Megan Leigh McDonald
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'Don't make me think.' Steve Krug

Megan Leigh McDonald

More Than One Way to Tell a Story

Corporations are difficult entities to run. There are a lot of people to manage and a lot of personality conflicts that get in the way of productivity and plain old ‘morale’. I have a theory, though, that to effect change in any organization, we don’t need self help gurus or corporate therapists to come in and fix our dysfunctions. Instead of seeing a therapist, we need to each become a therapist.

Anyone who has ever been to a therapist knows that it feels like stepping in a pile of doggy poo. You’re sitting there on that couch because you’ve either got a problem to ‘fix’ or someone has strongly encouraged (i.e., blackmailed) you to go. Whatever the reason, that therapist is an ‘authority’ based merely on the fact that he/she ‘knows’ how to fix you and you’ve got doggy poo on your shoe. In a word, it’s a little humiliating. It’s not like going to a regular doctor who fixes physical ailments and at the worst makes you feel guilty about not flossing or having high cholesterol.

And there is usually no physician at work that could help anyways. No one is going to analyze the facts and give you a prescription to follow to get better results from your cross-functional team. And the last time I checked, there is no magic pill for getting people to cooperate, collaborate or even listen to anyone’s voice but their own. If there were, I would be distributing it in the form of brownies every Monday morning.

Situations in constant stalemate may drive you to a therapist, but seeing a therapist is no picnic. It’s an exercise in which you expect him/her to tell you what your problem is and he/she doesn’t. A therapist will refuse to tell you the direct answer, and, instead, proceed to drive you mad by guiding you to see it for yourself. I feel like if my therapist knows what’s wrong with me, why can’t he just tell me? Why is he keeping it a secret? This could sometimes, be how we feel about each other at work too.

But therapists are there to help you solve your problems, not to solve your problems. And, that a-ha moment IS enlightening. It builds an appreciation for how well I can hide from my own self when I don’t want to accept my flaws or those of the people around me. I always recommend it even if you have to make up a problem to fix because you just learn so much. And, the last time I checked, there was no liberal arts requirement for ’emotional IQ’.

At work, I tend to speak my mind directly, but also try to grease the wheels and persuade when there is a disagreement – until it backfires. And then I’m left in the terrible position of feeling depleted, misunderstood and in some cases a bit resentful when something I strongly believe in is dismissed. Then of course, I risk being viewed as a petulant child if I express that, which is pretty far from the truth.

This all leads me to what I’ve been pondering: how to tell the story better? Specifically, I am starting to see that telling the story is merely simplistic persuasion. Maybe I can take a lesson from the discipline of therapy. When there is churn, I could try guiding people to the right answer, to see for themselves what needs to be done.

A good cognitive therapist has a unique vantage point, as well as tons of education that put them in the position to see the big picture from the first session to the last. And, in a very similar way, I feel as a User Experience Designer, I advise business stakeholders on how to solve their problems. Most of us use our gut instincts, but some of us also use statistics and user research to back up our advice. But we’ve all been there, in a room full of passionate people all trying to meet various business goals and no one agreeing on how and all of our efforts falling by the wayside.

At no time in my life have I seen so clearly how telling people something is so ineffective. I myself relate well to people telling me information. I absorb it, I look at ways to use it, I pick a point in the big picture and throw down a flag where that information is most usefully applied. But I have to remember that the way I think may be more unique than I own up to. So when a person is a unique thinker, the story is harder to tell, because people who hear it don’t really hear it the way the storyteller thinks it. Why else would five people see a piece of abstract art entirely differently?

As Designers, our colleagues have different perspectives and levels of experience that we have to take into account as well as respect. So I take a lesson from psychologists. I look at their methods and consider ways that I can prompt people to come to their own conclusion. I want them to have the a-ha moments that they can ‘own’ – it’s more exciting and productive for the business if they are empowered like that.

I can ask them sincere questions even if I already think I know the answer myself. I can ask them what they think the impact of a change would make. By doing that, I put myself in what I fondly call the ‘downward dog’ position because I’m essentially talking ‘up’ to them instead of down…I’m coming from a different place that allows me to speak to them respectfully.

I can deflect inconsiderate behavior by refraining from engaging in argumentation. I can ask someone why they are getting upset or look at them inquiringly. I could express concern.

I can also stop myself from caving by just remaining quiet a little longer before responding. I can rephrase or take it ‘offline’. I can stop myself from automatically being agreeable.

Working on bonding is potent. By taking the focus off of the ‘other’ in arguments, animosity dissipates. There is no ‘me’ and no opposite of me…there is only a ‘we’. That is a powerful word, if used wisely.

Understanding that the relationship is about me leading my counterparts to see what I see or vice versa, focuses my interactions. Then, any way that I can accomplish this goal is good and anything that gets in the way is something to be dropped. I hope this doesn’t come off as overly analytical or cold. I wish that I could say all communications were organic and natural, but they’re not especially in large, diverse groups and corporations. However, I do think the more I practice these skills, the more natural they will feel.

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