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I hate that feeling when I’m frustrated with someone and I can’t get myself to clearly communicate my feelings.

This is a major reason why managers are stressed out all the time. The gap between what they’re thinking and saying (or not saying) is a shadow that keeps following them around.

I routinely hear something like this from managers:

  • “My direct report is missing deadlines, and I don’t know how to tell her.”
  • “Jake always takes all the credit. I wish he’d stop.”
  • “My boss ignores me in our staff meetings. I don’t know how to tell him.”

So how do we get better at productively shrinking the gap between our thoughts and words?

Introducing the Left-Hand Column Exercise (developed by Harvard and MIT professors)

1. Pick an important conversation you’ve recently had.

2. Draw a line down the center of a sheet of paper.

3. In the right column, reconstruct the conversation to the best of your ability – e.g., I said this, then he said this, then I said this, etc.

4. In the left column, write down what you were thinking and feeling at the moment that each thing was being said.

5. Review both columns

Here’s an example:

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Once you’ve done the exercise. Try answering the following:

  1. Are there differences between your external dialogue and internal thoughts & feelings?
  2. Do you find yourself holding back with people who have more authority than you? (or everyone?)
  3. Since you’re holding back your words, what type of signals is your body language giving?
  4. What’s the reason for holding back. Is it a) fear b) confidence c) or are you protecting their feelings?
  5. What’s the worse that can happen if you communicated what you were thinking?
  6. What’s the cost of not communicating?

Productively closing the gap between what we’re thinking and what we’re saying makes for richer conversation and a definite increase in trust (and sometimes vulnerability).

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