Tips for Effective Communication, Tip Nine – Managing Tactics – Part Two

Space – In this case NOT the “Final Frontier” 

In my last post I explained my belief that tactics should not be looked on as barriers but instead as information.  Tactics let us know that another or others involved don’t share our objective – at least as it is currently defined or as they currently understand it.  Sometimes we expect tactics and presume that our interests are not in alignment with the other. A common example of this would be when we seek to purchase any big-ticket item for which the price is negotiable, such as when we buy a car.  In that situation, we know that it is safe to presume that our interest in buying a particular car for the cheapest possible price is at odds with the dealership’s interest to sell the same vehicle for the highest reasonable profit. But even this case do we not share the same overarching goal, to buy/sell the car?

In our routine workplace interactions, when we encounter a person using a tactic, it provides us with valuable information and lets us know that someone – often a person with whom we will have a continuing work relationship – does not support our objective, or is pursuing an objective of their own that they believe is at odds with ours.  But how do we even spot a “tactic” when someone attempts to use it “against” us?  Let’s continue our discussion of tactics and explore some of the common tactics, their use, and ways to neutralize or work around them.

Person in Question Mark

Image courtesy of Master isolated images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s topic is the use of space as a tactic.  The study of space as a tactic and subconscious use of space and its impact is called “proxemics.”  Using space as a tactic comes in many forms. Those of a certain age will remember the protracted negotiations about the shape of the negotiation table before the negotiators would even agree to meet in Paris to discuss ending the Vietnam Conflict. Using space as a tactic can be incredibly powerful!  Next time you do visit a car dealership, for example, study the showroom layout.  You may observe one of two models that dealers deploy in an effort to influence your willingness to linger and haggle over the price of the car. Either you will be placed at an overly small table in the middle of the showroom with absolutely no privacy, or you will be placed in a tiny cubby that is overcrowded and into which several additional sales people will cram – especially when they are trying to sell you an extended warranty or other high-profit margin add-ons.  The idea is to make you uncomfortable enough that it is more comfortable to agree to things that you really don’t need or want than it is to remain longer than necessary in the space.

Conflict

Invading personal space can be a clear sign of anger or aggression.

Another very powerful use of space is invading a person’s typical “personal space.”  The amount of personal space that is generally recognized as appropriate varies from culture to culture, but in most western cultures, people engaging in routine business discussions typically allow themselves about 3 feet from one another.  Watch this sometime when you ride an elevator.  Typically, if two people ride an elevator, they will stand on opposite sides and position themselves so that there is at least three feet between them. As the elevator fills up, what do people do?  They compensate, right?  How?  Watch people.  Observe their body posture.  Shoulders rise to narrow the person’s space demands. People will often align themselves to all face the same direction so that, even though they are forced to violate the three-foot rule, they minimize the impact by standing side by side.  Face to face encounters that violate the three-foot rule occur, basically under three circumstances.  Men who approach one another closely are typically in competitive conflict, such as the baseball umpire and team manager caught in an aggressive disagreement about a call. A woman who communicates with another in a close face-to-face encounter is typically sharing an intimate detail or secret with someone they know and trust.  Absent an argument situation, a man who approaches a woman in a close face-to-face encounter is either a “creep” or is a very trusted or intimate friend of the woman.

Although not always this overt, infringing on another's space without a clear invitation, is universally creepy or aggressive.

Although not always this overt, infringing on another’s space without a clear invitation, is universally creepy or aggressive.

So how is this a tactic? We know that when our space is invaded it makes us uncomfortable.  This can lead to compromises that do not reflect our best interest as we try to relieve the stress the space issue creates.  We also know that when we are already in a stressful or threatening or conflictual situation, our personal space requirements increase significantly.  So, if we are hosting a meeting where we want thoughtful dialogue and comfortable communication – especially on where there has already been conflict or disagreement – we may want to choose a cooler and larger space for the discussion. Even the color of the room can matter.

Which Seat will the boss take?

Which Seat will the boss take?
Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Even though this is an older workplace paradigm, you will sometimes still see space used in an effort to project power and authority.  In this day and age, where computers rule and, for the most part, paper is in declining use, who needs the big desk? The big desk is there to claim space. Space is power.  Now add backlighting and … snap!   …  You have more power! Now add chairs that position others at a lower level and … pow! … you have even more power?

Ultimately, we approach the question: “If I see these things being used in an effort to subvert my goal, what do I do?”  There are many answers and we will discuss many of these as we work through other tactics.  For now, let’s look at perhaps the most powerful tool available to you when you encounter this, or many other tactics. Remember this mantra: A tactic that is identified and confronted with the person deploying the tactic, is no longer a tactic. When the person knows you are on to them, the effectiveness of the tactic declines. So when space issues arise, think carefully about your choice of a meeting place or how you will manage personal space.  Sometimes a meeting in the boss’s office across his or her big desk is unavoidable.  However, as an alternative, when you can, how about a lunch meeting in neutral space where the power imbalances created by space are removed?  If you are uncomfortable in a room that is too small, say so!  At least then the other person knows that you know that there was an effort to use space as a tactic or they can claim their own innocence, too. If the communication is important, insist on parity or at least an appropriate environment.

BJM  January 10, 2014

© Bruce MacAllister, 2014, all rights reserved.

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Twelve Tips for Effective Communication Series: Tip Nine –

Part One: Manage Tactics When You Must – They have an important role and are important indicators of potential conflict!

So far, my posts on effective communication have focused on your responsibilities as a person seeking to influence someone else in your life who is important to you either because they hold positional authority, such as your boss, or they have something that you need – resources, collaboration, professional support, and the like.  But, sometimes we encounter situations where the other person whose support or cooperation we seek does not display model behavior and may actually actively seek to subvert your work toward your goal.

The reasons for the sort of behavior you encounter can be as varied as the Tactics1behaviors themselves. But there are some common underlying reasons that someone may not be as open to cooperation and collaboration as you might hope.  The fundamental underlying reason for non-cooperation invariably stems from lack of shared commitment to the goal you are seeking to achieve through your communication. Typically, the reasons for lack of commitment stem from one of the following:

  • Disagreement about the goal itself or conflicting goals
    • The other person may not agree that your goal is appropriate or in fact may be pursuing a conflicting goal;
    • Disagreement about the approach or particular method you want to use –
      • The other may believe that another approach will work better to achieve the same goal;
    • Disagreement about the facts that you believe support your position and approach –
      • The other person may believe that other facts govern the situation or that you are relying on bad information, or simply relying on facts that are less relevant than others that they believe should control the situation;
    • Conflicting values –
      • The other person does not buy in to your goal because they do not find it consistent with their own value system;
    • Style –
      • You may simply lack rapport with the other person because your approaches and interpersonal styles are so different.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, you may not be aware of a problem until in shows up as an issue in your relationship with the other person – often accompanied by some degree of conflict. By the time conflict has occurred, repairing the relationship and aligning your goals with that of the other person is much more difficult.

