by Scott Danielson
Tired of politics as usual? Recent surveys say the average American is fed up. Congressional approval is at embarrassing lows, as both parties fail to co-operate and successfully combat the nation’s woes. Likewise, the GOP presidential candidates seem incapable of agreeing on anything. But not us. We’re above such petty disagreements, right?
Sadly, our office politics are rife with similar problems. Regardless of intention, all of us are guilty of using political tactics at the expense of true communication.
#1 Personal Attacks
The Republican primaries have become increasingly hostile. Instead of addressing policy differences or political records, candidates seem content with attacking each other’s character. But personal attacks hinder meaningful dialogue.
Don’t let your next office meeting resemble a televised debate.
Questioning someone’s integrity puts the recipient on the defensive, makes the critic appear petty or weak, and interferes with reasoned arguments. Dismissing a co-worker’s ideas as insignificant, or worse yet, stupid, is flimsy and childish. Instead, highlight points where you can agree. Then, state your point of view, including what you see as potential pitfalls. You’ll avoid defensiveness and hostility, and lay the groundwork for collaboration.
#2 Broad Ideas
Political candidates love big, broad ideas. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign successfully adopted change as a rallying cry, while Republicans proudly defend “small government.” As handy as these terms are, they have a major weakness: everyone defines them differently. No one could have measured up to the promises hinted at by “change.” And the meanings of small government are all over the map.
A lack of specificity can cause havoc in performance reviews. For the boss, “working harder” may mean paying more attention to detail, while the employee thinks she needs to put in more hours. To make the pictures match, develop a plan for improvement that includes measurable data. With clear goals in mind, the worker in question can progress as desired.
#3 Ignoring Mistakes & Faults
No candidate is bulletproof. Life in the public eye guarantees that someone’s worst secrets will be discovered and discussed ad nauseam on every media outlet. However, when confronted with a smoking gun, a candidate will righteously deny any wrongdoing.
Ironically, the refusal to admit wrongdoing is usually viewed less favorably than the actual slipup.
Discounting or denying your mistakes makes you appear arrogant and dishonest. Acknowledging and accepting culpability, on the other hand, conveys a sense of honor and humanity. Next time you make an error, own it. Then correct it. Your co-workers will value your candor and courage.
Unfortunately, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to change the American political culture. Courteous public debates are great in theory, but candidates who try receive sharp criticism for being “too soft.” Thankfully our office politics are easier to adjust. Avoid politics as usual and dedicate yourself to positive communication.
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by Leslie Dickson
At VoicePro® we hear a lot of stories about relationships gone awry – an occupational hazard, I guess. But this one may top them all. One person’s short temper (and a big ego) went a long way toward destroying a company’s reputation. You can read the full, messy story online, but here are the basics.
A customer emailed the maker of videogame equipment to ask about the company’s delivery schedule, noting the date listed on the website had come and gone. The customer service rep (and we use the term loosely) sent a clipped and incomplete answer, so the customer sent a few follow-up questions. Another short, incomplete reply – this time with a dismissive undertone – sparked a more pointed email from the customer.
That’s when the customer service rep set a torch to the relationship – and the company reputation. He used phrases like: “you look like a complete moron” and “sometimes we get children like you we just have to put you in the corner with your ‘I’m stupid hat’ on.” Yes, really.
What the company rep didn’t know was that the customer was a well-known gaming blogger, and the whole fiasco went very, very public. The customer service rep was summarily fired, and a new one did a masterful job to win back customer good will. More about that in a moment, but first let’s talk about preventing the anger blaze in the first place.
I hope this level of anger management isn’t an issue for you – or anyone in your company. But who doesn’t find themselves on the verge of an ugly moment from time to time? Here are a few ideas on how to handle yourself.
Breathe through the fight-or-flight response.
Human beings are wired to respond – but don’t. Stop, breathe, and center yourself. The first 30 seconds can make or break the situation. Still fuming? It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I’m too agitated to talk about this right now. Let me calm down and we’ll talk in 10 minutes.” And make sure you do.
Examine your emotions.
Are you angry because you feel attacked, disappointed, betrayed? Frustrated because the problem isn’t your fault? Guilty because you know you had a role in creating the problem? Knowing what’s causing your anger is the first step in keeping it under control.
Focus on the issue at hand.
Anger clouds your thinking capability. Put emotion aside and work through the problem. That requires really listening to the person who’s provoked you (rightly or wrongly) to be sure you truly hear and understand.
Turning anger to solutions.
In the crazy case of the videogame company, we also find a textbook example of how to diffuse a bad situation. Their steps can help you, too.
Start with “I’m sorry.”
