“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.”
Presenting to an audience

Would you like to be seen as charismatic and impressive? Most business leaders would. Especially in the context of speaking at an industry conference, investors meeting, or a ‘town hall’ session to motivate and inspire employees, or even just to their own team! If so, you are probably curious about how really powerful presenters got to be that way, and what they do to keep audiences enthralled.

Of course, there are a number of elements to being a great communicator. Not least among them are having a powerful message and using compelling body language, and there are also some key rhetorical devices used in any high-impact speech that mark the speaker out as a ‘master presenter.’ So, learning this art takes time and effort, and a commitment to practise. But, can we learn to present like one of the greats (like Barak Obama perhaps?)… Well… to borrow his slogan from the 2008 presidential campaign… Yes we can

Content is King…

First things first. A top-quality presentation requires top-quality content. No business person is going to be impressed by fluff and waffle, no matter how ‘eloquently’ it’s put over. A great speech needs a clear goal that’s clearly stated. It needs a logical flow, with good quality data, introduced at the right points in the talk, to underline and support the arguments being put forward. It needs enough ‘killer statistics’ to catch the imagination and be convincing, but not so many as to dull the senses, or cause a feeling of being overwhelmed. It needs to be relevant to the intended audience and take their needs, wants and desires (and sometimes prejudices) into account. Also, it needs to end with a clear, concrete and compelling ‘call to action’; so that people know exactly what they should do as a result of listening to the talk.

Using Body language and Voice Energy…

A presenter who stands as still as a statue, while mumbling their way through their talk, is unlikely to capture the interest of the audience. People want and expect an appropriate level of emotion, energy and animation from their speakers. Not too much animation; that’s as distracting as too little, and not too much energy or emotion, which gives the sense of being out of control (or maybe even unhinged), but just the right amount of projection in the voice, with appropriate variation of pace and power. Most importantly, well placed pauses for dramatic effect, which conveys a sense of gravitas and purpose.

In her HBR article, “When you pitch an idea, gestures matter more than words”, Nicole Torres, discusses research that shows that using gestures to explain an idea to potential investors made more impact on them than metaphors or stories. In particular, the use of one or two, thoughtfully chosen, ‘Symbolic Gestures’ made a big impact on the audience. Symbolic Gestures being those that convey information. For example, sweeping your hands out wide to describe a growing market.

And ‘Power Gestures’ can be used to convey a sense of ‘authority’ and to empathise key points e.g. many politicians use a ‘two handed, chopping motion’ for emphasising key ideas.

Friends, Romans and Countrymen, lend me your ears…

Rhetoric – the art of persuasive speaking – that comes down to us from the ancient Greeks, highlights a number of techniques for capturing an audience’s attention. These techniques that were first described in the 4th Century BCE, give speech a ‘musical quality’ that makes it easy for people to understand and remember what’s been said. A psychological phenomenon known as ‘Processing Fluency’.

One important rhetorical technique is the art of the ‘triad‘ – saying things in groups of three. This could be three descriptive words, three examples, or three reasons for doing something. For example, the well-known phrase; “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” in the US Declaration of Independence is a triad.

Whatever the content, structuring the content in three’s, makes it more compelling. For example, President Obama in his second inauguration speech in January 2013 used seventeen obvious triads; including one in each of his first three paragraphs. Some of them are highlighted below: the triads are numbered (1), (2) & (3) so you can clearly see where they occur in the text.

…It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.

For our journey is not complete until our (1) wives, our (2) mothers, and (3) daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.

Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.

Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.

Our journey is not complete until all our children, from (1) the streets of Detroit to the (2) hills of Appalachia to the (3) quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are (1) cared for, and (2) cherished, and (3) always safe from harm

I have a dream…

Another device from the classical Greek art of rhetoric is ‘anaphora‘ – the repetition of the same word (or words) at the beginning of successive clauses. This effect is used to create themes and structures, and also clump ideas into their most compelling forms.

Perhaps the most famous example of anaphora is the 1963 speech by Martin Luther King Jnr where he used anaphora when he repeated the phrase; “I have a dream…” eight times in successive sentences.

If you look at the above excerpt from Obama’s February 2013 Inaugural address again you will notice the recurring phrase, “Our journey is not complete…” and in the full text this is used five times in a row.

