Category Archives: Communication Skills

Communication Protocol

The paceline moved north, into a headwind, pulling 19 mph. “Walker up!” The shout came from the lead cyclist on the nose. He pulled his right hand off the handlebars, arm straight out, pointed to the pedestrian in the bike lane. One second later, he pats his butt and moves left into the active traffic lane. Though the rest of the paceline may not be able to see the walker, each cyclist knew about the hazard and knew to follow the lead bike to avoid it.

Intentional, agreed-upon communication. It was simple, efficient and effective. As the paceline continued north, there were other hazards to avoid, potholes, a tree branch in the road, narrowing traffic lanes, overtaking cars. Through a series of hand signals and audible shouts, the group made its way safely through urban traffic.

How does your team communicate in its daily routines? Do they have simple, efficient protocols to warn of impending hazards, delays, material shortages? Do they have agreed-upon signals to provide each other with feedback?

Chances are good that prior to a delay, prior to a material shortage, prior to a change in schedule, somebody knew. Someone could have warned the group and the group could have acted according to an agreed-upon protocol.

Get your team together and play the “what if” game. What problems occur and how they are best solved. Then create the “signal.”

“Walker up!”

Not Enough to Listen Attentively

Isn’t it funny, in school, when we think of the three “R’s,” only one starts with an “R.” (Reading, writing, arithmetic) Isn’t it funny, when we think about Communication in the organization, it’s always about talking, presenting and writing.

  • “How many of you, at some point in school, learned how to write?” All hands go up.
  • “And how many of you, at some point in school, learned how to read?” All hands go up.
  • “And how many of you, at some point, took a class in debate or public speaking?” Many hands go up.
  • “And how many of you have take some formal class of instruction in listening skills?” Few hands go up.

Let’s examine different levels of listening.

  • Level I – Ignoring (my wife says, I must be good at this, as much as I practice)
  • Level II – Pretending to listen (my wife says my skill definitely exceeds the ignoring level)
  • Level III – Selective listening (I always hear the part about the score of the football game, yet miss the part about taking out the garbage)
  • Level IV – Attentive listening (finally, some serious listening happening here)

It is only with Level IV that we are able to make headway to improve the quality of communication. Yet, most of our attentive listening consists of eye contact, some positive body language and focus on the other person’s lips, waiting… waiting… waiting… for them to finally take a breath, so we can break in and… respond. Most attentive listening is listening to respond.

To improve the quality of communication, attentive listening must move to a deeper level, listening for understanding. It is only at this level that we begin to truly understand the other person. Listen for understanding.

Yet, take it one level deeper and you will see exponential benefits from your conversations. Listen for discovery. Discovery is that intersection of the other person’s direction and your direction. That point of intersection is communication magic. It’s like that common ground you find when you discover that both parties grew up in Texas. The conversation changes, a new level of trust occurs. The real discovery, however, the true payoff, is the discovery of intersection in the future. In what direction is the other person headed? What direction are you headed? Where, in the field, will you meet up? Listen for discovery.

Not a Communication Problem

“I am a bit confused,” Sarah explained. “As an executive management team, CEO included, we were frustrated about some issues that were not going well.”

“And, what did you do?” I asked.

“We thought it best to take a survey, kind of a company climate survey, to let everyone chip in and express their opinion about things gone wrong and how to fix them,” she said.

“And, what did you find out?”

“Just as we expected, a large number, more than 50 percent described our problems, related to productivity and morale, as a communication issue.”

“And, how did you go about addressing the issue?” I pressed.

“We hired a communication consultant, and held a series of communication seminars, so everyone could attend,” Sarah stated flatly.

“And, the results?”

“It’s been two weeks. At first, everyone was fired up. People were being nice to each other, but, here we are two weeks later and nothing has really changed. Productivity statistics are unchanged and we still experience heated exchanges about who is to blame.”

“Do you think communication is really the underlying problem?” I wanted to know.

“When you use the word – underlying, it leads me to believe I am looking in all the wrong places,” Sarah sighed. “So, is communication the problem, or only a symptom of the problem?”

