Those innocuous-sounding words, “yes, but”, occur so commonly and habitually in normal human communication, that over time most people are completely unaware of their existence and impact. And more significantly, most people are unaware of the potential that exists to improve the quality of relationships and mutual understanding, when the presence of these words is subject to closer attention.
This week has been a classic example for me. I’ve sat in meetings, participated in workshops and seminars, noticing how much of the time people’s views and comments have been gently, and often politely, resisted through the automatic “yes, but”s of their colleagues. Of course what is significant is not so much the words themselves but the underlying attitudes they tend to reveal. One case will illustrate my point.
A partner in a law firm described how he wanted to bring on an associate member of his team who was showing a lack of enthusiasm and energy. He recalled how he had tried to convince her: “Yes, but you are really good at your job; you honestly will have no difficulty taking on the extra responsibility”. As we explored the challenge together, it seemed like a profound moment of insight when he realised he would probably have a greater chance of engaging the associate if, initially at least, he simply acknowledged her current frame of mind with a “yes” (rather than a “yes, but”), taking the time to understand and accept the fact of her reticence.
So each “yes but” moment gives an opportunity to see where something is being resisted, where the individual feels challenged and uncomfortable. And as in physics, where every action generates an equal and opposite reaction, the effect of “yes but” is generally to entrench the position of the other and to limit the likelihood of change.
So if we want to influence others successfully, starting to notice and manage our own “yes but”s is a fabulous place to start.
It has long been recognised that humans have a tendency to filter out what doesn’t fit within their frame of reference, unconsciously blanking out uncomfortable messages. The capacity to manage such ingrained habits is not only harder than most of us think (“What do you mean – of course I’m open minded!”), but it is also an essential skill for anyone with responsibility for the growth of the organisation and the business.
Here is a current example. I have just come off a telephone call with a sales representative of a large accounts software business. In searching for a new software package I had road-tested an online demo version. Having wisely captured my details via the web, the company followed up by calling me today. While the rep was friendly and sounded knowledgeable, he failed to respond in any way to my mildly-expressed concerns that the software might not be quite right for my needs. Instead he explained all the benefits the software offered. The paradox is that these benefits, though impressive sounding, won’t win him the sale. Addressing my concerns however, gently acknowledging my hesitancy (a natural consequence of my not wanting to sound stupid when talking about accounting!), would be the very thing that would have potentially won him the business.
Knowing that this is how we are wired, good managers and leaders do two key things. First they become adept at spotting when they are avoiding dealing with something, whether an ‘elephant in the room’, or a vague sense of discomfort. They know that responding to such sensations can generate the most positive and powerful change, provided they can pay careful attention to them, and find the courage and calmness to address them. Second, they actively seek out points of difference. They listen out for any words used by others that seem to jar a little, they look for any clue that indicates the other person may be seeing things differently, and they use these to gently open up and explore the perceptions of others.
Common sense, yes of course; common practice, no!
According to the radio news on Tuesday, all front-line health professionals in the UK are soon to be required to use every patient contact to dispense advice on healthy living. Whether concerning weight loss, exercise or alcohol consumption, every opportunity will be taken to promote a ‘healthy-living’ agenda.
I was struck by the opposing positions taken by the two guest speaker on Radio 4’s Today programme (Tuesday 10 January). One argued that this was the nanny state pushing messages that research shows will largely be ignored by the public, while the other felt strongly that it was the duty of the doctor to give patients such messages, and that it would result in behaviour change.
In my view neither position quite captures what will determine the success or failure of the initiative. Essential to the success of the project will be a) the attitude in which the advice is given and b) the precise approach taken, at the level of the relationship and the communication between the health professional and patient. Let me explain:
Attitude: How many of us like to be told to change some aspect of our behaviour? Of course we don’t. We have well-worn defence mechanisms that we quickly put up – even when we know at some level that the other person is right. Anyone wishing to change another’s behaviour must, most importantly and paradoxically, recognise that YOU CANNOT change another person! You can only create conditions in which they may decide to do something differently. In fact the more wedded you are to the rightness of your view and to them changing, the less likely you are to have the effect you want! (Unless you happen to be a bully or otherwise rule through fear!)
Approach: ‘telling’ or ‘advising’ without first being asked for help, tends to generate a negative or resistant response in the other party, even if it is masked by politeness and the appearance of agreement. Far more effective is to first get the other person to start thinking about their own interests, for which the best technique is to ASK. Not a closed question that will generate a judgement by the other person (I agree / disagree), but an open question that invites new thought in the other person’s mind. So in the case of the health professionals, they might for instance ask: “What could be the be benefits to you of stopping smoking?” And then of course comes the very hardest part of all: the need to wait, sit through a potentially uncomfortable silence, hold fire with all advice, LISTEN and wait some more while the patient starts to think for themselves in new and productive ways about how they might start to change.
I was fascinated to see that the above link on the Training Zone website had received almost 3000 reads – an incredible number by any measure.
It just shows the extent of the interest in effective time management; an almost universally felt ‘problem’.
Having spent much time myself helping people with their time management challenges, I would echo the sentiments and advice of this writer. In summary effective time management can be achieved by sticking to the four cornerstones of:
1) Preparation: time spent in preparation saves time in execution
2) Saying ‘No’: requires a balancing and committed ‘yes’ to the truly important things
3) Being ‘concrete’: planning what exactly is required and by when
4) Delegating: being able to retain control and engage the best efforts in others
There are a number of issues with the current practice at British Airways to use the PA system to thank the cabin staff “for their hard work” towards the end of a flight.
First it is too impersonal and generalised to have any real meaning or value for the staff. And if it is as much of a routine or procedure as it now seems, it actually makes a mockery of praise and recognition, probably increasing levels of cynicism and feelings of not really being recognised.
Second it makes me feel like I’ve been a burden to the staff and somehow even guilty. On my last flight for example they served me a drink and a meal, and could then be seen reading the Daily Mail, chatting to each other and even massaging each other behind the closed curtains of the galley! And this has been “hard work”. Was I really that difficult and demanding a passenger?
I wonder what if any are the links between this strange practice and BA’s downturn in cabin service, attentiveness and quality?
How often I hear people say something along these lines: “you can’t say ‘no’ to clients” or “you just have to put up with so-and-so”.
In both examples the issue being described has been depersonalised and generalised by the use of the word ‘you’. In what amounts to a linguistic slight of hand that for the most part seems to go largely unnoticed, the tactic removes the person from being a partial owner of (or contributor to) the problem and thus they cannot be held responsible for addressing it. And why do this? Certainly they feel better, let off the hook, with the problem pushed onto the shoulders of others.
It’s perfectly amazing how asking them to repeat what they’ve just said, only substituting “I” or “me” in place of “you” can start to bring an awareness and insight that creates the possibility for real change.
Fascinating to see how people use words that minimise or apologise when they are feeling uncomfortable. For example I have observed numerous presenters over the years say to the groups they are working with things like this when setting up exercises: “this is just a very little exercise …”, or “we’ll just very briefly …”, and so on. It’s as if by using minimising language it will make something that may not be very good more acceptable!
Of course the impact is negative; the insecurity of the speaker is transmitted and shared with the audience, who then take the idea or exercise (and the person speaking) less seriously.