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Episode 14 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Steve: “Now Peter, let’s talk about how you will handle the problem with John.”

Peter: “I’ll do my best.”. Avoiding each other doesn’t help us much.”

Steve: “True. In our previous meeting you told me that you under- stand his position a lot better than before. You realized that John has a lot on his mind. After all, he is fairly new to this company and he has to prove himself.”

Steve carefully chooses his words. He quotes Peter from the previous meeting. It was Peter who suggested the hypothesis that insecurity and lack of experience may account for John’s overly controlling behavior. Therefore, John’s behavior is not so much a direct personal attack on Peter but more a personal issue for himself. If Peter can feel that John’s behavior is no attack, he will no longer be tempted to defend himself. Instead of resisting John, he can start cooperating with him.

Peter: “That’s true but it doesn’t allow him to treat me the way he has been treating me up to now.”

Steve: “I understand. Wisdom comes with age.”

Steve: “wisdom comes with age”

Peter said that he himself had been insecure in the beginning of his career and that he behaved like John in those days. The expression that “wisdom comes with age” contains a subliminal compliment to Peter. It implies that Steve sees Peter as a person with experience and self-confidence. This simple sentence invites Peter to use his wisdom to solve the problem at hand.

By the way, you probably noticed that Steve said: “I understand” and not “I agree.” Do you see the difference? Steve wants to make sure that he never gives Peter the impression that he favors him over John. Yet Steve acknowledges what Peter says. This again shows Steve’s linguistic art in using solution talk. We don’t need many words to say a lot!

Peter: “Thanks. What’s your suggestion?”
Steve: “None. I prefer your own suggestion from our last meeting. Last time you explained to me that you had found an elegant way of killing two birds with one stone.”

Peter: “What do you mean?”

Peter is not using his own resources and therefore is on the buyer position. Steve gives advice by using information that comes from Peter himself.

Steve: “You told me that you could do two things at a time. While at the same time keeping him informed about the positive progress you and your team make, you can slip in minor problems for which you ask for his advice. That way John will have a finger in the pie without interfering too much.”

Peter: “Isn’t that unethical?”

Steve: “Not necessarily. It’s not like you are cheating John or the company. On the contrary, this requires you to make the first step. You have to take the initiative to go and talk with him.”

Peter: “I see. So maybe I have to find a neutral topic to talk about.”

Steve: “Maybe. But why beat around the bush? Both of you have more than enough topics to talk about. Maybe your contractor bonus idea is a good starter. You could work out this idea together with someone from your team. In order not to confront John with a fait accompli, you might present him this plan with some gaps in it and ask him for supervision. That way, he gets a chance to add some of his own ideas and the plan becomes a joint plan.”

Peter: “I think John will be more likely to accept the plan if I work it out in concrete numbers. I’ll calculate the estimated costs and profits of the proposal. I’ll also calculate the cost of carrying out the project the traditional way. Then John can compare both results. If I can get him interested enough, I’m pretty sure that he can and will add interesting points of view.”

Peter picks up on the suggestion and is now using his own resources: he is in the co-expert position. Steve only needs to encourage him to do more of the same that works.

Steve: “Correct. If you can show him hard data that supports the new method, chances are high that he will buy into it. You know that John is always interested in something new, and you know his remarks about ‘dinosaurs’.”

Peter: “OK, I will give it a try. I believe he might buy into my new method but only if he sees the hard data. However, cooperating with me, now that’s an entirely different matter. Certainly, after the mess we made of our ‘cooperation’ during the last few weeks. How on earth will I get cooperation from John?”

Steve: “That might be pretty simple, although it won’t be easy. Again, you will need to take the first step. You could start off the meeting by telling him that you are convinced that his contribution and improvements will be essential for the success of the plan. That would be a nice compliment, don’t you think?”

Peter: “Yes. Plus, it shows John that I am willing to bury the hatchet. Actually, it will not be that difficult because I really think that his contribution is valuable.”

Steve: “When you do this, you are already cooperating.”

Peter: “Good idea, I can use your T.E.A.M. concept. Solutions Focus will gain from this, as we all will. This is an elegant solution that won’t oblige me to go down on my knees before John.”

Steve: “Sure Peter, no use for that. This is not about going down on your knees for each other but about cooperating for results. You can be sure that the board will appreciate and endorse your joint project plan. Good work and good luck.”

The outcome

The weeks go by in a mad rush. Peter makes a habit of saying “Hi” to John every morning. Initially John was surprised by Peter’s friendly behavior, but he really appreciated it and told Peter so.

Over the course of three Saturday morning meetings, Peter finalizes his plan with the help of some of the new employees. Then he invites John to have a breakfast meeting, saying that he needs John’s supervision with some matters. This meeting goes smoothly and is very successful. Both are pleased and surprised to find that they are able to talk to each other in an entirely different style than before. Steve is updated over the telephone. He receives the project plan by mail and is pleased to note that both men signed the document.

The evening of their last scheduled meeting, Peter calls Steve at home to cancel and apologizes for canceling so late. He tells Steve that John has invited him to come along on a working visit to a sister company. Steve congratulates Peter on the project plan and on the cooperative style that he and John have developed. When Steve asks if Peter thinks it necessary that they meet again, Peter says, “I don’t think so. We are all set, and I can manage on my own. But thanks for the help.” In the following months John and Peter slowly but gradually replace their battle with a growing mutual respect. They never became best friends, but that isn’t really necessary anyway. As long as they respect each other as colleagues they can work together successfully.

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 13 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Steve: “Good, what else would help in the upcoming project?”

Peter: “More of the same, I guess. But now things are more complex, especially for the dismantling. The contractor and my people will be working together closely. I have confidence in my own people, but given the degree of complexity, I really have to find the best contractors for this project. However, I’m afraid that if I put too much emphasis on the degree of complexity, the contractors will think twice. They might charge so much that we’ll definitely run over budget.”

Steve: “This seems like a good start. How could you turn the contractor that gets the deal into a strategic partner? I mean, should we design the agreement in such a way that the contractor will face disadvantages if Solteam is faced with disadvantages but will reap benefits if Solteam is in a good position?”

