Unskilled communicators can create a breakdown in conversation at every turn, sometimes making enemies in the process.
In this Tough Things First Podcast, Ray Zinn explains how to avoid pitfalls we often create for ourselves using the wealth of knowledge he learned over decades at the highest levels of the tech industry.
Rob Artigo: Rob Artigo here once again, your guest host for this edition of The Tough Things First Podcast. I’m a writer and an investigator in California. Being invited back, always a pleasure, Ray, how you doing?
Ray Zinn: I’m doing great, Rob. So good to be back with you again.
Rob Artigo: Well, it’s happened to most of us at one time or another. It can be at a board meeting. It could be in a design strategy session. It can be just a discussion in passing about where to put cubicles in an office building. That conversation turns into controversy simply because a point we’re trying to get across feels like, to the other person, at least, that it’s a personal attack and maybe you could even make an enemy out of that person. We know that communication is a two-way street, but how do we make a point with someone large or small in the course of the conversation without putting somebody on such a defense that we end up making an enemy out of that person and they shut us off and they don’t want to listen to what we have to say?
Ray Zinn: That’s a challenge of making your point without making an enemy. It depends upon how we sharpen our point. If you sit there, making this as an example, you’re whittling on a stick and you keep sharpening that point and you keep pointing at somebody, they’re going to think they’re your enemy or they’re become your enemy. So, don’t keep sharpening your point. That’s one of the things that you need to do when you’re making your point so that you don’t create an enemy is don’t sharpen it. Don’t make it personal. Don’t make it emphatic. Don’t make it so that it comes across as being you’re harming them because then they will become your enemy. So the challenge is to how to make your point without sharpening it.
Rob Artigo: Yeah. I mean, can we employ techniques that will maybe draw out the point so that the other person feels like they’re contributing to your point so that it doesn’t sound like you’re telling them something but that they’re… In other words, I mean, can we ask questions instead of making a point or making a direct point? You know what I mean, make an end-around to our point in order to not directly come at somebody with that, like you said, pointed stick?
Ray Zinn: That’s the key. In other words, keep them involved. Keep asking them, “How do you feel about this?” Or, “What’s your feeling on that subject? Do you understand what I’m saying? How can we work together on this?” And making it sound like it’s a two-way or that we’re a team as opposed to being, “You’re the enemy. You’re the one that’s going to get defeated in this.” So we don’t want to bark our point. We want to, in more of a loving, in a more kind way, we want to develop that point so that they don’t feel the sharpness of it.
Rob Artigo: Have you seen in business situations, and maybe in your many years at Micrel but just simply being in the business sector for as long as you have, seen situations where business relationships have been ruined by one or the other party coming at a situation maybe with more than one pointed stick, just on a few basic business points that shouldn’t have been so difficult to get through?
Ray Zinn: Yeah. For example, in the beginning starting my Micrel, we were talking about, “How should we dress?” In other words, “What should be the standard of dress?” With me, I wanted to be more formal. In other words, I wanted everybody to come in a suit, and tie, and a nice shirt, and nice, pressed slacks, and so forth, and polished shoes as you would because that was the image I wanted to project for the company. But not all the employees saw it that way. They didn’t see the way I did about neatly-combed hair, and neatly-shaved face, and then neatly dressed and groomed was the way that they wanted to be part of a company that projected that image.
So I had to soften that a little bit. I had to blunt the stick, but I kept coming dressed that way. I kept being neatly groomed, and clothed, and fresh shirt every day, and shoes were polished. I did it by example. I actually got them to see what that looked like or what the company wanted to look like, and they wanted then to become more like me. I guess it came in a more slow way. I mean, I was quite young. I was less than 40 and in my 30s when I started the company, and so I was a little bit more aggressive and so. But I wanted them to feel part of the decision. So I just set the example, and it worked because ultimately, the employees did finally adopt the image that I wanted to project for the company. Those didn’t see it that way, probably ultimately left. But I didn’t sharpen the point, I just kept making the point. Does that make it clearer?
Rob Artigo: Sure. When we’re communicating, sometimes and in particularly, if you’re inexperienced communicator, this idea of backing up a little bit and letting time and circumstances illustrate for your audience, so to speak, whether it’s one person or a bunch of people, to illustrate your point rather than continuing to hammer away at something, it seems to me that looking at the situation and saying, “Does this conversation need to happen like this right now?”
Ray Zinn: Well, I have an example, it’s in my book. One of my execs had a terrible swearing problem. It just flowed off his tongue. It was a habit he had, and it was just terrible. But I loved the man. I loved him like a brother. So I kept saying to him, “Bob, we don’t use vulgar language here at the company. It’s not proper.” He just couldn’t break the habit, so I said, “Hey, wouldn’t you like not to use such condescending vulgar language?” He said, “Yeah, but it’s really hard and blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “Okay, tell you what? Let’s come up with a deal here. How about every time you swear that you put a dollar in employee jar here to do an employee activity?”
