Let People Tell You How to Talk to Them

Typically, I’d say, getting to know people is critical, and that it’s done best face to face.

But it’s not always possible.

We just accepted project management responsibility for a large global initiative in which everyone works both virtually and separately. No two people sit together and yet there are over a hundred people on the project.

There are lots of projects operating like this today and they need a higher order skill than project management usually provides. It can be a real challenge when it comes to getting to know people well enough for effective working relationships and trust, if you can’t spend time with them.

So how can you establish trust and credibility without face to face relationships and time to develop them?

Fortunately, I know a basic principle of human interactions that will work even for virtual relationships.

In complex situations like this one, I rely on this simple principle: let people tell you the best way to talk to them. The best way to talk so they will hear what you’re communicating (communication being effective when they ‘get’ the message you want them to get and when you can hear what they want you to understand and know).

The key is to listen to people, and hear what they are saying in and around the message they are delivering.

With new relationships, I tend to Skype a person a couple of times and work as hard as I can to listen. Does the person often say, “I see what you mean?” that’s the sign of a visual learner. Have I previously sent an email with detailed explanations but the person wants me to explain the whole process verbally? This is an auditory learner. If they say “let me do that”…. chances are they learn best by doing.

Once I have an idea of their preferred mode of learning I listen for micro expressions. Yes, even over the phone, it’s possible to use micro expressions to discern a person’s confidence, competence, comfort and commitment levels. At first, I try to engage in casual conversation to understand what a person sounds like when he or she is perfectly at ease. Later, if their tone and manner shifts, it’s like an alert to me: something has discomforted them and they are at least partially disengaged from the conversation.

When this happens, my next question (of myself) is whether I can address that shift openly, or do I need to do it in a circumspect manner? In some regions of the world, if you address a concern directly, the other person may lie to you. This is often when people believe they need to say what they think you want to hear.

If you’re after success the worst thing you can do is rely on a person’s words. Many a project has run aground because a project manager relied on the words being said.

When confronted with cultural, functional, and behavioural differences; our job as a leader or manager is to find the sweet spot between how a person prefers to communicate and how the overall project is able to operate. This, in fact, is the primary reason we put people in the middle: you can accommodate the differences among members of the team. Your flexibility enables less flexible people to become highly valuable.

There are many effective ways of making sure your message is heard – I’d love to hear more ideas so please reply and I look forward to learning.