Peter is on the verge of a new idea without realizing it himself. Being an expert in the solution-focused model, in which cooperation between all parties concerned is crucial, Steve suggests the idea of “strategic partnership.” He demonstrates again that suggestions in the form of questions work the best.

Steve: “This seems like a good start.

Peter: “Yes, we’d better team up with the contractors. Or even better, ‘T. E. A. M.’ up with them. (Giggles.) This reminds me of an idea I’ve played with in the past but which I have never used. I’ll tell you about it, but you have to tell me immediately if you think it’s stupid. Anyhow, a lot of internal lobbying would be needed to carry out this idea because Solteam. has never done anything like this.”

Stepping out of the problem fixation helps you to think out of the box. The insights and techniques of the solution-focused model provide mental space where creativity can bloom. The constructive working relationship allows for ideas that you did not dare to think, let alone talk about, before. Using solution-focused questions will lift the self- censorship barrier. Managers often have “wild” ideas that they never bring up for fear of making a fool of themselves. Yet these ideas are often quite valuable!

Steve: “Wonderful, Peter. Now you are really making me curious. Tell me.”

Peter: “Of course, I still have to work out the details, but roughly it comes down to this. Before the negotiation of the contract starts, we stipulate that bonuses and fines can be given to the contractors, just like with car insurance. Fines are easy — if they go over budget, miss the deadline, or fail to meet quality standards, we can fine them. This is a classic, nothing new here — except for the quality part, those initiatives have already been adopted at Solteam. But the bonus side is new for us. Paying extra is not something that is a custom in this company. It will be very difficult to convince Solteam to accept paying these bonuses, even if we as a company benefit from them. Basically, the contractor could earn a substantial bonus if he meets the defined goals regarding time, budget, and quality. The only thing we have to do in advance is work out how we can calculate our profit if we find ourselves in the fortunate position of having to pay the bonus. How much do we gain when the project is on time and on budget? The faster the dismantling is done, the faster the new product line can be set up and become operational. That’s when the money starts pouring into Solteam’s pockets.”

Steve: “That’s great, Peter, I’m impressed. How did you come up with this idea? It’s excellent.”

Peter: “Thanks! Well, it isn’t that new. I read an article about it in a business magazine some time ago and I started thinking about a way to implement this idea in Solutions Focus. I think I even have some drafts on it somewhere. I hope I can still find them.”

Steve: “I have to congratulate you. Find those drafts and work out all the details. The idea of recovering the costs of the bonuses is especially wonderful. That way you create a win-win situation between Solteam and the contractors. T.E.A.M is the correct word to use here! If you need any help selling this idea to the management, I’ll be the first to lend you a hand.”

Now Peter is firmly in the co-expert position: he is using his own resources to solve his problem all by himself. But there is more! Peter also comes up with a way to put the future contractor in the co-expert position as well. This shows that he has internalized the solution-focused approach without either of them saying one word about the model. The solution-focused model is about solutions, not about theory! Let’s see if Peter finds a similarly useful way to tackle the “simpler” problem with John.

Steve: “Now Peter, let’s talk about how you will handle the problem with John.”

You probably notice the implication in this sentence that Steve trusts Peter’s ability to solve this issue. By the way, it’s not because Peter is in the co-expert position regarding the contractors’ issue that this means he is in the same position when it comes to the problem in his relationship with John. Steve assumes that it is safe to go one step back and do a little preparation.

Peter: “I’ll do my best.”
Steve: “From what you tell me, it seems that the rough edges have softened somewhat over the past few weeks. Maybe the fact that you haven’t been seeing each other much lately accounts for this. But still, you have already popped into his office once. OK, he wasn’t there, but nothing stops you from trying again.”

(to be continued)

Already read the last episode 14
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‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 12 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Peter: “Well, two things actually. One has more to do with the business than the other. To start with, I would like to talk about the external contractors for the project. John thinks that I am too soft and informal with them. I don’t agree with him. I am as courteous to them as is necessary. You can imagine that these projects are very complex. It is customary to set eighty percent of the price up front and the rest as the project moves on. Experience tells me that contractors play with the pricing of the last twenty percent according to the complexity of the project. But it also depends on the way they are treated by us. They are businessmen too, and they know how to count. If they get the impression that we are milking them dry from the beginning, they will recuperate their losses during the last part of the project. Then it turns into a legal war that costs a lot of time and money. I want to discuss how I can avoid this during the course of this project. Second, Steve, I am tired of the argument I have with John. As colleagues we have to be able to deal with each other in a normal way instead of constantly avoiding each other. I am really fed up with that. If we don’t change something here, it will get worse in the short term. I don’t want to risk having my team members use our discord to hide their own responsibilities.”

Steve: “Perfect. What would you like to start with — the contractors or John?”

Peter: “It doesn’t really matter.”

Steve: “OK, then we will start with the contractors because the matter with John is a lot simpler.”

This is a tricky statement. Clearly Steve tries to de-dramatize the situation between Peter and John but he can’t possibly know if it will be as simple as he suggests. Yet it is a fine example of Steve’s linguistic cleverness. He sets the art of implication to work. Steve defines the cooperation with the contractors, with which Peter is familiar and has a lot of experience and expertise, as the most difficult. Peter’s relationship with his colleagues — something that is vague and unfamiliar to him — is defined as simpler. With this linguistic maneuver Steve suggests that Peter has the capacity to find a solution for both matters. After all, if Peter can find a solution for the “difficult” matters (that actually are the simplest for him) he will definitely be able to find solutions for the “simpler” matters.

Peter: “Steve, you are a born optimist, aren’t you, to call the matter with John simple.”

Peter: “Steve, you are a born optimist

Steve: “Yes, I am, but I didn’t say ‘simple’ — I said ‘simpler’. I didn’t say that it will be easy. Sometimes simple things are very complicated, until you find the solution, and then you could kick yourself — why haven’t I thought about that before? That is something that you as an engineer know much better than I do, Peter.”

Steve teaches Peter about the concept of simplicity. He also uses the opportunity to define Peter as an expert in simplicity. The average competent engineer will mostly interpret this as a compliment.

Steve: “OK, about those contractors. Describe firstly how you assess the possible problems with them.”

