Faster (Communication) Is Not Always Better

We all know the reasons that we type so many of our correspondences instead of write them down on a piece of paper. It’s often faster, it’s neater, and it can easily be saved and categorized for future reference without paper-sifting and clutter.
Electronic communications can be shared far and wide and allow us to reach out and reply when it works for us, not having to be concerned as much with the other’s schedule and readiness to communicate.

Despite the many benefits of e-communication, it can also present some meaningful downsides. These include:

  1. Misinterpretation. So much of the way that we normally share information and ideas is based on nonverbal communication. Inflections, hand gestures, facial tone, body positioning and the like say so much about how each party is receiving and responding to each other, as well as their passion for the information and ideas being shared. Without hearing a voice or seeing nonverbal cues, people struggle to properly discern the intended meaning, tone, value and emphasis.
  2. A study by Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago sought to determine how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. The results of their study were that not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but recipients also overrate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.
  3. Impersonal touch. No matter how thoughtfully an email is crafted, its digital nature makes it feel distant and impersonal. You simply cannot compare the feel of an e-mail with that of a face-to-face chat or a phone call.
  4. Raising the temperature. For most of us, distance makes it feel safer to “yell” or to be critical. We can more easily muster up the gumption to criticize when we are typing words on our personal keyboards than when we have to look someone in the eye and share our feelings. Furthermore, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.
  5. You can’t get it back. The quick nature of e-mail makes it easy to forget that our words actually matter and can really come back to bite us. (I suggest that you never send any e-mail with potentially negative implications without first showing it to one or two trusted colleagues). Not only must we worry about how our message will be processed “in the moment,” but there is a chance that it will be forwarded or printed for others to see as well.
  6. Keeping your distance. Perhaps worst of all, e-mail, IM and other e-communiqués maintain distance between colleagues, sometimes even when only a wall or cubicle separates them physically. It’s often easier to fire off a response than to get up and share a few words. You may also want to not disturb your busy co-workers, especially if they are in another conversation or on the phone. While all of that is laudable, it’s important to not fall into the habit of remaining distant. Personal rapport keeps relationships strong, even in the face of conflict.

As our jobs involve working with and getting things done with people, we have to be able to build healthy relationships. This requires a healthy dose of ongoing, in-person interactions, to get to know each other in real terms and how we each tick.

Leading Unanticipated Change

Jacob’s story was largely framed by challenging familial relationships. The struggle with his twin brother and chief nemesis Esau began in utero, where each sibling already expressed their unique identities. (See Genesis 25:22-23) Still, even with early indicators of separation and discord, it would take many years for the struggle to fully manifest. And when it did, Jacob, a man known for his simplicity and truthfulness, would be forced to move far out of his comfort zone in order to achieve his lofty aims.

Chapter 27 of Genesis describes the incident. An aging, near-blind Isaac was preparing to bestow the primary blessing, that of the firstborn, on Esau. Rebecca, recognizing the danger of empowering her erstwhile eldest son, instructed Jacob to don goat skins and approach his father as if he were the hairy Esau. The deception worked; Jacob successfully emerged with the desired blessings.

In truth, Jacob should never have had to resort to a ruse. Years earlier, Esau had sold the birthright and its related blessings to his younger sibling for near nothing. He sealed the deal with a vow and had even scorned the birthright, as if it were a burden. However, Esau had come to regret his impulsive sale and was deeply grieved by Jacob’s ability to deceive him not once but twice. He promised mortal revenge. Fearing for his life, Jacob again heeded his mother’s directive and fled.

Jacob found asylum in the house of his uncle Laban. But Laban was no ordinary loving kinsman; the Torah presents him as one of the biggest swindlers in history, even towards family. Following seven years of labor for the rights to marry Rachel, Laban used a ploy to extract an additional seven years of service from his new son-in-law.