And it’s a device also used extensively in literature, as in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens…

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Put a ring on it…

The same words repeated at the end of successive sentences or clauses is called ‘epiphora’ and here (just to show how ubiquitous these techniques are) is an example for the song Single Ladies by Beyoncé…

‘Cause if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it
if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it’

Or from the world of politics here is Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, speaking about FEMA Chief Michael Brown, September 6, 2005…

“Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot.”

Of course, it’s entirely possible to combine techniques, as in this example which uses both a triad and epiphora… and is attributed (probably spuriously) to the impresario PT Barnum…

“You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

We the people…

Thematic Patterns‘ – key words repeated throughout the speech are another highly effective form of reinforcement that great orators use extensively.

For example, in the “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jnr repeats the theme word, ‘freedom’, twenty times.

In both his inauguration speeches President Obama sought to get across the theme that solving America’s problems would be a collective effort. In his second inauguration speech he got this across by the use of the word ‘we’ (used sixty-eight times, compared to only four uses of the word ‘I’.)

Give me liberty or give me death!

‘Antithesis’ – using two contrasting ideas placed side by side – is a very powerful attention-grabbing technique. An example of antithesis would be Patrick Henry’s famous quotation from his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775; “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Other well-known examples of antithesis include:

“We must indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” – Benjamin Franklin 1776

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” – John F Kennedy, inaugural address 1961

This ancient technique’s effectiveness stems from the way the human brain evaluates things. We need a contrast to really judge whether an item, idea or company is as good as it says it is. This is why organisations put out tenders for new suppliers. They look for a number of people to reply, in order to contrast the offerings against each other to find the best, or most suitable offer. In fact, our evaluations on very basic things are based on this principle. If asked what temperature you are right now, what would you say? If you said “cold”, you would be comparing the current temperature to a time when you felt it was “warmer” and contrasting it with the temperature now.

And, as this example for the writer Jack London (quoted by his literary executor, Irving Shepard, in an introduction to a 1956 collection of London’s stories) demonstrates, it’s also possible to string a whole series of antithesis statements together to great effect…

“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

So what’s next?

So, you now have some key techniques. Challenge yourself to develop your presenting e.g. start by including a triad or two in your talks and then start to add in some of the other techniques.


The Lost Art of the Great Speech by Richard Dowis (Available on Amazon…)

Article: try reading this HBR Article highlighting the effectiveness of gestures as an influencing strategy


Watch… this 18-minute talk by Simon Lancaster on how to write a great speech, using rhetorical techniques.

Then maybe take a look at Obama in action in this You Tube clip “Fired Up and Ready To Go”


Consider sending your people on our two-day Presenting with Impact course (which looks in detail at how to design and deliver a great presentation.)


If you’re a Senior Executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ coaching session would be a useful option for helping you improve your ability to give a key note speech…


Or gives us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or +44 844 394 8877 (International) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And remember… In the words of the orator Plato …

“Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.”

How to Make a Success of it

“Matrix Management: not a structure, a frame of mind.”  SUMANTRA GHOSHAL
Windows onto many departments

In a Matrix Structure people have two, or more, upward reporting lines i.e. they’ve two bosses, who each represent a different business dimension; such as product, region, customer, capability, or function.

For example, a Marketing Manager might have a boss for their geographical region (e.g. the UK) and a second boss who is responsible for the product they are promoting. An HR Manager might report to the Global Head of HR and the CEO of the business unit they are supporting. An Engineer might be assigned to work full time on a specific project, reporting to the Project Manager and also simultaneously reporting to the VP of Engineering.

Why have a matrix?

The matrix structure is usually a response to corporate silos and the communication problems they can create; the goal is to make the organisation more responsive to customers, and to use resources more efficiently.

As such, they have been used for some time. E.g. Phillips, the Dutch multinational electronics company set up a matrix structure in the 1950’s. It had national organisations (NOs) and product divisions (PDs). The network was held together by a number of coordinating committees, which resolved any conflict between the two.

The matrix system continues to be a popular organisational model. For example, in Revisiting the Matrix Organisation, by McKinsey (2016) the authors state that, in a survey of 4,000 US companies, 84% of respondents reported having matrix structures as part of their organisational design, with 17% of those organisations being classified as very highly matrixed (multiple teams and multiple managers).

What could possibly go wrong?

