With all the noise today, it might seem odd to need an article on getting people to talk. How many times though is it the same people, saying the same thing? The challenge is getting the right people to talk. In your next meeting (possibly the one you are in right now), look around the table and keep score of who is staying quiet. I doubt that the conversation is evenly distributed. There are always a notable group of people sitting quietly and observing the action. Have you ever wondered what is going on in their heads?

There are many reasons people quietly sit and listen. It is possible that they actually have nothing to say and, unlike others with nothing to say, are respecting our time. Sometimes, though, they simply think no one is listening. To hear what they have to say, it is often as simple as asking them what they think. There are a few tricks to that seemingly simple statement.

Shutting Down Dialog

To start there are a few things you want to avoid. You don’t want to sound like the integrative parent. Reflect back to your childhood and when you came home from school.  Did one of your parents ask you a litany of questions about your day, your lunch, what was fun, what your teacher did, and so forth? It feels like you were walking into a district attorney’s office. Worse than that, most of your childhood feelings were denied. I was guilty of that. When my daughter walked through the door distraught about her day at her elementary school, it would go something like this. . .

  • My teacher hates me . . . No, she doesn’t; I am sure you are fine.
  • I had a horrible day . . . It couldn’t have been that bad.
  • Everyone thinks I am stupid . . . No they don’t; those people are just jealous of your imagination.

I was shutting down the conversation. We do the same thing at work. A few years ago, I picked up the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. It zeroed in on just the type of conversation I just mentioned. Denying feeling and ending the conversation. Full stop. As I read the book, however, I started seeing similarities with situations at work resulting in people not talking.

Look back on those three examples and for each response was denying a feeling of the person saying it. This shuts down communication. Instead, we should respond with an empathetic statement, like “That must make you feel horrible.” This gives the speaker an opportunity to open up.

Empathetic Listening

I was at a client site and one of my peers exclaimed, “That stakeholder does not like me. I can never get him to come to a meeting.” I almost said, “Oh, that’s silly. I am sure he is just busy.” I chose a different approach. “That’s frustrating.” The next twenty minutes was a dump of what this stakeholder had done to create that feeling. Had I dismissed the frustration, I would have never heard the reason behind the comment. We talked further and together came up with an action plan to address the stakeholder’s potential attitude. A few weeks later, all was solved. It took the act of empathetic listening to get my peer to express the real issue. That twenty minutes of mentoring saved the project dozens of hours of frustration.

I have used other techniques from this and other parenting books. For instance, after acknowledging the frustration, I have simply looked them in the eye and murmured, “Hmm . . .” and let the room fill with silence. Before too long, the person says, “Maybe I could try . . .” and the solution appears without me doing anything more than uttering a sympathetic sign. Genuinely focusing on the person and being silent is a powerful statement of trust.

Getting to the Need

Once we get people to start talking we need to drill down to the real problem and the acceptable solutions. This I discovered many years earlier in the book SPIN Selling. Now, before you stop reading, SPIN is an acronym that describes the types of questions to ask—situation, problem, implication, and need-payoff. In short, it is a drill-down process to get past symptoms to reveal core issues. Here is what the questions do.

Situation Questions

Situation questions determine the authority of the person, whether there is a budget, who is involved with a decision,  and so forth. These are the most basic questions. Often, with a little research, you can find most of these answers and avoid asking them overtly. In fact, asking some of these questions (Are you the decision maker? Do you have the budget? and the like) can be rather annoying to the person you are trying to get to talk and defeat your progress.

Problem Questions

When most people state a problem, they have rarely thought the issue through completely and are actually stating symptoms. Problem questions explore how a condition manifests itself in the organization. The standard question at this point is, “Why?” You need to avoid, however, sounding like a 3-year-old going through the annoying why-stage. “Do you have the criteria for reviewing vendors?” or “What are the primary selection criteria?” are questions that give you critical information while directing the person down the path of discovery.

Do not make assumptions or use prior knowledge to answer these questions. There is something very important in having people answer these questions. The answers have to be theirs, in their words. This creates critical ownership.

Implication Questions

Implication questions are positively framed drill-down questions. They expand the problem by identifying the problem’s direct or indirect implications. They give people time to internalize the problem’s scope. For instance, if you are trying to resolve a problem with untimely production throughput reports, then implication questions could center on whether on-time reports would reduce:

  • Starting jobs with the wrong material.
  • Scheduling inappropriate overtime.
  • Slowing production throughput.
  • Missing customer delivery dates.
  • Failing to identify quality issues in time to minimize rework.
  • Shipping defective product.

These questions help the listener understand the breadth and actual cost of the problem. These answers are essential for the final set of questions—the needs-payoff questions.

Needs-Payoff Questions

The structure of needs-payoff questions allows the person talking (not you) to justify the solution in his or her own words. As before, ask these questions in a positive manner. Instead of asking about the cost of a certain issue, the questions should take on a positive form focusing on how much is saved or gained if an explicit problem is resolved. In this way, you get the final pieces of data to have people convince themselves and others of the direction to take.

Without telling someone what to do, you have just had that person come to a self-justified solution. Very possibly, that person who was sitting quietly in the corner has just supplied a complete answer.

Balancing Act

The solution to getting people to talk is balancing your leadership traits of empathy, awareness, humility, and focus. You have to ask meaningful questions and you need to listen. It sounds simple, however, in today’s fast paced world it is anything but easy. It takes a strong desire for awareness to work with people who remain quiet and can neglect your project or initiative into oblivion. Your job as a listening leader is getting them to talk.

Now It Is Your Turn To Talk

What experiences do you have in getting people to talk? Please share it with us.

Read Todd’s first post on leadership strategies

Read Todd’s second post in this series on leadership traits

Read Todd’s third post on replacing blame with accountability

Read Todd’s final post on listening as a leader


Learn More

Learn more about avoiding project failure and filling the gaps that cause failures in your organization. Todd C. Williams has devoted his career to understanding and filling those gaps.

As the name implies, Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure, an Amazon #1 bestseller, focuses on project actions.

His latest book, Filling Execution Gaps: How Executives and Project Managers Turn Corporate Strategy into Successful Projects, Mr. Williams covers the six gaps that cause projects to fail—an absence of “common understanding,” goal-project misalignment, lackluster leadership, ineffective governance, disengaged executive sponsors, and poor change management.

Todd Williams has written a book which made me think about my acceptance of current governance practices and approaches to program management in a whole new light. By applying lean concepts to achieve effective governance, Todd has changed the game. This book offers valuable thought provoking advice and I have recommended it to all our steering committee executives and PM’s.

Chuck Elson, General Manager, Asset Management Solutions, Bell Canada