Tongue-Twister

Do you ever get tongue tied?

When I was in 6th Grade, our history teacher who was from the exotic realm of New Jersey (so far from sunny Tucson), decided to teach us about the Constitutional Congress (yes, it was 1976) by having us act out a play that he may have written to teach sixth graders about the Constitutional Congress. We each had a part to play, a speaking part. At the time, people thought I was shy, so I only had one line. It was an important line, spoken passionately when confronted by the redcoats. It was the pinnacle of the action.  To this day, I remember that line: “We shall not disperse!”

And I blew it. I got tongue tied and stuttered on the last word. In my defense, although I knew what it meant, what sixth grader uses the word “disperse” in every day conversation.

One of my friends had this problem at work. He really knew his stuff; you could tell by the way he talked about it when he was chatting around the water-cooler or working through it one on one. But when a meeting started, he felt like he had to be a “professional” and he put on a mental necktie. A tie that started choking him with big complicated words that he never used on a daily basis, and convoluted sentence structures. So of course he got tongue-tied and I got frustrated on his behalf. Confiding my frustration to my boss, he chided me for a lack of compassion – after all English was my friend’s second language, he pointed out. “Except,” I rebutted, “it’s not his second language. That’s what’s so frustrating.”

Sometimes when you know you’re stuff, and know it really well, it becomes such a part of you that you under-appreciate your skills. You think that it’s so easy for you, it must be that easy for everyone. So when you need to show that you know you’re stuff, you over-complicate things, you drag in big words that you never use and big concepts, trying to show people that you know your stuff.

I did that when I first started working as a consultant. Even though I had been doing my job for more than 30 years and held a leadership position at a huge company – and doing it darn well, thank you – and had earned a Masters degree, I would still doubt myself and get tongue-tied.

So how did I get past that? I’m going to share my secret with you:

It’s not what you say.

It’s how well you listen.

And what questions you ask to provoke thought in them and help them learn.

I learned this from my new boss. He’s a quiet guy and he doesn’t say much. He keeps it casual and you think he’s just chatting with the client. And then he slips in a question and the client falls silent, you see thoughts pass over their face, they look over at him, and then they shift. By asking a question that causes them to reflect and think beyond their usual patterns, they realize he knows his stuff.

He doesn’t have to use big words or convoluted thoughts to strut his stuff.

And that’s the secret: don’t make it about you – make it about the people you’re with. Make it about what they need to hear, reaching their minds. And suddenly you won’t be tempted by the big words and the complex concepts and sentences. In fact, you’ll learn to cast those aside and focus instead on making everything as simple and understandable as possible.

And when you are speaking simply, you won’t get tongue-tied.

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