In my November 10, 2013 post on “Conflict Conscious Communication,” I explained the importance of developing communication skills that will help you avoid stumbling into conflict situations in the first place.  If we leave our differences with another unattended and there is, in fact, an underlying situation, conflict easily develops because you may feel unsupported or sabotaged, and the other person may feel disrespected, not listened to, and bulldozed.  Obviously, this combination can be volatile!

tactics 3So how do we spot these potential situations where are interests are not aligned with another whose support we need?  Over the years much has been written about “tactics,” typically in the context of business or sports competition, or in negotiation situations. All of these contexts presume that you must be prepared to compete and to deflect or otherwise manage tactics so that you can overcome the resistance of others, so that you can ultimately prevail.  On the other hand, over the years, I have come to look at “tactics” as valuable indicators and early warning signs that my particular interest, goal, or approach, is currently not viewed by another important individual, as consistent with their own. When a tactic is spotted early, it provides me with an important early warning indicator that allows me to regroup and revisit my alignment and congruence with the other involved. So, at least early on, I do not look tactics as barriers to be overcome, but rather as warning flags of issues to revisit and to address with the other person involved. Obviously, our interests are currently not aligned and are potentially in conflict, since the other finds a tactic unnecessary to avoid commitment and support.

So, how does one spot a tactic when it is deployed? This is a difficult question to answer because tactics show themselves in many different ways. Our next few blog posts will focus on tactics and approaches to neutralize them, and perhaps more importantly, how to learn more about the other person you are seeking to work with as a result of the tactics you observe.

Remember! Tactics are information!  They tell you much about the person who uses the tactic, so tactical awareness in you communications (TAC) is a valuable skill.  Next post, we will dive into some common tactics and discuss how to use them when someone tries to deploy them “against” you.

BJM    —   January 6, 2014

© Bruce J. MacAllister, 2014, all rights reserved.

Posted in General Activities and Topics | 4 Comments

Overview of 2013 Business Activities

activitiesIt seems natural at this time of year to look back at the challenges, results, and accomplishments from last year.  Every year about this time, I post a little update that outlines last year’s activities. So, in keeping with that tradition, here is a summary of last year – challenges, results, and accomplishments.

Last year, 2013, was challenging for the Bizex Team because a major focus of the Business Excellence Solutions business model has been working with large, federal agencies.  Since 2005, we have worked with many large federal agencies and with major federal contractors.  Since then, we have worked with the following major agencies and organizations, among others:

  • United States Center for Countermeasures, a branch of the Department of Defense;
  • National Nuclear Security Administration;
  • Department of Energy;
  • Department of Education;
  • Department of the Interior;
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs;
  • Bureau of Indian Education;
  • Desert Research Institute;
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory; and,
  • Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

Our most recent major federal agency work involved providing support to the United States Department of the Interior.  However, with the sequestration and subsequent government shutdown, federal work for us, as a small contractor, essentially dried up.  As a result, it is undeniable that our work volume was impacted last year and, as a small business, we had to hustle to build our portfolio around other types of organizations and businesses.  Fortunately, our business model has always involved an approach that sought a balanced client portfolio that included small and medium private for profit and non-profit organizations.  This year we have aggressively focused on rebuilding our portfolio and developing new relationships with small and medium-sized organizations.  Examples of these organizations include the Greater Albuquerque Association of Realtors®, and the International Foundation for Online Responsibility. In addition, we have placed added focus on our training programming and mediation services for the District Courts and for small organizations.

We have made solid progress this year in developing alternatives to reliance on federal contracting and we have been delighted to build new working relationships.   As we move into 2014, we look forward to our continued relationship serving as the Ombuds for the International Foundation for Online Responsibility and providing continuing professional education programming for mediators, realtors, attorneys, and others.

In the coming weeks, we will also be systematically revamping this website to update our services and to include interactive resources for managers and individuals who face professional communication challenges and who are seeking ideas for approaches. We hope that users will find the new website agile and adaptive, and easy to move through to find resources and answers.  I encourage everyone to contact us now, if they have suggestions to consider for the new website design!

Meanwhile, I want to thank all of our clients, blog posts readers, and website visitors for their time and support.  We look forward to a banner 2014 and wish each of you the same!

 Bruce MacAllister

January 3, 2014

Posted in Activities, Events, and Client Services, General Activities and Topics, Our Services, Recent Activities | Tagged | Leave a comment

Miss a Blog Post in 2013? Here is a list!

Summary of Blog Articles for 2013

This year we have worked to strike a healthy balance between providing flawless serviceFacilitation_web - Checklist to our clients while also keeping our blog post current and interesting.  In case you have missed some of our articles this year, here is a listing of the posts that we prepared for you during 2013:

Ten Axioms of Change Management, posted December 8, 2013

 Twelve Tips for Effective Communication:

Tip Eight – Appreciate the Power of Word Choice and Non Verbal Cues, posted November 15, 2013;

Tip Seven, Part 4, Consciously Managing the Sub-conscious, posted October 10, 2013;

Tip Seven, Part 3, Culture and Metaphor, posted October 4, 2013;

Tip Seven, Part 2, Bringing Your Communication Style into Congruence with Others, posted September 20, 2013;

Tip Seven, Part 1, Congruence in Communication, posted July 16, 2013;

Review of the First Six Tips on Effective Communication, posted March 18, 2013;

Tip Six, Study the Underlying Needs of the Other Person, posted March 9, 2013;

Thanks to Dad and All Veterans, posted November 11, 2013;

C3 – Conflict Conscious Communication, posted November 10, 2013;

Failure and Gridlock in Washington – Lessons in Negotiation We Can Learn from Congress and Its Failure; posted October 16, 2013;

Ten Tips for Facilitating Your Own Important Meetings; posted June 12, 2013;

Tips for Working with People in Conflict – Working Through Gaps in a Settlement Negotiation, posted May 14, 2013;

Demonstrating the Cost Benefits of Your ADR Program, posted April 27, 2013;

The Social Implications of Unhappy Lawyers, posted April 10, 2013;

Tips for Working With People in Conflict – Trees, a Mediation Lesson-Learned; posted March 13, 2013.

I’m excited about my upcoming post.  Slated for posting soon are the last three tips in my Tips for Effective Communication series, and a new thread on ombuds skills and issues and yet another new thread on leadership.  I want to thank everyone who has read my posts and especially those who shared their comments!  I encourage readers to post questions relating to conflict, leadership, mediation, ombudsman issues, or any communication challenge.  I will do my best to promptly post answers and suggestions in response.