As noted above, matrix structures initially came about in response to an increasingly changeable, dynamic business environment, where information needed to be shared more widely and corporations needed to be closer to the customer. So, what ‘difficulties’ should senior executives be aware of if they are considering adopting this model?

It turns out that there are three big problems that need to be overcome:

  1. Performing in the face of competing goals or role ambiguity
    Dual reporting lines can lead to conflict and confusion – with at least two bosses to please the question arises regarding whose priorities should take precedence? And, with two or more ‘masters’ giving instructions, how is the risk of an employee being assigned too many tasks handled? And what stops people being given contradictory tasks? Also, who specifically is responsible for managing performance and for making sure that the employee gets an appropriate level of training and development?
  2. Dealing with diversity
    In a multinational organisation there is also the challenge of building relationships with bosses and peers from different cultural backgrounds who are oftentimes also in different time zones. It may well be the case that many of these relationships are ‘virtual’; taking place via email, phone calls and Skype with the bare minimum of face to face interaction.
  3. Influencing without authority
    In a matrix it is common to be made accountable for goals but to not have control over the resources needed to achieve them, e.g. key staff may well report to someone else. Also, decision making can be confused and it can be hard to get approval to spend money as there are ‘turf wars’ about things like which P&L should be charged etc.

When matrix’s work

Another question Senior Executives might want to ask themselves is, “How do I get a matrix system working effectively?” Well, all the way back in 1990, Bertlett and Ghosal were arguing that an effective matrix organisation needs to be driven by (i) a clear and consistent corporate vision (ii) hiring, and/or developing people, who can cope with complexity, cultural diversity and can build strong relationships (iii) having processes to help people to develop a collaborative, global mindset – one that helps them to contribute to the corporate vision in practical ways.

Galbraith, J. R. (1939-2014), in Designing Matrix Organizations That Actually Work (2008), suggested that the key to making matrix structures effective is to create a culture that encourages collaboration, co-operation, and team working.

He argued that for a matrix to work the Leadership Team need to prioritise implementing processes for managing conflict and dealing with the ambiguity that having two bosses can so easily create. He advocated doing this using the STAR model…which identified five ‘levers’ for shaping desired behaviour – (i) Strategy (ii) Structure (iii) Process (iv) People and (v) Rewards.

While Vatrappen and Wirtz in their March 2016 HBR article, Making Matrix Organisations Actually Work, tinyurl.com/j6bfhav
have five guidelines for success:

  1. Adopt when purposeful
    The matrix structure should only be used when (i) there is a major need for middle managers of different teams to coordinate on important business matters on a daily basis and, (ii) the required coordination cannot be achieved adequately through ‘soft-wiring’ e.g. things like advisory committees and task forces.
  2. Keep intrinsic conflict out
    Make sure there are intrinsic reasons for the two dimensions in the matrix (e.g. region and function) to collaborate rather than to compete e.g. don’t let them fight over control of the P&L account.
  3. Limit breadth and depth
    Keep things simple – stick to two organising principles (e.g. product + region or region + function).
  4. Don’t pretend it is not a matrix
    Don’t make a distinction between a dotted and full reporting line, implying that the ‘dotted line’ relationship is of secondary importance. Position the two reporting lines of a matrixed manager as fully balanced (i.e. 50-50).
  5. Escalate by exception only
    A common complaint about a matrix structure is that it increases upward reporting and slows decision making. It is up to the higher levels to refuse unwarranted upward escalation of trade-offs and conflicts.

Weak vs. strong matrix structures

In the context of managing projects companies often either adopt a Project Structure or a Matrix Structure. In a Project Structure, the Project Manager has a team that work full time for them and when the project is completed the team disband. In matrix structures people typically work on projects part time. Matrix Project structures are often described as weak, or strong.

In a ‘weak’ matrix structure a Project Manager acts as an administrator or co-ordinator. The role is essentially to do with the communication and reporting of results (rather than decision making). This structure is also often called a Functional Matrix, because most of the power stays with the supporting functions (e.g. engineering, IT, finance etc.)

In a ‘strong’ matrix structure the Project Manager is directly responsible for the delivery of the project and has decision making authority, including control of the budget. They will liaise with Functional Managers to get the resources they need allocated to the task they need done. Typically, the Project Manager will be allocated full time for the duration of the project.

There is (of course) a hybrid version, where the Project Manager has joint responsibility for the project outcome with the Functional Managers and that’s known as a ‘balanced’ matrix structure.

