By Lisa Blosser
Partner, Next Step Partners
How many times have you heard ‘better communication’ is the lynchpin to better relationships?
Countless no doubt, but what does it mean and how does it play out?
We’ve been watching it unfold for years in our Team Coaching practice. We want to get specific about how breakdowns begin, and how to avoid them.
There is an unrealized driver behind many disappointments with your relationships, at work or home.
It creates frustration, resentment and relational damage, starting a little at a time. When it occurs, it often doesn’t feel overtly damaging in the moment. However, the backend cost is incredibly high. Overtime, it can ruin trust and lead to the demise of a trusting connection.
What’s behind so many relationship disappointments?
It’s the vague agreements you have with others. These are unclear agreements, with embedded assumptions, or ones that lack enough specificity that it creates upset on both sides.
If I interviewed people in your life, I would bet you have vague agreements with others you didn’t even know about or don’t consider agreements.
I know because as a Team Coach, I’ve asked thousands of leaders over the years.
When we interview people on both sides of a sub-optimal working relationship, we often hear one side expressing dissatisfaction in what they consider a broken promise but the other side sees it differently. The counterpart often believes they fulfilled the agreement and are confused about the upset.
Here is what we hear most often from each side:
From one side:
When I ask the counterpart, the person on the other end of the sentiments, I hear:
Agreements aren’t being met because each side has a different interpretation of the agreement or didn’t realize there was an agreement.
Where do things go wrong?
It turns out it’s not executing on agreements where things diverge. It’s typically in the set-up.
Take this example:
I had been teaching this concept for a number of years when the heat in my home went out on a Friday.
At 4 pm.
I called the heating company where someone promptly told me they would ‘look into it and get back to me’.
“By when?” I asked.
“As soon as we can,” they responded.
RED flashing alarm bells echoed in my ears. I knew at that moment, if I had taken that ‘agreement’ that I would set myself up for freezing all weekend and being angry at myself when the company would tell me that ‘ASAP’ meant sending someone out next Tuesday.
And yet, we do this in business every day.
We see instances in our Team Coaching practice regularly:
As the meeting wraps up, everyone nods their heads, quickly writing down the ‘Next Steps.’ When the group meets next, they spend time parsing out why someone didn’t get the task done exactly as expected. There is a lot of energy wasted trying to figure out what went wrong on the backend.
Or worse, it doesn’t surface at all during the meeting. But, afterwards, someone complains to another that the perceived responsible team member didn’t do the task and is slowing down the team.
And the toxicity begins.
Most of the time, people are walking around acting as if someone has Broken a Promise that they never, in fact, made.
Read that again.
Most of the time people are walking around acting as if someone has Broken a Promise that they never, in fact, made.
A broken promise is a violation of an agreement that was clear to both people in the same way. What instead often happens is that there was a vague agreement, where one interpreted the conditions of the agreements differently than the other.
To remedy this, we use practices of explicit agreements.
They make your life easier, free up your capacity, improve your team relationships and reduce resentment. From a team perspective, it’s an enormous energy generator when you start operating with explicit agreements. But it takes practice.
Entering into an agreement that isn’t specific enough sets you up for disappointment, and potentially wasted energy. They are your responsibility.
Explicit agreements are very specific and clear. It means both parties understand the agreement in the same way and it’s specific enough that they each know what to do. A third party could explain the agreement. Most of the time when an agreement goes wrong, it’s because it’s not specific enough.
Utilize the Explicit Agreements workbook for prompts on each of the aspects of an explicit agreement.
1. Reflect on breakdowns
Reflect on what you learned from previous and current experiences where agreements didn’t go well. Reflect on a time when someone didn’t follow-through or do what you needed them to do.
2. Specific requests
To avoid an unclear agreement, practice making requests that can’t be re-written. The more specific, the better; the more vague, the greater the possibility for misinterpretation.
Once you make a request, the counterpart can respond in one of four ways:
Here’s the most important part: After you have come to the Explicit Agreement with the other person, write it down. Immediately.
Whenever I’m tempted to skip this step, I recall the best definition I’ve ever heard of resentment: Being upset that someone didn’t fulfill a promise that was never actually made. And then, I get out my pen.
3. Write an explicit agreement
What areas in your life would benefit from explicit agreements? Use the workbook to write them down.
*If you’d like specific instructions or workbooks for a Team Coaching Intervention during meetings, please reach out.
It’s a simple practice, on the surface. Like many practices, the magic is in the habit of doing it so many times that it becomes embedded.
Often when we are providing Team Coaching, we pause the meeting to clarify the specificity of the agreement (you can imagine how annoying this is…but it’s required for habit building).
When teams first begin this process, they are shocked at how often we have to stop and clarify. It shines a light on how often we assume we are on the same page, but aren’t.
Eventually we get the team to help each other formulate explicit agreements so that everyone is equally invested in setting each other up for success. The freedom this generates is palpable in a team.
Something to remember… I have never, in two decades of interviewing people, ever had someone say that they were trying to mess things up.
People tell me they are doing their best, that they care, that they don’t want to fail, but that they feel like they are failing, or that they don’t understand what they did wrong.
If it is the case that people are trying their best and don’t want to let us down, then what’s the agreement that will protect both of us, our relationship and help us all win?
To strengthen your relationships, reduce your frustration and eliminate resentment, start practicing explicit agreement making.