Those two words are crucial to managing a heated situation. If you or your company is at fault, it signals that you’re ready to move forward. If you’re not in the wrong, simply saying “I’m sorry you’re upset” can reset the tone. And, if you lost your temper – even if you were in the right – an apology is in order.
Make sure your body language reflects your words.
Look people in the eye. And watch out for aggressive stances – hands on hips or finger-pointing. For written responses, get a second opinion on how your attitude is coming through.
Passing the buck doesn’t solve the problem, it just puts another wall between you and the solution. By the same token, don’t throw others under the bus. As a colleague of mine used to say, “Solve the problem now, assign blame later (or never).”
Answer questions directly and honestly.
In the news story, the spokesperson went public and shared answers about what went wrong with product delivery, as well as fielding questions about what happened to the old staffer, how he got his job, why the company didn’t realize he was a problem, and on and on. He kept at it until all the voices were silenced.
Remember, anger burns everyone it touches. Next time you feel a situation heating up, throw water on the fire, not gasoline.
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By Scott Danielson
Shortly after I came on staff at VoicePro®, I participated in its Speak Present Influence! workshop. With years of performance under my belt and “stage presence” to spare, I was confident I would shock and awe everyone with my speaking prowess. Within five minutes, my ego was put in its place. My small supportive audience praised my enthusiasm but stated I failed to engage them personally. As the program continued, I realized I was fighting years of bad performance habits. Learning how to improve my speaking skills was a humbling experience and demonstrated that even experienced presenters have room to improve.
So, based upon my personal experience, I give you four ways for seasoned performers to become better communicators.
Most experienced performers have no difficulty conveying excitement for their subject. Being in front of a crowd is exciting, let alone speaking about a subject they view passionately. Problems arise when they’re required to connect with their audience—to really see them and speak directly to them. It would be distracting for Romeo to make eye contact with the audience while proclaiming his love to Juliet. In Romeo’s case, the audience is a spectator rather than a participant. In your case, the audience is a participant. They want to be engaged and successful engagement includes looking your viewers in the eye. As public speaking coach Robert Graham describes, imagine having small conversations with each of your audience members. The end result is a personalized experience for them all.
One of the common cliches in theater is the question, “What’s my motivation?” Even though it’s often asked humorously, it’s a question you need to ask about your audience. What do I want them to do as a result of this presentation? Stage performers have the benefit of an audience looking for entertainment. Your viewers need to know why they should care. Why is there a new office policy? Why are we adding new products? Why should I purchase your services? When people understand how they will benefit, they’re much more likely to embrace your ideas.
#3 Embrace Stillness
Inexperienced speakers lock up when they get in front of groups. The reverse is true of experienced performers: they can’t stop moving. Waving arms may be great on a movie screen (Jim Carrey comes to mind), but they don’t convey confidence or power. For instance, I talk with my hands and had no idea how frequently I gesticulated out of impulse. While I thought I was being expressive, my audience was distracted and my grandest gestures lost their impact. By standing still and moving less, my gestures have greater impact on my viewers. Physical expression and vocal expression are very much alike. If you’re constantly yelling, no one will notice if you yell a little bit louder. But if you whisper and then suddenly raise your voice, people may jump out of their seats. In the same way, let your physical expression grow out of the power of stillness.
#4 Learn Ideas Not Lines
Speaking the correct line in familiar material is essential for a performer. Beginning to belt “Sweet Home Missouri” sticks out when “Sweet Home Alabama” is playing. Luckily, your business audience has no idea what your “script” is. So, by putting your improvisational skills to use you’ll be less likely to stumble over key phrases or specific wordings. If you do happen lose track of where you are, no one will suspect—unless your overt embarrassment lets them know. Focus on memorizing your main ideas, then relax and let your expertise speak for itself.
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by Scott Danielson
Hollywood loves assassins. Each year the silver screen is filled with deadly human predators stalking their prey, striking without warning, and disappearing into the night: veritable boogeymen. Though they don’t inspire the sensationalism and fear of their movie counterparts, three word types can be as just as deadly—to communication, that is.
Regardless of the speaker’s intentions, “but” is a word that destroys enthusiasm. Psychologists and businessmen found that when “but” is used in a sentence, everything coming before it goes unheard—or worse yet, disbelieved. Avoid this soul-killing conjunction at all costs. One way to get around using the deadly “but” is to substitute “at the same time.” This puts your comments on a parallel basis and softens the criticism. For example, “You’re a great worker. At the same time, your customer service skills could use some polishing.”
Fillers are the words we subconsciously throw into our conversation while we’re trying to figure out what to say. “Like” and “um” are old favorites, although sometimes it may be a short phrase. In the past, I have been known to overuse “it was funny” and “you know” and have worked to get rid of them. Although they’re inserted unintentionally, fillers attack a business speaker’s credibility.
