Some of the leaders I coach struggle with a common challenge: they come across as tense and awkward when facing senior leadership or in those tough negotiation meeting where the outcome is critical. The more important the outcome of the conversation, the more gauche they seem – sometimes to the point where they self-destruct and doom the conversation to failure from the start. Sometimes the awkward behavior is blatant. Sometimes it is quite subtle, but it is sufficient for the parties to get into a negative spiral. What is going on? You might think that when they stakes are high, these leaders should be able to pull themselves together and come across as centered, calm and peer-like, but this is often not easy.
One leader I recently observed seemed eager to please, to the point of being subservient. With words and with body language he seemed to be asking: “Do you approve of what I am telling you now? “Do you approve of me?” “Do you like what you are hearing now?”
Another ended up reading from copious notes, thereby killing any semblance of authenticity and of “owning” the story and the argument. The implicit message was: “I don’t really know my stuff very well. I am a messenger who relies on my notes to get the information across.”
A third leader seemed apologetic about not having full control of all the facts – in an early, exploratory dialog where no one actually had any such expectations. Whenever a question came up, he would refrain from engaging in a dialog about the topic, but would close down the conversation by saying something like “I don’t know that. I will have to get back to you.”
In each of these cases, these leaders signaled strongly to their counterparts that they were not worthy of serious consideration. The signaling stems from their own perception that they are, somehow, not worthy. And this rapidly and predictably becomes self-fulfilling. Their counterparts react, intuitively and often subconsciously to the cues, and treat these leaders with less respect. The leaders end up achieving limited impact or they end up with a poor negotiation result.
A colleague of mine who is more deeply into neuro-science than I am, surmises that what is going on is that these leaders trigger the firing of mirror neurons in the minds of their counterparts. Through this mechanism, they create uncertainty in the minds of the counterparts, and this is rarely a good starting point for subtle communication, trust-building and creative, win-win negotiations. I am not fully convinced of this model. It sounds nifty and it is an intriguing hypothesis, but I have not seen authoritative research that validates this account. But perhaps this does not matter so much. Reality, as I have observed it, is compatible with this explanatory model, and the model may actually give us some ideas for how to deal with the challenge I have sketched.
How should you prepare for a difficult conversation where you perceive that you are the weaker party or the junior party? I have observed three techniques that work well: i) challenge the perception, ii) take the ego out of it and iii) be in the moment.