by Jennifer Cross
Jennifer Cross recently completed Seth Godin’s altMBA program and had a profound realization about the role perfection has played in her life. If you are one of the thousands that struggle with the ideal of perfection, then this is for you.
Good communication is a two-way street. It involves giving another person your full attention and listening to what they are saying. Leaning in with your eyes focused on them, using positive and open body language, and with your ears trained to really hear what they are saying. Great communicators take it a step further and reflect on what has been said, and then ask good follow-up questions to deepen the conversation and the connection, rather than spitting out a quick reply or opinion.
It’s really a lost art in today’s society. We listen to sound-bytes over stories; carefully scripted and polished narrative over complicated, real-life content. We gravitate toward engagement that is comfortable, familiar, validating and safe over things that make us really think deeply and challenge our worldviews. Attention spans have never been shorter.
We’ve all experienced talking with another person while their eyes never leave their computer screen or cell phone, and we are answered with vague “uh-huh’s”. It’s dispiriting.
We are a culture that is bombarded by noise from all sides at all times. We live in a loud, bright, busy world that is always moving. Whether it’s the media, the requirements of our different roles and responsibilities, or the endless demands on our time, we are constantly pulled in a hundred different directions. It’s hard to find silence and peace.
Our organizations and workplace relationships suffer the same challenges.
So how did we get here?
Well in 2016 when we say “media”, we aren’t just talking about 3 major television networks anymore. There is traditional television, which has exploded into hundreds of channels of programming. Radio has grown to include hundreds of satellite stations broadcast from all over the globe. Print media — while on the decline — is still abundant with newspapers and magazines, books and professional journals for every discipline and interest. Social media, podcasts, YouTube, vlogs and blogs are some of the newer accompaniments to the mix. And then we have phones, texting, direct messages and Slack channels.
What is unfortunate is that the majority of them seem to be trolling for the most egregious moments of the day and amplifying them, rather than providing value.
This is not communication — this is noise — and there are distinctions that can not be overstated.
Genuine communication in the traditional sense shares, informs, listens, connects and grows something. It’s truthful. It has the ability to disagree, with respect for the differences in worldview and experience. It’s authentic and requires vulnerability. It allows for reflection and continuation — we can start a conversation today and not end it immediately. It’s collaborative and other-person oriented— Covey called it “win-win”. That doesn’t mean that everything ends in a tie, but rather when I concede that you are right and I am wrong my dignity is still intact and I’ve learned a new way of looking at the world — even if I still disagree with it.
But we’ve become a culture of unabating noise and that has no value. Noise competes, shouts, judges, and makes it hard to think, pause or reflect. Much of the noise lowers the level of discourse. Tell me a time when blaming and swearing at someone ever made a positive difference.
Our organizations amplify this societal issue. 20 years ago if you wanted to communicate with a colleague you stopped in their office, went to a meeting or picked up the phone. Today there are still phone calls and incessant meetings, but we’ve added in email and requests through collaborative platforms like Google Suite, Basecamp and Trello. The volume is overwhelming.
So how do we minimize the noise and reframe the importance of Communication of Value? Here are some things that work for me.
I try to not schedule my days with unending meetings and appointments. When I do have a lot, I ask myself questions after each one ends and before the next begins so I can capture the essence of that experience before it gets buried under a mountain of additional information. I jot down notes and action items that require my follow through. If I’m in a meeting that goes badly, I consciously try to not take that baggage into my next meeting.
I give my colleagues the attention they deserve. Their jobs are stressful and unmanageable too. I find we when both/all focus and are intentional about our communication, we get more accomplished in less time, and with a better end result. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, regardless of our pay grades so their time is as valuable as my own. When we meet they have my full attention, and if I can’t give it to them we meet at another time.
Occasionally I close the physical door to my office when I am working on something that requires my full attention. I also sign out of my email and send my phone to voicemail. Colleagues know they can always access me in an emergency, but they have redefined what is truly and emergency and what would have been a needless interruption. We’ve all become better communicators and more productive by establishing some boundaries.
Personally, I’ve also made some changes that have enhanced my communication with friends and family. I have almost completely shut the door on television. Staying informed and educated is vitally important, but its damaging to the soul to see people dying on live TV night after night.
When I walk my dogs I used to listen to podcasts or digital books — feeling like there were never enough hours in the day to consume all of the ones I wanted to hear. Now I call my parents instead. When they are gone I can listen to all of the podcasts I want to — that’s the beauty of the internet: it will ALWAYS be available. It’s been a good reminder for me about what is important NOW.
I turn the radio off in the car and put my cellphone away. Now I simply listen to my children and their friends chatter among themselves. Sometimes we just ride in silence. That’s okay because I am PRESENT, and being present has sparked some great conversations that they have initiated because I wasn’t busy doing something else.
I’ve let go of my assumptions that “I need to read this.” or “I have to listen to that.” by prioritizing. I also have adopted the belief that if I am meant to see/hear/watch it, the universe will let me know that it’s important. If that doesn’t happen, then I’m not missing anything. It’s been a liberating perspective for my type A personality to embrace.
Engagement takes time. Before you say that you don’t have time to redefine the role of communication in your life, think about whether you can afford not to? How is that Walking Dead episode helping you become a better person, colleague, husband, son or father? I’m not saying banish all fun from your life, rather take some time to carefully examine how you are spending your valuable minutes communicating with other people.
So now it’s your turn. It’s time to evaluate your communication and create a plan to reduce the noise and increase engagement going forward. How would you rate your communication abilities? Are you present or distracted? Do you spend your whole day multitasking? Do you take time to reflect or are you always rushed? Are you open to hearing the opinions of others or too busy defending your own ideology to learn something new?
To borrow from another often used axiom, no one ever said on their deathbed, “Boy — I wish I’d listened to a few more podcasts.” Call your best friend from college. Go to lunch with a colleague instead of surfing facebook while eating at your desk. Talk to a stranger. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll be making the world a better place.
I picked on podcasts a little — they are an easy target as everyone has one and they are the new, shiny object. It’s another form of content available and there are many out there that are quite good. Just be selective and change them up occasionally — as you should with all other forms of media.