Imagine what was running through Jacob’s mind at this moment. He had fled for his life over a birthright that he had justly acquired and a blessing that God, his mother and, at the end, even is father absolutely wanted him to have. He arrived at his uncle’s home only to be duped in a nuptial arrangement that was not only deceitful, but had cost him seven additional years of intense toil at the prime of his life.

But Jacob persevered without complaint and completed his entire work commitment faithfully. By the end of his stay at Laban’s home, this man of integrity had come out ahead. He was the patriarch of a large, distinguished family and possessor of great material bounty. Jacob managed to remain true to his principles while meeting Laban on his own terms.

Jacob’s metamorphosis through this entire ordeal, from the time that he fled his parents’ home until his return to Canaan decades later, is noteworthy on many levels. He began as an “innocent man”, straight and pure, focused exclusively on study and spiritual pursuits. But God had other plans, and required him to deal directly with some of history’s greatest villains.

Throughout his entire life, Jacob retained his core values. He remained a man of truth, steadfast in his desire to fulfill God’s will. Still, he understood that he would have to adjust his approach and think as his nemeses did if he was to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity and mortal danger.

Change is never easy, certainly not for someone with an established persona and modus operandi. Jacob’s character was clearly defined and he was living his life along a clear, peaceful trajectory when circumstances charted him along a new path. Rather than to resist the change Jacob embraced it. He used it to better himself and prepare his family for a long road ahead.

As with Jacob, change and adaptability are crucial skills that we all must develop in today’s fast-paced societal landscape. Parents, teachers, communal and business leaders are all forced to reconsider their roles, relationships and behaviors in the face of new trends, technologies and expectations. How can we know which changes to embrace and how best to implement them? The following suggestions may help.

Some of these behaviors include:

  1. Be Open to New Ideas – One cannot explore new ideas and learn how to apply them without first being receptive to them. Being receptive, however, is not enough. We must also be mindful, constantly exposing our minds to different perspectives, which can allow us to see more ways new ideas can work.
  2. But Stay True to Your Values – The dizzying prospect of new opportunity can often challenge us at our moral and ethical core. What are we willing to do in order to remain competitive and get ahead? Defining and articulating our values is a crucial step in helping determine the extent to which we are willing to engage others and the marketplace.
  3. Keep it Simple at First – Generate short term wins by setting goals that can be easily achieved and made widely visible. Recognize and reward employees who were involved in the successes.
  4. Manage Risk – All actions involve risk and uncertainty, including the “action” of staying in the same place. A healthy risk tolerance means taking all possible steps to mitigate or eliminate risks, and then making a well-calculated advance in a new direction where appropriate.
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate – Leaders should make sure that as many people as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy. Keep the vision simple, visible, and easily repeatable within and without the organization. 

Perhaps more so than ever before, we have great opportunities to take advantage of new, far-reaching opportunities. However, such opportunities come with the need to manage change and risk while remaining true to your beliefs and values. Leaders who can successfully maintain that balance are poised to sit at the forefront of their respective fields and provide their teams with the vision and motivation for future growth and success.

Become a great listener - SmartBlogs on Leadership 11.7.2014

At the beginning of my principal tenure, I was heavily criticized for rushing into decisions without getting sufficient input and feedback. I had been under the clear impression that certain changes needed to be made quickly in order to gain the trust of the board that had hired me. I had also heard from many teachers and parents who were eager to see improvements in various areas of school function.

However, in my haste to be a change agent, I acted too quickly too often and soon developed a reputation for being a unilateral decision maker. It was a moniker that I would continue to deal with, even as I took great pains to become more open and collaborative.

To succeed in today’s business world, leaders must be proactive, skilled listeners. Leaders who make themselves accessible for conversation and listen regularly are well-informed of the goings on in their workplaces. They better understand others’ opinions and attitudes and are able to take this information into consideration when making decisions.

There are other benefits to listening well. One is building trust. Effective listening conveys a sense that the leader cares about her people, their thoughts, opinions and concerns. A leader also builds stronger commitment within others when people feel that she cares about them personally as well as in how they fit within the organization.

