Opinion by Paul Glen

Is anyone listening?

In IT, we’ve all had the sensation that business people haven’t really heard what we’ve told them. Here’s how you can be sure to grab their attention.

listen ears
Credit: Ky, CC BY 2.0, via Flicker

Ever have the feeling that your business sponsors don’t really listen to you?

Just about all of us in IT have been there. You might be talking to someone when you realize that this business person has no idea what you’re talking about. You might be giving a formal presentation only to see on the faces in your audience incredulous, quizzical looks that seem to say, “You must be crazy to think that anyone understands a word of what you are saying.”

Sometimes our error is that we assume that business people know more about technology than they do. For us, it’s inconceivable that these folk are unfamiliar with basic facts about the systems they rely on and the work we do to support them. Worse, there’s a good chance that we’ve presented the information to them before — repeatedly. We write detailed reports, deliver bulleted presentations and draw intricate diagrams to make sure that they know enough to make informed decisions.

Naturally, this is frustrating for us. It can even make us angry, and when that happens we lay the problem entirely at the feet of the business people. They must be too dumb to understand, or they consider technology too unimportant to engage, or they have so little respect for us and our work that they don’t bother to listen at all.

That’s an understandable reaction, but is it fair? I don’t think so. The real explanation could be much simpler, and it’s also something that we can actually do something about: Our audiences don’t get what we’re talking about because we try to communicate with them as if they were just like us. We know what we consider to be compelling ways to present information and never consider whether those methods just won’t work with people who are so different from us.

Geeks like to receive information organized like a mathematical proof: Start off with premises and move on through a chain of logic to the conclusion. QED. It’s a powerful formula for clarity that works when you have an audience that’s receptive to pure logic. It is not an insult to your audience to say that is often not the case for them.

We have to remember that people are emotional beings, and until we address their emotions, they cannot be open to receiving the information we are presenting. We assume that simply offering clear information is sufficient, but it’s not. It’s part of our job to help prepare them to listen.

To do that, we need to have some ideas about what they are thinking and feeling at the outset of the conversation. Before you start your next presentation with your sponsor, or even just a hallway chat with a business person, you should have already asked yourself a few questions:

  1.  How does the audience feel about me personally? Do they love talking to me because they think I’m a brilliant, big-picture thinker? Do they dread talking to me because they think I waste their time with irrelevant details? Do they think that I avoid responsibility for failures?
  2. How does the audience feel about my organization? Even if they like and respect me personally, what are their thoughts about the group of people I represent to them? Do they think that the group is competent? Transparent or deceptive? Obstructive or supportive?
  3. How does the audience feel about technology in general? Do they hate it and think that it’s a big waste of money? A necessary evil? An essential asset? A strategic weapon?

If the answers to any of those questions suggest to you that your audience is starting out with negative feelings or assumptions, you can snap them to attention by acknowledging those feelings. You want them to drop their guard and really hear you, and the way you do that is to show that you understand how they think and feel. A simple statement or two is all it takes — not an apology or admission of guilt, but simply an acknowledgment of their feelings. Something along these lines:

  • “I know how frustrating our last project was and that we missed our deadline. We’re organizing differently this time to try to avoid that happening again.”
  • “I know that these systems diagrams are a bit overwhelming and might seem unnecessary, but there are a couple of key decisions that you need to make that require some context. I’ve tried to keep this at as high a level as possible.”

You’ll know almost immediately if you’ve opened them up. They’ll nod their heads in agreement when they hear you use emotionally laden words such as “frustrating” and “overwhelming.” And if you really work your way in, you’ll see them visibly relax, letting go of the stress they have associated with the conversation.

When you see that reaction, you’ll know that they’ve reduced their resistance and that you’ve got your best chance of breaking through.

Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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