Peter makes a list of the things that could go wrong, including, among other things, loopholes in the contract, bad weather conditions, unreliable subcontractors, unforeseen environmental issues and accidents.

Steve: “Well, it’s clear that you know what you are talking about. What was most effective with the external contractors in the past?”

Peter: “For the least expected calamities, you can only prepare in general. That is covered by our crisis management team. It is their responsibility to deal with this kind of stuff. Our job in operations is to make sure that the projects proceed on time and on budget. Nowadays the cooperation with the contractors has become much stricter. In the past, I could make direct deals with the contractors’ bosses when they showed up in the yard. I remember, some years ago, during a crisis in the construction business, that I bargained unbelievable prices on the last twenty percent of the project. No written contracts there. We just needed a firm discussion and then a handshake. I don’t think that is possible any longer. At least I don’t see how I could do the same now. That brings me to my issue about the relationship with the contractors. How can I avoid trouble?”

Peter’s unclear answer shows that he falls back on the buyer position: he has a workable goal (optimal cooperation with the contractors) but no access to his resources (i.e. how to handle the negotiations during this project). This moving up and down on the flowchart during a conversation is very common. It’s just an indication that Peter needs some additional help on this issue.

Steve: “OK, Peter, times have changed. It hasn’t become easier. So, tell me again what worked best in the past. How did you avoid trouble in those days?”

Again, a little persistence comes in handy. Steve decides to test Peter’s position on the flowchart by asking the same question again. If Peter gives a more useful answer, that will move him down on the flowchart again. If no useful answer comes, Steve will have to adapt his intervention. Let’s see how it goes.

Peter: “Sometimes it helped to, in a manner of speaking, bribe the employees of the contractors by taking good care of them. Give them coffee in the morning, soup at noon, and a beer after the working day. Actually, I sort of cajoled them towards better performance by giving them compliments on their good work. Sometimes it just worked better to yell and threaten. Usually a cocktail of these methods was the most effective. And of course, stringent contracts are also a good thing, prefer- ably with big fines.”

Peter’s answer now shows that he has access to his resources again. He is back on the buyer position. Although phrased in a slightly cynical way (bribing, cajoling) he also shows that he understands the power of a good working relationship when he talks about giving compliments.  No need for Steve to adapt his intervention. He can go on with doing what works: asking solution-building questions.

Steve: “Good, what else would help in the upcoming project?”

This little question both implies that the things Peter just mentioned are useful tools for the coming project and invites Peter to do more of what works. This economical use of words again shows that less can be more.

Peter: “More of the same, I guess. But now things are more complex, especially for the dismantling. The contractor and my people will be working together closely. I have confidence in my own people, but given the degree of complexity, I really have to find the best contractors for this project. However, I’m afraid that if I put too much emphasis on the degree of complexity, the contractors will think twice. They might charge so much that we’ll definitely run over budget.”

(to be continued)

Read episode 13
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‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 11 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

What about John?

Steve had one meeting with John at the beginning of his intervention. John made it clear to Steve that he wasn’t interested in Peter’s position: “Because of my job, I have to think about so many things and people that I really don’t have time to worry about this man. After all, Peter is in a pretty high position — he should live up to that position. In order to do my job well, I need colleagues who know what they have to do and how to do it. I have no control over the fact that Solteam is going through all these changes. As a company we need to prepare for the future. If Peter shows me that he is capable of carrying out his job properly, I won’t bother him. But I’m afraid that he’s a man who is gradually getting older and who doesn’t have the flexibility one needs to keep up with the times. However, I can’t deny that Peter seems to have done well in the past.”

During this one conversation, Steve didn’t do much else than praise John for his dedication to the firm. In between his meetings with Peter, Steve emailed John and informed him when the next meeting would be. He copied these emails to Peter and Jeff.

Steve in the middle.

Meeting 3 with Peter

Their third meeting is held at eight o’clock on a Friday morning in Peter’s office.

Peter: “Come in, Steve, how are you? Everything miraculously seems to be turning around. Would you believe that I had forgotten how useful it is to walk around in the morning and talk to my staff? I even believe the new people are finally starting to settle down. Do you have anything you want to discuss today? Because if you don’t, I have some things I’d like to discuss.”

Now Steve is pleasantly surprised! Peter’s tone has changed completely. He is cheerfully taking the initiative of the meeting. With his opening remarks, Peter confirms that he is still in the co-expert position. Now Steve’s task is simple: he has to encourage Peter to “do more of the same.”

Steve: “Good morning to you, too, Peter. You’ve taken me by surprise. What a difference! Everything seems to be going well. Congratulations. So, can I ask you that same scaling question again, where zero stood for ‘the mess I was in’ and ten stands for ‘perfection doesn’t exist but, for my part, the way we now work as a team comes close’, which number do you already stand on now?”

Notice that this again is a different scale. The way this scale is phrased indicates that the zero belongs to the past, while the ten is feasible in the near future. The word “already” implies that big progress has been made in a short time. This phrasing is supportive and is giving hope for even more progress. The zero is defined by Peter alone while the ten goes for the team. The power of words…

Peter: “Well, apart from some minor details that I would like to discuss with you later on, I’m at a seven.”

Steve: “Wonderful. What is in your seven?”

Peter: “I had some interesting chats with my employees. Two of them really surprised me. I talked to them about my ‘cutting down’ method that I used in past projects. Guess what? Two days later the two of them asked to see me. They presented me a detailed schedule of how they think that the first phase of the dismantling could go. Everything was in there: timing, manpower, machines, and safety procedures. I had to compliment them on their excellent work. They liked that, and they asked for my permission to get the old architectural plans from the archives.”

Peter: “I had some interesting chats with my employees.

Steve: “Wow, that’s great. What else is in your seven?”

Peter: “Guess what. Just like you suggested, I did walk into John’s office one day. I wasn’t unhappy to see that he wasn’t in.”

This is not correct: Steve never asked Peter to walk into John’s office. It was Peter himself who came up with that idea. Strange how people sometimes transform their own ideas into commands made by someone else. Equally strange how people sometimes take suggestions from someone else and make them into their own. It is all very human and recognizable.

