“Why you should have open conversations.” With Kathy Taberner

I don’t believe providing feedback is effective unless it is a process, which both parties believe is useful, one that supports reflection and learning. It also needs to be based on conversations that are open, non-judging and provide the opportunity to explore, understand and find ways to move forward with a change in behaviour. It […]

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I don’t believe providing feedback is effective unless it is a process, which both parties believe is useful, one that supports reflection and learning. It also needs to be based on conversations that are open, non-judging and provide the opportunity to explore, understand and find ways to move forward with a change in behaviour. It is the responsibility of the leader to ensure this is supported.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathy Taberner.

For the past decade, Kathy Taberner has been empowering professionals, to communicate effectively, with a unique conversation framework so they can lead effectively, especially in conflict. Along with her daughter Kirsten, Kathy is a co-founder of the Institute Of Curiosity; co-author of The Power Of Curiosity; certified executive coach; certified physician coach, and has her MA in Leadership, focusing on leadership styles and emotional intelligence in senior leadership positions. Kathy serves as the Vice Chair on the Ethics Internal Review Board for the International Coaching Federation {ICF} and has received the Prism Award from the ICF Vancouver for her work in coaching and leadership development.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was an occupational therapist working in industry, for many years supporting employees in returning to or staying at work when they were struggling. I developed corporate policies, facilitated union/management agreements and supported employees and managers.

I realized the profound impact leadership has on employees — it can make or break them. I decided to learn more about leadership, completing a MA in leadership and then completed executive coach training so I could focus on supporting leaders in developing the skills needed to be effective in their roles. Working in a leadership development program for 5 years, I constantly heard feedback around the communication skills, which I was teaching, and the enormous impact these skills were having on the participants’ relationships. As a result of many discussions with my daughter, also an executive coach, we realized no one is ever taught how to communicate effectively. Our skills are dependent on what we learn from parents, teachers and others. This was profound for us and led us to shifting our focus with our clients to one of effective communication skills using curiosity.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What we do is totally unique, beginning with the fact that we are a mother/daughter team focused on effective communication. Our focus is helping professionals understand others, what we believe to be the foundation of effective leadership, and the easiest way to do that is by being curious in our conversations. When leaders learn to communicate from a place of curiosity, they shift away from ‘right/ wrong’, telling, judging, blaming and shaming — all of which creates conflict — to a place of innovation, collaboration, inclusivity and understanding. Not only do professionals become more effective and happier leaders, they create inclusive cultures, increase productivity and decrease conflict. It became very clear early on, working with professionals, that communication skills are skills that are expected of leaders and never taught — which is tough for professionals. It’s our mission to change that.

A common struggle we hear is leaders, when asked, typically tell an employee what to do.

Then they become frustrated when the employee returns days later asking for instructions again. Most leaders find this annoying and a waste of time. We help leaders shift their thinking so that they can become curious to be more effective. Instead of telling an employee how to do a procedure, leaders shift to a place of curiosity, asking open questions so they can create new and different results. This sounds like:

‘What do you know about this procedure now?’

‘How can you find out more?’

‘What are your next steps?’

‘What support do you need to fully learn this procedure?’

Leaders find this process might take a little longer than telling others what to do; however, the end result is way more effective. Employees aren’t returning time and time again because they have learned for themselves how to do what is needed to be done.

The same process works in conflict. A nurse I worked with, after completing our training, was confronted in a hall by a physician about a situation with a young patient, one where the nurse felt the physician had been disrespectful towards the patient. He confronted her, implying she and the patient were at fault. By learning to be curious, my client found she was able to stay calm in what would normally be an emotionally challenging and uncomfortable situation for her. She knew to ask an open question so she could learn more about the physician’s perspective. This not only helped her better understand what happened, it also helped her stay calm and made her feel better. With a second open question, she found the physician changed his tone of voice and began to relax. What followed was a lengthy discussion about the situation where they shared perspectives and developed a plan of communicating so patients would always be respected.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I think this would be how my daughter and I started working together and co-authoring our book, ‘The Power Of Curiosity: How to Have Real Conversations that Create Collaboration, Innovation and Understanding’. We never intended to work together and neither of us had any ambition around writing a book. And yet, with the encouragement of others, the idea was hatched and developed.

