New Year’s Resolutions

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant, summarizing Aristotle

When the New Year dawns, to mix metaphors, it is common to set resolutions for the new year. It is just as common to break most of them by February. We blame our lack of willpower, or attention span, or the demands of life, when this happens. But there’s really a different problem: The coming of the new year does not add to the hours in a day. When something new is added, something old has to give. When some new course is chosen, and old course must give way. When the time comes to make resolutions, though, we give to little thought to how we are going to make room for them in our lives.

When I became a certified Smoking Cessation therapist, a key lesson from the course is that substitution beats willpower. Finding out why a person smokes – physical sensation, boredom or maybe just an excuse to leave the office for a few minutes – gives you a clue as to what routine or substitution can allow the smoker to capture what they were getting out of smoking in a different way.

One of the most common people promise themselves to do at the new year is to lose weight. But why do people gain weight? Comfort food calms when we’re stressed. Fast food lets us eat now when we’re tired. Snacks in front of the television give us something to do with our hands when our bodies are still, and it may remind us of getting out to the movies. These are, of course, just a few of the reasons we don’t eat as well as we should. And as for exercise, that requires time, time that is getting shorter and shorter as we spend more time on our smart phones with Facebook friends we didn’t actually talk to in real life and with work that used to end when we left the office. So eating right and exercising more to lose weight doesn’t just require motivation, it requires changing a lot of things that have crept into ever busier lives without our intending it.

In the past several years, I’ve seen a lot of useful books about habits and habit formation. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, comes to mind. We know you need to replace bad habits with good ones. And we know a little bit about how. But still you must ask yourself, Why do we form bad habits in the first place? Understanding what you get from your bad habits is the first key to changing them. Because otherwise, when you find yourself in those situations where the bad habit gave you comfort, satisfaction, or maybe a feeling of control, you will need to find willpower to resist temptation. By knowing what’s going on, you can redirect it.

So, if you want a new year’s resolution, I would suggest one, and only one: Be conscious of what you’re doing, saying and thinking. Ask yourself if you would like for things to be different. And if you would, instead of beating yourself up, understand that you were trying to take care of yourself and look for a better way to do so.

All about empathy

Have you ever said or done anything stupid? If not, congratulations! Maybe you should be reading a website for perfect people who don’t need help…

Now that it’s just us imperfect people here, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Everybody says and does stupid things sometimes. And we all hate it when we get called out on it. Especially when we didn’t realize we were the idiot in the room until everyone was looking at us.

When you’re communicating with other people, in business or in life, sometimes you’re going to be the idiot. And sometimes it’s going to be someone else. Either way, be gentle. If you see someone making a mistake, think about how you’d want them to handle it if you were the one making the mistake. Would you want an e-mail copied to everyone in the department making it clear you’re illiterate and incompetent? Or would you want a private message saying, hey, this doesn’t look like it will work, maybe re-evaluate?

The great thing about a friendly e-mail is if the person you’re talking to sees reason, they owe you one and they’ll appreciate that you looked out for them. If not, then you can forward that sucker everywhere, but you gave them a fair chance. A chance you’d like to have if it’s you that made the mistake.

So often, we get caught up in details about who’s right and who’s wrong and passing out credit. It seems like a great idea until you’re the one on the wrong side of an interaction. So basic Golden Rule stuff, if you want to work in an organization where when people make mistakes they get understanding and gentle correction, it starts with you. Make friends by looking out for other people when and where you can. The favor will be repaid.

Empathy and communication

“In politics, sincerity is everything. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” – Groucho Marx

I’ve talked before about the fact that effective communication has more to do with how you’re heard than what you say. One of the biggest problems we run into is assuming that everyone thinks like us, or at least that they should. I’ll forego the sermonette about the value of diversity of thought and how boring the world would be if things were like that. Bottom line: They aren’t like that. This means that part of effective communication is trying to understand how other people think.

What should you do to be a more empathetic communicator?

First of all, start on common ground and assume a common purpose. This means banal pleasantries to show that you, too, experience weather, followed by something related to what you’re working on. Don’t start off with religion or politics because they might have a different worldview from yours and 1) you don’t want to alienate them from you and 2) you don’t want to get into a discussion where your prejudgments about the kind of person you’re working with affect your ability to get what you need where goals are shared.

