It Doesn’t Matter What You Say

Communication is a marvelous thing. It requires at least two parties to participate. One that is sending the message and the other receiving. It sounds straightforward enough. What can go wrong with such a simple concept? And still, every single day we are part of miscommunications and misunderstandings. Why? Because things are more complex than they appear. So what is going on and how do you improve your communication style and ensure your message is being understood the way you wanted to?

The chicken soup

It all starts with idea in your mind. “Oh, I would love to get chicken soup for lunch today,” you think. You don’t really usually eat soup with the exception of chicken soup. You just love it and for some reason today crave it since the morning. Unfortunately you don’t have time to get to the restaurant due to workload so you ask a colleague to bring it when he goes for his lunch. “Jim can you do me a favor and bring me a bowl of chicken soup from the cafeteria?” “Sure, no problem,” says Jim. And after an hour comes back from his lunch with bowl of beef soup. “Here you go. They didn’t have chicken so I took beef soup instead.” You hate beef soup. “You can keep that! As always you are not able to follow even the easiest request,” you snap at Jim and he strides away angry resolved to never talk to you again and complains about you to other coworkers.

Silly? Well, it happens all the time. A small misunderstanding caused by poor communication turns into huge issue down the road. So what actually happened here? Several things:

  • You didn’t mean what you said
  • The listener understood the words and not the meaning
  • You misinterpreted initiative as incompetence

Always say what you mean

If you want a chicken soup because you love it and you are looking forward to its taste more than to its nourishment value you should say so. “Jim, can I ask you to bring me bowl of chicken soup? I just crave it and cannot think of anything else. If they don’t have it in the canteen then don’t bring anything and just let me know.” You communicated not only what you want but also why you want it. This “big picture” or the context of your request is vitally important for proper understanding. In fact, based on my experience, majority of misunderstandings come from people not explaining “why” something needs to be done or “why” it was done the certain way. Without context things are open to interpretation.

Always verify what the other party understood

It is probably silly with our chicken soup example but to have the person repeat in his own words what she understood is a good strategy especially in asking for a complex deliverables. “Jim just so we are on the same page and there is no room for error, can you summarize how you understood the next steps we just agreed on?” Asking someone to tell in their own words what was agreed is a great way to hear how they understand the situation. Just be careful and don’t take things for granted. Listen for details.

Imagine that on the meeting you agreed that you need to schedule business review meeting. You expected Jim to do it. When you ask him to summarize the next steps he says “we will schedule business review.” Because you expect him to do it, you hear that he will take care of it when in fact that is not what he is saying. The statement should immediately trigger an alarm. “Jim, just to be clear, I expect you will schedule the business review.” “Oh yes, that is what I meant. I will schedule it.” Only now we have enough clarity to be reasonably sure the message was understood.

Always verify your interpretation of events

We tend to read too much meaning into random actions of others. And if we care enough about a particular topic and we don’t like the way something is being handled we tend to immediately assume a malicious intentions of the other party. The mentality often is “I’m the one who means well for everyone and others have only their own interests in mind.” Unfortunately, since many of us have this mindset in many various situations you can see the logical problem with it.

Consider these statements:

  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. You never listen to what I say.”
  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. It appears to me that you haven’t listen to what I said. Can you verify my interpretation is correct?”
  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. I’m not sure how to understand this, can you help me out and explain why?”

How different will these things sound to Jim? First one is a clear attack and puts Jim to defensive position. Second one is much better, you are asking for explanation, but the underlying feeling is still that you are assuming Jim is no good. The third one is completely neutral. It just states facts and leaves everything else open to discussion. “They didn’t have chicken soup so to make sure you are not without lunch I brought you at least beef one, even though that is not what you requested.” “Much appreciated the effort and that you care for me. You are right, beef is not my favorite, but it will do. Thanks again.”

How little it takes to have completely different outcome of the conversation. Just keep an open mind, don’t automatically interpret things without seeking clarity, and always assume that others mean well. If you keep these in mind your ability to communicate, understand, and be understood will improve dramatically. At the end it doesn’t matter what you say, but what is being understood.

 

How often does it happen to you that your thoughts are misunderstood? Who do you blame? How do you try to resolve these misunderstandings?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Want To Be Seen As A Leader? Be Fast!

What makes a great leader? I’m sure we can all come up with many definitions and many characteristics that are important. Leaders listen, know, mentor, coach, help, set vision, and lead. All this is good but what distinguishes the best leaders when compared with other in today’s fast paced professional environment? They don’t wait for anything, they are fast.

