Great minds

Years ago, I had a boss whose catchphrase was “I love it when a plan comes together!” I have had moments in my career when that phrase spontaneously pops into my head because I can see the results of collective hard work. Today was one of those days.

A co-worker from another department emailed a question to one the managers on my staff, and she also copied me. I happened to be about ten feet from the co-worker’s office when I received her email, so I just popped in and answered her question in person. A bit later, my manager sent an email response without knowing I had already answered the question.

Guess what.

Our independent answers were spot-on with one another, even down to sharing some of the same terminology. **Enter the adrenaline surge of success.** Why does this make me so happy?

  1. My manager showed me that he “got it.” Or maybe I got it, since he has been instrumental in shaping the plan that led to the answer. In any case, he and I are speaking the same language–to each other. Communication success #1.
  2. My manager and I are telling the same story to the rest of the world. We are speaking in concert–even better because it happened naturally; i.e. see point #1. Our answers were consistent with each other, therefore reducing the opportunity for confusion. Communication success #2.

Maybe it’s a small victory, but I love it when a plan comes together.

Know thyself

I have one friend who makes me laugh. Really hard. All the time. In fact, when my phone rings and I see her name pop onto the screen, I don’t even try to contain the grin that involuntarily spreads across my face. No matter my mood or my circumstances, just the sound of her voice lifts my spirits instantly. I love her to pieces.

I have another friend  who makes me feel like home. She has always been there and always will be. I don’t have to explain things to her because we have so much history and, after all this time, she just knows me. She’s my anchor and I can count on her for anything. She’s part of me. I love her to pieces, too.

Why am I writing about friendships when this is supposed to be a blog about communication insights? Honestly, I’m not completely sure, but I think this is the reason. Through my friends, I get to know myself better. I’ve learned to recognize the times I reach out to them and the reasons for them. I’ve learned to celebrate the ways they make me feel and the buttons they push to do it. Through my friends, I learn my own native language.

If you think that sounds self-centered, I respectfully disagree. If I can’t recognize my own language, I certainly won’t know how to translate it for you. It’s like this: if I speak English and you speak German, we might have problems communicating. But if I also don’t KNOW I’m speaking English, I won’t even know where to start fixing the problem. To be really effective, knowing my audience isn’t enough. I also have to know myself.

Thanks, Sally and Robin. You give me so much.

Live and learn

I am fortunate to have people in my life whom I consider mentors. For the most part, these people have been in positions of power, somewhere above me on the food chain. I learn a lot from these people, and I look up to them gratefully. If you have someone like this in your life, nurture that relationship and glean all you can from it.

If you really want to learn, though, don’t spend all your time looking up. Look around and down, too. Look to your peers, to your staff (if you have one), even to your children. You’ll be surprised at the number of teachable moments you find where YOU are the student.

Here’s an example. The other day, I watched one of my staff members deal with a difficult situation. (Out of respect for the people involved, I will not specifically describe the situation here. I hope you understand.) As I observed, I felt immensely fortunate to be present, because I learned a lot that day. It forced me to consider how I would handle a similar situation and which parts of this person’s approach I could exercise effectively. I also recognized which parts of the approach I likely couldn’t pull off at all. In addition, I came away with a clearer picture of how I could support this person as a manager and, hopefully, a mentor. I entered the situation with the goal of finding resolution; instead, I also found a bit of clarity.

Teachable moments are all around you. Don’t spend so much time looking up to a mentor that you miss the moments right under your nose.

Panning for gold

One time I read that if you write a sentence that you’re absolutely in love with, that you think is nothing short of pure brilliance, you should strike it from your work. Even if–no, especially if–you think it perfectly captures the very essence of the point you are trying to make, get rid of it.

As someone who loves words and practically swoons over a precisely crafted sentence, I really struggled with this concept. The more I thought about it, however, the more I began to see the wisdom behind it. I believe it boils down to two things.

