All generalisations are wrong

Several years ago, when I was an employee of a large blue chip company I was amongst a group of colleagues that were invited to a ‘fireside chat’ with a new head of department. Whilst he was sharing his thoughts with us he pointed out to us that ‘all generalisations are wrong’. In a moment of less than career enhancing excitement I pointed out that his statement was a generalisation and therefore must be wrong and consequently we all entered the paradox that he had created (with my help).

But as Robert Cialdini tells us (Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion) our brains are inherently lazy and have a tendency to go for the easy option – he calls it a “click/whirr” response. I believe that generalisations are part of this process. It is easier to lump groups together to make decisions rather than take the time to look at the individual pieces.

As an example, I have a close friend who sees himself as a socialist and has some very clear ideas about his values and beliefs, which are laudable. Sometimes, when we get together he gets into Banker bashing – all the fat cats, with their huge bonuses, ripping us all off. My background in financial services then leads me to stick up for the many tens of thousands of hard working branch and departmental staff who do care about their customers and try their best to provide an excellent service. However, it is easier to focus on the wrong doers and slag off the profession as a whole.

Of course, bankers are not alone. All journalists lie and cheat to get a good story, all politicians are more interested in fiddling their expenses rather than looking out for the interests of their constituents, all teachers are more interested in league tables than they are in educating our children, etc. Now there is a new kid on the block – the NHS. Because of the actions of a few, the NHS, which employs approx. 1.7 million people (the fifth largest employer in the world!), doesn’t care about any of its patients and their employees only begrudgingly provide a modicum of care if they have to and haven’t got anything better to do.

These bandwagons are very easy to jump upon. As we all know, behaviour breeds behaviour; so if we allow our beliefs (based on these generalisations) to influence our behaviour it will affect the relationships we have with these organisations/individuals and inevitably we will get the results that we deserve, which will in turn justify our beliefs. Put more briefly – life reciprocates our belief of it.

So, before we are swept away by these generalisations both in the wider world and in our own relationships (either in work or out of it) – stop and think. Am I acting/behaving based on what I know to be true about the INDIVIDUAL in front of me that I am dealing with or am I acting/behaving based on some generalist, received opinion of the masses. Make the right choice as you will have to live with the consequences of the results your interaction generates.

All generalisations are wrong!


…and I will tell you something for nothing

I had a recent trip abroad to deliver a leadership training programme. I was sitting in the bar of the hotel having a quiet drink waiting for my co-trainer to join me and as usual found myself listening to a conversation on the table next to mine –be careful what you discuss in public areas, who knows who is listening in! It was another expat, like myself, talking to a couple of locals. The subject of the conversation was principally about himself, his company and how brilliant they are.

The two locals continued to smile and nod throughout the conversation which got louder and more animated the more local lager the expat consumed. From my position I could see the locals were giving each other that look –
you know the one, the one that says what a !@#~!? this bloke is. However, all the expat saw was a couple of gents enthralled by his discourse, obviously agreeing with all he said. This tacit agreement that was being demonstrated added to the confidence the lager was giving him. At the height of his speech a couple of interesting observations were made which started with the phrase, and I will tell you something for nothing. At the end of the evening the expat left full of himself and happy with the couple of converts he left behind in the bar. Whilst I didn’t understand the language the locals continued their conversation in, it was pretty obvious how they felt about the guy who just left the bar.

This started me thinking about how people communicate in general where the goal is to engage with team colleagues or customers. Some simple rules to consider;

  • When communicating, do you talk at or talk with people?
  • When trying to influence and/or engage with others it is better to make them the focus of the conversation
  • Nodding doesn’t always equate to agreement, check it out

…..and finally if someone tells you something for nothing, that is probably all it is worth.


Asking Questions About Asking Questions – Part 2

Our last blog on questions ( looked at some common deficiencies and pitfalls and left you with a question – how do you think that you could improve your questioning skills right now? This rather assumes two things – that you are aware of how effective your current questioning habits are, and that you want to improve your skills in this area.

