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Monday, December 10, 2012

Cussin' Kids

    This week my 11-year-old son revealed to me through casual conversation that another student at his middle school cursed him out.  He says the kid called him a m----- f----- and a b---h.  I wasn't all that shocked by what I heard because both he and my elementary school-aged daughter say they hear kids cursing at school almost daily.  How sad is that?  I was angered, however, by the level of disrespect the other kid showed my son.  My son is a low-key, laid back, reserved kind of child.  He doesn't ruffle other people's feathers; neither does he let much get under his skin.  So I was immediately ticked off to hear him tell me as an aside that this other child had said these hateful things to him.  I asked him what he did when the boy said it, and he said nothing.  He just ignored him.  I asked him how it made him feel, he said it didn't matter.  I was glad he didn't react to that kind of foolishness, but I was also a bit flustered that he couldn't.  I say "couldn't" because we teach our kids to stay away from useless, meaningless, controversy.  However, just because we've taught ours to do so, doesn't mean that other parents have done the same.  As a result, to avoid getting into a physical altercation, the peaceful kids have to endure garbage from the ones looking for a fight.
     One of the reasons kids curse is because they hear it at home and from other adults who make an impression on them.  Their parents probably talk to them and other people in that manner so they imitate.  They may hear grandparents, older siblings, uncles and aunts, neighbors and friends drop f-bombs like it's a part of daily conversation.  It's their world.  Of course they hear profanity lots of other places too as do my kids even though we don't curse at home.  But for a kid to call someone a filthy name unprovoked is usually the result of how they are addressed.  Somehow they think it's okay to show that kind of disrespect because somebody along the way made them think it was okay.  There was no correction.  There was no boundary.  The issue for me as a parent who is trying to teach my kids how to respect others and themselves is how to help them to not allow others to disrespect them.  I almost wanted my son to say, "Hey dude, don't talk to me that way.  I don't know you, and you don't know me so don't call me anything other than by my name."  Something as simple as that could spark an all out brawl so it's oftentimes best to keep quiet.  But does that mean my son is permitting others to disrespect him? 
      Fortunately, my son doesn't have to see this kid often.  My son is in a magnet program at a large middle school where he is separated from the general school population.  He is with other honors students whose parents are trying hard to raise respectful young men in an increasingly vile and violent world.  As with any life lesson, we parents should want our kids to know that they don't have to permit other people to denigrate them.  But how do you teach that lesson?
     I'm interested in hearing how you would handle it.  Leave your comments below.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What I've Learned As a Speaker

Wow!  October was a busy month of speaking engagements.  As much as I love being in front of a crowd, I always relish a brief break.  Breaks give us a chance to step back for a minute and review our performance.  It offers us opportunity to think about how we can be better, learn more, take a different approach.  When speaking publicly or training, I often distribute evaluations after sessions to get feedback on my delivery.  If I don't get the chance, I always ask the host who invited me to share the results of evaluations they've taken during the events.  I don't get disturbed by one or two critical comments because as we all know, you can't please everyone.  I listen to the consensus of the group.  If, overall, people are pleased, then so am I.  However, I'm always looking to improve.  Based on what I've learned and what I've witnessed in other speakers, I'll share three things that make the difference in delivering a great presentation:
  1. Involve your audience in your delivery.  Few people enjoy being lectured to for 45 minutes to an hour or longer.  Find a way to get them to participate so that the interaction results in driving home your message.
  2. Dress your message up with fresh language and one new idea, if possible.  There are very few topics that haven't been spoken about a million times.  But, any topic can be presented in a new or different way so that the audience will stay interested.  If you can, include a unique perspective that differentiates your speech.  For example, I address the topic of change management by sharing the story of a trip I took to Italy to tour a urine plant.  Yeah, it's weird but intriguing.  Also, avoid cliches "like the plague".  Nothing will dry out a speech worse than the same old trite statements.
  3. Stay focused on your message.  There's nothing more frustrating to an audience than a rambling speech.  They happen as a result of poor preparation.  Never wing a speech.  A lack of preparation becomes evident immediately to an experienced audience.  When you lose focus, they lose patience.  
 Deliver a speech that will make people want to invite you back again and again.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Prejudice Sounds Like

