Even when I’m driving in my car listening to the news, I focus on how leaders share their ideas and opinions. The most effective messages focus on mutual purpose, and the most successful people know this.
As an executive coach and longtime fan of the Crucial Conversations methodology, I regularly study how people communicate. Recently, I heard Dr. Anthony Fauci being interviewed for his latest views on coronavirus. Fauci has become a household name these days as the country’s top infectious disease expert. But, he could also teach a masterclass on how to maintain mutual purpose during critical moments.
Simply put, mutual purpose is the common goal that you share with someone else. Whether we realize it or not in the moment, we’re all constantly working to create (or nurture) mutual purpose with the people in our lives: with our spouses, kids, co-founders, clients and team members. And what differentiates our more successful days is when we’re aware of that in our communication.
For instance, it feels like a battle to get my kids to eat nutritious foods, but on our better days, we find a balance because we mutually agree that being healthy is important. Likewise, challenging a client to see where her communication style isn’t serving her could be an uncomfortable conversation, but we share the goal of helping her run her company better.
Each time I watch him speak, I’m struck by Fauci’s gift for staying focused on shared goals. He rarely, if ever, gets sidetracked by politics, rumors, below-the-belt comments or his own ego. All on top of having little sleep and a crushing schedule; two stressors that make quick work of the rest of us. Instead, he seems to stick to the facts as much as possible, speaking with patience, humility, and positive intent.
This is a guy who is probably under the worst strain of his life. And yet, he seems to be totally devoid of the styles under stress that derail the rest of us during crucial moments.
Usually when we feel threatened- that is, when our reputation or safety or ego is at stake- we become silent (to protect ourselves) or violent (to win at all costs). If we become triggered, our original goal gets replaced by a new one: either to protect ourselves or to win. Which means that we’re no longer focusing on the thing we really want, and sabotaging our chances of real success.
Let’s take two co-founders, whose mutual purpose is to successfully launch their product, be hugely profitable and pay back their friends and family’s investment. Things are going pretty smoothly until a serious issue comes up and their plan needs to be refactored. Their launch gets pushed out by six months, diminishing their chance at being first to market.
Co-founder A, who’s been promising their beta customers that it would be ready next month, is irritated that his reputation will be affected. And his maxed out credit cards remind him daily that failure isn’t an option. He goes violent: verbally attacking the team and controlling communication by cutting people off and dominating the conversation. Co-founder B feels responsible for the screw-up and is starting to dread that his parents invested their savings in this venture. He goes silent; sarcastically responding to comments and withdrawing from the conversation altogether.
It’s in these crisis moments that I bring co-founders back to their mutual purpose. Their real goal is not to defend themselves, deflect responsibility, or punish others for screwing up; as central as that might feel in the moment. It’s to be the first to market with their incredible product, which requires everyone on their team feeling safe to contribute at the highest possible level.
The act of pausing counter-productive behaviors and remembering what they both really want resets the brain so that it’s back in control. Finding their way back to their shared goal helps them to assess options and a way forward that wasn’t possible when they were emotionally charged.
I get excited when I see a skillful communicator like Fauci, because I know how hard it is to be that good. The great news is that being a great communicator can be learned. It takes practice, self-awareness, and celebrating progress over perfection.