Leadership & Management

Space, Pace, and Grace: How to Handle Challenging Conversations

In this podcast episode, we discuss the power of slowing down during difficult workplace situations.

October 15, 2021

Being a better listener has a lot to do with silence, says Collins Dobbs, a lecturer in management at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “A lot of people are uncomfortable with the smallest modicum of silence, but learning often happens when we create distance for useful reflection.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Dobbs talks with host Matt Abrahams about the importance of “space, pace, and grace” when you’re receiving others’ feedback and handling the emotions that come out during tough discussions.

“There’s often a lot more focus on the skill set on delivering emotion than receiving emotion, but if the receiver of emotion can put themselves in a place of curiosity, agency, and openness… opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”

Dobbs is an executive coach and teaches several courses, including Interpersonal Dynamics and Leadership Labs.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Hello. I’m Matt Abrahams. And I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. I am super excited to chat with Collins Dobbs. Collins is a lecturer in management and executive coach at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

He teaches in several MBA courses including Interpersonal Dynamics and Leadership Labs. Among many things, Collins focuses on diverse leadership styles and cultures and how they impact interpersonal relationships and management effectiveness. Welcome, Collins. Thank you for being here. I am so looking forward to chatting with you.

Collins Dobbs: Thank you, Matt. Thank you for inviting me. I look forward to our conversation.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Let’s go ahead and get started. From your perspective, Collins, what makes challenging conversations so challenging?

Collins Dobbs: Good question. So Matt, in my experience, I think there are two things that come to me initially. One has to do with, I would say, missed expectations. And that, sometimes, I find comes from either the nature of the relationship or the context that individuals are working on or sometimes, you know, the amount of stress.

There’s something about missed expectations can make it challenging. And I would marry that, Matt, with, often, it’s the individuals’ assumptions about, can we work through these missed expectations in a way that leave us having a stronger relationship or stronger outcome? And can we do it in a way that I don’t believe that — or we don’t believe that we’re going to risk harming the relationship going forward?

Matt Abrahams: So it’s about the people involved in the situation having mismatched expectations. And then, it’s about weighing, can we actually improve things and keep the relationship moving forward. Is that what I heard?

Collins Dobbs: That’s correct, Matt. Yes.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Okay. So that’s helpful. So it’s helpful. So it’s about understanding not only our expectations about others, the other person’s as well. Now, when most of us are confronted with a challenging conversation, we focus almost exclusively on how we want the other person to change. Might focusing on other things be more helpful to us?

Collins Dobbs: I think it can, Matt, certainly as a starter. I’ll tell you one of the things that I like to think about is I think it’s very helpful to slow ourselves down and to focus on our own awareness of what’s going on for us. And part of that is — am I aware of the depth of my excitement, the depth of my resistance, the depth of my emotions?

And clearly, you know, what is it that I want from this particular conversation myself? And do I feel grounded to have that conversation? So I think that’s a great place to start. The other thing, Matt, that I find that’s helpful is, if I can slow myself down and be anchored, I am going to be a better listener because now I kind of have cleared some space and some anxiety away. So I can do that.

And then, the corollary is — and then, it also allows me to then listen more actively or more openly. And rather than necessarily listening for how do I cause change in the other person necessarily, can I start with some curiosity and certainly with a goal of mutual understanding? So I think that’s usually a nice baseline to start with.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. So important. Many of us, myself included — when I’m in these situations, I’m so focused on what I want the other person to do or how I want them to change. And what I’m hearing you say is we have to pause. I love this notion of slowing down because our minds are often so active.

Slow down. Really reflect on what’s motivating our position. Focus on where we’re at. And I love what you said about focusing on what our goal is. Sometimes — I know, for myself, I just want change. And I don’t think deeply enough about what’s a reasonable goal for that change.

And then, you spoke the magic word, listening. I think, in all of these situations, we could benefit by listening. And anything that gets us into a place where we can listen better will be so helpful. So thank you for that guidance, really, really important.

Do you have suggestions for ways for structuring constructive or critical feedback? Because, often, these tough conversations have an element of constructive feedback. Any suggestions for how we can actually better structure messages that are constructive?

Collins Dobbs: I do, Matt. Thanks for bringing that up.

And one model that I’ve used in executive education — and we use a piece of it in Interpersonal Dynamics — is kind of a three-step — I mean, three considerations. Right. And the first one is called the AIR feedback model. So the A stands for action.

In some ways, the way I like to talk about that is very simply, can we share data that is accessible to both parties involved in the communication? So A is for action. So if I can name a specific action that you took, something you said, something you did, something that is there and obvious that we can refer to as a concrete data point for us to kind of both look at, so the specificity — it helps with the conversation.

