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The Simpler The Better

From Career Tips, 2012 Volume 5, May 2012

"Jane" had recently taken over a new team, and reached out for advice on a meeting she planned to have with one of her subordinates, "Julie". Jane needed to turn down Julie's request for shifting work between units. She had also been advised by one of her other subordinates that "you're not good at these discussions," and wanted to be sure she didn't create a relationship issue in the process.

Jane thought through the business case, and wrote out what she planned to say. She came up with solid reasons to refuse the request, and it all made sense. The only pitfall was that by presenting it all in one shot, it could seem like overkill. My advice to Jane was to present her first and strongest argument, and ask Julie what she thought.

That's all it took for a good meeting, and Jane accomplished her goal.

It is a common mistake to jump in up front with our full set of arguments, where often starting with the simpler case is more effective.

By presenting the entire salvo, you can actually look less confident in your position. Why else would you have gone nuclear on something that only required a hand grenade?

And what happens when some of your arguments are weaker than others?
The listener tends to focus in on those weaker ones. Once the listener is able to poke holes in a particular piece, he or she is likely to assume there are similar holes in the other arguments, just better hidden. Now what might have been a convincing case starts to crumble, and you are shifted into a defensive mode.

Another problem with presenting everything is just that - you've shot your wad. If the listener presents some counter-argument, you have nothing left in reserve. All you can do is re-present what you already said, or try to point out the flaws in their counter-case. Either way, you are back on defense.

Here's another example of when simpler is better, in a career search. Interviewers often probe for the holes in your story, looking for problems or weaknesses that might impair your ability to do the job.

In many cases, it's not the hole itself that's the problem, it is how you answer it. The interviewer is often just as concerned about your professional maturity, and how you deal with a weakness, as he or she is about the weakness itself. Thus, the harder you work to show why it's not a problem, the more you tend to accomplish the opposite by emphasizing it.

Here's a link to a case study of how to apply this concept to handle questions relating to an unfair termination.

Another example is the question of how long you've been out of work - a commonly encountered issue these past few years as employment gaps have rapidly lengthened. Someone mentioned this week how much of a problem it was for him when networking contacts asked how long he's been out of work - he could hear an audible gasp when he responded 2 years, and felt the conversation going downhill from there.

You can try hard to explain why it's been so long, and get into all of the difficulties of the economy, and enumerate all of the things you've been doing to move your search forward, but that just puts even more emphasis on the gap. Or you can simply sidestep the question a bit, along the lines of, "It's been longer than I would like, and here's what I'm seeking to do next..."

So next time you are inclined to jump in with both feet on any issue, stop for a moment and think about your end game and what you really want as an outcome. Consider whether simpler might just be better.

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