glad but we may not be using the word the same way. And that’s for social relations.

At work, we’re in the regnum of “touching base”—the shortest of connections before moving on. I don’t know if people feel unusually isolated, but I know they feel busy. I think they are connected, but there’s so little time for other people, and a quick text is first, a connection and second, over. And, of course, new technology is really absorbing, so when what’s new is communication technology, which it often is, the communication part becomes a by-product of the absorbing technology. Closer connections take attention and time, two things in short supply. And I think I’m the one with a problem—shallow connections bore me.

Morris: In your brilliant book, Failure to Communicate, you observe, “This book offers a system of strategies and tactics to help us navigate the treacherous minefields we may suddenly find ourselves in when we approach and try to get through – rather than avoid – prickly conversations.”

Here’s a two-part question. First, which is the most treacherous of the “minefields”? Also, based on what you have observed over the years, what is the single worst habit that people have when engaged in a conversation?

Weeks: The most treacherous minefield and worst habit is our tendency to get caught up in our own emotional reactions to what’s going badly for us in a tough conversation. Understandably, that’s not how the problem looks to us: we think the worst minefield is our counterpart’s offensive, deceptive, threatening tactics, and we think our reactions are natural and unavoidable. But I have seen people teach themselves to listen attentively to a threat in a difficult conversation, for example, recognize it for what it is, and then step aside from it the way a matador steps aside from a charging bull. These are people who used to take everything on the chin. I myself don’t always expect people to be speaking the full and unvarnished truth in a tough conversation, so a deceptive ploy does not astonish or outrage me. So the biggest impediment to us in these conversations is not what the counterpart does, but what that tactic triggers in us and how we react to our own trigger.

Morris: How best to avoid it or avoid damage once into it?

Weeks: The interesting thing is that we all know where we’re vulnerable to emotional reaction in difficult conversations. Our undoing is not a surprising new tactic we’ve never seen before. It’s the same thing that undermined us the last time. Given that, we want to change the reaction on our side. I don’t invest a lot of energy in trying to make my counterpart stop doing what bothers me because I can’t make that happen–my control doesn’t extend that far. I’m the one I can control, so it’s my reaction, not his action, that I want to deal with.

Now, I may regret tipping my hand about my own weakness but here it is: while we know I’m not freaked out by deceptive tactics, I am easily offended. So it is in my interest to think through—in moments of calm, not in the middle of a tough conversation in real time—how to disarm my own reaction to offensive remarks and behavior. How can I think about an offensive tactic in a way that diminishes its effect on me? Is there something I can say in the conversation that neutralizes the tactic’s potency in the moment? Interestingly, the more blatantly offensive the tactic, the safer I am, because it makes me think of clown shoes—oversized, ostentatious, and clumsy—and I may smile. Very little deflates offensiveness the way gentle amusement does.

And very big bonus: I changed my reaction, but if my counterpart’s tactic doesn’t get the reaction it’s meant to, he’s likely to drop it.

Morris: You also assert that strategies “are the thinking part of these [prickly] conversations. Balanced strategies replace the blanking out, gut reactions, and other horrors that slip in when conversations turn tough and ordinary thinking fails. Tactics are the handling part – what we do in the moment when our counterparts, or our own emotions, are giving us trouble.” Please explain.

Weeks:  Most of us, most of the time, have very little forward motion in a tough conversation, because we’re reacting. We have a plan—a strategy—for the outcome we want and we may have a strategy for avoiding trouble in a conversation that we think is likely to be difficult. But in part because we have a strategy for avoidance, we tend not to have a strategy for getting through the actual difficulty of an unavoidably difficult conversation—even when we’re pretty sure that is where we’ll find ourselves. Planning to avoid difficulty without also planning how to deal with it is not a strategy; it’s hope.

I met with a divorced father who had a poor track record in conversations with his former wife over plans involving the children. He had read a review of Failure to Communicate and realized that he went into those conversations without a strategy for handling the difficulty that was characteristic of them. He would prepare a proposal for the children’s spring vacation; he would work out the logistics; he would explain the plan to his former wife; and she would reject it. He had come to understand that he had a strategy for spring vacation but not for the characteristic difficulties themselves of conversations with his former wife.

So he introduced a new element. His plan was to frame his proposal by saying, “I’m acting in the best interests of the children.” He thought that was a good phrase, which it is, with one qualification: what his former wife was most likely to hear, which was “I’m acting in the best interests of the children. [You are not.]” Even I was alienated listening to him, although he was a decent man, he volunteered that his former wife was an excellent mother, and he was meeting with me because he wanted these conversations to go better. He was also, however, unskilled at strategy for prickly conversation.

The same man also had a narrow repertoire of tactics—what to do in the moment in a conversation that begins to go badly. He was a scientist and put his money on logic. When his former wife did not agree to his logical plan for the children’s vacation, he would explain it again. The problem was not, however, that his wife did not understand his plan. The problem was that she did not agree to it.

He simply could not get forward motion in the conversation with the strategy he elected and the tactic he relied on.

Morris: How to become a much more attentive listener?

Weeks:  An attentive listener is not passive in a conversation even when he isn’t talking; he’s a player. Talking and listening, even in a difficult conversation, are more like call and response than a battle of the bands. An attentive listener is not prepping his next rejoinder or even just waiting for his turn. He is actively engaged in understanding both the speaker’s words and their import. That means checking his understanding with himself, which in turn means checking with the speaker. The listener is saying, “Do you mean…? Let me be sure I understand… I heard what you said but I’m not sure I get what you mean…” An attentive listener is talking about what the speaker is saying. When I’m listening to someone speaking in a language I understand imperfectly, sometimes (often) I hear something I don’t quite get, but I think I’ll get it eventually from context. Too often, that doesn’t happen. So we’re rolling along and I have to say, “Can I ask you to back up? I missed something you said.” It’s a little embarrassing but the speaker always does back up, and asking beats the alternative, which is simply missing the import of the conversation. An attentive listener is really busy understanding the conversation, actively understanding it by engaging the listener. Side benefit: your mind doesn’t wander.

Morris: How important are tone of voice and body language during a face-to-face interaction with other people? Any do’s and don’ts to recommend?

Weeks:  Tone of voice and body language are a huge deal—the more troubled the conversation, the more important they are. Your body and your voice together are your instrument. You communicate through it, and it is what you have beyond your words to impart your meaning—your instrument embodies your meaning. People are reading everything you give them to read, not just your words. If there is a disconnect between your words and your voice or body, people put more weight on your voice or body. The catch is that the more diverse people are, the more potential for inaccuracy between what one side means and what the other side reads. I implore people to master their instrument, not just speak on auto-pilot and hang out in their body.

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Holly cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her homepage.

Her faculty page.

Her HBR Blog Network page.

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