How often do we guess what our clients (coworkers, bosses) want?
Not long ago, I was in a meeting where the leader asked his team to provide more information about two product options. They—being willing, smart employees—said “Sure!” and jumped to action.
After two weeks of preparation, the team present a detailed point-by-point contrast of the two products, including features, prices and projected timelines. The leader responded with confusion and hesitation, noting: “I can’t feel comfortable until I know how each one compares to what we already have.” The meeting ends with no decision, leaving the leader unsatisfied and the team frustrated and angry.
Later, team members fumed about how their boss is hard to please. They believed they had worked hard to provide ‘more information,’ only to have the boss ask for something else. Does this sound familiar? Maybe you know someone who seems to “change their mind all the time,” or “can’t make a decision.”
Let’s look at what’s behind this type of all-too-common mismatch between what we think someone wants and what they really mean:
The other person probably hasn’t yet defined exactly what he wants. Suppose the business leader above is extremely busy and stretched thin (sound familiar?). He makes dozens of important decisions every day and attends back-to-back meetings with minimal prep time. He does not have the capacity (or luxury) of thinking through all the implications of each issue. It’s NOT that he doesn’t know what he needs, it’s that he hasn’t yet had time to clarify or define it exactly.
We guess, or assume we know, what they mean. In the example above, team members assumed a couple things. First, that the business leader knew exactly what HE wanted in a comparison. And second, that THEY knew what a he meant by comparison. Then, they proceeded to guess what it would take to meet that assumed definition of comparison. They guessed wrong.
Well-intended, educated guessing happens all the time. Unfortunately, when we guess wrong, everyone ends up frustrated.
The next time you discuss next steps, pause for a moment and consider whether you are mentally ‘filling in’ some unspoken gaps in information. Has your mind jumped ahead to a finished product based on your assumptions? Take the opportunity to explore what the other person means, to either confirm or correct those assumptions.
In Get to What Matters, we offer several ways to invite another person’s input:
Prompt them to “say more” about their idea.
Paraphrase their request and allow them to elaborate.
Use the Rule of Three to see if there is “anything else” on their minds
Ask a Specifics question- “how will you know…” (you have the information you need?)
It doesn’t take long to get more information. And even if it does take a few minutes to clarify what another person wants, think of the extra time, effort and frustration you’ll save by not guessing!