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Is your customer service swamping your boat?


Customer communication skillsA few days ago I went to buy a canoe. Last year our old canoe went to a new home, and now that summer’s on its way, it’s time to seek its replacement. My research on the Web showed me that a particular model (14 ft, padded seats with cup holders, bright red) was available at a sporting goods store nearby. This national chain’s website promises, “the finest quality products at competitive prices, backed by the best service anywhere.”

So off I went to see the canoe—–admire it—sit in it—rub my hand gently over the red paint. Unfortunately, my arrival at the store went unheralded. The store wasn’t crowded; a woman wandered through the aisles with a basket of running clothes over her arm. A white haired man examined fishing rods. But no employees were in evidence. In the outdoor department, suspended 15 feet above my head, the canoes hung from wires like giant cucumbers (not a red one in the bunch). All I could see was the bottom of each boat with the price of each in big letters pasted on the bow.

Finally, a young man wearing store colors walked by. I smiled. He didn’t. He walked on. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone else who could help me, so I kept my gaze focused on the bottoms of the canoes. Eventually, finding this futile, I walked to the front of the store where another employee was studying a computer screen.

“Can you help me, over in canoes?” I asked.

“In a minute,” he said, without looking up.

So back I went to the outdoor department. By the time I had looked at the tents, checked out all the camping gear, and examined the kayaks one by one, I realized no one was coming to assist me. I was on my own. So after one last, longing glance at the canoes floating overhead, I left the store.

Back home, I checked the store’s website one more time. Yes, there it was, just as I had read it. “…the finest quality products at competitive prices, backed by the best service anywhere.”

What’s the point of my story? It’s not the importance of good customer service; that goes without saying. No matter what our situation, sooner or later we are all consumers. Even the heads of national sporting goods chains will, at some time in their lives, find themselves buying tires, or lawn mowers, or washing machines. And they will be judging the service they get, weighing the quality from one enterprise against that of another. The rudiments of point-of-service behavior hardly need to be taught: smile, ask if you can help, know the product so you can answer questions, don’t chew gum. No, the importance of good customer service isn’t the issue here. What continues to bother me about my experience is the discrepancy between what goes into print and what actually occurs on the sales floor.

The heart of our business at VoicePro® is the relationships we form with our clients, and we know first hand how difficult it is to serve them consistently and unconditionally. One key to client satisfaction, we’ve learned is this: Set clear expectations and do your best to exceed them. We’re also careful to not promise more than we can deliver.

When outstanding service is touted as a competitive advantage, customers will anticipate white glove treatment, so the business must absolutely live up to its claims. Unmet expectations are worse than no expectations at all. This means the idea of good customer service must be more than words on a page or a bullet point in a mission statement. It means training, training, training. And a customer-oriented culture that is communicated to and embraced by everyone, from the leadership of the organization to the guys on the floor in the canoe department.

Perhaps I hit the store on a bad day. Perhaps they were short-handed because of illness. Perhaps a tie-up on the freeway caused half the staff to be late, while I just happed to be there early. Perhaps on another day I would have had an entirely different experience. Perhaps I will go back and find out. And perhaps not.

Eventually I’ll get my canoe. And when I paddle it across the lake, it will sometimes remind me of VoicePro®’s mission, our commitment to client service and the challenges it presents. It’s worth pondering on a quiet summer morning.

Image by Bill Gracey

Do you have the communication skills for managing change?


managing communication skillsChange is good, right? That’s what all the personal growth gurus tell us. Maybe that’s the natural response in our personal lives, when we’re choosing to lose weight, move to a new neighborhood, or learn a foreign language. But in the workplace the natural response is often fear, distrust, anger and anxiety. This doesn’t apply only to the tough changes, the kind that have dogged us during this economic downturn. Even the “neutral” changes – a new boss, a change in computer systems, a shift in product lines – can put sand in the gears of a workplace.

VoicePro has been called in by numerous clients to help manage change initiatives. A mistake I see over and over again is that communication is an afterthought.

Sometimes the call to VoicePro comes when there’s been a breakdown in the system – reduced productivity, high turnover or other problems. In response to my question about a communications plan, I often hear, “We had a meeting and sent out a memo.” That’s simply not enough.

People need more than that for change to be truly understood and accepted, and for the change to have the full positive force you intend. It’s so important that I’m going to devote a couple of these posts to the issues you’ll face and how to prepare for them.

