Pocketblog has gone back to basics. This is part of an extended management course.
If you could create a shortlist of the most important skills that a manager must cultivate, what would be on it? That is not just an idle question: please do offer yours as a comment, below.
On anybody’s list, I would expect to see ‘listening’. It is a fundamental human skill and one that most of us take for granted. It is even a skill the deaf can deploy, using different senses: listening means paying attention to what other people are saying. So, no wonder it is a vital skill for managers.
So how can you do it? Or, put another way,
‘How can we learn to do listening better?’
Your exercise this week is to practise these seven steps. Start with number 1, and practise this for a day. On day 2, practise number 1 and number 2, and so on, building your skills as the week progresses. Keep a record of what you notice.
Day 1: Care Before you start to listen to someone, you have to care what they are saying. So practise caring enough to really pay attention.
Day 2: Tune in
Carefully notice what the other person is saying. Savour their words and the meaning behind them.
Day 3: Tune out Tune out that constant dialogue that goes on in your head. When you hear it, put it to one side and re-focus on what the other person is saying.
Day 4: Relevance Listen for things that are particularly relevant, surprising, interesting. What are the most important words that you hear and how do they relate to the substance of your conversation?
Day 5: Suspend
Suspending judgement is your toughest test so far. Resist the urge to criticise, judge or react to what you hear. There will be a time for that later, but when you let your opinions and prejudices get in the way of your listening, you miss what the other person says, thinks and feels.
Day 6: Notice
Notice what else is going on at the same time as they are speaking. What are their speech patterns, facial expressions, gestures and movements. What posture do they adopt and what is the quality of their movements. All of this, when you really notice it, contains valuable information about the sub-text to their words.
Day 7: Pay Attention… … to your listening process. Put all of your Day 1 to Day 6 learning together and now keep aware of the quality of your listening. When it starts to dip, notice it and re-assert the quality of your listening.
Deborah Tannen is not a manager. And neither is she a management thinker. But she deserves her place in this blog, for her contribution to our understanding of the way men and women communicate in the workplace.
Tannen is no merchant of easy solutions, nor a broad system-builder. Rather, she is a detailed observer of what happens when people communicate through the medium of natural language. And she has made her focus the communication between men and women.
If your working world is inhabited by both women and men, then her work should be on your reading list.
Deborah Tannen was born in 1945, in Brooklyn, and studied English Literature at Harpur College. Following her BA in 1966, she went on to get an MA at Wayne State University in 1970, before moving to the University of California, Berkeley to study linguistics. There she was awarded an MA and then a PhD in 1979.
That year, Tannen became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University, where she remains today, since 1991 as a University Professor.
Tannen first came to public attention with her 1986 book, That’s Not What I Meant. This popularised her detailed research into how we converse with one another, and the effect our style has on our relationships. Her 1990 follow-up was a huge best-seller: You Just Don’t Understand. This analyses the different conversational styles of men and women, and the impact it has on us.
However, it is Tannen’s third book for the popular market that will interest us. In 1995’s Talking from 9 to 5, she looked at the impact of the different ways men and women use language on the workplace. It links differences in style to the differences in perception and power that arise.
Since then, Tannen has written four more books that will be of interest to anyone curious about language, gender and family relationships.
Deborah Tannen’s Research and Ideas
Deborah Tannen is a sociolinguist; she studies the way different people in society use language. We are familiar with the idea of dialect: different versions of the same language arising from regional variations. Sociolinguists recognise different sociolects; different versions of a language arising in different parts of society. Sociolects can arise from just about any societal differences. Ethnolects arise from the ethnic backgrounds of the language speaker, and genderlects from the gender. Ultimately, we all speak our own personal ideolect.
Tannen’s methodology is observational and rigorous. She observes, transcribes, and analyses conversations. She does not see her role as offering solutions, but as one of relating and classifying what happens.
At the heart of Tannen’s explanation is the idea of a tension in all of us, between the need for independence from other people, and the need for involvement with them.