    It's been a while since I've had a chance to post because I've been pretty busy training.  As usual, training classes have offered me plenty of content for blogging.  The most interesting of late has been on the topic of diversity.  Diversity management can be a challenging topic for individuals in the workplace.  I've seen people in my training classes visibly uncomfortable discussing The Big Three--race and culture, sexual orientation, and religious differences.  Maybe because biases expressed in these areas tend to get people in the most trouble.  For those who hate confrontation, they tend to shy away from potentially controversial topics altogether.  The concern I hear expressed most often is that they don't know what to say because they fear they'll offend someone.  It's the whole "walking on egg shells" concern that leads to avoidance of the topic.  At work, when they have to attend training because some discrimination issue has occurred, they show up in my sessions looking defiant, resistant, even indifferent.  Anything but engaged.  Yet, how can you know what might offend if you never discuss it?  Where are the lines?  Initially, the participants are mostly quiet for the first half hour or so. But gradually they start to warm up when they realize it's okay to ask questions, share their viewpoint, even laugh a little at how ridiculous stereotyping and prejudicial language sounds.  Which brings me to my topic...
    Dialogue is essential when it comes to understanding where the lines are.  Since most people aren't clear about where their personal lines are drawn, others tend to bump up against them more often than they care to, and it's confusing.  What may be okay to say in one person's presence may be totally offensive in another's.  When the offended person complains about it--sometimes in an equally offensive way--then the offender often tends to shy away from broaching sensitive subjects again in the future.  Thus, they stay in the dark about what's inappropriate, and usually walk away feeling like some people are too sensitive.  Since I don't know the entire reason why some people feel strongly about certain words, phrases and comments, I seek first to understand.  In a classroom setting, it's easy for me to ask why?  I do so for the benefit of all in the room because not everyone has that type of forum to start a serious discussion on a sensitive topic.  At that point, the ice is broken; not the egg.
     Prejudicial language is any verbiage that discriminates against an individual or group.  For some of you, it may be said without malice or any intent to harm, but it's still negative in its meaning.  Words and phrases like:
  • "He tried to jew me down."
  • "Indian giver"
  • "Dumb blonde"
  • "Boy" (to a black man)
  • "Gal" (to a black woman)
  • "Redneck"
  • "Dumb jock"
  • "Retard"
  • "You people"
     You've heard and maybe even said all of them at some point or another.  These are the tamer ones of course.  So how do you avoid the offense rather than the conversation?  I would simply advise you in this way:  if it's offensive to some, then it's offensive to all.  Don't say it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Drawing the Lines in Communications

     When it comes to how to talk to each other, there are a lot of invisible lines.  The tricky part is finding out where they are and trying not to cross them.  They tend to move based on who you're talking to.  Some people don't care if you're blunt and opinionated while others find that style annoying and obnoxious.  My rule of thumb for any communication that could be offensive is "If it's offensive to some, then it's offensive to all."  Therefore, refrain.  Everybody's not digging what you're saying.
     So how do you find the lines?  Actually, it's up to other people to draw the lines for you since there are variations.  Here are examples:  When it's clear to you that someone doesn't like coarse language or they don't like to talk about politics, religion, or money, then those are the lines you shouldn't cross.  When a co-worker doesn't mind personal jokes about himself, but he stops you at making jokes about his family, then the lines have been drawn.  Likewise, you should draw lines for others about what you find tolerable and what you don't.  For example, I won't be disrespected by people who like to call females derogatory names, who ridicule my religious beliefs, and who waste my time with idle chatter at important times.  Where are your lines?  How do you establish them?
     The short answer is when you feel like you're being disrespected or taken advantage of by someone in something they say and do intentionally and repetitively, then it is up to you to bring it to a halt.  Stop trying to accommodate people who are inconveniencing and hurting you.  You don't owe them anything.  What you owe yourself is peace of mind.  You can't find it if you cringe every time somebody is doing something that you find disturbing or irritating.
     So how do you set parameters?  You simply say it.  It might not be comfortable, and you may be one of those people who is conflict averse so you choose not to say anything.  But the only way you set boundaries is to let others know where you've drawn the lines.  You don't have to be rude or mean, but you should be firm.  It could sound like:  "Hey, I would appreciate it if you didn't talk to my kids like that." Or, "I don't mind stepping in to help you out when your workload piles up, but I can't keep doing it this frequently."
     Set your limits, and don't feel bad about it.  Draw your lines and don't move them.  Don't compromise your preferences because people keep bumping up against them.  Be patient but remain strong. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Listening WRONG

     Have you ever had an occasion when someone asked your opinion about something, and before you could finish responding, they cut you off?  Right smack-dab in the middle of your statement, they start talking like you haven't uttered a word.  Remember how frustrated you felt?  Maybe not the first time, but around the fourth or fifth time, you're done.  Either you're escaping the conversation physically or you've tuned out altogether.  After all, why do you have to contribute?  The individual seems to be having the conversation all by himself.  That's listening wrong.
     Listening wrong is not the same as misunderstanding what someone said or misinterpreting what you thought you heard.  That would require thought.  Most wrong listening comes as a result of not thinking about what's being said.  An example is trying to multitask while someone is talking to you.  Yesterday, I instructed my nine-year-old daughter to remove the lid from the pot if she should hear it boil over while I was in the bathroom.  I didn't want to turn the heat down because I would only be gone for a couple minutes, and I needed to get dinner finished.  She cooks with me on occasion so I felt comfortable she could do something as simple as turn down the heat and remove the lid completely if she heard the contents boil over.  While I was giving her these simple instructions, she wouldn't take her eyes off the television.  So I said what every parent says:  "Are you listening to me?"  Of course her reply was as automatic as my phone ringing everyday at 6 p.m. with calls from telemarketers:  "Yeah, I heard you."  So I said what we all say:  ""Then what did I say?"  She finally looks from the TV and says, "You said if the pot boils over, put the top on it."  Wrong listening.
     Take time to give people your undivided attention to make sure you are processing all that they are saying.  If it's only going to take a minute, then you're not losing anything major in the grand scale of life.  In fact, you might be saving yourself a big headache by tuning in.  Carelessly tuning out can cost you in ways you'd rather not pay.  So here's a bit of advice to save yourself some hassle:  since listening is a choice, choose to listen.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What It Means to Be C.R.A.S.S.

