Listening and silence

Have you ever noticed that the words ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ are made up of the same letters? They might look the same in a lot of other ways, too, but they’re really very different.

How do you listen when you’re fascinated with what someone is saying? I bet it’s quite different to the way you listen with ‘half an ear’ when you’re not interested, but just being polite and keeping silent.

When you simply keep silent, you end up listening like a stunned mullet and that’s guaranteed to bring a conversation to a pretty rapid halt. Genuine listening involves your heart, your eyes and your mind, as well as your ears.

That’s hard work and it doesn’t come easily to most people. But it’s worth making the effort because real listening, as opposed to silence, does three precious things for you:

  1. It helps you build better relationships.
  2. It helps you find out what’s really going on and what people really think, which makes you more influential and persuasive.
  3. Listening carefully to someone obliges them to listen carefully to you: the better you listen, the more others listen to you.

So how can you listen, as opposed to just keeping silent? Here are three essentials:

  1. Put your own thoughts on hold, even when you think you have something more important to say and even when you disagree with what the other person is saying. Try to crawl inside their mind and see matters from their point of view. Listen for their thinking and the logic and feelings behind it.
  2. Get your body language right. As they say, when your eyes wander, your mind wanders, too. Without facing the other person directly, which can be interpreted as confrontational, orient your body to them at roughly right angles and don’t fidget.
  3. Show you’re listening with a few nods and grunts – ‘Ahhh’, ‘Uhum’ , ‘Mmmm’ …

With a bit of practice, anyone can be a not-so-silent listener.

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Tips for all leaders

We’ve been looking at some ideas to keep you afloat while you find your feet if you’re a new leader. I thought we’d look at tips for all leader-managers in this post. Since a huge part of your job no doubt entails communication, the tips are in the form of eight positive principles for cooperative communication. And here they are.

  1. Soften the ‘you’s’ or turn them into ‘I’s’ to avoid sounding pushy and dictatorial. So instead of saying ‘You’ll have to …’ say ‘Could you …’ or ‘Would you be able to …’ or ‘What I need is …’.
  2. Turn your cant’s into cans. Instead of ‘We can’t do that until next week’ say ‘We’ll be able to do that next week’.
  3. Take responsibility. It’s tempting to push blame onto someone else or to an unfortunate turn of events or an unexpected situation. But we’re not kids anymore, are we? When something goes wrong, saying ‘Here’s what I can do to fix that’ is much better.
  4. Say what you want, not what you don’t want. Rather than ‘Don’t race through this and make mistakes’ try ‘Think this through – take it one step at a time.’
  5. Offer improvement suggestions. When you’re tempted to say ‘That was OK but …’ or ‘That works except …’ try ‘If you do X, that will make it perfect!’
  6. Turn complaints into requests. ‘You never …’ becomes ‘How about…?’
  7. Share information. Rather than argue or accuse, you can offer your point of view and explain how you see a situation.
  8. Leave doors open. That way, a flat out ‘No’ can become a ‘Yes, as soon as …’.

These principles not only strengthen your working relationships, they also make you a great role model for your team and set the tone for a positive working climate.