The I is — so given that action, what was the impact on me? Right. What was the impact? So very often, what happens is we’re responding — based on actions, the other person is actually responding not necessarily to your intentions. But often, they’re responding to what was the impact of that behavior.

So when you’re giving feedback, you might say, so in the meeting during the presentation — my portion of the presentation or during the presentation to the customer, I was about to review the numbers. And it was at that point that you jumped in and say, hey, you know, wait a minute. Before we do that, I think this is an opportunity to talk a little bit more about the bargaining plan.

So the action was when you joined in at that moment. The impact on me at that moment was I felt frustrated. I felt confused. And I felt frustrated because I wasn’t ready to go there. And I think I was building the narrative that we agreed on.

So that’s the kind of — I might share that with a colleague to say that was the action. That was the impact on me. And then, the R for AIR is a request. So now that I’ve shared that, the request might be so, in future meetings, what I would find very helpful would be either, A, if you can hold that comment or if you could check in with me and say, “So Collins, I know you’re finishing your portion of the presentation. When you’re ready, I would like to maybe circle back and transition to cover another part. How does that work with you?”

So that’s a specific request. So then, you give the other person some hooks and handles for how they actually provide feedback for you that is less risky or certainly in a way that you might feel that’s more responsive or — and helpful.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. I really like that AIR model, the idea that you identify an action, that it’s observable. It’s objective that you can see. You identify the impact that it had on you as the recipient of that action. And then, you make a request. And I like the acronym. It helps you clear the air.

You know, when I teach this feedback skills, I love that you have a model that we can follow. I look at feedback as really an invitation to problem solve, to try to figure out a way to work together. And I love that this structure ends with a request.

It’s your request, which could be, as you gave an example, a declaration. Here’s what I need from you. Or it could be a question. It could be an inquiry. How can we collaborate together? So I think, if all of us were to embrace this AIR model, we could make our feedback more concise and more clear.

And what I really like is it also strips out some of the emotion, which leads to my next question about what thoughts and advice do you have on how to manage the emotions that we often feel when we find ourselves thinking about and actually in challenging communication situations.

Collins Dobbs: Okay. I really love this question on the heels of feedback. So Matt, what you said prior — so thank you for capturing that so fully. The corollary that we teach and I see with emotion is there’s a — you know, feedback often, you know, can feel very high stakes, right, for a whole host of reasons. Right.

Usually, people are doing the best they can. And it can really feel a bit challenging to receive feedback. So one of the things that we think about is can I start with my baseline awareness of understanding what are the emotions or feelings that I’m having at the moment.

And one of the things — you know, we do a much deeper dive in this in the course, for example, in Interpersonal Dynamics. But I often talk about, when you find yourself in a situation — let’s say I’m about to receive feedback from you as a colleague.

One of the things that’s really anchoring is I might say a version of, so Matt, I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. I really value your thoughts. I must say, at this moment, I’m feeling a range of emotions, which could be I’m both — you know, naturally have some anxiety because I don’t know what you might say.

I may have disappointed you in a way that I’m not aware of. And that doesn’t feel good. And I’m also pretty curious because, in the past, you’ve really given me helpful feedback. So I’ve got a mix of emotions, Matt. So I just want you to know that so that, you know, I — so in some ways, as you said, clear the air — so that we know kind of what’s in the room.

So there’s a way in which, rather than, in some ways, totally stripping away emotion and trying to make the feedback fully cognitive, what usually is more resonant and connecting is, can we then connect at that place? Because then, you might say — you have more information.

You might say, “Collins, I didn’t know that. We work together a lot. To me, I wasn’t — I had no idea that this might be higher stakes for you.” And it gives you more choices in terms of how you might deliver the message or how we might then talk about what’s going on because, very often, what can happen is — because we believe that we’re delivering the message fully content, full details and being quite helpful to another person. And the person walks away not taking it in certainly in the way that we had hoped. Sometimes, that’s because there was so much unexpressed emotion in the room they weren’t fully prepared to hear it in a way. And then, you walk away believing that they did. And then, it can lead to, again, further sort of missed expectations further down the line.

So that’s one of the things that we like to think about in terms of rather than — like can we just honor and make a part of our experience — and I might say to you just like you said, you know, on the request side. “It would also be helpful, Matt, for me to hear how are you — like what’s going on for you in terms of this? Are you feeling any of the similar emotions? Different emotions?” So starting from this place of — I like to say, very often, “connection before coaching” is really powerful, right, because, very often, our best coaching happens sometimes and we forgot to actually connect emotionally with the other person and they can easily miss it. And as you know, this happens in our professional relationships. And it often happens in our dear personal relationships as well.

