Monday, April 21, 2008

The Neutral Opening

I’m in New York City today for the opening session of the American Management Association’s new Communication Boot Camp, an intensive three day workshop on communications skills, along with a packed house of attendees.

I am really glad to be here for a number of reasons. First, I served as AMA’s subject matter expert for this program, and helped develop the course material along with consultant (and fantastic trainer) Julie Kowalski. Second, the program is selling out all over the USA, which is very impressive for a brand new course, even for a top-flight organization like AMA. Third, this humble blog is one of the course resources, so I want to offer a warm welcome to any first-time readers.

But perhaps the thing I most enjoy about being here is seeing a large group of people learn new, procedural ways to communicate effectively in even the most difficult situations – such as what to say when people are rude and demanding, or how to have influence when you are presenting an idea. Today, everyone learned something that I feel is the most important communications skill of all: the neutral opening.

Let’s say that you are trying to ask someone to dress better at work. Or want someone to stop yelling at her employees all the time. Julie used some great examples to show how criticism never works, no matter how “right” it is, because the other person almost always pushes back. So far, so good. But now, what *do* you say – particularly for those critical first few seconds that make or break the conversation?

What quote-unquote nice people usually try to do is make small talk, beat around the bush, or compliment the other person first – all of which the other person normally sees through, even in role-play. Today, they learned that the most powerful opening is one that is totally non-threatening, yet gets you head-on into productive dialogue with the other person about the issue at hand. In other words, a neutral opening.

Here’s an example of what you might say to person who should dress better: “I see you like to be comfortable at work.” For someone who is falling behind at work: “It sounds like you’ve been really busy lately.” And for the person who yells at her staff, there is what I call the perfect neutral opening, because it is all but guaranteed to open a dialogue: “What frustrates you about people on your team?”

Once you engage someone with your opening statement, you have opened the door for a productive dialogue that can benefit both of you. But first, you have to get over the speed bump of starting the discussion. That is why neutral openings, which can be learned and practiced, are far and away the most important part of interacting with another person.

This AMA course is chock full of examples on how to structure a neutral opening, and I am all but beating this issue to death with a stick in my forthcoming book for AMACOM, tentatively entitled How to Tell Anyone Anything. But if you can’t wait for the course or the book, here’s the quick summary: find out where the other person’s interests lie, and always start your discussions there.

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