Let’s start with an example to illustrate my point. I participated in a training exercise a few years ago in which the participants were broken into one of two groups – the “employers” and the “employees.” I was an employee. Unbeknownst to us employees, part of the exercise for the employers was to NOT communicate with us, but only to let us have access to their public news releases. Even in a small group of pretend employees, complete strangers together for a 3-hour “game” on a Tuesday morning, we became suspicious and confrontational, doubting our employers wisdom and motives. Amazing – and eye opening.

Think of change management as facilitative leadership. How can you help assure the change you’re undertaking is going to achieve the hoped-for results? Here are some things to keep in mind in your communications plan.

  • Over-communicate. Create a message calendar to cover 3-6 months of the change process. Start early to let people know what’s coming. Include a kick-off communication at the start of the change. Then follow through with regular updates.
  • Explain why. People respond more positively when they know why a change is happening. Even if it’s bad news generated by difficulty, trust your team to take on a challenge when they know what the stakes are and how they can make a difference. And don’t assume that the need for a “simple” or “good” change is obvious. Change always brings some discomfort or inconvenience. Help people understand how learning a new sales and marketing system will help them better serve customers and grow the business.
  • Listen. You can’t possibly predict all the questions and concerns your team will have – that’s the nature of the human spirit. You need to offer frequent opportunities for people to ask questions. Take those questions seriously and provide serious answers. Be sure to plan for Q&A throughout the process; issues are certain to arise as you go along.
  • Use different communication methods. Kick-off meetings, newsletters, video, focus groups, training sessions. Each one reaches people in different ways and invites different (and important) feedback opportunities.
  • Reach out to key groups. You know which groups are most affected and where the fulcrum points are. Losing these key people can hobble your organization for months. Use change as a team building exercise.
  • Involve the whole organization. Even when a change targets a small group, you may want to widen the communications audience. Why? First, there’s a ripple effect to change. Something new in the accounting department can cause headaches or concerns to anyone who interacts with them. Plus, organization-wide communication can help control gossip and the fear that goes with it.

Change isn’t just about systems or organization charts, payroll numbers or business plans. It’s about the people who will implement it, live with it, work with it. If your want your change to be a positive one, remember make people a part of it. And communication is the key.

Image by Veri’s kleiner Winkel

Forget the Messenger; Think for Yourself


Your communication skillsIt’s blazed across the headlines: Tiger Woods returns to golf! Sports commentators hold forth by the hour on the importance of Woods’ comeback to the PGA. And how that will affect their advertisers. “Will he or will he not retain his most important endorsements?” they ask, as if that makes a difference in the overall scheme of things.

Actually, it does make a difference, as advertisers well know and we, the public, have long forgotten (if we ever paid attention in the first place). Big names sell—regardless of the product and regardless of the price. Whether it’s a political candidate, a ten-million-dollar home on a private golf course, or an athletic shoe, if our favorite celebrity recommends it, we fall right in line and pony up our money to the cause. You’d think we’d know better. But we don’t.

It all has to do with likeability. Research shows that the more we like someone, the more we’re willing to accept what he or she says as the truth. Here’s how it works.

You can like someone and accept the message. This is where Tiger makes a difference to Nike, who at the time of this writing has reiterated its commitment to Woods as one of its main spokespersons. He’s a terrific golfer, we’re supposed to think. He’s good looking, I like him. Therefore, these must be great shoes. It seems ridiculous when we listen critically to the message and analyze how we’re processing the information. But it means big bucks to Nike.

You can dislike someone and disagree with the message. This is the stuff of smear political campaigns. The rationale goes like this: If one side can vilify a candidate from the other side, the sheep-like voters will drum him out of office. It’s so easy to fall into this trap. Even though I understand how this concept works, if I find myself appalled at the behavior of a public figure, it’s difficult for me to listen through my disgust to his or her ideas and judge them on their own merit.

The Greeks were well aware of this when news came of battles lost and they put the messengers to death. Kill the messenger! has become the battle cry of anyone who doesn’t want his or her ideas held up to the harsh light of day.

You can see how this plays out at work as well. If you’re in conflict with someone, or if you actively dislike one of your colleagues, notice how you almost always respond negatively to what that person says. It’s practically automatic.

