How well do you enhance your communication using the age-old technique of playing back what you just heard? Or encouraging the other person to do so? Do you appreciate its power as a leader or as an influencer?
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Are there (m)any business situations we can’t improve or enhance without better communication skills?
Hardly, right? Even if we are talking about extremely scientific or technical topics. In his book “Mastery”, Robert Greene highlights the epiphany Charles Darwin had on his way back from his years of research in the Galapagos Islands. He was trying to explain the value of his findings to the ships captain. Failing dismally to help this man “get it”, he realized what lay ahead of him upon his return to England. The successful leverage of his research would not be influenced as much by its truly remarkable content as it would by his ability to “sell it” to the naysayers, competitors and purveyors “of the old and safe”. And to persevere until he found those allies that would aid its implementation because they “got it”. And how would he succeed in that? Superior communication and influencing skills and “Dancing Until it Rains”.
I can sense a whole lot of you nodding your head in agreement, right? Some with a wry smile because you already “get it” and others more ruefully, because you’re wondering how those people you admire for these skills were able to develop them.
How would you like to be known for your ability to influence outcomes because you are so adept at playing most of the keys on the communications keyboard?
Go on, on a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate this ability in yourself?
How much would you like to improve this rating and with what “Urgency”?
I’d like to address that today by emphasizing the value of the technique of playing back.
What is the Technique of Playing Back?
In a world of deadlines, scarce resources and relentless daily pressure on us to keep performing, most of us seem to have lost the art of listening. We listen to prepare our defense or our attack or our response in order to “look good” or mask perceived inadequacies, and not to hear or understand what is being said, correct? We jump to conclusions. Or we “jump in” too soon and interrupt, if only sometimes to “help the other person improve what they’re saying, because we so agree with them”.
When last can you remember someone taking the time to offer playing back what they thought they understood you just to have said? Probably a while back, right? And if you can, do you recall in hindsight how much of an impact that might have had on the outcome you both wanted?
Offering to replay what was said, to be sure it’s understood as it was intended.
Using Playing Back As The Sender
When I ran the local subsidiary of Smartsoft, an Indian SAP software services company in Australia , we leveraged superbly skilled technical (SAP) resources into our local client projects. As competent as they were, our Australian clients often struggled with some cultural and language, or should I say dialect differences.
They often complained that our techs would always “say yes”, even if the client (the sender of the instruction or request) didn’t feel comfortable that they “got it”. And just as often they would struggle with the tech’s response, because they simply couldn’t understand their dialect or their language. And by language I don’t just mean the English language and the way the words are pronounced or the inflections or the sentences structured. But also that such highly technical people often also speak in such technical terms and jargon that the “business” client simply isn’t familiar with or doesn’t understand.
And so when these clients raised this with me, I was always grateful. Why? Because you can’t address a problem you aren’t aware of, which then can result in the client “walking away”. When that happened (or if I raised it in my client interactions because I knew how often this frustrated) I would urge them to ask my techs to practice “playing back” their understanding of what was just requested. That way the client could assess how well my guys “got it” or not and could keep this cycle going until both parties were satisfied that they “got it”. This also by-passed the (culturally influenced) “saying yes” situation, when it was clear that they weren’t at the required understanding or comprehension yet.
Using Playing Back As The Receiver
In the same way I used to explain to my techs how common such cultural and language differences were and coach them on developing the habit of seeking their clients permission to allow them the playing back their understanding of what was just requested. I saw that this was working when back at the office they started replaying their understanding of what I’d just said. Got it.
Both the above send and receive examples highlight the power of this technique in avoiding misunderstandings. I ended up with happy clients and more confident consultants.
My clients and my techs also learned how futile it is to assume. Ass-u-me is actually 3 words: when you or I assume, you make an ass out of u and me. Avoid assumptions, no matter how little time you have. Take the time to verify that what was sent was actually received the way it was intended. Communications 101, right? Well, one that is far too often forgotten or ignored…
Using Playing Back in Delegation
(M)any of us that have grown into leadership positions will have had to learn and contend with the challenge of delegation, right? Most leaders have transcended that difficult initial phase and do so with an unconscious competence today. Many still struggle with that, some more dominant personalities more than others. Most wrestled with the fact that as the leader we remained accountable for the responsibilities we delegated to others. Which meant that when they screwed up something we used to do so confidently, we still “copped it”. And so we would give them insufficient rope (authority) to make decisions in order to “have a safety net”. One that often ended up micro managing them and even (s)mothering them. Remember when your boss did that to you? You hated not being empowered, didn’t you? “Why doesn’t he or she trust me?”. Well, as leaders we often forget this feeling and transgress this simple rule all too often, don’t we?
What I learned and coach today is the power of using the playing back technique to help here. By asking the person you delegated a task to, to practice playing back their understanding of what was delegated, you can assess how well they “got it”. And if not, by asking a series of further questions you can be sure all the required areas of doubt have been dealt with and you can confidently practice “letting go”.
I used to do the same with rather extracting a commitment to a deadline from them than “imposing” it on them. If what they suggested was too slack for my needs or too ambitious and risking them setting themselves up for failure, I could influence some correction. But in doing so always being sure that it was their commitment and that they “owned” it and would implement it accordingly. For “newbies”I would also ask for a good time they thought we should “checkpoint together” how their progress was going so both parties could manage the “no surprises” expectations. Project management 101 and leadership 101, right?
So there we have it. None of this is rocket science is it? So having related a few examples and experiences, has any of this affected your 1 – 10 rating? If so, great. I’m delighted.
If not, how serious are you about wanting to enhance your communication and influencing skills? Can you see the value in leveraging the power of playing back? Do you think you can “have a go”?
And if there is agreement on its value, but you are still unsure how to best leverage this into a skill you admire in others, why not email me (), and let’s talk about your questions? What would you have to lose if that led to us spending an exploratory hour, without obligation to explore your questions and opportunities?
What if you could?
If you want to deepen your insights into a few of the topics embedded in the above blog, please consider these additional posts:
Heiner Karst says
While I think if it, using the playing back technique is also very powerful when dealing with an angry person. Without engaging with the content of the “rant”, I encourage the person to keep “venting” until they have got it all off their chest. Only then are we usually able to converse “normally” with them again. It is at that point, and with great empathy, that I offer to play back or paraphrase my understanding of what appears to be bothering them. Then they can correct or underline the issues resulting in us probably being able to deal with it and with less emotion.