This is a transcript of episode 165 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Alan Weiss has written over 60 books on consulting and advocates a no-holds-barred approach, “the martial arts of language”, to business problems. He eats difficult conversations for breakfast! We find out why language controls business, how us engineers can drive strategy by emphasizing results and not technology , and what tough love is and why it’s so effective.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: We have a very special guest today, somebody who’s been a mentor and guide to me for a long time, with lots of fantastic ideas which may be a bit new to our audience. That is Mr. Alan Weiss. Hi, Alan.

Alan: Hello. Good to be with both of you.

Squirrel: Can you tell us just a little bit about your background? Our audience may not know you as well as we do.

Alan: I am a refugee from the corporate world and then a refugee from the corporate consulting world. I used to consult with Fortune 500 companies, today I’m basically a coach globally for entrepreneurs like yourself, and I have thousands of people in my community. I’ve written more books on consulting than anyone ever, and I get a big kick out of it. I love what I do.

Squirrel: Fantastic. One of the reasons we were excited to talk to you that you’re very interested in conversations and language, you even wrote a whole book called The Martial Arts of Language, and we talk a lot about how technical people can use language more effectively.

The Role of Language

Listen to this section at 01:18

Squirrel: I wonder what you think about the role of language for a consultant or in the corporate world?

Alan: Well, language controls discussion, discussions control relationships, and relationships control business. So language is immutable, you have to have it. My father-in-law could look under the hood of a car and he could fix anything under there, but he would say to me, ‘you have to have the right tools. You can’t fix anything without the right tools.’ Language is our tool. You can’t really be effective unless you have the right tools, the nuances and flavourings and connotations and denotations and so forth. The more tools you have, the more successful you’re going to be, as a consultant or anything else.

Squirrel: And what can people do to improve?

Alan: Well, if you want to improve your language skills, you have to improve your vocabulary. I started something long ago where if I didn’t know what a word was, I’d look up the definition. I would try to use it immediately in something I was writing or in my speech; try to use it three, four, five times, and then it gets into your memory. Back then it was a word every two weeks and today is maybe a word every two months. You can see behind me here, I still have the file cabinet—I don’t do it electronically—I put them on index cards, so I’m forced to write it down. I’m forced to look at it and read it. The second thing is you have to look at people who impress you and ask yourself why? What are they doing with the language that impresses you? What you’re going to find out 10 times out of 10 is that the language is active and colourful. They use metaphors, they use analogies, they use comparisons. I wrote a piece the other day and I said, ‘when confronted, his generosity disappeared like the Cheshire cat, leaving only a smile.’ Now, that’s the ability to convey something without being boring and dry, rather than ‘when he was confronted, he withdrew his offer for the money.’ You have to listen to and read people whose language impresses you. The third thing is never, ever, ever dumb down. The advice to dumb down your attire or your language, sometimes presented as ‘think about the people you’re talking to,’ it is absurd. You want to raise people up, not to dumb yourself down. Never be afraid to use language. I know people who are afraid to use language because they feel they’ll be seen as aloof or snooty or something. That’s ridiculous.

Squirrel: Jeffrey, one of the things we talk a lot about is empathy, and I’m curious what you think. Where’s empathy in there? How would you think about empathy with the high quality of language that Alan is suggesting?

Jeffrey: Well, vocabulary in part helps you understand what other people are saying, you can understand the subtle differences between different words. I’m curious, Alan, what role language plays in listening?

Alan: Well, let’s just pick up immediately on what you and Squirrel just talked about, because I’ll introduce a piece of IP here that is brand new. I’ve been experimenting with it. No one else has ever heard this.

Squirrel: What a privilege!

Alan: To me, empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. Sympathy is providing pity for someone else. Those are two different words, but people tend to use them interchangeably. The IP wanted to tell you about is this: I was coaching somebody the other day and I said, ‘look, consider this tough love. But,’ I told them, ‘this won’t work.’ And it occurred to me that tough love is really empathy without sympathy. You know how someone feels, you can relate to it. ‘I know where you are, but, here’s my advice. I’m not going to feel sorry for you or dress it up out of fear for your reaction.’ So, empathy is very important in how we communicate. When you look at language, these are the tools and nuances I’m talking about.

Jeffrey: That’s a great example, I think people might be familiar with Kim Scott’s Radical Candour, and she would talk about the problem of ‘ruinous empathy.’ It’s interesting here, because she’s failing to make the same distinction you are between sympathy and empathy. As a result, she needs the additional modifier there of ‘ruinous’ to make it clear that there are negative consequences that come from taking on the pain of another person and withholding the tough love that you described.

