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)

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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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