Workplace Dynamics

Managing Thoughts About Others

We will all be familiar with the experience of “falling out” with someone. We may have walked away from a challenging encounter muttering under our breath about the other person. Those of us old enough to remember “Wacky Races” will recall Mutley’s wheezing, bitter grumbling about his master/foil Dick Dastardly. Motley’s resentment, (see here)and constant canine wordless spluttering, is a thread that runs through the show – reflecting our own internal monologue when someone we are in conflict with comes to mind.

Try it now – think of someone you don’t like. What are the thoughts that come to mind? You may notice that once these thoughts get going, they are hard to stop. The question for those interested in improving the way in which they hold difficult conversations is – do these thoughts help?

In this article I’ll be suggesting that there things we can do to help ourselves, and others, in such situations.

Making Sense of the World: Experiential Shorthand

The human brain makes a great job of helping us to negotiate the world, constantly taking our unconscious observations and turning them into manageable messages that help us make sense of our experience. On a cold winter’s afternoon we stumble upon a candle lit coffee house, full of the aroma of fresh coffee and warm muffins and we think “cozy”. Our brain lets us off the process of listing all the pleasant features of the café – smiling staff, warm lamps, deep yielding cushions and just lets us know that it’s “nice”.

This will work too with people we fall out with. Someone mentions their name in a meeting and, unbidden, thoughts come to mind – “difficult”. “awkward”, “annoying” and maybe even more disparaging. The question is, do these thoughts help or hinder us in arranging an outcome that is good for all of us?

Confirmatory Bias

This is a subtle, insidious process that can have a substantial impact on the way we deal with our life experiences and other people. It comes from the notion that we make fairly quick evaluations and then look for evidence to confirm our assessment. We have an experience of discomfort with someone, a minor disagreement for example, and we say to ourselves “ah they are that sort of person”. When next our paths cross we may find ourselves looking for evidence that our earlier assessment is correct.

I’m not saying that we do this because we are “bad” – these unconscious processes are understandable and may be very helpful. If you should be so lucky to be swimming in the barmy waters off the coast of California and see a large dorsal fin heading towards you, your response will probably not to mentally evaluate the risk of shark attack in this area and how your dress or behaviour may attract a Great White. You are more then likely to think “Shark – let’s get out of here!” You may not even think, you may just react. That response to a sense of threat is crucial to survival. When we have to deal with certain people – family members, colleagues, staff, service users – our negative thoughts may not help us to find the best way of helping them to collaborate with us.

Arguably a more dangerous aspect of confirmatory bias arises from prejudicial stereotypes. Remember “hug a hoody”? I know that many of my neighbours children where large hooded tops – its just their thing! However when walking along the street and seeing a youth coming towards me, face obscured by yards of material, I simply can’t help feeling a tingle of fear. I have taken everything I have heard about young people so dressed and created fear in myself. I’m sure that we can think of groups in society that cause us to react in certain ways – how will we manage this bias when dealing with them?

Convenient Beliefs

So how do we deal with these experiences of being human? How can we manage these thoughts about people to help us connect with them?

One useful process is to develop a set of “convenient beliefs” to help us become more resourceful in difficult situations. Convenient beliefs are thoughts and beliefs about people that seek to bring some open-minded balance to a situation to help us have the best conversation. I don’t claim that “convenient beliefs” are true – just that they may be helpful in many cases. Let’s try one.

“Everyone is doing the best they can, with the resources they have at their disposal”

We may encounter some behaviour that seems very strange, or some performance that we may feel is incompetent – just not good enough – and we decide to raise it with the person involved. We can see that starting out this process by reflecting on the above belief rather than they are “mad” or “stupid” may help us to describe our observations and listen to the other person’s response. We could argue that the convenient belief can help us be more compassionate – whilst that may be so I prefer to think that it opens up possibilities for change. Let’s try another.

“The success of communication is defined by the receiver”

There’s little more frustrating than telling someone something repeatedly and them not seeming to “get it”. We may respond to this frustration by putting the responsibility on the other person’s shoulders. By adopting the above convenient belief we may be encouraged to look a little more carefully on how we have communicated.

