Reframe sensitive issues and make them your own

Is there an elephant in your boardroom? Then own it. Today. Tomorrow may be too late: Making sense of the Swedish Democrats and the rise of the far right in Europe.

We live in a fast-changing world with an increasingly nomadic global workforce. So being scared of immigration at the beginning of the globalized 21st century is little like a horse and carriage owner fearing the arrival of motor vehicles at the beginning of the 20th. They had serious grounds to feel worried. But history shows us that their survival depended on resisting fear, and embracing change – not resisting change and embracing fear.

Change is always unsettling, but it is completely unavoidable. As Sweden faces one of its most serious leadership crises in recent memory, now is a good time to reflect on what I have been training leaders to see for the past ten years: Avoiding conflict creates conflict. We have to take people’s fears seriously. Put off a difficult issue today and it will come back to haunt you tomorrow.

So how can we best discuss difficult issues with people who are afraid? What makes them so ‘difficult’ in the first place? And how can we best reframe these issues, and, if necessary, make them our own?

“How could it happen? And in Sweden of all places!”

At a Conference in London recently I heard this time and again when the talk turned to politics. The Swedish Democrats’ (SD) huge election gains had clearly made headlines worldwide. And we’re not alone. In Denmark the Danish People’s Party is now the country’s third largest political party. In the UK the anti-immigration party UKIP is growing, as is the National Front in France. Throughout Europe far-right groups are winning votes from an electorate who perceive their leaders as refusing to discuss a key issue – immigration.

Firmly holding the balance of power here in Sweden, the SD have now forced a second general election due March 2015, billing it as ‘a referendum on immigration.’ And yet despite all this the leaders of all Sweden’s other parties continue their policy of refusing any dialogue with SD, and avoiding any attempt to discuss immigration and make the issue their own. It’s a serious reminder that when facing a ‘difficult’ issue silence is not an option. So talk. Talk again. Spot sensitive issues early on (Which subjects trigger silence at meetings? What do people seem most afraid of discussing?) Research them. Reframe them. And if they really are that important — make them your own.

We all know those meetings!

The whole thing reminds me of the terrible damage poorly managed work meetings around difficult issues can do. We all know the situation: A sensitive issue is discussed. A number of people clearly don’t agree (look out for silence, it’s always a tell-tale sign of suppressed dissent!) but they don’t speak up. Instead, they leave the meeting pretending to be committed to a decision they don’t believe in and resent. Then, inevitably, the whispering begins. They talk to others afterwards and slowly build a coalition. And all the time the managers who have ‘made the decision’ continue as nothing has happened, too afraid to interpret the silence for what their instincts tell them it really is: A sign of deep-seated disagreement. Fear, as ever, breeds fear. Silence creates a vacuum. The subject under discussion becomes even more sensitive – the silence surrounding it even louder. Sadly, the end result is a fragmented organization, (or in this case a fragmented country) with conflicted groups acting on conflicting messages – instead of the one, clear message a courageous leader could deliver.

No subject is off-limits for a courageous leader

Why are certain subjects deemed extremely sensitive? Often it’s exactly because they haven’t been discussed openly. The emotional meaning we put on an issue is the important thing –the more silence we allow to grow around an issue the bigger it becomes. Fearing something always makes it seem larger. We don’t fear, for example, that discussing education (even though it directly concerns our children) would automatically make us ‘anti-children.’ So why the extreme sensitivity around immigration? Ironically, many immigrants themselves, and Swedes with immigrant parents, seem cool, open, eager even to discuss the issue. Why can’t we be? Ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Make uncovering your fears and the fears of your colleagues a priority.

You can plan for change but you can’t avoid it 

Hans Rosling, Sweden’s internationally respected statistics guru, states that globalization and an increasingly nomadic international workforce will be one of the four defining factors in human development over the next 50 years. In a recent interview with the BBC he stated that in 80 years’ time developed nations will have to pay people to immigrate to fill key labour roles in their economy. Immigration, he said, is not just useful, it is a necessity. Think of your own workplace: How many people are there from foreign backgrounds or heritage, compared to the working generation of your parents?

