The power of distraction: Another lesson intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues

Last week’s post discussed an important work lesson we can learn from toddlers: the power of why. Briefly, we often learn a lot by asking “why” of those who oppose us.

This week, I’ll discuss another critical work lesson from toddlers: the power of distraction. Briefly, we often have to deal with colleagues who don’t directly oppose us but aren’t exactly on our wavelength either. In these situations, distraction is essential for making life negotiable.

A common toddler scenario (other parents have told me) is the inexplicable and unexpected meltdown. Suzy is happily playing with a toy, asks to take it outside or something else you reject, then responds to your rejection with (Chernobyl x Fukushima). Immediate diffusion of the situation, parents agree, is all but impossible. Your options are to ignore her until her reactor cools or try to cool her reactor by distracting her with something more interesting. “What do you want for dessert tonight, Suzy?”

What does Suzy have to do with work? When you’re trying to convince a work colleague of something, I would argue that distraction is often essential there too. Consider the following five reasons that you might need to distract a colleague:

  1. Inexplicable and unexpected meltdown: Suzy isn’t the only one. Though hopefully more common among toddlers, meltdowns have been known to make an occasional cameo in the workplace. When you need the support of someone having issues, you need to distract them from their issues before the discussion can even begin.
  2. Talking about something irrelevant: More often, colleagues are calm but completely off-topic. Now it might be worthwhile asking why they’re off-topic, just in case there’s a method to their madness. But if there isn’t, you need to distract them from their tangent.
  3. Talking about something unimportant: Quite often, colleagues are somewhat on-topic but focusing a trivial aspect of the issue. If a “why” still doesn’t help, you need to distract them from their trees to refocus them on the forest.
  4. Just talking: Sometimes colleagues just won’t…eh hem, be quiet. You need to distract them from their monologue just to get a word in.
  5. Not talking: Sometimes colleagues are day-dreaming or otherwise unusually silent. You need to distract them from their reverie so you can understand their reactions.

It would be nice if you could just ask what them they want for dessert tonight. Sadly, that works better on Suzy than an adult. Instead, I’d suggest trying one or more of these approaches:

  1. Take a break: If they need to cool their nerves (#1) or vocal cords (#4) – or if they are way off-topic (#2) – develop the sudden need to visit the bathroom. Much like the ratification strategy, a well-executed break followed by a proactive attempt to restart the conversation can often refocus it.
  2. Synthesize and suggest: If they are somewhat on-topic (#3), summarize their thoughts in a way that explicitly connects them to your thoughts. Even if the connection is shaky, hearing you synthesize signals you’re listening, and hearing your suggestion gives them an easy way to change course. “It sounds like you’re really concerned about sales in Detroit, Steve. I understand that concern, but may I suggest that we think about Detroit in the context of our national sales trends?”
  3. Open-ended question: If they are just silent (#5), enroll them in the conversation by asking them an open-ended question that necessarily requires more than a one-word answer. Not “Is something bothering you, Steve?” but “What are your thoughts on our national sales trends, Steve?”

These techniques are not rocket-science nor surefire. But I hope they provide a framework for working with coworkers who are meandering in and out of your wavelength. Have you ever felt the need to distract a coworker?

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2 thoughts on “The power of distraction: Another lesson intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues

  1. Pingback: The musings of 2015 | Brian Gunia

  2. Pingback: Capturing the attention of kids and executives alike | Brian Gunia

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