Photoshopped Boo on Rose Street-2

Wishing all a great 2014!
— Bruce MacAllister

BJM

January 2, 2014

Posted in Communication Skills, General Activities and Topics, Our Services, Recent Activities | Leave a comment

Ten Axioms of Change Management

Ten Axioms of Change Management

In my work, it seems that organizations are encountering major change issues more and more frequently. In my work with organizations facing change issues, it seems that I am asked to work with change situations in two very different circumstances. Some organizations that are planning change such as those that are required by external drivers to rethink their operations, ask me to help them avoid change-related issues as a part of the planning process. In other situations, I am only asked to work with the organization once change-related conflict or lost productivity has occurred.  Sometimes the change implementation process has happened with minimal disruption and conflict. Other times, the change management process was so disruptive and challenging that it ultimately failed.  And finally, sometimes attempts to effect change ultimately led to catastrophic consequences, like the downfall and removal of the executive manager linked to the change initiative, law suits, and horrible publicity. I have seen change related conflict have serious impacts on the careers of even the most brilliant leaders. Recently, I have seen just this sort of “catastrophic outcome” where well-meaning change efforts backfired with all the dire results.

changeIn this post I share some lessons learned from my experiences working in and with a wide range of organizations – internally, and as a consultant – that sought to implement significant change initiatives.  Some of these initiatives failed miserably and others were highly successful. While working with these organizations during their change initiatives, I had the opportunity to observe the leaders involved, and to identify some of the factors that had a direct affect on the change implementation process.

Based on these lessons here are some axioms for leaders and groups contemplating or in the middle of change situations:

1.    Learn your new organization. As a new leader, before launching major change initiatives establish your own credibility and gain trust and acceptance with your management team and with the workforce at large. Smart change requires deep knowledge of the reasons why things are the way they currently are, and the ability to share reasoned arguments for the changes you desire. If you are unaware of complications or of unintended consequences that your team or your workers spot because their deep knowledge of the environment, your rationale for change will lose credibility and you risk building skepticism.

2.    Understand that there is a tribal psychology at play in every organization.  As a person who is new to the “tribe” you must give yourself time to settle in and to become a known rather than a threatening unknown. Unless there is some overwhelming directive or mandate for immediate change, allow yourself the opportunity to get to know the key individuals and to understand the current systems and why they exist as they do. Just because things are not done the way you have seen them done before does not necessarily guarantee that another way is better. Take the time necessary to understand the rationale for the current system.

3.    Guard against your OWN change resistance. As a leader who is new to the organization, remember that one size does not fit all. Just because something worked in the context of your former organization does not mean it is right for the current setting.  In fact, implementing processes familiar to you because you as a manager are comfortable with them may be an indication of your own change resistance. Taking the time to settle in allows you to gain familiarity and knowledge of the current systems while testing that you are not simply succumbing to your own form of change resistance.

4.    Understand that change resistance is actually natural and a healthy check to flippant changes. There are many legitimate drivers at play that can tend to appear to push back on change. Middle managers and non-management workers can change 4legitimately fear that changes will negatively affect performance, as workers have to learn new approaches and systems. They can, quite understandably, question whether the lost productivity will, in fact, only be short term.  In the near term, changing processes and systems invariably involves lost productivity.  This is often used as a justification to stay with the familiar and to ostensibly demonstrate that the “new” is actually less efficient.  It is typically easier to continue using even more complex systems and processes that are familiar, than it is to learn the new systems, and time is, indeed, lost in the transition.  One must be prepared to look at the larger return on investment, rather than near term metrics, but also to recognize that worker’s will fear that this lost productivity will be viewed as their deficiency, rather than a natural change-related workplace phenomenon. One must take steps to address those fears.

5.    Middle management can fear change for its own reasons. As a leader, you must be prepared to recognize that change is a great organizational equalizer in that, at its outset, it places middle managers and their subordinates on a more equal footing because neither is more familiar with the new processes. The managers involved, can find this threatening to their positional authority, and the workers they supervise can find it confusing because the normal knowledge flow of their leadership structure is temporarily disrupted.

6.    If not carefully communicated, change implementation can come across as blame. The current incumbents may easily “hear” the message in the change process as a reflection on their skills and abilities. If the processes that they have willingly and cheerfully engaged in for some time, are now subject changes because they are viewed as “deficient,” the existing workforce may, understandably, view the arguments for change as a direct reflection on their abilities and job acumen.  Asking the workforce to embrace change without sensitive communication can be viewed as asking them to acknowledge that the current systems are actually a reflection of the workforce’s own failure. Most dedicated workers do not want to be painted into that sort of corner and honestly want the organization to succeed.

7.    Even when adroitly administered, major change involves emotional processes for your workforce. Many change experts point to the similarities in the psychology of change (losing deeply familiar relationships and work culture) and the psychology of grief (losing an intimate relationship and a comfortable way of interacting). In a recent discussion of change on one of the professional websites, John Schultz, Program Director (retired) for the Madison Area Technical College, puts it this way:

“People confronted by altered circumstances frequently experience grief and will go through a distinct conversion process before taking on their new roles. The length of time at each stage varies depending on the situation, the type of support, and individual flexibility. Each segment has its own set of recognizable characteristics. Accepting and understanding these stages will provide an opportunity for the project team—as agents of improvement—to reduce resistance and move system improvements forward.”

Steps to change acceptance.

Steps to change acceptance. The step from blaming others to assuming responsibility can be a big step.

The graphic, right, shows my own model for change acceptance. There are very discernable phases to change acceptance. Even when individuals within an organization may have some vague awareness that change could help, there is a natural tendency to ignore the situation and to carry on, because that is was appears to be currently endorsed.  When confronted with the need for change, often people go in to a denial stage, which is frequently driven by the factors that I discussed above. If pressed to explain the reasons for the current approaches, people will often shrug and explain that the processes are simply the way it has always been – essentially blaming others for the status quo. It is only when an effective leader can engage the workforce and lead them to accept shared responsibility for the future directions, that everyone’s energies can be directed to active improvements and problem solving.

So, we have talked now at length about all the scary reasons to avoid change implementation.  Should we simply accept things the way they are?  Of course not!  Here are some axioms for leaders contemplating change initiatives.

1.    Take the time to build a change-accepting environment.  As a leader, it is important to acknowledge that the processes and approaches that are currently in place were, in fact, put in to place for rational reasons at the time.  Start first by inculcating a spirit of openness and an environment that fosters a spirit of continuous improvement that is driven from the desktop or technical bench up, rather than from the top down. Take the time to dialogue with the workforce. Discuss the current environment and seek deep understanding of the fears and concerns of the workforce and acknowledge those fears.

2.    Be clear on your vision for change and share it conceptually with your executive leadership and with workforce before seeking to implement specific measures. This allows your workforce to gain ownership of the approach and to align behind the conceptual course of change and you may find that individuals actually have better ideas for implementing specific change measures. Before implementing any change, the management leadership team needs to be fully aligned and understand the premises and overarching goals.  They must be prepared to communicate the vision to their middle managers and ensure that the first line worker understands the larger vision and goals, while not co-opting those workers’ abilities to develop custom solutions that meet the goals but are also based on deeply rooted experience in the specific workplace and may be a better match for its culture.

