Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Thank You for Agreeing

I've been reading "Thank You for Arguing" tonight, thanks to a tip from the excellent time sink known as Hacker News .  The first page of the introduction has a pretty telling tip.

"Try this in a meeting: Answer someone who expresses doubt over idea with, 'Okay, let's tweak it.' Now focus the argument on revising your idea as if the group had already accepted it. This move is a form of concession- rhetorical jujitsu that uses your opponent's move to your advantage."

Heinrichs gets to some much deeper points as well. One key thing to focus on is getting the outcome you want from the discussion, and not on scoring points to "win" the argument.

I wanted to draw a tenuous connection here, between these rhetorical skills, to which Heinrichs gives a fabulous introduction, and the listening, or "receiving" skills that the Manager Tools guys have focused on .  They put communication skills at the foundation of developing interpersonal skills, and they put listening skills at the foundation of communication.  In their characteristic way, Horstmann and Auzenne give some concrete examples of specific, measurable behaviors that we can use to evaluate and improve our communications, by strengthening the feeling in the person we are communicating with that we understand them.

One of the items on their list of things to measure is using "Thank You" to begin a reply.  (I said it was a tenuous connection.) Other things they recommend include "No interruptions", "Agreeing without qualification", "No buts or howevers", and my personal favorite, "smiling". By making simple gestures like this, the person that you are communicating with is shown that you respect them as a person.  If we cut someone off, we are going to have a much harder time persuading them of anything, because they are likely to think that we don't understand their argument and they are also probably not going to like us very much.

What makes this even more challenging, is that in many situations, the person that you are doing a poor job of listening to is not going to know exactly what it is you are doing that they don't like, but they are just going to think you are disagreeable or contrary.  You may end up getting negative feedback from managers that doesn't make sense- vague comments on how you are perceived.  This is where I like to tie in things like the Manager Tools material to figure out what good feedback for those situations would look like. Respect for people is a key aspect of successful systems, such as the Toyota Way.  However, it is also key in being persuasive. To really change someone's mind to what we think is an amazing thing. It means teaming up and getting on the same side.

"Thank You for Arguing" is filled with little gems that you can use to show respect to others, by offering them a choice, instead of negating what they say directly. Simple phrases like, "On the other hand, it could be that..." create an option for the listener, instead of putting them in a box. It offers them the opportunity to admit that they aren't 100% sure about their view.  Moving the argument into the future tense also affords the chance to remove some of the contentiousness about any concerns, while defining the issue in a way that makes your point clear.

Rather than despise rhetoric for muddying the waters of rational debate, we should use it as a tool to achieve our goals, as long as we can keep it in a framework of respect for others- by combining it with the listening/receiving skills that are the foundation of communication.

Other good books on similar subjects are "Influence" and "Yes!" by Cialdini, "Difficult Conversations" and "Getting to Yes" out of the Harvard Negotiation Project that was led by Fisher the last I looked into it, "Never Eat Alone" by Ferazzi, and the classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. My wife read the last on her Kindle recently, and the chapter on married couples is well worth it.

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