By Agile Conversations authors Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick
Congratulations—you’ve decided to improve trust with someone at work. It could be the project manager who sets deadlines without consulting you, or that customer who’s complaining endlessly that you don’t deliver sufficient quality, or the star salesperson who sells features the company can’t deliver. Whoever it is and whatever the symptoms of the lack of trust, the first rule is—SLOW DOWN.
When we talk to clients about building trust, they often tell us they’ve tried to explain their point of view, to convince the other person why he or she should change their behavior and think about the situation as they do. They are mystified when this doesn’t work—after all, isn’t it obvious that their way is better? Surely the other person must not be listening, or worse, is actively working to undermine them. No other explanation could account for such a willful refusal to recognize obvious truths.
This is the fallacy of naive realism, the belief that we see the world correctly and objectively and those who disagree are misguided or biased. It leads us to rush to explain our own beliefs, rather than pausing to “understand before being understood” (see The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Steven Covey). And when we hurry past listening, we have no chance to align our internal “story” with that of the other person and thus build trust and shared understanding.
In your daily work, you probably use or know about a practice that can help you slow down when it’s appropriate:
- Developers have Test-Driven Development, where running the tests helps them focus on design and correctness.
- Salespeople have qualification questions, which keep them from rushing into a pitch before finding out what the customer needs.
- Finance folks have double-entry bookkeeping, which ensures they sanity-check each transaction as they are entered.
In our book Agile Conversations, we describe the Ladder of Inference, a trust-building method due to Chris Argyris. The Ladder is very similar to the above techniques in that it helps you get control of your urge to explain and instead gives you a structure for listening to the other person’s story.
As you can see, the Ladder shows the steps we take to get from what we observe (the bottom rung: Observable data) to what we do (the top rung: Actions). And the key thing to notice in the picture is that all the intermediate steps occur inside our heads—the only thing the other person can see is how we act. No wonder rushing to explain works so badly; there’s no chance for either party to follow the other’s chain of reasoning and to discover where the two stories are misaligned.
Our favorite way to apply the Ladder is to start at the bottom rung and move slowly upward, asking for the other person’s reasoning at each step. The result nearly always is that we “fall off” the Ladder at some point, discovering something we didn’t know that changes our mindset, helps us align our stories, and improves our trust and our relationship.
Here’s how that looked for Taj, a client of ours who is trying to improve the skill of his sales staff. Taj has trouble trusting Betty, who manages a sales team and who always says her team are doing fine, but Taj worries that there are hidden problems in the team.
Observation. “Betty,” says Taj, “I notice that at our recent training most of your team focused on price when they role-played their pitches. Did you see it that way or differently?”
“Yes,” replies Betty, “they were carefully describing the pricing tiers.”
Selection. “Well, the important part for me is what they didn’t say. We’ve been training them on describing value, but I didn’t hear that in the pitches—just price details. Do you agree that the lack of value selling is important?”
“Sure, but overall they’re doing fine. Their pitches were good!”
Meaning. “But when I hear them skip the value step, it means to me that our training isn’t sinking in. What do you think?”
“I don’t see it that way at all. They’ve improved so much since we started. Bill even got the international discount right, and they’re all remembering to qualify before starting the pitch. And Sara did get the value bit in.”
Meaning again. “I think we might be talking past each other there. There’s no question the whole team has raised their game, and Sara is clearly a star. But I think everyone else is below par on the specific skill of value selling, which I think is the most valuable ability they need to succeed in a resistant market. What do you think?”
“Ah, now I see. Yes, almost all of them left out the value, except Sara, and that’s definitely the next thing I think we need to work on.”
Notice how slowly Taj goes up the Ladder, and how this helps him find the source of misalignment with Betty: different meanings they each have for the lack of demonstrated skill in the sales pitches. Now he’s able to discuss progress on the specific skill of value selling with Betty, using what he learned in this conversation—they’ve even started ranking the team on this skill using a scale “from 1 to Sara.”
Learning to slow yourself down as you move from rung to rung on the Ladder of Inference takes regular practice. There are loads of examples and exercises in Agile Conversations that can help you do that, but the central lesson is one you can apply right away: reduce the pace, listen to the other person’s story, and surprise yourself by learning something new that changes your own story.