Browsing: Communication

We Are Really Bad at Reading Minds

The other day I noticed that my son was unusually quiet after baseball practice. This has been an up and down year. At the beginning of Spring, for the first time, he experienced tryouts and player evaluations. The league he was trying out for did player drafts to put together the teams, and they had several different levels of teams. Ben was drafted down a level below what he could have qualified for by age. I chalked it up to us not knowing the procedures and necessarily being 100% ready from the start. But rather than focus on that, we took it as a great opportunity to learn, practice, and have a good time. And what a great time it turned out to be. Ben did GREAT and his team took first place in their division. Ben played catcher and first base, and he did so well that he was asked to try out for the Summer tournament team at the next level up. We were on a high…so excited that he was now being asked to play up.

But then we got to tryouts and practice for the Summer team and realized (of course) that everyone there was playing at a high level, and we had just entered a new level of competition. Ben made the team and went to the practices, adapting to the differences in rules between the different levels of play, but the competition was tough, and the coaching style was very different (a topic for a different post). Ben got edged out of the positions that he had loved playing during the Spring and assigned to less familiar positions and fewer innings of playing time. This was frustrating for him. He felt that he was better at catcher than some of the kids who were getting to play there, and he couldn’t understand why the coaches let the other players play that position but not him.

And thus began our lesson in non-verbal communication. I tried to share with him, in a loving-father, non-preachy sort of way, some of the things that I saw him do and how the coaches might interpret those actions. It was definitely stretching him to think about several different ways that actions or behaviors can be interpreted when you don’t have the context of what someone is thinking. For example, if you are not hustling during practice, does that mean that you are tired or bored or just think practice isn’t as important as a game? He said he was tired, but I would guess the coaches read it another way. Many people say you play like you practice so you should practice like it’s the real thing, and I tend to agree with that, but this was new thinking to him because in his mind practice is practice, nobody is keeping score and games are different. But there is a lot to be said for the power of habit. We went through a few other examples where he thought his behavior was clearly saying one thing and I shared other ways it might be interpreted that were less positive.

It got him thinking…and it got me thinking…what do I do at work or at home where others are reading my actions and they may be interpreting those actions to mean something completely different than I intended. Bosses and spouses, coworkers and friends, everyone makes assumptions based on what they see and what they think that means. For example, someone says something to you as they pass by and you don’t respond…are you mad…are you deep in thought…did you just not hear them? Maybe you’re on a video conference and you’re scowling at the camera…are you upset about what the other person is saying? Or did you just notice that you have a hair out of place and wish it would behave?

Non-verbal communication is all around us and we all engage in it, both sending and receiving. And it colors all of our actions and thoughts. Perhaps now is a good time to think about how others might be misinterpreting you, and how you may have misinterpreted them.

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OVER-Communicate, Please

What is the best way to kill the rumor mill?  Over-Communicate!

Don’t confuse that with “talk too much”.  I’m saying to communicate with your team more than you think you need to.  Remember, as a manager or other leader, you are in a privileged position to know things that your employees or teammates do not know; you have context to make sense of things that appear arbitrary or senseless to your team…help them by telling them as much as you can.

Rumors get started because people are trying to make sense out of something they don’t understand, so they come up with explanations that fit the facts as they know them.  But you know that they don’t know all the facts.  Suppose your company has just decided to expand into a new state, and build a new set of offices from the ground up.  Why does that make sense?  Why would they spend money on that and not on a new coat of paint for the building you’re in, for example?  Help people to understand how decisions are made in business.

Sometimes people are just trying to explain why some action hasn’t been taken yet, which seems obvious to them.  Share some context.  Maybe there is a legal concern that is blocking action right now.  You don’t have to give specifics, but you could say that something is hung up in legal.  Or, maybe there is counter-acting information that makes what would appear to be an obvious choice not so obvious.  Or maybe you don’t know either.  Tell them that, too.  They’ll respect you for your honesty, and trust you even more.

By communicating frequently and with as much open honesty as you can, you will build trust in your employees.  I understand, there are some things you can’t talk about.  And guess what?  Your team understands that, too.  You have a responsibility to keep certain information confidential.  But in my experience, most of the time, there is a lot of information that you can share without violating your fiduciary responsibilities.  Share as much as you can.  And when you can’t try sharing that, too.  There are times when I have had to tell my team, “I know from your point of view this action we are doing does not appear to make sense.  Right now I can’t tell you any of the details behind the scenes, but trust me that it will make sense when it all comes out.”  That’s tough because people will want to ask questions, but it’s a lot easier if you have established a reputation for sharing what you can, when you can.

Another key is to share information more than once.  You can’t assume that just because you told your team what was going on once that it was sufficient.  That would be like saying to your spouse, “I told you I loved you when I married you, if that changes, I’ll let you know.”  Tell them again.  (Tell your spouse every day and even more.)  Keep an open flow of communication with your team.  As time passes, people forget.  And sometimes things change with the passage of time as well.  One simple example would be decisions may be made seasonally.  Where I work, the summer is the busy season, and January is typically much slower.  We may postpone a project to the slow season so that we have the time to put on it.  On the other hand, we may postpone something to another period where cash flow is better.  There are lots of reasons why things may happen; and if you’re not filling in the gaps for people, they will make up their own answers to fill them in themselves.

True over-communication is rarely a problem.  This is a similar concept to the experience of time for a public speaker.  When speaking in public, it is important to slow yourself down and to force yourself to take pauses that seem like an eternity to you, the speaker, but to your audience are very brief moments in time.  Your experience of the passage of time as the speaker is far different from your audience’s experience.  And your experience of the amount of communication you do as the leader is far different from your team’s experience.  They are thirsting for information…share it.

It’s amazing what can happen when you treat people like responsible, trustworthy adults.

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