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Is the way you communicate holding you back? How to polish your technique. (a series)

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We all think we’re pros.

We’ve been communicating for years, decades, and we’re pretty good at it.

Except when we’re not.

Whether you’d call yourself an expert or you’re just getting started on the journey of better conversations, we all have room to grow.

This is the first in a series of posts (check back for more!) about improving your communications and I’ll cover some of the basics as well as some of the more nuanced, but conversation-saving, elements of connecting with the people around you.

Let’s get started, because where you start really matters.

Think back to your last conversation that didn’t go well.

How did it begin?

You’re probably thinking about what you said (or what they said). The words. How you said them. The background of the whole conversation.

Let me ask a different question: Did you begin already knowing the (right) answer?

We often do, even when we think we’re starting with an open mind.

Beginning with the firm belief that you don’t know the answer is the first key to successful communication.

Most of us are probably already lining up the reasons why that can’t be right. One mouse-click away from jumping to the next article, but really consider that question.

How often do you start an important conversation already knowing what the “right” answer is? Or what the field of “possible” answers looks like? Most of us do this without evening being aware of it.

Obviously, there are times when the right answer really is the right answer. How to sweep a fire extinguisher, the temperature at which water boils. Those aren’t the kinds of conversations or facts that we struggle with.

When you believe that you don’t know the right answer, you make space in the conversation for options. You widen the field. You let other people into the conversation with their perspectives, their knowledge, and their experience.

But what if I do know the right answer.

You don’t.

We are flawed decision-makers. We have a bias towards what we already know, we surround ourselves with information that supports our thinking, and we don’t challenge our opinions or question our own ideas often enough.

(There’s a large body of research on this topic, you can find some of it in the books and sites below.)

You can’t know the right answer until you’ve opened your mind enough to look around. Otherwise, you just know what you think is the right answer and you haven’t done your homework.

If you start your conversation from your answer, it may feel like you’re several steps down the road, saving time and heading toward a better decision, when you’re actually heading off in the wrong direction.

What you need in complicated situations is a deep pool of information to draw from, and you alone don’t have all the information.

Does this mean I have to hide what I know just to make people feel like they’re part of the decision?

No. That’s actually just doing the same thing we’re trying to avoid. Put what you know out there, into the pool, but invite others first, fill it up together before you make your decision.

For example,

If you bring your team together to solve systematic problems – say you’re having routine failures in your ability to deliver products on time – and you know that what’s not working is the supervisors’ oversight of the deadlines, you might focus on that part of the system.

You might argue with me that you know this, because you’ve seen communications between supervisors and their staff. It’s all pretty clear.

Ask yourself: what if you’re wrong?

The cost of beginning with your answer may be missing the critical information that helps you actually solve the problem.

You could begin by assuming that the broken link is in the supervisor-employee communications, alienating everyone in the room in the process.

If instead you begin by sharing what you’ve seen (facts only!) and asking what they know, you may unearth a series of other data points that helps you all see the full picture.

You may learn that there are problems with other parts of the system, or that an earlier production phase isn’t working, leaving your supervisor-employee team scrambling to make up time at the cost of quality.

If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

Learning to make space for new information will improve the decisions you and your team make.

Key take-aways

If you hear yourself beginning a conversation with any of these red-flag phrases, pause, reframe, and invite others into the pool of information:

“I think we should…..”

“The way to solve this problem is….”

“What if we did……”

“We’ve already done this so……” (sets you up to continue a pattern or build on past decisions)

Consider these as alternatives:

“How may ways could we…..”

“Are there ways to achieve multiple goals here…..”

“What are the options we have used before and what haven’t we used…..”

“What are we trying to achieve (not how)….”

“If someone new walked in the door, what do you think they would do……” (opens up options beyond what you’ve already done)

 

For more about the pool of information idea, read Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzier 

For better decision-making, try Decisive by Dan and Chip Heath 

For why starting with being right doesn’t work, consider Better Leaders, Better Teams by Roger Schwarz

Check back or sign up for notifications if you’d like to receive more tips to improve your communications.

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A little goes a long way

“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” 

-Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project is right up my self-improvement-give-me-a-project-alley and I devoured it when it first came out.

In addition to giving me an incentive to clear some clutter, and celebrate more holidays, that piece of advice morphed into what has become my go-to habit for large projects.

When I’m starting a writing project, I write something – even just a little something – every day I possibly can.

It was the math that convinced me.

If I need to get 36,000 words down on paper, and I write 1,000 words a day, that’s a draft in a month and six days.

That’s seems so….achievable, doesn’t it?