Pretty soon, I had over $300 in that employee kitty jar because he kept putting… Pretty soon, he got to the point where it wasn’t so much the money, it was so difficult for him to walk in and have to put money in the jar that he finally just slowly improved and he stopped swearing. His wife actually told me here not too long ago that one of the best things that’s really happened in their marriage and their family is that their father and husband quit swearing. This really works. So rather than sharpening the point and trying to jab him with it and using difficult language with him, I just said, “Okay, how about come up with a plan? Every time you swear, you’re going to get to pay for your indulgence here. If you want to swear, fine. Just put some money in the jar.” So he did that for a while and then finally, he just couldn’t stand to do that anymore so he stopped swearing.
Rob Artigo: That’s funny. What do you do in a situation where you’ve recognized that a point that you made, regardless of the situation, had turned this other person into enemy of sort? I mean, we’re not talking about somebody who’s suddenly dawning a pith [inaudible 00:09:00] helmet and coming at you with a bayonet out or something, but somebody who then feels like they’re an adversary, or they’ve been put down, or they’re now on the defensive. If you figure it out, if you were sensitive enough to realize what has occurred in the conversation or at the end of the conversation, how do you then try to reverse it and get that person back on your team?
Ray Zinn: Well, the first thing you have to do is recognize that you’ve done that. You might say, “Wow, I didn’t realize I had done that or said that, gee whiz.” A situation that actually happened to me at Micrel, where I’m in a conversation with a young marketing engineer, a female, actually, she thought that I was using language condescending, meaning that some or other, I was talking down to her because she was a female and so forth. I didn’t realize I was doing that. For some reason or other, just in the comments I made and so forth, made her feel uncomfortable and not even realizing it until she let me know that I was offending her. So I had to catch myself from knowing that certain things that I say and how I say them was affecting her.
I’m not going to say she was defensive, but maybe she was little more so than other people because certain words and certain circumstances just made her feel uncomfortable. I had to watch what I said and how I said it. I was just more careful in the way I approached her. Things worked out wonderfully. But in the beginning, you got to watch what you say and how you saw it because not everybody’s going to take what you say in the same vein. What’s maybe amenable to one person could be not to another, depending upon where they’re coming from and how they have viewed themselves.
This particular female had a difficult time at home with her parents because she wanted to be an engineer. She didn’t want to be a nurse, as you would. So her becoming an engineer was a real goal and achieved by her. I didn’t know her background, didn’t know that that was a sensitive area. So I had to [inaudible 00:11:34] treat her more, as I said, more professionally, as you would, and ask for her decisions and her thoughts as opposed to me telling her about certain things or trying to educate her. She didn’t like that I came across more in instructive, more like a professor as opposed to more like a coworker, which I was. I was her boss, actually, not her boss but her boss’ boss. So I didn’t realize I was being so professor-type or treating her more like a student and didn’t realize it.
Rob Artigo: I remember in a conversation, and this is when I was a reporter, I was having a conversation with the assistant to a Congresswoman in the Bay area. We were having a conversation. I was waiting to have an interview with her boss, and she was telling me what it was that she was doing. My response was, “Is that all you’re doing, or do you have another responsibility?” And I didn’t mean it like, “Is that all you’re doing? You’re just a person who’s doing that and you’re worthless otherwise?” I did not mean that, but her immediate reaction was as if I had meant that. I meant it sincerely, just like, “Do you have a whole bunch of other responsibilities?” I thought maybe she might have another title as well. Not that I didn’t think what she was doing already was-
Ray Zinn: Important.
Rob Artigo: … important. You know what I mean? It’s just you never know what kind of, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, baggage somebody has, like this person that you gave the example about is you don’t know where they came from and the experiences that they had leading up to that conversation. So sometimes when you say something, it’s back-loaded in their minds and it’ll trigger them. So, I mean, you just have to be aware and recognize, I guess, when you see something happening in the course of the conversation there might be something more to it that you’re unaware of.
Ray Zinn: So that’s how we can end this thing is really to talk about what should we do? So it’s talking up rather than talking down. So when we have a conversation with people, try to talk up, not down. Therefore, they won’t esteem you as their enemy. So I said when this example that I had, and you did too, actually, with that congressperson, is to talk up to them, not talk down to them.
Rob Artigo: You can join the conversation at toughthingsfirst.com. Your questions and comments are always welcome. Ray tries to get those messages and read them and respond if he can. And if you have any ideas about topics you’d like to hear on this show, you certainly can put those in there, and Ray will take a look at them and we’ll decide if we want to pitch those questions to Ray right here on the podcast. Follow Ray on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and, of course, get the texts of Ray’s books, The Tough Things First and Zen of Zen. Thanks again, Ray.
Ray Zinn: Yeah, thanks, Rob. Good to be with you.