Book Excerpt

Listen for What’s Behind the Words

Lara has been meeting with her manager to try to work through her frustration with her team. She had felt that managing their project was like herding cats and that they spent a lot of time going over the same territory. The conversations with her manager have revealed a need for better project management. For her part, Lara has acknowledged her strengths as a team player: stronger on motivation than on planning.

In between her initial grumbling and her clear desire to improve team performance, she mentioned almost as an aside that she functions better within clearly defined schedules but doesn’t like managing them. Her manager picks up on Lara’s discovery about her own strengths and the gaps in the team’s strengths. His questioning helps Lara identify the need for a strong project manager to step in and work with the team.

Lara suggests bringing Nigel in from another department to help harness the team and develop a milestone plan. This subsequent conversation reflects the early benefits of the coaching and the resulting changes.

Lara “I thought the meeting went really well. The agenda was clear, everyone was on the same page, and we were able to walk through the status report and move on to our next milestones pretty quickly.”

Manager “Sounds like you’re comfortable with Nigel’s lead on the project…and his celebrated ‘attention to detail.’ How are things for you now that he’s on board?”

Lara “He really took the pressure off, and I feel much more confident that I can keep everyone focused on the work and not on interpersonal agendas about who’s doing what. Everyone is clear on goals and expectations.”

A particular untapped area of expertise or a particular skill set, a prefer- ence for a highly organized style of working, a desire to be more involved upstream in brainstorming and co-creating—these are all examples of the hidden messages that can be embedded in a conversation.

Occasionally, we read between the lines. This “listening to what’s behind the words” requires close attention to things that the speaker has said but hasn’t necessarily identified as important. Calling out this “buried” intelligence, or subtext, can more quickly move the person to action with a clear focus.

Consider other subtexts:

  • Are feelings, hopes, fears, or hesitancy coming through?
  • Is she signaling her individual ethics or values? Are they being compromised or supported?
  • Is she expressing confusion and a need for clarification?
  • Does she consistently articulate where her project fits into the overall strategy? Could she be a candidate to represent the plan to the board?