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From The CriticsBob Thomas loves to ask dumb questions.
"If you can't understand what someone's saying, don't let it slide," said Thomas, a lifelong entrepreneur based in Carson City, Nev., who has built three successful high-tech companies. "Resist the temptation to gloss over it."
Thomas, author of The Fail-Proof Enterprise, prizes precise communication. He believes that persuasive leaders don't need charm and charisma, but they must speak clearly.
He recalls watching a salesman at work. When a customer asked, "What's the storage capacity on this computer?," the salesman replied, "More than you'll ever need!"
"He was evading the question," Thomas says. "He should've replied, 'I don't know, but I'll find out.' And if he did know, he should've given a specific answer."
An avid reader, Thomas seeks to enrich his vocabulary. He constantly looks up words he doesn't know and puts them to good use.
"You don't want to be the kind of person who's able to discuss your narrow area of technical expertise but who's dead in the water if you find yourself talking about matters outside your field," he said. "Someone with an abnormally low vocabulary tends to struggle" when communicating with nontechies.
Thomas has managed technicians for much of his career. When they misuse a word, he likes to say, "There's a little problem I want to let you know about. Nothing serious. But I want you to be aware of it now so you don't embarrass yourself later."
Thomas said, "I find almost everyone appreciates being made aware of how they can communicate better. Do it gently, without blowing it out of proportion, and they'll view it as supportive coaching and they'll take it to heart."
If an employee uses technical jargon, Thomas might ask the person to "restate that in plain English." He also likes to respond: "Let me translate what you just said."
"Do that enough times and people figure out that they need to speak clearly with you," he said. "They'll realize they can't hide behind their low vocabulary."
To earn employees' trust, Thomas adopted the habit of spending every Monday morning circulating through the workplace. He'd spend 10-15 minutes chatting one-on-one with workers.
"I'd ask something like 'How's the family?' and let it go from there," he said. "In a low-key, nonthreatening way, I listened, whether they wanted to talk about their family, sports or whatever else. Dignify people as individuals, and they'll be more willing to follow your lead."