Sit down and shut up

A few times a month, I have to interview people for articles I write. The key isn’t to ask a lot of questions; it’s to ask the right questions to get the interviewee talking. The best sessions take place when I barely say a word.

Even though I know this, I often struggle to keep quiet. I want to identify with that person, relate similar experiences, share success stories, and sometimes even–oh, bite your tongue, Tammy!–offer advice.

But that’s not my job.

A story interview isn’t a cocktail party where people posture to outdo each other. It isn’t a networking event where everyone trots out her useful skills in a thinly veiled dog-and-pony show. And it certainly isn’t an interview of ME where I need (or get) to lay out my resume and regale the person with my accomplishments.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to impress–but it’s not about me.

It doesn’t matter that I went to the school my interviewee just described.

It doesn’t matter that I work in the same field in my “real” job.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to the same country or eaten the same foods.

It doesn’t matter that I agree (or disagree) with his point.

All that counts is that I’m there to learn, and unless I’m asking questions to elicit further information, I always learn more with my mouth closed.

Someone else’s validation of my resume or academic credentials or thought processes or travel history or food preferences or whatever else I feel compelled to share doesn’t change who I am or what I’ve done. So why should I feel the need to insert ME into every conversation?

Wait–I just said conversation. Weren’t we talking about interviews, not everyday exchanges?

Well, crap. I guess there’s really not that much difference. No matter what the scenario, I always learn volumes when I use my ears more than my mouth. I said it earlier: the best sessions take place when I barely say a word.

Tammy dear, remember that communication is just as much about the intake as it is about the output.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Steven R. Covey

(Thanks, KMN, for preaching this relentlessly. Maybe someday I’ll finally hear it.)

Kicking the tires

flat tireMy kids and I pack a lot into our days. With work, school, practices, rehearsals, committees, and social lives tugging us in different directions, we sometimes have to get creative in order to spend time with each other. That’s how I came up with the idea of having my kids tag along on my runs–on their bikes.

A few years ago on one of spring’s earliest days, I laced up my running shoes to take advantage of the warm air and colorful blossoms. I invited my daughter to come with me so that we could steal a few moments together. She said yes, grabbed her bike, and off we went.

Before we proceed, you have to understand that my dazzling princess is somewhat averse to physical exertion, or at least she was at the time. Previous runs through the neighborhood with her on foot had resulted in my frantic assessment of potential onlookers to see if anyone might be calling Child Protective Services as my daughter screamed things like, “Stop hurting me!” “Why are you doing this to me?” “Why won’t you let me stop?!” and “You’re a MEAN WHALE!” Keep in mind that these exclamations generally came about five minutes into any activity after she remembered what she might be missing on TV.

Back to the story.

A block into our run/ride, dear daughter started complaining. It was too hard. It made her legs hurt. Could we please go home? Shaking my head, I pressed on, shouting over my shoulder, You have wheels! I only have feet. Keep up! After another block of ever-increasing complaints, the grousing stopped. Relieved, I looked back to see whether my daughter had caught up with me.

Rather than being hot on my tail, she was a block behind me, feet firmly planted on the sidewalk, wheels stationary. She refused to budge.

As I retraced my steps wondering how to cajole her into continuing, a tiny thought weaseled its way into my brain. I don’t think she has had her bike out since last fall. I wonder if she needs air in her tires…

I arrived at her fortified position and squeezed the rubber. Sure enough, her tires were flat. Not just low on air, but completely flat. No wonder she was complaining; she was riding on the rims! Every revolution of her pedals took extreme effort for her little legs. Oops. Bad mom moment. Her complaints were valid this time.

That incident is never far from my mind, and I’ve become extra-vigilant about checking tires before bike rides. As I’ve chuckled sheepishly over the memory, I’ve also realized there was a greater lesson embedded in it than the effects of winter storage on air pressure: never, ever stop listening.

You see, I know my daughter and her patterns. When a situation seems to fit a pattern, it’s pretty easy to check the box and tune out; it’s all about context, right? Of course, that’s exactly the moment when I risk missing something important.

I’m a huge proponent of understanding context, but paying too much attention to the context can sometimes crowd out the facts. Like tire pressure.

How to say no

just say noWith all due respect to Nancy Reagan, sometimes you shouldn’t “just say no.” In fact, the best purveyors of that pesky word can deliver it without ever saying it. They can even leave the recipient of the denial feeling, well, not denied. It’s a finely tuned skill, but I’ve seen some true masters at work. I’ve watched and listened, and here’s what I’ve learned.

Step 1: Listen. The person you have to turn down is obviously asking for something. Listen to what that is. All of it. Ask a few questions along the way. The asker will appreciate that you’ve given the proposal due consideration, and you might pick up on something that a quick judgment would have hidden from view.

Step 2: Give something. Chances are, even if you think the overall proposal is a cockamamie idea, there’s probably some part of it that might be worth doing–or at least doesn’t really matter either way. Look for that thing and lead with it. Say something like, “I think [x-aspect] is a good idea. Let’s make that happen.” Give something to get something.

Step 3: Ask the person’s opinion. Formulate the questions whose answers have led you to your decision to say no. Then ask them. “Do you think we need this?” “What will we have to give up [if funds are an issue] to do this?” “Do you think it’s a good idea to…” Many, many times the person doing the asking isn’t considering the issue from the same perspective. When you ask the questions rather than giving the answers, you give the person a chance to reach your conclusion on her own. She is then in a position not only to accept your decision, but also to support it.

Step 4: […]  Yep, this one is empty. If you’ve done the first three steps effectively, you’ve probably already ended the conversation, with both you and the asker are satisfied. And you’ve never actually said no.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I was on the receiving end of that no today–and I feel good about it.