Ever try to stare down a dog? Not a challenge as, eventually, she’ll get distracted or bored with looking at you. Ever try that with a cat? If you did, you may still be doing it because the cat doesn’t look away. They’re tough to stare down. It’s almost creepy. I think they know the one who looks away is the one NOT in control.
Years ago I had a manager who had a very unique style of communication that was exemplified in certain strategic situations. I often tell this story as it teaches some great lessons. We would meet in his office to discuss ideas, strategy, sales, or simply something I wanted. Upon my presentation of ideas, I would pause, as is the common protocol of communication (Okay, I’m done, your turn…). Then it got interesting. He would simply look at me (felt like the cat stare) and…nothing. After an eternal 3 second pause, I’d start talking. He obviously needed more. And then I would stop – remember, his turn now. Another stare, pause. And, you guessed it, I’d start talking again. And so it would go. Inevitably I’d leave the meeting having not gained what I wanted or feeling like I lost credibility or whatever I thought I had coming in.
After several of these engagements, I decided to change my approach.
I walked into his office, sat down, shared my thoughts…then, I shut up! He stared. I stared. He continued staring. I began sweating (in a Cool Hand Luke sort of way, of course), but continued staring. This is absolutely true! Finally, after 30 minutes (probably more like 20 seconds, but it felt like half an hour!), he spoke. And guess what? I usually walked out with my ideas accepted, more confidence and ultimately more influence. Did I stare him down? No – what I did was mirror his communication. Even though it was, and still would be, very uncomfortable for me, I adapted to his style and gained better communication and influence because of it. Was he staring me down? No – he was thinking, which translated into focus and silence. And guys like me don’t really understand silence – we tend to think we must fill it, usually with us. Usually not good.
Ultimately, I believe the relationship was far more effective when I learned to communicate in a style that worked for him, and me. Let me also say, this is a wonderful individual, for whom I have great respect. His communication was just different than mine, and I learned to recognize and embrace it.
I did and we succeeded.