The challenge was integrating the work of a seasoned professional with that of a young professional on an equity partnership basis. Each brought wisdom, experience and insight to the project. Yet we were still in the hierarchy of a mother –daughter relationship.

Fortunately we had an amazing editor who held the focus for us. Using curiosity, we were able to shift to this place of partnership as two women working together, each supporting the other and contributing to the outcome of the project. We know our framework works because of our own experiences.

After our book was published, someone asked us how we had managed to do this, co-author a book while maintaining our partnership in the work we do.

As we reflected, we realized we had made a fundamental shift to our relationship. We have moved to a place where we both feel we contribute in our own unique ways offering differing perspectives from different generations. We value each unique contribution. I think this makes us stronger and more effective in helping others develop effective communication skills as they remain open and non-judging in their approach.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

What comes to mind may not be funny although looking back on it, I consider it so now. As a young occupational therapist in a large department, for a reason I cannot recall, another therapist and I stopped talking to each other because of conflict.

As I look back, I now realize how stupid and yes, I will say funny, it sounds although I am sure our colleagues did not consider it humorous at the time. The department became divided with some supporting her and some me. I am not sure if we ever spoke before I left the department to travel.

I learned these lessons.

One was that conflict impacts the people involved and everyone else remotely connected. It is powerful beyond our wildest dreams. Our determination to ignore each other caused a very destructive rift in a workplace.

A second lesson was that no one had the communication skills to deal with this situation. It was allowed to fester and destroy without one leader or skilled communicator stepping forward to deal with us and resolve the situation.

A third lesson was one around time — the time lost to destructive conversations, avoidance of others, fragmented team work. It was exhausting and stupid on my part and looking back I wish I could have shown up differently.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I believe leaders have a huge responsibility to their employees. For so long, the focus was always on developing the ‘hard skills’, the technical aspects of the organization. Now we realize the focus needs to be on the so called ‘soft skills’ that support leaders in being present and focused on others so they can see, hear and understand them.

Leaders need to be present in every conversation. Leaders need to get out of their own way, be open, listen more and talk less. Leaders need to bring compassion into the workplace.

Shifting from telling others what to do {which creates conflict and burn out} to asking questions so their employees learn things for themselves, helps leaders support employees who are confident, more resilient, able to contribute without fear of failure while staying engaged. These are employees who want to be at work, engaged in and contributing to the innovation of the organization, they thrive.

From a practical perspective, a leader can demonstrate respect and create boundaries by not emailing, texting or calling employees after hours or on weekends. This ensures employees have an opportunity to have a life outside of work, one that can nurture them and provide them with down time. I know of leaders who will leave when everyone is expected to leave and then return to work later or work at home later. However, they lead by example, messaging to others they need to create boundaries around work.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think of leadership as the process of inspiring others to work together to achieve defined goals.

The key piece of this is the inspiring, which I think refers to the ‘soft skills’ such as effectively communicating to connect and understand, critical thinking, empathy and compassion, and generally being open and non-judging of others.

Part of this is also being an advocate for their employees, speaking up for them and ensuring they have what is needed to do their work.

As a client/leader recently said to me “I need to advocate for my team. No one else will. I need to ensure they have what they need to do their work effectively and safely”.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I have learned when I anticipate a meeting, talk or decision could be stressful, it usually is. I believe this is because I anticipate it in a way that creates fear for me and that fear makes me want to protect myself, becoming closed and judging of myself and others. This limits my ability to explore possibility, a critical piece in such situations and does not serve me or contribute to developing a way forward.

I have learned what my triggers are and how I respond, as a result of my work with emotional intelligence.

I am also very familiar with my values, what is important to me. I find when one of my values is tapped, I move to protect myself either by retreating into silence (I am a card carrying introvert) or acting out, saying things I later regret and wish I could take back.

I have also learned what makes me feel calm and how I can access this place.

My strategy is to visualize and sense that place of calm and focus on keeping myself there.