     You've been around them.  Those people who make off-colored remarks, foul comments, crude statements without care or concern for whom they may be offending.  You know--generally acting like the last three letters in the word crass.  Which is how they are behaving.  Most think they're being witty.  Others are trying to get a rise out of those around them.  The immature think it makes them look bigger, badder, superior in some way to denigrate somebody else.  Men might refer to a woman's most intimate parts in mixed company to disrespect, intimidate or demean women.  Women might do the same thing for the same reasons except they are targeting one female in particular.  Or maybe they're just stupid and don't know it.  Whatever the motivation, being crass in communication doesn't work for anybody.  It serves absolutely no purpose other than to make the speaker look foolish.
    So what does it mean to be crass?  I use this acronym:  Communicating Repulsively Amid Sensitive/Sensible Situations.  For example, a sensible situation would be when a female salesperson, after receiving repeated unclear objections from a male prospect on not purchasing her product, finally asks, "After answering all your objections satisfactorily, what exactly do you need from us to get you to say yes?"  His crass response with a big smile:  "You can get on your knees, and b--w me."  Yep, I got that response once.  Or a female rapper--who shall remain nameless--on a major awards show telling male rappers to "d--k up" (whatever that means) in her acceptance speech.  So unnecessary.  So obnoxious.  So crass.
     If this is the way you communicate, then let me be crass--your way is as intelligent as trying to explain that in a "legitimate rape" a woman's body can prevent pregnancy.  Yeah, about that intelligent.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Listening Is a Choice

     As a mom of two, I've grown very adept over the years in not listening.  Let's face it.  Most of what kids have to say is not nearly as important as what we need to hear.  As much as we want to be attentive to their every comment, we just can't.  Such is the case for adults as well.  We can't spend inordinate amounts of time listening to other people's comments, opinions, questions, and statements.  We have to find ways to decipher what's important on a whim so we can focus on priorities.  One big problem I experienced with not listening is that I tuned out so often that I tended to overlook the important stuff.  I had to re-program myself to tune back in.  The greatest lesson I learned is that listening is a choice.  I can choose which bits of information are pertinent at the time, which I should shelve for later, and which I can discard because it's useless.
     So--when should we choose to listen?  The short answer is always.  In order to determine what's priority, we must first make the choice to listen to what is being shared.  After only a few seconds, you should be able to determine where to "file" the information.  I've become very skilled at knowing immediately whether the communication flowing my way should give me pause.  I ask myself these three questions:
  1. Is this applicable to me?
  2. Is there a deadline or a tight time frame that requires my attention?
  3. Is the speaker credible and his/her comments/questions substantive?
     Hey, I know the last question seems a bit stuffy or arrogant.  But consider it.  People yak all the time.  Many times we get bogged down by their need to push their agenda or their priorities.  We have to ask ourselves if what they're saying has anything to do with us.  If it really matters in the grand scheme of what we have to get done that day.  You have to question whether the speaker is adding quality information in helping you meet your goals or are they hindering you with extra requests that benefit them only.  Not providing too much of your time and attention to these people will help you to stay focused and on target.  It takes skill to not allow yourself to get sidetracked.  You don't want to seem dismissive or uncaring or even rude.  But the fact is, choosing to listen to shallow conversation is the biggest time waster in most of our lives, and choosing to ignore it should be our top priority.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Overcoming the Fear of Feedback

