Reflections on "the tone conversation"

I have been called a force of nature on more than one occasion. Usually, that’s a compliment. After a decade of theatre training and years of experience writing, teaching and giving presentations, I know how to command a room. I know how to stick up for what I believe in, and I know how to tackle resistance and criticism head on.

That works great when I’m the teacher. It works less great when I’m a team member.

The trouble with tone

As almost any woman in technology will tell you, our “tone” gets discussed a lot. If we’re assertive, we’re called bossy; if we aren’t assertive enough, we’re told we need to speak up more. It’s exhausting at times trying to figure out which version of ourselves we should be in any given meeting.

The trouble with all of this advice, though, is that none of it seems to relate to the outcome you want to achieve. And as a result, we come out of meetings feeling like we either won the day but lost friends, or that our ideas will always be overlooked.

People will forget what you do. They will forget what you say. They will never forget how you made them feel. ~ Maya Angelou

For a long time, I thought the “tone” conversation was bullshit. It is, to an extent; the subject is rarely, if ever, brought up to male employees, and frankly, “be nicer” isn’t very useful critique.

But as I grow into a new role, where I’m introducing a big change to an organization with a long and storied history, I’m noticing that my normal ways of dealing with resistance aren’t working. Arguing it head on and venting frustrations won’t help win hearts and minds. To shift this, I had to revisit a few things.

Remember the big goal

As user experience professionals, our mission is to deeply understand the people our product supports, and to diffuse those insights throughout the organization so we can make a better product. Doing the research is useless, however, if we can’t convince people to act on those insights. Logical, well-reasoned arguments would be terribly effective with logical, well-reasoned people. But when your logical, well-reasoned argument points out the flaws in something the team worked really, really hard on, you’re guaranteed to hit your listener right in the feels — especially if they’re new to qualitative research.

One of the hardest adjustments I’ve had to make is in recognizing this. While it’s comforting to think “they just don’t get it” and fume over a cup of coffee, pointing out usability issues in a product is ultimately telling someone:

You did this all wrong. Here’s how to fix it.

Finding new ways to talk about these issues, then, becomes essential to getting them to listen without shutting down.

Understand the listener’s goals

In most cases, the stakeholders you deal with have a clear goal. Some are strictly tied to revenue (our department needs to bring in $XXm this year); others are about engagement (we want to increase registrations by X%). In almost all cases, their performance reviews, raises, and ability to keep their jobs are tied to those goals. So when we make suggestions, even well-meaning, that run counter to the way they typically meet those goals, it’s no wonder that we’re met with resistance.

Treat people with respect, even when you’re feeling defensive

So how do we deal with the resistance we encounter simply doing what we’re hired to do without becoming basket cases? It comes down to respect.

When I (and my boss) noticed that I was venting unproductively at work, I asked a coworker for feedback on what she had observed in meetings with me. She was diplomatic, but honest, and said:

Sometimes it’s almost like you’re talking down to us, like you’re smarter than us. We’re all adults, and it doesn’t feel good to be spoken to like children.

How often do we do that, even in conversations with friends? How much does our culture implicitly value that behavior, the idea that everyone who doesn’t believe as we do is an idiot?

My coworkers’ feedback helped me realign on the big goal: to help this business succeed by doing the right thing by its customers. So I started shaping my recommendations to relate to established business goals. I focused on listening more than I talk in meetings. And as much as I hate it, I’ve been working really hard on my tone, and the language I use when encountering resistance from others.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a quote from John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead’s excellent book Buy-in: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down:

In a difficult week, it may feel as if we are dealing constantly with idiots who deserve no respect. But this is just a feeling, not reality.
In an attempt to gain buy-in, treating others in just the opposite way — with clear respect — allows you to take the high ground.