When I am leading or attending meetings, which I do on a frequent basis, I channel my inner Tyrion Lannister. For those who don’t know, Tyrion Lannister is the master influencer of the Game of Thrones series. What in the Land of Westeros does that mean to channel your inner Tyrion? In my case, it means I’m actually doing several things at the same time:
- Delivering the information I have intended to deliver and/or Listening to the information being delivered
- Reading the room to see reactions from the listeners
- Adapting the message or questions on the fly as a result of #2
It’s a well known trope of both modern life and modern business that people aren’t good at listening. Throw open any leadership or management seminar listing and you will find topics upon topics promising to teach you how to listen, explaining the importance of listening vs. hearing, etc. It is true that much of the time, people are listening in order to respond, not in order to listen. They are already crafting their response before you finish your statement.
So many problems in any project, business, endeavour or even any movie could be solved simply by communicating…and listening is key to the communication process. Listening not to respond, but truly listening to the message that is being delivered. And, more importantly sometimes, to the message that is NOT being delivered as well.
Channeling Your Inner Tyrion
As any good fan of politics or intrigue could tell you, there is an immense amount you can learn from a conversation that has nothing to do with what is actually being said. People communicate not only with their words, but with their actions and their responses to statements and questions. Most people like to think that they are the best poker players in the world, and that no one could read anything that they didn’t say. But the truth of the matter is that most of us are very bad at it. Our actions, our responses and even the questions we ask are loaded with hidden meaning. Tyrion is a master at picking out and reading these hidden meanings, and you can be too.
If you want to understand the true depth a topic being discussed, or if you want to try to convince a group to take a certain action, being able to read these unspoken messages is important. It will keep you from getting blindsided by information later, and it can help you craft your message to be most effective. To do this, you need to focus on two things.
The (Unspoken) Spoken Messages
It goes without saying that you need to pay attention to what is actually said. But there is also some value in listening for how phrases are worded or what questions are asked and drawing out some meaning from them. This can be a useful exercise to help you understand where meeting participants may stand on an issue. Here are some examples to watch out for:
- The Broken Record: If someone constantly asks questions about a particular task or item, they may be trying to cover for the fact that they know the task or item is impossible. For example, if someone constantly inquires about the resources a specific project will require, make a note to find out how many resources are actually available. This can be a good sign that, even if you have been told resources are sufficient, that may not be the case.
- Variations on a Theme: Seen often in politics, this is where someone will simply state the same information in different words, without clarifying or adding details. This is a huge warning that the details of the project or plan haven’t been considered/thought through/developed, and you need to do some digging to figure out whether there really is stakeholder support for the project. You may be facing a situation where there is support for the goal of the project, but not the project work itself.
- Non-Answer Answer: Another common theme in politics, this is where someone answers a question with a statement that doesn’t provide an answer for the question. For example, if asked whether Team A will be available for a specified time and the response is something like “Team A is a crucial piece of this project and we will do everything we can to make this project a success.” This is not an answer to the question, but a statement of intent. Dig deeper to get an actual yes or no answer with firm commitments.
The Subtle Clues
Body language is the other thing to pay attention to in situations like this. We all know that meetings can be boring, and someone sitting through the meeting while also on their phone or tablet is incredibly disrespectful to the speaker and to the rest of those present. Particularly if the meeting is on an important or controversial subject, being able to read body language is essential. For example, these are some signs that a person is against whatever is being spoken:
- Crossed Arms
- Body or limbs seem to be held tightly, as if trying to suppress movement.
- Not making eye contact with the speaker
- Hands clasped tightly around each other or another object
- Movements seem controlled or rehearsed
Paying attention to these kinds of subtle and unspoken messages can make or break your project or your project pitch.
I have used these skills countless times in my Strategic Enhancement meetings when I am pitching ideas. On one memorable occasion, I was pitching an enhancement idea that several of those gathered were silently signaling they were against…save one other person. I began to tailor my efforts to the person who was open to the idea, and eventually she joined in the conversation on my side. Once she did that, I could physically see the opening up of bodies, the increased gaze of others who were now considering the idea. In the end, we struck a compromise that met our client’s needs, and I know that without those efforts to identify and draw out that supporter, that enhancement would not have made it into production.
I would like to think Tyrion would be proud.