How to have difficult conversations

I’ve recently been reading Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler), because I wanted to know how to have hard conversations with people. It’s something that everyone struggles with.

Designers at my company can’t be successful if they can’t communicate their ideas to stakeholders, ask for resources or deal well with conflicts. Whether at work or at home, if you can’t talk about the things that matter to you, you’ll end up in less-than-ideal situations. 

I wanted to outline some things from Crucial Conversations that stuck out for me. 


Understand how you got into this particular conflict or issue:

  1. Notice your behavior. Ask: Am I in some form of silence or violence (flight or fight)
  2. Get in touch with your feelings. What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?
  3. Analyze your stories. What story is creating these emotions?
  4. Get back to the facts. What evidence do I have to support this story that I’m telling myself about the situation?

Watch for clever stories that we tell ourselves. 

  1. Victim stories: you intentionally ignore the role you have played in the problem. You tell your story in a way that judiciously avoids whatever you had done that might have contributed to the problem
  2. Villain stories: automatically assuming the worst possible motives or grossest incompetence while ignoring any possible good or neutral intentions or skills a person have have. 
  3. Helpless stories: Making ourselves to be powerless to do anything healthy or helpful. 

These  stories get us off the hook and keep us from acknowledging our own sellouts. When we feel the need to push our ideas on others, it’s generally because we believe we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We exaggerate, lace our language with inflammatory terms and appeal to authority (“everyone knows this is the case, even my boss thinks so”). The harder we try, the greater resistance we create, the worse the results and the more battered our relationships. 

Focus on what you really want 

Focus your brain on the end goal when conversing so that you are responding in a way that will get you there rather than continuing to fuel a fire or comments that lean away from it. “…as the conversation unfolds and you find yourself starting to, say, defer to the boss or give your spouse the cold shoulder, pay attention to what’s happening to your objectives. Are you starting to change your goal to save face, avoid embarrassment, win, be right, or punish others?…Our motives usually change without any conscious thought on our part.”

Ask yourself these questions when you find yourself slipping out of dialogue:

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?
  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Make it safe.

“The worst at dialogue …totally ignore the crying need for more safety. They say whatever is on their minds – with no regard for how it will be received. Or…they conclude the topic is completely unsafe and move to silence. The good realize that safety is at risk, but they fix it in exactly the wrong way. They try to make the subject more palatable by sugarcoating their message…. They try to make things safer by watering down or dressing up their content. This strategy, of course, avoids the real problem, and it never gets fixed.”

The best do this:

“Can we change gears for a minute? I’d like to talk about what happens when <insert problem>. It would be good if we could both share what’s working and what isn’t. My goal isn’t to make you feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to become defensive. What’ I’d really love is for us to come up with a solution that makes us both satisfied in <scenario>.”

^ The person is being upfront about the issue rather than avoid it. They create contrasting statements that help to make the situation safe for the other person. And they stated a goal that they wanted to achieve. 

Remember the ABCS

  1. Agree: point out areas of agreement.
  2. Build: add elements that were left out of the discussion
  3. Compare: rather than suggesting that he/she is wrong, suggest that you differ. Rather than saying “wrong!”, try “I think I see things differently. Let me describe how.”

Document your outcomes. Write down the conclusions and decisions you’ve made. Make sure that there’s a follow-up and that you’re both held accountable. 

Last step: read Crucial Conversations

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The design of food 🍔

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A few months ago, I blogged about how I have intestinal dysbiosis.

TL;DR: I got a parasite infection & the antibiotics wiped out my entire gut micro-biome. I recovered shortly thereafter. This April, I had another bout of food poisoning. I receive yet another round of antibiotics. This time, there was no recovery. My gut bacteria had been altered one too many times.

Well, I’ve now had dysbiosis for 5 months. It’s led to countless doctor’s visits, lab tests and breakdowns. After months of denial, anger and depression, I’ve finally accepted that my diet will need to change for the long term. No more gluten, lactose or sugar.

That means every single place that is convenient to eat out is no longer an option: cafes, sandwich shops, burger joints, the bread before the meal, the 3-min ravioli at Safeway, the breakfast table near the conference room filled with an assortment of muffins, croissants and danishes.

At first I was devastated. I thought, how could this be? I resigned myself to never eating out to stop thinking about macaroni and cheese and cookie dough ice cream. Slowly, I’ve come to the realization that I didn’t grow up craving these foods. My mother didn’t and doesn’t bake. I hardly ever ate sugar except on vacation. We actually never really ate out. There weren’t actually that many restaurants in our small town.

