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March 30, 2016
How to Read a Conversation
In business, as in other vocations, what’s not said is often far, far more important than what is said. Indeed, sometimes people lose their jobs, opportunities, raises, or promotions because they fail to understand what’s not said. So, in many of my posts, when I write about “subtexts,” I’m referring to these covert meanings, hidden commitments, “undiscussables,”or what's not said. 

Reading a conversation can provide unstated information on such things as organizational politics, influence, needed adaptations, special expertise, and the potential, or lack thereof, for collaboration on specific issues. It reveals such things as how to position your ideas, where you can or can’t go for help, who’s liable to support you and your ideas, and especially who has the real power. With that kind of information, along with what’s actually been said, you can better predict behavior and understand how to balance, reconcile, or compromise your interests.

Overall, reading a conversation is based on the well-accepted notion that our ways of thinking are systematic.

In other words, certain kinds of values and convictions tend to be connected to others. People usually want their thinking to be consistent. You can likely make a guess about a person’s politics or religious leanings or opinions on women’s rights or military intervention by hearing only about a couple of items from that list. For example, if you know that someone favors banning offshore oil drilling and more controls on firearms, you’ve actually got a lot of information about that person. You could probably figure out what they think about capital punishment, who they voted for in the last election, and their thinking about climate change. No one is fully consistent, but if you listen closely to business conversations you’re going to find a terrific amount of consistency to aid your reading of personal subtexts.

Five Strategies
Here are five strategies, each with differing objectives, that I’ve found especially useful for getting at subtexts. The first two are moderately easy for most people to access. The last three, from a study by Barry Brummett at the University of Texas, provide more insight, but require discipline to manage.

Sentence structure. This issue is about the person’s smarts and abilities. The model focuses upon the form of content that a person uses in their conversation — not the actual substance. Are the sentences simple, with little more than subject and predicate? If he’s consistent in his simplicity, that’s often a clue that the person does not see a complex world. If, in contrast, the person periodically uses complex sentences — several causes and several effects at the same time — that’s indicative of a reflective mind. Of course, it’ll be tough talking complex ideas with a simple mind, but more reflective minds can deal with both simplicity and complexity.

Accenting. This model sets you up to pay attention to the following three strategies. When people talk, including those colorless Minnesotans, they unconsciously accent or inflect certain nouns, verbs, or adjectives in their conversations. Accenting is a response to internal emotions and is often there for you to pick up on. Recently one of my clients referred to his boss as a “micromanager.” The term was clearly accented, with a lot of built-in tension and emotion, and louder than the rest of the words in that simple sentence. He was telling me that his frustration level was high; that though his boss was intelligent about software, he was a poor manager, and that he was having difficulty managing his boss. “Micro-manager” is a noun, but often the adjectives in a sentence are more telling, as in “this is a dumb-ass program,” etc.

Ideology. This is the person’s basic network of beliefs, commitments, values, and assumptions about power. So watch for clues to how power is gained, struggled over, and resisted. Does the person see himself as more a victim or as one who can access or exert personal power? Are his commitments very deep? Is there openness to other insights? A person’s ideology will determine his behavior in the work setting.

Arguments. What kinds of claims does the person make about what people should do? And what reasons or evidence are provided? How thorough or complete are the person’s arguments? Are the arguments strongly constructive, cynical, or victim-oriented? Is the person open to challenge of his ideas?

Awareness. This refers to the person’s understanding of his and others’ assumptions and the facts upon which he and others draw those assumptions. Rather than clarity, the huge majority of people have opinions without knowledge of assumptions or facts. In other words, that information is often “out of awareness.” These can be both clues to a person’s potential as well as openness to change.

Some people start learning how to read subtexts and keep moving along, making it habitual. It's difficult for me to engage in a conversation without my antennae fully operative, asking questions about the conversationalists. I’m nearly always on the alert for extra dimensions of meanings — for subtexts and hidden insights. It can be important to keep these insights to yourself. On other occasions, you'll want to share them with others to check your interpretation and conclusions.

Over the years, these skills have made possible many of the successes I’ve enjoyed. But when I failed to use them, the outcome was not always pretty. The people who use these data to achieve their objectives become very attractive folk. They’ve learned how to access hidden information and, as a result, know how to work with difficult people, achieve group objectives, and successfully manage their career. People simply want to be around them, work with them, and even follow them. In short, they develop “pull.” And the payoff is often in the form of great networks, more opportunities, faster promotions, and better salaries.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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