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STOP TALKING, START COMMUNICATING
Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life, with a foreword by Martha Mendoza
By GEOFFREY TUMLIN
McGraw-Hill EducationCopyright © 2013 Geoffrey Tumlin
All rights reserved.
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WE ARE NEGLECTING THREE VITAL COMMUNICATION HABITS
It was the conversation that he'd been waiting—and paying me—for. After months of work, I was ready to brief my client, a CEO who had asked me to help him determine why his vision for the company wasn't being supported by key executives and employees. I'd spoken with almost every manager, and many employees, in the company, and in the course of those discussions, a clear structural problem and two readily available solutions emerged. I was bringing him very serious, but also very good, news.
The CEO welcomed me into his office, closed the door, and told me how anxious he was to hear my findings. As soon as I began speaking, the CEO's cell phone rang. Apologizing, he looked at the number and ignored the call. Minutes later, after I started sketching out the root cause of his organizational problem, he received a text message. Again, he looked at the screen and ignored it. I continued. So did the interruptions. He never answered a call or replied to a text, but I could see that his eyes—and his mind—were steadily drawn away from the significant organizational issues I was presenting and toward whatever was making noise at his fingertips. Even though the discussion was very important to him, digital distractions prevented him from devoting his full attention to our conversation.
It's not just busy CEOs who struggle to have productive and meaningful interactions. My mom volunteers each weekend with probationers who are required to do community service. In groups of four, they plant trees, weed flower beds, trim bushes, and pick up trash. When break time comes, they all go to a fast-food restaurant and order a drink and a snack. The four probationers sit together, and my mom and the other supervisors give them some space to talk and connect with one another. But instead of a conversation about the morning's work or shared experiences, a connection-stifling pattern usually unfolds: one or two look at their phones, which encourages a third person to put in earphones, and then the fourth person, left with nothing else to do, joins the crowd, pulls out a phone, and stares at the screen. They all miss the discussion that they could be having. But it's hard for face-to-face communication—which is difficult, unpredicable, and filled with the risk of errors and slips—to compete with devices that seem to effortlessly give us what we want, when we want it.
Today, most of us struggle to have meaningful interactions because of the power, allure, and distractions of our digital devices. It's easier than ever to gratify our impulses with I-based personal communication and self-expression before an online audience, but harder than ever for meaningful, we-based interpersonal communication. As personal and mass communication exploded in the digital age, essential interpersonal communication skills were left behind. Better digital age communication requires us to retrieve three guiding habits: we need to listen like every sentence matters, talk like every word counts, and act like every interaction is important.
These three guiding habits can banish the hyper from our communication and can restore effectiveness and meaning to the daily conversations that constitute our relationships and our lives.
Listen Like Every Sentence Matters
Perhaps you've seen the setup: a television producer selects someone from a TV studio audience—let's call her Kate—to undergo a psychic reading. Kate has never met the psychic and has no deeply entrenched views about psychics or their abilities. Likewise, the psychic has never met Kate and knows nothing about her until the cameras start rolling.
The reading is broadcast unedited to television viewers. The psychic talks to Kate about her future, punctuating his delivery with questions, comments, and predictions. When the reading is complete, a producer interviews Kate about the experience.
She expresses genuine surprise, noting that while initially she was a bit skeptical, now she believes that the reading was prescient and accurate. Asked if the psychic could be a fraud or a fake, Kate disagrees. He knew too much about her. She believes this psychic has real gifts; he is the genuine article.
Then the producer lets Kate in on the secret: she's been fooled by psychic-buster Ian Rowland, the archenemy of palm readers, mind readers, tarot card diviners, and anyone else claiming to have psychic powers.
Rowland uses a technique he calls cold reading, which consists of asking good questions, making guesses that have a high probability of being correct, and, above all else, listening. Rowland doesn't use magical powers. He just pays careful attention and makes high-percentage predictions based on what he hears.
Yet it feels remarkably like he knows all about a person. And in a way, he does. With the cameras rolling and his professional reputation at stake with every televised reading, he has no choice but to listen carefully.
The first guiding habit for better communication in the digital age is to listen like every sentence matters.
Psychic-busting isn't the only career where listening intently matters. In fact, it's hard to think of a job or activity where careful listening doesn't matter, because all interactions—with clients, colleagues, customers, children, and friends—benefit when we pay close attention to the other person.
