Ask for permission, listen, and hold off on disagreement to facilitate decisions
Here’s a simple rule of thumb for effective communication: in any important conversation (and every business conversation) ask yourself: who is this about? Another way to put it is: who has to make a choice here? When you want to lead, sell something, or reach agreement with someone, someone besides yourself has choices to make. It’s going to be “about them” at least half of the time. You can’t control their decision — if you did it would be coercion, not leadership, sales, or negotiation — but you can facilitate by asking for permission, listening more than you talk, and showing respect even when you hear what you don’t want to hear. The following example of poor communication style, and the advice I gave the communicator, applies equally to leaders, sellers, and negotiators.
This afternoon an unsolicited caller offered me something I don’t want at this moment, a web site development, hosting, and marketing package.
I waited patiently through his intro — after all, it’s my business to listen without feeling threatened by or taking personally what people say and how they say it. When he finally paused, which he had to do because he wanted to confirm my postal address, I said: “you know, there is a lot of information that is important to you for me to hear. And I appreciate that. But what you haven’t done yet is ask whether I want to have this conversation with you.”
After a short silence he thanked me in a lower tone for paying him the respect of telling him this. And after I confirmed that I really didn’t need his services without denying the value of his services to others, he asked me to help him improve his delivery style. We wound up talking for around ten minutes. I’m glad it was on his bill because I’m guessing the call was coming from India.
The number one thing I recommend to you, I told him, is to listen to the people you are trying to communicate with. Give them opportunities to tell you what they want, they’ll be happier, feel respected, and trust you more.
The number two thing, I said, is not to be afraid of people saying “no.” Expect it will happen on occasion, for a variety of reasons, most of them beyond your control, and accept it gracefully when it does. If you are afraid of what they may say, they will hear in your voice that something is wrong. It will also negatively affect your judgment when choosing how to speak to them. The key here is to listen with an open mind to what makes their answer “no,” then you can move forward together if there is still common ground between you.
The number three thing, I said, is to ask for permission to go on soon after you initiate the conversation. (This is number three only because it combines the first and second things.)
He told me that this advice was worth more than a “yes” to his offer. And at the end of our conversation he asked if he could call back again some time — to talk more about his communication style. I agreed. And just in case you were thinking of thanking me for supporting his intentions to become a better listener before calling you: you’re welcome. Furthermore I encourage you to occasionally accept responsibility for giving telephone callers constructive feedback about their calling style.
Homework for the week: ask yourself what would happen if you applied the same assumptions you make about the people you’re doing well communicating with to the people you’re not doing so well with? For example, what if you spoke to the people you work with and your customers in the same way, with the same amount of emphasis on respect and candor? Liking or not liking someone really has very little to do with it — you choose your approach towards each person. (If you do this, write to tell me your results — it will help you remember what you discovered and I’ll enjoy the feedback.)