Speaking of Persuasion: Senator, Shut Up!

Find out about your employees as people.

There's a story about me that's been reported in a couple of national publications. I've never confirmed it and I'm not going to now, but I am going to repeat it because it illustrates perfectly the point I want to make.

I was working with a client - a well known and powerful senator - on his managerial and persuasion skills. As Selling Power magazine reported the story:

On Maher's second day in Washington, he set up a roleplay for the senator who quickly turned it into a filibuster.

"Senator," Maher allegedly broke in, "shut up!"

Stunned, the senator did just that - for a moment anyway. But every time he tried to speak, Maher interrupted, talking over him, refusing to let him squeeze in a syllable. When Maher started shaking a figure in the man's face and lecturing, the senator reached the point of apoplexy. That's when Maher flipped on the VCR and played a tape of the senator doing the exact same thing the day before - to another legislator, a less powerful man - but one whose vote the senator needed.

I work with some of the most intelligent people you would ever want to meet. And I respect all my clients. But if I had done something like this, it would have been because sometimes you simply have to demonstrate to someone how his behavior makes the people around him feel, particularly the people he has power over.

Most salespeople realize that the days are long gone when they can ram a product down the customer's throat and choke off his or her objections. The rest of us need to realize it as well. That's especially true of those of us who are managing a business. Because too many of us are still in a cram and ram mode when it comes to our people. Which doesn't tend to generate wholehearted, enthusiastic support.

A few years back, Psychology Today reported a study of top executives, comparing those who had gotten "de-railed" in their careers with those who kept moving on up to the top. The most common problem among the "de-railed?" Insensitivity to others: an intimidating, bullying, abrasive style. Which of course means a lack of empathy, an inability to put themselves in the position of those they were managing.

You may think of yourself as the stereotypical tough boss with a heart of gold, "crusty but beloved," like Lou Grant from the old Mary Tyler Moore show and so many other TV and movie bosses. Those who work from you may not be getting the same picture.

Even many of us who'd never cram and ram are frequently guilty of not listening. Not observing. And there's always a tendency for owners and managers to talk too much and listen too little, to ramble on and waste our people's time.

When we're at home, our spouse might not really listen to us. The kids don't listen. The dog doesn't listen. But when we're at work people with less power have to at least act interested in what we say. If they're good enough actors, we start believing we're fascinating, and we talk too damn much. We know we should spend more time listening, but we seldom do.

If power corrupts, the first thing it corrupts is the little voice in our heads that tells us when to shut up.

Tip: Shut up.

Listen. Discover what the people around you need. Ask questions. News reporters make a living out of getting people to provide information. According to reporters, the most seductive words in the English language are, "I'd like to hear your story."

Ask your people about their story. Find out about them as people: their interests, hobbies, families, goals. Not only will it build rapport but it will also make them more interesting to you - and make them easier to work with. It will definitely make you a lot more interesting to them.

If you don't have a genuine interest and can't develop one, don't ask. Phony interest is worse than no interest at all, and eventually it will give itself away. The sharper the person you're dealing with is, the sooner they'll realize you're a phony.

That's why most perceptive managers abhor butt-kissers; why so many glad-handing upper level executives are so despised by those they glad-hand. Nobody likes to be manipulated; nobody likes to be patronized.

If you don't honestly find the people around you are more interesting than the office furniture or the potted plants, you probably don't know much about the people around you.

Take an interest, listen, observe. Beyond rapport building, the more you know about people the more effectively you can reach them. What are their short and long term goals? What's their plan for reaching those goals? What do they see as the biggest obstacles? What are their current problems? What would the ideal solution to any of these problems look like? What's the downside if these problems aren't solved?

How can you help?

Discover their hot buttons: involve them emotionally as well as intellectually. More of our supposedly rational decisions are made at the gut level than any of us like to admit.

And when in doubt, ask a question. That's a good general rule in a business situation - or any other time for that matter. Someone once said, "You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions."

It's far easier to manage people by getting them to open up than by telling them to shut up.

Barry Maher speaks, writes and consults on leadership, management, communication and sales. And he's an acclaimed and motivational keynote speaker. His books include, Filling the Glass; No Lie: Truth Is the Ultimate Sales Tool; and Getting the Most from Your Yellow Pages Advertising. Visit his website and sign up for his free newsletter at www.barrymaher.com or contact him at 760-962-9872.

Copyright 2006, Barry Maher, Barry Maher & Associates. Las Vegas, Nevada. Used by permission.