If your goal is to communicate information and you have no interest in involvement, then your communication is likely to be short, clear and factual. But in a social world, what it is necessary to say, and how to make it clear is far from obvious. So we add a tier of politeness that seeks to balance the need not to impose, with the desire to connect.
Many of our differences in the way we tackle day-to-day communication challenges arise from how our social norms dictate we should handle this balance.This manifests very clearly at work.
Men and Women at Work
The patterns Tannen observes are of more indirect and polite communication among women and more direct and factual communication among men. Problems arise when we fail to recognise the differences as arising from style and assume they are communicating substance.
Or, worse still, problems also arise when we do see the differences as arising from style, but we then go on to judge that style difference as representing a difference in capabilities to which it bears no relation. Glass ceiling anyone? And, although Tannen focuses on the differences arising from genderlects, let’s remember that ethnolects mean that cultural differences between people of different family heritage can also cause the same two problems: misunderstanding and prejudice.
Let’s end this brief overview with a concrete example. I’m drawing the idea for this example from Talking from 9 to 5, but embellishing it from my own experience. Let’s look at Jacqui, a female manager, and her male direct report, Anil.
Anil creates a poor report summarising the project he and Jacqui are working on. But he is new, and Jacqui does not want to demotivate him. So in giving feedback, she works hard to identify the strong points of his work, before highlighting the need for changes.
Anil re-does his report, but Jacqui is horrified. He has made few changes and the report remains inadequate. With little time left, she sees no alternative but to work late and re-write it herself.
If all of this seems reasonable, let’s look at it from Anil’s point of view. When he hears the next day about what she has done, he is angry and upset. Firstly, Jacqui lied to him. His report was not good, with the need for a few changes; it was poor. Why didn’t she tell him? Her diplomacy comes across as dishonesty.
And then Jacqui took it upon herself to re-write the report. Clearly she does not trust Anil. Jacqui’s concern to avoid asking him to work late seems to Anil like distrust.
But it gets worse. When Anil tells Jacqui what he thinks, she is upset. So when her boss comes around and asks her about how the reporting process went, she gives plenty of credit to Anil for the final report. Yet when her boss speaks to Anil, he tells the boss that Jacqui was indecisive about the report, and left her final changes to the last minute.
Jacqui’s boss leaves with the impression of Jacqui as a weak manager and Anil as a strong subordinate.
Deborah Tannen: That’s Not What I Meant! – Signals, Devices, and Rituals
This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.
Have you ever had a conversation where the other person left you feeling a bit like a small child?
Or maybe you have felt like kicking yourself at the end of a meeting because you spent the whole time criticising someone.
Or have you found yourself being over protective of a colleague, or perhaps you have seen someone stamp their feet and rebel against a perfectly reasonable request?
What all of these situations have in common is that you can easily understand them, spot them coming, and take control of them, when you understand a simple model of communication, called Transactional Analysis, or TA.
Eric Berne developed TA and suggested we can think of all of our communication as coming from one of three ‘ego states’. When we speak, we speak as a parent does, as an adult does, or as a child does. We all encompass all three, but address others from one at a time, depending on the relationship, how we feel, and how the other person is acting.
Parent Ego State
Parents are both worldly and experienced, and therefore speak critically of anything that does not match their learned view of the world, or they are caring and try to nurture and protect us.
Child Ego State
Children can both do what they want and rebel against any kind of authority and they can conform; adapting themselves to the wishes of those around them. Their responses are primarily driven by the emotions they are feeling.
Adult Ego State
Adults behave rationally, looking for the best outcome and trying to find the most effective way to achieve it. They think things out, rather than repeating past lessons or acting purely on emotion.
In the workplace, Adult-Adult transactions are nearly always the ideal: both of you are speaking respectfully, looking for the best result. However, if you find yourself annoyed by something I have done, it is easy to find yourself slipping into Critical Parent ego state and addressing my Child state. If I respond accordingly – either by arguing petulantly (Free Child) or by being too obsequious and over-apologetic (Adapted Child) then we will get stuck for a time in that Parent-Child structure.
