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Mind the Iceberg

“No, really, I’m fine”, she said, with that barely noticeable tremble in her voice.

My dear friend – a talented, hard-working entrepreneur who also happens to be a mom – has had a lot on her plate lately. We call as she’s driving to pick her kids up from school. She tells me she’s had one of those mornings with that weird mix of procrastination, analysis paralysis and sudden bursts of high productivity.

I ask her what’s on her mind and she starts listing all the things she cannot forget to do, create, prepare, organise… 

  • Bake birthday cake for baby J tonight
  • Send that difficult email to M
  • Ask Julie’s mom if G can come and play this Wednesday
  • Finish that report and send it off
  • Nail that new client call
  • Find an answer to that tax question, etc, etc… 

‘So how are you feeling?’, I ask.

“I’m fine”, she says. 

‘Hmhm.. what else is there besides fine?’ I ask again. 

‘No really… I’m fine’, she says with that barely noticeable tremble in her voice that only the trained ear of a loved one will register. 

And then I sense it: the Iceberg.

The iceberg is everything that lies underneath the surface of her words and all that at this moment can’t be unveiled because she’s about to drive into the school car park and having a big ugly cry behind her steering wheel is a luxury she’s not about to indulge in. ‘Gotta go, honey’. ‘I know’, I reply. ‘I’m with you!’ ‘Thanks.. Talk soon.’ She says, and as she’s hanging up I hear her daughter’s feet on the pavement as she runs up to the car, yelling ‘Mommy! Look Mommy what I made!’… beep beep beep… 

Of course I wished we had more time to talk then. I wished she had more space to share what she was feeling. But time is a luxury and we didn’t have it in that moment. When ‘keeping it together’ is your main objective as you get through the day, you don’t always want big feelings or big questions to interfere with your delicately balanced schedule. Those big ones take time. And they cost energy as you process, explore and answer them.

We all know what the Iceberg feels like in our personal relationships. We feel it when our partner is ‘fine’ but in fact, is not. We feel it when we ourselves are doing our utmost to keep it together and are only half succeeding at that. 

At work, some stakeholder conversations aren’t that far off.

In the workplace it’s not that different. It’s just another place where people are being human. Nobody suddenly turns into a robot the moment they walk in the office door. We bring our subconscious beliefs, our coping mechanisms, our hopes and expectations everywhere we go. Yes, even the people who say they’re super rational and don’t ever let their feelings interfere at work. (Anyone? :-)) Whether we openly express them or not, we keep on running into our own – and other people’s – icebergs. Sometimes they’re small, sometimes they’re Titanic sized. But they’re there. 

And then of course, there’s the collective icebergs – the ones underneath projects or challenges that are way bigger than 1 person.

Tell me if this scenario sounds vaguely familiar

You’re called in to discuss a ‘small’ issue that a (internal or external) client or partner is hoping you can help them with. There’s a pesky problem on the table that everybody downplays, and yet seems to take a lot of collective mindspace. It’s probably ‘just a glitch’ that needs some attention. After an hour of conversation, it’s become clear to you that:

  • this is more then a ‘glitch’
  • there’s many more layers to the problem than are shared right now
  • there’s complicated politics around who owns the problem
  • and who’s gonna pay to fix it
  • but calling the iceberg an iceberg is too big and too scary so nobody dares to. And so there it sits, for now. In your face.

So how do you deal with Icebergs, and how can you start to explore what lies underneath?

If you sense that there are delicate stakeholder issues at play and the people you’re talking to aren’t free to share everything, there’s probably good reasons for that. And you can probably stab a guess, but better than guessing is asking.

There are questions to ask ‘en groupe’, and in other cases, it is wise to talk to your stakeholders 1-to-1 to get a more honest answer shared confidentially. Let’s explore a question that you can ask in the group conversation that can help you begin to dive deeper and explore the underwater iceberg in more detail.

After you’ve heard them out, make sure you first:

  1. Re-iterate & clarify the challenge that’s been discussed. “So let me get this straight: the core challenge you’re facing is….”
  2. Recap why it matters that together you find a solution: “And this matters to you because…”
  3. Then, ask for their advice. Help them take a step back as they observe this problem from a wider perspective, and ask: “From a wider perspective, what other issues can you identify within the organisation or in your marketplace, right now or in the near future, that could impact us as we deal with this issue? What potential red flags do you see on the horizon that we should be aware of and prepare for?” 

 If you have time, you can ask a follow up question: “What’s your initial gut feeling about how we could begin to deal with that circumstance that you’ve just pinpointed?”

Don’t ignore the iceberg.

It takes time to map an iceberg, and so when possible, give yourself that. But don’t ignore them. See if you can, bit by bit, learn what lies beneath the surface. Because only when you know that, can you begin to deal with it. And in that process, turn your stakeholders into your advisors by asking for their perspective and advice. 

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