After spending a month’s worth of work on a product, an executive I speak to and see multiple times a week asked me a question, over e-mail, that effectively read as “who is your customer”? Knowing my product’s customer is foundational to just about every decision that he and I have made and still need to make, and I was taken aback. How could he be making decisions and giving me push back, if, he does not know my complete list of customers? He is an executive so perhaps he is doing what he is supposed to: making decisions on incomplete information. The next set of words that ran through my mind were the ones that really got to the heart of what I was thinking: do you not listen to the rationale I articulate for my decisions, which almost always references my customers? Even more fundamentally: do you hear me, Mr. Executive?
At first, I was going to title this post “Can you see me, Mr. Executive”. However, there is a subtle but extremely important difference between “can” and “do”.
A “do you” question reduces reality to the binary: a yes or no, grounded in facts, is how one answers a “do you” question.
A “can you” question asks for a nuanced take on whether the right environment exists for an executive to understand you.
A “can you” question brings forward agency: does your workplace have the structures and norms in place that enable you to be heard? For instance, are there recurring meetings in which both you and your executive of interest are present and able to speak to one another? A “can you” question also brings forward the mutual nature of being heard. That is, being heard is one-half of communication- the other half of communication is speaking. A “can you” question implicitly states that you, the actor looking to be heard, is speaking (up).
If mis-used, “can you” questions trick the asker to switch a desired “result” with the potential for that desired result. As in, we should not ask our employer “can” they pay us, we should ask them “will” they pay us, since we are interested in achieving the state of being paid. In fact, asking the “can you” question is just an exploration we take to ask the “do you”. When you have little time to waste and know what you want, cut to the “do you”.
Similarly, being “seen” is adjacent to what one looking to drive actions should be looking for. Being “seen” is necessary but not sufficient for influencing someone into collaboration. For example, sitting in a meeting with your executive might be enough to raise awareness but definitely not enough to drive action. If they see you, they know you are there, but that is not enough for the two of you to go to a new location, together. The common American expression “I hear you” rests on and accepts this truth. Often said after hearing a novel or contrasting point-of-view, the listener reaffirms the speaker efforts by saying that their words have been received.
I suspect that I initially wrote “can you see me” instead of “do you hear me” because I believe that the content of my speech can carry it’s own weight into my audience’s mind. That is not always the case, and certainly not when your audience does not have a positive bias or inclined towards action. And, more naively, I assume that my counterparts in dialogue are active listeners that are receptive and seeking my input. In the workplace, that is almost never the case, and even less so with figures of authority who have been and are rewarded for driving their function’s agenda.
While it might seem tragic at first thought that being seen is not enough to drive action, once we articulate that assumption into sound or onto paper, we see that it is, in fact, reasonable. Our executives’ attention is divided and in scarce supply, to claim a piece you must first recognize that you have to claim it, it will not be given to you. So, you must ask yourself and her/him, “do you hear me?” in the way that is appropriate.