Matt Abrahams: Well, first and foremost, Collins, I would never give you negative feedback about the information you share. You give wonderful advice and guidance. Thank you for clarifying the role that emotion plays.

I have to agree that naming emotions, owning emotions and then, it sounds like, soliciting input on others’ emotions can really help. And this notion of connecting before coaching is really powerful because a lot of us want to jump right to that coaching piece. “Here’s what you need to do to be better or different or to help me or to help yourself.” But making that connection on an emotional level sounds like is absolutely critical to have lasting impact.

Collins Dobbs: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: I’m curious. You triggered a question in my mind. Are there things we can do when we are receiving feedback to help us be more open to it? I know personally that there are times where I will get very defensive especially if I know potential critical feedback is coming. Are there things that you teach or perhaps you do in your own life to help you be more receptive when you’re receiving constructive feedback?

Collins Dobbs: I love that, Matt. So a couple things — I mean, we both teach. And in my personal life —I tell you, one of the things that I’ve noticed when often feedback gets spoken about is there’s often a lot more focus on the process and the skillset in delivering emotions versus receiving emotions. And I actually believe that the leverage of a strong feedback conversation actually sits with the receiver by and large. Right.

So what I love about your question is one of the things that I then try to do is adopt that mindset first, right, because that helps give some agency. Right. If I think that, on the receiving side, I just kind of am without agency, I feel naturally — to your point, most people can often then feel quite defensive. And I’m just sort of less open.

But if I can adopt a mindset on the receiving side that, you know what, I have some agency about this is data. I will kind of hear it from a place of curiosity and interest. And I have some choices about what I do with that, which could be a range of, A, right now, that might feel a little bit too much for me to deal with. But I appreciate it and will study that a little more and follow up with you later as I kind of get grounded with that.

Or B, I might say, that’s a great idea. I hadn’t thought about that. Can you help me unpack that a little more in terms of impact on you or other examples? So I can actually learn something about it. Or I might do something totally different with it.

But if I then, as the receiver, can put myself in a place of curiosity, a place of agency and a place of like kind of openness to this can — like as you were talking about feedback being learning and problem solving, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. The power of having the right approach in mindset can certainly make a difference. And I love that notion of curiosity and interest in what the person is saying. We’ve done a lot of talking on this podcast about seeing opportunities and offers in other people’s actions relative to us and the feedback is an offer. It’s an offer to help us be better, to help us grow, perhaps change in a direction we hadn’t thought of. But you have to have the right mindset. And the notion of agency strikes me as being so important.

I often think of, when I talk to my kids, that I want to, when giving them feedback, give them a sense that they have some control in the situation. And it sounds like that agency goes beyond the parenting relationship but can be involved in lots of other relationships as well.

Collins Dobbs: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Thank you. One of the things I appreciate so much about the work you do, Collins, is, not only is the advice just very actionable, it’s really memorable too. I like the AIR model. It’s easy to remember the acronym. I like the connect before coaching. I have heard you also talk about pace, space, grace. Can you define what you mean by this? And how can we benefit by deploying these concepts?

Collins Dobbs: I love that. Thank you, Matt. Yeah. So that has really resonated with me a lot. So in college a lot of years ago, I played basketball in college. And one of the things that we talked a lot about was, you know, when you’re thinking about a game plan, depending on who you’re playing against, you know, pacing and spacing on the floor and all of that.

So those two concepts have sort of been in my mindset as I think about organizations, as I think about game plans, as I think about strategies anyway. And one of the things that has sort of emerged for me, you know, more recently is it comes up so much in communications and leadership effectiveness, which is we’re living at such a pace of 2021, which is usually superfast.

In the pandemic, it can feel quite distanced but still fast with Zoom. And we’re trying to take in so much data from so many different sources that the pace just feels really generally rushed. And even pre-pandemic, it was the same way.

So sometimes, the miss or the opportunities as a coach very often is I try to slow down both, you know, when I’m coaching very often as it’s often can we just slow it down and take a look at the themes. What’s coming up? How do we explore emotions? What are our hopes? What are our desires? What are the patterns that we recognize in ourselves and others?

So part of that is slowing down the pace in which we work. So it’s often on the slowing-down side. Occasionally, it’s speeding up. But for the purposes of this, I want to just say that, very often, one thing to think about is, can we slow down long enough to unpack sort of more of what’s there, which leads a little bit to the space.

So what often happens I notice in relationships or from coaching is, over time, you know, we work together. We’re colleagues. We begin to have a shorthand or shorter expectations. And what sometimes can happen — or people in our life — what sometimes can happen is we start to actually narrow the possibilities not even knowing it.

