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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How to give feedback

Leader-managers owe it to employees to let them know their contributions are appreciated and how they could contribute even more effectively. No doubt you agree.

But do you get hung up on the word ‘feedback’? Don’t. Banish it from your mind and replace it with the word ‘information’. That way, you aren’t thinking ‘complaints’ and ‘criticisms’ but ‘insights’ offered in a caring, helpful way. Caring, helpful insights are indispensable to healthy workplaces and work teams.

This means banishing negative general comments and body language that implies ‘Oh, no – not you again’. Sarcasm, rolling your eyes, ignoring people or their efforts, and even heavy ‘hints’ fall into this category. It also means banishing telling people they’ve done something ‘wrong’ without explaining how to do it ‘right’.

Instead, motivate and lift people’s spirits with positive general comments that show you’re glad to be working with them. When you want to make sure what you’re commenting on is repeated, be specific – say what you appreciate and why you appreciate it. That builds and maintains first-rate performance.

When you want to help someone contribute more effectively, be constructive. Provide practical information that can help the person lift their performance.

So here’s your challenge for this week: Tell each of your team members something that you appreciate about the way they work and contribute. In a different conversation, show them how they could tackle a task to achieve a more effective outcome. (To find out why to separate your positive and constructive comments, see my blog Why the ‘sandwich technique’ for feedback doesn’t work.)

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.

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.

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.

What time spells

A child asks Dad to play Scrabble or play catch and but he’s too busy. An employee stops by a manager’s desk for a quick chat and she carries on with what she was doing while listening with half an ear.

How aware are you of the messages you send people? Do they ever say ‘You’re an interruption’ or ‘I don’t care’, even when you don’t mean them to?

Everyone’s time is precious and that means everyone needs to choose how they spend it. And those choices are important.

Children spell ‘love’ differently that adults – they spell it: t-i-m-e. And to employees, ‘time’ can spell ‘I c-a-r-e’.

So this week, pause and give some thought to whether you’re spending enough of your time on what, and who, are most important to you. What you were doing can often wait when giving the gift of time spells ‘love’ to a child, or ‘I care’ to a friend or employee.

Increasing people’s commitment

When people feel committed to achieving results, they work whole-heartedly and do their best. Low or no commitment yields the bare minimum that comes from half-hearted effort.

Here are the important To Dos to increase people’s commitment:

  1. Paint the ‘big picture’ so they can share your vision.
  2. Help them see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and involve them in helping you work out how to get there. (These first two To Dos are known as ‘engaging people’ in the jargon.)
  3. Match the work needed to reach the goal suits their skill set and personal inclinations.
  4. Next, ‘energise’ them. How does achieving the goal help others? (I posted about this 2 weeks ago.)
  5. Provide the resources – the time, effort, information, etc. – they need to achieve the goal; without this, they’ll feel like they’re beating their head against a brink wall – a sure way to sap the energy you’ve summoned.
  6. Show your appreciation for their contributions. Make it clear you prize what they’re doing because it’s helping to bring that light at the end of the tunnel ever-closer.

So there we have it, a simple enough formula that you can put to work tomorrow to bring out the best in your team:

Engage – Match – Energise – Provide – Prize