Which system is ‘best’ is a function of the type of project being undertaken. What is undeniable however, is that to make any of these matrix systems work the Project Manager has to rely not only on their technical expertise but also the ability to influence without authority. So, the political savvy associated with skills like stakeholder analysis, coalition building and negotiation techniques is a key success factor in making these structures work well.

Four key competencies for managing in a matrix

The busy manager struggling to thrive in a matrix system might like to reflect on Sumantra Ghoshal’s comment that “Matrix management is not a structure but a state of mind”, highlights the fact that the ‘soft skills’ of influencing, persuasion, negotiation, diplomacy and (most especially) networking, are at the heart of being effective in this milieu.

Ruth Malloy of Hay Group (HBR August 2012) identifies four key competencies of people who are successful at managing in a matrix…

  1. Empathy: Understanding other people’s perspectives and responding accordingly e.g. what is the customers mindset?
  2. Conflict Management: Resolving disputes calmly
  3. Influencing Skills: Building consensus around a common purpose
  4. Self-awareness: Learning to be patient in the face of complexit

They also point out that their research suggests that these qualities (though eminently trainable) are relatively rare, e.g. they find that only 9% of employees consistently demonstrate self-awareness and just 22% are strong in empathy.

Three things to avoid

In addition, Malloy offers the following ‘three tips’ for people who want to make a success of managing in a matrix…

First, don’t try and solve problems by ‘pulling rank’ – it irritates people and you may well find that given the lack of formal authority in the system it doesn’t work anyway! Opt instead for a collaborative problem-solving approach to resolving issues.

Second, don’t escalate problems to senior management. As with pulling rank it tends to cause irritation and distrust, which makes future collaborations more difficult.

Third, don’t handle sensitive issues by email. Text messages or emails are open to misinterpretation and can easily cause (unintended) offence. Better to make a phone call, Skype call, or – if possible – have a face-to-face meeting.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how you conduct yourself in your matrixed relationships. Are you demonstrating enough empathy? Do you make enough effort to build consensus? What improvements could you make?


Revisiting the matrix organization by Bazigos and Hater of Mckinsey.


Watch… this six-minute clip covering the competencies that people need to be effective in a matrix.
See video clip: www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0nD7UKY_8c


Consider sending your managers on two-day Advanced Influencing Skills course (which looks in detail at a wide range of persuasion strategies that are idea for use in the context of a matrix structure)…

We also have a half-day workshop on Managing in a Matrix that is a great way of ensuring consistency in dealing with the inevitable disagreements that arise within a Matrix Structure.

If you’re a senior executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session would be a useful option for helping you improve your ability to lead in a Matrixed Organisation

Or gives us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or +44 844 394 8877 (International) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And remember… in the end successful matrix management is as much about developing good relationships as devising good structures…

“If we are going to live with our deepest differences then we must learn about one another.”

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.” ANITA RODDICK

Ladies and gentlemen… your attention please.

Aristotle statue, Stageira, Greece. © www.123rf.com/profile_karapas
Aristotle statue, Stageira, Greece.
© www.123rf.com/profile_karapas

Impact, Charisma and Presence are essential qualities in a Senior Executive. If a leader wants to influence peers, enthuse employees, inspire confidence in regulators and officials it is vital that they express themselves fully and with a sense of conviction. Presence, then, is a key attribute that effective leaders possess; one that enables them to motivate others. The dictionary defines ‘Presence’ as…

  • The state of being closely focused on the here and now, not distracted by irrelevant thoughts
  • A quality of poise that enables a person to achieve a close relationship with an audience

So Impact and Presence is about paying full attention to, and connecting with, the feelings of other people in order to inspire them to take a given action. And once you’ve got a ‘connection’ it’s about voicing an opinion, that’s based on logic and analysis, in a clear, concise, and compelling manner.

And, as with so many other qualities, it is a skill that can be learned.

Learning from the past

Research into leadership qualities has a long history. The ancient Greeks highly valued public speaking and over 2,000 years ago Aristotle identified “the three persuasive appeals” that combine together to make a powerful argument that inspires people to act. They are:

  1. Ethos: being credible as a speaker
    (e.g. being thought of as trustworthy and knowledgeable)
  2. Pathos: building emotional connection to the audience through establishing common ground or linking to key values
  3. Logos: having logical argument supported by data, facts and analysis

Much of what is taught today in respect of presence goes back to these writings on rhetoric (or the art of persuasion) by the ancient Greeks.