     This past weekend, I attended a conference and experienced something I'd not witnessed before.  During the lunch at which a speaker was featured, the gentleman who was introducing the speaker took a bold step.  While delivering the introduction, the lunch time crowd grew a bit chatty and loud.  The gentleman, Ed, stopped what he was saying and allowed his silence to silence the crowd.  They got the message and quieted down.  He punctuated his point by stating, "Please allow me the opportunity to honor our speaker today by giving him a proper introduction.  I would appreciate it if you all remained quiet until I'm finished."  He got great approval from the people sitting around my table, and I was impressed with his candor.  Most often when I've witnessed this kind of behavior from an audience, the speaker usually tries to compete with the crowd by continuing to speak in hopes that they will hold themselves accountable or their peers would shush them.  However, this speaker took control.  He gave his audience valuable feedback without fear of reprisals, and actually got what he wanted.
     His action was only one means of providing feedback.  There are many.  Next week, I'll share a few.  But today, I would like to offer brief insight into why we don't give feedback as readily as we should.  There are at least three reasons why we practice avoidance.
     1)  We are afraid to provide feedback.  I'm not talking knee-shaking fear, but fear of hurting someone's feelings.  They may be a close friend or family member--the very people with whom we should feel the most comfortable sharing unpleasant comments.  However, we often feel better offering critical feedback to a stranger than the ones with whom we're closest.  We're afraid they'll get angry with us or reject us because they somehow feel rejected by our assessments of their behavior.  At work, we are also afraid of providing feedback because of the fear of repercussions.  Employees are especially reluctant to tell a difficult boss honestly about how they feel.  They are rarely invited to, and if they do, they believe they will face retaliation for their candidness.  And in many instances, they do.  Unfortunately, this type of bad behavior comes from the bosses who need this feedback the most.  Which leads to reason number two.
     2)  We are trying to avoid the backlash from those who are unable to receive negative feedback.  Sometimes, it doesn't matter how constructive you are with feedback, some people just don't take it well.  You may have to tell a co-worker that she dresses unprofessionally on the job or a boss that they lied to you or a friend that you feel he's taking advantage of your kindness.  You know they can be volatile, and this could turn ugly.  So you avoid being direct and try useless kid-glove approaches.  Then you wonder why they're not getting the message.  I know it's frustrating, but soft-pedaling doesn't always work.
     3)  We don't know what to say.  We want to provide critical input, but we can't seem to find the right words that won't come across too harshly or judgmental.  We don't know how to present a solid story or an acceptable example or even a simple word or phrase that clearly conveys what we want to say.  It takes too much effort to formulate a meaningful message, so we don't try.
     None of these is helpful to you or the person who really needs to hear from you.  In order for them to improve, and for your relationship to grow, it is necessary to help it along.  Taking the path of least resistance only widens the already broad road to destructive relationships.  Get over your fears and speak up.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Saying It Better: Choosing the Right Words and the Best Tone

     You've heard it said, "It's not what you say, but how you say it."  I've come to understand that it's both what you say and how you say it that affect our communications.  Choosing the right words to convey your message is critical to clarity and accuracy in communications.  Choosing the appropriate tone in that same message will complete how it gets across to the other party.  For example, if I have to tell a co-worker that I don't believe she's pulling her weight on the team, I wouldn't say:  "Joan!  I'm tired of doing your work.  Stop being lazy and do what you're getting paid to do just like the rest of us."  Wrong word choices and wrong tone even though it may be exactly how I feel.  I wouldn't go to her with hostility in my voice from the start.  I'd find the least confrontational words to describe the situation, and my tone would match.  It would sound something like this:
     "Joan, over the past month, I've had to cover your duties on this project as well as my own.  The work load is too large for me to carry alone.  I would appreciate you taking control of your portion so that we can get the job done quickly.  Thanks for helping out."
     As a first encounter, I'd let Joan know how difficult it is for me to do her job and mine too.  Most rational people can understand this and might be apologetic for being slack if it's said without accusation.  Others might step up to do what they know they ought to even if they don't offer an apology.  A few will ignore or make some noncommittal response to your request.  Only then should your words become more direct and your tone firmer if no change occurs.  Still others may get angry and become confrontational regardless of how nicely you put it.  They lack emotional maturity when receiving corrective feedback, and that's not your problem.
     The biggest mistakes most people make with tone is sounding abrasive, sarcastic, skeptical or angry when the behavior is unwarranted.  Sometimes people will come across as annoyed in their responses because their tone is curt and sharp.  They may snap in response to a seemingly innocent question or they may respond with a tone dripping with sarcasm.  Most of us can accept that everyone has a bad day here and there so we'll excuse a snippy remark occasionally.  But the ones that are most concerning involve people who tend to live in a perpetual state of frustration.  Eventually, someone will grow tired of the rude responses and address them.  Unfortunately, when they do, it's usually out of their own frustration.  Then the exchange doesn't go so well and easily spirals into an argument.
     The best way to avoid this slippery slope is to first check your tone even if you haven't heard complaints. When you speak to others, how do you sound?  Are your word choices without criticism and judgment?  Is your tone reasonable and rational?  You can usually determine it indirectly by paying attention to how other people respond to you.  If everyone seems to be relating to you in rude, cold or abrupt ways, then they may be giving back to you what they're getting from you.  It might not be everyone else.  It might be you.  Pay attention.  Moreover, do you hold yourself accountable for how you come across to others?  If you haven't asked anybody to give their honest opinion of your tone, then you're not holding yourself responsible.  Your opinion of yourself is mired in bias, and you're denying yourself an opportunity to grow.  Everybody needs to check themselves at some point just to make sure they haven't slipped in some areas.  The best way to do that is to get feedback.  We'll talk more about that in next Monday's blog.
     It's time to think before you speak.  Ask yourself, does my response reasonably match what's being asked of me?  What should I do less and what should I do more to improve the way I relate to others?  If you've had people complain to you about your tone, then you need to take some steps to understanding what they mean.  Be bold enough to tape yourself when talking to someone about a sensitive matter.  Listen back and see how you sound.  Or ask someone to surreptitiously tape you when you're interacting with them or others.  You may be surprised by what you hear.  Even if you change your behavior because you know you're being taped, you've already taken the next best steps toward improved communications.  After making those changes, ask people you interact with regularly what they now see.  You may discover that their now kinder responses mirror your own.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Betty Parker's Rules of Electronic Engagement