“Everyone is trying to cooperate – it’s just a question of finding out how”

Again an example of a convenient belief that, if adopted, can help us explore our own resources to increase flexibility in how we approach difficult situations. Rather than write people off as “resistant”, this belief encourages us to look hard – and listen – to how we can help people collaborate with us.

Remember, I’m not claiming that these believes are “true” but that they may help. Should the un-hugged hoody slip a sharp blade out of their pocket and demand my wallet – I shan’t necessarily think to myself “everyone is doing the best they can…” at the time.

Although it may help later 😉

Reflective Task

  1. Notice your response to someone with whom you are “at odds”. What thoughts come to mind, what bodily sensations do you experience? Don’t try to change these feelings, they are useful in helping you make sense of that world.
  2. Consider that these sensations are “information” rather than truths. They tell you that you are challenged by dealing with this person.
  3. Apply a convenient belief. Consider that this person is doing the best they can with the resources they have available.  This may be hard. You may consider that they don’t seem to be trying at all! However sit with the thought that what you are experiencing is the best they can. If you have a role with this person – as manager, worker or family member – what can you do to help them develop further resources.


Phil Jones










What Do You Really Want: The Mindful Pause

Beginning, or finding ourselves embroiled in a difficult conversation is a challenging experience. In the moment the sensation is often one of breathless survival, even preparing for an encounter can be sleep-losing experience!

Although our energised state lets us believe that we know what we’re doing, we are quite often operating at the survival end of Maslow’s needs. Will we be hurt? Will this situation resolve with our self-esteem intact? Often what we most immediately want to is to get out unhurt. If we do so without getting too bruised we feel an understandable sense of achievement. In order to survive we may be aggressive, defensive, maybe even placatory. Keeping a focus on what we really want may be extremely challenging in this context – many people think it’s impossible! Don’t forget, additional material and a sound and vision version of this article can be found here.

Acknowledge our Feelings

There will be feelings – it may be that you find yourself in confrontation that you hadn’t expected or a difficult meeting that you have been avoiding for months. It is highly likely that you will feel something. Acknowledge that this is happening and give yourself the message that this is understandable and may even be useful.

If it’s just about “winning” then think again

In our distressed state we often mistake our wish to protect ourselves with the urge to get our own back. One phrase that expresses this phenomena is that “hurt people, hurt people”. Chances are that you want a good outcome which maintains good relationships between you and those you have conflict with. Even the mildest amongst us experiences the wish to be triumphant in difficult situations. Work to manage these sensations. In week two of this course we’ll be looking further at how our views and beliefs about other people can impact on how we have difficult conversations.

Asking Yourself – “What are My Best Hopes from this Conversation?”

The Best Hopes question is borrowed from Solution Focus work. This isn’t an airy-fairy question. In the circumstances you are in – the same people, the same demands, the same resources available – how would you know that your contribution to the conversation will have enabled you to (1) say what you wanted to say? (2) listen to the other persons point of you? (3) reach some form of plan or accommodation which will help you in the future? Another great Best Hopes question is, “how will I know that I will be at your best?”

Note this isn’t about changing other people, but does encourage you to think about how you’ll be behaving, talking and thinking in that conversation that will give you the best chance to get what you want.

Say What You Want

Very simply, it is much more useful to work with what you want, rather than what you don’t want. If you find yourself identifying a don’t want, then start to construct what you do want. For example you may want your youngest offspring not to be so messy at home, but communicating “nots” may come across as critical in a way that generates resistance. Also a description of what you do want can help him or her know what would please you. We will be looking at Non Violent Communication later in the course, but if you wanted a quick look now, I have a presentation here.

Building, Continuing and Enhancing Connections

This is of of considerable importance. Difficult Conversations take place, almost always, in the context of a network of interdependent human relationships. Consider the workplace, your family, the street in which you live, your clients or the users of the service you offer. The connections between us are important, help our sense of wellbeing and ability to do our jobs. How we behave whilst Having Difficult Conversations is crucial in the maintenance of these important connections. In fact Difficult Conversations or conflict are the greatest threats to these important connections.

Does what you really want include elements that will help your future relationship? I would suggest that maintaining a focus on a continued relationship is crucial for the overwhelming majority of difficult conversations.

Case study Jenny.