Most of us are quite unaware of how we do what we do most of the time, unless and until we get some feedback (which is simply information to help us become aware) – a whole other blog subject. Even then “wanting” to do something about it – weighing up the cost of the effort involved against the perceived benefit of changing – is crucial to anything actually taking place that is different from what we are comfortable with (our existing, well formed habit).

We may not be that bad at eliciting answers from people, but could we be better for our sake and theirs? The answer is almost certainly yes. So here are a few tips…………

Good questions are usually short. “Why is that?”, “How does that work?”, “Why do you say that?”, “What would make that better”, “How can I help?”.

It is best to leave them like that actually and let the other person reply or as Susan Scott puts it in her excellent “Fierce” books, “let the silence do the heavy lifting”. So why don’t we do that?

  • It doesn’t seem like we are doing much or contributing much to the conversation – (this can be driven by how we feel about ourselves and our “need” to contribute)
  • It leaves a silence while the person thinks, which is awkward and so we fill it – (the awkwardness is only in our heads and this can be about how confident we are about our own questioning skills and the “need” to contribute as above)
  • In doing this, I don’t get to let the interviewee know that I have either done my homework, have knowledge or have some answers to suggest – (this can be driven by how we feel really about ourselves and our “need” to contribute, or look “clever”)

What is the pattern that is emerging here?

Good questions are about the other person. The key to really good questions is that they are not about the interviewer at all. If I am secure in my skills and feel confident in what I am doing, then I am happy to take a “back seat” in the conversation or process. You will know when you have asked a really good question, as you will notice the act of thinking taking place – watch for the eyes to move away from eye contact as the search engine kicks in. This is good; so give the person space to think and provide an answer – don’t rush them, fill in the space, make suggestions or anything else. Wait – the answer will come.

Very often when I ask questions, I don’t need or want to know the answer; it is about the person that I am asking knowing the answer, by getting them to think it through.

Good questions provide answers that lead to the next question. Very often the best (i.e. that stimulate the most thinking) questions are those two or three into a conversation flow. These go deeper than, “behaviour” to what drives or causes that “behaviour”, for example. “Why do you think that?”, “What makes that happen?”, “What causes you to feel that way?”, “What is really going on?” – these are just a few……….Listening to the answers – rather than worrying about what to say next – is crucial. The next question is very often birthed in the answer to the last.

Good questions demonstrate interest in the other person. In any leadership or management role, questions are a powerful to way to create a feeling of value in the individuals within the team/group. The questions must be genuine (if they are not “emotional leakage” will give you away) and you must be prepared to listen to the reply. The next question, if based on the response that you have just heard, demonstrates listening, interest, value, concern – all great things to help you in your wider role.

Good questions circumvent “stock” answers and superficiality. One of the most frustrating responses you can elicit at times is “I don’t know”. I am not speaking about factual questions – “What is the mass of the sun?” – as it is perfectly possible that people will not know the answer to that question (which is fine, as they can find out or look it up). I am talking about questions to do with themselves, like those two paragraphs above.

Very often this answer is provided because people can’t be bothered to think it through or do know but don’t really want to admit the answer (to themselves, more than anything else). A great question – try it – to use when people respond with “I don’t know”, is to ask “If you did know, what do you think the answer would be?”. This works well in almost all cases and I have been astonished at how deeply people will think about their reply often coming up with a very thoughtful answer, sometimes surprising themselves.

It is almost as if their brain really cannot resist searching for the answer to such a deep and probing question.

What makes a skilled questioner? There are probably more than listed here, but these would be a great start:-

  • Genuine interest in the other person (this is about your mental preparation!)
  • Short concise questions – keep it simple
  • Listening to the answer
  • Personally secure enough to leave aside their need to show knowledge
  • Clarify what isn’t clear (rather than assume)

And finally……

Why would you want to improve your questioning skills?
How will you set about improving your questioning skills?
Where will you begin?
What do you think will be the hardest aspect to conquer?
When will you start the improving process?
Who will give you feedback?