SEATTLE (Reuters) - There’s skepticism, and then there’s skepticism.
The best-known kind is the dim or jaundiced view one adopts when faced with an improbable explanation, get-rich-quick offer, emailed appeal for money from Nigerian ex-royalty, food nearing its expiration date, cliff-diving invitation, or what have you. This kind of skepticism (justified or not) is decidedly negative.
Then there’s “Professional Skepticism” — an accounting term I learned from Ken Daly, CEO and president of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) back in 2007.
Professional skepticism uses a questioning mind and a critical assessment of audit evidence. That may sound just like regular old skepticism, but in this case, the auditor does not assume that management is either honest or dishonest.
Now, one needn’t be an accountant to practice professional skepticism. Imagine the impact on our workplaces if we could all keep an open mind, pre-judge less, listen more and gather information more effectively.
Multiplied across an organization, the potential for better corporate governance and performance is boundless.
But how does one get there in the real world? How do professional skeptics keep an open mind and ask tough questions about sensitive topics without igniting drama, dissembling and defensiveness?
The answer: By applying the basic rules of etiquette. Which brings us to your seven secrets of civil skepticism.
1. Show respect.
A workplace cannot operate without a culture of respect that extends up, down and across every level of the corporation. From cashier to CEO, each employee holds a unique position that has value to the company. Every person has demands on his or her time. Reflect respect in setting appointments, being on time, and addressing co-workers. Always remember to say please and thank you, and if you make a mistake, apologize sincerely and immediately.
2. Choose the right setting.
In these overly public days, when we are privy to the phone calls of passing strangers and intimate details of acquaintances on the Internet, privacy seems a thing of the past. And yet, privacy is essential for detailed questioning, challenging and certainly criticizing. Find a room, close the door, and turn off your phone. Privacy encourages candor and reduces noisy distractions that can impede information gathering.
3. Tame your tone.
An accusatory, disbelieving or sarcastic tone of voice will sabotage your efforts every time. Practice speaking in an unemotional tone (as if you were saying “It’s raining”) until you can ask hard questions this way. This extends to non-verbal communication. Quell the eye rolling, foot jiggling, crossed arms, and smirks.
4. Stifle the “you.”
Steer clear of “you” language as much as possible. If you say to me, “How can you possibly explain this result?” you can be sure that I will be building my defense, not hearing your message. Instead, try “I would like to understand better your thinking in reporting this result. Can you tell me more?” or, “Can you explain what led you to that conclusion?” With these, I am much more likely to enter into a dialogue with you. And that will give you better information.
5. Beware the “but bomb.”
I’ve learned the hard way that the word but seems to erase everything I just said. I call this the “but bomb,” and I’ve learned to substitute the word yet, especially when I am having difficult conversations. The more diplomatic yet helps me remember that the other person probably does not want to hear what I am about to say. It also helps me keep my temper and ego in check, which is essential when I need to see the big picture.
6. Hold your tongue.
Interruptions saturate our culture and our daily lives. Being interrupted is like climbing a mountain and getting kicked back down just as you reach the summit. So learn not to interrupt, especially someone to whom you have just posed a question. Interruptions only lead to frustration, resentment and soon...anger. Remember: Introverts need to think to talk, while extroverts need to talk to think.
7. Be reflective.
When listening, if you hear someone emphasize a key phrase, it’s very important to speak the phrase back exactly and precisely. No paraphrasing. If a person says, “recognition of revenue,” repeat “recognition of revenue” and not “revenue recognition.”
Simple? In one sense. Silly? Not at all.
Last year, NACD launched a five-part webinar series about skepticism. I collaborated on the project with William White, a professor at Northwestern University and a retired CEO who serves on the board of NACD.
The series showed that skepticism which employs the rules of etiquette creates an atmosphere of respectful disagreement, so that nobody feels bloodied in the process.
Studies by Harvard University, The Carnegie Foundation, the Stanford Research Institute and Google have all concluded research that supports this.
All have concluded that an employee’s performance and advancement rely far more heavily on interpersonal skills than on technical knowledge.
Or as John D. Rockefeller once put it: “I will pay more for the ability to deal with people than any other skill under the sun.”
(Mary M. Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, now in 11 languages, most recently “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Modern Manners Fast Track” and “Woofs to the Wise”. She is the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization (www.themitchellorganization.com). The opinions expressed are her own.)
Editing by Paul Casciato