Electronic etiquette--the proper use of electronics in today's wired connections.  That's my definition.  We have all the gadgets, and we know how to use them according to their technical purposes.  However, do we know proper etiquette when using our devices?  What's appropriate and what's not?  Although there are books that have been written on electronic etiquette, I have a few rules of my own about email, texting, Facebook entries, tweets, and voice mail that I think you might find useful.  Here are a few:

Emails:
  1. Keep emails brief.  Use bullet points when appropriate.  Most people scan.  They don't read every word so don't waste your time.
  2. Refrain from sending a gazillion emails in a day to any one person.  After the third or fourth one, they'll most likely stop reading them and something important may get missed.
  3. If you want someone to respond to email because it actually is important, say so.  In the subject line, write in caps: IMPORTANT or ACTION REQUESTED or TIME SENSITIVE.
  4. That said, try to refrain from typing an entire message in all caps.  Caps are often used for emphasis.  Therefore, people perceive that you are SHOUTING AT THEM!!!  SAME THING WITH EXCLAMATION POINTS!  STOP!!!
 Texts:
  1. If you have to send more than three to get your point across, try dialing the number and speaking in person.  Sometimes you've just got to have person-to-person contact for clarity and detail.  Too many texts can be annoying--unless, maybe, you're a teenager.
  2. Don't text and drive. You're already on the phone, eating a sandwich, flipping radio channels, chatting to someone in the car, putting on makeup, drinking (hopefully nonalcoholic) or thinking too hard.  Don't you have enough distractions already?
  3. If someone calls you about something that requires your response, don't text them back.  They called you so call them back.  If they text you, then text them back.  But don't mix the two.  Your text sends the caller the message that you're not interested in talking to them in person.  Rude.
Facebook:
  1. Remember that everything you put on your page shows up on everybody else's pages you friended along with a zillion other people they've friended.  Therefore, try not to clutter up other people's feeds with your every thought, picture, game request, shared item, and personal conversation with others.  Practice moderation.
  2. Proof what you read at least once.  Sometimes misspelled words and incomplete thoughts are confusing and could cause problems if misinterpreted by the reader.
  3. Just because Facebook suggests people you could friend because you have 14 mutual friends doesn't mean you should actually send a friend request.  Follow the LinkedIn model by getting introduced through a mutual friend.  Don't put people in the awkward position of having to ignore you because they don't know you.
  4. Refrain from profane language, sexually explicit references and other crass content that everybody else can see.  Remember, not everyone wants to have filth in their face when they connect with you.
Twitter:
  1. See Rule #1 under Facebook rules above. 
  2. See Rule #1 above this one.
Voice mail:
  1. Keep messages brief.  Leave the rest of the conversation for when you receive a return call.
  2. Don't leave multiple messages a day.  Trust me, they most likely received your first one and most definitely your second one.  Don't clutter up people's mailboxes with the same message repeatedly.
  3. If someone leaves you a voice mail, call them back.  Unless you're being stalked, badgered or solicited, it's rude not to return phone messages.
  4. Use voice mail to take messages for you.  If you can't speak to a caller at the time, let the mailbox get it.  Otherwise, it's rude to interrupt someone who's with you in person to take a phone call that's not important.  It's also rude to take the call, then tell the caller to call you back because you're with someone else.  Let it go to voice mail.  That's what it's for.
Finally, unplug!  Get away from the electronics as often as you can and continue to build human contact.  We were created and designed to interact personally.  A gesture, a smile, soothing inflection and tone of voice, a handshake, a hug, the sound of laughter--all of these are what makes human contact the most beneficial way to relate today.  It's good for the soul.  Nurture relationships personally.  Electronics can't do that.  Many of us aren't that good at building relationships, and without taking advantage of the opportunities to improve, we won't.  An electronic device will never help us to fully accept each other with all of our differences and love each other with all of our faults.  In a world that makes it easy to hate, we can't afford to lose that human touch.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Responding Responsibly