Jenny was delighted to be leaving a job that she had tired of and, in many ways, outgrown. She was preparing for her exit interview with a line manager who she felt had neglected her over the last eighteen months. Jenny was angry and hurt by her boss’s behaviour and was bristling to give her a piece of her mind. Jenny slept little the night before the meeting. On reflecting on the Best Hopes question Jennie decided that she wanted to leave the meeting having told her manager how much she’d appreciated her help in her early days in the role and how she would have liked her boss’s advice more over the last year or so. Jenny also decided that she’d like to ask her boss for some feedback which would help her in her new job.

As the conversation flowed Jennie could see her boss was listening intently to her and decided at that stage to say that she had felt let down by her often being out of the office so often and unavailable. Her manager was initially upset to be told this and had to leave the room briefly. On her return but acknowledged that she had been called to attend to business elsewhere.

Jenny realised the benefit of the continued goodwill with her former manager and how much she could learn from this experience and the meeting ended well with both people feeling that much had been learnt.

Reflective Exercise

Q1 When you have managed a successful difficult conversation – what have you done? What have you been pleased to notice about yourself?
Q2 Think about a difficult conversation in the future

  • What are your feelings about this situation?
  • What are your best hopes for this conversation – an outcome that would be good for you and the others involved?
  • How might you describe to the other parties what you want?

Good luck everyone – please do get in touch should you have any questions of comments –







Starting in March – A Free, Ten-Week Online Course “Holding Difficult Conversations”

There’s been lots of interest in me sharing some of my insights in this way and I’m looking forward to do so. At the end of this process I hope that you’ll have doubled your confidence and ability to hold difficult conversations! Each week you’ll have some reading, an audio/visual presentation and a brief exercise. At the end of the course we’ll be convening with a webinar.

This will be useful for anyone with a public facing job, all mediators, all managers, all Human Resources professionals and everyone who has a family 😉

Sign up here if you want to take part. This is your agenda.

Week 1:          What Do You Really Want?

Week 2:         Managing Thoughts About Others

Week 3:          Managing Thoughts About Ourselves

Week 4:          Setting up the Best Environmental Context

Week 5:          Zero Sum Game – We Both Win

Week 6:          Keeping Yourself Safe

Week 7:          Using Your Body

Week 8:          Separating Positions from Needs and Interests

Week 9:          Managing Abuse and Difficult Behaviour

Week 10:        Learning from This and Other Experiences

Some Thoughts on Disguised Compliance in Safeguarding

I have been pleased to have been working with Brighton & Hove Local Safeguarding Children’ Board to deliver training entitled “Disguised Compliance and Forceful Counter Arguments” following a number of Serious Case Reviews highlighting the anxiety creating situation where parents and/or carers act is if they are complying with the professionals in the safeguarding system when they are not. I am very grateful to David Hunt, LSCB Training Manager, and particularly Tracey Holder, an experienced and able practitioner and manager who has been my co-trainer, for their support in this.

The term ‘disguised compliance’ was first used in 1993 in a book called ‘Beyond Blame: child abuse tragedies revisited’ by Peter Reder, Sylvia Duncan and Moira Gray. The term is widely understood amongst the safeguarding community, despite being a little misrepresentative – it seems to me that it’s the non-compliance which is disguised.

There are a number of excellent contributions to the study of Disguised Compliance, those wishing to explore further may be signposted to the NSPCC’s analysis of Disguised Compliance in Child Protection Reviews.

Tracey and I spent a good deal of time planning the course based on the written material on the subject and our experiences as practitioners. As a consequence we feel that there are ` couple of points that we could add. Firstly that Disguised Compliance may be usefully seen as “normal” and to some extent can be often expected in safeguarding work with families. Secondly that the dynamic of parent and carers compliance, often referred to as their level of “engagement”, may be over emphasised in safeguarding workers assessments. We therefore have two suggestions.

