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Are Your Moods Serving You in Your Conversations?
By Deanne Duncombe

The power of moods in conversation really came to the fore for me recently when I received an email that from a colleague that was, in my assessment, one big vent. As I read it, I could feel myself becoming a little angry and a little indignant. Because it was the end of the day when I received it, I left work without dealing with it, telling myself that the right conversation in the wrong mood is still the wrong conversation.

On my way home, I started to think about why I had felt angry and hurt by the email, and I realised that a lot of the assessments made in the email, although not delivered well, were grounded. I had become angry because, quite frankly, the “truth” hurts. In my assessment, this person’s delivery of his frustrations was not the most useful delivery, however he was clearly suffering in some way and it was my responsibility as a manager to try to understand why.

I started to think that perhaps gratitude would better serve me. Yes, he delivered the message in a way that I didn’t agree with, and I would be grateful that he delivered the message at all instead of saying nothing or resigning.

From a place of gratitude, I then made the decision to have a conversation with him, and to face this conversation with curiosity. As I thought about all of the points that I wanted to get across in my discussion with my colleague, I was intrigued by how I would achieve that with curiosity. There were so many points that I felt I could clearly and easy convey to my colleague from anger. It seemed a little more complex to think about how to convey these points from curiosity. Was curiosity even a strong enough emotion to accomplish this conversation? And so I entered curiosity about curiosity...

When we met, I started the conversation by asking what was going on for him when he sent the email. I asked him whether he felt that there were other ways in which he had conveyed his message. He said that he couldn’t really think of other ways, so I offered him an interpretation that he had made some very valid points in the email and my concern was that the points had potentially been lost by the way in which the message had been conveyed. I said, “We all consider you to be quite senior” and he said “I would agree with that”. I then asked “So, how would you expect someone of your seniority to have conveyed that message?” He seemed limited in what options were available to him, and I asked, “Would a conversation like the one we are having now have helped?”

As we talked, my colleague started to shift how he was being in the conversation. He said that he could see how his email might have been interpreted, and he talked about the mood that he was in when he had sent it. I said, “My interpretation of an email is that it is actually a conversation. Although the message that you wanted to convey was valid, the assessment that I would offer is that the right conversation in the wrong mood is still the wrong conversation.” He agreed.

After we had discussed alternate ways of dealing with the situation, I then said, “So I think I understand some of your points and I am not so sure about others. This was important enough to you for you to send the email, so it is important enough that I want to understand what was behind each of your concerns. I am wondering whether it would be OK with you if we ran through each of the points here and now so that I can understand what the issue is that is behind each point”. This was very interesting.

As we progressed I interpreted that, in some cases, he had actually made offers. How he had delivered the message, however, had disguised the offer as a vent. I said to him, “I am really grateful that we are having this conversation, because I interpreted what you had written for this point as you basically saying that I was a moron who didn’t know what I was doing. I can see now that you weren't saying that; you were making an offer. It is unfortunate that this was lost in the delivery of the message, because I think this is a fantastic offer, and one that we would have very much welcomed. What other ways do you think that you could have made this offer?” We then talked about various conversations that may have been useful.

As we progressed with the meeting, I gained some clarity around what my colleague really felt and how that applied to the organisation, and I made some commitments in response to his concerns. My colleague talked about how writing his frustrations down in an email had really helped him. I acknowledged the incredible power of writing, and I offered him some possibilities for continuing that process without potentially causing damage to relationships at work.

When I walked away from this conversation, I felt as though we had both achieved clarity about what was happening, and that we had both gained some significant learning. I felt as though the individual, the organisation and I had all benefited from the discussion, and I was totally blown away that this was achieved from a starting point of curiosity. 

 Deanne Duncombe can be contacted at deanne@duncombe.net

© Newfield Institute

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