Tag Archives: communication

How to Win at Communicating: Why focusing on being right is wrong

win at communicatingWhen I work with teams and individuals on the problems they face with clients, bosses, employees (heck, even their own family members) ten times out of nine, said problems are rooted in communication malfunction. Frankly, humans are difficult. We are nuanced, unique beings with a complex make-up of rational and irrational thought; a mixed bag of 21st century adaptation and stone-age reflexes. And to make matters worse, communication (with other humans, specifically) is one thing many of us are never taught.

Think about the hours logged to get certified in a particular industry. Or the amount of time passed in a math class. Or training hours invested in order to understand a new client database. Strangely, even my graduate program—a regularly recognized school for business—didn’t include more than a passing reference to different communication styles. Collectively many hours have been accrued learning the what and the how of the objective areas of business. But what about the subjective ones?

Have you spent anywhere near as many hours understanding the what and how of an ideal conversation with an insubordinate team member who gets his job done superbly yet no one wants to work with him? Or what about the passive aggressive administrative assistant who finds ceaseless reasons to not complete important parts of his role? Or the aggressive sales person that just thinks she is persistent?

For our purposes here, I won’t go into why communication is important. Frankly, if you aren’t aware of the why, you might be part of the problem. Rather, for the next four parts I’ll share ideas for the rest of us who know why, but don’t yet have a mastery of how.

To begin, let’s focus on a central truth that we as individuals want to be right. Even the most benevolent of individuals has chosen such a path based on a belief that it is indeed the “right” one. Consequently, the things we communicate are based on scenarios as interpreted through our lens. Thus, when we focus on being right, it is only our interpretation of what is right. If the other person has a similar lens, no harm no foul. However, problems crop up when his lens differs and then we tell him something that is inconsistent with what he believes to be true.

My contention is that all problems—Every. Single. One—can be over-simplified back to the differences between my lens and your lens followed by me telling you my lens is right and yours is wrong in an ineffective way. What’s worse, is even if I am right, pursuing it in this fashion creates a conflict whereby you are unlikely to come over to my side. Again, complicated human emotion (pride, shame, rebellion, spite, etc.) get in the way of us getting to the right outcome.

Therefore, it’s much better to pursue the right outcome then it is to pursue being right. That simple shift allows us to keep perspective of the long game.  In order to do that, we must  focus on four simple themes: 1) Ask More Questions, 2) Nurture Your Nemesis, 3) Watch Your Words, and 4) Speak Their Language.


1) Ask More Questions

Simply put, if we asked around 10 times more questions of our colleagues (family members, bosses, direct reports, etc.) we would see a dramatic drop in hurt feelings, resentment, team disunity and distrust, and sabotage.  Try it.

My prognostication is that we don’t ask more questions for two key reasons. One, we don’t always know what to ask (a function of that lack of training in the area as previously described). And two, we don’t want to (sometimes out of laziness, feeling rushed, or fear that we might be wrong). Fortunately, it is within our personal control to address both.

Picture this scenario: Sue then manager needs to reprimand her employee, Tom, who made a bad call…again. Most bosses would call Tom into the office, slap his wrist if she wants to keep him, or put a note in his file if she is trying to get Tom out. But what’s gained by this? Tom likely either doesn’t care much for Sue or his work at this time; or he’s learned that her bark is worse than her bite so his behavior won’t likely change. But, Sue was right; Tom screwed up. However, Sue didn’t get the right outcome (Tom fixing his behavior, discovering why he is doing what he’s doing, figuring out if he wants to be a productive part of this organization).

What if instead Sue asked Tom:

  • Tom, would you help me understand your process for deciding to solve the problem the way you did?
  • What other alternatives did you consider?
  • Why did you choose this one over that?
  • What were you hoping would happen?
  • What did you learn from this situation?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • How committed do you feel to the team?
  • What do you find gets in your way?
  • How would you like me to support you?
  • What should I expect from you going forward?

Do you think Sue would have more effectively engaged Tom with these questions than the aforementioned slap on the wrist or write-up in his file? Do you think Tom knows I have higher expectations of him now? Do these questions communicate that Sue cares? And do you think Tom is likely to be more thoughtful in his subsequent efforts? Hopefully yes to all four.

Likely your questions will be different but the idea is that you ask rather than tell. If Tom knows he messed up, Sue telling him doesn’t achieve anything. If Tom doesn’t know, Sue telling him will only reinforce his beliefs about her but it likely won’t change his opinion of himself or respect for/trust in her in any positive way.


2) Nurture Your Nemesis

In helping Tom achieve the right outcome, questioning only works if Sue nurtures Tom in the process.  If Tom feels as though he is before a firing squad, he will act accordingly and rebel (fight) or cower (flight).  Do either of these scenarios get Sue to the right outcome? Obviously, not.

Your mom was right when she told you how you said things mattered. Our tonality, body language, and empathy are critical here. If these don’t come easy to you, practice is essential. If you don’t care enough to incorporate these things, you likely aren’t getting lasting right outcomes from your people. You are missing opportunities for personal growth as well as for impacting (more specifically, you may be inhibiting) the growth of those around you.

Again, I doubt that if you are reading this that is the case. It’s more typically a case of howHow do you sound more empathetic and nurturing? How do you even practice a soft skill? To practice and thus develop sounding (and actually being) more empathetic, catch yourself talking to people you really care about when talking about something you really care about.  Listen to you volume, vocal inflections, cadence. Most likely it’s lower, slower, and more rhythmic as opposed to loud, fast, and unvarying.  Write out your questions and say them the way you would if you were saying them to that person whom you adore.

Practice being nurturing and asking questions in situations where there isn’t much as stake—like making dinner plans or talking to friends about unimportant issues.  If you don’t figure out how to find your nurturing voice when you don’t need it, you’ll never find it when you do.


3) Watch Your Words

Though I said your mom was right because tonality matters, she may have overemphasized that the what-you-say didn’t. Said differently, our words do matter.

Take the phrase “that’s not my job” or insert “our policy” or “my problem”; how does that make you feel when you hear those words? Even if (or especially when) delivered in a sing-songy voice.  Did your blood pressure just increase a few points? Were you jolted back to the last time you heard that?

Our words matter. They matter even when tonality is involved but especially when it isn’t so be extra careful with (read: avoid at all costs) sending emails in a difficult situations.

Some additional trigger words and phrases that I have heard recently and would encourage you to avoid are “interested in”, “what can I help you find?”, “you would love…”, and generally anything where you are assuming something about the other person instead of asking.

Rather than saying “are you interested in meeting about X?” ask “would you be open to talking about X?” “Interested in” implies a commitment, “open to” indicates that we are still exploring.

Rather than asking what you can help me find, for which I will most-definitely respond “just looking, thanks”  without hesitation, ask “for what occasion are you shopping today?” or “where you browsing for yourself or as a gift?” These questions make me think rather than give a knee-jerk, insincere response.

Rather than telling me how I would love your product (and make me feel trapped if I don’t), let me know people who have X,Y, Z problems love your product, but it’s okay if I don’t; then let me self-identify in my time.

Words matter. They matter especially when we are feeling frustrated, irritated, and annoyed. Yet, it’s when we are feeling that way that the right words are hardest to articulate. So again, practice your words when little is on the line.


4) Speak Their Language

In high school I went to France on a class trip. Madame Blanc assured us that speaking French is Paris was a must. But not to worry, once they heard our verbal skills, most Parisians (who knew better English than our lot) would jump in and rescue us in our native tongue. The Parisians weren’t looking for mastery; they were looking for an attempt.

It is my belief that the attempt is what most of us really want. A little effort. A bridge. The opportunity to meet in the middle and to see that you are as uncomfortable as I am.

When we only speak “our language” we rob people of helping us and seeing our vulnerable side. We also rob ourselves of growth and right outcomes. When I coach clients, our organization uses the Extended DISC model. It’s not a personality test, but rather a communication style assessment.

Each of us has a unique way in which we interpret the world. We have a preference as to how we get things done. And those interpretations and preferences can be summarized using two axes. The vertical axis defines if a person sees problems through the lens of tasks or people. For example, if the internet goes down in my organization, am I thinking of which boxes to cross of to get it fixed (call the IT company on record, notify the managers, call top clients)? Or am I concerning myself with the people-aspect (will this affect how people view us, which customers does this impact most, which employees will be best at smoothing over the issue?)

Neither is inherently right or inherently wrong and a well-functioning team needs all bases covered.

Similarly, the horizontal axis addresses my speed and degree of detail that most concerns me. Some people want the overview, the big picture, and tend to get bored with details. These are the “we’ll figure it out when we get there folks”. Then we have our “cross our Ts and dot our Is” crowd. The former usually makes quick decisions in the name of progress and momentum; the latter sees how ill-configured progress just creates more problems.

Again, both are right. And yet, neither are completely right.

If you’ve ever seen inherent friction between sales and operations departments, it is this communication breakdown at play. One group saying it must be done fast; the other saying it must be done right.

I had similar friction with an operations manager who was frequently sending back my contracts for revision and always irritated with me. It was mutual. The shift from disunity to a more united front began when I started calling her before submitting a contract. My approach was to communicate that I thought I did everything accurately, but would she help me by reviewing it just to be sure.

