Being an expert in your field and investing a lot in your professional knowledge isn’t enough to truly make an impact with your expertise. Did you ever discuss a topic you knew a lot about, propose a great idea, and got shot down only to see someone else suggesting the same thing and get all the praise? Or even worse, someone suggested an inferior idea, and it was accepted! Good communication draws others to you and your ideas, whereas bad communication pushes them away even when your idea alone could be more than good enough to persuade them.
We all navigate complex social structures, working with different clients and teams in our daily lives, and making an impact requires a lot of psychological work below the surface, commonly referred to as “soft skill” work.
We pinpointed a few key skills that proved detrimental to people’s development through all of our experiences gathered while running a product development agency with 200+ people. Whether you want to be a senior engineer whose ideas are often implemented, you work closely with clients, or you lead a team of people, here are a few things you want to focus on.
How to build your influence, and get others to listen?
When you’re an expert in your job, you have a clear vision of the right way to go. But the reality is that sometimes others will have a vision of their own, and just won’t be sold on yours.
We had a project where a client approached us with an idea of creating a video game. They talked about attracting more visitors to their career page, and they felt this was a cool, and innovative solution. They were very passionate and persistent about the game idea, but we saw some flaws in it and had another solution in mind.
Instead of pushing our idea against something they were really passionate about, we asked a lot of questions and found out their main motivators and concerns — a drive to have an innovative solution, and a concern to achieve high visitor conversion rates. With this in mind, we proposed a chatbot that can satisfy both things that are important to them. This is something that stuck with them and got them excited to go through with.
We tend to jump to proposals too quickly, not really knowing what drives our counterparts. You need to make sure your proposal really hits their pain point or their soft spot, offering a solution to something that will make them tick. Find out what their needs or fears in your cooperation are. Do they need to have the most cutting edge product, or they fear they will seem unproductive and slow if they don’t show weekly progress in their project?
Ask open-ended questions, observe, and look for clues. Use their language wherever you can; people tend to be more receptive to information that sounds familiar. When this familiarity connects with their personal triggers, it will lead to building positive impressions in their subconscious. Demonstrating to people you truly understand their problem, while also making them sure you will get personally invested in solving it, creates a firm ground for building trust and influence in this cooperation.
Learn more on the topic of how people change their behavior by reading Psychology of persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini. The book is describing six principles of persuasion that will help you apply your influence.
How to give game changing feedback?
Imagine a situation where you did something, and got feedback that you are hasty, make a lot of mistakes, and not to do them again. You would probably feel bad, try to assume what exactly was implied, and try to correct your mistakes. But if you think about it, can you really be sure what it was that you did wrong and how you can prevent it from happening again? This lack of clarity in feedback can cause your frustration to grow, and your motivation to dwindle.
A common mistake people make while giving feedback is assuming about people’s character traits, and then expecting if they point their opinion about them out, everything will be magically different. Like waving a magic wand that corrects all the behavior patterns that were building during the course of many years — over one night. So, how can you give constructive feedback that will stick?
Remember, feedback should be focused on objective, observable facts. It should also be timely, and the closer the event you want to address is, the better. This will help with preparation because it will be much easier to think of the specific behaviors you want to discuss. Explaining the consequences this behavior had on others or on the business, and connecting it with the persons’ long term goals will have the most profound impact on whether the feedback sticks or not. In conclusion, define action points and create a written agreement with specific tasks so it will be easier to keep focus on set goals. Of course, this only works if you continue to have feedback sessions regularly.
Knowing this, imagine that the feedback you got was that for the last three sprints you pushed a code that did not work. It is explained how this reduced the quality of the project the team is working on, brought the risk of breaking the deadline, and making the customer unsatisfied. It is then concluded with a brainstorming session on how this can be solved so that it doesn’t happen again. You agree that you will break the problem into several parts, write it all down before starting to work on it and test each segment to make sure it works. We imagine you would understand completely what your mistake was, what the effects of it were, and wouldn’t like to repeat it. And with this new advice, you would feel supported and know the steps necessary to tackle the problem.
Getting to the root of ineffective communication is in understanding how often the very language we use can be destructive and hostile rather than constructive. In Nonviolent communication: A language of life, Marshall B. Rosenberg speaks more about communication tools, which will help you pinpoint others’ perspective, be more accepting of it, and incorporate their motivators in your everyday interactions.
How to grow your bond through solving a complaint?
Whether it’s because of unrealistic expectations, or a simple mismatch in communication, facing a disagreement is not pleasant. Two years ago, we landed an amazing, cutting-edge, cool project and we were excited! We were going through the features and felt everything was going great. But then the client started expressing worries that we won’t be able to meet the deadlines and questioning the quality of our work. We were perplexed. What was going on? We instantly got defensive, trying to prove how we were doing our job well, and that everything was fine to the point of starting to get angry with the situation that got us completely confused.