Disguised Compliance is “Normal”. We begin the training course by asking the participants to imagine that, whilst driving to an important meeting, they are caught driving through a red light by traffic police. We ask them what they’d say when the police officer approaches the car. The response vary but often seek to explain that they are very busy and don’t usually drive that way, some even try to make some connection between the police’s and their own safeguarding role, highlighting how important they are in an attempt to gain power over the situation. In such a situation we generally want to be seen as reasonable, intelligent sophisticated beings, aware of the risks and with control over our actions. We want to be seen as being “at our best”. When we take such a scenario into the personal domain, we can all recall how we may tidy up if expecting an important visitor, we think about what we are wearing if we have a meeting at our parents school or similar. In summary we want to be seen as competent and in control of our lives. Parents and carers who come to the attention of safeguarding professionals have a great deal to lose – they may fear being seen as incompetent, feckless or even criminal. This is not to suggest that workers should ignore Disguised Compliance, but rather expect that it may happen, focusing their efforts in understanding the lived experienced of the children involved as a better indicator or what is actually going on.

Look to the Child, Not the Parent. Safeguarding is highly stressful work, much of that anxiety arising from working with adults. Meeting parents who are welcoming and seem to wish to work alongside you is a tremendous relief! On the contrary, parents who present as angry and reluctant to collaborate are a headache and make workers worry about the children’s safety, and sometimes their own. Adult’s behaviour and what they say tend to dominate the safeguarding process and we can be overly focused on their perceived cooperation. The answer is to be highly attuned to the wellbeing and the lived experienced of the child, best gained through observation, measurement, the child’s accounts and the views of those who know them.

There are those who would say that there are no such thing as resistant people, it’s just you haven’t found a way to help them collaborate with you. It may be more useful to adopt this notion than label people as “hard to engage”.

Hierarchy of Best Outcomes from Workplace Conflicts: A Case for “Just in Time” Mediation

One of the common negative outcomes of the development of any specialist service – like mediation – is the undermining of skill development amongst the generalists. I’ll give you an example in less fancy language! The provision of take-away food outlets has had a highly negative effect on my 17 year old son’s culinary skills – to say nothing of his washing up technique!

The same goes for mediation. I have been interested to notice the take-up of mediation in different organisations who have started a mediation scheme. Many have had very few referrals – not unusual at the start of a scheme – whilst some have had hundreds! Some mediation schemes with those large numbers have won awards, many deservedly so I am sure! However it does make me worry that managers are passing situations on to the specialist mediation service which they might have formerly successfully resolved themselves.

People have asked me what I would consider the most successful outcome of a mediation and I have to answer that I my best outcome was to resolve it before the session! My hope would be that individuals are skilled enough to be able to resolve difficulties between themselves, if that fails the next best thing would be for their manager or managers to be able to intervene and help. For me mediation is the third best outcome.

With this is mind I have developed a short course for managers, supervisors and others responsible for others at work. I call it “Just In Time” Mediation and it’s just that – a course to help people intervene in a timely way. The course covers such matters as when to step in, how to prepare yourself to mediate, the structure of a “Just In Time” mediation and how managers can build better relationship across the company using mediation skills. If you’d like find out more, watch by brief (less than 4 minute) video explaining the course and sign up for my first open event on 21st September in Brighton – take a look here. It’s priced for extremely good value.

“Just in Time” Mediation – Hear Some More!

I’ve done a short video on what we cover on the “Just in Time” Mediation course – take a look here. In this short video – less than 4 minutes – I talk about the course contents and what you can expect when you attend. Click on the link here to book your place. Just £20!






Enabling Chairing Meetings

Some time ago I was asked to run some Chairing training for the children’s workforce in a local authority area – this need reflected the greater involvement of a broader range of staff in convening multi agency groups of professionals and families to discuss children and young people’s needs. To be frank I didn’t think that this was for me as I was carrying some unhelpful ideas about what chairing actually was!

I ended up grasping the opportunity as I spotted that Chairing is really a special opportunity to create useful conversations – along the way I manage to debunk some unhelpful myths about chairing – formal power, male etc. Please do check out my slide cast on this subject with a forty minute slide and voice presentation of some of the key skills about Chairing meetings. Let me know what you think!


Training is Mostly a Waste of Time

I do appreciate that such a title will lead me to be removed from the Christmas Card list of many of my training consultant buddies, but I also know that many will agree! The so-called 70:20:10 rule, developed in the 80s by McCall, Lombardo and Exchanger, is well known but all-too rarely used in training design in my experience. This rule emphasises the day to day experience of learners in doing their jobs (70%) as key to learning and performance success, with colleagues highlighted as contributing towards learning (20%). Formal training was said to provide only 10% of the good stuff.