You can like someone and disagree with the message. When like minds get together and hash out the pros and cons of a subject without getting personal, magic can happen. Ideas flow, and they can be turned inside out and examined thoroughly without anyone getting mad. It would be wonderful if all our interactions took place under such ideal circumstances. But unfortunately, this cannot always be.

You can dislike someone and still find value in the message. Yes, it can be done, but it’s not easy. It requires tremendous communication skills, especially the ability to listen analytically and separate ideas from personal biases.

If you think of this as a matrix with four quadrants, you’ll note that you’ll find yourself in one of these quadrants whenever you interact with someone else. It’s joyous to be around people you like and pretty much agree with all the time. High fives all around. And you will occasionally come in contact with a detestable someone whose ideas you abhor.

The trick is to be aware of where you are at any given time, and move yourself to one of the other, more constructive quadrants—like/disagree or dislike/agree—when it’s appropriate to do so. It’s the mark of an open-minded leader to be able to separate the message from the messenger and weigh ideas based on their own merit.

So check yourself. Have you joined the herd and are buying shoes, shampoo, or strategic ideas because Tiger Woods, a TV guru, or some other bigshot tells you to? Or are you listening carefully, thinking critically, and making your own informed judgments about what you hear?

Let me know what you think.

Image by _Blancinegre

Right or Wrong, Learn It Your Way


Communication skills for leadersHave you thought about how you learn? Have you been faced with a task and the first thing you thought was, What if I can’t do this?

I often find myself in this trap…wondering, What if I do it wrong? or How am I supposed to do this?

Have you ever thought that maybe, just maybe, you’re doing it exactly the way you should be? Because, if you did everything right the first time, you’d never learn anything new. And who is defining the right way? What if your way is the right way?

 Sue Thomas is the owner of MAP.  She uses horses to teach people about leadership skills, collaboration, effective communication and team building. One morning, I was in her pasture with three horses and three other people to learn some new approaches to managing. My task, with rope harness in hand, was to go get Boss, a large, black gelding, and lead him back to Sue.

Now, I love animals and I am not particularly afraid of horses. So this was no big deal, right? I just needed to go and get him. But as I found myself walking towards Boss, I began to get nervous because the trap had taken hold. Was I going to do it right. What if I did it wrong? What if I looked foolish in front of the others?

When I got to Boss, I looped the rope around his neck and said, “C’mon big guy,” and walked back over to Sue. My legs were shaking so badly I could hardly walk. And I was so worried about doing it right that I couldn’t enjoy my connection with this big, wonderful horse. Yet I had successfully accomplished my task. So, what is my point in all this? My fear of being inadequate very nearly got in the way of my success. I was getting in my own way.

What thoughts do you have that get in your way? Try this:

  • Set a clear goal. If you don’t know what you need to accomplish, it’s hard to clarify your approach. I needed to get Boss and bring him back. This was very clear for me.
  • Tell yourself, until you actually believe it, that your way is the right way. You can approach a task quite differently from others and still be successful. You may even experience something new and different that surprises you. If I had taken this approach with Boss, I would have found joy in my accomplishment rather than feeling frustration and pain.
  • Take comfort in the fact that, most of the time, other people aren’t aware of your mental chatter and how it can undo you. The feedback I received from the others in the pasture was that I looked confident, comfortable and that I made the process look easy. They had no idea my knees were buckling under me.

When you are faced with something new and challenging, give yourself permission to do it wrong. Then enjoy the process of learning instead of beating yourself up over it. My lesson learned – I don’t need to be like everyone else. I can be different, which makes me unique. My knees can definitely support that.

My way or the highway? Not if you want to be effective!


effective communication skillsIt shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I seem to have spent my lifetime learning the same lessons over and over again. Just when I think I’ve conquered a bad habit, it rears its ugly head and bites me where I least expect it.

I have just spent two weeks working on projects with diverse groups of people. At VoicePro, we use the DISC Behavioral Assessment to help clients understand how individual work styles impact relationships. It’s one thing to understand the DISC principles, another to know them well enough to teach them to others, and quite another to respond appropriately when the need arises in real life.

