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Celebrate Groundhog Day! How Punxsutawney Phil Helps Me Help People


Did you see the classic comedy, Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray?  In the movie Bill Murray is forced to relive his day again and again until he changes himself to become a less selfish person.

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, the authors of Crucial Conversations, cleverly used the movie as a metaphor for unresolved problems (Crucial Conversations, McGraw-Hill, 2002, at page 205). 

Many people I work with experience the Groundhog Day phenomenon in their lives and interactions, leading to unsatisfying conversations, a failure to have conversations about important things, and further conflict.  Their dissatisfaction with this trend and  their inability to change it leads them to look for help.  In this article, I share some of the steps I ask people to consider in order to prepare them to have important conversations. 

To start off, we talk about what had gone wrong that led to the point of asking a third party for assistance.  Usually, one of the problems is that the people are not engaging in a conversation 1.  They are more likely telling each other what is wrong with the other, and having two one-way complaints.  If they are willing to have a different kind of interaction, one in which they are willing to learn as well as share, then we are ready to talk about doing it. 

Let’s assume Mike has come to talk to me about his issues with his office-mate, Paul.  Mike likes to work in an organized area; Paul seems to flourish in what Mike perceives as chaos.   It grates on Mike’s nerves to work in a messy environment and he has asked Paul numerous times to keep the space clean.  Paul hasn’t changed, and Mike interprets that as disrespect.

Here are some techniques I would use to assist Mike.

  • One of the first questions I’ll ask Mike is whether this is an issue he needs to talk about with Paul or is he able to let go of it.  I analogize to popcorn (a favorite snack to munch on during Groundhog Day reruns), because popcorn kernels are inert, but under pressure they pop.  Is Mike feeling that kind of pressure?  If there is no conversation, will this become a kernel of resentment that will fester, at some time causing him to say things he might regret?  Or is it something that he could let go of?
  • Assume Mike says that he needs to have this conversation with Paul.  Then we will discuss what he hopes to accomplish in having the conversation.  If it is to change Paul or to make him see rightness of Mike’s way, then probably very little will change and it will be Groundhog Day again in terms of their interaction.  On the other hand, if Mike’s purpose is to listen to Paul,  discuss how they can improve their working relationship and at the same time let Paul know the impact of the state of the office on him, then they are ready to move to the next step. 
  • I’d then ask Mike to think about why this situation upsets him.  What about disorganization triggers stress  for him, and what conclusions does he make about “messy people” (for example, “those kinds of people . . . “)?
  • Next, we will talk about things he wishes he had done or said differently with Paul so that he can start to realize his involvement in the problem.
  • After Mike addresses these issues and his readiness for the discussion, I ask him to consider Paul’s readiness for such a discussion.  Is Paul able to really hear (physically, cognitively, and emotionally) what Mike has to say? Would Paul be able to have  a two way discussion about it — to learn what Mike is thinking and share what he is feeling?  Many times, one person will decide the other isn’t ready and therefore decide not to make an effort that may be rejected 2.  If Mike determines that Paul could have the conversation then we discuss Paul’s perspective.  Does Paul share the same “personal truths” as Mike?  If not, how do they differ?  What pushes Paul’s buttons?  How can these be avoided when they sit down to talk?
  • Consideration of  logistics is next.  I’ll ask Mike to consider the time, place, and manner of the conversation he will try to have with Paul.  Is Paul a morning or afternoon person?  Does he seem more at ease if he is holding  a cup of coffee?  In that case, Mike might want to think about picking up a good cup of coffee and bringing it to Paul.  When would they be able to have sufficient time to themselves for the conversation without someone else coming in their office or other distractions?  Or would it be better to meet somewhere outside their shared space?  And how could he let Paul know that he wants to have a conversation in order to give Paul time to think about what he will want to say and accomplish?  By email?  A note left on the desk?  In person?  Mike has had some time to prepare for the conversation, and that will help him be at his best.  It is respectful to offer Paul the same consideration.  Careful consideration of logistical issues is more likely to make the conversation go well.
  • Finally, it is time to prepare for the conversation.  Mike and I will talk about listening skills including summarizing and reframing, the importance of body language, asking appropriate questions, and trying to separate intent (negative attributions) from impact (for instance, Mike’s situation, the additional time it takes him to put files away in order to protect confidentiality, which detracts from his effectiveness at work).   Then we will focus on a good opening line, avoiding traps such as putting all the blame on Paul, focusing on Paul as the problem, and “you statements” (for instance, “you always . . ,” “you never . . . “, and “when you  . . . “). 
  • Mike and I will talk about graceful ways to accept criticism (for instance, “You’re right.  I did a bad job when I brought this up the first time and I let myself down.  It made it difficult for you too.”).  We’ll talk about ways to express differences of opinion (for instance, “I understand that it doesn’t bother you when the folders aren’t back in their places, but I see it differently and it does bother me.”)  And then, when he feels ready, I’ll urge Mike to approach the conversation with the confidence that he has thought it through and is ready to change things.

It doesn’t always work out the way people hope.  Sometimes, despite lots of preparation and thinking, people revert back to the “bad, old ways” and point the finger at the other person, forgetting to listen.  Other times, the other person doesn’t respond as hoped and does not engage in a curious conversation.  But, as Punxsutawney Phil and Bill Murray know, Groundhog Day comes around with regularity, and it is important to keep showing face and trying.  There are always more opportunities to practice.  And with practice, comes improvement.  It’s an evolution, and hope for resolution of conflict springs eternal.

Happy Groundhog Day!  May your conversations be fruitful and curious.

There are some wonderful resources that helped me learn more about this subject and I am grateful to the authors below for their guidance and work.  For more information about having challenging conversations, see:

Judy Ringer, “We Have to Talk:  A Step-By-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations,” (wonderful, easy-to-read article, available on this website)

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, Crucial Conversations,  McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations, Penguin Books, 1999.

1“Conversation [kon-ver-sey-shun], noun.  Informal interchange of thoughts, information, etc. by spoken words, oral communication between person; talk; colloquy.”

2 Recently I had a conversation with someone who had been deeply hurt by another person..  After thinking about these questions, he determined that while the person who hurt him had the physical and cognitive ability to have a conversation, the person would have no interest in having it.  Coming to that conclusion brought a sense of relief and helped him move on. 

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