Before You Talk, Think Like a Listener

Last night I watched President Obama address Congress about health insurance reform. It’s a stark contrast to the Woburn Mayoral debate hosted in our local high school earlier in the evening. Yet they both have something important in common. Both forums are putting very personal, emotional issues on the table, trying to solicit support from a wide range of people.

I’ve long been intrigued by organization change initiatives and while politics is different from running a family, or operating a business, I’m surprised how common the challenges of change are among all groups.

In an attempt to gain a fresh perspective I brought my 11 year old son to the mayoral debate. While we were not able to attend the entire session, it was an enlightening experience. It served to remind me that how you communicate is as important as what you communicate, especially while championing change.

After listening to opening statements and the candidates respond to a few questions I asked Nicholas who he would vote for based on what he knew at the time. To my surprise he answered quickly and definitively, “the man in the brown suit”. Perhaps not coincidentally, I would make the same choice, although I had not shared that with Nicholas.

Curious, I asked him why. He responded immediately, “because he’s focused on solutions”.

Was the man in the brown suit more qualified for the job than the other three candidates? No, most had similar levels of business and political experience. Did he offer solutions that were significantly different from the other candidates? No, in fact they all seemed to provide similar recommendations.

The difference: How he communicated. The “brown suit candidate” was prepared, articulate, and responded to the issues at hand thoughtfully giving a sense of openness. By contrast two of the other candidates were disrespectful of the time allotted to respond, focused on other’s weaknesses instead of their own strengths and generally appeared disorganized. The final candidate, the incumbent mayor, was organized, and articulate. But perhaps because he was under attack, or perhaps because of his personal style he focused on past performance, was rigid, and projected a closed persona.

In political debates, in the board room, or sitting at lunch with your friends the lesson holds true — don’t just think about what you want to say, but how you want to say it.