Many years ago, as a relatively new officer in the Kansas City Police Department, I attended a class on tactical communication. The premise of the class was, “It doesn’t matter what your internal attitude is toward people, as long as what you say is polite.”
We learned numerous ways to be polite to members of the public. When we practiced this tactical communication model during the training, it worked! I was able to deescalate situations and gather the information I needed to do my job. I loved it.
I left the training and picked up my son from his high school. When he got into the car, I could see he was upset.
Here was my chance! I could be “dad of the year” and practice what I’d just learned. I wanted to see what information I could extract from my normally reticent son.
I started using the tactical communications model from the training. I applied the tools I’d learned—asking open-ended questions and so on—to try to find out what was wrong. To each question, he replied, “Nothing, Dad.”
I started to get frustrated. The tactics that had worked in class weren’t working on him.
I pulled into our driveway, parked the car, and asked him again what was wrong. He said, “Dad, you wouldn’t understand.”
“Son, what makes you think I wouldn’t understand?” I asked.
He turned in his seat and looked at me, tears in his eyes, and said, “Because you’re a robot, Dad.”
I was heartbroken.
People Respond Not to What We Say, But to Who We AreIn that moment, was my son responding to what I was saying or to my attitude toward him? I was viewing him not as my son, not as a person who needed my help and understanding, but as a practice vehicle for the training I’d just attended .
My attitude reflected what the Arbinger Institute calls an “inward mindset.” With an inward mindset, we are self-focused. We see our own needs, objectives, and challenges but are blind to what’s going on for others. We tend to see others not as people who matter but as objects: vehicles we can use for our own purposes, roadblocks in our way, or irrelevancies we can safely ignore.
And people know when they’re being objectified.
It’s All About the AttitudeToo often we approach training—particularly “soft skills” training like effective communication, conflict resolution, and so on—the way I did. Even if we don’t admit it, we see the training as a way to build skills in manipulating others so we can achieve our own goals.
Don’t get me wrong—soft skills training is critical in today’s workplace environment. I’m not saying we should do away with it. I am saying that for such training to be effective, we must also cultivate in training participants the right attitude toward the people they interact with—an attitude that sees others as people who matter. Arbinger calls this attitude an “outward mindset.”
When we see others this way, we can apply our skills in tactical communication, negotiation, and so on in ways that help us truly connect with others. On this foundation, our skills tend to be much more effective.
To See Others as People, Get CuriousWe can start to see others as people who matter by getting deeply, truly curious about them. What are their needs? What do they hope to achieve? What’s getting in their way? We can wonder about how we might be affecting them. How might we be causing problems for them?
We often find ourselves so focused on the things we need to accomplish that we become blind to the reality of those with whom we interact—to their needs, challenges, and objectives. Over time, this way of seeing the world becomes habitual.
The remedy for this narrow perspective rests in our ability to be actively curious about the things that matter to others and the ways in which we can support their aims without neglecting our own responsibilities.
An InvitationContrary to what I learned in that tactical communications class, others respond not to what we say or do as much as to how they are feeling seen by us. A side benefit of becoming curious and focusing on being helpful is that others are likely to respond more positively, more like we hope, than if we apply soft skills with an inward mindset or manipulative attitude. The key to productive influence is not merely communications training or behavioral prescriptions; it is our ability to see beyond ourselves.
In the weeks leading up to the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition, I invite you to try this out. Get curious about others’ needs, challenges, and objectives. Focus on being helpful in response to those needs—and just see what happens. Come share you ideas during my session, Don't Shoot: When Training Gets Weaponized.