For example, in their June 2012 HBR article Antonkis, Fenley and Leichti on Learning Charisma, note that while leaders can pressure people to do as they ask because they have the power to reward or punish employees, it is the ability to demonstrate charismatic leadership that really inspires people to give of their best. They go on to highlight twelve ancient rhetorical techniques as being especially powerful for modern leaders. These include…

Rhetorical Questions to engage people e.g. “So, what does good performance look like?”

Expressing Moral Conviction (setting standards for right or just behaviour) e.g. “This quality problem is damaging our relationships with our customers, it’s our issue to resolve and we need to take ownership for fixing it as a group.”

Reflecting the Group’s/Audience’s Sentiments – even when they are negative – as they show empathy and help the group to ‘connect’ with the speaker e.g. “I know how disappointed and upset you are about this decision… it is a bitter pill to swallow after all your hard work…”

Setting Challenging Goals – giving people a clear, compelling objective to focus on e.g. “this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon”, John. F. Kennedy (May 1961).

Learning from the present

Moving on to the 21st century recent research at Cambridge University (‘Social Networks and Leader Charisma’) demonstrates that leaders who are regarded as charismatic by their teams will have a high-performing group. So, impact and presence does affect team performance. They also note that being charismatic in this context is primarily about; “becoming an expert (i.e. ‘ethos’) plus soliciting advice from people, and treating people with consideration” (i.e. pathos), highlighting that both ethos and pathos are vital components of developing great teams.

A study published in the Journal of Behavioural studies (September 2014) analysed the attributes of a cross section of Charismatic Leaders (all US based) and identified the following attributes associated with making an impact…

  • Being Genuine: talking from the heart, being sincere and honest (and consistent)
  • Meeting Expectations: dressing appropriately, looking fit and heathy
  • Working the room: connecting with audience or group members before the formal talk/meeting starts. This involves shaking hands with people, making small talk, picking up on the mood of the group etc.
  • Reading the Room: observing people’s reactions to what’s being said during the actual meeting or talk and adjusting behaviour accordingly, in ‘real time’
  • Using humour to connect with an audience
  • Storytelling

Storytelling was seen as particularly important as it made messages memorable and easy to digest. Also, stories that involve (or relate to) members of the group are a powerful way of forging a connection between the leader and the team.

Getting the body language right – Communicate like Clinton?

Positive body language is a key aspect of demonstrating charisma; especially adopting an upright, relaxed posture, coupled with steady eye contact and a warm smile.

Michael Ellsberg, author of The Power of Eye Contact argues that exuding presence has a lot to do with the number of behaviours a person employs when communicating their message. So ex US President Bill Clinton, for example, when meeting someone makes eye contact and smiles and touches their hand or upper arm and raises his voice slightly, to communicate his message in a powerful way.

A voice of your own?

Part of having presence is to be able to use your voice to communicate emotion to the listener and so motivate them to action e.g. by signalling things like urgency, seriousness, happiness, surprise, caution (and sometimes anger). Also, to use voice energy to capture their attention by varying the volume from a stage whisper, to a clear, controlled statement of the facts and on to a commanding call for action!

Patsy Rodenburg (the world-renowned acting coach) emphasises the power of a strong voice, breathing exercises and mental focus to project energy and connect with people. In her book, The Second Circle: How to Use Positive Energy for Success in Every Situation, she explains how to find and release tensions and project your voice to engage with the listener.

Leadership presence – acting the part

In their book Leadership Presence Halpern and Lubar (like Rodenburg) make a link between what is required of a top performing senior executive and the actor’s craft. They note that actors don’t expect to be ‘born’ with charisma but train, using specific ‘drills’, to be able to capture an audience’s attention and to have people focus completely on them.

Of course leaders have many skills that actors don’t e.g. they understand corporate strategy and markets and can negotiate effectively but the need to ‘connect’ with others is a common thread between the two worlds. For example they argue that the only way to elicit emotion and/or a given level of energy from a work group is to actually express that level of emotion or energy personally. They suggest using a technique known as ‘emotional memory’ to be able to project emotions in an appropriate and positive way.

