To Speak or Not To Speak

August 4, 2013

Brunette Oriental ShirtIs it always a good idea to let people know where you stand on issues? In my leadership classes, this question comes up when we discuss politics and how to protect one’s reputation. From the time I was young, my parents stressed that we should be open about our feelings and ideas. I learned at an early age to share thoughts early and often. Later on, I learned there is a potential trap in the philosophy.

I call it the “stand up and be counted” syndrome. The idea is that it is a good thing to be forthright with your opinions, but there are times in life where it is wiser to hold your opinions to yourself. Believe it or not, there are situations where other people simply do not want to hear your opinion, especially if you tend toward being vocal. In a public meeting, you need to watch the body language of other people to gauge when to be vocal and when to listen quietly. I have been trying to develop that skill in myself recently. I wish I would have paid more attention to the concept earlier in my career.

I can recall making a contrary point to what was being proposed and sharing my rationale in a public forum. The leader of the meeting made note of my objection and started to move on, but I could not resist the temptation to amplify my concern. That was a mistake. My point had been made, and by trying to get in the last word, I was losing rather than gaining ground.

A cliché that fits this issue is “keeping your cards close to your chest.” The idea here is that it is often a better strategy to withhold your opinion until you have assessed the audience and political environment into which you might be injecting it.

Exactly how you interject your input is as important as when you do it. For example, I once was asked if it would be a good idea to take over the sale of a product line from another company in exchange for access to some technology. The product was ten-inch floppy discs, which at the time were declining in sales volume rapidly after the introduction of the five-inch floppy disc. I answered the question easily and abruptly with “I think it stinks” (which was actually the right call). I failed to take into account the full political nature of the line-up of forces pro and con on the decision, so I saw some raised eyebrows around the table. In the end, we did not go for the deal, so there was no permanent damage, but my initial response could have been more circumspect and mature.

For example, rather than a flat rejection, I might have discussed some test patterns around the life cycle of the product. I could have asked Socratic Questions about the future sales stream we would likely experience. Asking questions is frequently safer than making strong negative statements. It lets the other parties discover the precaution for themselves rather than have you slap them in the face with it. If they discover it, then you will not likely be irritating the other people.

Recently I had the reverse of that situation come up. I was in a BOD meeting, and there was a troubling discussion going on. My emotions were at a peak level with lots of venom inside me. Before the end of the meeting, the Chairman of the Board noticed I was being less vocal than usual and asked me if I wanted to comment on the discussion. I said that I did not want to say anything. I just needed a couple days to get my emotions in check before making some public comment that might be misinterpreted. Unfortunately, my silence (which is rare for me) was interpreted as a negative signal. Sometimes you just cannot win.

In between silence and spilling your guts is the right place to be, and knowing when and how to speak is situational. It requires maturity, a keen sense of your audience and of the politics of communicating with them, a long term view of the implications, a tendency toward transparency, a sense of self protection, and a lot of maturity. The idea is to be conscious about the potential impact of your opinion before expressing your ideas verbally. This skill is one of the basic proficiencies in Emotional Intelligence, and it is important for each of us to become skilled at metering our opinions wisely.

The point of this article is to highlight the need to be sensitive to when to speak up and when to shut up. Lean in the direction of being forthright with your feelings, but watch the body language of others closely. That habit will allow you know when it is wiser to back off. Once you decide to speak up, do so with skill and sensitivity. If you have an objection, handle it like a razor sharp foil rather than a broadsword. Remember that just because a point is important to you does not make it important or even interesting to other people.


Socratic Struggles

April 29, 2010

The Socratic Method uses a series of questions designed as a discovery process for the person who is being questioned. The technique is often used in educational venues to help students learn critical thinking skills. I believe the application of the Socratic Method at work can be a powerful tool if used carefully. It can also backfire if used poorly or with a heavy hand.