According to the DISC, I am highly results-oriented. At the start of a project, I want to come in, take stock, dive in, barrel through, and be done with it. No chit chat. No messing around. But if I want to accomplish anything, I have to remember: MOST OTHER PEOPLE DON’T WORK THAT WAY. So I must stop, press my reset button, and proceed with a softer touch. Sometimes, I can manage this quite well; at other times it’s not so easy.

Here’s what I’ve learned—or relearned—or re-relearned—about myself and how to work with others. And while my work style may be different from yours, the lessons I continually have to teach myself might be of value to you as well. I hope so, anyway.

Know yourself. This is where the DISC Assessment and other “personality” type instruments come in handy. You can easily see how your personal characteristics have become your strengths and how, taken to the extreme, they can get you in trouble. Being results-oriented, I put my blinders on and head for the goal. I get a lot done that way. On the other hand, I must be careful not to ride roughshod over people in my zeal to reach the finish line. They tend not to like it very much.

With the DISC you are also able to see how other people differ from you. And how that’s all right. If we were all alike, it would be a pretty dull world. (And if everyone was like me, the details would be lost and gone forever.)

Don’t take yourself too seriously. This is important advice for me. Once I understand what makes me tick and I accept that reality, I need to lighten up. If I use my work style as an excuse for unacceptable behavior, I negate the whole purpose of the assessment. Instead, I can turn it to my advantage by recognizing the humor in the human condition—and in mine.

While you are settling down to analyze the situation, weigh all the arguments, and check your data one more time before making a decision, I’m probably tapping my foot, snapping my fingers, and muttering, “c’mon, c’mon,” under my breath. But if we can recognize the fact that we could easily make each other crazy and then laugh about it, odds are that I will be more patient and you’ll decide a little more quickly.

Keep your mouth shut. Okay, I know you probably don’t need to be told this, but I do. Over and over again. “You don’t have to be right all the time, Carolyn,” I tell myself. “Even if you are right, you don’t have to be right.”

The impulse to argue is alive and well in most of us. If that’s the case with you, stop and ask yourself what’s more important: to win the argument or cultivate the relationship. Most of the time you’ll be better off if you opt for the relationship.

Recognizing and celebrating different behavioral styles is the hallmark of someone with excellent interpersonal skills and is good practice for all of us. And while it’s easy to understand, it’s not so easy to accomplish. The learning continues throughout our careers, and it never hurts to have a refresher course—either in the classroom or the laboratory of real life.

Image by nickwheeleroz

Small talk: big leadership skills.


execuitve communication skillsWhat’s your favorite talk show? Now imagine authors, actors, pundits and celebrities strolling onto the stage. They take a seat and exchange a few moments of banter before they launch into the real reason for their visit – selling you their new books and movies, ideas and merchandise. Admit it…you usually decide in that first two minutes whether you’re going to stick around for the rest. If they’re relaxed, knowledgeable and engaging, you’re in. If not, you flip the channel.

You have just witnessed big-time small talk. And that same scenario is true for all of us. A presentation starts long before people sit down at the conference room table. The small talk at the beginning of a meeting – and for the weeks and months before that –establishes your personal and professional presence. Your self-confidence shows and conveys that you’re comfortable, approachable and self-aware. So in a way, small talk is one of the most important communications skills and sales presentation skills. Certainly, it’s one of the defining characteristics of executive presence.

Even if you’re not making a major presentation, the ability to comfortably handle coffee-room small talk with your managers, peers and reports builds your credibility. It’s one of the leadership skills that builds trust in you and your abilities to connect, adapt and meet the world with confidence.

While some people seem to be natural at small talk, most of us need a little coaching and practice. Even the people on TV have handlers who prep them and help them develop talking points. Here’s a little small talk primer for all of us.

Prepare before you go.

Brush up on local happenings or light news. I know one woman who always skims the sports pages so she’s able to make small talk with her male clients. Read through a popular culture magazine for some timely topics. What are the reviews of a recent movie? Check the New York Times best-seller list. Restaurant reviews. Even a recent news story – just avoid controversial topics or politics.

Make business meetings work.

The small-talk time should be brief. Your goal is to establish rapport before getting started, priming everyone for a positive meeting. You might want to comment on the building or ask about the facility. Notice an award or trophy. You may also want to mention a colleague you have in common through work or your extracurricular life, if appropriate.

Networking events: relationships that get down to business.