Fast to respond

We live in on-line world and there are many situations where being able and willing to respond fast makes all the difference. It is all about the expectation the environment has. Do your customers expect you to respond to a complaint or enquiry within a certain timeframe? Are your employees or peers waiting for your response or guidance to move forward? Is your boss relying on you to provide data in timely manner? In all these situations there are certain expectation that if not met you will be seen as not up to the task. No one will follow you if you are constantly behind.

And to be clear I’m not advocating be available 24×7. I’m talking about setting a clear expectations on what your “personal SLA” (service level agreement) is and they be meticulous on providing it. Take an example from customer support. To keep your customers happy you have to provide a quick first response. You may not necessarily solve the problem in the spot but just the fact that customer understands you are taking the problem seriously and knows what the timeframe of resolution is makes all the difference.

Fast to decide

Being able to make decisions in timely manner is a critical skill of any manager and leader. If you are not able to make decisions fast or not able to make them at all you can hardly expect anyone to follow your lead. How can you lead when you are not able to decide on direction? Decision making skill is one tricky to learn since in many respects it is not about intelligence or knowing the facts. Being able to make a decision is a matter of confidence, energy and being comfortable with making mistakes.

As I wrote in Tough Choice, if you wait to have all the facts you may never make a decision at all. Very often more facts are actually making it more and more difficult to decide. You should also consider what things you really need to decide on and try to limit number of decisions you have to make. You may have experienced it yourself that as the day progresses and you are making decisions your ability to actually make one decreases. To be decide fast you need all the energy you can get and that means delegate some decisions to others and structure your life in a way that you don’t need to make decisions at all. Just take a hint from Barack Obama.

Fast to act

Deciding the direction is a great first step but your leadership image would suffer if you procrastinate and don’t act. If you want to get things done you need to move and if you want to get enough things done you need to move fast. Just consider this example. Your team member comes to you with a question about something that needs cooperation from finance team. You don’t know the answer yourself so you tell him “let me look into this and I will get back to you tomorrow.” And now consider how the whole picture changes if you instead just pick up a phone and on the spot call the finance team and in real time get the answer your team needs.

This type of reaction requires not just a high level of energy and desire to get things done but also sharp focus and the right priorities. The example above should have a follow up conversation with the team member (and possibly the finance team) to make it clear that next time the team is empowered to make the enquiry without your involvement. That is the only way for you to act fast and still focus on the right things.

Fast to change

Part of leadership is the ability to realize when it is the right time for change. You need to understand when your approach doesn’t work anymore and you need to change either yourself, the team, tactics, or strategy. Change is not the most favorite for most human beings and thus we tend to do our best to fight it or avoid it if possible. The best leaders realize that change is inevitable and use it as a competitive weapon. Your ability to act fast and change as needed can keep you at the leading edge of whatever endeavor you pursue.

I love change. I get bored easily and I need to see things moving, changing, growing and ideally in a constant flux. However, everything has its limits. Too much change can eventually tear you and your team down. Living in a constant uncertainty is rather toxic for your mental health. You also need to realize that everyone has a different endurance limit when it comes to rate of change and if you push someone too much you can break him. Change can be stressful and too much stress can lead to burn out. The way to fight it is to have “the right” amount of change and to balance it with more stability in the areas of your life where the change is not required.

When it comes to professional environment you often see matrix organizations where the project work (that is always very stressful and prone to frequent changes) is balanced out by very stable and predictable “line reporting” structure. You can be jumping between projects, having to work with numerous project managers, but you have the stability and trust within the line organization or stable HR team, or at least your family to keep you sane.

So next time you feel like you have hard time others following you ask yourself “why should they?” And answer to yourself: “Because I’m fast. Fast to respond, fast to decide, fast to act, and fast to change.”

 

Do you believe it is important for leaders to be fast? Or would you say that more important is to be slower but focus on the right things and have the mindset that everything has its time?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Are You Friends Or Just Colleagues?

Have you ever wondered how many of the people in your workplace are friends and how many just colleagues and work buddies? Let me borrow a definition of “friend” from Merriam-Webster “a person who has a strong liking for and trust in another <really close friends who like to do everything together and are always sharing secrets>” That is a tall order and I guess you won’t find many of these in the workplace, but you still have many people around you that you enjoy working with. So what is it that makes most of your colleagues pretty close to being friends (at least in a healthy organization)?

Proximity

Obvious one. You spend eight to ten hours a day with these people in a confined space. You talk and whether you want or not you share a lot from your life and you learn about theirs. It is natural and if you are in environment where this doesn’t happen chances are you are not particularly happy and won’t stay for long.