3.    At all costs, avoid the inference of blame, when communicating the need for change and be humble in your approach to articulating your vision.  People want to believe in the way they work and do not want to be “blamed for the way things are.” Change should be kept results- and systems-oriented and not directed at specific individuals, who may, understandably become defensive and resist the change measures. As a leader implementing change, you must be prepared to embrace the concept of being an empowering, servant-leader that provides the vision, basis, and support for your workforce to implement change. As a leader, you must be comfortable with letting go of “heroic” leadership attitudes and let the whole process and all its participants take its course while, at the same time, carefully shepherding the process to keep it on course.

4.    Identify your key stakeholders and those that can, if not on board, sabotage the process.  Be sure to take the time necessary to integrate the individual members of your governing board (if it exists), HR, legal, your organizational staff, and other top key staff and management functions into the vision and empower them with the responsibility to help the whole organization gain understanding.  Your board, key members of the community, HR, legal and others should be an allies and not impediments. As necessary, be sure to take the time to integrate their suggestions into the process.  Build ownership and momentum with people’s input and support.

5.    Make change and the temporary impacts of change “safe.”  In the near term, changing processes and systems takes time and can cause role and process cChange2onfusion. This is often used as a pushback justification to stay with the familiar and to ostensibly demonstrate that the “new” is actually less efficient.  It is typically easier to continue using even more complex systems and processes that are familiar, than it is to learn the new systems, and time is, indeed, lost in the transition.  As a leader, you must be prepared to look at the larger return on investment, rather than near term metrics and, most importantly, articulate, as a part of the change process, that short-term lost productivity and some role confusion is a natural phenomenon and no reflection the workers involved.

6.    Set attainable, reasonable milestones and celebrate them. At the outset, change is not liked by most.  However, “continuing process improvements” and “system simplifications” are generally readily accepted.  So much rests in the manner, scope and scale of the changes. As I discussed above, change can have unpredictable results. Therefore, absent other compelling drivers, it is safer to implement your change initiative in smaller increments. This enables easy mid-course corrections, and step-by-step validation (or calibration) of your vision and plan. It also allows your workforce to see the benefits of change and to feel a shared sense of accomplishment and progress. This builds ownership. Be sure to have metrics in place that focus the incremental improvements and highlight the successes of your workforce.

Aligning your workforce to prepare for change ownership.

Aligning your workforce to prepare for change ownership.

7.    An effectively implemented change process can be a unifying and empowering process for the workplace that builds team effectiveness and loyalty to its leadership. Change implementation is best from the ground up.  While leadership can instigate a change initiative through effective communication of vision and need, most successful change initiatives are ultimately driven from the worker up. Understand that it takes time to let others develop and own the new approaches.  The most important commodity for the leadership is vision around efficiency and the ability to convey it in a way that the workforce understands the vision, embraces it, and then works to realize it by implementing changes that the workers, themselves, develop. Give your employees the chance to get excited by the potential that they are lead to see.

change 38.    Be generous with sharing ownership of change. Whenever possible, let change be your workforce’s idea. Use your experience and expertise to ask the right questions of your key personnel, which will, in turn, lead these workers to their own ideas for change improvement. These ideas will very likely overlap with your own, provided you engage in the process of “guided enlightenment” of your key stakeholders regarding the reasons for change. And, if they don’t overlap, through the process of dialogue you may discover change approaches that are even better adapted to the particular setting. Always be open to your own learning and be open to influence throughout the process.

9.    Watch for risk-management land mines. While, for example, it might seem appealing to save cost through reducing the workforce, if, for example, the reduction inadvertently carries with it a disparate impact based on job titles, and type of work targeted for reduction, you may well spend as much time, resources, and energy defending your organization from a discrimination claim, as you may gain from the workforce reduction, not to mention the negative effects on your own professional reputation and that of the organization. Unless it is absolutely unavoidable, avoid linking change to downsizing! Change is about enhancing productivity.  If you press your workforce into the corner of feeling that its very survival is threatened (remember we all work to a hierarchy of needs), you risk encouraging sabotage of your change initiative. If downsizing is necessary, it can happen at a later point, when the efficiencies of change have already been gained.

10. Share the success of the changes implemented with your workforce.  After all, it is the workforce that has overcome its own resistance and suspicions and embraced the changes. By making your workforce the hero, you build loyalty and allegiance, and a zealous commitment to the new approaches and processes.

When thoughtfully implemented and carefully communicated, change initiatives need not pose a threat to any leader. Invariably, when I have witnessed failed change initiatives, it is because they were aggressively pushed off on the workers without consideration of the natural change-related phenomena. When these factors are appreciated and effectively approached and managed as a part of the change implementation plan, change can be a unifying process!

BJM

©Bruce J. MacAllister, December 2013, all rights reserved.

Posted in Communication Skills, Conflict Resolution, Decision Making, General Activities and Topics, Leadership, Our Services | Tagged | 1 Comment

Tips for Effective Communication – Tip Eight

Tip Eight – Appreciate the Power of Word Choice Combined with Non-Verbal Cues

By now it should be clear to those of you who have been following the posts on the Tips for Effective Communication, that effective communication involves more than just clear speaking.  As my posts to this topic have illustrated, effective communication is about effective connection.  Among the key things that we have discussed so far, effective communication involves having a goal for your communication, deeply listening to the others involved and gaining an understanding of their style. Once we understand what others find convenient in their communication, it involves employing approaches and techniques to bridge the gaps between others’ preferences and our own defaults. Typically, of course, our communications happen automatically and without conscious thought into the differences between our style and that of others.

Tip Eight reminds us that, when confronted with communication challenges or important opportunities, we have the chance bridge the gaps between our communication styles and approaches and build rapport – largely at a level that is subconscious to the others involved.  We do this by appreciating the power of our word choices – the pacing of our speech, the metaphors we use, and the conscious selection of auditory, visual or kinesthetic terms to build connections verbally.  Perhaps even more importantly, we also do this through non-verbal approaches.  We can very consciously manage our body language, distance to others, expressions, and eye movements to build deep sub-conscious connections.

Tip Eight really does not add new content to our tool bag of communication skills, but ireminder5t is just as important.  Tip Eight is the reminder not to slip into “Auto Mode” in our communications, unless and until super comfortable rapport and easy communication have been built.  Tip Eight reminds us, too, that we need to be continuously alert to the times when communication might slip and we might revert to approaches that cause our connection with the other to erode.

In my last communication post, I talked about C3 Communication (“Conflict Conscious Communication”) and the need to be sensitive in our communications to those things that may trigger conflict, and to avoid them in the first place, if possible, and to make early adjustments when necessary.  As effective communicators, our goal is to be continuously vigilant to communication challenges and to keep – at least in the back of our mind – awareness of the tools, skills, and approaches that will enable us to build and maintain our connection, using the skills and techniques that we have discussed so far.

BJM,

©Bruce J. MacAllister, November 14, 2013, all rights reserved.

Posted in Communication Skills, Conflict Conscious Communication, Listening | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

THANK YOU DAD AND THANKS TO ALL VETERANS!

2nd Lieutenant John MacAllister

2nd Lieutenant John MacAllister

Today, as many of us take the day to thank all of those who have served our country in the United States armed services, I find myself thinking of my late father and his fellow servicemen from the “Greatest Generation.”  Thank you, Dad!  My father, John MacAllister, was in the R.O.T.C. at the Colorado School of Mines, when America became embroiled in World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. Upon graduating from the Colorado School of Mines with a professional degree in geophysical engineering, my father was inducted as a Second Lieutenant into the 121st Combat Engineer Battalion, 29th Infantry Division of the United States Army. After a brief window of staging in Alexandria, Louisiana, he was parted from his new bride and was shipped to England.

While preparing for the D-Day Invasion, he was assigned to support duties after a disastrous outcome to a secret exercise called,  “Operation Tiger.”  Operation Tiger was a then top secret series of practice sessions for the impending invasion of France.  It would become one of the major disasters of the War, when fast-moving German E-boats intercepted a convoy of American “LST” vessels in the English Channel in Lyme Bay and decimated them, killing 749 Americans shortly before the real invasion was scheduled. (LSTs were ships capable of nosing up on a beach and landing tanks and other heavy equipment.) Because of the potentially devastating effect on Allied morale, the incident was subjected to a total news blackout and most Americans had little or no knowledge of the incident until years after the war. My fathers support duties involved retrieving the bodies of those killed from the channel and other measures to keep the disaster away from public view.  Because this operation was highly classified for many years after the war, it wasn’t until much later that my father could even mention the exercise, but it had a profound effect on him.

On D-Day, my father along with the rest of the 121st Engineers was assigned to the very first wave on Omaha Beach. Their assignment was to clear the beach obstacles so that the full invasion force could land.  In preparation for this responsibility, each engineer carried an 80-pound pack, 40 pounds of which was “C-4,” an early version of a plastic explosive.  My father was among the first men off the LST, which had nosed up on the beach in rough seas.  The German defenders began their defensive shelling of the ship.  The ship was struck by a shell, and the force of the impact pushed the ship off the beach.  My father and several other men were pulled back out into the water by the suction of the ship. The skipper managed to nose the craft in once again, but this time the ship – which I understand carried over 200 men – was hit directly in one of its fuel tanks and exploded.  In the chaos, nearly all of the men were killed, either by the explosion and ensuing fire, by drowning, or by German snipers.

Silver Star Citation

Official Citation for the Silver Star Metal

My father managed to survive the landing because he was already off of the ship and, luckily, he decided not to inflate his life belt.  He explained he felt that he was buoyant enough because he had wrapped the contents of his pack in oilcloth, which added some buoyancy. Not inflating his life belt kept him low in the water and he was less visible to the German snipers who were already actively picking off the survivors who had managed to wade ashore.  Once ashore he said that he repeated the mantra of his training, which was “get of the beach, men die on the beach.”  He scampered up the beach to a draw below the French village of Vierville-sur-Mer.  Within minutes, he was up the draw and sitting in the remnants of the village, which had been heavily shelled by Allied naval forces in preparation for the invasion.

Once in the village, my father said he really had no idea what to do, so he sat at an intersection waiting for others to arrive.  Amazingly, the first person to arrive was Brigadier General Norman Cota, along with his staff officer, and two other soldiers, who had landed further up the beach to the north. They met my father by walking south down the road above the beach bluff.  He greeted my father saying, “Good morning Lieutenant, where the hell’s the rest of the invading army?”  My father responded that he didn’t know.  General Cota noted the engineer corps castle insignia on my father’s collar and asked why the beach exit had not been cleared.  Again my father was without an aequate answer, and General Cota responded, “Well suppose you go and find out.”  My father began to leave to return to the beach, when the General told him to wait, and that he and the other men would come with him.

Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster

A second metal for bravery on “D-Day Plus One.”

The band of five men returned to Omaha Beach back down the Vierville Draw, which my father had scampered up minutes earlier.  Amazingly in the process, this small band captured German prisoners on their way back down the draw.  Once back down on the beach, my father was assigned to rally all surviving engineers and to clear the beach exit.  Of the multiple corps of engineers that landed on the beach that day, Dad said that there were only about twenty or so men that survived the landing in condition to help with the assignment.  They scavenged for explosives and equipment and cleared the way off the beach.  My father was always proud that he and the others had accomplished this critical role that enabled the allied forces to move forward off the beach.

Silver Star-Oak Leaf Cluster Field Citation

My Father and members of the 29th Infantry Division receiving field citations, Summer 1944.

As an engineer, my father remained in the front lines of the war from Normandy clear into the heart of Germany.  The day after D-Day, he came to the rescue of twenty-five men who were about to be trapped by a German counter attack.  His citation reads that “he braved a hail of enemy machine gun fire” to reach them and to guide them to safety.  In the process, he was shot.  He explained that he probably would have been killed but for the fortune of wearing a smoke grenade.  While he was shot and seriously wounded, a bullet hit the smoke grenade and knocked him down.  The grenade went off in the process, shrouding him in smoke.  This gave him the opportunity to gather his wits and quickly assess his injury and get on the move to safety.

Silver Star Rocky Mountain News

The Rocky Mountain News Article – Proud “Denverites”

As the allies moved across France, the 121st Engineers were always in front of the lines because they had to blast open hedgerows and build river crossings.  Once across the Rhine and into Germany, my father, along with a few others, was assigned the duty of blasting open German vaults and confiscating all the currency and gold of the Reich.  He had entertaining stories to tell about the trial and error method of learning how to become a bank robber for the Army, and figuring out the right amount of plastic explosives to use.

Throughout the war, my father was remarkably lucky.  He narrowly escaped death on countless occasions. The experience profoundly affected his thinking about life, and he came to believe that that one’s destiny is largely out of one’s control.  He carried this “fatalist” philosophy through his life – “when your number’s up, it’s up!”  He seemed to find this comforting in a strange way.

Captain John MacAllister, Bremen Germany April 1945

Now Captain John MacAllister, Bremen Germany, April 1945

As with most of the veterans of that era, my Dad never spoke much about the War, and it was not until his later years, that people were able to pry open his recollections.  He was always somber and withdrawn on D-Day anniversaries, but likewise, he was always proud too of what he and his brothers in arms accomplished for the world.   My father died in February of 2002.

Dad’s Omaha Beach experiences were described in part in Omaha Beach: D-Day June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski, 2004.  In Mr. Balkoski’s book, he titles a section Chapter 12 of his book, “Suppose You Go Find Out.” My father is also mentioned in the Steven Ambrose books on D-Day.

