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Ever walk into a room and feel like no one is listening? It absolutely drives me nuts. Sometimes it happens in a lecture hall, sometimes a classroom, the worst is when it happens in a small conference room full of people you are being paid to coach.
One of the things I’ve come to realize over the years is that no matter how credentialed your are, no matter what you know or how much you are getting paid, no one ever has to listen to you… you have to earn the right to be heard.
Because I have a severe aversion to wasting people’s time, I’ve developed a strategy of sorts that I’ve found to be pretty effective and generally repeatable in most situations where you’ve got to have permission before someone will hear you. The formula goes something like this…
Questions are interesting because they work on lots of levels. The most obvious is that you gain a ton of information and insight about how your audience understands their problem. Less obvious maybe is that good questions will demonstrate that you deeply understand your subject matter.
Good questions communicate a desire to understand and create a real opportunity to build trust and deeper connection. They help people feel heard and understood. People that feel heard and understood are generally more open to hearing what you have to say.
But here is the deal… you are not just asking any questions. You are using your expertise and understanding of common problems to dig into places where you are likely to find trouble. The goal will be to use what you’ve learned to setup the next phase of the conversation.
At some point you need to start transitioning into problem solving, but we still don’t have permission to tell anyone how to do anything. No one has asked for our help. There is a transition line I’ll often use here that seems to work. I’ll ask the room for permission to ‘explore some ideas’ with them.
We aren’t trying to solve their problem, but we may have earned the right to teach a little. It is much less threatening to discuss an idea than to go into the real issues. We can talk generically about how and why process works or how and why process fails, without having to tell them anything about themselves.
The trick though is that we must dynamically teach around the problem areas the group shared with you during the question phase. If they have a problem with product ownership, you should teach about Product Owners. If the group is having problems forming teams, explore how and why teams work.
Get The Ask
Hopefully, if all has gone well to this point, we’ve created a little cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when people simultaneously hold two competing thoughts or ideas. The room should have a clear understanding of their current reality and a clear understanding of a possible vision for a future state.
The idea is to get people to the point where they want to have that cognitive dissonance resolved. It should be uncomfortable and prompt ‘The Ask’. ‘The Ask’ is when the room requests your advice on how to resolve the conflict. This is when you finally have permission to coach.
At this point, and only at this point, can you begin to start laying out specifics. Now we can start talking about how to solve their particular problems and help them work through their concerns. You can directly link their problems to the specific solutions and lay out a strategy for helping them get there.
Like any technique, you can use this kind of approach for good or for evil. To help or to manipulate. The goal in any coaching situation is to build trust, strengthen relationships, and genuinely find ways to help. To make it work, you have to really care, really listen, and create a real opportunity to connect.
I’ve used this approach with small delivery teams and rooms full of executives. It really works. People want to be heard, they want to learn, and if you can really listen to them and help them learn meaningful stuff, you just might be asked to help. Only when you’ve been asked to help do people tend to actually listen.