Words that speak

A few weeks ago, we looked at how much we reveal about ourselves through our unspoken messages. But that is not to say words aren’t important. They are. They’re really important. A poor choice of words can instantly switch people off and lose you their goodwill – or gain it. Your words can instantly irritate or create cooperation, help or hinder, confuse or clarify. You can choose words that are forceful or accommodating, impartial or emotive, clear or vague, courteous or challenging, depending on your purpose.
Whatever your purpose, you probably want to choose clear, positive and powerful words.
· Clear positive and powerful because the way you talk colours the way you think and the way you think shapes the way you act.
  • Clear positive and powerful because the way you talk influences the way others see you.
  •  Clear positive and powerful because they make what you say understandable, unambiguous and persuasive.
  • Clear positive and powerful because they can set a constructive tone to a conversation.
Choosing clear words isn’t as easy as it might sound. The 500 most commonly used English words have an average of 28 meanings each, which in part accounts for people understanding something quite different from what we mean. At any rate, clear words don’t include double-speak and they generally don’t include jargon (unless you’re talking to an expert, in which case, jargon can be very clear and precise).
Clear words are usually descriptive and specific; so rather than say you’ll send something, you can say you’ll post it, air mail it, courier it or scan and email it. You might want to say when you plan to do this, too. Or in a service situation, you might instruct staff not to ‘be polite to customers’ but to ‘make customers feel like special guests in our home’.
Positive words: here’s what we don’t want to hear:
  • You’ll have to fill out the form and send it back.
  • I can’t do that until Monday.
  • Don’t do that.
Negative gets people’s backs up. Positive brings a smile to their face:
  • You’ll want to fill out the form and send it back so that I can … for you.
  • I can do that on Monday for you.
  • Try it this way.
Much better, right?
Powerful words are strong. We know a strong word when we hear it and we know a weak word, too.
  • I may be able to do that.
  • It might work.
  • I’ll try to get to that soon.
  • I’ll see what I can do.
We lose all faith in speakers of weak words and we know they don’t even begin to mean what they say. Powerful words sink in and give you credibility.
So clear, positive and powerful words are the way to go. They’ll get you a lot more of what you want.
And here’s some icing for your cake: Choose words that the other person uses.
Using similar types of words and expressions that the person you’re speaking with uses makes your words hit home even more . These might be formal or informal, correct or colloquial. Use technical terms or long words when that’s what your conversational partner uses, or everyday terms or short words when these are more in harmony.
This works because people have a characteristic way of speaking, called an idiolect. They arrange words in certain ways and use certain styles of words and expressions. Harmonising your words with theirs puts you in synch because and makes it easier for people to understand you. Your message gets through loud and clear.
Choosing the right word and the right combination of words is essential, so choose your words with care.

Be a coach, not a critic

In chimpanzee troops, the leader sits at the centre. About every 30 seconds, all the other apes orient themselves to him. They take their cues from him. When he’s stressed or nervous, so are they. When he’s calm, so are they.

Like the chimp troops, we need our leaders to remain calm and in good spirits. When you’re in good spirits, you lift everyone’s spirits. When you’re down in the dumps and feeling stressed, you lower everyone’s spirits. Your mood and the way you deal with staff affects the way they do their jobs and deal with each other and their customers.

On top of that, the brain is hard-wired to give more weight to negative messages than to positive messages. Whether you intend to send a negative message or not, and whether it’s verbal or nonverbal, your messages carry weight. No matter how considerate, constructive and tactful you aim to be, your words can all too easily dismay, distress or alarm. To counter that, your messages need to be cool, calm, collected and mostly positive.

And, of course, the tougher your message and the less people want to hear it, the more difficult it is to get across. And sometimes you need to give a tough message. which is when you want to be a coach, not a critic.

Here are five ways turn your complaints & criticism into constructive comments so that your words sink in rather than sting:

  1. Think about your goal, not the problem. Focusing on a problem keeps you stuck with it. Thinking about how to remove or avoid a problem is destructive and negative. Thinking about how to replace the problem with something you want is creative and positive. So think about what you want to happen or what you want to replace, say, an annoying behaviour with.Saying something like ‘We both want the same thing, here,’ works like magic. Mentally step back and talk about what you both want to show you’re both on the same side. ‘We both want a good working relationship.’ ‘We both want to make the changeover a success.’ ‘We both want to get this problem rectified.’ Now, you only have to work out how to achieve your joint aim.
  2. Focus on the future, not the past. Thinking about your goal automatically means you focus on the future. Coaches avoid post mortems except to see what everyone can learn from them. They keep their sights firmly on the next game, the next match, the next round. Why criticise someone’s mistake when you could show them how to get it right next time?

