Mentors, Stop Saying “I Understand”

by Brenda F. Wensil and Kathryn Heath | Harvard Business Review- July 2, 2020

The meeting unfolded like most of her other performance reviews. Michelle and her manager discussed sales numbers, future goals, and her contributions to the team. Then, in need of support, she decided to confide in him about a challenge she was having with a colleague from another department. Let’s call him Dave. When working on projects, Dave had consistently failed to take Michelle’s ideas seriously, and outright discluded her from informal team gatherings, like “grabbing a beer after work.”

As Michelle described the situation, her boss interjected, “I understand what that’s like and I know how you feel. The best way forward is to ignore it and move on.” He then changed the subject.

Michelle could feel her frustration mounting. The truth of the matter was that, though her boss meant well, he understood neither the situation nor her feelings. Michelle was a Hispanic woman in her late 30s, who had worked her way up from an administrative assistant position to one of the top sales agents in the business. Her boss was a 50-something white man who joined the company three years ago, assuming the leadership role in her region.

She left the meeting upset, feeling even more marginalized, while her boss left the meeting thinking he was a supportive manager.

If you’ve worked a day or a decade in most any organization, you’ve likely been on either the giving or receiving end of a similar conversation. Coaching is an integral part of successful management, and by nature, these interactions are very personal. They have the potential to connect leaders and team members, give rise to a shared understanding of their differences, and lay the groundwork for broader inclusion overall. But in order for this to happen, leaders at every level must be prepared and deliberate about how they approach these opportunities with people who are different than themselves.

The problem is that many managers are neither prepared nor deliberate.

In our surveys and interviews with 50 business leaders in financial services, professional services, and health care across the U.S., we’ve discovered a disturbing consistency in the lack of tactics and focus managers bring to one-on-one coaching interactions. There is no active awareness that these singular conversations can be grounds for those in power — or those in the majority group at work — to help others feel more included at an organizational or a team level. We often refer to this as helping an outsider become an insider.

When we asked leaders what behaviors are important to display while coaching people who are different than themselves (whether that diversity is race, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.), their responses were consistently vague:

  • “I try to be aware of my blind spots.”
  • “I establish a set of clear expectations at the beginning of the session about how we want to operate with each other.”
  • “I try not to impose my values.”
  • “I don’t make assumptions.”

By far, the most resounding and popular responses echoed this sentiment: “If I don’t know how to relate, then I just get someone else to deal with it.”

Why do so many leaders defer? It could be because they believe it will take too much time to connect, or because they fear saying something wrong will get them into trouble with HR. It could be because they haven’t developed the “soft skills,” or the emotional intelligence, required to navigate such conversations, or because they prefer to avoid awkward situations.

We cannot infer the motivation behind each individual response we received. But we do know that all of the leaders we spoke to agreed that when and if performance coaching is done right — whether in the context of a formal review, a learning opportunity, or other results-focused conversations — it will yield better business results, team morale, and humanity in general.

They’re not wrong. Organizations in which employees feel fully seen, understood, and safe being themselves, despite their differences, are ones in which creativity, innovation, and business thrive. The problem is that  companies will not reach true inclusivity if their day-to-day coaching practices are unfocused, loose, or biased — and, as our research indicates, many are.

To create an inclusive work environment, at the least, managers must be educated on how to best hold these conversations in productive and thoughtful ways that go beyond recognizing their blind spots. They must learn a better approach in order to genuinely connect with and respond to team members in helpful ways.

Through our research, we gathered a few best practices leaders can use as a start.

The Grandparent Rule

One person we interviewed noted that, when she has conversations with older people of influence, in this case her grandparents, she finds herself listening carefully and with a deep respect. She pauses, asks questions, and wonders. She gives them time to talk without interrupting or focusing on what she should say next. She frames this deep and respectful listening as the “Grandparent Rule.”

When having performance coaching conversations, you should give your employees and coworkers this same respect — no matter what you choose to call it. This is particularly true when you are talking to someone who comes from a different situation or background than you do. In such cases, the best approach is to drop your assumptions and allow the other person to lead the discussion. As one leader put it, “Listen first. Listen second. Ask open-ended questions. Listen some more. Be curious. Curiosity is your friend.”

Let’s turn back to our initial example: Michelle. What could her boss have done better during their conversation? For starters, he could have asked more questions to uncover what was at the heart of her frustration. For example, he could have said, “Michelle, thank you for bringing this to me. I want to know more about what’s going on before I respond. Can you give me an example of when this has happened recently?” This  question would have helped him gain a deeper understanding of the external situation, before following up with a more internal question: “How is this impacting you?”

Bottomline: managers cannot provide proper support for their employees if they don’t really understand what those employees need from them. Asking questions and listening actively is the best way to identify that need.

Over-relating is overrated

During coaching conversations, look your employee in the eye to show that you are fully present, and avoid the temptation to fill awkward silences. Jumping too quickly to respond to a comment may disrupt your ability to absorb what is or is not actually being said.

In these moments, many managers may fall into the trap of relating a team member’s experience back to their own by using language like, “I understand what you’re going through.” Though well-intentioned, such remarks can be offensive to the other party. Our research shows that many managers often miss the mark entirely.

In your effort to relate, it is possible (and likely) to make false assumptions and tread into areas you know nothing about. Remember, empathy is learning to understand what someone is feeling despite having never felt it before. It is not making up a story in your head about what you think the other person is going through based on your personal experience.

Instead, reframe “awkward” moments of silence as moments to absorb the meaning of the conversation, or moments to give the other person space to think. If you do not know what to say, you may need more information.

In the case of Michelle and her boss, he made an effort to ease her frustration by letting her know that he understood what she was going through. Converse to his intention, he alienated her by assuming the impossible. Instead, he should have taken a beat to digest her situation and remained silent. This would have given him the time to respond more thoughtfully with something along the lines of: “I can’t possibly imagine what your experiences here have been like, and I know in situations where I’ve been misunderstood I didn’t like it either.” Finally, he could have followed up by asking Michelle for what she needed — rather than making assumptions based on what he would need in a similar situation, “What might I do to support you?”

During your own interactions, it is important to keep confidences and avoid sharing information about your team member without discussing it with them first. This will help you build trust and sustain the relationship.

Just the facts.

When you feel you fully understand where your employee is coming from, that’s when it is time to consider how to respond. When giving performance feedback, it’s best to focus on facts and very specific behaviors as opposed to the other person’s values. Avoid generalities (“you just aren’t being professional”), and take the time to explain what you mean (“when you missed the client’s deadline and didn’t let them know about the delay, it seemed like you didn’t understand their expectations”).  When coaching someone on a specific task, do it on the spot while they are practicing to help them learn that skill in real-time. Finally, when an employee approaches you with a problem, as was the case with Michelle and her boss, show support and offer support where wanted as opposed to trying to solve it.

The best response Michelle’s boss could have given her after she expressed her needs, for example, would have been, “You have helped me understand more about how all of this impacts you and I want to support you in any way I can. Would you be comfortable continuing to check in on this to talk about some ways to approach the situation?”

In your own conversations, gather the factual information your employee offers when expressing both the situation and their needs. This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to agree with their approach or solutions. But it does mean you need to give them the space to express themselves without interjection, and actively listen. Afterwards, you can figure out the best path forward together.

With more generations and diversity in the workforce than ever before, leaders who want to build inclusive environments would do well to take a closer look at how to make the daily imperative of performance coaching an experience for all. If performance messaging isn’t delivered in ways that can be received effectively, then business results, along with employee performance and moral, will inevitably suffer.