Steve: “More?”
Peter: “Well, my wife and I played bridge, for the first time in a long time. I had fun… and we won. I am sleeping better. God knows why. But mind you, Steve, it’s only a seven. I have a long way to go.”

Steve: “Sure, Peter. You have made the first steps. Now keep walking. So, what is it that you want to discuss with me?”

Peter stays in the co-expert position. He is using a lot of his resources and is making progress. Although he reports many useful and even surprising things, he stays on a seven. Steve accepts that and does not push for a higher number. The language style Steve is starting to use now becomes more businesslike. In the beginning of an intervention, when the working relationship is still low on the flowchart, it’s often more suitable to use permissive language. As you move towards the co-expert position, you can use businesslike language: concise, witty, sharp, precise, and shorter.

Peter: “Well, two things actually. One has more to do with the business than the other. To start with, I would like to talk about the external contractors for the project. Second, Steve, I am tired of the argument I have with John. As colleagues we have to be able to deal with each other in a normal way instead of constantly avoiding each other.”

(to be continued)

Read episode 12
Back to episode overview

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 10 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Steve: “OK, but that doesn’t have to be a problem. Couldn’t you hold small, informal meetings? Show up at the coffee machine more frequently, stuff like that? During those occasions you could talk about the dismantling project. Without telling anyone, you could design a master plan for the dismantling project and cut it down into small pieces. You have done it before, so you know how to do it, and it sure was successful! You could do this in a few days, couldn’t you? When you are ready with it, you casually mention your plan during a coffee break or lunch, and you just wait and see how your teammates react to it. What do you think, Peter, is this feasible?”

Peter: “I would really like that idea if it weren’t for John, who, I’m pretty sure, will interfere and block me. Then I’m back to square one and I don’t want that to happen.”

Steve: “You are absolutely right. However, I don’t think it has to be like that. You’ve told me that everyone, including you, is impressed by the way John is able to keep everything under control. So, then it only seems logical to me that he will want to control this project as well, whether you like it or not. So, you have to find a way to let John do his job without you being bothered by him.”

Peter en John working on the project.

When it comes to discussing work with his team on the project, Peter is on the buyer position. On the topic of his working relationship with John, Steve acknowledges that Peter is still on the passer-by position: Peter believes that John is the one who has to change, and he doesn’t see what he can do to facilitate that. Therefore, Steve uses an intervention that is suitable for passers-by. He negotiates about an alternative goal. What does Peter have to do differently to get John off his back?

Furthermore (and this is an example of a “high-tech” solution-focused intervention) Steve sees John as a passer-by: John will not change by himself and will keep his controlling method. Now Steve begins teaching Peter how to deal with passers-by effectively: by giving Peter a seemingly logical explanation about why John couldn’t do more than he is doing now (namely controlling and having too little confidence in others), he helps Peter to accept John’s way of working. At the same time, he offers Peter an alternative idea that will help him get around John’s resistance to let go of his controlling method. This is of course not easy, but let’s see how it can be done!

Peter: “Well, I’m curious. How are you going to pull that off?”
Steve: “It isn’t a matter of ‘pulling something off’, and by the way, I’m not going to do anything — you are. Imagine yourself in John’s position. After all, he is the boss and so he has the final responsibility for the project department. It is his task to make sure that the entire project department runs perfectly, or, at least, as well as possible. John knows — as you would if you were in John’s shoes — that he is good at this, but he is also very worried because he can’t do everything himself. He simply has to let others do a big part of the work. Imagine yourself in John’s position, Peter. What would you need to see happening so that you would be sure that everything goes OK?”

Peter: “I never looked at it that way. I always thought that he acted like a control freak to improve his own career. But I guess John is actually in a very tricky situation. After all, he is new to this company, and he is a lot younger than I am and his lack of experience maybe makes him a little insecure. Insecure people tend to overreact. I know that because I have been there.” (Smiles.)

Steve: “Correct. Wisdom comes with the years. How could you reassure him in such a way that he would no longer bother you?”

Peter: “I would probably have to give him more information so that he would know the project is going smoothly.”

Steve: “I don’t think that that will be enough. Wouldn’t you become suspicious if your employees only brought you good news? Wouldn’t you start to think that they were hiding something from you?”

Peter: “Probably … I recognize that. Maybe it will help if I also consult with him about some minor problems. It’s maybe a little cynical but that will give him the opportunity to indulge his need for control. Since I know in advance what will happen, I won’t be irritated. Yes, that’s it. I will regularly walk into his office and update him on how things are going. On these occasions I will tell him some problems that he can tackle with his expertise. Now that I say it out loud, I realize that some of my employees use that trick on me too — and it does make me feel better. Maybe it will work on him too. It sure is worth trying. What do you think, Steve?”

Steve: “Excellent, Peter, just do it. You do realize that you will have to talk to John instead of avoiding him?”

Peter: “Yes. But if we want to keep working for Solteam we have to work together. So, we’d better cooperate. Hey, I am starting to talk like you. (Giggles.) Anyhow, if that burden lessens, I will find the energy to busy myself with my team.”

Steve: “Go for it, Peter. Good luck. When do you think it will be useful for us to meet again?”

With this intervention Peter reaches the position of co-expert he has a workable request for help and has access to his resources. The fact that he comes up with this last proposal by himself is an indication to Steve that Peter is now able to help himself. From here on,

Peter only needs supervision in order to continue on the solution- focused path.

(to be continued)

Read episode 11
Back to episode overview

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 9 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Steve: “Shall we take this a little step forward, Peter?”

Peter: “Yes please.”

Steve: “In our first meeting you told me that you would like to see everybody work together again in the old style. You would like to see people less self-interested and focused on their own career. Instead, you would like to reinstall a team spirit so that work can become enjoyable again, like in your pioneering days. That certainly would make your team more effective. By the way, Peter, you know the acronym T.E.A.M?”

Peter: “I haven’t got a clue.”
Steve: T.E.A.M. stands for Together Everybody Achieves More.

Peter: “Wonderful! Can I quote you on that? It’s a good slogan. I will use it.”
Steve: “Sure, Peter, feel free to use it whenever you think it’s useful for Solteam.”