Once in the meeting, I intentionally hold that space of calmness and when I feel stress begin to overtake me, I start asking open questions of others, those questions that begin with who, what, where, when or how. They create a magical sense of calm for me and after I ask the second question, exploring the unique perspectives of others, I find they seem to become calmer as well (at least in my mind).

Neuroscience supports that once we become curious with another and seek to collaborate, dopamine is released and as we continue to be curious, asking open non-judging questions, oxytocin is also released. Both lead to us having a ‘feel good’ sensation that helps us better connect with others and find common ground.

Although I have not found research that supports this occurring during stressful encounters, my personal experience and that of those I have worked with supports this.

An example I can recall was a situation where I could feel a tension in the meeting I was in. It created stress for me so as I remained present in the moment, I became intentional about staying in my calm place. As one participant made an aggressive comment which I could have interpreted as disrespectful thus attacking my value of respect, I remained in a place of calm and asked the question “What is your reason for thinking this?” and after they responded I went so far as to ask “How do you think I contributed to this situation?”

My questions helped them to feel seen, heard and understood and helped me understand their perspective. And guess what — their perspective was very different from mine and once they shared theirs, I could understand why they felt the way they did. I did not completely agree with it and that was ok.

Understanding others helps us minimize stress and seek a way forward as we establish common ground, which provides great opportunities for possibility in the future.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

In various roles over the years, I have managed teams of employees. I can recall in some of those roles, there was an expectation of providing feedback once a year at an annual performance review. Everyone dreaded these meetings and most thought of them as a necessary part of their job, sort of like a report card that reflected what the leader thought of their work over the past year.

As a provider I found this challenging, as I was never expected to provide information that could lead to skill development.

I think the biggest take away was that, for the most part, feedback was based on the unique perspective of just one person on a particular day at a specific time. It was a one sided process that reflected my biases, beliefs and situation of that moment and did not provide learning opportunities, engagement or accountability on the part of the employee. They did not feel seen, heard or understood.

My mantra is ‘it’s all about the learning’. I needed to change and I did. I started providing very specific feedback when the situation warranted it — both reinforcing behaviour that was effective and pointing out behaviours where an employee had the opportunity to change and become more effective in their role.

Annual reviews became a conversation where both parties were expected to share their perspectives about how the employee was doing. This led to an opportunity for employees to develop their learning goals for the next year where they identified the areas they wanted to develop in and how they wanted to achieve this. Their goals were a reflection of the ongoing specific feedback I provided over the year. This changed feedback into a more dynamic process where both the employee and I were participants with responsibilities and accountability for their continued development and learning.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

I struggle with describing feedback as ‘honest’. I define honest as truth which to me implies an absolute black and white situation and my experience has informed me that there are far fewer such situations than one would think. For example, there is much research that shows that if there are 10 witnesses at an accident, each one will have a different ‘truth’ of what they saw even when each claims to be giving an honest answer.

Having said this, I believe feedback is a gift, one a leader should be providing to employees on a frequent and informal basis. It helps the employee understand how they are seen by others which helps them determine what they need to learn to continue to grow, develop and contribute their best to the organization.

Direct feedback implies in the moment. Learning is most powerful when it can be connected to a situation so providing feedback directly after something occurs supports the most effective learning opportunities for an employee.

When this feedback is direct and specific, the employee has the opportunity to better understand how their particular actions impact others, in any way.

Being a huge believer in continued learning, providing direct and specific feedback of any kind provides the employee with in the moment learning which can be very powerful for overall development.

I consider feedback as a huge gift and if a leader is thoughtful in how they provide this gift, it sets up a situation of gratitude for employees because even if the feedback is considered ‘constructive’ it provides the employee with possibility for change in the future and helps to contribute to an organizational culture of learning, generosity and acceptance, even when mistakes are made. After all, mistakes lead to our greatest learning.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Yes, this is challenging because what one person considers harsh another may not. What one considers as a comment on behaviour, another may take personally, hearing ‘I am a bad person’ even though the provider of the feedback does not say this. Providing feedback remotely is even more challenging because it is harder for the leader to read the body language of the employee. This is important because if the employee becomes afraid, angry or embarrassed, cortisol will be released for self protection. In this state, it is almost impossible for the employee to hear, understand and learn from what is said.

