Three cornerstones of successful communication

Who are the leader-managers you admire most? Chances are, they excel at communication. Chances are, they have a knack of getting on with people and winning their cooperation. Chances are they shine at three cornerstones of successful communication.

The first cornerstone is really an attitude, or an approach to life and to people; the second two are the skill sets of gathering good information and of giving good information.

  1. Respect: respecting yourself and respecting others
  2. Gathering good information: this takes empathy, the ability to see situations from other points of view, not just your own. This makes you willing to listen and helps you understand the whats, whys and wherefores of other people’s thinking.
  3. Giving good information: what good is it to have an opinion, an idea, or some information if you can’t share it clearly with others?

Here’s your challenge: For the rest of the week, pay attention to three aspects of your communication:

  1. how respectfully you treat others and how respectfully you encourage others to treat you
  2. how carefully you listen to others and put yourself in their shoes so you can figure out where they’re coming from
  3. how clearly and succinctly you give information to others.

That will show you your strengths and where your opportunities to improve are.

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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.

The people you’re stuck with

Sometimes they’re family members. Sometimes they’re people you work with. Sometimes they’re neighbours. They’re the people you wouldn’t choose to spend time with, but you need to.

Worrying about them or even allowing yourself to be annoyed by them is a waste of time and mental energy. Far better to overcome your annoyances and learn to work professionally with them, even though you wouldn’t choose to socialise with them. Much better for your career, your job satisfaction and your job performance. Here are four tips:

  1. Don’t take their behaviour personally. Maybe they’re having a bad day or maybe they have worries at home. Provided they behave pretty much the same with everyone, understand it isn’t about you.
  2. Look for their strengths and good points. Everyone has them. Recognise and acknowledge their abilities and find ways to put their expertise to good use.
  3. Maintain your professionalism at all times. Communicate with them constructively, not angrily or sarcastically – don’t let them dictate your behaviour.
  4. Stay focused on your work goals and what you want to achieve. This takes your mind off how annoying they are and helps you get on with doing what you’re paid to do – your job.

How to deal with personality ‘issues’

The other day, a friend rang wanting to chat through an ‘issue’ she has with one of her team members. ‘I try not to let it’, she said, ‘but her constant, slow shuffle to the cafe bar gets on my nerves. She doesn’t have much to say for herself, either, and I’m the sort of team leader who likes to chat things through. Maybe it’s a generation thing; she’s a bit older than me and I’ve read that older workers aren’t as ‘teamy’ and ‘chatty’ as people my age. She’s hard to manage; it’s a personality thing, I guess.’
So I asked what her work quality was like and it seems it’s fine. She meets all her targets and the others in the team seem to like and respect her. In fact, they often go to her for advice and help when they need it.
That answer brought me to my next question: How would – let’s call her ‘Jane’ – describe this behaviour of hers, the trips to the cafe bar and her quietness? That’s always a good question to ask because it’s unlikely people describe their behaviour in the same way you do, and the answer always puts another slant on the issue.
And the third question: Is the issue worth making a song and dance over? My friend decided it wasn’t.
In summary, here are the first three questions to ask yourself when someone irritates you:
1. How is their work?
2. How would they describe their behaviour?
3. Is it worth addressing?
And when you’re ready, here’s the fourth question:
4. Is this annoying behaviour telling you something about yourself?
This question helps you look into your mental mirror. What we ‘see’ in others (or think we see) is often a reflection of ourselves. As someone once told me, when you ‘point the finger’ at someone, there’s another three fingers pointing back at you. Psychologists call this projection. We do it whenever we attach a characteristic to another person that really belongs to us.
These might be qualities we don’t want to own up to, negative things, like ‘He’s selfish’, or ‘She’s inconsiderate’. Rather than acknowledge we are like this ourselves, it’s easier on the ego to point the finger at someone else.
(We can project our own positive qualities onto other people too. Perhaps we don’t want to boast about them or more likely, we don’t even realise we have them. So we shift them over to someone else.)
Well, my friend drinks tea, not coffee, and likes to chat, so no, ‘Jane’ wasn’t reminding her of something about herself she didn’t like. Ah, but come to think about it …
Long story short, ‘Jane’ reminded my friend about someone in her past that she didn’t like at all, a ‘horrible’ aunt who was really mean to her when she was a child. That was what was causing the ‘issue’. My friend was sorely tempted to deal with ‘Jane’ the way she would have liked to have dealt with her nasty aunt. Once my friend realised that, the ‘issue’ evaporated.
The next time you seem to have a personality clash of some sort, think about whether your description of the other person says more about yourself or someone else in your life, than it says about them.
These are four powerful questions to work through when one of your team members or a colleague annoys you and you need to decide whether the ‘issue’ is worth addressing.

Give people ‘the finger’

We all like to think we’re in charge of our own behaviour but that isn’t always the case. The reason is – our brain. Our brain is filled with specialised circuits that do all sorts of things for us. Some of those circuits are called ‘mirror circuits’. The job of mirror circuits is called ‘interpersonal limbic regulation’ and they prompt us to respond to other people’s emotions and behaviour in kind. These mirror circuits are located in the limbic cortex, our ‘Caveman Brain’.

Some mirror circuits give us empathy for others – we see someone looking sad and our mirror circuits fire off sadness, so we sort of know how they feel. Or we see someone laughing and happy and we smile and feel happy, too.

Our mirror circuits fire off when someone treats us kindly, too. We want to return that kindness. That’s why being nice spreads around to others, like dropping a little pebble in a puddle – the ripples spread.