Second, listen. Some people reach out, some people want to be heard. Some can’t see where you’re going and others just don’t feel right about certain things. These sense metaphors for communication let you know 1) which metaphors to answer with to build rapport and 2) which metaphors to use if you want to convince someone of something.

Third, if you think the other person is an idiot, they may well think the same of you. You may both be right! But if you let transparent disdain for another person’s intelligence or ideas wreck your ability to work with them, there’s definitely at least one idiot in the conversation: you. So assume the best of other people till you have proof to the contrary and look for ways to engage with what they’re saying. If they have something to offer, awesome. If not, at least you haven’t made any enemies who might pop up and mess up other projects of yours at a later date.

In future posts, I’ll talk more about how to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But for now, keep in mind that when you engage with another person the quickest way to blow an opportunity is to win an argument you didn’t have to have. Think positively about the people you’re talking to and the prospect that you can get something done together and you’ll be on a much surer footing whether you decide to build a relationship or just get through the interaction before moving on to something better.

Being true to yourself with your communication

I have written before about the false conflict between positioning and being true to yourself. Today, though, I would like to look at another false conflict: Is it hypocritical to not give my unvarnished opinion? A lot of people complain about political correctness. A lot of other people defend it as simply being polite. But the truth is you have to find a middle ground between policing your every thought and being totally unfiltered. People who tell their boss or customers they are idiots don’t go very far, especially when it’s true!

In some cultures, being direct and telling it like it is can be prized as strong and assertive. This used to be the case in corporate America… if you were the boss. Let’s be honest, it was never great for one’s career to be blunt with people above you on the org chart unless you knew in advance that they would be in at least partial agreement. In other cultures, on the other hand, deference and avoidance of conflict is very important. In the United States, what tends to be most prized is sort of telling it like it is.

More in sorrow than in anger… Truth tellers in the typical American corporation do not delight in delivering news that has a hard edge. They feel bad about it. They say what has to be said and let the chips fall where they may, but only after they’ve made a mental calculation about which chips and where. That done, they couch what they’re saying in terms that will be understanding, inclusive and with a positive framing – challenges, not problems.

The thing is, if delivering bad news isn’t fun, it is still necessary. If you see a problem and don’t say anything, you will be blamed if something blows up and your colleagues are taken by surprise. So just as those who pride themselves on being direct have to dial it back to the “More in sorrow than in anger…” framing, those who don’t like to give bad news have to work their way up to using this framing.

You’ll notice that so far, I have not talked about expressing yourself authentically. Here’s the thing, the mantra I keep coming back to: Successful communication does not say what you want to say; it gets people to hear what you need them to hear. Being true to yourself means making sure what you stand for is heard. Because if you just say what you think, or say nothing at all, there is a communication block where you will be either misunderstood or not heard at all.

Being heard the way you want to be heard starts with basic civility. The person who greets people kindly, asks how they’re doing, says please and thank you, is a person that other people are open to. So even if it feels phony to you, be polite, be open, be generous in your assessments of others, at least in your speaking. It will allow you to be heard when you have something important to say. And that is the true essence of being true to yourself.

Why would you need a communication coach?

Do you need a communication coach? And what is a communication coach, anyway? Is that like debate prep? Well, no, a communication coach is a sort of life coach/career coach with a special focus. You see, often people work hard or have great ideas, but somehow there’s a problem getting other people to buy in to what they have to offer. And a big reason for that is that you’re not presenting and positioning yourself in a way that allows you to have the impact you want.

On this blog, I have written about some of the communication missteps I’ve made and how I’ve corrected them. More important, though, as a language teacher I’ve found myself time and again helping people who were saying what they wanted to say, but not the right way to get the response they wanted.

One of the biggest issues we run into in communication is how you position yourself. We would like to believe that if we work hard and do a good job, people will notice and appreciate our efforts. And if you toot your own horn, you can come across as self-involved or demanding too much attention. At the same time, if you don’t draw attention to the things you’re getting done, your work will be taken for granted, not celebrated.