Listening certainly matters in my consulting work. Most of the solutions to what's ailing a company, group, family, or marriage are within that company, group, family, or marriage. If I listen closely, I can help clients capture their own insights, and those insights can often change a company, reenergize employees, or rehabilitate a relationship.
When people know that they are being listened to about an important matter, their words pour out in a flood. You would think that these people hadn't been listened to for years. It may surprise you how well your own employees or colleagues understand the problems and the potential of your company. No matter what kind of organization I visit, I don't find many of the clueless workers who are standard fare for organizational cartoons and television shows. Instead of Dilberts, I find people who have a pretty good handle on what's happening around them, and many of these employees have spent a great deal of time thinking about how to improve work processes.
The same thing applies in my work with people in their personal lives. With rare exceptions, spouses know the state of their marriage. Parents know when they aren't getting through to their kids, and teenagers know when they are driving their parents and teachers crazy. If I listen closely, I can help them crystallize their own workable solutions.
We need to restore the value of listening in our interactions. The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but, ironically, it made it harder for anyone to listen. There's too much clutter from so much noisy chatter.
Talk Like Every Word Counts
I met Neal just before the start of one of our conference planning meetings. He was going to be our conference operations officer, working with my boss and me to plan and execute a large leadership event at the university where we all worked.
I knew that Neal had a PhD in psychology and that he had won a monthlong trip to Japan in a leadership essay contest. I only had time to ask him a few more biographical questions before I walked to the front of the room and welcomed the attendees. I introduced a few key people, including Neal, and we began working through the agenda.
After the meeting, Neal stayed behind to talk to me.
"Geoff, I want to say thank you," he said.
I told him that I was delighted to be working with him.
"I appreciate the job," he said, "but what I really want to thank you for was your introduction of me."
I tried not to look confused, but I didn't understand why he was thanking me. To me, the introduction was routine: I ran through his credentials, played up his trip to Japan, and spoke favorably about his leadership knowledge. It was standard stuff—background information plus a few kind words. Nothing stood out to me as unusual.
Neal continued. "What I mean to say is that's the nicest introduction I have ever received. No one's ever said things like that about me, and I really appreciate your kind words."
I would later learn that Neal's job at the time was unchallenging and many levels beneath his skills.
A year after the conference ended, Neal landed a job at an East Coast university for twice the pay and 10 times the responsibility. A few years later, when he made another big leap to a top leadership education position at a prominent university, he called to tell me the good news.
Neal said that my introduction of him at our meeting years ago was a turning point in his life. Stuck in an ill-fitting job, he was starting to question his capabilities, but hearing someone put his accomplishments in context convinced him to break free from the position and take bigger risks.
The second guiding habit for better communication is to talk like every word counts. We never know when or how what we say might make a difference. I had no idea, and neither did Neal, that my introduction of him would spur a turning point in his career. None of us knows when a few words of encouragement might prevent someone from giving up on an important project, or when a call from a friend when we need it most reminds us that we aren't alone on this rock.
Sometimes our words come at just the right time, and sometimes words that we think are perfectly timed turn out not to matter. Communication is unpredictable like that. We don't know in advance whether what we say might make a difference, so we need to act like each word is important when we talk.
Act Like Every Interaction Is Important
Careful listening and thoughtful talking—the first two guiding habits—undeniably set the conditions for good communication, but there's a vital third habit. To convert the potential of an interaction into a productive and meaningful connection, we need to treat every opportunity for communication like it's important.
Most cadets don't enjoy the first year at West Point—called plebe year—and I was no exception. The yelling-prone upper-class cadets, a bone-crushing academic load, and the hot-blooded taskmasters in the athletic department made it virtually impossible to relax. So I was delighted when Bernie, a family friend, called to tell me that he was driving up from New Jersey for a home football game on Saturday. Bernie said that he would bring food and that I could invite as many friends as I wanted to come and tailgate before the game.
Bernie was a West Point graduate, which by tradition meant that he could offer plebes in his orbit a no-hassle zone. Even the most adventurous upperclassman wouldn't dare ambush a plebe in the presence of an "old grad."