    LOSE THESE                             USE THESE
    You shouldn’t have …               From now on …
    You’ve done that wrong.          Try it like this.
    That isn’t right.                           Here’s what needs to happen.
    I’ve told you before not to …    Next time, try it this way …
    You never …                                 Could you please …?Outlining what you need to happen instead of blaming someone for something they’ve done or failed to do invites cooperation rather than resistance. It wins you support and improved performance.

  3. Be positive not negative. Thinking about your goal also puts you in the positive. Criticising gets people’s backs up and leads to arguments. Just what you don’t want in a professional relationship. Say what you want, not what you don’t want. Discuss what can be done, not what shouldn’t have been done or what not to do. Here are some ways to turn critical phrases into coaching phrases:

    LOSE THESE                             USE THESE
    Why can’t you …?                      How about …?
    This is difficult.                          Here’s how to do this. Watch carefully.
    We can’t do that because …     We can do that as soon as …
    You’re wrong.                             Here’s how I see it…
    We can’t do that.                        Here’s what I can do….
    No problem.                                It’s a pleasure!Finding solutions, not fault, strengthens working relationships and makes sure things are done right.

  1. Ask don’t tell. People tend to resist when they feel they’re told to do something, forced into something or given unasked for advice. Instead of demanding ‘Do it this way’, suggest: ‘How about…’ or ‘Would you mind…’.Try simply prefacing your comments to flag what you’re about to say or do. For example, asking ‘Would you mind if I make a suggestion?’ means you don’t ram unwanted advice down peoples’ throats.
  2. Be specific not general. You know what you mean, and you want to make sure others know what you mean, too.‘This report isn’t good enough – you’ll have to fix it!’ What specifically needs to be fixed? The layout? The content? The ‘voice’ or tone it’s written in? Is an Executive Summary needed? Perhaps more supporting data would help.Whether you’re being complimentary or constructive, say why. When you need to be constructive (that’s the coaching word for critical), say ‘because’ to take the heat out. When you offer a compliment, saying why you appreciate something sounds more sincere and makes it more likely that the ‘something’ will be repeated.

Coaching, not criticising smooths your professional relationships, brings out the best in people, and gets you more of what you want.

The lights are on but no one’s home

Years ago, I participated in a training exercise I’ve never forgotten. To this day, it makes me queasy with discomfort!

The trainer asked us to pair up and one person in each pair was to leave the room for a couple of minutes. I went out. While we were out, the trainer instructed those remaining that when their partners returned, they were to engage us in conversation and listen. BUT – they were to offer no sign whatsoever that they were listening. No eye contact, no nods, no grunts, no nuffink.

I can tell you, I found the absence of those non-verbal ‘encouragers’ not only extremely off-putting, but actually quite distressing.

Two things happened very quickly:

  1. I reached the firm conclusion that my partner was an absolute dork.
  2. I dried right up.

Normally, as those of you who know me know, I can talk the hind leg off a donkey, but with someone sitting opposite me, just sitting there like a lump and doing absolutely nothing, I completely lost my train of thought. I began rambling wildly. And then I ground to a halt. I was most uncomfortable to say the least.

That made me realise, in a very visceral way, how important it is to not just ‘sit there’ and listen. We need to do something.

So here are six small but crucial things to do when you’re listening to someone:

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. Nod.
  3. Say ‘uh-huh, ‘I see’ and ‘mmm’ a lot.
  4. Repeat a key word or phrase.
  5. Orient your body towards the speaker.
  6. Lean slightly forward towards the speaker.

That way, you won’t find your conversational partner drying up and thinking you’re an absolute dork.