So I started thinking about why I liked these foods. It wasn’t until college that I start eating sweets. The college cafeteria didn’t have many vegetables, but they had tons and tons of desserts every single day. I switched over into eating these foods, because they were often better than the vegetables they served, which were undercooked, over-steamed and bland. I gained 15 lbs during college. I joined that club.

When I graduated, I found a job in Boston and slowly went back to the diet that I grew up on – rice, vegetables and seafood. As a result, I lost my college weight almost immediately. However, I also ate out more often, as my friends opted for restaurants as the main arena of socialization.

Later, when I moved to San Francisco I started traveling for work, which entailed eating out as much as every single day for a whole week, something I found unnerving. I ate a lot of foods that were deep fried, heavily sweetened and chock-full of salt.

Perhaps, the worst part of this, is that I got used to it. So naturally, when I put myself on a more restricted diet, I started craving these carbs and sugars. I would look for excuses. I would seek out cookies that were gluten-free, instead of cutting out cookies altogether. I would look for cereals and snacks made of brown rice instead of wheat.

But when my symptoms got worse, I realized that I was only fooling myself. I decided to stop eating these processed foods altogether. It was a real turning point for me.

I had to do undo about 6-10 years worth of social influencing, marketing, and lifestyle habits. I had to look at the places we often cling to as forums for conversation – cafes and ice cream shops – differently than I once did and ask myself: why do these places mostly sell sweets and carbs? Because they’re cheap to stock and profitable.

Sugars and grains can last for a very long time and often don’t need refrigeration. Salmon and bell peppers have finite shelf lives and need to be kept cold. So businesses look for cheap options that can be transported and stored easily. 

Dr. William Davis describes in Wheat Belly that we used to only eat seeds of grass in periods when it was hard to find vegetables and meat, because they could be stored during times of famine. We’re not even supposed to be eating them. 

Many food businesses will add extra sugar and salt to their products so that you’ll buy them again and again. They don’t promise a healthy meal. They promise a good time (think about Coca Cola ads). They’re not looking out for me, so I need to look for me. I want to know exactly what I’m eating. 

I wasn’t planning on making a lifestyle change when I became sick, but it’s taught me so much about how we can take care of ourselves. It turns out that the restricted diet I’m on for my dysbiosis might be the one I should be on forever. (I’m on the Whole30 program and paleo diet by default, so I reckon it’s not a bad way to go.)

It’s been 3 months, since I’ve had any processed foods or added sugars. While, I still crave carbs and sugars from time to time, I no longer feel sad about not being about to have them. I feel more okay about sticking to my choices, which are exactly that. I can have all the sugars and grains in the world if I want, but I know that they’ll worsen my dysbiosis.

Even if I recover 100% from dysbiosis, I would still refrain from my former way of eating. This isn’t about getting back to the way I used to be, this is about living better. So it you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make my plate of shrimp, tomatoes and zucchini. 

Great User Experience in Real Life

Demilked had a great article on products that have well-thought designs. I want to highlight 8 of my favorite ideas here.

  1. Actual towels for makeup removal. It’s useful, because I hate ruining really nice, white towels with dark mascara.

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2. This shower knob has the temperatures on it, so you’ll know what your favorite showering temperature is.

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3. This highlighter finally lets you see what you’re highlighting.

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4. This bench can be cranked so if it’s wet, you can still turn it to get a dry surface.

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5. More fruits and vegetables could use stickers like this one.

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6. Color-coded baskets that indicate to staff whether you’d like help while shopping.

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7. Chair with slot for bag handle.

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8. This carton tells you how many more glasses of juice you have left.

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A digression

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For the past few months, I’ve been struggling with intestinal dysbiosis. It means that there’s an imbalance in your gut flora. I developed this condition from a number of different things – a parasite infection and it’s anti-parasite medicines, food poisoning abroad and antibiotics. I’m not entirely sure which one really did it.

Some days are ok. Many days are miserable. On these days, everything I eat gives me intense abdominal pain, and I can’t focus on work or design or really anything. It stops me from traveling for work, eating out, being comfortable in a variety of social situations.

Most of my energy now has been focused on which foods and probiotics I should be taking to get better. Every day is an experiment. I learned that grapefruit and avocados makes me feel worse but chia-millet bread and eggs are ok. I no longer eat anything containing wheat, milk, onions, and a plethora of other foods. Eating one wrong thing will undo all the right things that I previously ate that day. I get scared when I have to go somewhere that doesn’t have the foods I need.

Quite honestly, I’m scared all the time.

My parents ask me whether my stomach has improved every time I talk to them on the phone. My answer is always “not really.”

I don’t want to give up. If you know anyone who’s gotten better from dybiosis, tell me their story. I need to get better.