All the topics for a business meeting are appropriate for networking events. In addition, you may be able to chat about the purpose of the event. Is it a fundraiser? Talk about your and your conversation mate’s connection to the event. You can share professional information (“What do you do when you’re not raising funds for the Cancer Society?”). And, believe it or not, the weather is almost always a good place to start.

By the way, the goal of a networking event isn’t to build the fattest stack of business cards. It’s about starting a relationship, so less may be more. Make a genuine connection with someone, then exchange business cards as appropriate.

Ask a question. Then really listen.

It’s what the teen magazines said about meeting people at your first high school dance. And it’s still true today. Ask a question and you make a connection. Plus, you’re likely to uncover topics to keep the conversation going.

Be sure you’re really listening, too. Others sense whether you’re being genuine or just going through the motions. You know the people who ask a question, then look past your left ear for their next target? Don’t be one of them. Really listening means responding and having a dialog. It conveys authenticity and gives you a basis for future conversations.

Feeling shy? Breathe. And smile.

Stand with an open posture and breathe deeply. A deep breath helps you relax, focus and smile. If meeting people makes you nervous maybe the meeting organizer or the event host can introduce you to a few people to help break the ice. If you’re the person in charge, make that effort for others. Some people get over their butterflies by setting a goal for the number of new contacts to make, and then make a game out of achieving it. Sounds less intimidating, doesn’t it?

Image by Pogorita

Move Over, Pollyanna


Communication skillsIn 1913, a little book was published that soon became a classic in children’s literature. Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter, tells the story of a girl who is able to find something good in every situation, no matter what bad things befall her. The book was so successful that a multi-volume series followed, known forever as the Glad Books.

As a child, I loved the Pollyanna books because I liked happy endings (and still do). So when I grew up, I was dismayed to learn that the term pollyannaish had become a pejorative one, used to describe someone who is happy to the point of naiveté, someone who is unwilling to face the realities of an adverse situation. Somehow, in our cynical culture, looking at things in a positive light has become very uncool.

Our society reeks of negativism. If it bleeds, it leads, is the mantra of the news media. Politicians use fear tactics to get elected; smear campaigns have become the norm—and they work. Ideas get trashed before they’re even understood. Everywhere we look, we see fear and doubt. And because pessimism is contagious, it’s quite easy to succumb to the negative pressures and complain about everything—or just give up.

Apparently, the tendency to pessimism is a inbred trait. According to Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, “The benefits of pessimism may have arisen during our recent evolutionary history. We are animals of the Pleistocene, the epoch of the ice ages. Our emotional makeup has most recently been shaped by one hundred thousand years of climactic catastrophe: waves of cold and heat; drought and flood; plenty and sudden famine. Those of our ancestors who survived the Pleistocene may have done so because they had the capacity to worry incessantly about the future, to see sunny days as mere prelude to a harsh winter, to brood. We have inherited these ancestors’ brains and therefore their capacity to see the cloud rather than the silver lining.”

Dr. Seligman goes on to say that some people are born optimists, some are pessimists through and through, and the rest of us lie on a continuum between the two. But research shows, he states unequivocally, optimism can be learned.

I believe it’s time for a healthy dose of more positive thinking. Not the Pollyanna cliché, where everything is wonderful, no matter how awful it really is, but the kind that can see the possibilities present in almost every situation.

Granted, there’s a time for playing the devil’s advocate and a place to examine potential risk, but that’s not what this article is all about. So, if you’re tired of looking at life—and your job—from under a dark cloud, here’s how to start turning things around:

  1. Begin by identifying a minor adversity, some small event in your life that triggered an adverse reaction. For example: My boss completely ignored me in the meeting, even when I made a good suggestion.
  2. Now, analyze your reaction, including how you felt. I got really irritated. In fact, I stopped listening halfway through the meeting. I know my boss doesn’t like me. Nothing I do satisfies him. I’m just incompetent, so why bother.
  3. The next step is to play the role of opposing counsel and argue against your response. Examine the facts; don’t let any part of your response go by without checking for its accuracy. Was it unreasonable for you to stop listening? Did that help or hurt your cause? What actual evidence do you have that your boss doesn’t like you? Has he said so? Does he criticize your work all the time? If he does, is it in the nature of a personal attack, or is in honest, constructive feedback that helps you do your job better? Are you really incompetent? You might want to list your successes, just to prove to yourself that you’re doing a good job.

