The late, great Harry Nilsson wrote that line to open his Grammy Award-winning song, “Everybody’s Talkin’” popularized in the Oscar-winning movie, Midnight Cowboy. I’m a sucker for a great line AND the songs hauntingly plaintive aspiration to go where the “sun keeps shining through the pouring rain…where the weather suits my clothes” is at once charmingly naïve and downright sad.
I’ve been thinking about this beautiful song a lot recently in the wake of working with a couple of organizational leaders who want to better engage their teams but still struggle with shifting to facilitating that engagement from leadership by lecture.
Empathy is a tall order at times – especially when we’re running a company – including running OUR company. In any case, as leaders, we’re eager for our people to “get it” and (apologies to Nike) just do it.
But think about it: how much do you really hear past a certain point – even when you’re interested and open – when someone just hammers away at a topic without drawing you into the conversation? How helpful is what you hear in those circumstances, and how likely are you able to transfer into effective, sustainable action? My experience is we pretty quickly reach the point where – whether it’s one person’s voice or many – it feels like everyone is just talking at us and we’re not hearing them in a meaningful way.
While Nilsson might prescribe us to “put the lime in the coconut and mix it all up,” my recommendation is a little different: the antidote to the “Everybody’s Talkin’” syndrome is turning your words into questions. Here are a few that can help shape someone’s understanding, engagement, and ability to act effectively:
• Point of Entry – “We laid out a plan for business development moving forward that depends on each of us contributing in a variety of ways. How do you see yourself helping us be successful moving forward?”
• Building a Complete Approach – “I agree those things make sense. I’d add, it’s critical you also include X, Y, and/or Z. What would be most helpful to you/what resources do you need in order to handle those areas effectively?”
• Seeking Alignment – “I understand and appreciate your perspective; where I really need your help now is in these areas in which you can create value better than anyone else. What can I do to support your success in this effort?”
As always, find your own words to frame and phrase each aspect of engagement and add questions appropriately. It’s useful to approach these conversations as collaborative rather than as quizzes. Some word choices that suggest you might be more in the testing mindset than is preferred include “What is your understanding of…?” or “What did you learn from/about…?”
The Nilsson lyric “Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’…” concludes with “Only the echoes of my mind.” As a leader, we want others to hear our voice and have that voice continue to resonate as they evolve into people who know, own, and drive the elements of what will make us into a high performing organizations and help keep us there. Ironically, to be heard more, we have to say less … and what we say should most often be phrased in the form of a question.
Jeff Lesher, Principal at entreQuest, blends his deep knowledge of organization design, human capital, and leadership with a pragmatic approach drawn from his own business experience and eQ’s philosophy to help eQ’s clients focus on their core purpose and move people effectively to action.