I recently wrote two back-to-back posts on what I believe is our most important topic for West Michigan leaders: Leaning Into Healthy Conflict.

That topic is still on my mind, so I’m writing another piece on it today. However, this one’s a little different. This one is a short story in a conversation format. I believe that examples and stories can be very effective teaching tools, so, with your assumed permission, here’s a story about healthy conflict:

Tina, the leader of a software group within a large organization has noticed that Charlie, one of her valued team members, nods off regularly during her weekly staff meeting. She decides that it’s time to talk to him about it.

Tina: “Charlie, if you have some time I’d like to talk with you about something. Do you have a half hour?”

Charlie: “Yeah, I can break away for a bit.”

Tina: “Thanks—lets go into my office.”

Charlie follows Tina into her office and they sit at the little table near the window away from her desk.

Charlie: “What’s on your mind?”

Tina: “I’ve noticed over the past few staff meetings that, at some point during the hour, you nod off, and I wanted to let you know that the team is noticing it, and that I don’t see it as being okay. I want to find out if you’re okay and what your perspective is on this.”

Charlie: (Sheepishly and hesitantly) “Yes, I’m definitely struggling to stay awake during the meetings. I’m sorry it’s happening. I’ll do a better job of staying present and engaged.”

Tina: “Thank you Charlie, but I want to understand more about what you think is causing it. Are you losing interest in what we’re doing?”

Charlie: “No, not at all! I still like the projects we’re pursuing. They’re important, challenging, and fun, and I like my part in all of it. It’s just that…. well several things seem to be stacking up against me when we have our weekly meetings.”

Tina: (Gently) “Like what? I’d like to know what’s going on.”

Charlie: “Well, one thing you might recall is that our little girl has colic. It’s been a few months now.” (Tina doesn’t respond but leaves a silent pause to allow Charlie to expound.) “She doesn’t sleep well at all, which means we don’t either. I’m toast after a tough night, and there are many days I’m exhausted before I even get to work. I’m sorry it’s affecting me here.”

Tina: (Nodding) “I’d forgotten about her condition. I’m sorry for that, and that you have to struggle through this phase with her.” (She pauses again to see if Charlie will fill the silence with more of his thoughts.)

Charlie: “There’s also something you don’t know about me that is affecting my ability to stay awake.” (He pauses, looking down. Tina waits patiently to give him time to collect his thoughts.) “A few years ago I had a seizure over a weekend, and it turns out that I have epilepsy. Thankfully there are meds that keep me from having seizures, but they also make me drowsy. This isn’t something I’ve told many people. I  don’t want them view me in any differently.”

(At this point in the story, you might think Tina is feeling like an insensitive jerk for bringing this up, but she’s actually feeling great about it. Why? Because this is exactly what she was hoping to do—share her perceived issue with Charlie and find out what’s going on.)

Tina: “I’m sorry to hear that. I had no idea, and I’m so sorry you have to deal with these extra challenges that I—and probably the rest of the team—don’t have to deal with.”

Charlie: “I’m sorry it’s causing me to fall asleep in your meeting. I wish I could stay awake, but I’ve been trying hard to stay awake, and it’s obviously not working. I hope you can understand.”

Tina: “I certainly understand a lot more that I did a few minutes ago. The reasons you aren’t staying engaged in the meeting aren’t about your attitude toward our team and our work, but your baby and your condition.”

Charlie: “Yes, I hope that’s okay.”

Tina: “Well, it’s certainly better from a job performance standpoint than if you just didn’t care. However, I can’t accept having you sleep in the meetings. It has too much of a negative impact on your reputation, which I care a lot about, and it has a negative impact on the dynamics of our team.”

Charlie: “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I can do about it.”

Tina: “I understand… and I can’t allow it without looking for some solutions. Are there some things you or we could try in order to make the staff meeting work better?”

Charlie: “Hmmm… One thing I’ve wondered about is meeting in the morning instead of right after lunch. Early afternoon is a hard time for me. Other than that, I can’t think of anything.”

Tina: “I’ll look into that possibility. I think it we should be able to make that change.” (She pauses to see if Charlie will say anything, but nothing is shared.) “Would you be okay letting the team know that we’ve discussed this and even letting them know about your daughter’s colic… and your epilepsy?”

Charlie: “Uh… I don’t think I want people to know about it. I think it would change the way they see me and treat me, and I don’t want to be treated special.”

Tina: “Okay, I understand. Do you see why having you sleep in the meetings isn’t acceptable to me?”

Charlie: “Yes.” (He pauses, and Tina waits for him to speak again.) “I honestly don’t know what I can do about it.” 

Tina: “What if you sit next to me, and if I see you starting to lose it, I can nudge you with my foot under the table to keep you from falling asleep. Then you can determine if you need to excuse yourself for a bit, as if you need to do something, or if you can make it through the end of the meeting. I’d rather not have you in the room than have you there asleep.”

Charlie: (Looking hopeful for the first time.) “I don’t know if that will work, but I’m willing to give it a try.”

Tina: “Thanks. It’s really important to me that the team not see you sleeping if they don’t know why. Let’s give it a try and see how it goes.”

Over the following weeks, things seemed to get better. Moving the meeting to the morning seemed to help Charlie, and having discussed it openly with Tina helped him be more aware of the seriousness of the issue. The few times Tina had to nudge him have also helped. The issue is not completely solved, but his reputation isn’t being damaged as much, and the team dynamics in the room are much better.

AND, Charlie feels cared-for and appreciated. He realizes it must have been hard for Tina to bring this up, and he’s thankful that she talked to him about it so the issue isn’t lurking around in the shadows of each of their minds.

So that’s the story. All fictional but very representative of the types of Leaning Into Healthy Conflict conversations I’ve had over the past twenty years.

When you look at the Leaning Into Healthy Conflict model, can you see how this conversation followed the model”

I hope you found this helpful. Next week, I plan to write another short story showing how the model can work. In the meantime, keep working on practicing it!

Lean into being your best this week!

Image by spudooli. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.