Also, a good performance based on a poor script doesn’t impress anyone: presence captures people’s attention and gets them to take the speaker seriously, but the content of the message must also be compelling. So effective leaders don’t only make their point with energy and conviction (pathos), they also have something to say that is worth listening to (logos).

Six key lessons about Presence

Looking at the research we can highlight six fundamental aspects of developing a strong presence:

  1. Stand up straight, make eye contact and smile (a genuine smile).
  2. Put energy into your voice and breathe fully.
  3. Be interested in other people and what they have to say to you.
  4. Develop a logical proposition or argument to put forward (and script and rehearse what you want to say).
  5. Make what you say relevant to the other person’s situation. (How are you helping to ‘solve their problem or address their issues?’)
  6. Pay attention to the other person’s body language and adjust what you are doing in the light of how you see them reacting.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how much you really listen to other people when you talk with them. Make a determined effort to give them your undivided attention.

Consider what your body language says about you. What messages are you (unconsciously) transmitting through your posture or your use of gestures? Focus on ‘standing upright’ and relaxing your body as you talk with people.


Try reading, The Power of Presence unlock your potential to influence and engage others by Kristi Hedges (AMACOM, 2011)


Have a look at this YouTube clip (15 minutes) on Making A Positive First Impression by Olivia Fox Cabane, author of the Charisma Myth


Take a look at our intensive two day in-house programme on Impact and Presence (an intensive training course for a maximum of six delegates per programme)


Or maybe review our ‘One to One’ executive coaching services to get some personal guidance on developing your personal impact.


Download this article as a pdf


Give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or +44 1788 475 877 (international) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And we end with a quote about the well-known Shakespearean characters in Julius Caesar

“When Brutus spoke the crowd cheered; but when Antony spoke they marched.”


“There’s nowt so queer as folk.” – old English proverb
collaborating with difficult people

Coping with an awkward squad

Some people we like and some we don’t. Similarly, there are some people (hopefully not too many) who don’t care too much for us. Sometimes we find people behave badly towards us and sometimes (hopefully not too often) we are less than courteous in our treatment of others. In a world that is populated with people of many and varied values, goals, cultural backgrounds, attitudes and life experiences that’s to be expected. If we can simply avoid these difficult people and the uncomfortable or unpleasant situations they create, all well and good. But sometimes we can’t ignore them. They might be an important client, or a colleague, or a manager, or our partner’s parents, and then we have to find ways of getting along with them.

Knowing me; knowing you (aha)

The cornerstone of dealing with people in general (and people we find difficult or challenging in particular) is empathy i.e. the ability to share another person’s feelings, as if they were your own.

With the exception of psychopaths, humans are born with an in-built capacity for empathy, and that’s reflected in the ability to mirror behaviour. For example, when a baby cries, another baby will cry: when a baby yawns, another baby will yawn. As we develop, we get much more complex understandings of how to ‘put ourselves’ in someone else’s shoes and imagine their experiences. Research with jurors in the US, however, shows that the natural tendency is to be more empathic towards those who look or act like us. So that can lead to unfair treatment where the accused seems too ‘different’ from those who are judging them.

A key attribute of using empathy really effectively then is to be able to get a sense of how someone from a background different to our own might think and feel. Of course, ‘understanding’ someone’s feelings is not the same as agreeing with them. It’s entirely possible to fully appreciate someone’s point of view and think them wrong, or misguided, or maybe even malicious. But ‘understanding’ is the first step to be able to take meaningful action. And sometime the act of understanding is enough, in and of itself, to improve a situation.  So, we begin addressing any awkward person, or difficult situation, by thinking about what’s driving their behaviour; because for sure, in their mind, what they are doing makes perfect sense.  And once we have an insight into their motivation we can have some ideas about how to respond effectively to them.

See people not bodies

Rick Hanson the neuropsychologist and author has an interesting view on developing empathy, which can be useful in the setting of having to collaborate with a difficult person.

He argues that when we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, etc. 
In effect, the mind summarises and simplifies many details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do.”

This labelling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials, but this categorising has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., the ‘pretty woman’, the ‘authority figure’) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by, or blame, or ignore someone you’ve labelled as this or that.

So, Hanson suggests that when you talk with someone (maybe someone from another department you are collaborating with), be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, fisherman, donor to charity, reader of detective novels, etc. etc. Recognise some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness. Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later, perhaps you can see changes happening in the other person. This helps to develop a greater understanding of the other person and to encourage a more balanced and calmer way of interacting with them. As Hanson says, “the more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.”