BJM, November 11, 2013

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C3 – Conflict Conscious Communication

C3 – Conflict Conscious Communication

For some time now, many of my blog posts have focused the features of effective communication. I’ve been systematically sharing “tips on improving your communication” when it involves an important issue or someone important to you, such as a boss or someone that you need to connect with positively.  This article is related to my tips and adds some additional context to why I have spent so much focus in my blog posts on communication to build rapport and to avoid conflict. This post will set the stage for my final several posts on Tips for Improving Your Communication.

ConflictThroughout my career, I have worked in conflict resolution in one form or another – starting with much more positional and competitive work as an attorney in the corporate litigation department of a  large law firm and gradually shifting to roles that involved less formality and more focus on conflict avoidance. Looking back on my career (to this point), I find that I have been drawn to increasingly informal processes. Admittedly, at points in the past, I found the formal, competitive, positional approaches to problem solving (such as active litigation work in a trial) exciting and stimulating, yet they were stressful and exhausting at the same time. And, although there have not always been clean breaks between career stages, generally my career progressed from formal to informal – litigator, to negotiator, to mediator, to ombudsman, and now, to organizational consultant. And yet, today, I find that there is still something missing.

I recently facilitated a two-day, advanced communication workshop for a professional association in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The participants seemed to really enjoy the program and the challenges of applying the latest brain and proven practical approaches to their work challenges.  I, too, had fun facilitating the program.  I say, “facilitating” rather than “instructing” or “teaching,” because I find that groups of seasoned professionals bring as much practical wisdom and experience to the program as I might as the single instructor. Thus, the programs are essentially workshops taught by the participants through the sharing processes and exercises as much as by me.

After the program, I reflected on “communication.” I pondered those things that make it effective and why it is important, and also why others seem to find it is important. As our society becomessocial stress increasingly interlinked and news travels faster – especially bad news, it seems that people crave more stability in their lives and in their connections. Yet, at the same time, the stress caused by the harried pace of our culture seems to prompt more violence and conflict. As a long-time professional in conflict resolution, I’ve concluded that a new paradigm for dealing with conflict is now required.

As an active member of the mediation and ombudsman communities, I read articles extolling the virtues of mediation and the ombudsman approach (along with other forms of informal resolution.) Yet, even as people in these professional communities extol the virtue of these models’ simplicity and informality, there is a drive to add more structure and formality to them. My business partner, Monique McKay, and I have shared perspectives about the state of the ADR (alternative dispute resolution) community, and our discussions have revealed that we both find something missing in today’s approaches options. As usual, my discussions with Monique helped me to gel my own thinking.

To me, all of the popular models of conflict resolution still require a person turn to an outsider when conflict builds to a point that we don’t feel that we can handle it. The ADR community devotes extensive energy to conflict resolutiontraining people in conflict response and yet it pays very little attention to teaching people skills to proactively connect with people to avoid conflict in the first place.  As a member of the ADR community, it seems to me that we have not focused on sharing the skills and knowledge relevant to empowering people to build better communication and conflict avoidance skills so that the chances of conflict are reduced and reliance on a third party is not required.  Essentially, I believe that what I am talking about in the conflict arena is the realization of  the concept of “teaching the person to fish, rather than giving them a fish.” If we focus on providing the skills to empower people to be more aware and capable of  achieving rapport and being sensitive to the common triggers of conflict, they will be more capable of avoiding conflict or, if it begins to surface, to making early adjustments in their communication so that it does not get out of hand.  If we are effective in this approach, we can reduce our reliance on third party involvement in our  issues with others.

With this in mind, through our organization and our training approaches we are launching a new thrust in conflict training and focus, which, for now at least, I am calling “Conflict Conscious Communication.”   Conflict Conscious Communication, or “C3” for short, involves the following attributes:

  • A keen awareness, respect, and appreciation of the communication and learning styles of the others with whom we have important conversations and interactions;
  • A sensitivity to the needs and interests of others with whom we work and communicate;
  • Applying the skills necessary to translate our communication styles into styles that bridge the differences in styles and approaches with the others with whom we are communicating;
  • A willingness to openly share our needs and expectations, while also affording others a fair and safe opportunity to do the same;
  • Committing to genuine and honest dialogue and an openness to being influenced by others with whom we interact;
  • The ability to suspend judgment of the other and to seek deep understanding of where they are coming from and the needs and interests they seek to protect or fulfill; and,
  • The confidence to share our own needs in a respectful-yet-appropriately assertive manner.

Effective Conflict Conscious Communication allows us to reduce the incidents of conflict in our lives; reducing stress and improving our overall effectiveness and welstress-free-300x258l being. When effectively practiced, it frees us from reliance on others to resolve our issues or help us resolve our issues – others whose skills may or may not be up to the task of unraveling the issues we create and who often introduce other variables into the situation. It allows us to build partnerships, trust, and relationships we might not even think about otherwise, and to openly seek to meet our needs and interests while respecting those of others.

I accept that we can never completely eliminate all conflict from our lives and there will undoubtedly still be plenty of occasions when we will need the help of a dispassionate third party. Professionals in dispute resolution need never fear that their roles will become entirely obsolete. However, empowering more conflict-aware communication and shifting the paradigm from one that focuses only on our own needs and communication style, I believe that we could make a significant difference. When we learn effective “C3”, it can allow us to maintain even more control over our personal destiny and greatly improve the flow of our lives.

BJM

 © Bruce J. MacAllister, November 2013, all rights reserved

Posted in Communication Skills, Conflict Conscious Communication, Conflict Resolution, General Activities and Topics, Mediation, Training Programs | Tagged | Leave a comment

Failure and Gridlock in Washington – Lessons in Negotiation We Can Learn From the Current Situation

Failure and Gridlock in Washington – Lessons in Negotiation We Can Learn From the Current Situation

As anyone who views our website’s home page will discover, our organization’s dedicated focus is on helping individuals and organizations thrive by helping to empower them to be more effective in communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution. The country is currently awash in commentary about our government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis situation, which is almost universally viewed as textbook example of a failure in governance.  But what does this situation have to do with a small consulting organization and its blog site?  I hope, as you read this post, that the connections become clear.

GridlockObviously, today’s political situation in Washington has very complex roots. Many argue that there are fundamental issues that have led us to this point of rancor and governmental gridlock. Some point to causes as far back as the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, which changed the process for electing United States Senators, from a process in which the individual state legislators chose their representatives to the upper house, to one where the general electorate chose them.  They argue that this Amendment, combined now with the added influence of money in elections, illustrated by the Supreme Court Ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission[1], has led to entrenched, single or narrow-focused interests, driving impasse in Washington.

us-supreme-court-building-frederic-kohli

United States Supreme Court

Others point to the oft-times bizarre and obviously highly-gerrymandered congressional districts that many states have created, which seem to enable individuals representing narrow interests to remain in their elected position, despite a more moderate general electorate, should the district be more inclusive and representative of the wider constituency.  Similarly, others point to the lack of term limits, which enables vested parties to retain a secure position, despite calls from their own constituencies for change.

