“I hear you” ≠ “I agree with you”

Blog | July 26, 2022

“So… how did it go?” I asked my client, Jonathan. As a VP of Technology, his direct reports included many SMEs with real moments of genius—AND it wasn’t always easy to communicate with them.

For the prior few sessions, the central issue that we discussed was a challenging direct report to whom Jonathan needed to give some tough feedback. 

Jonathan had invested a lot in this employee, and they had been killing it. Then, all of a sudden, they weren’t delivering, almost obstinately so. 

Jonathan had been really stirred up around it, so we had put together a game plan around the specific message he was to deliver at their next meeting.

“I just feel like… Whiplash,” Jonathan said. 

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, I walked away from the meeting… Let me backtrack: so as we were talking, I—I kind of saw what he was saying, you know? And so I ended up agreeing with him. And I changed my mind.” 

As Jonathan wrapped up his story, I arched my eyebrows in surprise.

Jonathan’s face clouded and he shook his head. “And then I left the meeting and I was like, Wait a second. I don’t agree with that! What happened, Rachel? I feel so confused…” Jonathan’s shoulders slumped.

“Let’s talk about this,” I said. “What happened in the moment?” 

“He just had such a great story as to why he was behaving the way he was,” Jonathan said. “In the moment, when I was sitting with him, it made sense, I got totally caught up… I felt like, disoriented, you know? But as soon as I walked away I felt like, Shit, I didn’t say what I wanted to say.

“You completely identified with him,” I nodded, explaining. “So much so that you lost the point that he is NOT delivering, no matter his story.” 

As leaders, one of our jobs is to make our people feel seen and heard.

As important as that is, it can turn counterproductive if we get caught up in their story and emotions.

That’s what Jonathan described. 

This is a major red flag.

Jonathan felt confused and disoriented by the conversation with his direct report. That is a sign of a mismatch between his inner compass as a leader and what happened at the table.

When leaders listen, it’s different from listening as you do to a friend—ready to commiserate with a sympathetic ear; you must listen like a coach, with the distance and perspective to seek solutions.

Jonathan went into the meeting clear on what needed to be said and why. He didn’t plan to cut his employee slack for poor deliverables or try to see it his way. He started with the right idea, then got side-tracked.

What the heck just happened?

Here’s the deal: in any challenging conversation, you must find the anchor of what’s important to you, so that in the moment, when you have a lot of emotions, or your person does, you stay clear on what matters most to you in that interaction.

Jonathan got swept up. (It happens to all of us, even me.)

He needed a strategy to make future interactions truly productive.

Here’s how to acknowledge the other without giving up your position:

First, know you’re the leader

Trust yourself. You’re an experienced expert in your field—and if someone sets out to confuse or deceive you, you need to tap into your deep confidence. 

You’re not crazy. You know what you’re doing and why.

Don’t engage in their energy

“Energy” is everything a person brings into the room. In charged moments, negative energy can be seductive—even if their story of what happened is completely different from yours. Don’t engage.

Repeat what you came there to say

Outside the meeting room, you knew and felt strongly about your message. 

Bring that same certainty in with you. If you feel yourself getting side-tracked, repeat the message. Stick to it!

Navigating tough conversations is part of leadership. Those interactions can be emotional and disorienting, even if it all happens “under the surface.” Contact MettaWorks today and learn to fine-tune your emotions as a leadership asset.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant