|Stop talking and start listening (December 29, 2008)|
| TechTopics Plus
|Stop talking and start listening (December 29, 2008)|
Communicating with impact: the essential principles
By Lyle Sussman PhD
Dr. Sussman is Professor and Chairman of the Management and Entrepreneurship Department in the School of Business, University of Louisville. He is also an active trainer, speaker, and executive coach both nationally and internationally. His best selling books on management leadership, and communication have been translated in 15 languages, and sold more than 1,000,000 copies worldwide.
For more than 25 years I have lectured at national banking schools, presented keynote addresses at state and regional banking associations, and conducted in house training programs. My lecture and training topics typically focus on leadership, customer service, and high performance teams. Although these topics represent unique and content specific principles, they all share an underlying conceptual foundation: all are based on effective communication—the ability to
Leaders establish and communicate a vision. Customer service is the sum, total of all the messages (verbal and nonverbal) communicated by employees on a daily basis. High performance teams achieve that status because of how and what those team members communicate to one another.
Communicating with impact is based on a foundation of basic, enabling principles. Unfortunately, principles for effective communication abound. They may be found on bestseller lists, blogs, training films, PowerPoint slides in training programs, and newsletters. I say unfortunately because being inundated with a variety of principles may be as frustrating as having no principles at all. Rather than expanding the existing list, I offer five principles that synthesize and summarize, clarify and simplify. Based upon a quarter century of researching, lecturing, consulting, writing, and speaking about communication, I posit that the following principles reflect the essence of effective communication. These principles apply regardless of job title, functional responsibility, or size of organization. Moreover they apply to the rich variety of communication encounters, whether face-to-face, written, or electronic.
Principle 1: Communicate, don’t “unimmunicate!”
Consider a representative sample of words beginning with the prefix “co”: “correlate,” “cohabitate,” “communion,” “conjugal,” “cooperate,” “collateral,” and “community.” What do these words have in common? Very simply, they connote sharing, a give and take, and reciprocity. Similarly the word “communicate” connotes, sharing, give and take, and reciprocity. Communicating with precision, clarity, and impact requires acknowledging the feelings, and attitudes of others. It is a two way process, not a one-way process. To communicate is to both talk and listen; to express your views and ponder the views of others.
Contrast the prefix “co” with the prefix “uni.” The latter means single or one.
People who send messages (written or spoken) without considering the emotions and psychological states of others are not communicating, they are unimmunicating. They are not communicating to or with others, but in spite of others. They focus solely on sending, transmitting and being heard. They are engaged in a one-way process. For those who unimmunicate, listening is seen as a sign of weakness; talking a sign of strength. They believe that what they have to say is far more important than what they have to hear. The essential difference between communication and unimmunication is best captured in the simple comparison of monologue versus dialogue.
Think about the following examples. You have decided to change a bank policy. You draft a short announcement and place it on the employee bulletin board. You never solicit questions about the memo prior to posting it nor discuss the memo after posting. In this example you have not communicated a policy you have unimmunicated a policy. You announced, proclaimed and ordered. But you most assuredly did not communicate. Similarly, recorded telemarketing messages are not examples of communication, but unimmunication.
The absence of exchange and reciprocity explains why many who answer the call simply hang up before the complete message is played, or quickly delete the message from their answering machine after hearing only a few words. Being talked to without consideration of our feelings is bad enough: being talked to by a recorded message for some borders on the intolerable.
Principle 2: Communicate to make a point, not score a point.
You may be the biggest and most powerful (physical and or administrative) person on your team. But do you have to constantly prove it? Power and strength should be expressed in the quality of your ideas and the content of your character, not the volume of your voice or your scowling demeanor. The most effective communicators are those who make a point without trying to score a point. Their goal is to achieve mutual understanding, not to win.
There is much to be said for civility, collegiality, and graciousness. E-mails, phone calls, speeches, memos, and face-to-face encounters that demean or belittle the other party may make your point, but always at a cost. Being feared (and likely hated) is easily achieved. Simply threaten, shout, swear, pound the table, scowl, and point your finger. Others will unequivocally know what you want and why you want it. They will also know that you cannot be challenged or questioned and will refrain from doing so-at considerable cost to you, your team, and the organization.
Being respected rather than feared is more difficult, but ultimately far more rewarding both for you and those with whom you communicate. By making a point without scoring a point you and your team are able to strive for mutual understanding, a prerequisite for creating value for all stakeholders.
Best-selling business author Jim Collins describes the leaders who facilitate transitions from Good to Great as possessing both humility and will. He argues that contrary to popular stereotypes, great leaders are not the most physically imposing, the most brilliant, or the most charismatic. Rather, they exude a power and force based on an inner strength and inner core. This second communication principle reinforces Collins’s thesis and emphasizes the importance of humility. You are paid for possessing and executing your will; start developing your humility. Ironically, humility coupled with clarity elicits perceptions of authenticity and power—a power characterized by respect and admiration, not obedience to authority. You can achieve both results and respect by communicating to make a point, not score a point.
Principle 3: Communicate as if you are likely to be misunderstood; you will thereby work harder at being understood.
Arguably, one of the most influential self-help books in the modern era is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of his habits, “Seek first to understand before you are understood,” speaks directly to Principle 3 and indirectly to Principle 1. Highly effective people generally, and highly effective communicators specifically, understand that emotions, fears, prejudices, and semantics represent potential communication barriers. These barriers create a disconnect between implication and inference, between intent and effect, between what is said and what is heard.
Because they accept the reality of communication barriers, highly effective communicators work harder at overcoming them. For example, they will bounce ideas off of others before sending out important memos, crafting PowerPoint slides, or establishing the agenda for an important meeting. They view conferring with others as an advantage, not a disadvantage, a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. They will edit their writing both for composition errors and clarity. They will ponder potential strategies for framing a message before they actually compose it. They “walk a mile” in the shoes of those to whom the message will be sent, contemplating intended effects and potential resistance.
If you engage in none of these behaviors you may be laboring under a false, and widely held assumption that you are always and unequivocally “crystal clear” and any misunderstanding is the other person’s fault. The consequence of this assumption is predictable: you are likely to attribute apathy, ignorance, or obstinacy to others, but never to yourself. This self-serving, faulty assumption says more about you than it does about the complexity and dynamics of the communication process. Accepting the wisdom and implications of this third principle is a prerequisite for improving your communication skills and ultimately your communication impact.
Finally, Principle 3 increases in importance as demographic and cultural differences come into play. If everyone was like you, believed what you believed, wanted what you wanted, shared your values and beliefs, and had a similar background, writing this article would be a waste of time. The communication principles would be meaningless and moot; no one would ever need them. However, in our professional (and personal) lives we will deal with people who don’t share our values, who may not look like us, and whose goals conflict with ours. To succeed in this pluralist world requires working to overcome misunderstanding and owning your role in creating it.
Principle 4: Edit the total message for clarity, correctness and comprehension.
In grade school, high school, and college we were taught to edit our writing by focusing on spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, vocabulary, structure, and format. Our teachers often taught these lessons by emphasizing the 3 Cs: clarity, correctness, and comprehension. Editing for the 3 Cs is sound advice whether applied to a 15-word e-mail, a 20-page proposal, or a two-hour PowerPoint presentation containing 40 slides.
Note, however, that the fourth principle includes the modifier “total.” One of the consistent findings of communication researchers is that how we say something may be more important than what we say. Thus, effective communicators understand that the meaning of a message may be conveyed in more than spoken or written words. Meaning may also be conveyed in the context (time, place, and artifacts) surrounding the message and in and nonverbal cues. These communicators are sensitive to choosing the best time and place for sending a message and are conscious of their nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, eye contact, dress, hygiene, facial expression, gestures, and posture. For these communicators editing means more than grammar and punctuation; it means monitoring and modifying context and personal style.
Everything about you creates an overall image or style. From the top of your head to the soles of your shoes you are a walking billboard. That billboard may announce competence, composure, expertise, professionalism, and concern, the antithesis of each, or a muddled picture of contradictory qualities. Principle 4 underscores the reality that you are not only a part of the message, but may be the most dominant part. Editing thus applies both to your explicit words, and your intended or unintended nonverbal messages. Moreover, this editing of your persona and style should conform to the 3 Cs:
Clear (void of conflict, contradictory signals), correct (socially and professionally appropriate), and comprehensible (meaning what you say and saying what you mean).
Principle 5: Communicate as if what you are saying has the potential to be spread around the world, because indeed it might be.
It has been said that in a wired world there are no secrets. What you say in a team meeting in Boston in the afternoon could appear on a blog that night. And that blog might be copied worldwide. An e-mail you send to one employee might find its way into the electronic in-box of every other employee, every customer, and every shareholder. Indeed the ability to control information in a wired world represents challenges that never existed before.
Principle 5 is designed not to increase your paranoia or distrust, but rather to articulate the reality of a wired world and to increase your diligence and sensitivity to it. Indeed, gag orders, nondisclose agreements, confidentiality restrictions, password protected information, and vetting by legal counsel are the corporate counterpart to security clearances at airports and court houses.
The major implication of Principle 5 is that your role as a bank employee entails a fiduciary responsibility…over financial assets specifically, and information assets generally. And this responsibility is increasingly heightened and tested in a wired world.
Principles help us understand the essential truths in the world. They help guide our behavior suggesting the best choices from the wide variety of choices we could make. The five Communication Principles articulated above will similarly help you make the best choices in sending and receiving messages.
[This article was posted on December 29, 2008, on the website of ABA Banking Journal, www.ababj.com, and is copyright 2008 by the American Bankers Association.]
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