Capturing the attention of kids and executives alike

Anyone who works for an organization must at least occasionally negotiate with the people above them in the org chart. And anyone who does that knows that capturing and maintaining an executive’s attention is essential to negotiation success. What you might not know is that interactions with kids can highlight some important lessons about interactions with executives—lessons about attention that can make life more negotiable.

Consider the following examples about kids and attention, and whether they could better your organizational life:

  • Attracting attention: Perhaps you need to get a kid dressed for school, but they need to play with a million toys first. To accomplish your goal, you have to attract their attention. Likewise, at work, you might need to attract the attention of an executive in order to get your plans approved. With kids, mentioning what’s in it for them upfront (time to play before the bus?) can often help. How about executives?
  • Maintaining attention: You might need your kid to clean up the remnants of 23 intermingled puzzles, but the kid, having started the task, might discover the need to first assemble 22 of them. To accomplish your goal, you have to maintain their attention. Likewise, at work, you may have gotten a meeting scheduled with an executive, only to find the meeting punctuated by 14,000 emails and phone calls. Persistent repetition seems to be the only method with kids. Executives?
  • Directing attention: You might need your kid to focus on the fun part of the doctor’s appointment (the post-visit sticker) rather than the less fun part (the shot). Similarly, you might want an executive to focus on the more exciting parts of your proposal. While you can’t ignore either the shot or the duller parts of the proposal in good faith, you can order your statements in a way that generates excitement before trepidation or boredom. It works at least occasionally with kids. Executives?
  • Breaking attention: You might need a kid to pay less attention to a particular scene in a movie. What was that thing rated again? Similarly, at work, you might need an executive to stop pursuing a line of reasoning that you know to be wrong. Here are a variety of tips that may work with kids and executives alike.
  • Not calling attention in the first place: You might need to avoid talking about a social event that you know your kid would enjoy, but that you also know your kid’s schedule won’t allow them to attend. Likewise, at work, you might want to avoid a discussion of a report that you plan to start soon but just haven’t had the time to start yet. Initiating a discussion yourself and directing it down the right path can help at home. At work?

The bottom line is that attention is a great asset in negotiations (and in organizations generally). If we have a kid’s or executive’s attention, and it’s directed where we want it, we stand a better chance of achieving our goals. If we don’t have their attention or it’s focused elsewhere, our goals remain a distant dream.

How do you capture and maintain the attention of the people around you?

The power of distraction: Another lesson intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues

Last week’s post discussed an important work lesson we can learn from toddlers: the power of why. Briefly, we often learn a lot by asking “why” of those who oppose us.

This week, I’ll discuss another critical work lesson from toddlers: the power of distraction. Briefly, we often have to deal with colleagues who don’t directly oppose us but aren’t exactly on our wavelength either. In these situations, distraction is essential for making life negotiable.

A common toddler scenario (other parents have told me) is the inexplicable and unexpected meltdown. Suzy is happily playing with a toy, asks to take it outside or something else you reject, then responds to your rejection with (Chernobyl x Fukushima). Immediate diffusion of the situation, parents agree, is all but impossible. Your options are to ignore her until her reactor cools or try to cool her reactor by distracting her with something more interesting. “What do you want for dessert tonight, Suzy?”

What does Suzy have to do with work? When you’re trying to convince a work colleague of something, I would argue that distraction is often essential there too. Consider the following five reasons that you might need to distract a colleague:

  1. Inexplicable and unexpected meltdown: Suzy isn’t the only one. Though hopefully more common among toddlers, meltdowns have been known to make an occasional cameo in the workplace. When you need the support of someone having issues, you need to distract them from their issues before the discussion can even begin.
  2. Talking about something irrelevant: More often, colleagues are calm but completely off-topic. Now it might be worthwhile asking why they’re off-topic, just in case there’s a method to their madness. But if there isn’t, you need to distract them from their tangent.
  3. Talking about something unimportant: Quite often, colleagues are somewhat on-topic but focusing a trivial aspect of the issue. If a “why” still doesn’t help, you need to distract them from their trees to refocus them on the forest.
  4. Just talking: Sometimes colleagues just won’t…eh hem, be quiet. You need to distract them from their monologue just to get a word in.
  5. Not talking: Sometimes colleagues are day-dreaming or otherwise unusually silent. You need to distract them from their reverie so you can understand their reactions.

It would be nice if you could just ask what them they want for dessert tonight. Sadly, that works better on Suzy than an adult. Instead, I’d suggest trying one or more of these approaches:

  1. Take a break: If they need to cool their nerves (#1) or vocal cords (#4) – or if they are way off-topic (#2) – develop the sudden need to visit the bathroom. Much like the ratification strategy, a well-executed break followed by a proactive attempt to restart the conversation can often refocus it.
  2. Synthesize and suggest: If they are somewhat on-topic (#3), summarize their thoughts in a way that explicitly connects them to your thoughts. Even if the connection is shaky, hearing you synthesize signals you’re listening, and hearing your suggestion gives them an easy way to change course. “It sounds like you’re really concerned about sales in Detroit, Steve. I understand that concern, but may I suggest that we think about Detroit in the context of our national sales trends?”
  3. Open-ended question: If they are just silent (#5), enroll them in the conversation by asking them an open-ended question that necessarily requires more than a one-word answer. Not “Is something bothering you, Steve?” but “What are your thoughts on our national sales trends, Steve?”

These techniques are not rocket-science nor surefire. But I hope they provide a framework for working with coworkers who are meandering in and out of your wavelength. Have you ever felt the need to distract a coworker?