Likewise, if you feel guilty about asking me to do something so instead of asking assertively, you plead with me (Adapted Child), I will respond from Parent state, by either telling you off or reluctantly agreeing (Critical Parent) or by condescending to act in a patronising manner (Nurturing Parent) thereby taking control of the situation.
Parent-Child transactions work well in communicating, even if what they communicate is rarely healthy for a mature workplace relationship. Consequently, they can persist and become ingrained patterns that repeat over and over again, reinforcing inappropriate power balances.
Other transactions are possible too, such as:
Parent-Parent – let’s moan about her
Child-Child – let’s play a trick on him
But not all transactions are universally unhealthy:
Parent-Parent – let’s gossip about yesterday’s football – a healthy way of passing time in the appropriate context
Child-Child – let’s come up with some new ideas – the Child state is the state from which we become creative.
There is a whole lot more to TA than Parent, Adult and Child states and a whole lot more to Ego States than we have covered here. It is a rich and rewarding source of understanding for any manager.
This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.
There are more than enough blogs out there that will promise that they can teach you to present powerfully, magically, persuasively and with impact. Perhaps they can.
But, to me, these claims seem to be somewhat hyperbolic in the context of a short article – or even series of articles – that most readers will scan for nuggets and hope to put them into practice all in one go.
Let’s be more circumspect. For most managers who need to present occasionally, their number one and two concerns are to get their message across effectively, and feel good about doing it. So print off this set of exercises, and next time you need to do a presentation, follow the exercises one at a time.
Exercise 1: Prepare your Presentation
Here are the two most important questions you need to answer before you do anything else. Write them down and then complete the sentences.
1. What is the central message of your presentation?
When I have finished presenting and leave the room, if I could overhear what people are saying, I would want to be able to hear them say…
2. What do you want people to do as a result of hearing you?
When I have finished presenting and leave the room, if I could see what people do next, I would want to be able to see them…
Everything that goes into your presentation must underscore your central message and work towards justifying your call to action. Only when you have the answers to those two questions clear in your mind should you start to work on the content, and then the introduction, to your presentation.
Exercise 2: Rehearse your Presentation
This is how you find out what works and what does not. It is how you lock the essential messages and neat turns of phrase into your memory. It is how you start to feel confident with your performance.
Rehearse once, informally, to get the measure of what you have prepared. Rehearse again to feel its flow. Rehearse again to feel comfortable with the material. Rehearse in front of a colleague to get their most essential feedback. Rehearse again to incorporate it. Rehearse again to lock in pauses, drama and rhythm. Rehearse one last time to feel in complete control.
Exercise 3: Get there Early
Arrive wherever you need to be in good time to freshen up, check your appearance in the bathroom mirror, and set up any technical logistics. Circumstances will vary considerably, but aim to be good and ready to start well before you are likely to meet the first members of your audience. That way, you can turn your full attention to them without having to think about the technicalities of your presentation.
Exercise 4: Own your Platform
When you are on your platform, think of it as yours. Take pauses. Look at your audience. Use the space. Be natural and think of this as a conversation with each person in the audience. You can be yourself and, while I don’t encourage ums and ers, they are a natural part of your speech, so don’t worry about them unless you have previously had it highlighted by an objective observer. A few here or there will not matter a jot. Neither will that little detail or great quote you planned to add in matter – even if you forget them. Only one person in the room will know you missed it. Everyone else will be focusing on what you did say.
For fifteen years or more, I have been collecting stories that I can tell in seminars, training workshops or keynotes.
I have well over a hundred packed away now, but my interest started in the 1980s when I cut out an entry from the Guardian’s ‘Notes & Queries’ column:
It is a much quoted maxim that there are only seven stories in fiction and that all others are based on them. Is it true, and what might these seven stories be?
I’ve just wasted 20 minutes looking for that cutting (I know it’s somewhere in my filing system) and then discovered in as many seconds that I no longer need it: you can read the answers that the question received here.