And here’s the rub. Our mirror circuits fire off when someone is rude, too. Here’s an example. I don’t know about the drivers where you live but I do know about the drivers in Adelaide. Lots of them are pretty rude. For instance, when you pull over to let someone through on a narrow street or in a car park, 49 out of 50 of them don’t lift a finger to say ‘Thank you’.

On Kangaroo Island, on the other hand, every driver lifts a finger to say ‘Hello’ to everyone they pass, never mind to say ‘Thank you’. So when you drive around Kangaroo Island, it only takes a couple of cars going by and lifting the ‘Hello’ finger before you’re lifting the ‘Hello’ finger too. Mirror circuits. People are friendly and you want to be friendly back.

And in Adelaide, when you’ve pulled over to let another driver through and you don’t get the finger-lift ‘Thank you’, the temptation is after one or two times, not to do the finger-lift ‘Thank you’ to the next driver who pulls over for you. That’s the temptation, thanks to those mirror circuits in our Caveman Brain.

Now of course, you know what’s coming, don’t you. Sometimes, we need to over-ride those mirror circuits so that other people don’t dictate our behaviour when that behaviour is rude or anti-social in some other way. We want to use our ‘Thinking Brain’ to tell our ‘Caveman Brain’ to pull its head in, so to speak. That way, we can be pleasant and polite even when someone else isn’t.

And to my mind, that makes for a better place to live, to shop, to drive and to work. Because giving people ‘the finger’ is catching. So give people the ‘Thank you’ finger and the ‘Hello’ finger every chance you have. Niceness is catching and we all want to live and work in a nice place.

Tips for new leaders Part I

From the moment you take up a leadership role, people are watching you. You are leading by example and the only question is: Is it the example you want to set?

As a leader-manager, you’re no longer a ‘me’ working on getting great results as an individual performer (even though that might be what earned you the promotion). Your job is now ‘we’ – getting great results from others by harnessing the power of collective effort. It isn’t your job to impress your new team. Your job is to get to know them and find out how you can help them do their jobs well.

Build a culture that strives for high productivity and quality and one that is enjoyable and personally rewarding for your team members to work in. You’re only as good as your followers’ performance, individually and as a team, so set high standards and insist on peoples’ best efforts. No one will thank you for mediocrity. That doesn’t mean micromanaging, but finding out what people need, procuring it for them, and standing back while they get on with it, ready to help when they need it.

Australians don’t like a ‘task master’ boss, one who is autocratic, results-driven and provides little feedback. People whinge and ultimately do the bare minimum and ‘the numbers’ crash. Concentrate on your team and helping them hit ‘the numbers’, not on bossing people around.

Good leadership, for Australians, is based on quality relationships and we’re either ‘full on’ or ‘full off’ in terms of engagement and motivation. This means that the little things really count, like saying ‘G’day’ and using a person’s name. Open communication, without compromising confidentiality, is seen as a sign of trust and inclusion. In contrast, ‘mushroom management’ – keeping people in the dark – is definitely not appreciated. Make sure you include all team members when you share information, too, not just a favoured few.

Stay visible and talk – and listen – to people face-to-face. Don’t retreat behind your desk and fire off emails and don’t pretend you have all the answers. Spend time building relationships with your team and across the organisation.  Jot down a few notes to make sure your memory isn’t selective and stay alert for feedback, especially the non-verbal kind that can tell you what team members and colleagues really think of you. Keep your problems – work and personal – to yourself.

Most employees today aren’t too fazed by your place in the hierarchy but they’ll work for you as best they can when they respect you for your personal qualities, know what you stand for and know they can rely on you to ‘do the right thing’. But you need to prove yourself first and earn peoples’ trust and respect by demonstrating your character first and later, your competence.

Australians want positive feedback and recognition, but give it sincerely and keep it low-key. (‘Employee of the month’ schemes may work in the US but tend to flop in Australia.) We also respond best to clear and precise operating guidelines and are powerfully motivated by a clear vision and purpose. So get good at communicating and communicate them often (through different mediums and in different ways to avoid sounding like a galah). And tell the truth – Australians have finely tuned ‘bullshit detectors’.

When the results are good, step back and let your team share the glory. Remember, though, that the buck stops with you and you may occasionally need to take the blame for team mistakes.

Your role is probably more than helping your team succeed. It’s probably also helping your organisation succeed by innovating improvements that help your team work more smoothly, easily, economically, quickly, reliably, safely and sustainably.

Leadership is a big undertaking. It’s a huge responsibility as well as a privilege. Stay tuned for more tips next week.

Paint the picture

‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.’ (John Kennedy)

‘A computer on every desk in every home.’ (Bill Gates)

Every leader-manager, at every level, needs a clear vision, a picture of how we are when we’re doing our best work. You can’t avoid it if you want to engage your team.

Vision literally means ‘seeing’ and the best visions help people ‘see’ the ultimate results of their efforts.

Here you are, leading a team of toy makers. Which vision should you offer them:

  1. Our toys make wide-eyed kids laugh and proud parents smile.
  2. Our toys are enjoyed by all our customers.

Research found, not surprisingly, that vision number 1 encouraged significantly better performance.

When I lead meetings of leader-managers to develop a vision, I ask them to think of a day when every operation and every team is working optimally. Absolute perfection. A dream come true. Then I ask them to describe that day in these terms:

  • What am I seeing?
  • What am I hearing?
  • What am I doing?
  • What am I thinking?
  • What am I saying?

They write it down and then share it with the others. Then we capture the key themes and develop a joint vision. The resulting visions are invariably amazing and they all paint a clear picture that can bring employees fully on board.

What is your clear, image-based vision that you use to bring people fully on board?