• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • Since we all live in the present moment, it’s a little surprising that we don’t really like to talk about it very much. When people gather around the office water cooler (or the contemporary social-media versions of the water cooler), what do they talk about? What they did last night, plans for the weekend, the big game that just happened or is about to happen. It would actually seem quite strange to gather around the cooler and discuss how the water tastes, right here and right now.

    Work-related team interactions are no different. Teams keep their attention on the work they just did, or the work about to be done. Of course, these conversations need to happen. But there are critical moments—when stress is high, clear thinking is compromised, and alignment is under threat—that require teams to come back to the present moment, together. It’s one thing for an individual to pause in the middle of a difficult conversation and take a deep breath to get centered before continuing. But because our social conventions of interaction don’t leave much space for the “now” in our conversations, it can be difficult to get there collectively.

    It’s the norms of team behavior that dictate what’s possible in those moments. If you have established a shared understanding of the importance of focus, and a language to talk about it, then there’s a way to call a halt to thinking that has spun out of control. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to come to these agreements. But without them there’s a much higher likelihood that the conversation will continue to focus on anything but the present moment, staying mired in debates about who to blame and who has a better solution.

    One of the best investments for maintaining alignment a team can make is to develop a protocol to follow when group thinking gets unproductive. (1) Any team member initiates the protocol with an agreed-upon “safe phrase” that works for the team. In essence this phrase says, “It seems to me that we have gotten lost in thought and are not addressing the real issue.” (2) The protocol then has the group briefly pause and step back from the conversation. This pause can be very brief, as little as 10 seconds—the space of one breath. (3) Finally, the group makes a decision about what’s needed now: is the pause enough to get us back on track? Do we need something deeper, like including someone who’s not currently in the room, or further investigation, or a more substantial break?

    Try It: What would a protocol to regain group focus look like for your team? Agree on a phrase or action that any team member can use to pause a conversation that’s gotten out of control. Find a simple activity (feeling your feet, looking at the trees out the window, taking a deep breath) that you can all do together to come back to the present moment. And establish a simple way (via quick straw poll or consensus) to determine how to proceed at the conclusion of the pause.