Mike was an emerging leader. His personal development included his ability to communicate — especially with the owner of the company.
As Mike shared his story, I could see how his fear of confrontation made it difficult to communicate effectively with his boss.
Our conversation went something like this:
“Mike, how do you like being told what to do? Once you’re given a task and know what to do, how does being told what to do, affect you?”
“I don’t like it,” he replied.
“Why is that?”
“I like to be left alone to do my job; trust me and let me do it.”
I pressed on, “How does it make you feel when someone tells you what to do?”
After some hesitation, he found his words, “I don’t like it and find myself resisting, I don’t feel trusted or respected.”
When “told what to do,” how do you feel?
Who hugs a porcupine?
Consider communication and the lovable porcupine. National Geographic helps us understand this animal’s unique qualities (emphasis added):
“The porcupine is the prickliest of rodents though its Latin name means “quill pig.” There are about two dozen porcupine species, and all boast a coat of needle-like quills to give predators a sharp reminder that this animal is no easy meal. Some quills, like those of Africa’s crested porcupine, are nearly a foot (30 cm) long.
Porcupines have soft hair, but on their back, sides, and tail are usually mixed with sharp quills. These quills typically lie flat until something threatens the porcupine, then leap to attention as a persuasive deterrent. Porcupines cannot shoot their quills at predators as once thought, but the quills do easily detach when touched
Many animals come away from a porcupine encounter with quills protruding from their snouts or bodies. Quills have sharp tips and overlapping scales or barbs that make them difficult to remove. Porcupines grow new quills to replace the ones they lose.”
How many people have a pet porcupine that you know? How close do you want to be to this rodent?
Notice the keywords from the description of the Quill Pig. Here’s how I connect them to telling in communication:
- Prickly: An uncomfortable, irritating, defensive exchange.
- Sharp Reminder: What do you think “tellers” want others to remember? Why is there such intensity?
- Threatened: What fear drives the need to “tell”?
- Persuasive Deterrent: What is the effect of “telling” as a communication style?
- Detach Easily: Why is it “easier” to tell?
- Hard to Remove: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cannot harm me.” Really?
At a relationship level, “telling” often shuts dialog down; effective leaders avoid this communication style. When communicating, do you want to be known as a Quill Pig Communicator?
Telling pushes people away
Imagine a ball carrier in football. His goal is the end zone. As he runs toward defenders, their goal is to tackle him. With an outstretched arm, the ball carrier pushes his hand onto his would-be tackler to take him out of the action. The “stiff arm” is designed to push the other player out of the way.
Likewise, telling hinders communication.
What’s the solution?
Having established the imagery of “telling” with Mike, we moved on to the alternative.
“Mike, when someone you respect asks for your input, your opinion, your thoughts on a topic, how do you feel?”
“Oh, it’s great. I feel honored, respected; appreciated, valued, trusted…it’s entirely different.”
Yes, it is much different when you ask open-ended questions. That’s because open-ended questions invite participation.
- Asking encourages an exchange of ideas through dialogue and discussion.
- Asking sends a message of value, respect, and honor.
- Asking shows a level of trust and appreciation.
- Asking flows from a place of freedom.
- Asking indicates a released need to control.
Whereas telling “pushes people away,” asking “invites them to stay.”
Teach When You Can
Of course, there is a time to impart knowledge to someone, to provide direction, to advocate a certain way or to set expectations. When these moments arise, go for it. Be a teacher and communicate.
The Quill Pig Mantra: Ask More, Tell Less, Teach When You Can.
Creating Space to Think
Through our discussion, Mike discovered that asking questions is not confrontational; in fact, open-ended questions demonstrate honor, respect, and appreciation — even for his boss.
- What’s your default communication style?
- What do you think of the mantra “Ask MORE, Tell LESS, Teach When You Can”?
- As a leader, where can you “tell less” and “ask more?”
Here’s to your Next Level Communication,
(Published in THE PEOPLE PROJECT: Your Guide for Changing Behavior and Growing Your Influence as a Leader, Chapter One)
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/22484527807/
Bonus Video: What kills questioning? (3:30)
Warren Berger, author of A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.