Here are 5 suggestions I have learned to best give feedback to a remote employee:

Always have a goal established before meeting with the employee. The more specific the goal, the more effective the conversation. Some questions to consider:

What will success look like when you leave this meeting?

Considering we can only change ourselves and not others, how can you ensure the goal is not stated in a way that leads to your expectation that the employee will change?

An example of this might be an employee is expected to connect in for a morning meeting at 8:00 am each day as a check in to prepare for the day. They connect in late most mornings, which is disruptive for others, creates delays and is considered disrespectful. The team is not pleased.

If the goal is ‘I want to make sure this person will be online by 8:00 am each morning’ the leader has no control over the outcome. Changing the wording of the goal to ‘I will support this employee in developing a strategy to ensure they will be on line at 8:00 am, and help them identify the support/resources they need to ensure success.’

Listen more, talk less.

In challenging conversations, most of us need to control the narrative. To do that, we feel we need to do most of the talking. We all want to tell our side of a story to feel seen, heard and understood. As leaders, when we pause and listen to others, we shift the balance so the other person feels they are a contributor to the conversation. This helps them to share their experience and allows you to understand their unique perspective. Guaranteed you will learn so much which will help you frame your feedback in a way that connects with them, in a way they can understand you also.

Using the example above, the leader could start the conversation by saying, ‘I would like to talk to you today about the time you check into our zoom calls each morning. There is an expectation you arrive at 8:00 am. I am wondering — how often do you think you arrive on time?’ Followed up with ‘How do you think this impacts our team?’

When speaking and sharing your perspective, own it.

This means don’t get personal. Reframe to statements that are ‘I’ centred instead of ‘you’.

For example instead of:

‘You don’t seem to be able to check in at 8:00 for our daily zoom meeting. Everyone else is making this work. When you check in late, you cause disruption and increase the length of the meeting while you get caught up.’

You could say:

‘I have noticed on frequent occasions that you miss the 8:00 team check in on zoom. I appreciate this is challenging for all of us and yet I find it a valuable way for us all to connect and stay focused. What are your thoughts on this?’

Be Present, Open and Non-judging in the conversation.

Stop thinking about other things such as a meeting you have later, messages on your phone, etc. Ensure the person feels you are there with them and for them.

Example of this: Maintain eye contact if on video and notice body language. Listen for tone of voice. Be attentive with no interruptions such as emails, texts etc. Your gift to this person is providing them with your full attention and they will reciprocate giving you their full attention. This messages respect and compassion. It allows for exploration and possibility for the future. It helps you understand their perspective and ensures you see, hear and understand them.

Ensure responsibility for change of behaviour and accountability for this change.

After their perspective and yours have been explored, ask them how they want to move forward. Provide them with the opportunity to take responsibility for the situation and discover their own solution. Once this is established, ask them how you can support them and hold them accountable.

The goal of feedback that addresses a challenge is to explore new ways of moving forward so the behaviour is changed. This happens when the employee explores, reflects and learns. You are there to support this process.

In the example above:

‘It sounds as if you have several challenges in your life right now. The organization requires you to be on this call at 8:00am. What can you do to ensure you will be on it, on time every morning?’ (taking responsibility)

‘What support do you need to ensure your success in this?’

‘I would like to check in with you to ensure your success in this. How does 2 weeks from today sound for you?’ (holds them accountable for their outcome and provides opportunity for you to reinforce their commitment if fulfilled or explore other options if not)

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I believe email is a fantastic tool for some things that need to be communicated. In situations such as providing feedback that could be misunderstood, I would suggest this not to be undertaken. Having a conversation by phone, where one can sense the tone of voice, even helps.

Having said that, if someone feels they need to, I would suggest one always speak from your perspective using phrases such as ‘I find’ and ‘based on my observations’. Never make statements starting with ‘you’. These are bound to push buttons and be misunderstood, leading to someone feeling they are being judged and criticized, and they will take it personally.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

The best time to give feedback is when there is sufficient time to explore the situation in a way that is open, non-judging and focused on understanding and learning.