Finally, we organized a meeting to start a discussion and define a more detailed structure in our cooperation that would reassure the client and get us both the results we wanted. Listening to their complaints, we summarized their key pain points and concerns to create an action plan. And while allowing them to explain what was bothering them, we realized where we failed. The client had a strict policy when testing the code, which dictated the way every case had to be named. Since we did not know that, we weren’t using this system, and everything we did got rejected.
Like us in this example, people often tend to delay taking action, secretly hoping that the issue will be resolved by itself. But of course, issues, when ignored, are likely to escalate and become even harder to resolve. To nip the problem in the bud, you should be ready to face some tough conversations. But maybe they don’t have to be so tough. Even input that seems negative can carry positive value in some way, you just have to find out what that is.
For a conversation to be constructive, the focus should not be on emotions, but rather on calm and rational cognition. Start by acknowledging the negatives you are faced with. Paraphrase what you heard, reflect, but don’t get caught up in them. Instead, ask affirmative questions that will point out the positive aspects on which you can build your solution. When asking the questions, make sure it is clear you want to start a discussion, so explain why this information is important. This will help rebuild trust and ensure the feeling of security on the other side.
The end goal is to bring two opposite sides together, and sometimes that will not be possible in just one conversation. Organizing regular follow-ups, creating the structure of the conversation in advance, and offering as many specific details and information as possible will alleviate stress, result in defusing the situation, and finally lead to a resolution.
When opinions vary and emotions get in the picture, it can be tricky to achieve favorable resolutions, so having easy techniques can prove to be very useful. Inspire yourself with Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, and find out about their six-minute mastery technique that will help you turn tough conversations into the actions and ultimately to the results you want to achieve.
How to manage your workload and save yourself from burnout?
Maintaining a high level of self-motivation can sometimes be challenging, but fortunately, there are some methods you can use to improve the quantity, quality, and output you produce.
Think about whether this scenario sounds familiar.
You start your week and define your weekly focus. You are pumped and can’t wait to get it done. So you begin crunching, and you hear about a cool new thing your colleague is trying to do. You get excited. You want to participate! So you do. And as you go, you realize it takes longer than you thought it would.
Now it is taking the time from your original focus, and you need to do overtime. Then you realize your initial task is branching and additional things need to be done here as well. You won’t be done in time! You’re switching between everything that has to be done, you’re pulling even more overtime, working late, you’re tired, you have to cancel plans in your private life. The week is over, you can’t wait to get some sleep, and you promise yourself you won’t do that again.
When you love your job, you tend to dive into every task in front of you passionately. But the reality is that you can’t do everything, and by saying “yes” to something, you are by default saying “no” to something else. So stop multitasking. It just slows you down and makes you less accurate because your brain is constantly switching attention between activities. Instead, choose a task you will put all your focus and attention on.
It should be something that will move you closer to your goals, so use the 80/20 rule, which says eighty percent of the results come from twenty percent of the action. We tend to immerse ourselves in busywork and forget about the big picture. On the other hand, productive people know which actions drive the best results, focus on them, and manage their calendar to get the most out of it.
Start by creating blocks of activities — block time for detecting those tasks that will bring you the most gain, group similar activities, schedule time for answering emails, even schedule free time.
And if the activity is not planned — don’t do it.
Don’t take our word for it, it is always a good idea to inspire yourself with different ways to stay on top of your game, and try out what works best for you. See some recommendations for planning things, reassessing goals, and staying focused by David Allen in his book Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Besides applying some of his methods, learn more about handling feeling overwhelmed or anxious, and even about feeling fine in regards to the things you are choosing not to do.
And what after all the ‘How to’s?
Great performance can look deceptively easy, but the truth is that learning any skill, requires putting it into practice. Just reading about it, looking at videos, or answering a quiz is not enough. You can invest all your time in learning the theory, and while studying the concepts is essential, it is a passive exercise.
In order to gain something from it, you need to apply that learning to your own work. So prepare what you want to say. Try saying it out loud — first to yourself in the mirror, and then videotape yourself to analyze how it went. Finally, ask a colleague for feedback. Only when you dive in and try it out through trial and error, you will see real progress. You need to find out for yourself what works and what doesn’t, and the more you do it, the more you will learn.
This is a concept we use for years, gradually building our soft skills knowledge base, which we have now rounded by creating FIVE soft skills academy. This year we expect up to 86 people to go through the program, work on honing their skills, developing in their role, and gradually working from an executor role towards building their impact as the experts that consult the clients about the best solutions to their problems.
Originally published at https://five.agency on June 12, 2020.