How to talk so your boss will listen (and listen so your boss will talk)
The meeting’s over and you are gathering up your stuff. As you review the meeting there’s a pit in your stomach: did we accomplish anything here? You came in to get clarity on your project’s priorities and you left more confused than ever. On top of everything, you sensed from his body language that your boss left frustrated too! You want to be more influential, to get traction with your boss. But how?
To be influential you need to talk in a way that your boss can hear you. Leaders have a million things competing for their attention everyday. They are trying to keep them all straight. How do you communicate to someone who’s already on information overload? You need to talk in a way that cuts through the static; and you need to know how to listen.
Be Brief – Speak in Headlines
When you are overwhelmed with information there’s nothing worse than someone who can’t get to the point. On the other hand, someone who takes the time to boil down all the information into a useful headline or point-of-view is gold! Be the person who respects your boss’ time enough to boil things down.
When communicating to anyone you want to influence, take a journalistic approach. Start with an engaging headline or opening statement that makes clear what your point-of-view is. Then construct the “nut graph” that gives all the pertinent information including the decision, approval, or feedback you want from the leader. Be specific and ask for what you need.
Business leaders will ask for more information if they need it, but if you lead with a simple, concise request they are more likely to respond with what you need.
Brevity isn’t easy. (There’s a whole book about it!) But it is worth it.
Context is Key
“We had 1800 visitors to the home page last week!”
Most CEO’s won’t have any context for that number. Is that a lot? Is that more than the week before? What did those visitors do? What did those visitors cost me? Instead of providing information, you’ve just raised a whole bunch of questions!
To be influential, we need to provide context for the information we are communicating. Instead of thinking about absolutes, think about trends (“Home page visits are up 15% this month…”) Then step back and ask “why”. Why is that important? What might have caused that increase in web traffic? Why do I care? Those are implication questions and they also provide important context (…like, a higher percentage of those visits are converting into leads).
It’s also important to build context around your process. How did you get those numbers? “Homepage visits are up 15%, and more of those visitors are converting into leads.” While this is an important bit of information, it doesn’t tell the boss if it took you 5 minutes or 5 hours to draw that conclusion—and that’s OK. But when they ask you a follow up question like, “Is that new traffic coming from different sources? Why is the conversion up? Are the new sources converting better?” You should be honest about whether answering those questions will take 5 minutes 5 hours. If having the answer is business critical, then take the 5 hours! But if your boss is merely curious, she may not want you to invest that much time in finding the answer.
Numbers are for Analysts, not CEO’s
You’ve heard that pictures are worth 1,000 words. Well, have you ever tried to get your boss to look at 1,000 numbers? (If you have, then you know the nightmare that can follow as your boss tries to consider what each number might mean). Yes, your boss needs to understand the numbers; and yet, looking at ALL of them is too much. (That’s why she hired YOU!) But synthesize those numbers into a chart, graph, or other visual representation of them, and you have a fighting chance of being persuasive. You get bonus points if you use similar (or the same) chart month after month so that your boss already understands the context, axis, etc. and can get right to the key information.
Don’t Pretend to Know
Your ability to influence your boss’s (or anyone else’s) opinion is limited by your credibility. It’s really easy to lose credibility when you say something that you aren’t 100% confident in, or something that isn’t 100% true. I’d rather say, “I don’t know,” than try to fake my way through an answer. It’s OK to have an opinion, (“I don’t have the numbers, but my suspicion is that if we did, we’d see…”) and then go get the numbers to verify it.
Instead of “faking it”, simply say, “I don’t know the answer to that. But here’s what I’d do to figure it out…” Again—provide context to how long it will take, so that your boss can decide if it’s worth it, or not, to get a precise answer.
Being Persuasive by Listening
Believe it or not, how you listen can be even more influential than how you talk. When you listen well, it’s more likely that you will get all the information that you need (plus, the more your boss talks the more they like you).
When we are actively listening we put aside our agenda. We refrain from thinking about what we are going to say back, and instead we hang on every word that the other person is saying. When I’m engaged in active listening I hear more of what is being said; I’m more engaged (and they notice our attention, which feels good to them) and we’re more likely to reach an understanding!
How do you do that? Focus on the other person. Look at their eyes or their mouth so you pay attention. Write down what’s being said (it’s very effective when you can repeat back in the boss’s own words what the problem is). Don’t attempt to respond until you understand what they are saying.
Ask questions before you form an opinion. It’s rare that you get all the information from someone’s first declaration. Keep in mind that bosses are often pressed for time; they like to speak in headlines and wait for someone to ask for detail. You will get a lot more information when you take the time to say, “Tell me more about this…” and then wait for the response.
Asking clarifying questions can help you (and your boss) to focus in on what is most important. “Is it more like this? Or more like that?”
Once you have listened and asked clarifying questions, it’s time to restate your understanding of the question or the problem. “So what I’m hearing is…” If your boss agrees then you are on the same page; victory!
Being influential is important for your effectiveness in any job. It’s up to us to be influential by talking in a way that other people want to hear what we say, and by listening in a way that makes them want to talk!