Sunday, July 13, 2008

We Can Do This!

This article is based on a couple of separate but related incidences that occurred recently.

  1. I received an email message from a former student regarding some issues she had in communicating with a co-worker. The co-worker was her boss, and the issue seemed to rotate around safety. Thanks. Donna!

  2. The other night, I had the good fortune to speak at the Society for Software Quality monthly meeting. I spoke on developing influence within an organization. An attendee asked a great question; "Are there some people that you just can't influence because they have reached the limit of the "Peter Principle?" Thanks, attendee!

  3. I had a terrific discussion with my work friend Dave, which gave me some insight. Thanks, Dave!

I find that when someone describes another person as "impervious to influence", many times they are expressing a frustration because the other party won't accept the idea that is being "pitched". In other words, one party is trying to persuade another party to adopt a position, and if they are unsuccessful the other party is written off as "resistant" (or worse). There are many reasons that people remain un-persuaded after hearing a position, but they all add up to one thing: They (the listener) thinks they know something about you (the speaker) or the idea you don't know, or aren't revealing. For instance:

  • You are not an authority on the subject, and therefore don't know what you are talking about.

  • They believe the idea is bad. It is clear to them that it won't work.

  • They can't tell you what they really think because you'll "get mad".

  • You have a track record of contributing few ideas that work.

  • The math doesn't add up.

  • They don't want to lose control of the situation by letting you contribute to decisions in their area of responsibility. " Your premise is wrong because you don't have all the facts, and they can't share what they know.

  • Solving the problem is a low priority and resources are better used elsewhere.

  • They have heard a better solution.

  • Everyone knows that will never work.

  • They learned a long time ago that if they adopt your idea, then you have power over them.

  • can't sell it to those that need to implement it.

  • The people above them will never buy into it.

  • It's not in the budget.

  • Business is bad and they can't afford it.

  • They have evidence that the opposite is true.

  • Adopting your solution would make them look bad, and they don't want that.

  • Adopting your solution would make you look good, and they don't want that.

Certainly I could go on (and so could you), but you get the picture. They have a story, too. And in THEIR story, YOU are the one that is inflexible, under-informed, or ill-advised.
It's critical and fundamental that you have the skill to understand their story BEFORE you go too far down the road explaining your own. There are only three reasons to have this kind of conversation:

  1. to tell your story

  2. to understand their story

  3. to do problem solving (which requires the other two conversations as well)

IF you want a solution to the problem, then recognize that you have to address all the obstacles that prevent its adoption. Fortunately, there is only one obstacle: the parties don't understand each other's position. So "seek first to understand".

First, you must build safety. They must feel that having an open conversation with you is possible and beneficial, and only you can make that happen. You must be appropriately humble (rather than try to overwhelm with all you know), speak tentatively (so that the other party can feel free to explore your story with you), and suspend your desire to "be right" in favor of your desire to get all of the information out on the table. THAT is the central skill that distinguishes "the fox among the hounds". It is about being authentic and genuinely interested in the quality of the outcome.

If the person with whom you are speaking is your boss (or any boss), there is another factor to be addressed in maintaining safety. Occasionally, a conversation can become so "equalizing" between two parties, that the boss can begin to feel as if they are losing (or you are taking) their "positional power" and they can feel disrespected. In order to have a productive conversation the two parties must feel Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose. When the other party feels disrespected, they become defensive and the conversation stops. There are easy methods to establish and maintain mutual respect and mutual purpose in your conversations.

Next, you must be able to discuss the differences that exist between your stories. That means you need to be able to skillfully listen, recognize differences, and resolve them using inquiry and reason. You must be observant of changes in your own and the other party's emotional state and be able to address changes that affect the productivity of the conversation.

Finally you must be able to describe a course of action that will implement the solution. How we come to a decision and how we implement it differs with the kind of impact carried by the decision. It also involves arriving at a decision to which all affected parties can commit, and influencing stakeholders to honor their commitments.

THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THIS ARTICLE: Realize that the other party doesn't have to know anything or do anything different than they are doing right now. Re-read the above and see that YOU are the one using YOUR skills to accomplish this.

It doesn't matter if you initiate the conversation or they do, nor if emotions begin to rise or not. You are not born with these skills, and few people develop them naturally to any significant extent. They are, however, easily trained and implemented. Better communication, better decisions, better results - that's why we do this.

Insist on great business results! Go to Pathfinder Communication

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