“I try to go hard on the issue and soft on the person.” – Dr. Henry Cloud

The above statement is potent. It really drives home the point on how to address workplace challenges while exhibiting character and integrity. Living and leading on this statement is like walking a tightrope. It is so easy to get off balance and go hard on the person and soft on the issue. Our leadership standing falls quickly when this happens.

Relationships are foundational in leadership, as John Maxwell rightly points out in the 5 Levels of Leadership. Even though some relationships can be troublesome to work through, we are drawn into the personality of a person, and fire our frustration at the person rather than the issue.

Personalities draw us in.

Focus on the IssueIt is a curious thing that we are drawn into focusing on the personality. Maybe it is due to an attraction to surface-level things rather than diving deep into the causes. Maybe it is because we get caught up in the pettiness rather than the realness of the solving problems. Whatever the reasons, we are drawn to the light of personalities rather than the dull burn of the issues.

At times, it can be about a person’s behavior, and this needs to be addressed in a respectful, accountable way. If a person is disrupting a team with their bad behaviors, it cannot be ignored either.

The statement remains a challenge: “I try to go hard on the issue and soft on the person.”

Keep focused on the issue while maintaining the relationship.

The question may be, simply, how do we remain focused on the issue and maintain the relationship? Here are five ideas to keep our focus:

Idea 1: Balance the emphasis on the issue with showing empathy to the person.

Sometimes others will want to return to personalities, so keeping the discipline of focus is paramount. It takes repeating the issue, drilling into the cause, and doing this with empathy. Most people are stretched in today’s intense world of work. Empathy builds relationships while solving issues. It is about balancing the focus on the issue with expressing appreciation for another’s viewpoint and effort.

It is a tough balance. To keep the issue front-and-center, keep asking why something is happening. Drill into the cause, the process issues, and the technology requirements. By asking questions on the issue, focus will remain in the right areas and with the right compassionate attitude.

Idea 2: Focus on the right words – speaking and hearing.

Listening is an essential skill. The greatest lesson learned is to listen what the other person is saying and, afterwards, say “What I hear you say is ___________________ (state what you heard).” By doing this, it proves to others that we are listening, and it keeps the focus on the real, appropriate issues. From here, adding our thoughts, ideas, and suggested actions, a productive give-and-take occurs. We may even find that others will adopt our approach.

Hearing and speaking is a give-and-take experience. If all someone is doing is speaking, issue resolution will break down quickly. Keep the tension positively focused on the issue, pulling and releasing until resolved.

Idea 3: Be fully present.

Mindfulness is gaining popularity, even in business. It is about being fully present. An approach is to grab two to three key words another is saying and gain clarity. It is more than the words, too. Maintain positive eye contact. Keep our body open with no arm crossing and closing up. Communicate accessibility and a dash of vulnerability through our eyes and gestures.

It is important to be aware of how we are sitting, how we are reacting, and how we are projecting ourselves in the conversation. When we see others tighten up, it is essential to do a quick look at ourselves. They may be reflecting our tenseness, so adjust to set the right tone.

Idea 4: Keep repeating – solve the issue, solve the issue, solve the issue.

The best way to keep focused is to keep repeating quietly in our mind – solve the issue, solve the issue, solve the issue. It may sound corny, but it works. It keeps our thoughts, words, and actions focused on the right things. It delivers the discipline of interaction… the discipline of going hard on the issue and soft on the person.

Idea 5: Let go.

Forget what happened two years or 2 months ago. If things have changed, then don’t hold on to the past with others. It is time to give a second chance. Some hold on to the past too much, and it blinds them to changes made, new behaviors adopted.

Herein is one of the difficult challenges. When an individual is obstinate, self-centered, lazy, blames others, etc., then an issue cannot be solved with them. This is a second angle of letting go. If someone with bad behaviors cannot be coached and will not change, then they need to go.

Letting go is about release. It is about releasing the past. It is about releasing a person when the culture is being damaged and issues can no longer be resolved.  Both are always wrapped tightly with respect and empathy.

Life is too short for unproductive drama and spoiled relationships.

Being a leader means working through the challenging times. Leadership requires a clear focus on the issues. Leadership requires building, coaching, maintaining, and growing relationships in order to advance attitudes, mindsets, teamwork, progress, and an environment to excel.

Leadership is about enabling problem-solving and empowering others to focus on the right things and do the right things in the right way.

How do you keep from getting distracted from solving issues? How do you maintain solid relationships during challenging times?