This reminds me of a time when I invited a contact to deliver training at the then named Sussex Probation Area – Harvey Ratner is an expert practitioner and trainer in Solution Focused Therapy which had a great deal to offer Probation Officers struggling with people whose lifestyle was causing havoc! Harvey’s two days were truly fabulous, he really engaged with the audience who responded well, using the ideas Harvey was sharing. At the end of the event something unprecedented and completely unexpected happened – the delegate group spontaneously rose to their feet and applauded Harvey. It was very moving and, as the Training Manager, I was feeling pretty good about myself. Turning to one delegate I remarked what a great course it had been – she agreed but completely floored me by saying “but it will never work around here”. You know what? She was dead right. Although the course was talked about positively there was no perceptible use of the techniques taught on the course – EVEN THOUGH PEOPLE THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME! Bewildering! It’s worth remembering that people have their ways of doing things, habits which are hard to change.

I’m delighted to be working a South East public sector organisation which wants to do something different. Rather than merely commissioning a training course based on gaps that they have identified, they have decided to take a structured approach which places learning within the current habits, practice and managerial behaviours of the department. This is how it will work

– An Appreciative Inquiry process, in itself a development tool which will also allow the group to identify what it needs to do to move the departments performance on to achieve more

– Management team session – using the Appreciative Inquiry process AND the outcomes of the first session, this conversation will be about how the managers can help the teams move in the highlighted direction

– Training Day. On this day I will be bringing content to help the development process. Bearing in mind, of course, that the teams and managers are already working on this in the day to day practice. The intention here is to bring new material to people who are already in the process of changing

– Learning review. 6 weeks after the Training Day. During this half day I’ll be asking the participants about what they are already doing that’s working, what are the new approaches that are useful, encouraging managers to comment on the impact of all this on performance and asking those present to set further intentions

Now this sounds expensive – much more training time than the “day course” approach. Not so I think. There are 48 people involved, including the managers. I’m guessing that most of us would think that was three courses – to get a workable group size to allow interactions etc. I charge £500 for public/vol sector training so that’s £1500. The daily rate for facilitation is a little more – £600 for a day or £350 for a half day. However, the nature of Appreciative Inquiry facilitation means that you can have large groups – 48 is fine. The costs of three half days and one full day training is £1550.

Drop me a line if you’d like to chat more.




Do You Want a Good Training Course or a Training Course That Does Good?

I earn my crust by running training courses and facilitating development events, of course I want people to think that I am “good” at what I do. It’s important professionally and of course I want them to buy me back! I want them to see me as unflappable, focused and reliable in the way that I manage a bunch of their employees. In short, they need me to be “on it” when it comes to group management – keeping people focused and working hard, dealing effectively with any disruptive miscreants in the ranks!

I am less sure that the courses that look good always do good though. A polished performance and an attentive audience appears professional, however sometimes learning is simply messy and the process of hearing, internalising and discussing new things can appear really shambolic! If I am entirely honest, I am probably guilty of making this worse – stirring the soup to really get people going, albeit in safe, comfortable and constructive way. In this post I would like to look at five reasons a messy course can be a course that does good and how we as trainers can promote this.

1.     Learning is often unlearning. As adults we have extensive experience of the world, including our workplace. Being offered new information often presents us with a challenge to what we already know – things that may believe in, hold dear and are perhaps invested. To take on this new way of doing things, there will inevitably be a struggle as we test out unfamiliar approaches. I have seen participants look genuinely distressed by this as they consider if they need to “let go” of previous beliefs.

Trainers Tip: I often suggest that people shouldn’t be easily convinced by what I am talking about – in the hope that they can really test out the learning. I tell them that it’s ok to disagree. I also reassure people that we’ll have time to chew over these issues throughout the event.

2.     Learning is an emotional business. We know that, for many people, their kinaesthetic response to new material is as important as their intellectual process. They need to get a feel for what is going on, often in a physical manner as well as an emotional one. We may hear occasionally intemperate language, a delegate’s body language may change and their voice tone may indicate strong feelings – irritation and even anger being common.