What can leaders do to become better listeners and gain the feedback, confidence, support and buy-in that they seek?

  1. See eye to eye. One crucial element of good listening is making strong eye contact. We discussed the importance of this when we detailed how to make a positive first impression. By fixing your eyes on the speaker you will avoid becoming distracted while also showing genuine attention. Eye contact is an important element of all face-to-face communication, even if you know the speaker well.
  2. Use receptive body language. Without saying a word, we communicate much about attitudes and feelings. We need to be aware of this in any conversation that we have. If seated, lean slightly forward to communicate attention. Nod or use other gestures or words to signal attention and to encourage the speaker to continue. Visibly put away possible distractions such as your phone. This communicates that there is nothing more important to you right now than this conversation.

Always be careful to maintain an appropriate distance between you and the speaker. Being too close may communicate pushiness or lack of respect. If you remain distant, you may be seen as cold or disinterested. Body postures matter too in most cultures. The crossing of one’s arms or legs often conveys close-mindedness.

  1. Stop talking and start listening. This is the most basic listening principle and, oftentimes, the hardest to abide by. When somebody else is talking, it can be very tempting to jump in with a question or comment. This is particularly true when we seek to sound informed or insightful, or if we start to feel defensive due to the speaker’s criticisms. Be mindful that a pause, even a long one, does not necessarily mean that the speaker has finished. Let the speaker continue in their own time; sometimes it takes time to formulate what to say and how to say it. Never interrupt or finish a sentence for someone. Patient listening demonstrates that you respect others, which is the first step in building trust and rapport. Remember, if you desire to be listened to, then give others the courtesy of listening to them first.

I remember once listening to a talk on communication. The speaker, who we’ll call Mr. S., was a well-known life coach and communication expert. Mr. S. recalled his early days on the job as a program coordinator for a large educational organization that required that he meet often with principals.

Mr. S. met with two men in short succession. One gentleman was gracious and well-meaning. He allowed for a lengthy conversation but was continually interrupted by phone calls and other matters. Though they spent an hour together, the meeting felt short and unproductive. In the next school, he had to wait for a while and was given but a few minutes with the principal. The man apologized for his lateness and brevity, but made sure that during their time together Mr. S’s agenda was fully heard and responded to. It goes without saying that Mr. S. felt significantly more validated by the second man, despite the wait and their short time together.

  1. Take on their point of view. Approach each conversation from the vantage point of the speaker (his role, past perspectives, etc.) Be empathetic and seek to objectively consider their position. Don’t be dismissive, regardless of their rank. Be humble enough to listen carefully, even if you disagree with what is being said. Remember that those that confront and challenge you are ultimately the ones who help you stretch and develop most. True wisdom doesn’t see opposition, only opportunity.
  2. Summarize and clarify. When the other person has finished talking take a moment to restate and clarify what you have heard. Use language like, “so, to summarize …” End by asking whether you heard correctly, which will encourage immediate feedback. Not only will this ensure the clearest takeaway on your end, but it will help the speaker feel genuinely heard and valued. A strategically placed pause at some point in the feedback can be used to signal that you are carefully considering the message that was just shared.
  3. Leave the door open. Keep open the possibility of additional communication after this conversation has ended. You never know when new insights or concerns may emerge.
  4. Thank them for approaching you. Do not take any conversation for granted. For many employees, requesting a meeting requires that they must summon much courage and rehearse their message time and again. Moreover, you probably learned something useful and meaningful during your talk, information or ideas that may help you as the leader. Few things go as far in building good will as expressing appreciation.
  5. Create a listening culture. While all of the above strategies can help leaders make the most of listening opportunities, leaders also need to take steps to create a broader culture in which listening (and therefore communicating) is valued and desired. Cultures typically do not evolve. They are the product of conscious decisions and behaviors that, over time, become part of the fabric of communal and organizational life. Leaders who actively encourage others to speak, at meetings, by setting up one-to-one meetings, etc. will not only be more likely to really know what people are thinking but will improve morale and increase worker motivation.