     I've been asked my opinion on what I think of people not responding when you contact them.  This is a source of frustration for many, including me.  Since this is a communications blog, I believe that a lack of response is an important part of communication.  Therefore, I will address it. 
     Most of us can agree that we are inundated with information from the time we rise in the morning until we crash into bed at night.  We are mentally drained from the multitudinous contacts we get daily.  Unfortunately, we don't want most of them.  They often come unsolicited.  And truth be told, we find ourselves just as guilty of the same.  But sometimes it's unavoidable--especially at work.  To combat the unwanted messages, we've all resorted to handling them the same way--ignoring them.  We don't always respond to email, voice mail, snail mail, texts or calls.  Sometimes we think we'll be able to get to them at a later time, but we never do.  Thus, we've essentially ignored people. Other times, we just don't care enough about the sender to respond so we don't.   Let's take a look at why ignoring is unacceptable in most situations.
     Consider the invitation.  It is misused in a number of ways.  You send invites and you receive them.  There are responsibilities on both sides, but let's look at the recipients since the onus of responding is on them.  1) If you receive an invite from someone you know, make sure you respond to it.  Not responding is just plain rude.  An invitation doesn't mean you have to attend the event.  It simply means you're being asked to be present.  Some invites will say "Regrets Only" which means only contact us if you can't make it.  If you don't respond, then the host is expecting to see you.  If you're not going, then be courteous and let the host know so that she can plan accordingly.  2) If you say yes, then honor your commitment.  And it is a commitment.  When you agree to go, plans are made to include you.  Never say yes and then don't go.  You are putting the host in a costly planning situation.
     For example, I can remember when I use to host dinners with doctors in the pharmaceutical business.  Usually my dinners were in very nice restaurants whose per person charge could easily amount to $100 or more per person.  If I invited 15 docs and all said they would show, then I had to give a head count to the restaurant with that number.  Once confirmed, I am expected to cover the cost of all 15 attendees.  When one or two didn't show, I was still required to cover the cost of those individuals.  That would be $100-$200 wasted, and that's irresponsible.  Consider the people who were kind enough to invite you.  Don't waste their time or money by carelessly agreeing to a commitment you can't keep.
     3) If you are invited to an event, the invitation was sent to you.  Unless it says "and guest", don't bring one.  Don't even ask to bring one.  If the host wanted another person besides you to show, it would have been indicated on the invite.  4) If you heard about a party but didn't receive an invite, then most likely you weren't invited.  Therefore, don't go around asking others if they were invited.  Don't call the host and ask why you were not invited.  That's awkward and discourteous.  Don't take it personal unless there's a reason you should--like your behavior was so bad at the last event that you're on the toxic "avoid at all cost" list.  These aren't just rules of etiquette.  These are proper communications methods.  There's a time to respond in these situations, and a time to stay quiet.  Make a wise choice.
     Consider email.  This is a pet peeve of mine since my preferred method of communication is via email.  I don't have a lot of time to talk to people by phone so a quick email is sufficient.  I find it very rude when I send an email and get no response.  I've heard the same from participants in my training classes.  Usually it's from within the office that colleagues and coworkers will choose to ignore each other.  OK, I know what you're thinking.  "I get 400 emails a day.  I don't have time to respond to every one of them."  I get that.  That's why prioritizing is key.  Prioritizing doesn't mean ignoring people's requests.  It means taking care of the most important ones first, but eventually getting to the others in a timely fashion.  Learn time management techniques to help you get there, but it's unacceptable to disregard a request just because it seems unimportant to you.  If it requires action, then take the action.  Even if that action is to say "no thank you" or "I'm not interested".  This does not apply to unsolicited sales contacts.  We all get far too many of those to answer.
    Consider voice mail.  The same rules apply.  When you're listening to a person's voice in your message queue, prioritize your phone messages the same way you would your email messages.  Unless it's a "no-priority" call like charities asking for money, sales people trying to sell you something you don't need or want or someone with no agenda that just wants to chat, you should make every effort to follow up when a request is made.  As a sales professional, I don't mind when a prospective client tells me no.  I can handle a "no".  I just hate the silence.  I don't expect a stranger who I'm cold calling to call me back.  But I do expect anyone I've sat down with and had a lengthy conversation to return my follow-up call.  Especially if they are the ones who asked that I call them back.  It's rude to make the request then disregard it when it happens.
     Bottom line--we have a responsibility to respond when we have a relationship with the caller, and the situation isn't irrelevant.  It might not be priority, but it's not insignificant either.  Remember these three things:  Be respectful.  Be responsible.  Be responsive.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Direct--Not Rude

     In almost every training class I conduct, there is at least one person who admits that they're direct in the way they communicate.  They know it because they've been told so, and I'm willing to bet that it wasn't meant as a compliment.  Most often when an individual is informed that their communication style is direct, it's because they've offended someone in some way.  But direct doesn't have to mean rude.  There are huge benefits in being direct.  When done right, this style of communication doesn't waste time but gets straight to the point, is extremely helpful in its feedback, and puts the speaker in a position of strength.  When done inappropriately, it will undo all of those and comes across as insensitive and abrasive.
     So how do you turn your direct style into a useful means of communication?  One way is to think about what you'll say before you blurt it out.  Ask yourself, "How will this come across to the person I'm talking to?" and "What words am I about to say that could be taken negatively?"  For example, if I have to tell a friend she did a poor job in giving a speech that she was proud to deliver, I could say directly, "You need to work on that speech some more because you had some real problems throughout it."  If I thought about it first, I would recognize that using words like "real problems throughout" and "you need to" when giving feedback could pose some challenges.  If the individual went in proud of the job she was about to do because she'd worked hard on it for a long time, she's got a lot invested in that performance.  Whether she's happy with the outcome or not, my feedback can keep her motivated to continue to improve or it can discourage her enough that she'll quit and never try again.  Therefore I could be just as direct and say with a bit more tact, "I know you've worked long and hard on your speech, and it showed.  If you were to give that speech again, here are a couple of things I recommend you do differently next time..."  This kind of feedback removes judgment.  It doesn't raise alarms with words like "problems", and it doesn't sound accusing.  It supports the person's hard work and steers her in a different direction that may help her improve.
      Next week, we'll expand on this topic and discuss the idea of "tactful" talk.  Share your comments below if you struggle with being tactful or too direct, and please share this blog with anyone you feel would like to improve their communications.

