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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Coach Your Colleagues to Emotional Sustainability

by Shel Horowitz

“Whatever I think is true about you IS true about you - for ME.” It sounds so simple when expressed in words, but it's so easy to overlook. People's perceptions of other people color their reality so that it IS the reality they experience. And especially if several family members are involved in a business, they will perceive each other under a filter of old behaviors and expectations.

In one of the best-received FBC presentations in recent years, communications consultant Jan Morton, of Self-Us-Team Collaborative in Montague, led the Family Business Center through a series of techniques to make us better coaches, better supervisors, better listeners - and thus more effective in both life and work.

Morton framed her presentation with a series of questions: How do you get someone else to believe that you are empowering them? How do you get non-family members to work hard? How do you justify the privileges that you have - as a family member and/or executive? How can the second generation build trust between family and nonfamily employees? How can you demonstrate that nonfamily members - and their opinions - are valued, especially if they have been passed over in favor of family members for high-level positions? Do you have insights on developing trust between nonfamily members? Are there unresolved family dynamics that don't get left at home? How can you get people to bring their criticisms of you to you, and not talk about you behind your back?

Coaching, she says, is especially appropriate when the person you want to mentor has good skills but lower self-confidence. Effective coaching has six points:

  • Establish clear outcomes
  • Set parameters about decision-making power, accountability, necessary skills, and resources such as time and budget
  • Ask open-ended questions that let the person draw out his or her own goals and skills (for instance, “what have you tried so far? What do you want to do instead? How can I support you?”)
  • Give LCS feedback: “What I liked is…what concerns me…what I suggest”
  • Draw out next steps from them
  • Appreciate what they've done and encourage them to continue

“The first time, they'll look at you as if you have three heads,” Morton acknowledges - but in her opinion, it's more than worth the effort to bring this encouraging, empowering model into your corporate culture. “When you ask questions, they'll start asking questions too; they'll feel safe - and come earlier with problems [and solutions]. Let them know the impact of their great ideas, and give them credit by name.”

Of course, encouraging brainstorms is only one part of being an empathic leader. Another key part is dealing with conflict.

While you're a more effective listener if you mirror your talker's breathing, voice tone, mannerisms, and gestures, this is obviously not effective if you're trying to defuse and de-escalate; mirroring an angry person feels like responding in anger. Instead, mirror the substance of what's being said, but respond in a quiet, attentive tone, and accept responsibility for the problem: “You really think I messed up badly on that project, don't you?” Put your self in “ask mode,” rather than “tell mode,” even if it feels counterintuitive. For example: “Can you tell me what I did or said that gave that impression?”

Morton has a 5-step process for de-escalating anger:

  • Listen attentively (i.e., lean forward, use body language, expression, breathing, and tone
  • Listen without interruption
  • Ask clarifying questions, using non-judgmental language such as “I'm curious about” … “I'm a little confused” … “help me understand”
  • Ensure that you understand by paraphrasing
  • If the situation calls for it, work together to identify win-win solutions

There isn't space here to go into more detail about Morton's presentation, which combined principles of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), Rogerian therapy, and a number of methods to increase trust, reduce conflict, empower employees, and generally create a far more productive and happy work environment. Like all FBC presentations, Morton's speech is available on video tape. Contact Ira Bryck to borrow a copy.

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