An example of a work situation where the so-called Socratic Method might come in handy is a situation where you want to advocate a specific course of action to a superior but you expect significant pushback. Let’s picture a situation where you are trying to convince your reluctant boss to approve some off site training which includes travel for you.

The straightforward approach is to: explain the benefits of the training, advocate why this will be helpful to the organization, and ask for permission to travel to the seminar. However, based on your knowledge of the boss in previous encounters, you suspect that he is going to turn you down flat regardless of the promised benefits. In this case, advocating a course of action and arguing your case will likely produce a negative response. Furthermore, once the boss has said no, subsequent attempts to change his mind will only be an annoyance. You are likely to hear “What part of NO didn’t you understand?”

Using the Socratic Method means asking the boss questions about his satisfaction with how things currently are. You now stand a better chance of getting a reaction you can then build, with additional questions, into a stream of thought. Continuing to ask leading questions rather than advocating a position allows the boss to discover some of his own thought patterns that can be consistent with what you would have advocated in the first place.

Perhaps your final question in the series might sound like this. “I wonder how, I might be able to get the skills to do what you’re suggesting”? After a few seconds of thought, The boss might reply, “Well, you could get some training and bring those skills back to our group.” You might then reply, “That’s a great idea! Would it be okay if I looked into some training options to accomplish that”? Note that you are now in a position to praise the intelligent boss for suggesting something you wanted to do all along. You get what you want, and the boss is your hero rather than a tight-fisted curmudgeon.

Now the boss has mentally committed to having you get some training because the idea was generated by his brain rather than yours. When you come back the next day with a specific proposal to get the training, you’re far more likely to have the boss agree to the expenditure than if you had simply advocated the benefits of doing it yourself.

I mentioned at the beginning of this article there is a huge caveat to applying the Socratic Method. It is because the technique is fundamentally manipulative in nature. You have an idea what you are trying to get the boss to verbalize, and you keep asking questions that direct the conversation toward that end. If you are not extremely deft at posing this string of questions, the boss may become highly annoyed and suspicious that you have an ulterior motive for asking your open ended questions. If this is the case, you may be doing more harm than good. Socratic questions must be used with great skill. Let’s examine six categories of Socratic questions and suggest a method of application that may help you be successful.

Below is a list showing six different types of Socratic Questions as outlined in a Wikipedia entry. I think this handy guide is useful because it provides different avenues of logic, so the questions don’t all begin to sound the same.

1. Questions of clarification:

To prompt others to explore their questions and prove basic concepts and ideas of arguments Examples: What examples can you provide? What do you mean by…?

2. Questions that probe assumptions:

To query others’ beliefs concerning their arguments. Examples: How did you arrive at those assumptions? What if we looked at it this way?

3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

To delve deeper into supporting claims others use for their arguments. Examples: How do you know this? What is the cause? Can the evidence be refuted? How?

4. Questions that probe perspective:

To have others query their viewpoints or perspectives; they attempt to look at the argument from another perspective. Examples: What is another way of looking at this? What are strengths and weaknesses of your perspective?

5. Questions that probe consequences:

 
To identify consequences and determine if they are desirable; use as others develop arguments and logical consequences become foreseeable. Examples: If we follow your argument, what are the consequences? Are the consequences desirable?

6. Questioning the question:

 
To probe the intent of asking the original question. Examples: Why did you ask the question? To what point are you driving?

A best practice for applying these questions is to mix up the type of question as the conversation unfolds. By applying the specific type of question naturally as the discussion proceeds, it seems more expected and less manipulative.

If your true intent is to naively probe the thoughts that are under the surface in the other person’s head, you can gently guide the conversation without detection. In other words, do not try to corner a person into saying something that he or she does not really want to advocate. That is true manipulation, which will invariably backfire. Instead, by using the Socratic Method, help guide the discussion so the person first sees the true benefits from his or her own perspective. The person then becomes an advocate instead of a roadblock.

It occurs to me that using the Socratic Method can be helpful, but it requires skill and practice to apply it successfully in the real world.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_questioning