Common professional purpose

You and the team around you hopefully share the same professional purpose and goals. There is a project to be delivered, product developed, number to hit. You share the success and failure. Chances are you talk about work related stuff even when you are not required to, at lunch, or when taking a ride on the same bus.

Similar educational background

Especially if you work in the same department or in similar roles you most likely have similar educational background. This helps to have the same understanding of the things around you, the same understanding of meaning of things and to certain extent even similar interests.

Similar life values

Even when it comes to life values chances there will have at least some similarities with your colleagues. At the end the values are based on your cultural background, upbringing, education, and influenced by the environment and people around you. And yes, there will be a value or two that you won’t share with your work buddies as at the end each of us is unique.

You didn’t pick your colleagues

So far so good and we are really close on the road to friendship however there is one thing that stands in the way. You pick your friends but you usually don’t pick your colleagues. And even when you have the power to pick your colleagues (being part of the hiring team) you consider other criteria than you would use when picking friends.

Being friends is about chemistry and ability to count on each other in difficult life situations. These are the things that may not be present with most of your colleagues. It is neither good, nor bad, it is just a reality. It is also a reason why some of our best friends are usually the ones from our childhood when we haven’t spent too much time over analyzing whether someone is “the right” friend for us and when we decided more instinctively.

In today’s fast moving society you may work at different team or company every couple of years, you may even live in a different city, you are surrounded by hundreds of people who may want things from you and you from them. All this can be rather overwhelming and may limit you from forming a really strong and ever-lasting friendship.

So next time you are on Facebook counting how many friends you have consider how many of them are just work buddies or associates you barely know and how many of them are the real friends who would be there for you even in twenty years and in the time of the biggest need. And maybe, you want to consider how much time you spend with people who fit into this category and who really care about you.

 

How many true friends do you have at work? And how is your relationship with your colleagues different from that you have with friends you never worked with?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

The Power Of A Nod

Professor of psychology Albert Mehrabian researched the non-verbal communication and ultimately published a book Silent Messages in 1971. The book popularized something you could call the 7-38-55 rule saying that only 7 percent of communication comes from words, 38 percent from tone of the voice and 55 percent from body language. The two experiments behind this were dramatically misinterpreted by media and public and the Mehrabian’s rule became a general belief. I’m not going to try to disprove it, way too easy, just read on the original experiments and what they tried to prove. Rather, I would use this as a starting point to talk about body language as a powerful tool when communicating and building a leadership presence.

One of the simplest ways of speaking without words is a slight tilt of a head, a nod. Such a simple gesture has a huge impact on the way you communicate and interact with others. It helps with active listening, it keeps you engaged as it shows you are paying attention, it can communicate approval, encouragement and in subtle ways influence others around you.

Nod to acknowledge

The simplest thing in the world with a powerful impact is just to acknowledge someone. Walking the halls, passing around someone and just nodding to acknowledge his presence is not only polite but it build your presence as well. It shows respect and can mean so many things especially when accompanied by a smile: “I see you. I respect you. I’m aware of your contribution. I’m aware your needs. I care. I’m glad you are here. I’m here to help you.”

Nod to encourage

I have seen it some many time and often done it myself. You are sitting on a meeting or listening to a presentation and you find that the speaker is suddenly looking at you. Just a simple nod can at that stage change the outcome of the discussion, especially when you are in a position of power. You don’t need to jump in and start providing more ammunition to make the speaker’s point. Just a slight nod can give the junior guy all the encouragement needed. It can be really subtle and may not be even seen by others but the meaning is clear: “You are doing well. Go on. I agree. I’m here to support you when needed. Nice job, I have nothing more to add.”

Nod to approve

Again a very obvious way how to communicate your thoughts is when asked whether you agree with something to nod and indicate thus your agreement. We all do it all the time and we shouldn’t. At least not in a professional and multinational environment where anything can be misunderstood. The rule number one in that setting is to over-communicate and that generally means use all the means available, including words. Simple nod may actually be seen as rather noncommittal and to accompany it with “yes, I agree,” is much more powerful and makes you more influential.

Nod to influence

In The Art Of Influencing Others – Lesson 1, Lesson 2, and Lesson 3 I talked about how to influence the world around you and your body language is a part of the game. When you finish this article just start paying attention to the people you see as leaders and be even more conscious of your own behavior. You will most likely discover that the power of a nod is incredible and used frequently by many people. When bundled with a smile and positive goals you can truly increase your influence and provide more support to those around you.

 

What is your take on how body language may help build a leadership presence? How do you behave when listening to others or trying to influence the environment around you?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.