Trainers Tip: Demonstrating listening to delegates, even when they are behaving in a way that we wish they wouldn’t! Acknowledging their feelings, asking what would help them, asking them to think about times in the past when they have successfully taken on something new. Remember that the purpose of questions in this context is to encourage thought rather than elicit information.

3.    Learning is “Bouncy”. I’m sure that we’ve all had similar experiences. We ask someone a probing question, one that really gets him or her thinking. Their eyes dart around the room, reflecting the brain activity in their heads. Their limbs jerk, their eyebrows twitch, their fingers drum on the nearest surface. This indicates an effective whole body response to the learning challenge. They’re really engaged and motivated in the pursuit of understanding. NOW introduce a group. If we take the example of the person above, with thoughts and ideas “bouncing” around their body and imagine this process repeated between people as well as within them. Now that is messy. People are talking across the room, several conversations at once, while the poor ignored trainer is trying to move them on to the next slide exercise!

Trainer Tip: Enjoy it! Easier said than done I know but if people are really into something relevant, why not let them even if it throws your programme out a bit. Bringing them back just say “thank you everyone” until they start noticing you again! Sometimes the best thing we can do when delegates are learning is to stay out of their way!

4.    Learners take over. Adults love to be in control of their own lives, including their work. In training events this may include a challenge to the trainer, to the content of the course, the skills on offer or even the trainers competence! This is a miserable situation for us, we pride ourselves in trying our best and standing in front of a room full of strangers or our peers or colleagues is a vulnerable position to be in. This position almost always goes unrecognised by delegates who think that you are either 1) an “expert” or 2) someone pretending to be one.

Trainers Tip. Remember that this is normal. We have to allow people control otherwise we will have a fight on our hands adn attempts to “wrestle” control back can be disastrous! Use the language of invitation and request. Remember that once goodwill has left the room, then all the delegates might as well too.

5.    Courses are social events first, learning events second. I don’t often tell my clients this, as they really don’t like it. Understandably they didn’t spend all that money on buying me in, hiring the venue, paying for the refreshments and the delegates’ attendance for you all to have a jolly good time! Of course not, but nevertheless delegates are often keen to link-up on courses, it may be a rare opportunity to connect with people they don’t often see.

Trainers Tip.  Factor it in. Get them chatting in the introduction in a way that’ll help them to check in with others. Don’t be too dictatorial in your management of exercises, allowing an element of chat, particularly in the early stages of the course. Deal with any over-focus on sociability with humour and invite delegates to re-focus on the subject under discussion.


Good luck everyone!

Balancing Purpose and Process

Like many training consultants I’m asked to deliver training to assist organisations implement and area of work that is important to them – often these initiatives begin with a drive to something new and improved and are implemented through guidance, policy and procedure to help ensure that everyone does what they are supposed to do. In other words we begin with a purpose and then design process to help implement our purpose. Nothing wrong with that and indeed it makes sense, however we all know how purposes somehow get lost as we degenerate into making sure that the right paperwork gets filled in.

There are loads of examples. I have lost count of the number of Performance Appraisal schemes I have helped implement. You know the story – low level of compliance in the old scheme so let’s have another! Usually there’s a dizzying swing from light touch scheme’s (not enough info) and detailed schemes (too paperwork heavy). After a while of working with this it began to dawn on me that some organisations had great working cultures where staff were listened to and their priorities were explained and feedback given but had no appraisal scheme, whilst other firms had a top flight scheme but no conversations between leaders and staff took place. We might have great process but if we’ve lost the purpose then we might as well not bother.

I am currently working with an agency which has updated its safeguarding policy and procedures. It’s very refreshing. Yes they have a built in compliance process which ensure that staff are asking about children, recording what they find out and passing the information to the child protection authorities if necessary. They are also ensuring that staff are reminded of the purpose of the process. They are doing this through refreshed supervision expectations, upgrading manager’s skills to encourage confident conversations about the dilemmas of this work. They have made a commitment to supporting staff when there are disagreements with other organisations. Their planned evaluation of the new initiative, includes asking other agencies about the success of the initiative as well forming part of their service user satisfaction survey.

Purpose is not just for the start – we have to relentlessly remind people of this if they are not just “tick boxes”. To paraphrase Mr Covey – not just to do the right thing, but to do the right thing, right.

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