I have recently been engaged to work with a top executive of a local company who, despite his many outstanding abilities, is encountering substantial difficulty in working effectively with his teams and subordinates. He is viewed as insensitive, “bossy,” and a micromanager. The owners of the company are reluctant to consider terminating him because of his sterling 10 year record of success at the firm, but he has not been successful in turning around the new division to which he was assigned, and unless management sees significant improvement fairly soon he may be asked to look for work elsewhere.
I had been briefed on the situation by the CEO of the company, and so I was anxious to see how Mark (my client’s pseudonym for this post) would lay out his view. At my first session with Mark 2 weeks ago I explained that I was there to do everything in my power to insure his success, and that because of the strict confidentiality in place he should feel free to say anything that would help me get the most accurate view of the issues involved.
Not surprisingly, Mark had a great deal of difficulty seeing and owning his role in the deteriorating situation at work. He was not merely defensive, he seemed half unaware of the magnitude of the problem he was facing. He brought in his most recent employee evaluation and pointed to all of the areas in which he was rated highly, and then went into a long-winded diatribe against a fellow employee who he felt was undermining him. In fact, almost everything Mark said tended to be long-winded, and this was the first area I tackled with him.
THINK NOT JUST OF WHAT YOU NEED TO SAY, BUT TO WHOM YOU’RE SAYING IT AND OF WHAT THEY NEED TO HEAR
We did some role-playing and it was immediately apparent that Mark was a detail-oriented person. His answers to questions had far more background than was necessary for me to a gain a practical understanding of whatever issue we were discussing, and he often went off on tangents that I later understood were his attempts to make himself more likable by revealing personal anecdotes, but which seemed forced and stilted. Overall, I found it an effort to “stay with him,” and found myself wishing he’d get to the point. This was assuredly what his fellow workers were experiencing as well. What finally drove the this home was my alerting Mark to the fact that, despite my having said early in a conversation “I’ve got it” in a rather loud voice, he continued to give me examples of how he was being misunderstood and misinterpreted. He never even heard me say that because he was so invested in proving his point. Which relates to my next principle:
WHEN SOMEONE ELSE IS SPEAKING, GIVE THEM AS MUCH FOCUS AS YOU CAN AND MINIMIZE THE EFFORT YOU’RE INVESTING IN WHAT TO SAY NEXT
People are often so invested in proving their point, or being right, that they are listening to another primarily in order to prepare a rebuttal, rather than to actually take in new information, preparing themselves for their next devastating counter-argument. You can often see this phenomenon played out on panel political talk shows. Of course, in that setting no one really expects anyone to be listening to each other (unfortunately) - it’s all about making points. Your workplace is not a political talk show, and you need to listen and take into account what others are saying rather than simply trying to further advance your point - you may discover that good ideas come from people other than yourself!
WATCH AND LISTEN FOR CUES
Body language is very revealing, but a lot of people have poor skills in reading it, and haven’t invested much time in learning that language (and it can be learned, just like any other language). An audience (whether of one or of thousands) exhibits cues that indicate whether you are being listened to and with what degree of engagement. To take an obvious example, someone yawning while you’re talking to her would be a pretty clear example of your not connecting, as would glances away from you, any signs of restlessness, or perhaps seeing premature signs of agreement (e.g. nods which could simply mean that your audience is tired of hearing you and hopes that by agreeing they’ll get you to move on). Leaning in to you is more likely to indicate engagement than is leaning away, as is face-to-face alignment rather than a turning slightly to the side. There are, of course, aural cues as well: tone of voice (curious? encouraging? disdainful? annoyed?) is a prime indicator of the interest someone has in what you’re saying.
PREPARE IN ADVANCE
Even if you’re going into a ten minute meeting, give some thought to whom is likely to be there, and to what and how you’re going to speak so that they’re most likely to walk away with what you want them to. Also, do your best to put yourself in a collegial and receptive, rather than adversarial, frame of mind. It will not only increase the likelihood of your achieving your objective, it will also ensure more efficient communication and shorter meetings, things for which everyone will be grateful.
Finally, AVOID long monologues about books you've read, movies you've seen, teams you're a fan of, celebrities you admire, and TV shows you love...unless the person to whom you're talking has some knowledge of them, and interest in them, too.