John Adams

John Adams

Whatever the root causes, we now find ourselves at one of those points in American history where the actual ability of our national government to function at all is in question.  In fairness, this is not a situation that is unique to our own generations.  Our national government has approached gridlock, at times, dating back to the presidency of John Adams, and our founding fathers, being inherently distrustful of a powerful centralized government, intentionally designed our system to be decentralized between the state and federal governments, between the three branches of government (judicial, legislative, and executive), and between the two houses of congress – The House and the Senate. The situation is now so bad, that some[2]have even called for unilateral action by the President to raise the debt ceiling. They claim a basis in several provisions of the Constitution.  However, many would argue that unilateral action would be in violation of the separation of powers and, clearly, there would be ramifications that would occupy Constitutional scholars for decades to come.

The United States Capitol

The United States Capitol

Thus, our system is inherently and deeply rooted in the principal that governance should not be easy and subject to the potential abuses inherent to overly centralized power.  In our system, the various, decentralized branches of government must work together and overcome designed-in inertia, to enact laws and to govern. This is where the lessons in negotiation come in.

A system such as ours, which is inherently decentralized, also inherently requires communication and negotiation in order to govern – that is to get anything done. While, in recent weeks, we have seen a flurry of communication coming out of Washington, with Senate and House members of both parties railing and expressing their frustrations about the “other guy” the “other party” or the other “group of crazies,” what we have not seen (until possibly the last few days) is much communication between these groups.

Governance in our system inherently requires communication, and for the communication to result in anything, this communication, inherently involves a negotiation process.  Negotiation cannot occur without communication.  For years, I have taught negotiation training programs that involve exercises that illustrate how situations can be completely log-jammed until communication is allowed.

The White House

The White House

In any negotiation situation, one of the first questions the parties must ask themselves is “Is there any reason to engage in discussions with the other party or parties?”  So, for example, if you are not interested in buying a new TV or selling your vintage car, there is no reason to spend time engaging in discussions, where your interest and the interest of the others are entirely different.  But, in the case of governing a nation, this simply is not so.  In this case all parties share a common interest in the welfare of the nation and its common good.  The health of the national economy and the common good that flows from a stable, predictable, rational, and solvent government is clearly a shared interest of everyone in every branch of the federal system of national government.

So, how do the principals of sound negotiation apply in this case?  Well, let’s see … While it is perfectly legitimate for all parties to zealously press for their position, whether that position is to relegate the Affordable Healthcare Act to the junk heap of history, or to not reopen legislation that has been duly passed by the Legislature, signed by the Executive, and tested by the Supreme Court, to govern means to engage.  So, when one takes the position that they will not engage because one does not like the opening position of the other side, it essentially guarantees no progress until dialogue is somehow forced upon them. Today, dialogue is forced by the severe consequences of no dialogue, and we now find the national government negotiating in a “brinksmanship” context, where stop-gap measures are much more likely and meaningful long-term outcomes are far less likely.

Munich Agrement (29/9/39) : Hitler and Chamberlain after signing

Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, Munich 1938

So, how could this have been different without either side compromising its own deeply-held beliefs? I assert that dialogue, in itself, never compromises beliefs.  I suspect some of the skeptics among you would point to examples of dialogues that have become in themselves a metaphor for appeasement.  One might point to historical situations, such as Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in 1938. But let us not confuse engaging in dialogue and opening negotiations with bad outcomes in a negotiation.  The quality of the outcomes in a negotiation is dictated by negotiating skill, not by avoiding negotiation.  Avoiding negotiation does lead to outcomes, but more typically these are  outcomes over which the parties have less control and a lower ability to predict.

In the current situation, refusing to open discussions unavoidably took alternatives out of play.  Professional negotiators categorize two types of negotiation.  The first type, know as distributive negotiation, focuses on negotiating over one item, such as the sales price of house or of a car.  The focus is on a single commodity – currency or how many of something in exchange for something else.  More for one, equates to less for the other, depending on the skill used in and outcome of the negotiation. The second form of negotiation is known as integrative negotiation. In this type of negotiation, the parties put several things on the table and can then work to help one another meet their interests by using alternatives to what may have been initially suggested. This form of negotiation inherently requires dialogue and a deeper understanding of what the others involved see as their overall goals. Giving more of something of value to the other is typically offset by the other receiving something else of value in exchange.

While our current national situation has been cast by many as the federal budget and now the debt ceiling held hostage for changes to elimination of “Obamacare,” it didn’t need to stay that way.  There are interests behind each position and, yes, some of those are viewed as sacred, but the approach to meeting those interests are invariably open for exploration. I am convinced that if the principals engaged in a deeper exploration into the interests of even the most extreme segments of Congress, they would find overlapping interests among the parties.

Let me give you some likely examples. While, the Affordable Healthcare Act may be held by many as a sacred “done-deal,” is it not in the interest of all Americans to see that this complex new law is implemented efficiently and with minimal unintended consequences to small businesses, insurance companies, and the American Public in general?  If one explores why even the most zealous opponents rail against “Obamacare,” there are underlying interests. These interests range from protecting small businesses to defending the American public from perceived erosions in our government structure and creeping socialism and entitlement growth. Likewise, if one examines the President’s rationale for refusing to even engage in discussion about the Affordable Healthcare Act, one can see among other things a strongly-held interest in protecting the Executive Branch of government from allowing Congress to use the budget process to try to leverage changes to acts of Congress that are already the law of the land, as approved by the majority of Congress.

I believe that when people look at the underlying interest of both sides they see merit to possible discussions and ripe possibilities to meet all of the interests identified.  We can see what refusing to engage yields – not talking to the “hostage-takers” has led us to the brink of a national financial disaster, which has already cost the American people billions in lost productivity and adverse consequences for businesses large and small. Should impasse lead to a national default, this will cost the American public trillions of dollars in interest alone – expenses to the people for which they receive absolutely no benefit or services. The value of government efficiency and costs management are issues that both parties claim to hold as important, yet their behavior in refusing to negotiate effectively dishonors these interest.

dialogueTalking does not mean yielding, it means expanding.  It means exploring other avenues to achieve the same goals.  If, for example, the fear is that the Affordable Healthcare Act will lead to unintended, adverse consequences, isn’t it in both parties interests to identify and address them? Why not reach agreements on approaches to identify possible consequences and be open to later adjustments to the Act?  How will we achieve anything unless we implement and then adjust once actual issues appear, rather than speculative concerns? Likewise, if the concern is containing cost relative to entitlement programs, how does driving one party completely away from the table achieve that?  Will it not be more productive to engage and explore the ways that a rational, sustainable and balanced federal budget can be achieved?

I am myself a small businessperson.  Since establishing my firm, my business model relied heavily on my experience and expertise working with large, complex organizations, such as federal agencies and national laboratories. I always believed that this business model had advantages.  After all, the federal government would always pay my invoices, right?  Now that business model is called into question.  The national sequestration and the federal shutdown have destroyed any confidence I held in that approach.  That is ok.  Small businesses must be inherently agile and adaptive.  That is the beauty of free enterprise.  However, even if we avoid falling over the brink of a federal debt-ceiling disaster, I suspect that I will not be alone in my mistrust of a business model that puts its unquestioning faith in the stability of our national government. Who would have ever imagined that this would have been the case? To a large degree the damage to our national reputation is done, domestically and abroad.

