If you’re in IT management, improving your communication skills is probably the best investment of time and effort you can make.

Most business executives will tell you that even senior IT leaders tend to falter when it comes to putting their business strategy into a common business language.

IT has a well-known tendency to drown their audience in a sea of technical jargon. When no one challenges any of the statements, it can look like agreement. However, a lack of challenge is less a sign of concurrence than it is an apprehension to ask for clarification. It takes someone with a healthy dose of self-esteem to ask for clarification in front of the group, as many see it as an admission of one’s ignorance (“Everyone else seems to get it… If I ask, I will appear incompetent.”).

It is of no surprise, then, that an IT leader finds after a meeting that her recommendations, seemingly well received by the audience, have gone unheeded. Sometimes it’s just a blow to her ego, but most in this field have a story of a magnificent and expensive failure that resulted from IT advice that had been ignored.

I wrote on this subject previously [link to http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/tech-manager/?p=801], discussing the three usual suspects that predicate such failures. Today, I want to explore the topic further and offer some advice on getting your point across that most people, irrespective of seniority, will find useful. This is not a complete list or an ultimate guide but a collection of ideas intended to provide incredible return on the time invested to read it. I discussed them at one time or another in my speeches or training courses but never before have they been assembled in one place.

So, here we go…

  1. Realize that a dialogue should not be about you, the opponent, the turf, or the superiority but about making the right decision. Accept the fact that you just might be wrong and treat the opposition with respect.
  2. There are two parts to every argument: A position and a bunch of points that support it. Always separate them and be clear on them both. “I support solution A. The reasons for my recommendation are as follows…” On the flip side, learn to identify and separate these two parts in your opponent’s argument. If you can’t do so reliably, ask for clarification.
  3. Never accept an argument that you don’t understand. Ask for clarification.
  4. To each decision, there are objectives (what we want to achieve) and alternatives (how we can achieve it). Are you disagreeing on the objectives or on the alternatives? Make it clear and ask the opponent to clarify their position. This is very important as often there is a lengthy raging battle over easily reconcilable implementation preferences.
  5. Not to belabor this, but…choose the language both you and your opponent understand.
  6. When you make your point, nothing is as effective as the masterful command of the language and use of relevant examples and metaphors.
  7. Often, your opponent will pass his beliefs and opinions for an unquestionable truth. So, be on guard for and readily reject ad hominem attacks (when your opponent targets your persona and not your argument). For example: “I don’t see how this approach can ever work, coming from someone who can’t control his weight, let alone an initiative of this importance!”
  8. Watch out for arguments that say that something is right just because it is either new or old. These are known as ad novitam and ad antiquam arguments.
  9. Don’t fall for arguments that rely on wide acceptance and popularity. What’s right for many is not necessarily right for you, even if the others are in the same industry, market, or building.
  10. Beware of the straw man attacks, which happen when the opposition objects not to your position but to a similar but much weaker and sometimes ridiculous one. For instance, you say: “I am of the opinion that this application will not resolve the issue, because…” Your opponent retorts, ignoring your argument: “Julie, of all people, I wouldn’t expect to hear it from the CIO that high technology is not the way to go!”
  11. Red herring anyone? Watch for arguments with little to no connection to the issue at stake, which are introduced to misdirect the attention of you and the rest of the audience. This also often happens inadvertently.
  12. Sometimes you may lose on the basis of unobtainable perfection. Your way may be the best available but not perfect, while “perfect” is either out of the question or not viable, such as due to prohibitive costs. When you feel that the conversation has fallen into this rut, call a spade a spade, invite the other party to acknowledge that perfection is not possible, and talk about mitigation of the imperfections. You may still lose this battle, but you’ll know you have done your best.

You have probably noticed that in a number of points I advised you to “watch out” or “beware of” or to “be on guard” against various acts of chicanery. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t commit these transgressions either. The Golden Rule applies.

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building winning IT organizations and can be reached at ibogorad@bizvortex.com or (905) 278-4753.