  1. If you think it is perfect, it will get in your way. You run the risk of becoming so enamored with your own brilliance that the rest of your work will suffer. Chances are, whatever you’re writing will start to situate itself around your bright and shiny expression in an effort to showcase its very brilliance. Instead of making your point, you’ll be pointing to your words. 
  2. Actually removing your golden nugget will force you to rev up your creative alchemy. You’ll be forced to think of other ways to express yourself, and hopefully you’ll land on the one that will speak your readers’ language rather than your own. That’s when you might even decide that your golden nugget was actually iron pyrite, fool’s gold.

This is still difficult for me to put into practice, and I’m still guilty of breaking this rule more often than not. I find, however, that times when I do follow it, my writing is better for it.

It’s never too late

Bonjour!

For years I’ve toyed with the idea of learning French, and recently I was given a terrific reason to do it.  Although I’ve studied languages before–lots of German, two years of Russian, one year of Spanish–this will be a new challenge for me. I’ve always taken the traditional route and studied language in a classroom, sometimes augmented with long- or short-term immersion. This time around, I’ve opted to try the Rosetta Stone methodology. Not only am I accountable to myself rather than to a professor or a grade book, but I’m also a whole lot older than the last time I did this.

Pshaw. I’ve never completely bought into the age argument. I don’t think anyone is too old to learn; I just think people have a tendency to become less flexible over time. People often narrow their perspectives or ensconce themselves in the familiar, and they don’t always leave much room for new and different. And let me tell you, learning a language takes a lot of new and different: sounds, sentence structures, tenses, cases. Well, in the spirit of one of my recent posts, this will be a refreshing change. Honestly, I can’t wait to start.

If you want to communicate effectively, you have to speak the other person’s language. Usually I mean that in a more cognitive sense as it relates to a shared language. Today though, I’m taking that to its most fundamental level.

How are YOU going to improve your communication skills?

I’m only human

Everyone has communication issues, even a professional communicator. The trick is to figure out your particular issue and work on it. So far this blog has been a terrific tool for me to put some (semi)formal structure around my “aha” moments and has allowed me to really focus my thoughts. In that process, I’ve been able to identify one area in particular where I need to fortify myself. In the interest of transparency and accountability (great communication principles), I’m going to come clean right here.

What I’ve learned about myself is that I lack grace in certain situations. For example, if I’ve told someone something once, I don’t want to tell him again–and I’m often less pleasant when it comes to round 2. My brother could probably cite several recent instances where he bore the brunt of my affliction, but I hope he doesn’t. I’m sure you understand what I mean without his help.

Now, there are tons of reasons why someone might ask the same question twice or more. Maybe he didn’t understand my answer (I need to talk smarter). Maybe the email/text/voice mail with my answer didn’t go through (technical difficulties). Maybe my answer didn’t really address his question (operator error). Or maybe, just maybe, he’s human (occasionally error-prone, no one is immune).

Thankfully, my get-it-right-the-first-time attitude doesn’t always rear its ugly head, but when it does, I know it undermines my effectiveness as a communicator. I appear less approachable and less cooperative. Ouch, that hurts.

Now that I’ve told you about it, I’m going to work on it. What are YOU going to work on?

Water your grass

Yesterday I was talking to a friend with whom I’ve recently reconnected after many years. In the course of conversation, this friend told me that I am a “refreshing change to hang out with.” When I asked why, he listed a few reasons that represented a departure from his usual crowd. Funny, but all those reasons sounded a lot like MY crowd, but my crowd doesn’t seem that refreshing to ME.

My friend’s comments opened my eyes to the tendency we have to embrace the familiar. It’s easy and comfortable to surround ourselves with people who share our backgrounds, lifestyles, values, and so on. That’s not a bad thing, but if you find yourself refreshed when something different comes along, why wait for it? Why not daily sprinkle your life with the seasoning of “different?” Invite a coworker to lunch to get acquainted. Try a new food. Read a book of a different genre. Shop at a grocery store on the other side of town.