We start to narrow the possibilities of what the other person’s actions might be or our actions might be. So sometimes, what I like to say is, okay, we feel like we’re at a stuck place. Can we pull back and create some space for other potential opportunities?

Where else might this go? What else have we not considered? How might this be different than what we had hoped? So there’s something about — that’s freeing, I think, for us individually and, often, the people we’re working with when we can kind of pull back and slow down and just notice, breathe differently, pacing, notice that there may be other interesting possibilities that we hadn’t considered.

And very often, solutions can come from the additional space that we create with each other. And I would say the last thing that, you know — with the deep dive on relationships, which is there is often a lot of concern about I am not exactly sure I know the right thing to say in this difficult conversation. Right.

So I have a choice there. So I might either then withhold and just say it’s just not worth saying it. And usually, what happens is, if we start to develop that pattern, so much goes unsaid over time that the behaviors that we start — we start to interact with each other from a pretty distorted reality in terms of what’s really there.

So part of what I like to think about is, can we contract with, speak with each other directly about, you know what, there’s g — there will be times in which I will do some things — I didn’t say I might do some things. I will do some things that might disappoint you or that might leave you dissatisfied and so will you, right, in a relationship over time.

Can we agree that, in those moments, we will step back and we will allow ourselves a little grace. Right. We will allow ourselves to say, you know, we’re not perfect. And we are trying. And we will make space with each other to do a deeper dive. .

Matt Abrahams: Well, to refer back to your basketball career in college, what a slam dunk of good advice there. This notion of slowing things down, so you can see the situation as it is, giving yourself a wider view of the decision space that you’re in, so you can see other potential solutions or options and this notion of — I like how you phrased it — contracting with others, to have an agreement that we’re going to give each other a little grace, a little bit of acceptance can certainly help in myriad situations, not just in challenging situations but lots of other situations. So I really appreciate that advice.

Matt Abrahams: Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that, Collins?

Collins Dobbs: I am.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Then, here’s our first question. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five-to-seven-word presentation-slide title, what would it be?

Collins Dobbs: Okay. Communication is a team sport.

Matt Abrahams: I love it from a basketball player even. Help me understand how it’s a team sport.

Collins Dobbs: So what comes up for me in that, Matt, is some of what we said, which is I have to think about my role, my responsibility, the things that matter to me. And I have to think about my teammates’, right, role, responsibilities. And I have to think about how we perform based upon challenges ahead of ourselves.

So there’s something that I like — I guess what grabs me about that is it reminds me that this is a — we’re in this together. And I have to be more expansive and not just go internal and become defensive or only see my view of the world.

Matt Abrahams: That analogy is so powerful. It brings up so many things. You have to coordinate. You have to work together. You have to collaborate, so many things. So I love that. And it came in at five words instead of seven, which is also exciting. Collins, who is a communicator that you admire? And why?

Collins Dobbs: I would say the public one would be Martin Luther King. What I am drawn to in Martin Luther King, It was the connection of the voice. It was the connection of the rhythm of it. It was the — and in addition to that, Matt, there was always sort of these many bigger subtle messages that were very provocative in many cases. And I also think, in many cases, they were also very collaborative, right, and very inviting.

And it was just very — often left with thinking about what else about this did I not hear. So he would be the one communicator that I go back and listen to over and over again. And I learn something new and different.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a phenomenal communicator and did so by blending so many different techniques and thorough understanding of how to create a story that’s compelling.

And, as you said, a true testament of a good communicator is the desire to hear more from the person and go back and reflect on what they said. So thank you for sharing.

Matt Abrahams: The final question, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Collins Dobbs: Hmm. Let me see. I would say pace, space and grace, but we covered that. But what I might suggest though related is knowing myself, knowing the audience and believing that we’re in it together.

Matt Abrahams: It goes back to that teamwork idea that you mentioned earlier. So you need to know yourself and understand where you’re coming from. You have to take the time to understand and appreciate your audience and then really take that extra step that it’s a collaborative endeavor. Communication is a collaborative endeavor. And as we mentioned earlier, it’s not always pleasant. There are times where you have to have challenging conversations.

But by leveraging the tools that you so graciously shared with us today about how to structure feedback, how to take a sense of agency when receiving feedback, about how to look at communication as a coordinated effort has been so helpful. Collins, I thank you so much. Your advice and feedback resonate very loudly for me and I hope for our listeners. Thank you for your time.

Collins Dobbs: Matt, thank you for inviting me. And thank you for the wonderful work that you do.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent.

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