“Let’s assume, for a moment, that communication was accurately identified by your survey as a symptom of the problem,” I floated. “What might be the underlying cause of the problem?”

Sarah had to stop, a bit of silence. She finally spoke, “Some people in the survey said they were unnecessarily blamed for things going wrong, that it really wasn’t their fault. Others said that if productivity was really wanted, that the incentive program should be changed. Some said they knew how to fix some of our problems, but they didn’t have the authority to make the decision, they were overruled by their manager.”

“I think we are moving away from the symptom, and getting closer to the cause,” I observed. “Most people, when they call me, tell of a communication problem. After some time, I can usually convince them that communication is not their problem. It’s usually an accountability and authority issue.”

Heightened Intuition

Remember the bio-feedback days. It was all the rage, an entire arm of the psychology, self-help, medical community started a little cottage industry. I don’t know where it started, maybe with the old lie-detector machines that measured Galvanic skin response. The essence of the science was that various stimuli in the environment create predictable biological responses in the body, sparking electrical and chemical changes in brain patterns and hormone levels. It’s what gives you the sweats when you get nervous.

You don’t hear much about bio-feedback anymore, but the bio-responses in your body are still very real. As a Manager, these bio-responses can work for you and against you. For the most part, bio-response is unconscious, we don’t know what is going on inside, but the hormones are being released nonetheless. As brain patterns change or hormone levels build, if the Manager can become sensitive to the change, two very important things can occur.

  • Heightened intuition
  • Channeled reaction

Charlie was in my office yesterday. We were talking 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. Some people believe that intuition is unexplainable, but I think intuition is simply getting in touch with the bio-responses that unconsciously occur all the time.

The twinge in my stomach was caused by a short silence, a white space in the conversation. I had 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, which is a bio-response to “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. That’s the bio-response. Heightened intuition (simply getting in touch with the bio-response) tells me that we are talking about something more significant than the weather. The first important element of bio-response is heightened intuition.

The second is channeled reaction. The automatic (unconscious) reaction to a bio-response is to avoid. Do anything to make this feeling go away. The silence was awkward. The automatic (unconscious) response is 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. It is also likely that the conversation will steer back to a discussion of the weather.

Channel the reaction. When the Manager becomes aware of the bio-response, the reaction can be channeled productively. 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. Avoiding it would be easy, simply talk to fill the silence, talk about anything. OR, I could engage, and channel the reaction. I could 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 bio-response 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.

They Don’t Want to Listen

“But, what if my team just doesn’t want to listen to me?” Susan protested.

“And, how does that make you, as the manager, less responsible for the communication?” I asked.

“Yeah, but, if they don’t want to listen, how can I make them listen?”

“Indeed, how can you make them listen?”

Susan stopped, this wasn’t going anywhere. “I can’t make them listen. If they don’t want to listen, I have to figure out how to get them to want to listen.”

“That’s a start. Remember, as the manager, you are 100 percent responsible for the communication. So, how do you get them to listen in the first place?”

“Well, I guess I have to talk about things they are interested in. I have to get their attention.”

“And since you are 100 percent responsible for the communication, that is exactly where you should start. Speak in terms of the other person’s interests.”

I Must Be Crazy, or an Idiot

Working with groups on communication, I often take an opaque card, draw a circle on one side and a triangle on the other. I hold in front and ask people what they see. They say, “I see a circle.”

I say, “No, I see a triangle.”

Quizzical looks from the group, like I must be crazy, or worse, an idiot.

“No, you must be wrong,” I repeat. “I see a triangle.”

“No, you must be wrong,” they say emphatically. “We see a circle. And, since we, as a group, outnumber you, we must be right.”

You can see where this is going.

“The understanding of a circle and a triangle is simply a matter of perspective,” I say, flipping the card to reveal the other side.

Imagine where the possibilities of a circumstance are more complicated than what has been drawn on one side of an opaque card.

What Gets Missed 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?”