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Guided Narrative: The Secret to Working with Obstinate People or Entrenched Players

I’ve heard and put into practice several strategies for “winning arguments” or influencing people over the years. Some of the best advice was the most simple: stop talking and listen. I’ve always felt like that was incomplete guidance.

I’m 36 years old. Like most people my age, I’ve “worked with” a variety of authority figures over the years: parents, teachers, managers, team leads, and similar roles. As you’d expect some of those people commanded more respect and were more effective leaders than others. But I don’t think it was until I worked at Amazon in Jim Joudrey’s organization that I finally understood a more complete strategy for influencing people.

Ego, conflicting priorities, and adversarial incentives all contribute to workplace obstinance.

Jim is an engineering manager and engineers are notorious for being difficult to work with. There is all manner of ego intertwined with merit-based argument. For that reason it can be hard to pull people from entrenched positions. Those situations are particularly critical to navigate when outcomes depend on collaboration. Jim always seemed like a magician. I watched him diffuse several high-emotion arguments between entrenched actors (myself included) within and across organizational lines. What was his trick? How was his behavior different from others?

I figured out his trick after reflecting on my time working with him: he always asked questions. Jim rarely tipped his hand on his position during a dispute. Instead he listened and then guided the narrative by asking great questions that begged critical thought. By the end of the conversation he hadn’t actually “told” anyone anything but the group had usually reached consensus. They shared in a non-adversarial narrative and learned as a collective. It doesn’t take much research to understand the benefit of shared experiences.

There is magic in questions.

But why does this work? Questions play on interesting social dynamics. Everyone participating will probably try to answer the question for themselves as well as shift their focus to the answers being proposed. Questions steer the whole conversational narrative and give people opportunities to introduce “new” information. People can learn without having to submit to some imposing alternative. The answers they come up with are their own.

The opportunity to form and share their own ideas creates the “slack” that allows a person to change their own mind without risking some perceived social capital. As the person asking you needn’t — and probably shouldn’t — divulge your own thoughts on the matter. But the magic in this trick depends on asking the right questions. So, what makes a good question?

The best questions don’t challenge people. They earnestly grant someone else the opportunity to play an authoritative role (which we’re all eager to do from entrenched positions). People love to be right, and questions present irresistible opportunities to be right. A careful question is a conversational parry and through a series of parries we can steer any conversation. Avoid questions that draw adversarial lines. Never say “you” or “your”.

Never try to change a person’s mind. Give them opportunities to change their own.

We are all on the same side at work. There is little room for ego when our business needs to make the right decisions and learn the right things. Resisting the urge to make statements and focus on asking the right questions takes practice and significant personal fortitude. But doing so commands enormous respect and builds trust in the people you work with.

Of the leaders I’ve worked under, I think Jim most effectively drives conversations to consensus. Anyone with the opportunity to work with him should take it. I hope that the rest of us can at least put into practice the lessons I took away from my time in his organization.