Language from the Center
Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable.
-Jonathan Krakauer, Into Thin Air
Like any thrown-together group-a pickup basketball game, a rowboat full of survivors, an ad hoc committee planning the annual company picnic-the eight people who tumbled out of the hotel's minivan for the "scenic trail hike" had different styles, values, and expectations for the day. Jerry was determined to demonstrate how experienced he was. Hector was committed to being jolly. Lynn was there to burn calories. Dana was there for the views. Alyse, a city dweller, and Walter, who had recently had knee surgery, were worried that they might not be able to keep up. Jack and Harold were focused on lenses, apertures, light levels, and film speed. To make this a successful experience, the hotel had assigned the group two guides, Claire and Sheila. Claire led the pack up the hill. Sheila brought up the rear. The two stayed in contact throughout the day with walkie-talkies and occasional conversations when the group paused to rest, eat, or reconsider the route.
Claire and Sheila agreed that both their jobs were important, but the hikers in general looked upon Claire as the leader of the hike, the guide in charge. Jerry and Lynn hung out with Claire. The more experienced hikers sat with her on breaks. Claire checked the route, made decisions, and set the pace. Alyse, Walter, and Hector hung out with Sheila. Sheila kept the stragglers going; she motivated and encouraged the slower hikers, she accommodated the talkers who wanted to chatter rather than climb, and she dealt with the inexperienced, the injured, and the out-of-condition. Claire's seemed like the important work, although Sheila's was probably just as difficult. Throughout the day, Claire's role as declared leader was reflected in her speech style:
"Remember to pace yourselves for the whole day." "You need to be drinking water at least every mile." "We can't take that route and be back before sunset." "I know...that looks interesting...but there's a drop-off and the creek was too deep to cross yesterday. We'll take a different route to the summit."
Claire's language style inspired confidence in her group. When she said the route was closed, that settled it. And if she found the pace too fast or too slow, the hikers made the proper adjustments. No one knew if Claire was highly experienced; none of the hikers had ever met her before. But through her speech style, she was able to gain the confidence and the trust of her group, and they listened to what she told them.
When we speak, we often choose to be either Claire or Sheila. We choose to lead or to encourage. Certainly, both styles are important because each has its own advantages and disadvantages. This chapter, however, looks at Language from the Center, the language habits and speech markers that sound like leadership and aim for control.
What Language from the Center Sounds Like
1. Directs Rather Than Responds
2. Makes Statements
3. Contextualizes with Authority
4. Contradicts, Argues, and Disagrees
5. Practices Affect of Control
What Language From the Center Conveys
Language from the Center, like Claire, takes the lead. It suggests competence and confident familiarity. The speaker is knowledgeable, working comfortably in familiar territory; since he's been here or done this before, we can trust him. There aren't going to be any unpleasant surprises. Language from the Center makes a speaker sound like a leader.
Language from the Center Sounds Like Competence, Knowledge, and Authority
Donna Demizio wants to talk to you about your desk. For the last eleven years, Demizio has sold the workstations and design services of Office Creations, the largest contract furniture dealer in New England. Her knowledge of desks, chairs, cubicles, partitions, pedestals, lighting, and laterals has helped Demizio average about five million dollars a year for OC over the last four years. This year-it's only September-she's written up six million dollars.
Demizio gets to the office at 7:00 a.m. and checks her mailbox: five hand-written messages and six faxes. Not bad, she thinks. She heads to her desk and logs on to e-mail: eighteen messages. Okay-with luck, that's half an hour's work. Next, her voice mail, which can warehouse up to twenty messages. It's full. The first message: "Donna-it's Adrienne at PYC-listen, the caster just fell off my file puppy-can you deal with this for me-it's an emergency 'cuz I can't even get the drawers open with the thing lying here like it's got a flat tire-thanks, kiddo." By the time Demizio has done the rough triage on the messages, noted the important numbers, and shuttled whatever she can to someone else's desk, it's 8:30 a.m. and she's already behind for her first client, the one that doesn't have adjacent parking. It looks like it's going to be one of those days.
While she's driving, Demizio returns phone calls. She tries to prioritize, but every client wants immediate attention. She completes her first appointment, a law firm looking to reconfigure support staff space, and then heads downtown to her top client, New England Bank. Time to check her beeper and phone in for messages. She can't make important calls from the car and risk getting cut off in the middle of a delicate negotiation or a pitch-she liked the Central Artery better when it wasn't a tunnel-but she can leave her own cluster of follow-up messages, play phone tag to keep connected to her accounts, and do some of the baby-sitting that constitutes 75 percent of her work. Today she'll have to be a farmer, giving her time and energy to existing accounts, seeding for the future with established clients, and keeping people happy with follow-up contact. But she needs time to be a hunter, too. Looking for leads, keeping up with the churn, researching the influential decision-makers is tough to do on the run.
By the end of the day, Demizio has seen five clients, made thirty-five phone calls, sent forty-one e-mails, been paged eight times, checked her voice messages five times, and sent or received fifteen faxes. She's checked in with all twenty-four of her active clients and made brief contact with at least six more on her list. She's promised herself for the third time not to cut the next leads group breakfast. And she's told Eric, her account coordinator, to send a new 1488845-01 caster to Adrienne.
Demizio's speech style is assured and sometimes even aggressive. As a seasoned salesperson, she knows the business and she knows her product down to the smallest specification. Her clients typically think little about where their work occurs. So Demizio's initial contacts with companies are mostly informational. She describes product lines, bats around space configurations, and explains different price points. The next round of conversations will be educational as well: quality versus remanufactured product, current design trends, multiple applications for product, spatial flexibility for the future. Somewhere along the line, she must explain that vendors no longer stock inventory. Thus every job is fully customized-even if the core of the order is common components-and every job takes longer than the client figured.
When the client agrees to a presentation-has visited the showroom, reviewed the catalogues, accepted the time line-Demizio organizes a sales presentation involving CAD drawings, specifications, pricing, and little squares of fabric the size of playing cards. Months of conversation, negotiation, and necessary sign-offs may follow. Demizio, on the phone, at the fax, at the job site throughout this time, works to create (on a time line that from day one was unrealistically short) an affordable match between the clients' needs and the products she represents. Some of her meetings are binder dumps in a conference room. Some of her contacts are just electronic dart games of close-but-not-quite communication. Once in a while she has time to uncover the aesthetic and conceptual issues behind a project. Mostly she's "maxed out" and a little cynical about the latest Customer Intimacy Initiative. As Demizio sees it, the bulk of her job is the delivery of information and the education of her clients. But service and solutions get complicated in the two-way squeeze between impatient planners who can't afford the downtime of spatial reorganization and unreliable vendors with nothing in stock. Demizio works entirely on commission. She, too, is in a hurry and behind every day of the month. Language from the Center seems like the right way to stay even.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Sarah Myers McGinty