by Danielle Dunne

Q&A With The Wharton School’s Richard Shell: Communication

Mar 01, 20027 mins

In most high level strategic interactions, it is just as important to get the communication process flowing as it is to get the right answer, says Richard Shell, academic director of the Wharton Executive Negotiation Workshop and Thomas Gerrity Professor of Legal Studies and Management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. need full name of school. sat down with Shell to talk about the most effective ways to communicate. What are the keys to communicating with other executives?

Shell: The first prerequisite for communicating is to have a goal of what you are trying to achieve in the conversation. It helps to pause for a second and think: What is my purpose here? Do I want to get information? Do I want to persuade someone of something that I want? Am I trying to play offense? Am I trying to get someone else to do something or agree with me about something? Am I trying to get them to join a small group so that we can brainstorm things together? What am I trying to accomplish? Then, think about it from the other person?s point of view. Why might it be in their interest to agree or join with me? Why might it not be in their interest? What might there be in the way of resistance or of conflicting interests?

The na•ve person in these situations goes in and sells their ideas, their proposals, their reasons, their solutions, their whatever and waits for other people to hit it back to them, like a tennis game. The more sophisticated you get the more you anticipate what the other person?s reaction is going to be. It?s just like being a good tennis player? you don?t just hit the ball over the net, you hit the ball someplace where, when the guy hits it back, you?re in a good position to put it where you want it the next time.

You need to think one step ahead, and that means considering the other person?s point of view more. [It also] includes some of these political considerations.

Are there any areas of communication where CIOs have more trouble than other executives?

I have done work with more technically oriented people, and they have this problem, particularly in negotiation: They think the goal is to sit down and craft out the right answer. They don?t give any thought to the fact that it matters who makes the proposal. Or that there?s going to need to be a compromise because the other person needs to feel like he or she has had a hand in the solution. Even if the compromise is less optimal than the more technically oriented person would like, it?s better to have a non-optimal decision that the other guy really implements then it is to have an optimal decision that everybody resists. This notion of being persuasive and getting a commitment? not just being right? is really hard to learn.

Are there some common mistakes that people make when they are communicating with each other?

Yes. They think they know where the other person is coming from. They make assumptions that the other person already knows a bunch of things when they don?t. Or they assume that the other person shares an underlying assumption about the nature of the problem, that it?s an IT problem, and the other person may think it is a human resources problem. Checking assumptions in a preliminary way with the person you are talking with is really important and often not done.

They don?t ask enough questions and they do more talking than asking. It?s very useful, not just for information?s sake but for interpersonal relations, to give the other person a fair chance to give their point of view. Technical people tend to race off to give a technical description of something without letting the other person have a turn to participate.

They do not pay enough attention to other people?s feelings as part of the discussion. Sometimes you can sense that people are uncomfortable or a little alarmed. A lot of times people with a technical background consider that nonverbal stuff a distraction, and they don?t pay attention to it. But CEOs of most firms are highly schooled in being able to read other people?s feelings. And they care a great deal about making other people feel good.

How do you sell an idea to someone who?s reluctant?

Get them to verbalize their objections. Surface what it is they are confused, worried or uneasy about. Maybe ask some sort of hypothetical question.

It?s fairly unpersuasive to anticipate their objections, which may or may not be objections, and then spend a whole speech telling them why your proposal isn?t going to affect those objections.

The other thing that can be very persuasive is to find some standard, value or norm that they share with you. It may be the success of the firm, fairness with resources, efficiency in allocating resources or elegance in IT solutions. First, get confirmation that the value is important to them, then try to position your proposal in terms of that standard. Show how, if implemented, it advances that value. It has to be something that the other side genuinely believes in, though. You?re not trying to manipulate them. You are trying to find out what they are really committed to.

Another thing is to explore their underlying interests in the grand scheme of things. What?s their problem? And again, genuinely try to figure out ways that what you?re suggesting might be helpful to solve some of their problems.

Where should CIOs try to talk to other executives?

Generally, negotiating, which is what this is, is best conducted in informal settings. Once you?ve set it up in a formal setting, then everyone has his or her alarm bells on and you don?t get as much communication as you do when you are talking over dinner. You should have a strategy that involves picking your time to talk about the idea. If you choose an informal setting that is more conducive to trust, then people swing ideas around in a little more freewheeling way. They do not feel like everything they say is going to commit them and that ease is useful.

Do you have any advice for communicating with staff?

In general, be clear and fair. Show that you are being thoughtful to the people under you. The worst thing a boss can do is look like he or she is being arbitrary.

Sometimes, it is just as important not to be too involved. If there?s a hierarchy and there are people between you and the staff, then it is very useful to let them handle things.

Also, take a personal interest. When I was growing up, my dad was a Marine general. On Christmas or New Year?s Eve, he used to pack me into the car and we would go around to the remote parts of the base where people were on duty in pretty remedial situations. He would bring them a little hot cider or something like that just to show he cared. That got him a lot of loyalty from everybody because he just went out of his way.

Here?s Dr. Shell?s list of specifics that executives can follow to communicate more effectively:

  • Be clear about what your goals are.
  • Think about the situation from the other person?s point of view.
  • Don?t make assumptions.
  • Ask questions.
  • Find common ground that you can position your proposal on, a place where the other person is likely to agree with your premise at least.
  • Think strategically about how you are going to present the idea, whether or not you?re the right person to do it and the order of the agenda.
  • Talk about the things that they agree with early and move gradually to the things they might disagree with.
  • Think through the self-esteem, credit and budgetary implications along with all the other matters that the person might be worried about.
  • Have a political sense of how to manage the conversation as well as the technical specifications part of it.