A few weeks ago, I was having a follow-up conversation with a workshop participant. He called me in response to the same, sincere invitation I make at the conclusion of every workshop I teach. Call or email me if you think of something you want to discuss, or just want to run something by me. So, he did.
He wanted to discuss a situation he was in at work, a fairly common situation inside any organization, especially large ones. The organization had some major issues that were creating a major divide among the employees. One problem in particular was on everyone’s mind. Everyone in the organization acknowledged that there was a significant business problem, that needed to be solved. But there was wide disagreement on the root cause of the problem, and almost no agreement about the correct solution. He was promoting a strategy to solve this major issue, but he was having trouble building momentum around his solution, because an influential rival (my descriptor, not his) had a competing solution that was getting more traction. He called me to ask for my help, looking to become more persuasive in his arguments.
So, as I always do in situations like these, I started asking lots of questions.
“Tell me more about the problem.”
“Tell me how you are looking at it.”
“Tell me why your solution is the correct one.”
On and on we went.
And, the further we got into the conversation, and the more comfortable he became, the more his sentences began with qualifiers like “OK, can I be honest here?” Of course, I encouraged his honesty, fully expecting that this would lead to more clarity into what was really going. As his answers became more “honest,” he became more direct, more judgmental, more “severe.” He began giving me all the ways that his solution was not only better for the organization, but more pure, more honest. “I love this organization, and I just want what’s best for the company.” The more we spoke, the more declarative he became in his conviction that his ideas, his beliefs, his solution were legitimately better for the organization that he loves so much. And wrapped into most of his answers, was a serious questioning of the motives of the other guy. His motives were pure. His rival’s weren’t.
After about fifteen minutes of this, I started asking different questions.
Tell me more about the influential rival.
What do you think he is trying to accomplish?
Do you think he is trying to do harm to the organization? Or does he just look at the problem differently than you do?
Again, on and on we went.
And as my questions pushed him to start thinking about the perspective of the other person, and I challenged him to put himself in the other guy’s shoes, the entire tone of our conversation started to change. Eventually, his descriptors of his rival’s motives started to soften.
Ultimately, we landed on a communication strategy that was completely different than the one he called me looking for. He called me hoping I would teach him how to force feed his ideas on those around him, to “persuade” them to follow his recommendations. Where we landed however, was a place far different. Not one where any force feeding would ever happen. Rather we landed in a place, and with a persuasive communication strategy, that was first and foremost about listening, and considering where the other person might be coming from. My point to him was that to be truly persuasive, he needed to pause his judgmental thinking, stop assuming that his arguments held all the virtue, all the righteousness, and all the truth. If you want to be more persuasive, I shared, then you have to dial down your conviction that you are all right, and the other person is all wrong. Because no one gets persuaded when you enter the conversation from that angle. No one’s mind is open when you approach them with your verbal fists up. The human brain, when it feels attacked, goes into a defensive posture. And no one is open to persuasion when they are in a defensive posture. Instead, if you want your ideas to be listened to, start by doing a little listening of your own.
As I went down this path with him, he got quieter and quieter.
I heard from him again this past weekend, with a short update. While the organization was still trying to figure out what the exact solution would be, he shared with me that the tone of the discussion had changed dramatically, and there was functional dialogue happening. He might not get his ideal solution. But he felt good that he was being heard, and that he would be able to contribute to a compromise that might not be perfect, but would be a positive.
Amazing, I said. In order to be heard, we need to do a better job hearing. Funny how that works.
The point of this story is not to puff myself up, and show you my Yoda-like coaching abilities. The discussion I had was pretty typical, and based on a fundamental belief that everyone inside my organization shares. Everyone at The Latimer Group believes that hard conversations are better managed when you come from a place of listening and understanding first, and not by pounding the table with your beliefs. It is counter-intuitive in many ways. But to be your most persuasive self, you often need to be quiet for a moment, and try to understand what is going on, what the other person or people are basing their beliefs on, and look for common ground.
This recent exchange is a common one for my team, and one that is really instructive for all of us. There are lessons there for all parts of our lives.
So as I wrap up this already-too-long blog post, I will close with one final thought. Re-read this post, and each time you read the word “organization” replace it with the word “country.” And you will understand what I believe to be the most fundamental issue that is tearing our country apart. When you enter a conversation, any conversation, with the belief that you hold all the virtue, all the righteousness, and all the truth, before you have spent any time listening or trying to understand, then you are now part of the problem. A really big part.
I will pause this right there. Lots to think about, for all of us, inside and outside of the workplace.
Organizations, of all sorts, function best when we lead with listening, understanding, and respect, even for people who may hold opposing views. Organizations function worst when they become tribal. Because tribalism almost always devolves into the assumption that anyone outside of your tribe is the enemy.
Give that one a think…
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