Monday, July 2, 2012

WTF! The Impact of Profanity in Communications

     You turn on the TV and on your favorite series there's a scene with an actor saying:  "G--d--mit, man have you lost your mind?"  You get in the car with your kids, and a song is playing that references "video h-s" in the lyrics.  You walk into the office, and your co-worker is staring at his computer screen when suddenly he blurts out:  "What the f--k!"  Everywhere you go, you hear it.  We all do.  We all do it.  Whether it's mild profanity or straight up vulgarity, most of America seems to have no qualms about spewing out a few words that would make their mothers blush--unless she's using those very words herself.
     What's the impact of profanity on our communications?  The answer is as wide as the range of profane words that we choose to express ourselves.  They can have no impact at all or they can immensely offend someone.  It depends on the individual, the place, and the circumstance.  If you're amongst friends in a social setting, and you drop a few F-bombs while telling an outrageous story, it may have no impact.  Especially if they use those words as well.  For some people like me, even if I don't use foul language, I don't care.  However, there are others who travel in circles where they rarely hear profanity, and it may stick them like a pin when they finally do.  They are immediately turned off, and they begin to view you differently.  Or if you're at work in a meeting, and a disagreement ensues that results in a nasty verbal exchange peppered with curse words and threats, witnesses to this argument may find both parties unprofessional and lacking self control.  Interestingly enough, as common as coarse language is, few people will address it.  Maybe because it's become so acceptable in our society, we choose to ignore it.  Or we accept people's right to free speech.  But that doesn't necessarily mean people approve. 
     One reason we may be reticent to make complaints about cursing is because all of us do it at some point.  It might not be a part of our regular conversation, but when we become reactionary to some offense, we might let an expletive loose.  Think about it:  the person who cut you off on the interstate, an irritating boss who embarrasses you at work, the discovery of a betrayal by one that is close to you.  Any of those situations might send you shouting, "A-hole!"  I don't advocate foul language, but I can understand your reaction.  In that circumstance, it is just that--a reaction.  But in every day conversation, do we really have to talk BS about SOBs who p-ss us off with their f---ed up choices?  The challenge becomes in how we exchange that interaction for something less egregious because there's nothing more it could actually become except offensive.
     At last count, I read that the English dictionary has over a million words in it.  Surely with that many options, we can find a better way to express ourselves.  Too often in our conversations, we opt for the same eight or ten profane words to say how we feel.  But anything we can say with curse words, I believe we can say without.  Probably even better if we choose to expand our vocabularies.
     The long and short of it boils down to respect.  First, do you respect yourself enough to clean up your language?  Others will judge you based on what you say.  At work, it detracts from your professionalism.  Outside of work, it detracts from your dignity and intelligence.  Secondly, do you respect others enough to clean up your language?  Consider people who just don't want to hear filthy language.  Must they be subject to yours?  Moreover, consider children and young people, older and elder people, group settings and those who you don't hear using profanity.  Think it through and choose a better way to express yourself.  It is a matter of self control and self respect.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Three Ways to Stop the Endless Talker

    In my last post, I spoke to those who are endless talkers.  They know who they are.  They know this because somewhere along the way in their lives someone told them.  It may have been said nicely, almost jokingly, by a sensitive friend or delivered directly without any filters as only a family member can.  But the point was made.  And no doubt that point was made enough times that a talker will confess in some of their conversations, "I know I talk a lot..."  So they get it.  However, knowing and doing are two separate actions, and knowing they talk a lot doesn't mean they will automatically stop.  In fact, once they get rolling it seems they can hardly reign themselves in.  Their brains are churning thoughts that come rushing out like water from a hydrant, and they can't seem to turn them off.  Then there are those whose hydrant is more like a garden hose that's been left on.  They take their time and let their words just flow and flow and flow; leading you the long way to get to their point--which by the time they reach it is pointless.  Regardless, they have to tell the story start to finish, and they will not reach the conclusion until they've covered every detail.
     So imagine you're talking to Tammy Talks-a-lot, and she has just answered your burning question of the day:  "How are you?"  She is midway between the account of her gall bladder surgery in 2002 and the reflux and heartburn she's struggling with today, when you feel like clapping your hands on both sides of your face and running away in agony.  Instead, you frantically search your mind for excuses to get away.  Here are at least three ways you can rescue yourself from her verbal torture:
  1. If she stops to take a breath (because sometimes talkers don't), then interject.  Always interject.  Take back control of the conversation.  Jump in and summarize the conversation for the speaker.  Then move it in the direction you want it to go--to a conclusion.  In this case, I would say:  "Tammy I'm sorry to hear you don't feel 100%, but I'm sure you'll be better soon.  Meanwhile, I have to get going because I have a full plate today.  Feel better."  And I'd walk briskly away before she could get another word out or attempt to walk with me so she can finish her story.
  2. Never let a talker invade your space (i.e. your office at work, your kitchen at home, your personal phone).  When you control the environment, you control the conversation.  You can always make an excuse and walk away if you're in their office or a hallway.  However, when they have moved into your space, you are put in the awkward position of having to ask them to leave. 
  3. For the people who repeat themselves in three different ways, interject and summarize what they said.  If Tammy rambles a sentence that is 50 words long and states the same complaint at least three times in that meandering explanation, summarize by saying:  "So you're feeling crummy today is what you're saying.  Sorry to hear that, but you'll be okay--hopefully sooner than later.  I have a jam-packed day today so I have to scurry.  Feel better."  Pat her on the shoulder.  Walk away and don't look back.
     The point is this:  always take back control of the conversation.  If you're talking, then you can guide it, shorten it, and end it.  Try these and let me know how they work for you.  And if you have any special techniques you use, share them below.  Next week, I'll look at profanity in conversation, and if it has any relevance in daily conversation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Endless Talker

