Friday, June 17, 2011

SPEAK EASY NOTES #53 - When Silence Is Golden

Dear Wordsmith,


I’d like to know if you agree with how I handled a certain situation at work last week. I am a mid-level manager in a large insurance company and one of my coworkers observed some communications between my boss and me and came up to me afterward and said, “Sydney really is difficult!”, with a very supportive facial expression and showing me a good deal of sympathy. I decided that the best response was to say nothing. My friend that I’ve worked with for years had made a disparaging remark about my boss to me and I felt like it was very important to avoid agreeing or making any negative statements about my (yes, very difficult) boss that could be repeated or distorted and then used against me in some way down the road.

In retrospect, I feel I made the right choice. I’m a positive person and am respectful of the hierarchy that exists in the workplace. I don’t like complaining and want to be sure I’m seen as a strong contributor and positive team player. What do you think of my choice to say nothing at all? I really don’t like the thought of getting bitten down the road because of some stupid off the cuff remark I made.

Signed,
Zipped

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Dear Zipped,

What a great example you presented. First of all, I’d like to praise you most of all for your great attitude and your goal to avoid being seen as a negative force in your workplace. Good for you! It’s hard to refrain from going down the road of taking advantage of an easy opportunity to throw a dagger at your difficult boss, especially with a coworker you’ve known and worked with for a long time who is a friend.

I agree strongly that there are many times when silence is a very good choice following certain types of communications. The motivation behind your silence is smart and legitimate. Your choice to say nothing was based on clear goals and values that are important to you. I would like to point out some alternative interpretations of silence that you may not have considered: Sometimes when a person is silent, it might be seen as agreement or acquiescence. This means that rather than being seen as a non participant in negativity, you could have been perceived as being in complete agreement with the remark your friend made. It’s also possible that your facial expression and eye contact conveyed something different from your silence.

Rather than recommend one best way to handle this type of situation which might include or exclude silence as the optimum way to respond, I’d prefer to give you a variety of responses for a coworker – that are in line with the goals and values you described – to choose from, including silence, that you could use in  various versions of the circumstance you described:

“I appreciate your being supportive. Sydney keeps me on my toes all the time and it really has elevated my attention to detail and my delivery of excellence.”

“It’s always good to feel that you have my back. I believe in accepting and seeing people, particularly bosses, as they are, without seeing them as either difficult or easy. My approach makes working with Sydney smooth and productive and keeps me on an even keel at work."

“Thanks for reaching out to me. I like to think of my boss from a different perspective. I know what demands are coming down on Sydney from the top so I just keep that in my mind when the demands on me from Sydney are high."

And there are many other types of responses that might work well. It would be good for you to think through these options and create the version that would work well for you so you can be ready for your future.


Sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all. In our communications we often dig ourselves a hole and then can’t get out of it. Frequently, we feel it’s necessary to respond, defend, disclaim, explain, or even, attack when silence would be the ideal choice.

Acknowledging through facial expression, eye contact and head nodding may be the ideal communication in many situations. You can convey that you’re listening, you’re sincere and you’re giving attention, without saying a word.

REMINDER:
It’s critical to remember that a look of annoyance or frustration will convey more than words; if silence is the desired communication, your face must be silent as well.

The less comfortable you are with silence, the more likely it will be that you will rush in to participate when non-participation would be the best choice possible. This is a silence of self-benefit, different from acquiescence or tail-between-the-legs silence. This is a silence of active listening and attentive acknowledgement.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Friday, June 10, 2011

SPEAK EASY NOTE #52 - The Boss Who Threatens Rather than Praises

Dear Wordsmith,


I love my job and I hate my boss. Your input and advice would be really helpful. I have risen to a significant leadership role in a short amount of time. I work for a large national consulting firm that is a very demanding work environment known for its cutting edge innovation. I have thrived and enjoyed working for all of my previous managers. I have recently been promoted to a newly created area of the company that has no former track record of any kind and where I have a tremendous amount of visibility.

My new manager is at the top of the food chain in the company and must think that talking down to people and threatening them are the ways to get the most out of them. I, actually, for the first time in my career am feeling like I want to quit my job. This manager never praises anything I do or gives me credit for all of the elements we have put in place. My team is working so hard and has produced on a high level in a challenging timeframe. Some appreciation would be so valued. I just had a performance review  and was actually dumbfounded by my manager's lack of acknowledgement of anything positive about the past six months. I basically said very little in this meeting. It was very upsetting and one-sided. It is very bizarre because I was told by my HR business partner that my manager's written ratings that were provided to Human Resources which I did not receive or see were actually fairly good although certainly not at the level that matches my efforts and successes. Please help me see this in a different way. I feel like I am at the end of a rope, hanging by a thin thread.