Yes, we are living through a period of huge global change. And change frightens us, as we move into the unknown. But avoiding it is impossible. Refusing it is not an option. Leadership is all about change. As leaders we show the way, so that people dare to move into the unknown. As a courageous leader you will sometimes need to make decisions that not everybody will be comfortable with.

Avoiding conflict creates conflict

The root of the present Swedish situation illustrates this. Sweden prides itself on consensus – at any cost! And it’s been a key factor in the SD’s success. Other major parties have remained silent towards them for fear of colluding in racist policies and threatening ‘the consensus.’ When clearly there is no consensus. Sweden’s immigration policies too have consistently embraced ‘integration’ as the ideal. But what exactly does that mean? Fear makes things vague. Fear makes things cloudy. How exactly can we say when someone is ‘integrated’ and when they’re not? What is it we’re trying to achieve by concentrating on ‘integration’?

From 1986 to 1990 I was an immigrant. I emigrated to Australia with my family and worked their full-time. One thing became clear as we integrated and assimilated ever more tightly into Australian society. Despite socializing exclusively with Australians, despite being fluent in English, despite avoiding hanging out with other ‘ex-pats’, I never, ever felt Australian. I contributed. I paid my taxes. I was sought after, highly qualified and from a ‘high status’ nationality, but I remained Swedish – deep down, and permanently. But my contribution and my commitment were none the less for this. I adored my time in Australia. I valued it and was valued. Was my ultimate lack of integration really an issue? Did it really make me my contribution as a citizen any the less?

Maybe Sweden’s emphasis on ‘integration’ as the benchmark for successful immigration itself reveals fear. It certainly shows that fear has dominated the debate and has not been exclusive to the SD. A radical reframing of the issue could take Rosling’s data into account. Maybe immigration is a necessity and a positive, something not to be feared, but embraced – whether it includes total integration or not. Fear creates a cloud of misinformation and vagueness. Clarity, vision and finding the courage to radically reframe the argument are what is needed here.

What does your team not talk about?

What would it mean for the business if you could discuss this topic openly?

How to keep the elephant away

How can we keep the elephant out of the room by preventing fear from building around an issue? And if it’s already there, how can we make ‘fearful issues’ our own, reframing them to change perception and understanding?

1. Be prepared to lead the way

Are you prepared to lead the way? A leader needs to have the courage to choose leadership ahead of inclusion, and usually finds that inclusion is the result – with the people you truly want to feel included by! When there is a conflict you have to talk about it. You’re a leader. That’s your task. Always be warm, gracious, clear and empathetic. You can count on other people seeing things you haven’t – but only if you openly discuss the issue first.

2. Research and reframe, don’t respond and refute

When taking on a difficult issue that is already creating fear and confusion in an organization, reframe and own it yourself. Research present and previous understanding of the issue. Approach it creatively, not responsively. Try to reframe it so that those who are fearful need to re-think and respond in a new way. Immigration, for example, could be seen, as the SD see it, as a threat that must be resisted. But it could also be seen as an opportunity it would be suicidal to ignore. Reframe the argument as: What will happen to our country if we don’t embrace immigration? Don’t respond and refute – research and reframe.

3. Admit you’re scared about the subject too

Sometimes it only takes one person to gather the courage to address an issue to open the flood gates and let others join in. Openly acknowledging that you are aware that this is a sensitive issue can liberate and reassure others, showing them that you understand the issue’s importance, and realize it must be addressed.

4. Remind yourself of how much denying the issue could cost

Remember, not tackling the issue today could cost time and money tomorrow. Think of the SD story and ask yourself – what could denying this issue cost your organization in the middle and long term?