In some organizations, there is an expectation that feedback is a process that is limited to regular scheduled meetings that are used to evaluate an employee’s ongoing performance.

In other organizations, feedback is expected to be provided when someone’s behaviour, in the moment, is such that a leader may feel there is a need to provide feedback and they feel an urgency in doing this.

I believe feedback is a great way to create understanding and provides opportunities to explore and learn. It needs to be provided at a time that creates the space for this.

I have also found many leaders find the timing of feedback they provide meets their needs rather than giving much consideration to the needs of the employee receiving it. They intentionally need to shift to focus on the needs of the employee rather than their own insecurities in the moment.

I don’t believe providing feedback is effective unless it is a process, which both parties believe is useful, one that supports reflection and learning. It also needs to be based on conversations that are open, non-judging and provide the opportunity to explore, understand and find ways to move forward with a change in behaviour. It is the responsibility of the leader to ensure this is supported.

Research supports providing feedback in the moment ensures the best opportunity for learning. The caveat I would add is that the leader may want to check in regarding their own emotional state and that of the individual receiving the feedback. If emotions are running high or time is limited, they may want to schedule a time later that day or the next day to ensure learning opportunities are provided that lead to accountability and change of behaviour.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

I would define a ‘great boss’ as one who gets out of their own way, is comfortable with chaos and believes everyone has something to contribute, as they all focus on a shared goal. They recognize their role is to hold the focus while providing the space and opportunities for their employees to grow and contribute. They understands mistakes will be made and provide great opportunity for learning that leads to growth and innovation.

A great boss ensures the same mistakes are not repeated. They have compassion for others, want to see, hear and understand them and are light hearted in their approach, able to laugh at themselves.

As a leader, managing an employee who is not meeting the requirements of the job can be very challenging. A client whom I was coaching, was a leader for such an employee. She found this situation challenging and developed a plan to move forward with this employee in a respectful and compassionate way. She met with the employee and had a shared conversation around the contribution he was making to the department. She started with a curious approach, asking him how he felt about his job performance, listening in an open and non-judging way. When she outlined the responsibilities of the position, he could appreciate he was not meeting all of the expectations.

They developed a plan for him to move forward, with a goal of meeting all job expectations and a commitment to check in after one month. This process was repeated the next month with the employee realizing earlier in the meeting he was not meeting all expectations. There was a shift as he demonstrated greater accountability for his actions.

The third meeting was scheduled and when he walked into her office, she could see he was different, showing greater confidence in himself. He got right to the point and said she had helped him realize this position was not a good fit for him and shared that he was resigning. He found a position in a very different industry and she learned a few months later he was excelling in it.

She learned not all employees fit all positions and it was part of her responsibility to support employees who were in such a place to reflect and learn how to move on to a different role, one that better fit their skills. She also learned she could do this in a way that would enable the employee to take accountability and make the decision, about how to move forward, themselves.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am inspired by what Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I believe if we are curious with each other and seek to understand others, we can change the world one conversation at a time. This means we are present in conversations, absorbing what others say, open and non-judging as we listen, focused on others instead of ourselves (giving them air time) and ask open, curious questions (begin with who, what, where, when, how).

If everyone was curious with others, we would begin to understand the unique perspectives of others instead of assuming their perspective is the same as ours or is a certain way because of our beliefs and biases that no longer serve us. This does not mean everyone would agree with our perspective or us with theirs. It means we would understand each other.

Understanding each other would allow us to explore and discover common ground upon which to move forward towards an inclusive society, filled with possibilities, where everyone is accepting of the unique qualities of others.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favourite quote is based on a quote by Virginia Satir who is attributed with saying:

“I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them. The greatest gift I can give is to seehearunderstand and to touch another person.”

We all just want to be seen, heard and understood and curious conversations allow you to do that. The moment I learned to do that — to be open and non-judging in curious conversations, I became a much better leader, parent and spouse. I am happier, calmer and more connected to those around me. I know I am more compassionate and open in everything I do.

How can our readers further follow your work online?


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