Signed,
Desperate

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Desperate,

It must feel so bad to have worked so hard and achieved so much, without getting any praise or recognition. And I’m sure the contrast to what you've experienced before makes this even worse. You have obviously been a top performer to have come so far in such a short time and been placed in charge of a new visible area that is important to the company.

My first recommendation is to make sure that you remember how you got where you are and to reconnect with your former managers to rekindle your sense of accomplishment and to get their perspectives on your work delivery and on your current manager. It would be hard to believe that this punitive and threatening behavior is directed at you, specifically. It sounds like this is most likely your manager’s standard M.O. Sometimes there are cultural background components and gender issues that contribute to this kind of behavior and the individual actually believes that this kind of condescending, reprimanding behavior and communication are motivating and appropriate. Sometimes managers are hardest on their best performers, thinking this will get the most from them. Sometimes people get to the top through performance and connection without having any leadership or management skills to go with those assets. It’s important to see this challenge as a gift for you to be able to respond and communicate in a strong professional manner. There’re always going to be demanding and diverse people in your work settings at every level. Learning how to be effective with difficult people is an art and requirement for success in the workplace.

Often when people describe these types of exchanges to me there’s an underlying permission that’s being given to the senior individual through acquiescence and submission. Make sure you work on your communication skills and comfort level with speaking to your manager so that you can clearly and specifically present the contributions you've made and strongly address whatever points your manager has critiqued. You want to make sure you convey what motivates you and what de-motivates you without being emotional or sounding whiny, hurt or angry. You will want to connect everything you say to your manager to what you and your team are doing for the company. People respond well to being told what they’re doing well and what they’re required to do to succeed. This is what you want to hear from your manager so it’s important to make sure you present what you want to say to your manager, avoiding any of the negative approaches that the manager used in communicating with you. Research shows that attack, criticism and finding fault are de-motivating and produce the opposite effect on the desired outcomes. One individual I’m working with who reports to a micro-managing difficult boss, described the response to this negative managerial approach as survival mode where it’s impossible to look at the bigger higher priorities and where fixation on small insignificant details takes over and mistakes increase.

Here’s a valuable link to a wonderful classic article from the Harvard Business Review by Daniel Goleman that looks at the components of Emotional Intelligence and how they interweave with various leadership styles: Leadership That Gets Results. This article will help you gain perspective and skill in these communications as will this excerpt from my book, SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide For Career And Life Success:

Over the years, I’ve heard a wide variety of reactions to situations in the workplace.
Person A will say,

“I’m so used to hearing my boss, Grace, fly off the handle like that. I just ignore her. She always calms down eventually and sometimes she even apologizes. I know it’s more about her frustration than it is about me, even though she directs such hostility towards me sometimes. She’s really pathetic that way. The main thing for me is that I feel good about myself and my work. I really love what I do here and I wouldn’t let her bad behavior change that for a second. I’d be happier if she’d calm down and stop attacking everybody. It would be better for the company too.”

Person B, in the same setting with a similar job and an exactly parallel relationship to that manager, will have a completely different experience of the same type of communications from the manager and say,

“No matter what we do, Grace is never happy with our work. Some days I can barely get myself to come in to the office; I never know if it’s going to be a horrible day because she’s in such a frenzy and will make me crazy and depressed. I just don’t think I can listen to her attack me the way she does anymore. I hate having a boss who is constantly criticizing me like that. I’ll probably leave the company before the end of the year because of how she treats me.”

What gives Person A the ability to separate herself from the attack of her boss? She clearly gets the “sticks and stones break bones and words never hurt you” message. What comes first for Person A is her own self-esteem which is closely aligned with her focus on and enjoyment of work. She also disconnects her boss’s erratic attacking behavior from herself, by seeing it as generalized rather than targeted at her.

Person B has a much more personal experience of what his manager says to him. His self-esteem suffers and he lets his manager completely obliterate his ability to focus on anything other than how destroyed and distraught he is because of his boss’s constant criticism. He’s a defeated victim and his work-life is a picture of total stress because of his boss.