Peter: “Wonderful! Can I quote you on that?

Steve doesn’t lecture Peter on what he should or shouldn’t do as a leader. Instead he uses this acronym, which then works as an eye-opener for Peter. This “economy of words” saves you lots of rational explaining and lots of effort in getting the message across. It simply works better. The right word in the right context can work miracles!

Steve continues: “So when this miracle happens, your project teams will be more focused on the good of the company instead of being preoccupied with their own career. What do you as the leader of your team need to do differently to accomplish this refocusing? How could you achieve this? After all, someone has to set an example.”

Peter: “Right. I do realize that I can’t change the others but that I can only change myself.”

Steve: “Exactly.”

Peter: “But how am I supposed to do that? John doesn’t trust me with the new project. By the way, he abolished the ‘milestone meetings’ that were essential for having an overall view on all running projects. I really don’t see how I can get all the new employees on the same wavelength without those meetings, let alone how I could re-install a minimal team spirit.”

We can see Peter moving on the flowchart towards the buyer position. Now his request for help is workable but he doesn’t know how to apply his resources. Peter did a good job at building effective teams in the past. That indicates that he has the resources to solve the problem but for the moment he doesn’t know how to access these resources. Peter doesn’t have a clue what to do. So now, Steve’s job is to help Peter tap into his resources. More solution-focused questions will do the job.

Steve: “Don’t worry, Peter. You will find a way. Maybe there are some possibilities that you just don’t see for the moment. Let’s take a little step back. How did you manage to do this in past projects? What method did you use in the past when you had to start up similar projects?”

Steve helps Peter to focus on what worked in the past. In other words, he helps Peter to discover solutions from the past that, if adjusted, are useful possible solutions for the future.

Peter: “Like I said, we used to have these big meetings in which all project teams in the department were involved. These ‘milestone meetings’ allowed us to have an overview of what was going on. But John is against that. He thinks it is unnecessary and too expensive. He insists on one-on-one communication, which I don’t think is the most effective thing to do.”

Steve: “What else, besides your ‘milestone meetings’, did you use in the past that was useful?”

Steve doesn’t go into Peter’s problem-oriented approach. Convinced that Peter will eventually generate solutions, Steve continues to ask him solution-building questions.

Peter: “We used to have a lot of informal contact. We talked about our projects in the corridors, at the coffee machine, wherever. We hung out together in the late afternoons. Plus, I often cut big projects into pieces.”

Steve: “I don’t really understand that — what do you mean?”

Peter: “Well, I designed an overall project plan that overarched all projects that my department was doing simultaneously. Even though in reality this master plan was never executed the way it was designed, it was the general guideline for everyone. Then I used to cut every single large project into small, quasi-independent projects and got the different teams going at their piece. It looked pretty chaotic at times, but we learned to let go of the strict project planning. Allowing unpredictability was tough, and I am sure you can understand that, being an engineer yourself. As the projects moved slowly down the tracks, the pieces of the puzzle would eventually fall together. This sounds rather complicated, I know, but it worked in the past.”

Steve: “Wonderful. What stops you from doing that now?”

Peter: “I don’t know, with all the new employees who don’t really know Solteam. that well, it could be very difficult. And John would never go for it — he wants to survey everything and keep it under control himself.”

Peter just described several resources and tools that he used success- fully in the past. However, he doesn’t know how to use them at the moment. He is now clearly in the buyer position. Peter needs help to enable him to use his own resources again. He needs advice. Because advice and suggestions followed by a question mark work better then telling people what to do, Steve will simply ask suggestive questions.

Steve: “OK, but that doesn’t have to be a problem. Couldn’t you hold small, informal meetings again like when you celebrated your employee’s birthday? Show up at the coffee machine more frequently, stuff like that? During those occasions you could talk about the dismantling project. I am sure that there are enough employees, including some of the new employees, who would very much like to participate in these chats. Furthermore, without telling anyone, you could design a master plan for the dismantling project and cut it down into small pieces. You have done it before, so you know how to do it, and it sure was successful! You could do this in a few days, couldn’t you? When you are ready with it, you casually mention your plan during a coffee break or lunch, and you just wait and see how your teammates react to it. What do you think, Peter, is this feasible?”

On the surface, it seems like Steve is asking questions which Peter can answer freely. But in fact, Steve is suggesting to Peter how to behave. There is little chance that Peter will resist these prescriptions, for the simple reason that he himself proposed them. This is a fine example of co-creating solutions and building on them by asking solution-focused questions.

(to be continued)

Read episode 10
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‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 8 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Steve: “Good. Can I ask you a strange question? We’re sitting here talking in your office. Later we will both continue with our own work. Tonight, you’ll go home and spend a quiet evening doing whatever you do at home, and you’ll go to bed. While you are sleeping, suppose a miracle happens. You don’t know this miracle has happened because you are sleeping. In that miracle all your problems have been solved sufficiently that they don’t bother you any longer. Tomorrow morning you wake up. How would you know that this miracle happened? What would you do differently?”

Peter: “Well, that is a strange question. I don’t believe in miracles.”

Peter: “I don’t believe in miracles.”

Steve: “I don’t either, but let’s just pretend that miracles exist. What would be different?”

A little persistence comes in handy when asking the miracle question!

Peter: “Well, I would feel refreshed and hop out of bed. I wouldn’t fuss over work while I shave. Instead I would think about how I will spend the coming weekend with my two sons. During breakfast I wouldn’t listen to the news on the radio but put on some classical music. Instead of reading my newspaper, I would talk about bridge with my wife. Heck, talking about miracles, instead of taking the car I would cycle to work!”

Steve: “Great, go on. What would you do differently at work?”

Peter: “Instead of immediately locking myself in my office I would first walk around and talk to my staff. I would find out the latest news and gossip. Gee, I just realized that if a miracle had occurred, I would ask my secretary to pre-sort my mail for me. Instead of diving into the first dossier that I find on my desk, I would prepare my schedule for the day. Give myself some time to get organized. Then I would start to work on my mail while drinking coffee.”

Steve: “That’s excellent. What else?”