I chose to incorporate a question rather than a demand. My tonality was nurturing. I used words like “help” as not to sound ungrateful or that I wanted her to do it for me. And, by acknowledging that her communication style was exacting in detail and I wanted to do it by her standards, I was creating a metaphorical communication bridge between our very opposite styles. Best of all: it worked beautifully!

She was more helpful than ever. I was less irritated than ever. Contracts continued to flow in and occasionally she did do it for me (because it was her choice and not my demand).

The irony of the whole situation was that the actual process barely changed. The old way was: I sent her a contract. She looked it over. She called or emailed me disdainfully with my errors. I fixed them. I returned the contact.

The new way: I called her to let her know I was sending her a contract and asked her to kindly let me know if I missed anything “before I submitted it officially”. I sent her the contract. She looked it over. She called or emailed me with any errors (and sometimes fixed what could be fixed without me now that we were simpatico). If needed, I made corrections and returned the contract.

One phone call asking for help (me reaching across the aisle) led to her helping me where she could (her reaching across the aisle) and to both of us to enjoying and appreciating each other and our respective roles.

Because I desired the right outcome (office manager and me working more smoothly together while getting contracts submitted timely), I focused on what I needed to do to accomplish that. Rather than focusing on being right (“sales is my job, contracts is yours, do your job and let me do mine!”)

I don’t share this story to say “look at how I do it, I am awesome”. In fact, many more are the stories that I failed to take my own advice. But the laws of communication still stand whether or not I heed them. And other people believe they are right even when we know we are.

So next time you feel a tense situation coming to a head—or better, before any potentially tense situations—incorporate the immutable rules of 1) Ask More Questions, 2) Nurture Your Nemesis, 3) Watch Your Words, and 4) Speak Their Language.

My father-in-law once said “diplomacy is helping other people get your way.” No, sir, that’s just effective communication.



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Social Media Posting Guidelines

Social Media Posting Guidelines (9) copyThe other day I got to thinking how I really want to implement some guidelines into my personal social media posting. Mind you, this is the regarding the accounts I use for my friends and family, not what I use for my professional marketing. But nonetheless, if you have a public persona, or if you are serving on a board of directors, or if you generally need to be respected in the community at large, deciding what light in which you want to be seen has a lot to do with what type of curtains you choose to hang.

Years back, I was at a conference and the keynote speaker was Amy Henry, of The Apprentice (season one) fame. The theme of her talk was around the fact that the camera is always on, and someone could always be watching. She talked about how some of her contemporaries claimed they were “unfairly edited” and yet, even if there was editing involved, those individuals chose to provide that content.

Her remarks struck a chord with me then but it’s all the more relevant now that everyone has the potential to have the camera on them 24-7, not just celebrities.

In light of the most recent of far too many situations to count, a congressional aide (forcibly?) apologized for what she said about the president’s daughters. What’s interesting is that there’s been very little attention given to whether or not her claims have merit. It’s really been more about the fact that in her position she is vulnerable to scrutiny and some decided that they would criticize her based on remarks.

Similarly, many of us are judged at different points in our lives, sometimes during the job hunt, other times when a client is deciding if partnering with us supports or undermines his values. The world—much less our individual market places—is now very small. And it is up to us which windows we want to let people look in, and which we want to keep covered up. Certainly, this isn’t fair but such is the double-edged sword of connectivity.

This isn’t to say we can’t have minds of our own or humoristic styles, but it is to ensure that we are proactively deciding what is public and what is private. A comedian will have a vastly different set of filters than an elementary school teacher; the idea that we choose a proactive-posting approach rather than a reactive posting approach. And the degree to which we have something to lose is the degree to which we need to be conscious about what we put out there for the world to see.

Here are the guidelines that I felt represent my values and respect both my profession and my clients.

  1. Does it generally feel positive?
  2. Is it something that even people who disagreed with the stance could still feel good about reading?
  3. Is it unifying rather than divisive?
  4. If someone who didn’t know me saw it, would I be proud of the representation?
  5. Would I say it in front of my grandmother, my priest, my daughter, and my client?

My social media guidelines ensure that what not matter what I say, even if it is opinion-based, I won’t be apologizing for it next week.

What guidelines might be important for you to implement? Have you thought about having this conversation with employees? If so, what have been the results?

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Am I Speaking Your Language?

snapThere’s a book called The 5 Love Languages. The basic premise is that in order to have a successful marriage or romantic relationship, one should “speak” in their partner’s language rather than their own.