If we could gain some distance and perspective to examine the whole of our individual lives from beginning to end, surely the importance of a single person’s negative behavior, in the grand scheme of who we are, would take on an entirely new perspective and be relatively insignificant. When we give others the power to destroy our well-being and our ability to communicate effectively, we’re actually feeding the monster.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Friday, June 3, 2011

SPEAK EASY NOTE #51 - Job Seekers with Special Needs

Dear Wordsmith,


A friend of mine has a 45 year-old daughter who is in a wheelchair. She has a Master’s degree in Library Science. She’s worked for 13 years at a major consumer products company before her position was downsized. She also worked on Wall Street before that. She has concern about searching for a job in this difficult job market with such high unemployment. Since she is confined to a wheelchair, she is worried that many employers will pass when they see her. She isn’t telling employers about her disability and is just showing up for interviews in a wheelchair. My opinion (which I told my friend) is she should mention her disability in her cover letter. This way, if she gets a call, the disability probably isn’t an issue.

I certainly can speak with her and offer advice but I thought there would be no one better than you to ask what your views are about this challenging situation!

Signed,
Concerned Friend


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Dear Concerned Friend,

Thank you for the high value you place on my viewpoints.  I am pleased to share my perspectives regarding this special situation.

I have the opposite opinion from yours. I feel it’s best and appropriate for a person who is wheelchair-bound to refrain from indicating that in any initial communications with potential employers. If the person were to get an interview, it would be up to her to decide at that point if she wants to inquire about wheelchair access to the appointment location. We live in an age where diversity of all types is an accepted part of our workplaces, protected by law and that can’t be used as excluded grounds for employment. We also know that the vast majority of employment is networking-related and that leveraging contacts and relationships is always the strongest route to gain employment for everyone. This is certainly a more key factor for individuals with special challenges. She certainly has a good track record of employment and a solid credential. I would also highly recommend that she become as technology/digitally fluent as possible and highly informed about social networking if she has not yet gained these capabilities and areas of expertise. I hope my thoughts and recommendations are helpful.

Here is an excerpt on good networking strategies from my book SPEAK EASY – The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success:

We will encounter much more success in all of our endeavors when we recognize the high value of gathering information from real people who’ve traveled the road before us and of building strong and lasting bonds with them.

There is great variety in individual styles and comfort levels when it comes to engaging new people and nourishing relationships with those outside of an already well known or familiar circle.

The word, NETWORKING, is used so freely and widely that its basic meaning has been diluted and it has lost many of its most important nuances and benefits. When career advisors emphasize the importance of networking, they often neglect to teach its subtleties adequately and to fine-tune their clients’ networking communications well. It’s easy to see why many jobseekers think that networking is simply informing as many people as possible that they’re looking for a new job.

Certainly, letting people know you’re looking for a new job is a much better strategy than simply sitting by the phone, waiting to see if someone will call you up to offer you a job. However, if your bottom line is no more than a numbers approach of seeing how many people you can get your resume in front of, the benefits of the fine art of networking will be sadly missed and the process of continuing the endeavor will become stale and unrewarding. After all, how many times can you say to someone, “Here I am again, still looking. Got anything for me?” No wonder people become so disenchanted with networking – both on the asking AND on the receiving end!

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Friday, March 11, 2011

SPEAK EASY NOTES #50 - More Quick Tips

Here are more quick communication tips to make your life easier, to provide peace of mind, to increase your effectiveness and to raise your level of satisfaction. 


Life can be hard.  Speak Easy!


> Ask open-ended questions, giving freedom for expansive answers. Avoid YES or NO questions starting with: Is, Do, Can, Will, Are, Should.


> Avoid asking questions that begin with WHY because they can be heard as accusatory: “Why didn’t you do what you were supposed to do?”




> “BUT” is a word that can negate whatever preceded it. Eliminating “BUT” can change the dynamic from combative to two-way and open.


> Remove “trying” from your communications.  AVOID: “I’m trying to finish this by Friday.” BETTER: “My goal is to finish this by Friday.”


> A look of annoyance or frustration will convey more than words; if silence is the desired communication then your face must be silent too. 


> Wanting recognition and appreciating praise are healthy desires. Dependence on praise for a sense of well-being is a formula for disaster.


> Neediness is weak and often inaccurate; there’s a distinction between desire and requirement: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”


> The best support is objective. The less involved a person is with your story, the more that person can listen and respond without bias.


> Fear and self-doubt often block communication. Respectfulness without defensiveness or aggression forms the right base to express any view.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Speak Easy Note #49 - 10 Communication Advice Tweets

So guess who's been tweeting?  I decided to create a Twitter version of Speak Easy Notes called SpeakEasyCoach.  It's been an excellent and demanding challenge to condense important communication advice into 140 characters.  Here is a list of the first ten:

 1. Always experience a level playing field of communication. See the equal, two-way street of communication in every verbal exchange.

2. Non-verbal communication exceeds 90% of how communication is received. Monitor voice tone and facial expression to diminish dual messages.