For me, 1,000 words a day is still a stretch. I have a full-time day job, kids, family obligations, and all the other stuff (like laundry, oh, the laundry!) that pulls me in a million directions.

A daily commitment to anything above and beyond the basics has never been my strong suit. I have page-a-day diary my parents gave me in the second grade. Its 365 pages contains entries from second, third, fourth, and probably seventh grade. None of the entries overlap and the diary is at least half empty. I will clearly not be leaving behind a vast repository of my intimate thoughts for my children and grandchildren to pursue (thankfully!).

But a daily habit for a limited period of time? That, it turns out, is an entirely different beast altogether. That is something I can do.

Here’s what a little bit every day looks like:

The blue line is the writing project, growing. 

The green line is the little bit every day.

Some of those days are in the 200 range, a few gems are over 1,000. Even those 200 words add to the blue line, though.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: The habit is transferrable.

Exercise? 20 minutes four times a week makes a difference.

An overwhelming project in the office? Map it out and break it down.

Here are some tips for making the daily habit part of your next big project:

Plan for it

That graph only shows one part of the project. There’s the idea stage, the brainstorming, the planning and picking a start date. After, there will be review, revision, and redo. The totality of the work can be a big barrier for any significant project.

Break it out and focus on one step at a time.

If you think “It’ll take a year to do that!” remember, that year will pass no matter what. Where do you want to be at the end of the next twelve months?

Tell a friend

I deeply admire those of you who are self-motivated and self-accountable. I also know I do best when I have someone else who will ask “how’s it going?”

Whether it’s the friend who carpools with you to the gym, the writing partner, or the co-worker who agrees to review your project, find a friend. Their energy, enthusiasm and support will get you through the middle.

Track it

There’s something reassuring about seeing the line grow. It doesn’t matter if you track your time, or your output. When you commit to writing something down every day – even the zeros – you have a realistic record of what you’ve accomplished. No fooling yourself. It’s also important to notice things that are impacting your project. Weekends are productive? Mornings? Having some data helps you adjust around your priority.

It’s the big picture, not perfection, that matters

I’m assuming that the project you’re working on is a priority. So, don’t let it become something you dread. Mark down those zeros when you have a day that got away from you because you will have those days. But don’t let one zero deter you from accomplishing your mission. That line will go up because every bit of effort adds to the total. It’s like raindrops  in a bucket. Tiny but plentiful, they’ll fill it up.

Celebrate the accomplishment!

When you get to a milestone, do something wonderful. Even if there are more stages to go, you’ve stuck with your project through a commitment. It may not be perfect, but you’ve got something to work with – something you wouldn’t have if you’d been too overwhelmed to begin in the first place.

Congratulations!

&

Good luck!

Is it time to play Kill the Company?

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I just finished up Adam Grant’s book Originals (see his website at adamgrant.net) and really like one of the examples he shared for for generating more, original ideas with your team: Kill the Company.

In short, if you want to generate some excitement and energetic thinking, don’t ask your team to envision the future from within, ask them to imagine what your competitor would do, with unlimited funds and opportunity, to kill your company.

There are a lot of factors in play here, and it’s worth reading the book if you want a more complete understanding. It’s an interesting twist though, because it engages our imagination in a different way. It’s hard to imagine the future from what you already know. If you own a car company, and you want to do better, your default is to start with a car. If you want to kill the car company, you begin thinking differently: Driverless? Subscription service instead of ownership? Drone delivery? Bike pods?

How are you going to defeat those competitors who’re out to kill your company?

Take a moment to imagine this from within your organization.

How would someone pinpoint your weaknesses? Overcome them? Do things differently and better?

Now, counter.

I’d love to hear if you’ve tried this in your organization and whether it was successful?

Can you avoid this number-one mistake?

 

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If you could do one thing to improve your productivity, your mental well-being, and your organization, would you?

Of course you would.

Eliminate avoidance.

Simple. But not always easy.

We all avoid certain things, either because we don’t like doing them, they’re uncomfortable, they challenge us, or they’re just plain hard.

Avoidance is a squeaky door problem.

At first, the squeaky door seems like no big deal. But every time we go through that door, it squeaks. We tell ourselves we don’t have time to fix it. But every time we use that door, it annoys us.

We’re not sure how to fix it. We google squeaky door and find all sorts of technical advice and are intimidated by the idea of having to remove the door, use power tools, and rehang the door. So we ignore it a little more.

Meanwhile it drives us batty.

Finally, one day, we get out the WD-40, squirt some on the hinges and – voila! – no more squeak.

We realize if we’d just done that months ago, we’d have saved ourselves hours of distraction and annoyance. Or, if we’ve really let the problem go too long, we call in an expert, pay them a lot of money to fix the door, and s/he tells us we should have done this sooner.

We all have a list of squeaky door issues we’re ignoring.

Avoidance occurs at all levels.

Personal.

I hate voicemail. The red light on my phone is my squeaky door.

Groups.

The office kitchen may be the biggest squeaky door out there. Challenging projects, repetitive problems, they’re all things we may avoid.

Organizations.

Difficult people, issues, situations we work around – they drain us of energy and attention.

Avoidance has a unique ability to grow larger and larger in our imagination, much like the monster in the closet.

I finally tackled the bin of old home-movies on VHS, scheduling several appointments at our local library, sitting in front of the television with a book while the movies transferred from VHS to digital. It took time, yes, but when it was over, I felt a huge sense of relief. Something I’d been meaning to do for years was done.

The sense of relief I felt when I left the library with a full thumb-drive was incredible.

The same thing happens at work when you finally address the problem, or complete the task.

We put things off when they feel overwhelming. The best techniques for dealing with them are the ones that work for you.

Some suggestions:

  1. Make a list. Just getting them down on paper brings them out of the scary imagination-closet and makes them more manageable.
  2. Break it down. Really think through the bite sized steps. For my videos, it was: make appointments. Buy a flash drive. Go to appointments. Discard videos. That’s a lot easier to tackle than “deal with those movies!”
  3. Tell a friend. Having some accountability can help. Can you schedule a check-in with someone? Promise to hand something in? If you’re deadline-driven, this can help motivate you.
  4. Get help. If your squeaky door is past the WD-40 stage, get some help. Find an advisor who can offer perspective and help you break down the task. They might even help hold you accountable.
  5. Share the burden. At the organizational level, if there’s something you’ve all been avoiding, having a small team of people to eliminate the squeak can be a valuable strategy. If it’s going to take a while, require stamina, or innovative thinking, more heads can be better than one.
  6. Think about the future. Visualize what it will be like when you no longer have this annoyance in your life. For me, the red light on my phone is the annoying voicemail trigger. Instead of avoiding it, I listen immediately, write it down, and assign or return the call. If I can’t handle it immediately, I schedule a time on my calendar (which is next to the phone). Then I don’t have to carry around the annoyance of the unchecked or unreturned message.
  7. Don’t give up. Avoidance is a habit and it’ll take time to replace it with a new one. Use small steps, repeat them often, and don’t give up.

 

If you enjoyed this, you might also like This article about why you should do your worst task first or This article about delegation.

 

Four go-to words for your next conversation

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Quick: Training!

What’s your first reaction?

 

Love it? Hate it? Somewhere in the middle?

All training is not created equal, and training to handle challenging situations can be deep, time intensive, and provoke a new level of growth for you and your team. When that’s the case, the skeptic becomes a supporter and your team grows.

Keeping the momentum going after a successful training program is usually the hardest part. It requires commitment and dedication, buy-in from your critical players, and constant reminders.

Team problem-solving is one of those complicated topics because it often focuses on moving through difficult moments. It’s complicated because teams are complicated – they’re full of people!

Sometimes, the complexity that is so useful in teaching the skills of problem solving gets in the way of the long-term application.

I’ve boiled several aspects of team-focused problem solving methods down to four words:

  • Ask
  • Acknowledge
  • Share
  • Solve

 

Ask: What information do you have?

Acknowledge: I heard you say this: ________________________

Share: I have this information: ______________________

Solve:

Your Interests My Interests Shared Interests
     
     

This approach, which is common to many systems for team communications, helps me

I also try to remember one primary point of  ! Caution !

Don’t do this: make assumptions about your partner’s inner state.

Example: “You were angry when I told you what I thought about our interview candidate”

Instead, do this:

Ask: “I saw you frown when I said I thought they were well qualified. Were you reacting to my statement or something else?”

Once you start to listen for it, you hear a lot of assumptions about why people are doing things (they don’t like so-and-so, they’re preoccupied with something else, they’re not skilled enough). These assumptions are just that: your assumption, not a fact.

Check yourself but asking how you’d react if someone stated that “fact” about you. You may be surprised to see how often you make these types of assumptions.

Here’s an example of the four questions in action.

