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It Takes COINs To Make Change

Leadership involves taking risks. It means developing and showing passion for a vision, and learning how to influence others to gain their support. But sometimes most difficult of all, it means communicating directly when others are not meeting our needs.

This third skill around direct communication is where most change-makers stumble. It’s not that they fail to communicate directly (although some do), but that they inadvertently and unnecessarily prompt defensiveness, resistance and disengagement among the very people they need in order to achieve their vision.

So I’ve coined a phrase (pun intended) that may help: It takes COINs to make change. The acronym stands for Context, Observable behaviors, Impact and Needs.

Let’s take a look at how this approach can help. Suppose a colleague has a habit of checking his phone and interrupting you in meetings with unimportant and unrelated comments. If you communicated reactively and without much awareness, you might respond in the meeting by saying:

“Hey Bill, that’s so disrespectful! Your email can wait. And besides, I don’t care about the Dallas conference right now. Can you please just pay attention?”

And some people would say that’s exactly how a person should respond. After all, it’s direct and honest. And it will get Bill’s attention. All of that is true. But here’s the downside. Chances are Bill is not aware of his impact and means no disrespect. By labeling his behavior as “disrespectful”, he might legitimately argue the point, especially if he doesn’t experience that behavior as disrespectful when it happens to him.

Telling Bill that his email can wait might unnecessarily escalate the conflict as well. Bill could be expecting a highly important message that, for him, trumps the importance of what’s being discussed in the meeting. That’s not an excuse for the specific behavior he demonstrated in this case, but still, it could be his situation.

What’s more, offering this feedback in the meeting in front of Bill’s peers or his boss could be seen as demeaning or insensitive. Instead of resulting in better behavior or improving the relationship, it would likely undermine the relationship and Bill’s willingness to be supportive in the future. And, of course, the tone with which we convey our feedback also makes a huge difference in how well it’s likely to be received.

As an alternative, here's how we might COIN the exchange. We'd wait until after the meeting so we can talk one-on-one with Bill and, hopefully by then, speak with less frustration in our voice. Then we could say:

“Bill, this morning during our staff meeting when I was presenting my sales numbers (Context) , you interrupted me to announce that you’d just received an email from one of your marketing managers at our conference in Dallas.” (Observable behavior)

At this point, it’s often a good idea to check in with the person to make sure they remember the facts (the context and the observable behavior) in the same way as you’ve recounted them. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding on your part that, after being clarified, would serve to resolve the issue. If not, you might go on to say:

“I know you were excited, but I found it disheartening to learn that you were checking email during my presentation. And I found it irritating that you interrupted with information that was not relevant to the topic, nor particularly urgent.” (Impact)

Hearing feedback like this can be difficult for anyone. Nobody wants to be called out for having a negative impact. Despite our best efforts, Bill might still become defensive. But when we describe the impact in this way, by sharing our feelings rather than labeling the person or their behavior, we're far less likely to prompt an argument. Why? Because it doesn't make sense for Bill to argue with me about how I was feeling. After all, I'm the only expert on that subject.

Sometimes, simply as a result of understanding the impact more fully, a person will offer to adjust their behavior in the future. But in case they don’t, the final step is to make sure that you’re clear about your needs. Do so by requesting the specific change in behavior that you’d like to see. For that, you might say:

“I care about you and the quality of our working relationship, so I didn’t want to let this go without discussing it. Would you be willing to stop checking email in meetings and not interrupt my presentations, unless it's with a question or comment about the presentation itself?” (Needs / request)

Of course, there’s no guarantee that using this approach will result in the change that we’re looking for. Again, Bill might counter by saying that he needs to check his email on occasion, even during meetings. So we’ll benefit from remaining open and flexible in order to negotiate and accommodate Bill’s needs as well as our own. But delivering feedback in this way can improve the chances of a positive outcome significantly.

This approach, a derivative of Nonviolent Communication, can feel awkward and even inauthentic at first. But that’s normal. To overcome any resistance you feel, consider writing down and practicing your feedback ahead of time, using language that fits your style of communication. Doing so will make it feel less awkward to deliver. Soon you’ll be investing COINs in a way that feels natural, positively influences others, and generates meaningful change.


Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.

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