3. Acknowledge what others think or want. Validate others’ positions before promoting your own. See validation as different from agreement.


4. Communication requires listening. The more you listen and communicate what you’ve heard, the more others will listen to your views.


5. Choose positive ways to express negative thought. Use affirmative language if possible. Avoid negative and confrontational communication.


6. Don’t say what happened to you; describe what happened and what you’re doing as a result. Victim statements weaken how others see you.


7. Avoiding communication can be worse than the actual conversation you’re dreading. Anticipation frequently weighs much more than actuality.


8. Withholding the truth undermines communication. Embellishing reality leads to trouble. Never distort or misrepresent. Trust the truth.


9. Saying too much is unappealing and unfruitful. Remember to KEEP IT SIMPLE. Don’t tell how to make a watch when asked for the time.


10. The qualifiers: some, a little, probably, kind of, sort of, I think, I believe, only just, I guess diminish communication. Avoid them.

Until next time,

The Wordsmith



Thursday, February 3, 2011

SPEAK EASY NOTE #48 - Win-Win Negotiation Communications

It feels like a very good sign that I have been helping a number of clients manage job offer salary negotiations. There may be real momentum finally in the job market that will bring down the unemployment statistics and fuel our weakened economy. Since this is a topic I've yet to write about in Speak Easy Notes, I'm choosing it for this week’s topic. Even if you aren’t involved in a salary negotiation for a new job or up for a promotion and a raise in your current professional role, everyone faces numerous negotiations in daily life and having communication guidelines for effective negotiations is actually beneficial to all.


The following except from SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success will provide a wonderful array of communication choices for ease in negotiation:

Win-Win Wins Again

Here’s a list incorporating the style of language variations that will increase the likelihood of getting the most in a negotiation. Using these types of communications will also enhance how the other person in the negotiation sees what he or she’s gaining and giving up. And lastly, these approaches will go a long way to keep interactions from escalating into conflict.

>“Let’s keep talking so that we can get this right for both of us.”

> “Here are the topics we need to find ways to reach agreement about.”

> “I’m committed to finding the right way to make this happen.”

> “I know we can determine how to reach our goals in a way that will be good for both of us.”

> “I’m confident we can agree on … .”

> “Let’s examine ways to do XXX so we can finalize our agreement.”

> “Let’s look at how to make this equitable for everyone involved.”

Opposites Compete

It’s human nature to see circumstances from a one-sided and personal perspective. To reach agreement in a conflict or in a negotiation requires looking beyond self-interest and finding a balance that incorporates collaboration, compromise and inclusion. This requires focusing on your own goals without doing so at the expense of others, without sacrificing someone else’s well-being for your own advancement.

If reaching agreement is the true objective instead of creating a winner and loser, the likelihood of using effective communication and completing a successful negotiation in a timely manner increases dramatically.

About Those Numbers: The Money Game

When it comes to negotiating your annual salary increase or your new job compensation package, there are some hard and fast communication rules that can increase a good outcome.

> Whenever possible, postpone the discussion of numbers until after an offer has been made.

> Do your homework and know what the salaries and compensation ranges are REALISTICALLY in your field and in your geography.

>Name ranges rather than a specific number if you’re compelled to state compensation numbers.

>Without greed as the goal, ask what the employer’s flexibility is.

Here are communications that match these guidelines:

> “Let’s talk about salary later. I‘m so interested in hearing more about this position. I know we’ll be able to agree on numbers when we’re at the point where we both agree this is exactly the right position for me.”

> “What’s the range for this position? I’d be very interested in hearing more about that.”

> “When I began this job search, I promised myself I’d keep my salary history and all compensation numbers out of the conversations I’d have with people. I want to make sure my decision and my future employer’s decision about a job offer is based on how right the fit is and how much value I’ll bring to the company. I know we’ll be able to agree on the numbers if everything else is right.”

> “I began my career at XYZ when I was eighteen years old, just out of high school. I put myself through college at night and have continued to work for XYZ until now. My salary there today is based on my starting salary as a high school graduate, in spite of the fact that all of my clients are Fortune 500 corporations and all of the accounts I manage are multi-million-dollar accounts. Based on my research and success, I know my value in the job market today is in the mid six figure range.”

> “I did extensive research and spoke to people I respect highly to get your name. The reason I’m speaking to you today is because of your outstanding reputation as an executive recruiter. I know you’ve been placing key people in my industry and are an expert on what the right compensation range would be for a professional with the background and experience that I have. Since I’ve worked for XYZ since I was eighteen years old, my salary there today is based on my starting salary as a high school graduate. What do you see as the range for someone with my background and expertise who manages Fortune 500 multi-million dollar accounts? I know because of how successful you are that you have your finger right on the pulse of the marketplace and really know what the right range is for someone like me.”

