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1 Question to Help You Understand Anybody

Awhile back, I was talking with a potential client who wanted to help his team get better on their coaching skills. I started asking questions to better understand exactly what kinds of coaching skills they needed to improve.

He spent the next fifteen minutes doing a beautiful job of articulating exactly what their team needed. I could tell immediately that he was going to be one of the most thoughtful and insightful clients we’d ever worked with.

And none of what he said had anything to do with coaching.

Nobody Speaks the Same Language

It became apparent that his definition of coaching and my definition of coaching were completely different. We aligned on some high-level concepts, but in practice, little else.

We both spoke English. We both had great educations. Both of us had been in similar fields for awhile.

His organization had just come to understand “coaching” to mean one thing and my organization had come to understand it as something else. Neither party was technically wrong, but just had different understandings of a fairly broad term.

I see our clients run into this time and time again with the people they manage, their colleagues, and their customers. One person says they are struggling with their “leadership” or “communication” or some other broad concept, and the other party assumes it means something it doesn’t.

It’s a recipe for conflict and missed expectations later.

It’s Your Job to Translate

Dale Carnegie said:

Show respect for the other person’s opinion. Never say, “You’re wrong.”

With the exception below, it’s not helpful to tell people they’re wrong. Even if they are completely and utterly the only person in the world who believes that a term means something it doesn’t, they won’t love you for pointing that out.

They are merely using the tools and language that they have now, that they’ve learned, or that are part of their organizational culture. It’s not their job to translate for you.

It’s yours.

Be mindful of differences in language (so you align with them) but don’t focus on why they’ve got it wrong. Instead, do what Stephen Covey advises and, “Seek first to understand.”

Ask This Question

The above has happened so many times in my career, that I’ve learned not to assume anyone is speaking the same language.

Instead, here’s the question I was taught to ask in almost every customer meeting where I’m trying to uncover exactly what people mean:

What’s a time that’s an example of that?

Whether we’re taking about leadership, coaching, or sweet potatoes, the “What’s a time…” question almost always gets the other party talking about a specific time or situation relevant to their concern.

That’s when to listen most intently to understand anybody.

Sometimes the example they cite perfectly aligns with the term they used earlier. Sometimes, it’s not even close. Most of the time, it’s somewhere in between.

Either way, I now know what they mean rather than just what they said.

But What’s the Exception?

The exception to not telling someone they are wrong comes from one of Dale Carnegie’s other principles:

Let the other person save face.

There’s nothing wrong with someone speaking a different language than everyone else, unless it’s going to embarrass them. Let me explain.

Awhile back, a client was using an odd term for an assessment they were considering. As the project went on, it became apparent other people in the organization were going to get involved that almost certainly used the more common term.

The person in question would have appeared uneducated with their colleagues, had they kept using the original term. To help them save face, we simply pointed out that a lot of people called it another term, so that their peers would recognize it.

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