If getting yourself recognized is important, it’s also important to get recognition for others who deserve it. By being an advocate for your peers, you can do your part to create an environment where everyone’s contribution is recognized. You can also gain allies in building this kind of culture and take on a leadership role by being the first to act, while giving credit to those who work with you.

There is one other place where I see communication creating a lot of issues with success, and that is being culturally appropriate. Whether you’re working in a different country or even a different part of the U.S., you are going to encounter cultural differences that make the communication style that succeeded where you grew up fizzle where you are now. Developing strategies to understand how you are perceived and how you can change that perception to align with who you are at your best can be the difference between getting a promotion and being deemed difficult to work with or insufficiently proactive.

If you have a feeling that you are doing your best but people just aren’t appreciating it, whether in life or at work, a communication coach can help. Part of it may be you. Part of it may be those other people who don’t get where you’re coming from. But either way, you need to adjust how you work with other people – and with your own internal narrative! – if you want to make a change. A coach who can help you find that new perspective – a new way of winning – and hold you accountable for growing and learning may be just what you need.

Positioning: Play the person you want to be

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Not Aristotle

One of the issues people run into when doing self-improvement is they’re afraid they aren’t being true to themselves. We should, of course, be careful about trying to suddenly becoming a new person because that can both confuse the people around us and make them skeptical when old patterns reassert. I wrote about that earlier. However, the person we often have the hardest time convincing is our own self. This requires a shift in mindset. People like to say “fake it until you make it,” but the problem is you feel fake and that comes through.

When you are working on something like your communication style, it is essential to recognize that while who you become will evolve out of your past, it doesn’t have to mirror it. The thing is, you have to decide who you want to be. You are who you are because that’s where life brought you when you went along with it. You can stay that course, which seems easier, but in the long run it might truly be easier to let some more inconvenient life patterns drop.

When it comes to work communication, the thing you need to change most often is an extreme: too direct, too timid, too cynical, too emotional… When people decide to work on these things, or their bosses decide for them, the first challenge is that you have to take the focus off of what you were doing before and put it on what you are going to do now. A word of advice: Being true to yourself means taking care of yourself, not staying true to patterns that weren’t necessarily helpful. What you want to do is to reflect to the world a person who is able to get the things the person inside you wants. That means positioning.

Above, I cited the Aristotle quote about excellence. The problem is that actually, pretty much everything is a habit. You can’t just become excellent, then. You have to stop doing what you were doing before. This is best done gradually, as I noted in my earlier essay. For today, pick one thing that isn’t working for you, then look at somebody who seems to handle that issue the way you wish you could. Steal one or two of their patterns, the ones you think will work best for you, and work on becoming more like them. Then pray that they’re successful since what their strategies bring them they will probably bring you too! But in the mean time, play with it. By moving gradually, you can reorient. This is not about becoming a new person, but about changing the position you are in with respect to events and other people.

Remember: being true to yourself is not about sticking to habits, but about positioning yourself to present, then by habit become, the person you need to be to enjoy the life you want.

How can they miss you when you won’t go away?

(With apologies to Dan Hicks)

Have you ever worked with one of those people who’s always on? You can call at 2PM… or 2AM… and they’re right there on alert and ready to help. Maybe you’ve been that person. It’s a funny thing: Over time, gratitude turns into being taken for granted. Eventually, someone is mad that you didn’t answer the phone at 2AM. And let’s face it, it’s the always-on person’s fault… your fault… because the expectation has been set.

In the past, there were people who had work-life boundaries, and people who didn’t. But today, when the distance between home in bed and in the office is as little as clicking “Accept Call” instead of “Decline,” it’s getting harder to be one of those people with boundaries. You no longer have those visual cues that you’re in one place or the other. This is a dangerous time, and the greatest risk to your long-term health may not be COVID, but overwork and burnout. At the same time, the greatest risk to your career may be being taken for granted.

In the past few months, we’ve all seen the articles about taking a vacation, even a staycation, just to keep your sanity and pretend the world is still normal. And that’s important. But there’s another thing to think about, as I note in my title. Right now, roles are shifting and expectations are changing. Some people are going the extra mile because they’re scared and want to hang onto their jobs. Others, though, are just doing it because they don’t have anything better to do. When life returns to normal and people start wanting their lives back, how do you plan to position yourself? Are you setting people up to be grateful to you? Or to take you for granted?

