Weaving business and people together

Difficult conversations? Be more dog.

April 9th, 2015


But it made him very clever...

But it made him very clever…

I have a small and very silly dog. Despite being both a psychologist and a parent of 2, to my great embarrassment I haven’t trained him very well. I had to call in a dog behaviourist to help me with his over-zealous guarding behaviour. His re-training involves mind-numbingly monotonous repetition of small actions to help to lower his hyperactive reaction to cyclists, the doorbell, anyone wearing a high-viz jacket, a hoody or a hijab, uncontrolled and scary large dogs, shouty jumpy small children, other living beings with testicles. I can’t get down my street in less than 20 minutes because when someone passes by I have to do a ‘sit, click, treat, good boy, walk on’ manoeuvre. It’s ruined our walks (for me at least) and I can’t tell you how tedious it is, but it’s working really well.

Its working so well that I started to get a little less rigorous about the mind-numbing ‘sit, click, treat, walk on’ routine. Wrong, but I’m only human and it really is dull.  This week I had phone distraction and we passed 2 people in the street without the treat routine. A third person passed. The silly dog looked at me, sat down and stared intently. I tried ‘walk on’ and tugging the lead but he wouldn’t budge. The only thing that got him to move was a treat, and he then happily walked on. I realized that the training was now reversed and HE is in fact training ME. He’s been training me for quite some time. He sits at the back door and I get up and let him out. He sits by his bowl at the right time of day and I open a tin.  He stares up at me in a cute way and I give him a treat. He gives me a hugely enthusiastic welcome and I do the same in return. And now he’s worked out how to get me to give him more treats. Not so silly, then.

It’s not hard to make a link between this and work relationships. Even when we have less power, we can still ‘train’ those we interact with if we observe closely.  If we think about difficult conversations from a dog’s perspective, it’s not so complicated. How do I get the outcome I want, what behaviours of mine create the outcomes I want, how can I display more of those? If your colleague gets annoyed when you ask a lot of questions but more enthusiastic when you start by agreeing…then you could just agree more. If they are irritable and stressed on ‘report-in’ Tuesdays… don’t do anything to add to their stress, but try an equivalent to the’ sit, click, treat, walk on’ routine.  If they respond really well to a colleague with minimal body language, and you are the big bouncy type…try adopting that non-verbal style. It may be easier for them to handle and we generate more visceral responses than we realize. As an American colleague of mine used to say (in a Texas drawl) ‘we’re all critters, Annie’.

People who get on fast in organisations work this out early on. The interesting challenge is how to deal with this if you are a senior manager. There’s a strong possibility that small armies of your staff are spending vast amounts of time working out what behaviours to use to please you (and get their treats.) Much of this is helpful but it might include less helpful behaviours like not giving you bad news, not addressing real issues, giving you what pleases you rather than what the business needs. Very early on in my career I was lucky enough to do a project for a self-aware and wise senior manager. I was presenting some information from a staff attitude survey and he started musing about some potential actions to take in response to some of the results. He paused, looked at me and said: ‘Don’t do anything about what I just said. I’m just wondering aloud. It’s a real challenge for senior managers. Sometimes I find out 6 months later that a huge project has been started as a response to my just wondering something aloud, and someone interpreted it as an order.’ He totally understood his part in the sub-texts of organisational performance and was acutely aware of the impact of his behaviour on others, how this would drive their actions, and how alert you have to be to all the signals you give. I suspect he had a dog.

And the question I leave you with is:  Do you know how your colleagues are training you?

PS. Any resemblance in this blog to advertising phrases used by Telcos is entirely accidental.

  1. Hi Anne
    What a wonderful article…what struck me most however was the photo of the dog – which I am assuming is yours. (S)he as is often the case looks curiously like his/her owner…and is clearly as clever. Small, cute and mischievious with a wisdom and wit to entertain 🙂 Thank you!

    by: Brigid Garvey on May 18, 2015 at 2:57 pm
    • errrrm….thanks Brigid! I’d just like to say that the dog is my son’s and he chose it. And his name is NOT oedipus. 🙂

      by: Anne Owen on May 18, 2015 at 9:45 pm


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