Permission Over Presumption

permissionA good communicator can have real and lasting impact in the workplace. This is true for leaders, team members, and between individuals when something important or difficult is to be discussed. We know through personal experience that when we speak with others, our intentions and message can be received and interpreted in as many ways as there are listeners. And still, we presume we know a great deal about what listeners will hear, how they will feel about what we say, and how they will react to how we communicate.

One of the hallmarks of effective communicators is that they put assumptions aside and consider what, how, and when to communicate. “Reading the room” is one way, for the experienced and intuitive speaker. Another approach is to ask for ‘permission’ and thereby reduce the chance for misinterpretation and drama that can derail relationships and purpose. Instead of presuming, pause and ask permission for certain communication acts, or inform others about what to expect. Doing so in a good-natured way and using words you are comfortable with will augment mutual understanding and accelerate trust-building.

What do I mean by asking permission? Does it sound overly formal and unnatural? If so, think about the following turns a conversation can take and how communication could be improved if we knew what to expect:

  • When we interrupt one another;
  • When we repeat ourselves or go on tangents;
  • When we disagree and challenge each other (point out inconsistencies or make corrections);
  • When we express heightened emotions (anger, tears, aggressive silence);
  • When we give and receive feedback.


Before the meeting or conversation begins, consider asking the following questions:

Interruptions: When something feels urgent during our discussions, should we let one another finish or should we give each other permission to interrupt?
In the beginning of a new coaching engagement I ask this question and have received different responses. Some clients have said “no interruptions” because they themselves have a problem with interrupting others and they’d like to practice listening more patiently. On the other hand, clients have also said that they don’t care if we interrupt one another. If there is something that either one of us wants to finish, we can simply say, ‘can I finish this thought, first?’
Interruptions are common, and many people cannot contain themselves when they believe they have a great idea. Still, interruptions can be annoying or even rude, especially if you are speaking with a person who values letting others finish. Just by asking this question, you show respect and awareness that you or others might expect to speak without interruption.

Repetitions and Tangents: If one of us goes into a topic already covered or gets lost in the details, do we give each other permission to say that we want the ‘bottom line?’ In other words, please to get to the point.

Details…details…Some people love them, some just want the gist. Some people can grasp a concept almost immediately while others want or need detail. How many times have we found ourselves listening to meandering stories intended to highlight a simple point? How often does someone not realize that relevant details and facts are already understood? It is difficult to let the other person know, because cutting someone off in mid-sentence can seem rude and disrespectful. So, we choose instead to let valuable time tick by and we judge or disengage.
By acknowledging this common communication bottleneck up front, you can mutually agree not to be offended when asked to move on so that the discussion can progress; “bottom line, please?”

Disagreements, Challenges, Corrections:In our conversation, do we give each other permission to challenge and disagree with one another without offense being taken? How do we want to do that?

In business, there is bad conflict and good conflict. Bad conflict arises when there are unresolved disputes or major disagreements between team members, other coworkers, or with management. Bad conflict can also be present in silence, when people are offended, withdraw, and secretively share negative gossip with others.
Productive conflict comes when parties and the culture allow challenges and disagreements to be voiced. But be careful how and when you challenge. While some people are comfortable with being challenged out in the open, others are not. It’s better to find this out as early in the relationship or life of the team as possible.
Let’s take an example of a colleague who has risen through the ranks of the company. One day, she was out at lunch chatting about various topics with her peers, co-workers, and work-friends. The next day she is promoted and most of those same individuals become her direct reports. Awkward? Yes. Opportunity for personal and organizational development? Absolutely!

When you become your colleagues’ boss, familiar impromptu desk-side chats about “what are you working on?” could be perceived as micromanagement or lack of trust. You know in your heart you are the same person regardless of your title, but when you call your work-friend to your office, where there was once anticipation among friends (peers) of a good visit, now there might be a good bit of anxiety. In the eyes of your new subordinates, you are not the same. In this example, if there is repression of the discomfort it will fester and lead to resentment and dysfunction. By addressing the shift directly and swiftly, the ‘new normal’ will begin to take hold in positive ways.

If it were known that the direct report could respectfully express to her former peer, ‘I know you mean well, but I feel like you’re checking up on me now that our roles have changed.  It might not feel good to get that feedback, but relationships at work will change and we have to shift, let go, and develop new ways of relating for the benefit of the organization.

Emotions:This meeting/conversation might become challenging, how should we handle it if it gets uncomfortable? Should we take a break? Forge ahead? Reschedule?

We all have those days when our emotions are easily triggered. Some days, you feel generally angry and your temper is short. You may be feeling more vulnerable, tired, withdrawn, or find that you feel like crying. Regardless of the reason, men and women show up at work not feeling their best and that’s perfectly acceptable because we are human. However, at work, we still must communicate, even when we would rather not. And we have to manage our emotions.

In coaching sessions, and at work, it’s vital to have a sense of how people you are communicating with are feeling. And how to manage uncomfortable moments of emotional expression. If they or you are clearly not in the mood to engage, though you must, it will make for tough and unproductive dialogue. The risk of emotions needs to be put on the table, so we understand that we will be able to manage what arises and continue to focus on having productive communication.

Feedback…How Do You Like It? How do you like to receive feedback? Should we warn each other if we have something challenging to report? Or, should we just be direct with both good and challenging feedback?

People say that they want feedback and we can agree that it is essential for continued personal and professional development. But it would serve us well to remember that giving and receiving feedback are skills; it can be counterproductive and even destructive to assume that everybody is ready for, values, or wants your feedback, even if you believe they could use it.
After you ask for permission to give and receive feedback, when the time comes in a meeting or conversation, you can let the other party know that your feedback is coming, “I am going to give you some (challenging) feedback? Are you ready?”

In my coaching practice, it is absolutely vital we have open and honest communication. At the outset, I ask people how they like to receive feedback. Even though feedback is an essential part of what I do during executive coaching sessions, I want to be certain that the client is in a state of mind to be open to it. I also invite (“give permission to”) my clients to be candid with me. I want them to be as comfortable as possible letting me know if I offer something that makes it appear that I don’t understand the situation — yet. Or, if I say something that makes them feel uncomfortable, they should tell me. Finding out up front how each person likes to communicate goes a long way in building trust, good will, and an understanding of individuality. Of course, there will be feelings associated with feedback, but when trust is established by acknowledging that feedback can be hard to give and take, the relationship becomes more authentic and better work can be done.

Communication is how we get things done. Take the time to articulate communication styles. This can help accelerate understanding of both substance and intent, and help individuals and teams move relationships and the organization forward in a positive way.

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