Peter: “Maybe I’d go to John’s office to say good morning — but believe me, Steve, that would be a real miracle.”

Steve: “Now that’s an excellent idea. What else?”

With supportive words like “great” and “excellent,” Steve confirms Peter’s useful ideas without trying to push him to actually do them. He allows Peter to continue speaking in the “as if a miracle happened” mode. This style of speaking helps to avoid resistance — it doesn’t have to happen, it could happen. Of course, it is obvious that some of the answers to the miracle question can become real options. Steve just has to endorse these possibilities. He particularly stresses that visiting John is a good idea.

Peter: “Furthermore, I would do the thing I do every day: work.”

Steve: “Wouldn’t something also have changed in your work? Will you do it in a slightly different way now that this miracle has occurred?”

Note that Steve now shifts from “would” to “will.”

Peter: “I don’t know. Maybe I would spend my day in a more relaxed manner, not as hurried and jumping from one matter to the next. I don’t know. Or maybe I do. Instead of running back and forth all day, I would take time to listen and talk to my staff.”

Peter has actually begun prescribing constructive behavior for himself! Without realizing it, he is gradually helping himself to move forward towards solutions.

It’s now time to involve others in the miracle.

Steve: “How will your colleagues know that this miracle happened? What will they see you do differently?”

Peter: “I don’t know for sure how they see me lately but it sure would be different. In the last months since the merger I have been grumbling more than in all the years before. They would probably see me more relaxed.”

Steve: “What else would they notice?”

Peter: “My secretary would be happy that I allow her to pre-sort my mail. She has suggested this over and over in the past. My employees will be content that I spend time with them again. Since our first meeting, I have been able to focus more on the planning of the dismantling project. Some of my people are real experts on this topic, and I started involving them in the planning. Let me think if there are other ways that they would notice the change. Yeah, of course, how could I forget? When they invited me for that drink last Monday evening, I immediately said yes. Actually, all these things are already happening for the better.”

Steve: “What would they be doing differently when the miracle has happened?”

Peter: “The most important change would be if the people from the old Solteam started to be less reserved with the newcomers and talked more openly with them. At the same time, the newcomers would act less self-sufficient and make more use of the experience that is in house by asking for information when they need it. Or to use the words of our HR manager, communication would be facilitated. (Giggles.) My department would come on track again if that happened.”

Steve: “Excellent, Peter. Interesting miracle! Are there elements from that miracle that you could try out in the next twenty-four hours?”

Now Peter is really surprised. It has never occurred to him that you can act out miracles! Steve just plants the idea in Peter’s mind without pushing him to do anything. Experience has taught Steve that pushing isn’t as effective as letting the other take the initiative. By simply asking this question, Steve suggests that Peter can try out some of the constructive things that he himself brought up. This has the power of a hypnotic suggestion. The beauty of it is that it is failsafe — if Peter gives it a try, it’s OK. If he doesn’t, it’s equally OK. Nothing can go wrong since it is Peter’s choice to do whatever he thinks is useful.

Steve: “Shall we take this a little step forward, Peter?”

Peter: “Yes please.”

“A little step forward” implies that some steps have already been taken). Steve guides the conversation in such a way that Peter has the impression that it is he who is setting the rhythm. This “leading from behind” is an elegant and powerful form of leadership that enhances cooperation.

(to be continued)

Read episode 9
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‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 7 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Steve: “You are getting there, Peter, congratulations. So, you’re saying that the fact that John has at least left you alone, that the management has entrusted the dismantling to you, and that the two of us are now working on a constructive solution is worth a two. Excellent! I know the past few months have been difficult for everyone — no one has yet processed the merger fully, and there are still problems with the personnel changes. This hasn’t made work easier. Nevertheless, I have to congratulate you on the fact that you have continued to work in your trusted and persistent way.”

Peter is a bit overwhelmed by Steve’s consistently positive attitude, but he cannot deny the truth of Steve’s statements. You may have noticed that Steve put the problem in a broader context: the merger has still not been processed completely, there have been many personnel shifts, the atmosphere and corporate identity have changed, John’s management style, the general uncertainty within the entire company, and the fact that there were no clear responsibilities or authorities defined for the enormous dismantling project. Steve doesn’t view these elements as explanations for the problem but rather as tools that he will use in a later stage of the intervention to steer things toward a solution. In Steve’s approach there is no room for analyzing the root causes of the problem. Furthermore, Peter admits that he has made twenty percent progress compared to last week!

Peter is a bit overwhelmed by Steve’s consistently positive attitude.

Steve: “OK. It might be too early to find out what could be the next small step forward. Therefore, if you agree, I would like to give you an assignment you can think about in the coming week. You know that even in the midst of a mess, there are always things that still function well. Think about which aspects of the company, yourself, and your col- leagues are so important to you that you would definitely want to keep them. Continuation question Whatever you feel is still working, big or small, interests me. I would like you to write down those things. We’ll discuss them in our next meeting.”

The continuation question focuses Peter’s attention on what still works in spite of the problem. It will probably help Peter to step out of his problem-oriented fixation. By indicating that even little details can be important, it is made clear to Peter that no major changes are demanded from him.

The assignment is failsafe: even if he does not do it, it is highly likely that, at the very least, he will think about it for some time.

As you have noticed during this first session, no emphasis at all is put on analyzing the causes of the problem or on trying to explain the solution-focused model. On the contrary, it’s “just a conversation’’.

Steve does not tell Peter what to do. On the contrary, the use of questions invites the gradual development of a different way of thinking about the problem. The sequence of the solution-building questions is carefully designed by Steve. Peter’s answers lay the foundations for alternative possibilities to come from him. This elegant and unobtrusive method directs Peter step by step towards the solution-focused approach. Steve is leading Peter from behind.

Steve: “You know that even in the midst of a mess, there are always things that still function well. Think about which aspects of the company, yourself, and your col- leagues are so important to you that you would definitely want to keep them. Whatever you feel is still working, big or small, interests me. I would like you to write down those things. We’ll discuss them in our next meeting.”

