How to talk to anyone with these confidence tips for new managers

How do you talk to people whose work you don’t understand? A journalist shares his techniques

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Some new managers are thrilled with their new roles. They are full of stratagems on what they plan to hustle. Others are terrified. Many bubbly people are also secretly scared, and those who aren’t bubbly find out within days how misplaced their confidence was and how difficult it is to deal with things.

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One of the biggest challenges a new manager faces is: how do you talk to people whose jobs you don’t understand? If your organization promoted you, you almost certainly knew a lot about the job you were doing. But what about the work that others are doing, not just those in different departments, but those outside the company?

As a journalist who spent time working for the executive training arm of the FT, I started getting inquiries about running programs for new managers and partners. The requests came from a Big Four accounting firm and a London Magic Circle law firm. As a journalist, I had interviewed business leaders. Could I give new partners to these companies some advice on how to talk to business leaders?

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The problem, according to these organizations, was that new partners were comfortable talking about their specialized roles – as auditors, tax experts or mergers and acquisitions lawyers. But asked to represent the company and speak to clients outside their narrow area of ​​expertise, they failed. They were nervous about discussing issues they weren’t sure about. This was especially true when they had to talk to the general managers of the clients. Can I help ?

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We have talked in these classes about the difference between the work of lawyers and accountants and mine. As a journalist, I was looking for a story. They were trying to establish a business relationship, to earn more work. But there were also similarities. We were both trying to get people to relax and open up.

I stressed the importance of preparation, of trying to find out about the person you are meeting. What did they have in mind? People now provide much more information about themselves than they ever did in the past. There’s their LinkedIn profile, their letter to shareholders in the annual report. There are probably interviews with them on YouTube. Best of all are recent speeches they’ve given or articles they’ve written.

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These provide a good opening. Instead of sitting in wondering silence, you can start by saying, “I was just listening to the speech you gave last week on China/railway electrification/future of theater.” Immediately you have established that you are doing your homework. You also gave them a comfortable start by talking about what they said. Even the hardest nut begins to crack at such flattery.

After you start the conversation, you can ask more questions. You seek out their areas of concern, their greatest interests. One of the course participants compared it to setting hooks while waiting for a bite. Once you’ve got them talking, you can move on — me to my research questions, you to pitching what your business can do for them.

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I came to these classes with the intention of talking about the three Cs. First, the context – the background research into what the person you are about to meet is thinking. The second C was competence: by showing that you had done your homework, you demonstrated that you took their concerns seriously. The third C was the connection: that moment in the conversation when you gain the confidence of your interlocutor and that he begins to like you.

You can then, in the case of the journalist, move on to the more difficult questions or, in the case of the new partner or manager, to a more in-depth business discussion.

There are some hiccups, of course, some conversations that don’t work out. When the course participants returned for their next session after an unsuccessful meeting, we chatted about it, trying to decide what would have worked better. There might have been nothing better; sometimes you catch people at the end of a tiring day.

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Course participants suggested two more Cs. These techniques, they found, gave them a fourth C, confidence. The fifth C they suggested was curiosity. That last C should have been obvious to me because it was behind everything I tried to tell them. Curiosity is the new manager’s secret weapon. The more you try to find out, the more interested you are, the more the other person is willing to talk to you.

This applies to people in other parts of your own organization and in any field, not just accounting or law. Curiosity to know what people are doing, getting them to explain how it works, shows you care about them, while learning at the same time. There’s a reason the Queen, with decades of experience making people feel comfortable, asks “And what are you doing?”

The author is an FT Contributing Editor.

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd.

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