The Setup:

Sandy has been given responsibility for managing three divisions that have not been performing well. She’s an up-and-coming worker in her organization but this is new territory for her. She’s had to learn new operations, build relationships, and try to sort through the opinions, facts, and the mountain of data that her division chiefs have brought to her in the past three months. Late on Friday, her boss, Ross, lets her know there’s a gap on the Board meeting agenda and he’d like Sandy to present an update.

Sandy doesn’t feel ready and tells her boss she thinks they’ll have better news next month.

What’s really going on?

Take a look at what Sandy’s NOT saying: I’m concerned that our numbers don’t look good and I won’t have a chance to talk to our managers in all three divisions before the Board meets on Tuesday. One has been out sick, one is on vacation and the other one always bombards me with data and spreadsheets instead of sharing real information. I’m worried that I won’t be prepared to answer questions and the Board will doubt my ability to manage this key transition. I don’t want to let my boss down by doing a bad job.

 

And what Ross is NOT saying: I’d like to fill the agenda for the meeting next week, and Sandy is always willing to help out. If I can get her to just let them know we’re on it, the Board will probably ask me fewer questions between now and our next full update. I don’t want to have a hole in my agenda next week and I’m upset that Jason’s group bailed on me at the last minute, putting me in this position.

 

It’s easy to imagine that a short conversation could result in something like this:

  • Sandy asks what about an update to the Board is important to Ross.
  • Ross says he just needs to give them something.
  • Sandy acknowledges that he wants to update them and shares her concerns about communication with her group and how it will look to the Board if she has incomplete information.
  • Ross asks what she could do by Tuesday.
  • Sandy says she has preliminary information about what’s been done so far and she thinks she’ll have data in a week.
  • Ross acknowledges she’s not going to be ready on Tuesday and shares that he primarily needs to fill a hole in the agenda.
  • Sandy’s interests are good data and being professional for the Board.
  • Ross’s interests are good data and keeping the meeting running smoothly.
  • Together they solve the situation by agreeing on a preview-presentation at the meeting with a report to follow.

It’s a better outcome for them both, and avoids a weekend of stewing about uncooperative staff and worrying about an upcoming presentation.

I hope Ask-Acknowledge-Share-Solve works for you.

 

 

 

 

Is there really such a thing as a “negative” emotion?

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Conflict and anger travel hand-in-hand. Anger is probably one of the most difficult emotions to deal with, especially in a work setting where it’s not socially okay to blow-off, swear, yell, and act out. Yet, we’re human. We get angry. Learning to recognize and manage this emotion is key to moving through a lot of tough situations.

Sometimes, anger is easy to recognize. Our heart races, we can’t hear what anyone’s saying over the blood pounding in our ears. We tremble, turn red, can’t think clearly.

Other times, we turn it inward. I’m so stupid…embarassed…run!

Either way, it’s scary and can begin a difficult swirl of emotions, actions and consequences. Who hasn’t lashed out and said something they regretted in a moment of anger?

What to do?

First, recognize that anger has a place.

Anger is telling you something. It’s just hard to hear sometimes.

Second, step away from the anger.

Seriously. That rushing sound? That inability to recall details after the angry-episode? It’s because of the anger. Things become “right” or “wrong” – we lose the ability to think through a situation, our judgement is quick and harsh. We’re just not at our best. This is great when you’re fighting a panther in the jungle. Not so great when you’re dealing with a colleague or loved one.

Take a deep breath.

Excuse yourself for a moment.

That situation? it’ll still be there when you calm down.

Third, ask yourself why you’re angry.

What’s going on here?

Are you angry about the surface event? Or a pattern of events? Give yourself some time to sort out your emotions.

Fourth, come back.

This can be the hardest part of all. It’s easy to ignore, move on, and just get over it already.

It’s harder to come back to a person and say, “I got angry when we were talking, but I’d like to try having that conversation again.”

Fifth, don’t take yourself too seriously.

In a culture of constant self-improvement and competition, it can be hard to let go of something as powerful as our anger.

You’re going to go there. And sometimes that’s exactly the right place to be. That’s fine.

It’s where you go afterwards that matters even more.

For some more interesting reading: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201501/beyond-happiness-the-upside-feeling-down

 

“Dreams are Just Dreams Without Action”

This quote, cut out from a fitness magazine, is stapled to the cork board in the back hall of our YMCA where I try to work out four days a week with my husband.

It’s pretty small, stuck there between the pseudo-army-crawl exercise and an article showing various power-snacks.  Small, but powerful.  I suppose the world is always sending you what you need, but sometimes you’re actually ready to see it.  Take this other quote I ran across a couple of days ago: “believing in yourself does not mean passively waiting for the universe to deliver what you long for.”

There is power in action.