Learn to catch yourself in the act of responding negatively to events. You may be surprised to find how often it occurs. Examine your initial reactions, and then refute them. You may discover that much of your negative thinking is nothing more than a bad habit.

We don’t need to live with habitual negativity that weighs us down. We can change the way we think and change the way we communicate our thoughts to others, which would make Pollyanna very, very happy.

Image by nonworkers

Looking for better leadership skills? Look outside your comfort zone.


Leadership communication skillsI just read a fascinating research study on goal setting by LeadershipIQ. There’s a lot of great information about how employees view the goal setting process. The bad news is that only 13% of them think their organization’s current methodology is helping them reach their potential. The stumbling block? A focus on goals that are deemed realistic and achievable seems to support small thinking, playing it safe.

The fact is, people long for goals that reach farther and demand more. Imagine that. People want to take on big goals, difficult goals. Is that you? Your team? I’ll bet it is. We seem to be longing to accomplish something important and valuable.

The research then goes on to discuss eight make-or-break factors that are predictors of whether goals are going to help people actually achieve great things. Here are three of them. You probably don’t have to be a professional in leadership development and teambuilding to know they would be on the list:

  • I will need to learn new skills

There’s no question that new goals require new skills.  But here’s the one that I bet takes you by surprise:

  • I will be pushed outside my comfort zone

Did you do a double-take? Many people do. Why? It’s easy to associate getting outside our comfort zones with mistakes, failure, feeling foolish, getting laughed at. 

But, I’m not the least bit surprised. You know why? I’ve spent my whole career at VoicePro helping people get outside their comfort zones. They aren’t crushed by the effort – they’re transformed by it. The word “empowered” is barely descriptive. I see magic happen every day. People “step out” and discover new strengths and abilities that can transfer far outside the specific knowledge they’re pursuing.

Of course, helping people out of their comfort zone is a skill – and an art. That’s why years of experience lead me to agree with the third success predictor:

  • I will have access to formal training needed for new skills

As much as we all can learn on our own – from a book, from a mentor, from e-learning – we sometimes need formal training in a safe environment, where leaders won’t let us back down, but help us find new abilities.

It starts with a safe place away from the people and situations that can make us timid. But there’s much more. My job is to find a way to help you find yourself. Sometimes I coax.  Maybe I nudge. The trigger could be a question – or a story. Sometimes I’m a flashlight that shows the way. And sometimes I help swing that axe that chops a hole in the comfort zone wall. 

That’s what formal training should be about – not just knowledge, but power. By the way, this isn’t a sales pitch. It’s a mission statement and a commitment my staff and I live by.

What are your goals for yourself this year? For your team? Are you’re ready for a trip outside your comfort zone? Are you ready to reach for your goals?

Image by btmlinedan

What are Your Enemies of Learning


Communication skills from VoiceProWhat was I thinking as I drove out of the parking lot on the last day of my coach’s training at Newfield Network?

Wow! I am completely elated.  I need to pinch myself. My dream has become a reality. Me–enrolled in a premiere coaching school, internationally acclaimed and accredited by the International Coach Federation. Yes!!!!!

What was I thinking an hour later (better yet 24 hours later, when the thoughts had become pervasive)?

How in h*** am I going to accomplish this? What was I thinking? And even more importantly, how am I going to do it to perfection?

What was I thinking after I had a chance to decompress, get a little bit (ok, a lot) of sleep, and sort through my assignments and commitments?

Knock it off, Luanne. This is your biggest enemy to learning – the need to get it right. If you don’t begin to look at learning as an opportunity to make mistakes–get it all wrong–you won’t learn what you need to. Always cautious and careful – never daring to take a risk.

What am I thinking now?

With this new awareness, I can make some better choices. First, I can reframe what it means to learn something. Maybe I need to frame learning as knowing something in my heart and soul. Knowing something isn’t getting others to say, “Wow! Look at how well you did.” Or getting universal approval. Knowing something is about experiencing it, feeling it in my body and emotionally connecting with it. It’s also about being able to apply what I have learned to make a difference in the world. I may be able to make a bigger difference by having experienced it “wrong” once or twice.

And finally, learning is really about the joy of getting curious – discovering something new – rather than the emotional pain that comes with having to be perfect. It’s about exploring the unknown and the undiscovered – in others and in myself.

