Category Archives: Communication Skills

What We Miss on Zoom

Zoom supplanted much personal interaction during this pandemic. But, here is what we miss.

Only a small part of verbal communication is in the words we speak. Much of our message (indeed, micro-messages) that we communicate are non-verbal. In person, we get the whole picture and quickly divert our attention to details that we perceive as important.

On Zoom, we get a limited picture, hand gestures out of frame, posture obscured by what we cannot see. Facial expressions get lost in a focal length that never changes. Looking someone directly in the eye means to stare intently into the lens of a webcam with the subject only in our peripheral vision.

The best leaders are those with emotional intelligence. The (emotional) data we pick up is mostly non-verbal. On Zoom, emotional data requires we pay close attention, not just to the spoken words, not just with what the screen shows, but those subtle cues. And sometimes, when the data isn’t clear, we have to verify, ask questions and clarify.

  • It seems to me that you are struggling with this decision, is that accurate?
  • You appear hesitant, can you repeat that thought?
  • I see the commitment in your face, am I seeing this correctly?
  • I didn’t catch what you said, I was focused on your determined expression. I want to make sure I understand your intention.

Why People Don’t Listen

“They just don’t listen,” Roy complained. “You would think they would have some respect. After all, I have been doing this job for more that 15 years.”

“It’s because they have a dot,” I replied.

“What do you mean they have a dot?”

“A dot. Everybody has a dot. Your team members, each, have a dot. You have a dot. Only your dot doesn’t match their dot.”

Roy was quick. “Okay, but if their dot is wrong, why don’t they listen to me?”

“I don’t know, why do you think?”

Roy was ready for bear. That’s a Texas expression that means Roy wanted to argue. And he was perfectly willing to go first. “Sometimes, I think they are just pig-headed, stubborn. My logic is easy to see, but if I point out they are wrong, it seems they cling to their ideas even harder.”

“Imagine that,” I pondered out loud.

Here is MY Position

This pandemic is not simple, it is incredibly complicated with tons of uncertainty surrounding it. And, I observe a deepening divide between medical conservatism and getting the country back to work. Some of these discussions are emotionally heated, vociferous.

Some have asked about my position. The instant we take a position, we stop listening. When we stop listening, we stop learning. You may think you are listening, but you are listening with bias, selectively seeking out only what you want to hear.

In our dramas, there are three groups of characters, heroes, victims and villains. One cannot exist without the other two. It is a co-dependent relationship, they draw and feed on each other. For any of the three characters to win in the drama, the strategy is NOT to be a more vile villain, a stronger hero, or a suffering victim. The winning strategy is to get off the stage.

Levels of Listening

  • Ignoring completely.
  • Pretending to listen.
  • Selective listening.
  • Listening to respond.
  • Listening to understand.
  • Listening for intersection, where we have common ground.

It is only when we find common ground that we can build a relationship.

Whose Problem is It?

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” I said. “Rachel has an 8-hour shift. For the past two weeks, she left early, with work undone. The first Saturday, you were furious. The second Saturday, you were calm, but she still left early. What will be different tomorrow?”

“Lots will be different,” Karyn replied. “I took what you said about seeing Rachel as a person, instead of as an employee. As long as I saw Rachel as an employee, her leaving early was my problem. Only when I saw Rachel as a person, did I realize it was her problem. I also realized, if I saw Rachel as a person, why would I wait until Saturday to help her, when I know that is the day of something going on, in conflict with her schedule at work. So, I asked her to lunch on Friday.”

“And?”

“At first, she thought it was a trap, but she agreed to show up. And, we just talked about her. She is in a custody battle with her ex, and she is losing. Three weeks ago, she was late to soccer practice because we made her stay over 15 minutes. So, her ex took the child and she missed the one night a week she has with her kid. She vowed to herself never to let that happen again. She was embarrassed to ask for the time off, but the tension on Saturday, knowing if she was late, that she would not see her kid for another week, it just came out.”

“And?”

“I am the manager. I control resources and scheduling. I asked Rachel, if I could schedule her to leave a half-hour early, if that would help? Turns out, Rachel’s behavior had nothing to do with me, or respect, or authority.”

“I know this conversation seems to be about Rachel and what we learned about her, but what did you learn about yourself?”

Do You Think the Race is Over?

“I changed,” Karyn replied. “But the outcome was still the same. Rachel left early and the work was still undone.”

“Do you think the race is over?” I asked. “What will you do this Saturday?”

“Yelling didn’t work, being nice didn’t work. I don’t know.” Karyn was stumped.

“Were you just being nice, or was there a more subtle shift in you? During all the yelling and Rachel leaving in a huff, how did you see Rachel? Was she a vehicle for you to get stuff done, or an obstacle in the way of getting stuff done?”

“Both,” Karyn flatly stated. “She was supposed to get stuff done, and left it all in my lap when she left.”

“And, last Saturday, you had an early conversation during her shift, when things were calm. Who was Rachel to you then?”

“Well, I treated her more like a person, then.”

“She was no longer something you were driving or an obstacle in the way? She was a person?”

Karyn did not respond to the question.

“You changed,” I said. “You made a shift in the way you saw Rachel. Who are you going to be this Saturday?”

She Still Left Early

“What was different from this past Saturday, than the Saturday before?” I asked.

“The Saturday before,” Karyn started, “Rachel left early in a huff. This Saturday, I talked to her early in the shift, in a calmer conversation. She still left early, but not in a huff. So, I don’t know that I made any progress. She clocked out early and left work to be done.”

“And, how did you feel about yourself, from one Saturday to the next?”

“What’s the difference in the way I felt? The outcome was the same.”

“How did you feel about yourself, from one Saturday to the next?” I repeated.

“A week ago, I was pissed. As the supervisor, I was disrespected. I lost control. I am certain my manager was disappointed with me. The weekend work was left undone and we had to double-up on Monday to catch up.”

“What was different this past Saturday?”

“I thought I headed things off by having a calm conversation. I acknowledged there may be circumstances outside of work that were having an impact inside at work.”

“You were the same two people, on the same Saturday shift, Rachel still left early. Between the two of you, who was different?”

“Well, I was much calmer,” Karyn replied.

“What changed in you?”

Escalating Emotions

“I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but I guess things just escalated.” Karyn described this latest blowup with one of her team members. “I am only her supervisor on the weekend, so I feel a little helpless. Her weekday supervisor lets her get away with leaving early. I talked to Rick about it. He just doesn’t want to confront her.”

“And when you stopped her from leaving early, the conversation turned grisly and she left anyway?”

Karyn nodded her head slowly. “And next Saturday, I don’t know what to do or say. I can’t just pretend nothing happened?”

“Oh, you could. Hope is a strategy. You could hope she doesn’t blow up again. You could hope she doesn’t leave early again. You could hope she gets all of her work done. But if hope doesn’t work, what are you going to say and when are you going to say it?”

Karyn scrunched her face, “I don’t want to wait until she tries to walk out the door again. Then it will be Groundhog Day all over again.”

“So, when would be a better time to talk to her?”

“I think early in the day, perhaps at the very beginning.”

“Good, then there won’t be the drama of her trying to leave at that moment. Now, what are you going to say?” Karyn struggled with the question. No response.

“Karyn, I want you think about this. You cannot stumble into this conversation. You have to be prepared. Think about this and we will talk again. Think along these lines. I want you to be both straight AND sensitive. What will you say?”

Twinges in the Stomach

Charlie was in my office yesterday. We talked about mostly nothing for a half a minute, when I suddenly became uncomfortable. Something happened inside of me, mostly with my stomach. I wasn’t in discomfort, but there was a significant twinge.

The twinge in my stomach was caused by a short silence, a white space in the conversation. I asked a question about Charlie’s last meeting with his boss. There was no response from Charlie. Silence in a conversation often causes a momentary awkwardness.

I don’t know where this conversation is going next? I thought I knew, but I don’t know now. I wish I knew, but I still don’t know. I hope this conversation get some direction soon, because this awful silence is killing me. BOOM. My stomach told me we were talking about something more important than the weather.

My automatic (unconscious) reaction was to avoid. Do anything to make this feeling go away. The silence was awkward. The automatic (unconscious) response was simply to “talk.” Make the silence go away. If I talk, the silence will be gone, the awkwardness will be gone and I won’t feel this way. Talking would also likely steer the conversation back to a discussion of the weather.

Channel the reaction. My bio-response to Charlie was a twinge in the stomach. The twinge told me that this conversation had potential to be more meaningful. I could avoid it or I could engage. Avoidance would be easy, simply talk to fill the silence, talk about anything.

OR,

I could engage, and let the silence continue. I could let the silence do the heavy lifting to move this conversation to the next level. Something significant had happened between Charlie and his boss and Charlie needed to talk about it. We could have talked about sports, or we could have engaged in a meaningful discussion that had real impact on Charlie.

The twinge in the stomach gives the Manager a heightened sense of intuition and the possibility to channel the reaction to a more productive outcome. Listen to the twinges, watch for white space in conversations.

Translator Role

My conversation with Tony (S-II) about his manager, Suzanne (SIV) –
I have to tell you, every time we get together, all she talks about is pie-charts, bar graphs and the big picture. It’s different down on the shop floor. Sometimes we get materials in from our vendors that are out of spec and we have to reject them. When we reject raw materials, sometimes our productivity goes down. And, remember the machine we were going to replace this year, but kicked it into next year’s capital budget. That machine breaks down a little more than it used to and when it does, our productivity goes down. I try to explain this stuff to Suzanne and she just keeps talking about the big picture.

My conversation with Suzanne about her team member, Tony –
Don’t listen to Tony, he gets all wrapped around the detail and loses sight of the big picture. He just doesn’t understand what we are all about here.

Not a personality conflict –
When we introduce the context of time span, we can clearly see the reason for this conflict. Tony is in a role with shorter time span decisions and problems, clearly having difficulty with the way Suzanne sees the world. Suzanne is in a role with longer time span decisions and problems, clearly having difficulty with the way Tony sees the world.

Translator –
The translator role (S-III) sits in between Suzanne (S-IV) and Tony (S-II), who can translate Suzanne’s big picture thinking (that is what we hired her for) into time span appropriate projects that Tony can drive on the production floor.

But, My Team Gives Me the Wrong Answer

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Question:
I use questions to coach my team members, and they provide answers but not always the right answer. As a result, the conversation can appear like an inquisition. It’s challenging, at that time, not to revert to “telling” rather than “asking“.

Response:
If you are asking a question and you don’t get the response you want, it’s not because the response is wrong, it’s because you are asking the wrong question. -Tom