Meeting 2

The second meeting with Peter has a very different atmosphere to it. Peter is more cheerful, has loosened up a bit, and even before the meeting starts, he mentions that he has made some progress in his plan for the dismantling project. These positive changes are not uncommon when you use the solution-focused method. Once people have been able to avert their fixation on problems, positive signs turn up (seemingly) automatically.

Steve: “OK, Peter, according to what you just told me in the hallway, it looks like you have made a lot of progress. That’s good. For a start, let me ask you a question: ‘What have you done well and what was difficult?’”

It is very useful to start second and further meetings in solution-focused coaching with this question. It is designed in a special way. In the first part you ask your client what it was that he or she actively did well. This implies that everything that went OK is the result of activity from the side of the client.

The second part of the question is phrased as if the client just undergoes the difficult things, without being responsible for them.

This double-sided question gives your client the possibility to choose which part he wants to answer first. It shows the client that we allow him to talk about both positive and negative matters. Working solution- focused does not mean that we are problem-phobic! Whatever the client chooses, we accept and build upon it. When the client chooses to answer the second part, you let him talk and, by asking solution-building questions, see if you can find exceptions or resources in his answers. Then you move on to the first part of the question, which of course is a lot more interesting.

If the client prefers to first talk about the good things, you encourage him and expand on the positive things he tells you. It’s useful to dig into the details of all the useful answers that you get. Often the client wants to talk about the second part and then you proceed as mentioned above. Sometimes, this question just sets the client in the solution-focused direction and you can quickly take the next step, as in the case of Peter.

Peter: “What I’ve done well? I don’t know but I do know that this thing with John is still happening. He avoids me but at the same time I have the impression that he takes every opportunity to talk to my employees when I am not around. As for the rest, I told you, I decided not to bother too much about him. I keep myself focused on the preparation of the dismantling project. I must say I feel a lot better since I am back into such a big project. I was tired of having to bother with small insignificant ones.”

Steve: “Very good. How did the assignment go?”

Peter: “Well, I certainly would like to keep my job in this company. The work in the project department used to go smoothly and, in the past, we proved that we can be successful. Solteam. might not be the company it used to be, but in life things change. Same goes in our business.”

Steve is pleased with these answers. They indicate that Peter sees exceptions to the problem and that he accepts that limitations exist for which no solution is feasible. Peter also expresses his commitment to the company. Steve, of course, doesn’t begin jumping up and down with joy — this answer isn’t the ultimate solution. It is, however, the start of solution- orientation in Peter.

Steve: “Perfect. Where are you now on the same scale from zero to ten where zero stands for ‘this won’t work’ and ten stands for ‘I am convinced that this will turn out well’?”

Notice that, despite the words “the same,” this scale is actually different from the first one! The current scale has more to do with the belief that positive change is possible than with assessing how things are now.

Peter: “I think I am at a four. I have made a lot of progress with the preparation of the dismantling. John called me just yesterday to hear how things are going and, miracle of miracles, he just listened without criticizing! By the way, last Monday night our team went out for drinks because it was someone’s birthday. We hadn’t done that for a long time and it was very pleasant. Even the newcomers went along and it was just fun. We should do it more often.”

Steve: “Very good. What else?”

Peter: “Nothing. There are still a lot of times when I have doubts and think it will never work out. I am afraid that this improvement is just a temporary thing.”

Steve doesn’t ask about the meaning of the four but simply allows Peter to explain about the change. Steve goes on with the “what else” question that is useful for eliciting more details. Nothing interesting follows and Steve does not insist. He listens to Peter’s doubt without being tempted to give him a pep talk. It’s time for the next step. When you look at the flowchart, you will see that Peter is still in the searching position: his request for help is too vague to be workable. As we have seen on page 101, the miracle question is a great tool to help him rephrase his goals in more concrete terms. Using the protocol on page 106 helps to ask the miracle question in the most useful way.

Steve: “Good. Can I ask you a strange question? It is about miracles.

(to be continued)

Already read the upcoming episode 8
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‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 6 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Steve: “OK, that’s clear. I can understand. I know that you have been doing the most difficult jobs within the department for years now. In the past few months, you have worked very hard to introduce the new employees to their jobs as smoothly and quickly as possible. Everyone admits that the past few months haven’t been easy, especially not for you, Peter. Now, you know as well as I do that there are things that you, and I, can’t change. All those changes within Solteam belong to the world of limitations. We can only accept them and learn to deal with them in the best possible way. I have noticed that you handled all the changes in as positive a way as possible. How did you manage to cope with that?”

After complimenting him, Steve subtly teaches Peter about the difference between problems and limitations He then uses a kind of “coping” question. By asking Peter how he handled his problems in the past, Steve implies that Peter has been successful in handling them. In itself, this question hides a compliment. This solution- building question gives Peter the opportunity to think, despite all the difficulties, about his strengths and resources.

Steve trying to to establish a cooperative relationship with Peter

Peter: “What a strange question. I was just doing my job, what else? I have never been the type that gives up. I have always kept my promises towards my employers. When I take on a job, I go for it. Up until now, I have never met a challenge that I couldn’t handle. Mind you, I am no superman. I’ve had my share of difficulties but somehow I always coped.”

Steve is trying to “join” with Peter in order to establish a cooperative relationship with him. Peter reacts favorably to Steve’s authentic and respectful approach.

Steve: “Excellent. That’s the go-getter I know. So, I’ll repeat my question: What do we have to discuss today so that our meeting will be useful to you?”

Peter: “If we were able to work together constructively like it used to be, everybody would make efforts to contribute to the greater cause of the company instead of just minding their own career. I would like to get the mandate to manage the dismantling of the old production line in my own manner. I am not a child who needs supervision. I want management to let me do my job without having to inform them about every little turn I take. I never had to do that in the past and things went fine then. But I don’t think they’ll go for that. John doesn’t trust me, and the management doesn’t support me. Since the merger everything has changed because a lot of new employees came along. I do want to give them proper training but I’m afraid they’re only interested in advancing their own careers. So, I could use your advice about what I need to do to get my team cooperating again.”

