How to Get People to Open Up

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By Ken Downer

If we hope to develop high-performing teams, increasing engagement is always at the top of our to-do list.  But sometimes in our efforts to lead, we can get in our own way, and hinder the very thing we are trying to encourage.  Two brief interactions that went very differently illustrate how this can happen, and what we can do if we are serious about increasing engagement on our teams.

Increasing Engagement - How to Get People to Open Up

Two Reactions

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie mentions a time when he hired an interior decorator to put new drapes in his home.  He was happy with the new look until he got the bill.  Then he was upset.  He felt that he had paid far too much.

A few days later, a friend dropped by and the topic of the drapes came up.  When she heard the price that he had paid, she said, “What?  That’s awful.  I’m afraid he put one over on you.”

As Carnegie says, nobody likes to have his judgement questioned, so even though deep down he agreed with her, he found himself defending his purchase.  He talked about the quality of the material and the tasteful styling.  He rationalized that cheaper drapes would have to be replaced more often.

The next day, another friend happened by for a visit.  She was quick to admire the drapes, and spoke with enthusiasm about the styling.  She even wished aloud that some day she would be able to afford something as nice for her own home.

Carnegie’s reaction: “Well, to tell the truth, I can’t afford them myself.  I paid too much.  I’m sorry I ordered them.”

With his first visitor, Carnegie found himself defending a poor decision.  With the second, he was open and honest about his experience.  Why were his reactions so different?  And what are the implications for leaders?

Gas Pedal, Brake Pedal

Carnegie’s little story reveals a quirky truth about human nature that communications expert Dr. Ronald Gordon helps us understand.

With his first visitor, Carnegie experienced criticism, which triggered a defensive reaction that jams us up between two opposing forces.  Part of us tends to contract psychologically.  To avoid embarrassment or harm to our sense of self, we hunker down and defend our position, come what may.  At the same time, we may feel the impulse to counter attack or strike out in retaliation.  We want to reply in kind and lash out at those who appear to threaten us.

To use his analogy, it’s like stepping on a car’s gas pedal and brakes at the same time: we burn a lot of energy and generate a lot of heat but get nowhere for all of that, and if the brakes fail, a damaging collision is probable.

On the other hand, Carnegie’s second guest came across very differently.  Opening with comments of praise, she engendered a sense of understanding.  Under these conditions, Gordon found that we tend to feel better about ourselves, and better about the person we are talking with.  We develop a sense of closeness with the other person, and with that comes a feeling of trust and a willingness to share more openly and freely.

As Dr. Gordon summarizes,

When people feel defensive, they want to strike out; when they feel understood, they want to reach out.  When people feel defensive, they want to do something to the other person; when they feel understood, they want to do something for the other person.

Increasing Engagement – The Takeaway

Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiment of others.” As he adopted this practice, he found that his interactions with others became more pleasant, he learned more, and he was less likely to feel embarrassed when he was wrong about something himself.

Like Carnegie, he had learned that triggering people’s defenses can turn a reasoning human being into an inflexible opponent who will work hard to prove us wrong about them being wrong (even if they really are wrong).  They’ll push the gas and brake pedals to the floor, and the result will be a lot of noise and smell, but little if any progress.

Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so. – Lord Chesterfield to his son Click To Tweet

If we want our teammates reaching out and seeking to do for, not to, the best approach is to come from a place of respect and understanding.  In doing so, we create an opportunity to increase engagement, build trust, and cultivate a sense of teamwork.

When we take this approach, everyone will be able to agree that the drapes are beautiful but too expensive, and we won’t waste energy burning tires, or bridges, in the process.

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