I read a quip once that has stuck with me ever since, and I think this is the perfect application for it: If the grass is greener on the other side, water your grass! Don’t wait for it to rain, be a rainmaker. Sprinkle your comfort zone with new and different and watch yourself grow.

Thanks for putting me on track, Jeff!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

As I write this, my office area is completely silent. All of the people in the department next to me  have left the building to attend the funeral of a co-worker’s mother. Close to 20 people have chosen to offer this tribute. Some of them may not know the co-worker as well as others, and some may detest funerals. Some may even be fairly uncomfortable. Never mind that. They still went–out of respect. What a powerful statement.

Too often, we forget to consider the impact of respect in our daily lives. I’m unsure whether we take its importance for granted or if we think it is self-evident. Either way, I find it crucial to my well-being. Feeling respected improves my self-confidence, brightens my overall outlook, and increases my likelihood of trying new things. It affects how I treat others, as well as my own productivity. If it works for me, I’m pretty certain it works for you. Showing respect to others seems like an easy formula for better…well, everything.

We show respect most powerfully when we do it with our everyday actions: being polite, ignoring gossip, asking advice, admitting when we are wrong or don’t know something, recognizing and appreciating the strengths of others. Doing something once won’t get you there; respect is born of consistency and sincerity. The funny thing is, you just might get it back.

By the way, this post isn’t meant solely for the workplace. Try it at home, too. Your kids will appreciate it.

Even the best intentions…

…can go awry. I went into a meeting today where the sole purpose of the main participants was to get to the bottom of some communication issues. Even though these people identified their key stumbling blocks, those very same issues–the ones already acknowledged, mind you–hampered their discussion of solving them. They WANTED to solve them. They were TRYING to solve them. Because the issues themselves involved how they talked to each other, they couldn’t talk about talking about them effectively. What a giant conundrum.

What’s the answer?

This is a tough situation. Ultimately, I think it’s going to take brutal honesty and impartial, if informal, mediation. The problem words and phrases were so palpable to me that I could almost see them as people’s tongues flung them into the room. Unfortunately, I had an strong affiliation with one of the people involved, so as much as I wanted to mediate (and you can be certain that I did what I could!), I could not and should not have been considered impartial.

If there’s a moral to this story, it is that real life is tough; don’t give up working hard to communicate. I firmly believe in talking smarter, not louder. I think honest, direct communication is the only clear path, even when ambient noise surrounding our conversations distorts our best, purest efforts. I promise you’ll be better off than if you don’t try at all.

What’s in a name?

Those of you who know me personally also know how passionate I am about spelling and grammar. Believe it or not, there is another area where mistakes annoy me even more: names. I might even expand that into names and identifying information, including addresses. My point of view is unequivocally this: spell them right.

The amount of time it takes to correct an error–or, better yet, to make sure the information is right the first time–is infinitessimal, especially when weighed against the annoyance it can cause your constituency. Nothing is more personal to someone than her name. If you can’t get it right, why should your customer-colleague-vendor-child’s teacher-professor-etc. take you seriously? Getting it wrong only serves to make you look disinterested or lazy.

I understand that sometimes people make honest mistakes. Those are easy enough to correct and forgive. What I find inexcusable are situations such as these, which I’ve experienced personally:

  • “Personalized” sales calls (or letters or emails) that misspell my name;
  • Misspelling my name when responding to an email where my name and/or auto signature are already present;
  • Assuming my name is a short form of another name, and then calling me by the longer, incorrect name;
  • Misspelling my name in the body of a Facebook or LinkedIn message where my name auto populates in the address line (how can you miss that?!);
  • Unwillingness to correct a name and/or address even when notified;
  • Addressing phone calls and/or correspondence to an ex of several years, then expecting me to respond favorably when the contactor switches gears upon being corrected.

If you have an unusual name (I don’t), I would imagine that it means even more to you when someone takes the time to get it right.

Here’s what I believe.  When you get it right, I honestly may not notice. When you get it wrong, however, I guarantee that I’ll notice. Is that how you want to get my attention?