Communication and the “Quill Pig”

Mike* is an emerging leader and coaching client. One week, as he shared a story, I could see how his fear of confrontation and wrong thinking about asking questions limits his ability to effectively communicate… especially with his boss.

Tell Less…

Our conversation went something like this…

“Mike, how do you like being told what to do?  When you are given an assignment — you know what to do and how to proceed how does being told what to do affect you?”

“I don’t like it,” he replied.

“Why is that?”

“I like to be left alone to do my job; trust me and let me do it.”

I pressed on, “How does it make you feel when someone tells you what to do?”

After some hesitation he found his words, “I don’t like it and find myself resisting…I don’t feel trusted or respected.”

When was the last time you enjoyed being told what to do?

The “Quill Pig”

Let’s consider communication and the lovable porcupine.

Photo by Wildxplorer

National Geographic helps us understand this animal’s uniqueness…

The porcupine is the prickliest of rodents, though its Latin name means “quill pig.” There are about two dozen porcupine species, and all boast a coat of needle-like quills to give predators a sharp reminder that this animal is no easy meal. Some quills, like those of Africa’s crested porcupine, are nearly a foot (30 centimeters) long.

Porcupines have soft hair, but on their back, sides, and tail it is usually mixed with sharp quills. These quills typically lie flat until a porcupine is threatened, then leap to attention as a persuasive deterrent. Porcupines cannot shoot them at predators as once thought, but the quills do detach easily when touched.

Many animals come away from a porcupine encounter with quills protruding from their own snouts or bodies. Quills have sharp tips and overlapping scales or barbs that make them difficult to remove once they are stuck in another animal’s skin. Porcupines grow new quills to replace the ones they lose. (Emphasis added)

How many people want a pet porcupine that you know?  Who wants to connect with this rodent?

Notice these key words used to describe the “Quill Pig”. Here’s how I connect them to telling in communication:

  • Prickly – An uncomfortable, irritating, defensive exchange
  • Sharp reminderWhat do tellers want others to think or  remember? 
  • ThreatenedWhy the intensity, what drives the need to tell?
  • Persuasive deterrentWhat limit does a “telling” style of communication impose?
  • Detach easilyWhy is it so easy to tell?
  • Difficult to remove“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cannot harm me.”  Really?

Who wants to be known as a “Quill Pig”? 

At a relationship level telling often shuts dialog down; talented people do not appreciate being told.

Telling pushes people away. 

Imagine a ball carrier in football; his goal is the end zone.  As he runs toward defenders their goal is to tackle him. With an outstretched arm the ball carrier pushes his hand onto his would-be tackler to take him out of the action. The “stiff arm” is designed to push the other player out of the way

Just another illustration of how telling hinders communication.

So, what’s the solution?

Ask More…

Having established the imagery of “telling” we move to the alternative.

“Mike, when someone you respect asks for your input, your opinion, your thoughts on a topic, how do you feel?”

“Oh, it’s great. I feel honored, respected; appreciated, valued, trusted…it’s totally different.”

Yes, it is “totally different”. As we ask open-ended questions we invite participation.

  • Asking encourages an exchange of ideas, discussion, dialogue
  • Asking sends a message of value, respect, and honor
  • Asking shows a level of trust and appreciation
  • Asking flows from a place of freedom
  • Asking indicates a released need to control

Whereas telling “pushes people away” — asking “invites them to stay”.

The mantra takes shape:  Ask MORE, Tell LESS…

Teach When You Can

Of course there is a time to impart knowledge to someone, to provide direction, to advocate a certain way or even the way something must be done. Go for it. Be a great teacher.

May I ask, what’s your inclination?

Here’s the mantra…what do you think?

Ask MORE, Tell LESS…Teach when You Can

Mike discovered asking questions does not have to be confrontational; in fact it actually shows honor, respect, and appreciation…even for the boss. And asking questions is a great way to bring value to the relationship.

*Mike is not his real name.

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This entry was posted on Monday, February 21, 2011 at 10:30 pm and is filed under Communication, Performance Improvement. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.