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The silver-tongued myth
At work and everywhere else in your life, charm and persuasion will get you places.
There’s a cliched view of charm and persuasiveness as being ‘silver-tongued’. It is the opposite of that. Charm is mostly shutting up, listening and observing.
And when the other person finishes, saying something non-judgmental that shows you listened. That’s it. You don’t need neurolinguistic programming or a three-day training course.
Listen closely before you speak, and they’ll think: here’s someone I like. They’ll open up to you. At some point, they might bring up some difficult situation. Perhaps a problem they’re having with other people.
Think before you say that first thing that jumped into your head the moment they started talking.
You so want to help. But you’ll be more helpful if you don’t open with these two words:
“You should …”
You’ve done some good work so far, but now you are about to take a hard left onto Charmless Street.
“You know what you should do?” is the opposite of help
You don’t know the real size and shape of their issue.
Plenty of people have stuff going on behind the scenes that you wouldn’t dream of. Chances are they’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about it from all different angles, researching it, trying to solve a problem that might not even be solvable.
They’ve already had plenty of people suggest that very same thing you reckon they should do.
You should doesn’t help at all. It adds to the pressure. Because they may not want to do that thing. For good reasons they don’t want to tell you.
Or they’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. They can be thinking:
“Oh fuck, yet again I have to sit through this hot tip and pretend to be grateful for it.”
“You know what you should do?” can carry a strong implication you believe they’re not smart enough to come up with your suggestion themselves.
Despite you being much newer to the situation than them.
Take your helicopter elsewhere
There’s a certain type of insufferable boss who will always bring the obvious tip you’ve all thought of already.
Chances are they will describe it as their helicopter view. Like you should be grateful they chose to land their Jet Ranger in your low-level clearing and drop this godlike wisdom.
Even if you’re not a boss or even at work, there’s a level of bossiness about every should.
Like, here’s what I’d do, and my approach is the best. Despite a minimal appraisal of their situation.
They are not you.
Maybe they just want to vent
The deep urge to tell people what they should do isn’t intrinsically bad. Most people who like to say “you should” are coming from a kind place.
They’re sympathetic, they don’t know what else to say, so they figure they’ll pitch in and help.
Tip for next time you’re listening to someone talking about a problem: they are not specifically asking you to solve it.
It takes practice to sense what they’re looking for from you. Until you get to that point, best assume they’re just telling you because venting makes them feel better.
If you really think they’re looking for help, try to say things without the strident edge of you should.
Some “you should” alternatives
Try to phrase it as questions, not commands.
“Has anything you tried helped?”
“You’ve probably tried (possible solution), how did that go?”
“Has anyone ever suggested …”
“(This idea) really helped me, if you think it might work in your situation.”
You still probably won’t solve the problem, but they will like you so much more for taking a nuanced approach, and treated them like an individual worth hearing from.
And in situations you’re trying to influence, you can help steer them toward what you wanted them to do, while making it seem like it was their idea.
At work, even when they come up to you and ask you, their boss, “what should I do?”, the best first answer is always “what do you think you should do?”
Their answer is usually right. Which they find encouraging. Then you can chat through their reasoning. It builds their skills and you’ll always learn something useful you wouldn’t have if you’d just given them your answer. And because it’s their idea, they’ll apply it with more enthusiasm.
About 2% of staff are totally hint-proof and you will have to whack them over the head with a metaphorical mallet, but bad managers treat everyone that way.
Whew that was a hard story to write without saying “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU SHOULD DO? STOP SAYING YOU SHOULD.”
Back next week with more subtle suggestions you might consider.
Unless you’re a total clown.
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