There was a time when the best career advice was to be indispensable, that way they could never let you go. But let’s be honest: If anything ever happens to you, you will be replaced and people will figure out how to get on without you. But if you’re indispensable in your current role, it’s not convenient for you to be moved somewhere else, even up! And as I said, roles are shifting right now. You need to be careful what role you find yourself in.

One of the great things about vacation is that people start catching on to all those things you take care of. When you get back, they’re glad, even relieved, to see you. But if they’re just cranky about all the problems that came up without you there, you’re in the taken-for-granted zone. Time to look for someplace that will appreciate you. But, how do you get that appreciation?

Did I mention that right now, with all the work-at-home, roles are shifting? If you want to come out of this in a better place, there are three things you need to do:

  1. Take your vacations. Even staycations. Let them miss you and realize life is easier when you’re there. You can recharge and everyone else can reflect.
  2. Learn something new! Do not… repeat… do not… become even better at your current job than you ever were before while working from home. Instead, learn something that complements your current skills but gives you room to pivot.
  3. Make yourself a little more replaceable. When half the country is still working from home, this is the time to squeeze in conversations where you help your colleagues learn to handle some of the little things you do when you’re not there. Show one person your tracking sheets, another short cuts to rework the brochure from marketing… This is an especially great time to help someone else learn to do those mundane tasks you’d like to get rid of. If someone below you can do it, that will give you extra cycles to take on new challenges.

Key takeaway: With much of the country still working from home, this is a critical time to make sure that you’re setting work-life boundaries that protect you while using the uncertainty to shift your role to something better for you. Learn something new, then take that vacation. Let them miss you a little, but set yourself up to return to something better.

Don’t change, evolve!

If you have had issues with communication – or anything else – there may come a point when you learn something new that changes everything for how you were thinking. A word to the wise: When you’re ready to make a change, you should show, not tell.

Have you ever worked for a manager who said “just this once” at least twice a week? A colleague who was always going to have the data for you next week for sure? A friend who is reliably ten minutes late? We’ve all met these people. Many of us have been one or more of them. But then something happens and they – we – realize something has to give. Here’s the thing: old habits die hard, and telling people you’ll change when you’re not going to is a habit that surrounds all the other habits.

This blog is about career communication, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here. Imagine you are the sort who never speaks up in a meeting. Your manager has questioned whether you’re having an impact within the team. That’s a danger sign, and you know you need to do something different. But if you come in tomorrow pounding the table and telling everybody what’s what, not only will you have stirred up people who weren’t ready for it. You will have burned through social capital with people who appreciated your low-key approach more than your manager. So the key is to speak up gradually.

If you’ve been low-key in meetings before, but you really need to make something happen, research the hell out of it. Make sure you have your points nailed down. And choose what you’re going to say to insert yourself into the conversation… not the idea, the actual words. This is a speech you’re preparing for a very short, impromptu presentation. Make sure you pay attention in the meeting and lead with your two or three sentences. Then shut up and allow for questions. (If you’re nervous, feed a colleague you trust a question to ask.) This is it for the first meeting.

Over the next couple weeks, you can try to insert yourself two or three times on one or two issues. Stick to a few issues so the impression given is that you’ve started to speak up because this is something you care about and just couldn’t sit still and listen about it any longer. In this way, you’ll be starting to make an impact, but without making such a dramatic change that your old friends are taken aback but those you’re speaking up toward don’t believe it. From there, you have to keep living the change. In time, it will be real and you’ll have made it happen.

The same thing goes with another common issue: chronic lateness. Do not announce that from now on you’ll always be on time. Just be on time. If you don’t make it every time, no one will be more judgemental than they were before but if you’ve made a fuss, people will be keeping score. When you stop having people joke that you’re early because you were on time, you’ll know that your change is complete and you’ll notice people stop secretly making side plans to cover for your inevitable lateness and the issues it causes. This is how you make a change.

So, to recap: When you’re making a change, take it slow and steady. Allow a little room for backsliding by making the change instead of talking about it and getting people watching for you to fail. In time, you’ll be living in a different and better world for you and what you were trying to change will have been forgotten by most.