What are your enemies of learning? What is keeping you from knowing? Consider the following possibilities as presented by Chalmers Brothers, author of Language and the Pursuit of Happiness. Is it:

  • Your inability to admit, “I don’t know”?
  • Your belief that you should already know?
  • Your distrust of the person teaching you?
  • Your making everything overly significant?
  • Your forgetting that your body is a domain of learning? Practice is putting your body into it. When you don’t practice, you don’t get results. The capacity for new action is about doing. It’s not head learning or memorization.

Choose to “befriend” the following, as suggested by Chalmers:

  • Willingness to declare “I don’t know”
  • Listening
  • Openness
  • Respect and admiration for your “teacher”
  • Willingness to question your own questions
  • A mood of perplexity and curiosity

Who knows what you might learn and what you might accomplish as a result? Vanquish your own enemies to learning and a universe of knowledge can be yours.

Image by NASA

Put On Your Thinking Hat


Think communication skillsIn 1985, Edward DeBono published a book that changed the way I think about group dynamics. Six Thinking Hats put forth an easy-to-understand, easy-to-implement method of communicating among team members that leads to time saving, and focused problem solving.

The premise is this: When an idea is offered, someone will like the idea, someone else will think it’s crazy, and another will be reminded of something else entirely and take the conversation in a different direction entirely. People will argue over who is right and who is wrong. Sides are drawn, arguments ensue, and nothing really gets accomplished.

The Six Thinking Hats creates an environment where everyone operates in what DeBono calls parallel thinking. That is, together people look at a topic from one side, then switch their thinking and look at it from another side, then another, and so on. By calling for people to “switch hats to one of a different color,” a group leader or facilitator can orchestrate a problem-solving session free of ego, power plays, and/or emotional outbursts.

In the past few years, we haven’t heard much about the Six Thinking Hats. Perhaps they’ve fallen out of favor. They can be such a valuable tool, however, that I believe it’s worth taking a fresh look at them.

The white hat. The white hat is about information. It is neutral and objective, concerned with facts and figures. It answers the questions: What information do we have? What information do we need? What information is missing?

The red hat. The red hat gives you an opportunity to express feelings, emotions and intuition without any need to explain or justify them.

The black hat. The black hat is the hat of caution. It helps us figure out what is wrong, what does not fit, and what is not going to work. The “devil’s advocate” wears the black hat.

The yellow hat. The yellow hat is positive and constructive. Under the yellow hat, people think of possible ways to put the idea into practice. They ask, “How can we make this work.”

The green hat. Under the green hat, people brainstorm. It’s the time to be creative—off the wall—out of the box. The green hat is a way of escaping from old ideas and making a deliberate, focused effort to find new ones.

The blue hat. The blue hat is for the management of thinking. Like the conductor of a great orchestra who brings the diverse instruments together into a brilliant, sonorous ensemble, the group leader or facilitator wears the blue hat and orchestrates the thinking of the group.

As you can see, these six colored hats cover the range of thinking needed in problem solving. Although there are many ways to put them in order, here is one example of how they can be effectively sequenced.

  1. The blue hat comes first. State the purpose of the meeting and lay down the guidelines.
  2. Wearing the white hat, go on a fact-finding mission. What do we know? What do we need to know? How can we get information we don’t have? What questions do we need to ask?
  3. Green-hat thinking comes next. Brainstorm new ideas. Anything goes, No one can censor an idea when he or she is wearing the green hat.
  4. Now is the time to think positively. Put on the yellow hat and find ways to make things work. Look for value in every idea.
  5. Even though it’s been difficult, the black hat has had to wait. Only now can you examine what you’ve done with a critical eye. What’s the downside? What are the risks?
  6. Finally the red-hat question can be asked: How does this make you feel? What’s your gut reaction? What does your intuition tell you?
  7. Throughout, the blue hat has been managing the process, making sure people stay on track and change hats until it’s time.

This method takes personalities out of problem solving. If everyone is in yellow-hat mode, no one can turn the discussion negative. But when it’s time for the black hat, cool, clear-headed analysis takes the sting out of negative thinking. And emotion can take its rightful place when the red hat is called for.

The Six Thinking Hats can be a valuable tool in the facilitator’s bag of tricks. I hope you will give it a try.

Image by Øyvind Brunvoll
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