    People who talk too much.  We all know them.  They go on and on until they finally reach their point (if there is one) buried somewhere at the end of their speech beneath a bunch of other stuff we don't care about.  Others interrupt us multiple times as if we're not even speaking to make their points.  Then there are those who are just plain wasteful with words.  They take 50 to say what could be said in ten.  Yakkety, yak, yak.  Blah, blah, blah.  I don't know about you, but I eventually stop listening.  My thoughts immediately go to:  "How in the world can I get away from this windbag?"  They don't seem to notice that my eyes have glazed over or I'm nodding like crazy to get them to hurry up.  My point?  It's about economy of words.  Unless we're chilling on the front porch enjoying the breeze with no particular plans, then I'm too busy to get stalled by somebody's chatter.
    If you're the culprit, take this advice because most people may find it too awkward to let you know:  Get to the point in the quickest way possible.  The longer you're yammering, the more time you're wasting.  Not just your time but the time of others who have to endure your painful monologue.  This is especially expensive on the job when you're standing around chatting, and there is work to be done.  I call this the "drip zone".  This is where companies aren't aware of how much they're losing in productivity because some seemingly harmless act is being perpetuated throughout their organization every day, but it's costing them.  It might not be loss that comes gushing through like water from a hose.  But it's the constant drip, drip, drip that adds up at the end of the day to huge deficits.  For example, wasting time in unproductive meetings that run too long, hallway conversations that happen too frequently, and too many phone interruptions that are unimportant are all most often conducted by the endless talker.
    A monologue is usually what they become.  Even if the information is important, when its delivery is monopolized, then there is no dialog.  If one person is doing all the talking, that hardly constitutes a conversation.  A dialogue is a discussion between TWO people.  What inadvertently happens is that talkers make themselves the center of the conversation.  Their opinions, thoughts, ideas, and interests are all that matter.  They have essentially locked out the other person and taken a very self-centered approach to communicating.  The difficult part in all of this is that talkers are usually nice people.  They're fun to be around.  They likely have a warm spirit and a great sense of humor, and this makes it hard for us to be critical with them when we have to be.  So we simply endure--much to our frustration.  We dread seeing them come, but we don't know how to get out of the way.  We groan inwardly and search frantically in our minds for ways to end the conversation before it starts.  Enough already!  If you're guilty of endless talking, listen up!
  1. Be considerate of other people in your discussions.  Give them a chance to speak without interruption, and try to listen without formulating what you're going to say when it's your turn to speak.  
  2. Be aware that you're long-winded, and that it's annoying to others.  Try to refrain from speaking for too long.  Monitor yourself.
  3. If you're mostly talking, then you're NOT mostly listening.
  4. Get to the point!  If there isn't one, then it's better to remain quiet.
    If this all sounds too harsh and judgmental, sorry.  But trust me, someone has tried to let the talker know, and the subtle approach has not worked.  If someone has directed you to this blog or printed it out and mysteriously left it on your desk, take the hint.  I know what I'm talking about.  Shoot, look at how long this entry is.  I could've said this in fewer words, but I'm a talker.  What can I say?  The answer:  a lot less.  So I will.  In fact, in the next post, I'll provide tips on what to do when you've been cornered by a talker, and how to break away.  And I'll try hard to be brief.  Check back with me next Monday morning.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I once heard billionaire Warren Buffett say to a group of MBA students at Columbia University that if they learned to communicate well, they could add about a half million dollars to their personal worth.  The fact is, as much as we all speak, we do a poor job of communicating most of the time.  There's not often clarity in what we're trying to say or write, we talk too much, we don't talk enough, we say the wrong things, we are not sensitive to the people we're talking to or about, we misspell words and don't go back and proofread our work, we don't listen enough, we cut people off when they are trying to speak, we talk too loud or too soft, we're too curt in our responses, we don't get to the point, we're just plain bad at communicating.  This blog will serve to help anyone out there who makes these mistakes and more.  Check it out weekly.