The other day I was on a call with a former client who abruptly said, “Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your valuable time …” Sure enough, I looked up at the clock and it was right on the hour. I knew this was her polite way of saying she had to run to another meeting.
If I was talking to some self-important weasel, the exact same phrase might also mean, “I don’t want you to take up any more of my valuable time.” And, if it was a paying client on the phone, it might have meant, “You’re charging me for this and I don’t want you to take up any more of my valuable money.”
Now, that may be a relatively innocuous example of people saying and meaning completely different things, but there are all sorts of situations where it matters, big-time. In business, it’s often true that the most important thing you need to hear is what people don’t actually say.
I suspect we’ve been speaking in euphemisms – polite ways of saying impolite things – since the dawn of civilization, but political correctness has definitely bumped that up a notch or ten. People are afraid of being direct and saying what they mean for fear of offending someone or even getting sued.
In business, reading between the lines is both a challenge and an opportunity. If you’re adept at it, it can be quite a competitive advantage.
When it comes to negotiating, managing people, interpreting your boss, interviewing, wooing investors, customer relationships, international business, understanding what kind of person you’re really dealing with, or even detecting BS, the ability to grasp the underlying meaning behind the words is a great skill to have.
It doesn’t seem to matter if folks are being polite, euphemistic, politically correct, obtuse, guarded, or blowing smoke up your you-know-what. The method’s the same. It comes down to four things: Emotion, Triangulation, Judgment, and Courage.
First and foremost is the emotional aspect – a gut feeling or instinct that allows you to sense the other person’s underlying intent or feeling. It helps if you’re comfortable in your own skin or reasonably self-aware. If not, you might be sensing your own feelings and transferring them to the other person.
If you want to be strongly aware of the feelings of others, you have to be able to sort of quiet your own inner voice. You know, the one that’s always babbling on about what can go wrong, what if you fail, that sort of thing. You have to be as relaxed and present in the moment as possible. Yes, I know that sounds like a bunch of new-age psychobabble, but I assure you it’s not.
Going back to our earlier example, I’m a pretty friendly guy who likes to get to know people, especially customers. But I’m pretty aware of that and I have thick skin. So when a potential client says, “I don’t want to take up any more of your time,” I know it’s time to let them go.
Granted, it doesn’t necessarily mean I crossed some sort of line or that I was getting too buddy-buddy. Some people are just polite. Which brings us to the second aspect of this equation: Triangulation.
When it comes to making decisions based on observations or any kind of data, for that matter, here’s my rule of thumb: One observation is just that, a data point. Two observations that point to the same conclusion is strong evidence. Three observations that point to the same conclusion is fact.
That said, some situations call for a less quantitative or higher risk approach. That brings us to the third aspect: Judgment.
I was once involved in a protracted negotiation with a large Japanese company. We had reached an impasse that threatened the deal when my more experienced co-negotiator suggested we take a break. After we adjourned to another room, he said he was getting the feeling we had backed our opponent into a corner and that, if we gave him an opening to save face, we could salvage the deal.
When we returned to the negotiating table, my colleague said we would be willing to soften our stance on one of the terms of the deal. It wasn’t a critical term, but sure enough, you could see the change on our opponent’s face. Within a day, we had a deal.
Sometimes, especially if you have nothing to lose, it’s worth taking a chance on a gut feeling.
The fourth and final aspect of this actually has nothing to do with reading between the lines and everything to do with courage.
My CEO’s reaction to a concept pitch by an ad agency was an emphatic, “I hate it.” He was so intimidating that the ad folks were sure their big idea had been shot down. But I’d been through this with enough technology CEOs to know that they didn’t always mean exactly what they said.
So I risked a strong rebuke and pushed him a bit by asking, “What exactly didn’t you like about it?” Turns out he didn’t like the copy, something that was easily remedied. I guess he was just a literal kind of guy. I don’t think he cared one bit about the visuals or even the concept, just the words. Go figure.
Sometimes you’ve just got to take a deep breath, muster your courage, and be direct. How do you know when it’s time to do that versus reading between the lines? That, my friends, comes with experience.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.