The art of Non-Violent Communication

The psychologist, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (1934-2015) developed the idea of Non-Violent Communication in the 1960’s.

His approach was to not try and get your own way when faced with a challenging conversation.  And also, to not treat people as ‘enemies’ or ‘competitors’ and to avoid making judgements or attributing blame. Instead he said to ‘Identify your Needs’ or desires, and also uncover their underlying needs e.g. acceptance, security, consistency, integrity, effectiveness etc.

So, he encouraged people to ask themselves (and the other party) “what do I/you need or value in this situation…?”

E.g. Identify your Needs: “I don’t feel I am getting the information I need to be comfortable that the project is on track. I need more data and more certainty that the work is going to be completed on time.”

Once the needs are out in the open then it’s important to explicitly acknowledge them (and have them empathically acknowledge your needs in return).

It is then possible to Formulate Requests that will lead to the needs being met. The requests should be firm and clear but not be phrased as a ‘demand’, nor should you use a negative tone, such as sarcasm.

He recommended using the format, “Would you be willing to…” Or “I would like you…” Or, “Would you like it if I…”.

E.g. Formulate Requests: Would you be willing to email me a weekly update, every Friday morning before 12 o’clock, using these four Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s)?

Then it’s a case of Obtaining Feedback e.g. “Is this something you can live with” … “Am I on the right track with this conversation?”

It’s important to understand that this process is a two-way street: both sides’ underlying needs must be uncovered, acknowledged and met.

Collaborative behaviours

The US State Department has published a list of behaviours, based on a review of the research on effective communication behaviours, which they feel drive collaborative working in ‘day to day’ and face to face interactions.

This way of working will also help when dealing with difficult people or challenging conversations. They include:

Pausing: Pausing slows down the discussion and signals to others that their ideas are worth thinking about. It dignifies their contribution, so builds rapport and implicitly encourages future participation. It also, of course, creates time for people to think and that means it’s less likely that someone will blurt out something ‘hurtful’ or ‘unhelpful’.

Summarising: A well-known study by the psychologist Neil Rackham showed that expert communicators summarise twice as often as average ones.  A summary helps members of a team hear and understand each other as they evaluate data and formulate decisions.  It (like pausing) slows the conversation down and checks understanding.  Of course, there is a clear link to demonstrating ’empathy’ here.

Asking questions: Open questions, motivated by curiosity, increase the clarity and precision of a person’s thinking. Interestingly, the Rackham study found that expert communicators ask twice as many questions as average ones.

Putting forward ideas: it is vital that collaborative groups nurture suggestions, as they are the heart of a meaningful discussion. Of course, this can be done in line with the principles of non-violent communication e.g. “Would you be willing to…”

Notice your own and other people’s body language:  communication is generally ‘smoother’ when someone is not only aware of what he or she is saying, but also how it is said (i.e. tone of voice) and how others are responding to it. This ties in with the non-violent communication concepts of not blaming or judging people.

Balancing advocacy and inquiry: Both inquiry (asking questions) and advocacy (making proposals) are necessary components of collaborative work. Inquiry provides for greater understanding. Advocacy leads to decision-making. A common mistake is to bring premature closure to problem identification (inquiry for understanding) and rush into problem resolution (advocacy for a specific remedy or solution).  So again (to link with the ideas of non-violent communication) be sure to take the time to really uncover what the underlying needs or desires are in any given situation.

So what’s next?

Think about past collaborations you have been involved in that meant you had to engage with difficult people. For the ones that turned out well think about why things ended up being OK. For the ones that went badly, think about why they went badly. As you reflect on the two experiences, what does that suggest to you about how you can improve your collaborative efforts going forward?

Try reading: this thoughtful article on the nature of empathy by Seung Chan Lim…

Have a look at Dr. Marshall Rosenberg talking about non-violent communication on You Tube. (10 minutes)

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our in-house half-day, master class on Self Awareness & Effective Team Work…

Or perhaps think about some ‘one to one’ executive coaching to help develop your ability to deal with difficult people or situations….

And to end with a useful piece of advice on dealing with people (difficult or otherwise) from the management guru Stephen Covey;

“Seek first to understand and then to be understood”