Airline safety instructions usually include the phrase: “Secure your own mask before assisting others.” There’s an important takeaway in that. To be the kind of person who takes care of others, you’ve got to make taking care of yourself a priority. How are you going to build yourself into a person others WANT to build a productive, valuable, long-term relationship with? A good first step is to maximize the power of your conversations – to engage and influence their thinking and call to action, often without authority!
I don’t mean the power of what you’re saying. Lots of people can talk a blue streak. Giving others your deep insights from your unique point of view can be a relationship-builder, IF what you’re saying aligns with what they need or want to know. But that’s a big IF. You can’t know what to contribute to the conversation until you know what the other person is really feeling, thinking, or going through. Otherwise you’re just that bore on the airplane that drives seatmates under their headphones.
Listen up! You maximize your conversation power when you learn to really take in information from your conversation partner. What’s not being said? What’s being said, but by gestures and facial expressions instead of just words? What’s being held back until the trust between you is strong enough to carry it? That’s where the power of conversation to build great relationships is stored, like underground oil waiting to be tapped and turned into usable energy.
Let me give you an example. The other day I was talking to a seemingly sharp executive who got passed over for a fairly visible promotion. He didn’t say much about it, but I knew he was disappointed —I’ve been there. I figure he’s feeling rejected, he’s feeling hurt, he’s feeling some trepidation about what work will be like next month when the guy who was his peer shows up as his superior. I need to be astute enough to recognize what he’s feeling but not saying. Some people call this ability Emotional Intelligence. It’s an aptitude for recognizing others’ feelings and emotions, and being able to use this information to guide your own thoughts and actions. Emotional intelligence is vital to a leader’s ability to build productive relationships, within as well as external to the organization.
Another way to make your conversations more powerful is to open more channels of communication. Use more than your ears and lips! Conversation is more than words spoken or heard. Tune into facial expressions, gestures, and postures. What are they saying? Are the nonverbal messages at odds with the spoken word? That’s telling you something. Find out what and why!
Suppose you run into a colleague and after a few moments’ chat you realize something isn’t right. Maybe her posture is tenser than usual, or maybe her gestures betray agitation. You could ignore these signs and put it down to respect for her privacy. Or you could ask her what’s going on. What would happen if we became more candid, more willing to speak the truth we see?
Jack Welch observed that absence of candor in the workplace is a significant obstacle to organizational success. He went so far as to recommend that performance appraisal systems reward candor—because to do so ensures that candor becomes an ingrained and critical part of culture. We need candor if our conversations are going to create deeper, stronger business relationships. I’ll get on a plane to see a client or partner instead of talk by phone or Skype, just so I can have conversations where the nonverbal channel come through as loud and clear as the spoken one.
Finally, make your conversations more powerful by paying attention to what’s being said between the lines. When you don’t know someone well, that person’s conversations will be circumspect. You won’t get candor until some trust develops. Therefore, you need to learn to build trust quickly. One technique is to act as if that trust is already there—by being candid yourself. Show your cards a little. Another is to be consistent—use words and gestures that convey your core values, and stick up for those values like they are your own backbone. Don’t say “people are our greatest asset” while you’re conducting lay-offs. The culture of candor requires trust, and trust comes from you—doing what you say you’ll do, being who you say you are, consistently!
Great conversations build great relationships. Great relationships generate a return on investment that can’t be measured on a P&L yet contribute more to your organization’s growth than any balance-sheet asset ever will.
- Use your emotional intelligence to recognize others’ feelings and emotions and respond constructively.
- Open more channels by including nonverbal communication. Prioritize face-time so nonverbal communication is possible.
- Build trust with candor and consistent, principled behavior.
As always, I welcome your comments. David