Have you ever gone into one of those meetings, delivered your pitch with loads of enthusiasm, and walked out thinking to yourself, "that went well", only to have them come back to you days later with a resounding "no"?
Do you often feel betrayed, misled, or resentment over what appears to be a complete backflip by stakeholders or colleagues in your workplace? Many of us have been there.
I was short-listed for a role once that would have been a big opportunity; I wanted that job. I nailed the first interview and was quite confident I was the preferred candidate at that point. They flew me to the other side of the country for the final presentation to senior management. They wanted someone who could "drag them into the 21st century". I was confident I could do that. In the end, I thought it went well, and I had delivered some pretty outside of the box thinking.
I was devasted when a week later they contacted me with a standard "unfortunately you haven't been successful in securing the role" type email. I was angry because the VP hadn't given me any feedback at all. All that hard work, and they didn't even bother to telephone me with constructive feedback. When I requested it, I got nothing but fluff, also by email; it seems they wanted nothing to do with me.
In the end, I had to figure out for myself. I hadn't considered why this organisation was in this position because they are conservative and resistant to change. Expecting them to be full of enthusiasm for my way of thinking was never realistic; they wanted small steps, and I was caught up in my vision for radical change.
The Problem with "Persuasion".
Here's what went wrong. Sometimes when we are enthusiastic about a project, we talk too much and listen too little. We miss all the clues, and there are plenty that the people we're hoping to influence are not yet on board. If we stopped, took a deep breath, and made room for others, we would realise that the people on the receiving end of all that enthusiasm are not yet with us. They haven't done a backflip; they were never on board in the first place.
The current thinking is that we can't convince anyone to do anything; if they are on board because they have convinced themselves. Everyone has a unique analytical process they work through independently as part of their decision-making. If we don't make room for that process, allow questions, feedback, objections in these conversations, then chances are people will let you rattle on because they have no time to digest that information. The silence creates the impression there are no objections; nothing could be further from the truth.
Our audience then walks away and does all that internal processing outside of the room, where the pressure is off. Those who remain silent discuss it with everyone but you outside of the room and reject the initiative. What looks to the person presenting the original idea like inconsistency, a backflip, is something else; we didn't make room for their process.
Some of us only reserve our over-enthusiasm for presentations; often it's a way of managing our anxiety when a lot is riding on our colleagues' approval. Some people are always in "persuasion" mode, forever trying to convince others that their way is the "right" way to the point where others resent being pushed and switch off altogether. Deep down, these persuasive types that seem to be forever in "spin" mode lack confidence in themselves, leaving them perpetually busy trying to convince others of what they don't yet believe themselves. All that talking and enthusiasm stops them from focusing on those uncomfortable feelings; deep down what they are concealing its often a fear of rejection.
If this is how you lead, it's essential to explore what's driving your behaviour. When we practice self-awareness, we understand our natural tendencies when under pressure and can make a conscious decision to find more productive ways to manage the emotional risk so that our natural defence mechanisms don't end in self-sabotage.
When we talk too much and listen too little, it becomes all about us; our need for comfort, our need for approval, security, with no consideration for others' needs. We are never really present or accessible to others when we're not listening. The result is a loss of trust. Think about that for a moment. Can you trust people to do the right thing by you if they can't see you, don't hear you, shut you down mid-sentence? The answer is a resounding "no". It doesn't take Einstein to figure it out; intuition tells us that we can't trust people to make the right decision for us when they make no room for our experience in the decision-making process. It's a no brainer.
We all naturally form a negative view of the person presenting the idea in these situations; we consider their enthusiasm and over-selling is evidence of bias or inflexibility. Often, we allow persuaders to waffle on because their energy makes it clear we're wasting our time trying to contribute. The audience may appear to be engaged, but the reality is they just couldn't be bothered and want it to be over as soon as possible. They reject the idea because they have formed a negative view of the presenter's behaviour and motives. Talking too much is self-sabotage.
When we push our ideas on our colleagues, we treat them with disrespect. We assume that they have nothing to contribute, and we don't consider the impact of our views on other parts of an organisation. Different departments, different KPI's, different agenda's, we need their contribution. If you haven't explored it from every angle, and think you have all the answers, then the decision is not safe with you, that's the bottom line.
You'll never be good at what you do, never be able to meet expectations and deliver on the promise, if you're not listening. That should be enough incentive for you to change that behaviour.
The Solution is to Talk Less and Listen More
It's perfectly natural for others to be uncertain about you and their decision to engage your ideas. Talking too much only fuels their uncertainty, it's counter-productive. When we do all the talking, people don't have the space they need to explore the issues coming up for them. The doubt remains.
So what should we do instead? Here are some of the golden rules.
1. Practice being present: it's not about you. Before you enter that room, put your own needs aside and ask yourself, "how can I serve the room/this client best?" Tell yourself, "I want these people to be happy", "I can learn something from these people that will benefit the project and the outcome". When you notice you're talking too much, immediately shift your focus back to the room by asking questions. If some people are too quiet, ask them to share their thoughts.
2. Curb your enthusiasm: be understated, be curious and flexible. Don't rush to fill silences because likely they are processing information, and you don't want to interfere with their process. Ask lots of questions and give people space to move and explore the issues for themselves.
3. Make room for others objections and concerns. Don't cut people off; rush in to reassure them, you'll only create more doubt. Acknowledge their challenges with the offer, explore those issues openly in their presence. It is better to do that in the room where you can contribute than to have them leave the room with all that doubt. You don't have to have all the answers; if you act as you do, you will lose them.
4. Let go of ownership. This is the hardest part. To get buy-in from others, they need to own it. That's what happens when people run through their processes. If they pick up on points that you don't believe are critical, let them go with it. They are on your side; they need to apply it to their circumstances. What do you want and how are you going to get it? Keep your eyes firmly focused on the goal.
Six months later, I walked into another room in a similar organisation looking for radical change as a consultant, with the memory of my recent failure fresh in my mind. I stood in the meeting room gazing out the window as I awaited their arrival, reflecting on that past experience, and determined to get it right this time.
A wise woman once said to me, "Eveline, sometimes you just need to give people time to catch up". That meant letting go, surrendering to their process. As the presentation progressed, I looked around the room, amused by the fact that I'd lost control of it. My ideas suddenly became their ideas; that's how it goes when people get on board and own it. Everyone was contributing and actively discussing their issues, applying them to their circumstances, and figuring out how to make it happen.
They secured $5 million in funding to bring that project to life, and the ideas I presented here were far more radical than what I proposed six months earlier.
There is a saying that goes something like, "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care". Instead of trying to "persuade" others, we should focus our attention on building trust and connection, on engagement. That means becoming a good listener and making room for contribution.
Trust matters more than our fancy words and our expertise because it says something about our intentions, whether the business, company, people we are seeking to influence, are safe with us. When we don't establish trust, we are treated like a threat.
Banish the word "persuasion" from your vocabulary; what you really want is engagement, trust, connection.