I took a few grateful plebes to the safe haven of Bernie's tailgate on Saturday morning, and for two glorious hours, we ate like princes, laughed like jesters, and completely forgot that we were serfs in the military kingdom. Over hamburgers and hotdogs, Bernie told us that plebe year would be over before we knew it and that we were all going to do just fine. He said it so convincingly, and so often, that we believed him. As kickoff time approached, I thanked Bernie for his kindness. He told me that he would be coming back to tailgate for the next football game, and he invited me to meet up with him again. I could scarcely believe my good fortune—I pumped his arm like it was my lucky slot machine.
That season, Bernie attended every home football game, bringing more food each time as my handful of friends gradually turned into a platoon of grateful plebes. Bernie's tailgates were a bright spot in a difficult, and occasionally miserable, year.
Fall turned to winter (which lasted forever) and then to a glorious spring that marked the end of plebe year.
A few months into my more leisurely second year at West Point, it occurred to me that Bernie wasn't tailgating anymore. I asked my dad why not.
"Because you're not a plebe anymore," my dad replied. "Bernie's got a lot of other things going on."
"But what about the football games?" I asked.
"Bernie wasn't coming up for the football, Geoff."
Bernie gave up half of his fall Saturdays to provide two hours of stress reduction and pep talks to a plebe in need of both. Once I made it through plebe year, Bernie went back to his life.
How would I have fared at West Point if Bernie hadn't come up for the home football games during my very unpleasant first semester? The question, thank goodness, is irrelevant, because he was there and because he acted like there was no place on earth he'd have rather been. Bernie's kindness forged a connection that has continued for over two decades.
Meaningful interactions—the kind that foster authentic connections—don't have to take a lot of time and effort, but they do require some time and effort.
Unfortunately, the underlying conditions of the digital age—we're busy, and we can readily access quick, cheap, and easy modes of communication—encourage us to act as if speed and convenience are the most important criteria for how we communicate. Acting like every interaction counts pushes back against the momentum toward ever-quicker and easier interactions.
It takes me more time and effort to talk to a clerk instead of using the self- checkout machine, but the machine doesn't offer the possibility of a brief human connection. There's a danger that walking down the hall and talking to Jim instead of e-mailing him might lead to a time-consuming side conversation about his cats, but what if that conversation points me toward the solution for a long-simmering problem? And it takes time and effort to stay connected with my colleagues from different jobs and projects, with my 95-year-old granddad, and with my young niece and nephew, but what do I lose if we drift apart?
Implementing the three guiding habits—listen like every sentence matters, talk like every word counts, and act like every interaction is important—will help you be more present in conversations and will improve your digital age communication. But remember that these are guiding behaviors. Don't twist yourself in knots overthinking every syllable and trying to be a perfect communicator (which is an impossible goal because of communication's imperfectability and unpredictability). Instead, use the habits and the techniques we'll look at in the following chapters to become a better communicator. That's a goal that's well within your reach and one that will immediately improve your quality of life.
A Life, One Interaction at a Time
The great potential of the adolescent digital age is that there are more ways than ever to communicate and connect with each other. How we manage these newfound communication strengths and mitigate the weaknesses will shape our future.
Higher-order communication modes (or channels) will not always trump lower-order modes. Face-to-face communication is not always a better choice than text messaging or e-mails; they're different communication modes that are appropriate at different times. It makes sense for us to reach for lower-order modes of communication like text messages, e-mails, and social media to manage some of the increasing communication load. Facebook helps me stay in touch with people from all phases of my life. E-mail is unparalleled for swapping data and information. Tweeting is a great way to quickly spread thoughts and ideas. We'll need every implement in our communication toolkit to thrive in the digital age.
Our communication has the potential to provide remarkable benefits, connecting us to others in ways that facilitate innovation, prevent problems, promote sharing, and encourage fruitful exchanges. Research—and our own experience—validates that positive human connections fuel productive and satisfying work and home lives. And effective interpersonal communication encourages the very kinds of interactions that channel good intentions and bring out the best in people, creating the kinds of enduring, fulfilling relationships—creating the kind of meaningful life—at the core of our dreams.
Excerpted from STOP TALKING, START COMMUNICATING by GEOFFREY TUMLIN. Copyright © 2013 Geoffrey Tumlin. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
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