First, tell me – Why are you here

A few weeks back I wrote about the problem of reducing attention span. We also talked about why it’s becoming essential for all of us to learn the skill to get and retain attention. This skill is one of the differentiators for success in the workplace. If you are starting with this article, I would suggest reading that one first.

What are occasions at the workplace where you need to get attention? These are important meetings, presentations, and talks where you are trying to communicate something important about work and organization. You may wonder then why do you need to put extra efforts to get attention. Shouldn’t people by default listen to you because it’s about work?

The answer is no; they are under no obligation to give you their unlimited attention unless you earn it. There are two reasons for it. First, everyone is dealing with thousands of things in their workday. The entire day they are listening about work-related things only, but that doesn’t mean they can give the same amount of attention to all those conversations and they should not.

As you get senior, you need to put a very high price on your time. Of course, you should always have time for your team members, but unless you prioritize, nothing will ever get done. There are always tasks competing for your time and energy. The key is to find out which ones are important.

The second reason (driven by the first) is that not everyone who comes to talk values your time. Many people will not be thoughtful about structuring their conversation and will waste your time. Mostly it’s not intentional, either people don’t have the skill or they don’t put enough effort to do that.

But it means something which should have taken 10 minutes, ends up taking an hour to explain, and your entire day gets derailed. Most senior people are patient and kind, but they learn the hard way that they should be cautious about their time.

Primarily driven by these two reasons, when you are talking to someone senior, you have first few minutes (sometimes seconds) to get their attention. If you lose that opportunity, you lose them. So, how do you get that?

In the coming weeks, we will discuss different ways to achieve this. For today, let’s talk about one of the biggest mistakes all of us (yes, including me) make in initial years. If we are lucky, we learn it by pain. If we are unlucky, we never learn it at all. So, if you are one of those people who are still wondering why people go off during your conversation after the first few minutes, this might help.

If you are talking to someone senior, look into their eyes (not literally). You will find an unasked question. You need to answer that question first before saying anything else. Yes, anything at all, even before you introduce yourself.

That question is “Why are you here? Why should I listen to you?”

Yes, they need to know why should they listen to you. You need to answer that in the first sentence. But unfortunately, most of us, do it opposite. We have got wrong advice (or we have taken it wrongly) about communication. We have learned that first, we should give the background of the conversation. Then we should articulate the problem, elaborate possible solutions, and then tell which one will suit best. The sequence is all wrong.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Let’s take an example to help you understand because unless you can implement it from tomorrow, giving you things at a conceptual level will only make it one more article.

Mr. John is a new supervisor in a multinational Oil Company – OilCo joined six months back. Today morning he realized there is a leakage in one of the pipes and he needs to solve it immediately. As he is new to the company, he needs someone’s view. But his manager is on leave. Now, he needs to reach out to his Senior. He has never talked to that person before this. Let’s call this senior person Mike. He enters Mr. Mike’s cabin and starts.

Hi Mike, I am John. You may not recognize me but I joined six months back from Ab Oil. It has been great working in this place. It’s a great working culture. I know you are very busy but this was very important so I had to talk to you. As you would know we have two tanks at the……. ……….. ………… (5 min later)…… …… this morning we realized one of the pipes is leaking. I know we can solve it in three ways, the first one being …….. ………. (2 Min later) ……. I think the third method is the best one and will surely work.”

Ok, what do you need from me?

No, nothing, I just want to bounce off with you as my Manager is out. Although I don’t have any doubts, I thought it would good to let someone know. I think I can go ahead and fix it now.

Sure, go ahead, and please fix it.

Mike is not rude here, he is just clueless. If you notice above, he is never disrespectful. He only spoke two sentences and very short. John can either go back with the impression that Mike should have been more polite. He has another option to contemplate what should have I done differently. What do you think about how should John have approached this conversation?

In our method (we discussed above), don’t save the main news or punch line for last. You are not making a blockbuster. Your first line should be the climax. Let’s rephrase it again.

Hi Mike, I am John from the oversight team. I need quick help here and it won’t take much time. As my manager is out, I need to bounce off one idea with you before I implement it. We have leakage in one of the pipes. After analyzing different options, in my view, we need to replace that portion immediately. Let me know if you have any other views or need more information to decide.

It may look similar to the earlier one, but it’s not. John told upfront what is the purpose of the conversation. What is the expectation from Mike by telling“need to bounce-off” and why this conversation is needed by mentioning “manager is out”. Of course, the content would change based on how confident he is about his judgment.

Did you notice that he still gave Mike the option to hear more alternatives?

The whole idea is to break the news first. Tell upfront, what is the expectation from the listener, and then what is the issue. Should your all conversations be like this? No, we are only talking about your quick conversations with Senior people. In the coming weeks, we will expand more on this topic.

So next time, you are having a quick talk to someone Senior. Tell them in the first sentence – Why are you here? Why should they listen to you?

If you have different thoughts or would like to add something, leave a comment below and let’s have a conversation.

4 Comments

  1. Really appreciate that you took the time to break it down conceptually and conveyed it much effectively. Definitely, something I can implement right away!

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  2. One thing which as a junior I face is this “Senior might feel offended or bad about me if I directly put the context in front of him instead of placing a background first”. As a senior can you please help me out with this?

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    1. Thanks Sourbh for comment. Actually they will not feel bad. You are not skipping background, just that it’s not first sentence. As soon as you tell purpose, you have hooked them and now from second sentence your background will make more sense.

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  3. Very valid point you have made. In the current fast paced world no one has time for others or at least pretend to be busy. Everyone including Managers are worried about WIIFM (what is in it for me) and it makes sense to put the gist of the matter as a bait upfront whether it is presentations, personal discussions or even a sales pitch. Something very important but we ignore very often. Thanks for reminding.

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