Issue Number 15: Leadership and Speaking Their Language

As a leader you are often expected to come up with immediate solutions to pressing problems. It often seems nobody has time for you to bounce ideas off other people.

Do it anyway. It will help you go far in the bridge building business.

Bouncing ideas off others can help clarify your thinking, but use caution. If you keep asking the same people, you may want to ask yourself why you are limiting your options. If it is because they all speak your language, perhaps you need to learn another one.

I make it a point not to go to the same people each time. I am especially interested in learning the opinions of the quieter people. They are often sources of well-considered opinions, and engaging them in casual one-on-one conversations encourages them to eventually share their opinions in meetings, to everyone’s benefit.

Asking people to share their opinions also helps everyone feel like part of the team, and it helps you learn not only what others think but how they think.

You can learn what people think by simply asking for their opinion. Some people stop right there. They take the answer back to their cave and add it to the pile of opinions.

Going beyond that to learn how people think can give you insight into the way you can best work with them. For example, if you ask Mary how she arrived at her opinion and she describes a process that emphasizes details and logic, it could mean she tends to focus more on tasks than relationships.

If you are assigning work to Mary, try modeling her approach. Come to the point right away. Make the conversation brief, describe what you want, when it is due, and encourage her to ask questions if she has any problems.

If instead her answer focuses on people, you might engage in a few preliminaries, talking about other topics before mentioning the task you are assigning to her. Explain the benefits of the task from the point of view of the project team or the organization and how it will help people save time and work more effectively.

These are simplistic examples, I know, and they are certainly not absolutes. Over time and a series of conversations, patterns will emerge that you can sense, if not fullydescribe. These patterns, along with other situational clues and cues, will help you understand the way people think and the “language” they speak.

You may find different clues and cues that are more appropriate for you. The key takeaway is the importance of truly listening to what people say and how they say it, so you can understand both what and how they think. Then, use the information to communicate with them in their style, not yours.

Remember – this is not about you. It is about seeing what others see and offering a new vision.

As you come to know the people in your organization or on your team, you will be able to understand both what and how they think, but only if you make the effort. Learning this technique allows you to nurture trust with them more easily because you are communicating on the same frequency.

If you nurture trust with others by learning to speak their language, you prepare the ground for conversations that can lead to mutual accountability instead of hostility. More often than I care to admit, I have an idea which, although it initially sounds reasonable, upon closer inspection proves to be deeply dumb. When I ask people what they think of it, some will say the equivalent of: “You have my support for anything you want to do.”

While I appreciate their confidence and value their support, responses like that do not move us forward. I will often press them to tell me what they really think, and when they do, we typically have a much fuller and deeper conversation. It might result in my modifying the idea or dropping it completely, but in nearly every case it is a better outcome.

Learning to speak their language can make you not only a better project or program manager, it can make you a better leader, enrich your life and make it easier for you to contribute to the lives of others.

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