There are one or two topics that get trainers hot under the collar. My own pet peeve has always been the abuse by so many trainers of Albert Mehrabian’s work. If you don’t know it, it’s the 55% – 38% – 7% ratios for facial, tonal and verbal communication.
If you want to give someone great feedback, first tell them the things they do well, then tell them what they need to do better, and then, to avoid them losing too much confidence; remind them of their successes. Voila: the ‘feedback sandwich’
The feedback sandwich was a popular staple of management training courses when I was on the receiving end, in the early 1990s. It probably still is.
Round 2: The Feedback Sandwich is rubbish
Most trainers now, rightly, eschew the feedback sandwich. The argument goes like this:
All it is, is sugaring the pill. When you re-iterate the good stuff, they will forget the filling in the middle. It’s easier to focus on the good stuff and, anyway, we always remember the start of something and the end – that’s what I say in my Presentation Skills training.
And that is all very credible – if a little bluntly expressed. I think I remember hearing myself say that once upon a time.
Round 3: Rehabilitating the Sandwich
Let’s think about the psychology of good communication. After all, that is a pre-requisite for good feedback.
Before you can get any complex message across, you have to build a measure of rapport. When you tell me what I have done well, I will probably recognise some of it, feel pleased that you have too, and start to trust you a little bit. I am listening now.
So, when you have told me all the good news, I am listening hard. And, because I trust that you have observed my performance carefully, I will listen to what else you have to say. Don’t squander that: give me an evidence-based assessment of what I need to do differently to raise my performance to a higher level.
That can be quite a draining process, when done well. So I may need some help processing it. So that I don’t feel knocked back and alone, end our conversation by reminding me that, no matter how critical you have had to be about some aspects of my performance, you will continue to support me.
There’s the sandwich. But now, the last component is not sugaring the pill, but forming a base to go forward. The top is a nice tasty bun with seeds. The middle is filling and nutritious. The base is firm and supports the rest. It’s a burger; a feedback burger! *
There are some words in our language that seem to have special powers that elevate them above the ordinary day-to-day words. They are a bit like super-heroes and super-villains, in the world of mere humans.
What would encourage you to do someone a favour? Helen Langer, Arthur Blank and Benzion Chanowitz did an experiment asking 120 students if they could jump the queue to use a library photocopier. The experimenter asked in three different ways:
May I use the machine?
Giving no reason
May I use the machine, because I have to make copies? Giving no real reason
May I use the machine, because I’m in a rush? Giving a reason
When the request was a small one – with only five sheets to copy – 60% of the students asked obliged without hearing a reason (Request number 1). With a reason (Request Number 3), 94% agreed. And with no real reason (Request number 2), 93% were prepared to oblige. The reason is clearly not important; what was important was that there was a reason – the students heard the word “because” and that was enough.
Why is like one of those super-heroes who can turn super-evil at times.
The Good: Ask the question ‘why?’ about a problem enough times, and then ask why about the answers you get, and then keep repeating. You will almost always find your way to the root cause of the problem. This is the basis of the ‘Five Whys’ method.
The Evil: Ask me ‘why did you do that?’ and you will usually get a defensive answer. ‘Why?’ feels like an attack on our very values that direct our decision making, so we react against the question and rarely give a resourceful answer. A better question might be: ‘what were your criteria when you chose to do that?’
‘I like your new suit, but…’ As soon as we hear the ‘but’, our brain thinks ‘aha – here comes the truth.’ We switch off to what we have just heard, making the first half of the statement almost invisible. Better to say ‘and’: ‘I like your new suit, and if I’d have been choosing, I would have preferred a blue one for myself.’
Another super-hero/super-villain. When I talk about you and what you want and what I can offer you, you feel like I am giving you all of my attention. ‘You’ has the power to make a reader or listener feel special.
When I use ‘you’ in describing a wrong action or assigning blame, I will trigger your defence mechanisms that start to create conflict. ‘You never do the washing up.’ ‘You make me so angry, when you….’ Better to say ‘I really prefer it when the washing up is done.’ ‘I get angry when I feel I can’t influence…’
So here’s the deal
Pay attention to the words you use – they really do matter.
