Changing Who Leads

Goal: Improving relationships by knowing when to take the lead with the other parties' consent; improving leadership ability by learning how to share control of an interaction or relationship.

Setting: Almost any. But an excellent place to start is when you first talk with a stranger on a routine business call which you have initiated.

Practice (telephone): When you first reach a stranger you have called (for example, a receptionist at an organization), that person knows almost nothing about who you are or what you want. Therefore you must take the lead to establish a context for the call. You have the floor -- and the responsibility to use it successfully.

But once you have established an appropriate context, the other party will usually have some form of habitual or scripted routine for dealing with calls like yours. At that point it's usually better to let them run their routine than to try to intervene and get them to change it. Let them do their job their way. (Later there may be critical times when you must intervene to keep the agenda on track.)

Of course you need to be astute enough, at the beginning of the call, to get the other party started on a script you want. For example, you're usually better off if they choose the "I can help this person" script, instead of the "Another nut call, how do I get rid of this one?"

It's worth a short pause to consider what you want to accomplish, and how you are going to ask for it, before making the call.

Practice (daily life): Opportunities to take the lead with the consent (or at the insistence) of others happen not just on the telephone, but throughout life. Knowing these opportunities is key to graceful assertiveness, to avoiding getting pushed around without being pushy, threatening, or mean. Usually you don't have to fight to get what you want. In fact, sometimes it's your duty to take the lead, and others will be confused or lose respect if you fail to do so. By knowing what you want, you can use these leadership opportunities to help create outcomes in everyone's advantage.

The telephone example provides an excellent learning exercise because it's simple; the relationship begins on a blank slate, and there is no communication except the spoken words. Later, as you get the hang of it, other opportunities will become available.

Comment: For years I had problems with these phone calls. Sometimes the other party would lose all respect for me after the first few words out of my mouth -- words not at all controversial or unusual. I had no idea what the problem was or what to do about it.

Then I read an article about restaurant dining, suggesting that you let the waiter or waitress control the order-taking process -- let them do their job as they know how. So on the phone calls, I tried letting the other party take more control; that failed. So then I tried taking more control of the call myself; that also failed. Finally I realized that what counts is timing, knowing when you must take charge (with the other's consent, in fact, insistence), and when you should let him or her take charge. These business calls that you make to strangers are an excellent beginner's lab for learning, since the basic rule is so simple: You take the lead at first to set up a context, but when the other party has a context and is ready to act in it, let them do so.

Some people have always had this skill, and will not need this or other training to develop it. But those who need to learn it can learn very quickly with this practice.

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