Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. ― Dr. Seuss
Mike was an emerging leader. His personal development needs included his ability to communicate—especially with the owner of the company.
As Mike shared his story, I could see how his fear of confrontation made it difficult to effectively communicate with his boss.
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.”
How about you, when was the last time you enjoyed being told what to do?
Consider communication and the lovable porcupine.
National Geographic helps us understand this animal’s unique qualities (emphasis added):
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 cm) 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.
How many people have a pet porcupine that you know? How close do you want to be to this rodent?
Notice the keywords from the description of the Quill Pig. Here’s how I connect them to telling in communication:
- Prickly: An uncomfortable, irritating, defensive exchange.
- Sharp Reminder: What do you think “tellers” want others to remember? Why the intensity?
- Threatened: What fear drives the need to “tell”?
- Persuasive Deterrent: What is limited by a “telling” style of communication?
- Detach Easily: Why is it “easier” to tell?
- Difficult to Remove: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cannot harm me.” Really?
Do you want to be known as a Quill Pig?
At a relationship level, “telling” often shuts dialog down; effective leaders avoid this communication style.
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.
This is just another example of how telling hinders communication.
The Solution: Ask More . . .
Having established the imagery of “telling” with Mike, we moved on 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” when we ask open-ended questions. That’s because open-ended questions invite participation.
- Asking encourages an exchange of ideas through dialogue and discussion.
- 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.”
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. When these moments arise, go for it. Be a great teacher.
My Next Level Communication Mantra:
Ask More, Tell Less, Teach When You Can
Through our discussion, Mike discovered that asking questions is not confrontational; in fact, it actually demonstrated honor, respect, and appreciation—even for his boss.
If you like this article, please share with a friend or tweet…and grab your copy of The People Project: Your Guide to Changing Behavior and Growing Your Influence as a Leader; this post is Chapter One in my new book.