What other words have super powers?
Contribute yours to the comments section below.
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen, working with people who aren’t our natural soul-mates. Whether the relationship is Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, or two colleagues sharing an office, conflict is probably going to arise at some point in the relationship.
Messrs Clegg and Cameron are both assertive and persuasive individuals who are used to winning the argument. But if they are going to work successfully together they will need to use a range of styles to manage potential conflict between themselves and their party members.
Five Approaches to Managing Conflict
Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann describe five approaches we can take to handling any particular conflict:
Compete – we aim to win.
Accommodate – our priority is to keep the other person happy.
Compromise – we do a deal. It’s not perfect but we can both live with it. At least in the short term.
Avoid – we take the view that it’s better not to open the can of worms, so we don’t address the issue.
Collaborate – we look for a solution that fully meets our needs, and also satisfies other person. A true ‘win/win’.
Which One To Use?
Looking at these five styles, you would think that the ‘right’ approach to conflict would always be to collaborate. However, there are a couple of problems with collaboration:
It can take a long time – you have to sit down, explore the other person’s position, analyse the underlying needs and concerns then try to thrash out a resolution. It’s great when you have the time (and the energy) to do this. But sometimes there’s a deadline. Sometimes the markets are showing signs of impatience.
It isn’t always possible. For example, when you and your colleague have fundamentally opposing views or values.
The trick is actually knowing which type of approach is most appropriate in any situation, and consciously adapting your natural preference for one of the five styles.
So here’s the deal
One of the secrets of handling conflict successfully, whether it’s in a shared office or the House of Commons, is choosing the right strategy.
Telephone conference calls are a great way for a geographically dispersed project team to stay in touch. The biggest problem is timing. If you are working in Britain, with colleagues in California, what time should you make the call?
A quick look at a map of time-zones reveals the problem. At noon British Time, it is 4am in California. Let’s say you are planning a 90 minute call. Typically, nobody likes getting up in the early hours, so you have to either move the call back to late evening or early morning in California. Let’s try them out:
Option A: Start at 9pm California; 5am Britain
Option B: Start at 9am California; 5pm Britain
My guess is that both parties will prefer Option B. The British won’t have to get up unrealistically early and the American’s won’t have to stay at work late. But this does mean that, while the Californian’s are bright as a button, the British are tired, at the end of the working day, staying on to 6:30.
The Challenges of Virtual Team
This is one tiny example of the challenges facing virtual teams – teams that do not work together physically. They are an increasing feature of the modern workplace. Even if your business is not a global or multi-national company, you are not immune.
Many small businesses work in complex global networks contributing products and services to international supply chains. Even many schools are now linking up across continents to enrich pupils’ learning opportunities.
In his Virtual Teams Pocketbook, Ian Fleming is spot on when he identifies technology as a key enabler, and also crushes the assumption that virtual teams are allabout technology. What Ian does do is give practical advice about using a range of technology tools to your advantage.
It is all about Communication
Technology is an enabler for the most important part of team working: communication. Whether your team is spread around offices across the world, or a series of local organisations, your top priority is to find the best ways to allow team members to stay in touch informally and to exchange formal information reliably.
In his Pocketbook, Ian Fleming describes a great process, called Swift Trust. The idea was developed by three authors called Meyerson, Weick and Kramer in 1996. Their thesis is that trust can be built quickly by :
Presuming each team member has earned their place
Trusting other people’s expertise and knowledge
Creating shared goals and a shared recognition/reward scheme
Defining a clear role for each person to play
Focusing on tasks and actions
Taking responsibility and acting responsively
How many groups have you worked in where one or more of these characteristics is missing. Deep trust comes from the one thing Swift Trust is designed to do without, personal relationships. However, surely each of the six characteristics above is essential for any team.
So here’s the deal
Whether your team is virtual or sitting around the same table, day after day, tailor your communications to build trust. Focus on the checklist above, and then look for ways to build personal relationships too.