The relationship between Steve and Peter now develops into a searching relationship: Peter asks for help. He is asking for a mandate to handle the project in his way and, at the same time, he wants to rebuild the cooperative mood in the team. Although these answers are perfectly legitimate, they do not express his goals in a workable format. As we will soon see, Steve can help Peter transform his goals by asking the right questions. As their working relationship is just moving into the searching mode, Steve decides to take a little step back.

Steve: “Excellent, Peter. That’s a good start. Here we are, at your office on a Friday morning, we have only been talking for about half an hour about how we can solve your case, and you have already come up with very valuable ideas.”

Steve now uses the technique of yes-setting to increase the likelihood that Peter will continue to approach the situation positively. Steve chooses to follow the solution-focused adage: “If in a hurry, go slow!” He decides to use a scaling question.

Steve: “Peter, before we go deeper into this, can I ask you a question? If we take a scale from zero to ten, where zero stands for the moment last week when you felt that it would be better to resign and ten stands for your belief that things might not be perfect but they are good enough for you to continue working, where are you now?”

Peter: “At a two.”

Steve: “Good. What does the two mean? What has changed in the past week to get you from a zero to a two?”

Peter: “The fact that you are talking to me about how we can solve this. Even though I still don’t see what good could come out of this mess. Well, maybe also the fact that John mailed me that the management wants me to do the dismantling. Oh, and the fact that John sent me a memo to wish me ‘the best’ of luck — and especially that I haven’t heard from him or seen him since.”

Remembering James William’s famous quote: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook,” Steve does not react to Peter’s slightly cynical remark. He accepts all Peter’s answers even though some weren’t useful. He keeps the questioning going.

Steve: “Perfect. What would be the next small step forward?”

Peter: “I don’t know. But I do know that you ask me a lot of questions.”

Steve: “Yes, I do, and do you know why? Because the right questions bring out the solutions!”

Peter: “That’s funny. I never thought of it like that, but I must admit you have a point. There is one more thing needed, however.”

Steve: “And that is?”

Peter: “You need to be able to listen to the answers.”

With a seemingly casual remark, Steve teaches Peter the art of solution- building questions. Peter reacts favorably by going along with it. This strengthens the working relationship and introduces the solution-focused approach without their even having to talk about it.

Steve: “You are getting there, Peter, congratulations. So, you’re saying that the fact that John has at least left you alone, that the management has entrusted the dismantling to you, and that the two of us are now working on a constructive solution is worth a two. Excellent! 

(to be continued)

Read episode 7
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‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 5 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

The intervention

The CEO decided to ask Steve for help. Steve is vice president of the sales department. He is known for his tenacious diplomatic skills that provided him with the nickname “the gentle Pitbull.” Steve goes back a long time with Peter — so it will be no problem to get his help accepted by Peter. Jeff asks Steve to coach Peter and John in order to:

  • Put Peter back on the right track.
  • Get the dismantling project on track.
  • Improve the cooperation between John and Peter.
  • Make sure that their team keeps its sharp edge.

Steve sends the following email:

Highest priority Strictly confidential

From: Steve@solteam.com

To: Peter@solteam.com; John@solteam.com cc: Jeff@solteam.com

Re: dismantling project

Peter, John,

Jeff told me about the high-pressure situation surrounding the dismantling project. Jeff expressed his conviction that the two of you are the experts to handle this difficult project IF you cooperate. He asked me to help you steer away from counterproductivity. Jeff gave me the mandate to try and help you out. If this will not work, he will take it to the board.

I hope you both agree with this offer.

I will talk to you individually first and then I offer to coach Peter on the dismantling project.

I expect your go or no-go within 48 hours.

Strict confidentiality and discretion is vital. We will solve this problem before Solteam. suffers from it.

Hope to hear from you soon.

All emails on this topic must be copied to all parties concerned (no bcc’s please). I will do the same.

Best regards, Steve, VP Sales.

John was the first to react. He emailed Steve that it was OK for him. John sees the fact that “Peter needs a coach” as proof of the fact that he himself is “right.” He then sent Peter a short memo in which he again — but now with an undertone of sarcasm — wishes Peter “the best of luck.”

Peter took the full 48 hours to react. Then he called Steve’s secretary to make an appointment.

Steve emails everybody involved to confirm that they are in the game. He will first talk to Peter.

Meeting 1

Steve contacts Peter to make an appointment. Their first meeting is held in Peter’s office. Peter has, of course, prepared for this meeting very well. He is determined to explain the “truth” about how the company’s way of working has changed and especially about John. Peter rattles on about this for ten minutes.

Steve allowing Peter to let off steam.

Steve makes sure that Peter feels at ease by allowing him to let off steam. Steve simply listens because he knows from experience that arguing is counterproductive at this stage: people tend to cling even more tightly to their beliefs when they feel challenged. While Peter vents, Steve concentrates on little exceptions in Peter’s story about the quarrel. When he feels that Peter’s arguments are losing momentum, Steve seizes the opportunity to ask the goal-setting question that will help to point Peter’s nose in a more constructive direction.

Steve: “OK, Peter, you’ve made your point. What do you think we should discuss during this meeting so that it will be useful?” Goal setting question

Peter: “I don’t know. That is something the management has to decide. Or John, for all I care. I am doing my job and that should be enough. If they aren’t satisfied with my work, they shouldn’t pay me. I don’t know what they think is wrong with me. Haven’t I proved in the past that I can handle my job? I don’t understand why they don’t trust me with the new project. I want to complete it successfully, but they are working against me. Anyway, I don’t know what I should do differently. They should tell me if they know.”

Peter isn’t answering the question. Steve accepts this, knowing that the goal-setting question will soon steer Peter toward solutions. Steve isn’t interested in delving into the underlying causes of the problem nor will he allow himself to be seduced into the battle of who was right or wrong. He doesn’t react to Peter’s strange deduction that top management is opposing him. Thinking of the flowchart, Steve judges that Peter is currently in the position of passer-by This means that Steve’s only job for the moment is to establish a positive relationship with Peter that will allow him to work on eliciting an alternative goal.

Steve: “OK, that’s clear. I can understand. I know that you have been doing the most difficult jobs within the department for years now. In the past few months, you have worked very hard to introduce the new employees to their jobs as smoothly and quickly as possible. 

(to be continued)

Read episode 6
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‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

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