Chatting with Dumb People

I just had an interesting conversation with a fellow employee about getting information from people. We both work with someone who is smart and knowledgeable but also shy and a poor communicator. A large part of my job is to get information from people. I have to pull information from all sorts of people and sometimes I have to determine if the information I’m receiving is correct. Over the years I’ve realized that it takes multiple strategies to approach different personalities in order to get the best most accurate information possible. In today’s post I thought I might share some personality types and the strategies I employ to get the best most accurate data and to drive projects forward to successful implementation on time and under budget. These strategies also ensure we solve the real business problems when taking on a project.

Knowledgeable good communicator
These folks are a joy to work with and there ain’t much you have to do in the way of strategy to get the the information needed for a project. The difficulty with smart good communicators is finding them withing an organization. Once you’ve found a smart strong communicator make them part of your team as soon as you can. You won’t have to ask for there opinions in a meeting because they will provide it on there own.

Knowledgeable poor communicator
A person who is knowledgeable but a poor communicator often knows they communicate poorly.  That can make life easier. The problem is they only really know one way to say something. A great tactic for working with these intelligent people who communicate poorly is repeating what you understood in your own words or even repeat back to them exactly what they just said. Once a smart person hears what they said they can then go on to correct themselves or add further detail.

Another thing to remember when working with this group of folks is that when they show frustration it’s not always directed at you the person asking questions. It’s often time a reflection on their own inability to get their point across. That is why it’s incumbent on you the listener to read in between the line and help the person communicate as clearly and quickly as possible without getting lost in the detail.

English as a second language
People who speak English as a second language are often much more frustrated trying to communicate then you might be trying to understand. Generally these folks know there job and the language to speak specifically about their  job but often don’t have the skills or language necessary to communicate everything they want to say. It is your job as the project manager or business analyst to help them communicate there message in full. It is also your job to make sure they understand everything that has been discussed. In a fast passed meeting it can be quite overwhelming for someone who doesn’t speak English naively  to listen to all these strange people with different dialects and different speeds of communication.  Take the time to ask and sit down outside of the meeting to ensure all major points were communicated.

Another grate tactic is to use email with non-native speakers. Many times the non-native speaker understands English perfectly well but spoken language is too fast for them. In this scenario an email is the ideal way to communicate

Dumb and fast
I’m sure there are some folks who will be offended by the term dumb. It’s not a particularly nice term but the fact is that there are dumb people out there or at least people who give the perception of being dumb. I’ll define the term dumb to include ignorant and unwilling to learn. I also define it to include folks who are afraid of change, or believe sharing their “technical knowledge” will make them less valuable.

You’ll notice I used two sentences above to define the term dumb. That is because there are two different approaches that need to be taken and there IS value to be gained from both these types of people.

Let’s approach ignorant and unwilling to learn. The biggest problem with the Dumb fast ignorant and unwilling to learn group is that they often perceive themselves as smart. It’s difficult to get information from these folks that can be used to further a project but these folks love to talk. There is a very unique value this personality type brings especially when in group meeting where decisions need to be made. This group will typically make the negative wrong or ignorant statements that help solidify the rest of the group on a decision. The beautiful thing about business is you don’t need agreement from everyone to move forward and this type of person can often be the catalyst to move a group forward.

CAUTION: Just because a person falls into this group does not mean you can disregard everything they say. This is a general categorization and I’m defining approaches  for how to leverage the value they can bring. A big problem I see is that once a person gets categorized as dumb, is folks often stop listening to them all together. That is dangerous because you could throw out the baby with the bath watter so to speak. Good ideas come from all groups of people, no matter there predisposition.

The other group of Dumb and fast are those afraid of change and afraid of sharing. This is a group of people worth spending time with because they often hold insights that are very valuable to a project. You must use caution when approaching this group because they will share problems in a way that makes them seem insurmountable. It’s good when they share because at least the problem is on the table. The bigger issue is these folks will often hold these problems to them selves because they don’t want a project to be successful.

I use two or often three approaches to work with these people. 1) Group and Peer pressure 2) Ask directly in group settings and 3) One on one discussions.

When someone is afraid of change bringing them into a group that considers risk and looks at the big picture will often help that person face their fears. It will also cause them to express the fears which can be well founded. However I’ve almost always found that once the fears are expressed we can find solutions to address the concern raised and the  once monumental problem becomes a minor bump in the road. The method of using group and peer pressure helps to facilitate the discussion that allows the person afraid of change to express themselves.

Often the person is so fearful of change that they decide to hide there concerns “knowing” that if they don’t share this “monumental” problem that everyone else is “missing” the project will surly fail. As a project manager or business analyst if there is this type of problem it will eventually surface itself and it will become evident that the individual knew about the problem to begin with. Usually that problem wasn’t nearly as big as the person thought and you can manage around the problem once it arise but that impact time and cost so the best approach is to know about the problem at the beginning of the project. Your best option is to drag the information out of the person who is sitting on it. You can often pull this information simply by asking every person individually about there thoughts throughout a meeting. Take the time when an issue arises in a meeting to ensure you get input from everyone even if the issue is not related directly to an individuals field. Watch for the facial expressions that show a persons thoughts and make sure to recognize the person who seems put off.  This little extra effort can uncover unique solutions and problems the group hadn’t thought of.

Finally, the person afraid of change often just needs to express those concerns in private. Take the time to ask the folks on your project what they think individually. They will appreciate the individual attention and later when you need to force an issue you will have built the individual relationships to get the support you need.

Dumb and Shy
We will also include lazy here although the lazy folks will usually be perceived as in the Dumb Shy group and really there isn’t much of a difference. I will tell you that I personally don’t believe in dumb. Above I defined dumb as ignorant and unwilling to learn or as fearful. I think that  those categories are pretty accurate. You will need to work to educate people out of their “dumb zone.” Shyness is a personality trait you can’t educate people out of so you need to work either off line with that person or find a way to help them communicate in the meeting by asking questions. It’s pretty straight forward actually but it does take a commitment on your part.

If I had to summarize this very long post in a just a few sentences I’d tell you that communication is your responsibility. While you need two people to communicate if you are the one who is trying to gather information then you are the one responsible to ensure you gather the information. This means you’ll have to take various approaches to work with various personalities. Make sure you take the time to think about the personality of the person you are trying to gather data from and work in there comfort zone so you can be most effective.

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