Alan: There’s a proverb about this, ‘you have to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes, because once you give them feedback, you’re a mile away and they don’t have their shoes.’

Squirrel: I know you worked with Chris Argyris, who Jeffrey and I never got to meet, but we work with a lot of his material. One of the things he particularly emphasised was not ‘easing in,’ not giving a cheap ‘there there, it’s OK. Everything’s all right.’ I wonder if that relates to what you’re saying?

Alan: I had the pleasure of working with him, Albert Bandura, Marty Seligman, people of that note. Here’s an example of language from Argyris who said in a book once that ‘someday the modern factory will have only a man and a dog. The dog will be there to make sure the man doesn’t touch anything, and the man will be there to feed the dog.’ You could talk about artificial intelligence and automation, but that really is much more effective.

How to Speak Business

Listen to this section at 07:37

Squirrel: Really evocative language as well. You’ve coached a lot of tech people, including me, but you haven’t really focussed in that direction. You’ve always said ‘finance and tech, those aren’t really my things.’ But now you’re doing a workshop for us tech folks and you’re going to be teaching us how to apply some of these great methods in the tech world. What made you decide to do that?

Alan: I this phrase the other day, ‘English as a second language,’ and then suddenly it hit me. What about business as a second language? So many consultants don’t talk business well, especially technology consultants. I’ll ask my own excellent technical team a question and at least half the time they’ll respond in technology talk that means nothing to me. So I decided I would do a Zoom webinar on business as a second language. It’s for people who aren’t comfortable with business language. I thought I would just help them understand, going back to our language conversation earlier, how you can communicate with a business person without having to resort to an interpreter or sign language or something else.

Jeffrey: That’s great. I actually was on a Clubhouse room earlier today on the topic of trust in and around the team. We were talking particularly on the ‘around’ part. If you get outside of the Agile team to the problem of interfacing with the business and this point, which is if you’re trying to build trust with people, then it’s important to be able to speak their language and be able to have shared meaning. But that only happens if you invested the time to build that shared understanding. So I can see where this ‘BSL’ Business as a Second Language would be very valuable, not just to consultants, but people within organisations where they’re feeling a divide between them and the business and that lack of trust becomes a factor.

Alan: And the onus is on the person who wants something. In other words, you can’t expect an executive to learn to speak technical talk. But a technical person better learn business talk because it’s necessary for his or her survival and future. Right now, technology is simply seen as an enabler. A strategy is set at some point and people are brought in and told to make it happen. But I think the technology needs to be part of the strategy process, they need a seat at that table to provide their ideas and visions about what might happen, that the other executives in the room can take into consideration. But if you can’t speak the language, if you’re only speaking tech-talk, they’re not going to want you there.

Jeffrey: You’re going to end up with an interpreter, someone who’s been put in place to translate for you. Even if they value technology! I know some people would say, ‘I want to go some place that values technology. I want to go someplace where technologists have a seat at the table,’ and they have the view that would mean that then they wouldn’t need to learn to speak business because they’re a place that values technology. But you’re saying something else.

Alan: That’s a pipe dream. For an example look at human resources. There isn’t a place on earth right now where human resources has a seat at the table. If you go back 10 years, you can’t name me three human resources executives who become CEOs. It doesn’t happen. So if tech people really want to make an effort instead of searching for some nirvana, they should make the effort where they are and learn to communicate with people so it’s more impactful.

Jeffrey: That fits exactly with our message, which is the idea that people can learn skills and take control of their own destiny rather than waiting for everyone else to figure out how to behave differently. There’s actually concrete steps that you can do to start behaving differently, whether it’s having Agile Conversations or speaking business. These are these are skills that you can develop on your own without waiting for other people to change.

Alan: If you look at the best tech companies like Apple, they talk to consumers about results. They don’t talk to the consumers about RAM or ROM or memory or storage or anything. They talk about results. The analogy I use, you look at dental practises here in the US, some dentists show their equipment and the new chair, this kind of stuff. But other dentists show you people with beautiful smiles. The point is, people don’t want to see your your tooth extraction mechanism, they want a beautiful smile. The same thing with technology. People don’t care what goes on inside the computer, they just want a reliable, easy to use, effective computer. So if you want to make an impression on people within the organisation, talk about outcomes. That’s the whole point.

Squirrel: Fantastic! I can’t think of anyone better to learn it from than Alan. Alan, thanks for being with us.

Alan: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on. I wish you both the best.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel. Thanks Alan.