Emotional Investment

Today I had a meeting that involved talking to someone on the other end of a conference phone. The phone was one of those triangular lumps that live on the meeting room table like a three limbed starfish that has branched out into teleconferencing. One of the problems with teleconferencing is that you can’t see the person on the other end, so you can’t interpret their body language. On this call, though, I could hear their emotional state through their choice of words, and the tone of their voice.

I came into the meeting late. I’d asked my colleague to only call on me if required, as I didn’t want to sit in yet another meeting where my input is required for about 5 minutes, and the rest of my time is spent fantasising about how much more fun it’d be removing my own appendix with a USB key.

The details of the meeting aren’t important. What *is* important is that the person on the other end of the phone didn’t like the standard technology my team uses for this particular situation. I lead the technology group, so I felt somewhat honour bound to defend what we do. I’ve gotten a bit smarter about this as I’ve gotten older, so rather than go on the attack (as the best form of defence, dontchaknow), I asked what his requirements were.

Requirements are a funny thing. I’m quite familiar with them, having studied engineering at university, which is pretty precise about what a requirement is, and what it is not. The trouble is, in IT, most people have Computer Science, Business or Accounting/Finance backgrounds, and they don’t really deal with requirements in the same way. For me, precision +- tolerance is all important. For them, things are much more fluid, full of grey areas without clearly defined edges. I suspect this is a major reason most IT projects fail. This person was unable to say “The solution needs to do X, within (+-)Y”. They used phrases like “In a lot of cases, we have seen, historically, that X isn’t very good when Y”. Lots of ambiguity and wiggle room. This person didn’t want to come right out and say “We don’t trust you. We think your stuff is crap, and we’re more comfortable doing things our own way”, but that’s what they meant.

This person didn’t know what their requirements were, or was unable to articulate what they were in much detail, but they had already formed an emotional attachment to their preferred solution. This happens a lot, and I’ve tried a few different approaches to the situation. Arguing about facts doesn’t work. Cajoling doesn’t work. Appealing to authority doesn’t work, unless the authority tells them to do things your way; then they aquiesce, but you end up fighting a rear-guard action for the next several years, because although they do what they’re told, they don’t believe it’s right, and try like hell to sabotage what you’re doing, knowingly or otherwise. Everyone ends up frustrated, tired and unhappy.

There are techniques for handling this situation described in Dale Carnegie’s seminal work “How to Win Friends And Influence People”, which I have read several times. I tried some of them today, with only marginal success. Either I don’t really understand the ideas, or I need more practice. I hope it’s the latter, more than the former, but we’ll see.

I’m all booked in to a Dale Carnegie Training course started near the end of the week. It runs for 11 weeks, so I’m going to attempt to blog something about each session to give you an idea of what it’s like. I won’t be giving everything away, because I believe the greatest advantage of this sort of course is what you learn while you’re there.

I really hope I can learn how to deal with this sort of thing. My instinct is to debate the facts, and argue rationally. This only works when the person you’re dealing with responds rationally to a debate about facts. Most humans are emotional creatures, myself included, and so this approach usually results in a re-enactment of any given episode of the Jerry Springer show.. to a greater or lesser extent.

So when have you tried debating with someone? What techniques have you used to sway someone to your way of thinking, without resorting to physical violence?

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