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Apr 08

‘Say What?!’ - for greater alignment

Posted by: George Mulhern        

I had the opportunity to work with a consultant a number of years back, who in a previous life, had been a hostage negotiator for the New York Police Department.  He had some great stories, but also some very practical tips about how to reach common ground and shared objectives with people in very tense situations.   Many of the situations he dealt with were life and death scenarios.   Measured on life’s scale — definitely higher stakes than building and running a business.

However, when you have a group of incredibly smart people, who are highly passionate about creating and building a world changing business, there can be some pretty heated discussions and disagreements.  One very simple tip this consultant gave me,  has stuck with me and helped me  to  build more alignment and support for decisions.

The hostage negotiators found, that when in an emotionally charged situation, if you ask someone “why” they are doing or believe something, it tends to illicit a more emotional and defensive response. If you ask, “what” has led you to this point or conclusion, it tends to illicit the facts or factors that support that persons position.   The more emotional the situation, the more this simple tip seems to help. Grounding the conversation in facts and building a common fact base is the first step to understanding each others position and then creating the best path forward.

It is easy to recognize when things are getting too emotionally charged, but not always easy to step back and find a constructive way through it.  It can be tempting for some of us to just dive in to the fray.   I remember being in a late evening (everyone’s tired), somewhat confrontational meeting about what market to enter first for a new product we were developing.  Someone asked the VP of Marketing, ‘why would you want to go after that market first?’.  The response was, ‘because my twenty years of experience and good business judgment tell me that is what we should do!’  Things went down hill from there.   Later that evening (we were there for quite a while), a first level manager in the room asked the VP of Marketing, ‘what were the key factors that led you to select that as our first target market?’.  The VP ticked off five very sound, factual, reasons: growth rate, relative pain, access to a sales channel, ability to pay and shortest sales cycle.  The discussion got a lot more productive after that.

I have been in a lot of emotionally charged discussions (occasionally, arguments) with bosses, peers, employees and partners over the years.  This simple change in language has helped me to diffuse emotions and refocus the discussion in order to get to a decision that people support when they leave the room.  It has also helped me to uncover facts I didn’t know and perspective I didn’t have, when making important decisions with my team.

I know — sounds pretty simplistic. Maybe that’s why I like it and it has worked for me.  Try it sometime and let me know what you think.


2 Responses to “‘Say What?!’ - for greater alignment”

  1. avatar Rick_Smith says:

    Wow! I never thought about it like that. In our high context language we often assume when we ask why, we are really asking what. However, our reactions in general tend to be more reactionary.

    I think I just learned a new communication tip. Not only that, it makes me want to study this. What can hostage negotiators, crisis helpline people, and people who approach high stress interpersonal dynamics teach us about ourselves as primates, and how that can be more effectively channeled into productive business discussions.

  2. Amy York says:

    George - I really appreciate your post. Understanding the "what" is key to understanding the "why". It also leads us to to the "how". By getting back to the basics of asking the "what", we drop assumptions and can create an environment for authentic communication.

    In my experience, while I might not have agreed with or liked someone's "what", I better understood their position and was able to focus on building a bridge and finding common ground. Conversely, when I am asked the "what", I appreciate the opportunity to communicate my thought processes. Communication is key and this enhances the experience.

    Excellent topic - thank you.

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