As the movies have taught us, the best way to catch an assassin is to know his/her habits. In the case of fillers, you must first recognize them. In our Speak! Present! Influence!® workshop we listen for repeated words and phrases that show up way too often in our clients speaking. Recording yourself also helps. It’s surprising how, just by becoming aware, you’ll start to eliminate unwanted words.
Once you recognize your unique fillers, try inserting pauses instead. Many speakers fear silence; it feels awkward to them. Pauses, however, help audience and speaker alike. When you pause, you get time to collect their thoughts, gauge audience reactions, slow down racing thoughts and, yes, avoid fillers. Likewise, the audience has time to absorb the speaker’s words and respond on both an intellectual and an emotional level. The silence may seem endless, but it’s far more powerful than fillers.
In the 1999 mafia comedy Analyze This, there’s a great scene where Robert DeNiro confers with his advisers. Aware they are under surveillance, everyone involved keeps talking about the “thing” and the “other thing.” While DeNiro and his crew are well aware of what the “thing” and the “other thing” are, the F.B.I. agents, who are listening in, curse profusely as they watch their case go up in flames.
In a similar fashion, jargon buries the listener alive under an incomprehensible pile of information. At VoicePro®, we habitually use technical terms without thinking because a shared knowledge exists among all of us. Although technical terms connect you with your co-workers, they alienate any listener unfamiliar with your product or industry. Customer interactions deteriorate when jargon enters the picture. Aside from being frustrating and confusing, jargon also comes across as elitist, because it positions the speaker above the customer.
To ensure understanding and positive customer relationships, develop simple ways to describe your products and services. Here’s a good rule to follow: Create explanations an eight-year-old can understand. It may sound silly, but customers and audiences alike rarely complain about an explanation being too simple.
Regardless of intent, words can carry the power of a sniper’s bullet. Don’t be an unintentional assassin. Keep watch for these three word types and deploy the appropriate counter measures to protect your business relationships.
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by Scott Danielson
What are your New Year’s resolutions? Despite the constant change of modern society, popular New Year’s resolutions are fairly consistent from year to year. Get fit. Lose weight. Stop smoking. Spend more time with family. Reduce stress. These resolutions are popular enough to be listed on the government’s holiday website.
It’s remarkable that, notwithstanding the extensive amount of time we dedicate to our careers, only one common resolution directly regarding the workplace appears on the government’s list: Find a better job. In order to boost office morale, here are five New Year’s resolutions for managers.
#1 Be Positive
As the new year begins, managers look for ways to improve. We did this wrong. That didn’t work. Excessive negativity undermines employees’ accomplishments and destroys their confidence. Instead, look back at what they did well. Highlight their successes and emphasize your faith in their ability to continually improve.
#2 Encourage Open Communication
As we’ve discussed in previous articles, open communication is rarely rewarded. An individual who criticizes a program is often accused of “not being a team player.” And whistleblowers get clobbered. When we raise this topic in workshops, clients regularly voice their desire for “open, honest communication, without fear.” You can change your culture by initiating discussion, actively listening to suggestions, and encouraging critiques. This will ensure that you get the best ideas possible—and the most productivity—from your employees.
#3 Communicate In Person
According to a recent study, at least fifty percent of emails are misinterpreted. People will interpret your message through your vocal intonation and your body language much more than hearing your words. And since emails lack these nonverbal signals, their recipients will fill in the blanks with their own interpretations, often to your detriment. To avoid confusion, communicate in person whenever possible. The connection you make with the other person will give both of you a much clearer picture than emotionless text on a computer screen.
#4 Pay Attention
Here are two scenarios:
Manager No. 1 avoids eye contact. He stares at his computer screen while you’re presenting your ideas. Throughout a meeting, he texts while others are talking. When it’s time for him to speak, he casts his eyes down and fumbles with his notes. You feel like you’re communicating with a brick wall.
Manager No. 2 watches you when you’re speaking. She keeps her eyes on the group, checking for their reactions and picking up on their silent cues. She nods, maintains eye contact, and responds to individuals so they feel heard and understood.
Which manager would you prefer to have? Which manager would you prefer to be? When you pay attention—and that includes eye contact—you’re letting your employees know you are truly listening and they are worth your time.
#5 Embrace Your Humanity
It’s hard to let your faults show. Many managers are afraid of looking weak and put on a mask of invincibility in their employees’ presence. Unfortunately, you won’t fool many people when you do this, except perhaps yourself. A key component of credibility is the willingness to appear vulnerable—to let your humanity show. So instead of living in dread of exposure, have the confidences to openly address your mistakes. Then correct them. Your employees will respect you far more if they can see you as a human being.
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