The silent language

Well, hopefully last week, you got straight into perfecting your work space. And now you’re sitting in it, and you know what? You’re sending a clear message that you’ve got your act together – you’re in control and you’re reliable. So that’s good.
You know what they say – actions speak louder than words. Every single thing you do (and don’t do) communicates. You positively brim with unspoken messages, mostly unintentional and unconscious.
Those message reflect your innermost self, your skills and your confidence. They highlight or hide your talents and accomplishments and tell others how much appreciation and respect you give yourself and expect others to give you.
That, in turn, influences your friendships, promotions, pay rises and career paths. It influences how much support and help you receive from others, how much help and support others seek from you and whether they accept your ideas or ignore them.
So here’s a quick tour of how to radiate confidence, trustworthiness and professionalism. Pick one or two to work on until they’ve become a firm habit. Then pick another, then another and before you know it – the world is your oyster. Whatever that means.
First of all, pay attention to the way you sit and stand. Does it tell people you’re interested in them or involved in what you’re doing? Does your upright posture signal you’re calm, composed, confident and competent, or do you constantly jiggle, shuffle or pace to and fro, signalling that you’re nervous, ill at ease and discombobulated? Or maybe your body drips, oozes and sprawls, so you look like you don’t have the energy or attitude to even sit up, walk or stand, never mind think anything sensible?
Do you detract from your image by sucking on a pen, fiddling with a paper clip, your hair or your tie? Do you weaken your influence by constantly clearing your throat or tapping your foot? Or are you relaxed and calm and your movements open, which says ‘I’m in control; you can trust me’?
How about your voice? When more than 30 per cent of your sentences end as if you’re asking a question rather than making a statement, you sound unsure of yourself and people discount what you’re saying and switch off. You sound more credible and confidant when you lower your voice and you sound more thoughtful and serious when you slow down a bit – but not so slow people can fall asleep between your words. You can speed up to show your energy and enthusiasm, but no so fast people can’t understand your words and follow what you’re saying.
So there you have it. A few quick ways to convey less of what you don’t want and more of what you do want so that people are more apt to like you, believe you and trust you.

How to prevent people from lying to you

People lie. Some people tell the odd white lie; some lie so they don’t have to tell a difficult truth (to themselves or someone else); some people lie habitually.

Most people don’t become habitual liars because telling a lie, at least for personal gain, causes the amygdala, which lies (no pun intended) deep in the brain, makes them feel bad about the lie. But the more lies a person tells, the more the ‘feel-bad-about-the-lie’ response fades. As that response fades, it becomes easier, and easier, and easier, to lie. And the bigger the lies become.

Lying is a slippery slope. Habitual liars become habitual liars because they lie a lot.

You may know an habitual liar. It might someone you work with, someone you negotiate with, someone you ‘meet’ on the Internet, a neighbour or even a friend.

You probably can’t do much to stop a chronic liar lying to you. But you may be able to head off other people’s lies.

Here are two easy ways:

  • Tell the truth yourself. Since people tend to respond in kind, truth-telling encourages truth-telling.
  • Get to know people, because people are less likely to lie to someone they know, like and trust than they are to a stranger.

Here are three slightly more complicated, but also effective, ways to ward off lies:

  • When you make an assumptive statement or ask an assumptive question, put a negative, or pessimistic, spin on it. When the spin goes against the interests of the other person, they’ll disagree with it. When it’s the truth, they’re like to agree with it rather than tell an outright lie by contradicting it.The reason this works is that people tend to agree with assumptions and assumptive questions, which means they’ll agree with an incorrect assumption when it’s in their interests to do so. But when the assumption is incorrect and goes against their interests, people are willing to disagree with it and set the record straight.
  • Don’t let spin and articulate avoidance fool you. Inarticulate honesty is always preferable to articulate lies and confuscations.
  • When you as a question or make an assumptive statement, make sure the question is answered and the assumption isn’t artfully avoided.Bamboozling people with eloquence and avoiding answering questions are two other ways people skirt the truth. To make sure that doesn’t happen to you, remember your assumptive comments and questions and make sure they’re addressed. Write them down if you need to and don’t move on until you have your answer.

Encouraging the truth isn’t only in your own best interests. It also helps others by making the slippery slope of lying harder to slip down.