> “I’m so pleased with this offer. I’ve thought about all that we discussed very carefully and see how good a fit this is and how well I’ll be able to do xxxxxxx, yyyyyyy, and zzzzzzz. I am particularly pleased about qqqqqqq. There are some topics I’d like to talk more to you about. Please describe further blah, etc. and blah. What is your flexibility on the compensation for this position? I am especially interested in hearing how you see the components we just discussed as they relate to the compensation. Let’s keep talking about all of this so we can make this right for both of us and finalize our agreement.”

Balance Isn’t Always Equal

Reaching an equitable or satisfactory agreement usually has pluses and minuses for both sides. Since self-interest is a primary human objective, the views and goals on either side of a negotiation are unlikely to be identical. Rather than look for a 50/50 exactly-equal deal, it’s better to define what’s desirable and equitable in terms of priorities, weighting of importance and long-term objectives. Going into a negotiation with as much definition and clarity as possible will provide perspective and objectivity which are challenging to maintain in a demanding negotiation or conflict resolution situation.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Friday, January 21, 2011

Speak Easy Note #47 - The Boss's Intentions - Common Blunders

New managers often worry that their friends at work will stop liking them when the hierarchy changes and they are no longer peers. Becoming a manager of someone who has been an equal co-worker can be a big challenge. Even experienced managers who have been the “boss” for an extended period of time fail to recognize how many of their preferred communication approaches can be big obstacles to clear understanding and successful outcomes. They are often unaware that they have conveyed something quite different from what they intended.

Here are three types of communications to avoid that frequently backfire:

1.
USING AN INDIRECT SUGGESTION TO CONVEY A REQUIREMENT:

Managers often tell me that they have given precise and clear directions to someone who works for them and that they’re quite upset about how far from the mark the results were that the person achieved. Even worse, the managers sometimes tell me that the individual paid no attention to their instructions and guidelines at all. When I probe further to determine how a clear instruction was so misinterpreted, I often learn that the managers never actually communicated any specific requirements at all. Instead they have started their clear instruction with,

“Why don’t you do it like this …”

OR

“A better approach to what you’re doing is …”

OR

“I would prefer you to …”

The potential for clarity of description for these is without debate. The manager can express very clear descriptions of how to achieve a task. What is totally missing from this language is the clarity of requirement. Certainly preference is stated. And yet, removal of choice and requirement of action are nowhere stated.

The recommendation to use equal, level, mutually respectful two-way communication is the first fundamental tenet in my book: SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success. The emphasis on avoiding micro-management of employees is valid and beneficial. A manager can communicate in a level way without micromanaging and still clearly convey specific task requirements.

2.
ASKING A CLOSED-ENDED QUESTION TO VERIFY UNDERSTANDING:

Another communication deficit closely linked to how managers are surprised by unexpected and undesirable outcomes is the tendency they have to ask questions like these:

“Are there any questions?”

“Do you understand?”

“Have I made everything clear?”

In most instances, the immediate answers to these questions are, “No.”, “Yes.” and “Yes.”. What verification occurs with this type of closed-ended questions? None at all, actually. Even when these answers are sincere, they cannot tell the manager if what he or she wanted to convey was actually understood or will be retained.

Much better questions for the manager to ask are:

“What questions do you have about XXX?”


“What are the most important concepts you got from what I just presented?”


“How can you best use the information I have just described?”


“What do you think is most significant about this topic?”


3.
 RELYING ON FACIAL EXPRESSION, EYE CONTACT AND ANIMATION FOR ASSURANCE THAT A COMMUNICATION HAS BEEN UNDERSTOOD AND WILL BE WELL-EXECUTED:

A project manager said to me,

“I know that my team understands what I’m saying because I see that they’re listening closely. I can tell from their facial expression and their eye contact that they’re engaged and attentive.”

This belief that her team understands what she is telling them was in contrast to her low self-ratings on clear communication, team development and obtaining results. For sure, eye contact and facial expression are strong and clear indicators of how engaged people are. People’s engagement can be a preliminary gauge of comprehension. The fact is though that people can listen very attentively and still miss a good deal of what is presented to them. Also presenters can engage people and convey something other than what is intended. Full attention to what is said cannot guarantee desired execution and results.


In addition to monitoring how attentive an audience appears to be, it is critical to incorporate into all business (and social) venues verification of understanding and retention of information though multiple and varied two-way communications.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith