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Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest


So an Engineer Says to the CEO, ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’

A few ideas on how to communicate your point without using a hammer

Published: Thursday, November 2, 2017 - 12:03

I have a friend. Let’s call him Ryan. I respect Ryan, and we talk about a lot of things: work, religion, technology, politics, bikes, the truck he’s always working on—you name it, and we both have an opinion, sometimes strong opinions. Our problem is, we don’t always speak the same language (well, English, but that’s about it), so sometimes it takes awhile for me to figure out what Ryan is really getting at. And judging from his sometimes dazed expression when I talk, he feels the same.

That’s because communication is hard! Really, really hard. But talking—and by that I mean really talking—is how we get stuff done... at work, at home, in our personal lives, and in government. Although we may argue that we do talk, it’s usually along the lines of we said stuff to Bob, and Bob said stuff to us, and maybe we were talking about the same thing, but who the heck knows? We barely remember what he said.

Oddly, we do remember exactly what we said.

Over the millennia human communication has devolved from a tool to cooperate with other humans to a means of separating ourselves from the “other.” We speak in the language of our group (nerd speak, quality speak, C-suite speak, liberal speak) and don’t bother to learn the words and ideas—the language—that means something to the listener. An engineer rarely speaks the same language or has the same perspective as the human resources person. The VP of finance most likely does not speak the same language as the CNC operator. They each work in a different part of the company, with their own lingo and their own priorities.

Communication is the life-blood of an organization. No quality initiative, no process, no innovation, no emergency response, no problem, can be addressed unless all parties are able to communicate their ideas. The company can’t succeed unless its employees learn how to talk.

So how do we do learn how to talk? Well, we need to be a babies again... and listen. To communicate effectively and reach people where they are at, we need to learn to speak their language. And just as a baby learns by listening, that’s what we have to do.

So, here are a few ideas that turn talking into a conversation, not a soliloquy.

Your purpose is not to win. The purpose of a single conversation is not to get the other side to agree with you. You probably won’t, so don’t make that your initial goal. While that may be your overall goal, individual conversations should be about listening and learning. Good conversation is built on respect, respect is earned, and listening shows respect. Once the other side respects you, they may reciprocate and listen and learn from you as well.

In a conversation with journalist Celeste Headlee, civil rights activist Xernona Clayton describes the conversations she had during the late 1960s with Calvin Craig, a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. “I didn't try to change his mind; I just listened to him,” Clayton told Headlee. “You know, there was nothing, I, a black woman, was going to be able to say to him that was going to make any difference.” Clayton also followed the advice of Martin Luther King, who said to just take people where they are, and accept them where they are.

Craig renounced the clan in 1968 and gave credit to Clayton for changing his mind.

What is the other person’s perspective? Use conversations to learn why that person believes what she believes.

A quality manager tries to explain to the CEO why a quality issue needs to be immediately addressed, while the CEO tries to explain that doing so will jeopardize sales and maybe cost the company millions of dollars, which could be disastrous. They go round and round. “You have to make this fix; there is too much risk if you don’t,” insists the quality manager. “We can’t; there is too much risk if we do,” counters the CEO. Both talk—variations on a theme—and neither listens.

Rather than try to impose your viewpoint, ask some questions. Why does the quality manager believe this issue needs to be addressed immediately? What are his concerns? Are there overarching issues that could be causing him to blow this issue out of proportion... or not? Does he think upper management is clueless? What’s the back story?

Why does the CEO think that addressing this issue will hold up sales? Has she had bad experiences in the past? Does she view the quality department as an enemy rather than an ally? Why? What is she really afraid of?

There is always a story behind the story. Unless each knows the other’s perceptions, it’s hard to reach common ground.

Frame your argument from the other person’s point of view. You can’t assume arguments that make sense to you will make sense to the other person. Just as liberals and conservatives view the world through a different lens, engineers and CEOs view their worlds differently.

For instance: When it comes to problem solving, an engineer tends to think very specifically, linearly, logically. Things like inputs and outputs, process, predictability, parts availability, testing availability, how it will be manufactured. All these are important and logically connected.