This is true in any sort of relationship, romantic or otherwise.

When I was speaking this past week to a group of teachers on the communication styles as described by Extended DISC, a participant asked if it was phony and disingenuous to make small talk if making small talk is not really said person’s style (or basically to do anything that isn’t one’s natural style). It’s a common misconception that it’s fake or cheap or somehow not genuine if we put on the charade of acting in a way that we don’t naturally embody. My guess as to why people feel this way is because it feels so awkward—especially at first—that it can’t possibly be authentic.

But reality is that we often get in our own way and justify it as being true to ourselves. However, if we are only focusing on ourselves and what we find effective, we are easily missing at least 50 percent of the communication equation.

Just as how a romantic partner feels empowered and cared about when we speak in their “love language” as opposed to our own, our professional connections receive similar benefit when we communicate with them in a way that is meaningful and resonant to them. Even if it makes us a bit uncomfortable, even if it we don’t always get it 100 percent right, trying to meet someone in the middle is genuine and it is the sincere way to communicate.

While you may not necessarily love the people with whom you work, you can build stronger trust and teamwork when you make an effort to speak their language.

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Are your words magic?

81cec8bd-7b86-42d2-877b-1972f9ad939bThe other day, with a cookie up for grabs, a family friend asked my precocious, four-year-old daughter what were the magic words. My daughter’s response: “bippity, boppity, boo!”

Not only is this a sign we watch too many princess movies, but it illustrates two salient points about human communication. One, the quality of the answers we get is directly proportionate to the quality (and relevance) of the questions we ask. And two, the answers given will largely depend on the perspective of the giver.

Let me talk first about quality. Quality is a funny word. What does it really mean—I mean really mean? I had a marketing professor who would shoot students the stink-eye if one were to refer to a brand as representing “quality”. Why? Because quality means many things to many people.

Quality, as found on Google, means “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something”.

Well what things? How Similar? How many degrees?

Because we can’t know, and because those value assessments are themselves assigned arbitrary weights, quality, then is arbitrary.

So much for quality questions, right?

Wrong. Because what we do know is that questions like “what can I help you find today” don’t bring a quality response. When someone asks you that at Macy’s or on the car lot what do you respond? Let me guess…wait for it… “Nothing, just looking, thanks”.

Was I close?

Questions that are tired, like the aforementioned; questions that are self-serving like “what would it take to get you into that car today?”; questions that are pushy, insincere or too leading are all the antithesis of quality.

Now that we know what quality isn’t, what could it be? We can start with the opposite; words like unassuming, sincere, mutually beneficial, unattached to the outcome, and truth-seeking are all solid.

But quality questions also sound different. Quality questions are direct. They have no blame or judgment in them. Quality questions have a purpose. Even the tone of a quality question is nurturing (but never patronizing) in nature, especially when discussing difficult, important or sensitive topics.

In the case of the fairy-godmother-incarnate, a better question may have been “how can you ask that using your manners?” In the case of the car lot, it might be “what kind of cars would you consider test-driving this afternoon?” or “you probably aren’t interested in test-driving anything today, are you?” That last one had a little jiu-jitsu thrown in for good measure, but you can see that they are both immediately disarming and different. They ask about the truth and don’t speak in cliché.

And how about perspective? In the car example, what is the prevailing perspective of a driver pulling into a car lot? Typically, it’s one of mistrust with a chaser of “hold-my-cards-close-to-the-vest”. The perspective of the buyer is “I’ve got to get you before you get me” and that paradigm serves no one. While we can’t change how the buyers look at something, we can change what they look at.

It reminds me of this visual to the right: are you showing someone the round end or are you showing them the curved side (which actually appears square)? Are you showing them what you want to show them or what they want to see? Are you asking questions in a way that’s comfortable for you or that works for the other party?

As my daughter is concerned, her experience of “magic words” extends exclusively to Cinderella, so of course she nailed it with her response. Are your clients, coworkers, employees, etc. not giving you the answers you want because they are hearing your words differently based on their unique perspective? Presumably, if you have any friction with any person for any reason, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’.

Knowing you can’t change what they hear, you must change what you say to be relevant and resonant to them. We can debate that “communication is a two-way street” and we would technically be correct. However, I am reminded of my favorite Dr. Phil-ism: “Do you want to be right or do you want to win?”

If winning the effective communication game (i.e.: earning respect, getting what you want—ethically, having followers who follow you by choice, so on and so forth) is your goal, then the onus is really on you  to change the picture you are presenting with each and every question you ask.

You see, words really are magic. But as my daughter taught me, which words will depend on who you are asking.

*Warning: No car salesmen were harmed in the writing of this article.

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