It’s not about me

Earlier, I wrote a general post, It’s not about you, that discussed the importance of focusing on business and people impacts, not your own personal feelings, when you are e-mailing. Today, I would like to take a look at this in my own career.

There was a time when I was young and foolish, when I thought that the fact that something troubled me was enough to warrant pushing for corporate change. In this case, it had to to with the way certain aspects of customer intake where handled in the organization. I wrote to my boss, in copy to his superior, that I was spending too much time on something I didn’t think was my job. I imagine my boss heard about it from his superior. I know I heard about it in all directions. And with good reason: I had kicked up a fuss without offering either a definition of the problem nor any good solutions.

I subsequently backed up and made some adjustments to my own workflow. And I discovered that I could work with the adjustments in a way that was satisfactory to me. But the business results in customer intake faltered. Here, then, was a problem not for me, but for the organization. And as I looked at it, I realized that I myself did not have enough cycles to fix it – I was hourly and not allowed overtime. This time I pulled up the numbers, made graphs of several inputs and outputs, and showed that there was a cost to the way we were doing things. This time, when I wrote, I closed by noting that in my own role, things were working fine – no negative feedback on metrics related specifically to my job description – but that what was happening wasn’t healthy for the business.

My second e-mail got a lot more attention because it was not about me, but about the business. It wasn’t based on feelings, but on data. And it didn’t simply say that something wasn’t right, it highlighted missed opportunities. This prompted a review of the workflow in the office and this time changes were made.

I’ve learned a lot since then – it was more than a decade ago – and since then I have helped others avoid the same mistake I made.

To learn more about how I can help you, please visit my main page at career-communication.com.

Communication in the era of COVID: issues with ZOOM calls

When I started working in corporate America, we had a CEO who hated e-mail. He would tell everyone to stop playing games copying everybody all over the place and just pick up the phone. The phone had two definite advantages: It was immediate, and you could speak candidly without leaving a permanent record. The downside, of course, is that your side of the conversation could be misreported by the other party, and the other party wasn’t tied down to any commitments they had made. That’s why, in my experience, it’s a good idea to go with e-mail if you really want to get something done, not just feel good about things getting done when you hang up the phone.

In the era of COVID, though, we’re moving into different types of challenges for communication. One of the biggest is the ZOOM call. At its best, ZOOM and other such platforms allow a small group of people to get together, work sort of face to face, and then get to work on what was decided. But the more people on a call, the more things are going to blend in with an old style corporate conference call. This means that when you speak, maybe half the people are listening and the other half are working on something else. Worse, the half that are working on something else will be listening for keywords and will tend to pop up with questions or comments about things that were discussed twenty minutes ago. Worst of all, some of the time you’re going to be the person who was working on something else. Those lower than you on the totem pole will grumble, but if anybody above you happens to be paying attention at that moment, this is also an opportunity to make a bad impression.

They say that 90% of communication is non-verbal. The ZOOM call doesn’t change this. But it can be a challenge because the things that catch attention now – the confused response when your name comes up, your talking too long or cutting something too short and all those other things that make certain meetings tedious – are not things where you can feel the mood in the room. And yet, everything you do – and some things you don’t – will affect how you are positioning yourself for the others on the call.

A few tips:

  1. Pay attention to the number of attendees going up or down.
  2. If you’re speaking and another mic cuts in, make sure you’re not cutting someone off.
  3. Before the meeting, have a list of keywords you’re watching for, but make sure to note other ways those topics might come up. You don’t want to miss something because you were paying attention for the wrong thing.
  4. Watch the chat and the microphone icons. If someone who usually has useful comments isn’t saying anything, they may be trying to communicate. Looping them in will both advance the meeting and make you a friend.
  5. Be extra polite. You can’t really tell who’s listening without saying anything and you want to be sure who is frustrated but silent the way you can in an in-person meeting.

Above all, remember that even after COVID, a lot more people are going to be working from home. But we’re not in the era of The Year Without Pants anymore. A lot of the people working from home will not be techies who think Slack is the greatest thing ever invented. So you still need to watch your communication. The message you’re giving is nice, but the impression you’re giving is going to be super important for building alliances, getting your points across and having people want to make the things you believe in happen. Stay safe out there!