The CEO might be a holistic, nonlinear thinker. She might wonder how the idea fits into the big picture. Are there other paths to the solution? How would this idea make her world (the business) better? How is the business viewed from the outside? Will this cause pain to another part of the organization, even if it addresses an immediate problem? In the greater scheme of things, why should she care?

So when the engineer tries to convince the CEO on a course of action, he needs to explain how his idea has ramifications far beyond the problem at hand and ties into the business as a whole. He needs to understand how his solution ties into other goals, maybe even those apparently unrelated to the issue. Think meta. What is the idea behind the idea? He needs to frame the problem or course of action in a way that goes beyond the nuts and bolts in order to make sense to the CEO.

The CEO might try to explain her viewpoint from a process angle. Even a holistic view needs a process at some point. Could the CEO frame her concerns as part of a process that contains the engineer’s process? Can she communicate, in a logical way, how the engineer’s idea plays into the larger scheme? Can she linearize a key part of her concern so it doesn’t seem like gibberish to the engineer?

Know when to cede a point. Part of gaining respect is to admit when you’re wrong. No one is ever 100-percent right. Ever. Sometimes the person you’re talking with is going to make a very good argument about why an idea or concept is wrong. If he’s right—and darn it, sometimes he is right—why dig in your heels? Being willing to acknowledge a point shows the other person that you’re reasonable and sincere (and secure), not stubborn and dogmatic. That allows him to be sincere as well. You’d be surprised at how often people acknowledge weaknesses in their arguments when you acknowledge them in yours.

Know when to quit, know when to stand. Once you understand where the other person is coming from, and that she understands where you are coming from, lay out your case, framed in her language, and see if you can come to an agreement. If you can’t, then let it be... for now. You can’t browbeat someone into accepting your point of view. Let it rest.

And even in those cases where you have to say, “This is the way it has to be,” doing the above will still have accomplished two things. First, you will better understand the ramifications of your actions on others. Don’t you hate it when people won’t acknowledge the downside of their decisions, even if their decisions are necessary? Second, others will have a better understanding of the decision you had to make, even if they don’t agree with it.

Talking does not mean agreeing. If all this sounds like compromise, it isn’t. Talking doesn’t mean you have to compromise. It doesn’t mean you’re neutral, or that you agree. It simply means that you are willing to listen. From listening comes understanding. And from understanding, you have a platform upon which you might be able to build agreement.

Speaking from the TED stage in 2011, Jonas Gahr Støre, former foreign minister of Norway, said this: “And what is dialogue really about? When I enter into dialogue, I really hope that the other side would pick up my points of view, that I would impress upon them my opinions and my values. I cannot do that unless I send the signals that I will be open to listen to the other side’s signals. We need a lot more training on how to do that, and a lot more practice on how that can take problem-solving forward.”


About The Author

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest’s picture

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest’s editor in chief.


When to cede a point

Great article Dirk. When to cede... that has GOT to be the hardest, and perhaps sends the most important signal. BTW, who's this Ryan guy??

Who's Ryan

The guy who challenges me to think using a different part of my brain. We all need that person who makes us think differently than we normally do. It helps us avoid group think. While it's fun and useful to bounce ideas off people who think the same as you, it's probably more useful, albeit difficult, to force yourself to look at problems from an entirely different perspective. Even if you come away not agreeing, you still come away with knowledge.

One unique aspect of the Quality Digest team, and teams anywhere, is that we all are unique in how we approach problems. From the anal to the ethereal, from the left brain to the right brain (you know who you are) we each contribute a unique perspective to our companies that, when handled correctly, makes those companies stronger.


With apologies to Sir Winston Churchill, "We are organizations divided by a common language!"

...and as that great philosopher Pogo so eloquently noted, "We has met the enemy and he is us!"

A Joy to Read

Thank you, Dirk. This piece was a joy to read. All sensible suggestions. Not easy to put into practice. But, it's just that, it requires practice. I've been practicing, still failing a lot, but have experienced radical change in my interactions and relationships.

Best regards, Shrikant Kalegaonkar (Twitter: @shrikale, LinkedIn, Blog)