5. Don’t BLAME: Be empathetic but firm

When talking to someone who is hostile, defensive and who feels they are not being listened to, always remember you are talking to someone who is scared. This requires enormous empathy. The tone must be warm, friendly, curious but absolutely non-judgmental. Blame is toxic here. Blame will not help. The conversation should focus on identifying the fears. Do not ask the fearful person to justify their views (“Why do you want to exclude immigrants and reduce their numbers?”) But seek for emotional truth: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”, “What are you afraid of here?”, “What do you need?”

6. When talking to ‘victims’ remember you are talking to someone who is afraid

Again, people playing the victim role base their opinions on fear. So explore that fear. What might they be afraid of? How can you best reassure them about these fears? They are basing their victimization on profound needs. Ask them about these. Be absolutely clear that you have heard them. Think how you can help meet those needs. And if you can’t, explain clearly and exactly why not.

7. Being heard outweighs being right

Often just the act of addressing sensitive issues head-on can release the tension and fear around them and make them more manageable. For many people, being heard outweighs being right. Talking openly acknowledges people’s priorities, and often makes them more amenable to change.

8. Always check you’ve been heard – don’t just inform. Communicate

Check to make sure people feel they have been heard. After a difficult discussion or negotiation, ask “What do you need from me now?” This can tell you if they feel heard or not, and often moves them from victim and blame thinking into accountability, and a more creative mindset. Instead of just continuing to demand the impossible they start to engage with what is possible, and take responsibility for that, safe in the knowledge they have been heard, and can begin to address possible solutions, not impossible demands. If rival politicians had publicly discussed immigration with the SD head-on, and said, “Yes we understand your needs and issues clearly. They are important. Here are the reasons why we will not meet your proposals…” and then “So what do you need from us now?” public reaction to the party could have been very different. (It is one thing supporting someone you perceive as the only person to have addressed a difficult issue. But quite another to continue supporting them even when the issue has been fully aired, but they remain completely uncompromising.)

9. Understand the difference between setting boundaries and presenting an ultimatum

Following on from this, understand the difference between a firm no, and an ultimatum. Anything like “if you do/don’t do this I will exit/destroy the negotiations” is extremely destructive. It is a 100% sure sign of a breakdown of communications, guaranteed to create more fear, and a desire for revenge. Avoid it at all costs. Always be prepared and have the courage to find the fear, listen to it fully and completely, and then decide on your next step.

10. Plan and have a goal

Deciding your goals beforehand, knowing your facts, preparing well, taking a calm approach deciding what you’d like to achieve and reframing the issue in a completely new way – all these avoid emotions spiraling out of control.

11. Schedule enough time for meetings

Many people don’t put aside enough time for meetings. This might sound incredible when you think of how much time you actually spend in meetings! But all too often we don’t prioritize meetings that are going to tackle sensitive issues. As courageous leaders we need to. Allow time for conflicts to be resolved. Again, remind yourself of the cost of denying or delaying resolution.

12. If you are feeling excluded or victimized

Ask yourself ‘what is it I am afraid of being accountable and responsible for?’, ‘what is my part in all this?’ Often if you feel you are being excluded it is because you are afraid. You are avoiding doing what has to be done if you are to become part of the solution. You are avoiding your part in the problem – and in the solution. Don’t. Own it. Ask yourself what you are afraid of. How important is it to be right? And how important to be part of a solution?

13. Get a neutral party on board

In situations of long term exclusion or conflict a neutral facilitator or moderator can work wonders. They are impartial and independent and every party can trust them. They will help structure the communication in such a way that both parties are given the opportunity to listen to each other. And feel heard.

14. Which of the five defense models are you acting out?

Embracing the victim role is only one of five classic defense mechanisms we act out when we feel threatened. As well as the victim we have the critic, the denier, the demander and the helper. When challenging issues arise, listen out for the voice saying ‘more, more, more!’ (the demander), ‘I’m better than you’ (the critic) and ‘there, there, let me help’ (the denier.) In future blogs I’m going to talk more about these ways of avoiding accountability that we can all slip into. So it’s worth sticking around for – I hope you can join me. And in the meantime – keep an eye on those elephants!