So to me, the lesson is that it is never a weakness to engage. It is only a weakness to fail to deeply understand and protect your own interest in the process and, if we fail to protect our greater shared interests out of small-minded zeal for a narrow issue, can we claim that as success?

BJM

© Bruce J. MacAllister, 2013, all rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced in any manner without express consent of the author.


[1]Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission[1], 558 U.S. 310 (2010), is a US constitutional law case, in which the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions. The conservative lobbying group Citizens United wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton and to advertise the film during television broadcasts in apparent violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as the McCain–Feingold Act or “BCRA”).[2] In a 5–4 decision, the Court held that portions of BCRA §203 violated the First Amendment.” Synopsis quoted from Wikipedia.

Posted in Communication Skills, Conflict Resolution, Decision Making, General Activities and Topics, Leadership, Listening | Tagged | 7 Comments

Beyond Metaphor: Consciously Managing the Subconscious

Beyond Conscious Metaphor

For the last several months we have been discussing tips for improving your effectiveness for important communications.  My March 18, 2013 post reviewed the first six of my twelve “tips” for effective communication.  Since that time, among other posts, I have posted three additional tips on my seventh, and perhaps most comprehensive tip about “seeking congruence” when you communicate with others. My previous posts on congruence have focused on mirroring body language, and choosing relatable metaphors, depending on the experience of the person or group with whom you are communicating. This post addresses the final aspects of Tip Seven, which focuses on appreciating word choice at the deepest possible levels – levels, which may be entirely subconscious to your listener.  This discussion will then move us into Tip Eight: Appreciating the power of word choice combined with non-verbal considerations for your communication.

Our discussions of congruence have focused on different levels:

  • Assessing and subtly matching your listener’s body language, such as posture, vocal pace, facial expressions, to connect with them then using body language to pace with the other person, and ultimately using body language to lead a person to a desired state of comfort where those in the conversation are all comfortable with the setting and the connection;
  • Making conscious choices about our analogies, and metaphors. We must remember that the words we use to “frame” the issue have an impact on how others will view things and how readily they will connect with you. So, using a sports metaphor with a group of athletes may be a better choice than using cooking metaphors.
  • Appreciating that framing and metaphor choices are typically highly culture and subculture-linked.  So we must use caution when we choose idiomatic expressions that not everyone may relate to.

This post takes our discussion beyond the sort of culture-linked areas we have discussedVacation 2 so far, and deeper into the most sophisticated aspects of congruent communication with others.  Let’s start our discussion with a quick and simple question. Think about your last vacation.  What stands out to you most? For example it might be the beautiful sunset you saw looking out over the ocean in Malibu, or it could be the sound of marimbas wafting up the beach during your last Caribbean trip, or, perhaps it was something as simple as a delicious meal or the closeness you felt visiting a close family member.  Take a moment and write down in just two or three words what stood out the most.

When you think about it, most humans perceive their surroundings through fairly limited channels. Absent a disability, most of us gain information about everything through three principal channels: we see things, we hear things, and we feel things.  Seeing and hearing are fairly self-evident senses. Feeling things includes our tactical senses – for example what we feel when we touch something or something comes in contact with us, things we taste, things we smell, and our feelings when we process something emotionally, such as fear, love, mistrust, anger, and other emotional responses to our interactions with our environment.

Again, absent a disability, all of us use all of our senses in our communications. We watch for non-verbal information, we listen to the words and sounds, and we often convey emotional information using touch itself or a metaphor or compelling story in our conversation. However, each of us tends to have a predominant or preferred style for communicating. This style is often apparent to us only if we think about it.  And, it may be apparent to others if they are sensitive to the queues that show our subconscious preference.  Let’s take, as an example, how we might politely express disagreement with another in a conversation. We might say, “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t look right to me,” or we might say, “ … that doesn’t sound right to me … “ or we could just as easily say “ … that doesn’t feel right.”  When you think about it, there are often three ways to convey agreement or disagreement or to ask for it.  For example, “Do you see what I am saying?” … “Do you hear what I am saying?” … “Do you feel the same way about this?”

At this level of subconscious word choice, our language is full of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (a fancy word for feeling-linked) metaphors.  We might start a conversation with something like “Picture, if you will a world where …” or we might say something like “I can hear cheering in the streets, if this happens …” or it might be a purely feeling linked statement like “There is no feeling like freedom!”  All of us use various word choices at this level and they are typically a mix of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic.  But, regardless of the choices, most of us weight our choice of these subconscious metaphors to one category over the other two categories, and we find it easier to relate to metaphors in that particular category.

So, now think back to how you answered my question about your last vacation.  Did you sum up your experience using a visual metaphor, such as the “beautiful view” or something similar that relies on visual processing? Or, did you recall a sound, such as a particular song? Or was it more of an emotion or feeling-linked response, like the “feeling of closeness with my family” or something similar?  This is certainly not a conclusive test, but it may tell you something about your own preference. We’ll discuss more clues later in this post.

eyes 3I myself am a highly “visual” person.  All things being equal, I tend to use visual word choices and visual imagery when I communicate. When I prepare presentations, or someone is sharing information with me, I like my information packaged visually.  If I need to know the breakdown of the cases, or something similar, I find it easier to process that information visually through, for example, a nice, clear pie chart or some other graphic that captures all of the information.

Other people are sound-focused. They are comfortable learning about things by listening to the speaker, or hearing the particular sound that they want.  For auditory people, charts and graphs leave them feeling that something is missing.  People who are less “visual” and more “auditory” often prefer to see the information in tables or lists.  They need an added closeness to the information beyond a graphic.  Data in any form often leave the highly “kinesthetic” person cold. (Note the kinesthetic metaphor just used in that description!) What helps them process the information is the “story.”  How does this affect people? What is the impact?  Is it fair? Is it unjust?  Does a change need to happen to prevent this from happening even once?

As a former professional ski instructor, we were conscious of these different learning styles.  Often we would approach teaching the same technique using three different approaches.  So, when teaching a student to start using their edges more distinctly at an intermediate level, we might do the same exercise, but one time ask the students to make this particular shape in the snow (which required using edges), or to make your skis make “this” sound (requiring the same use of edges) or finally just asking the students to “do this” while showing them how to move their body so that they would feel the skis grip the snow, using their edges the same way.

At this point, you might ask, “Alright, this all sounds well and good, but it’s hard enough to figure out my own default preferences.  How can I possibly know another person’s?”  There are a number of clues you can watch for to confirm to yourself what your own processing style preferences may be and to help you guess what another’s processing style preferences are likely to be.  A big clue lies in a person’s eye movements during their responses.  However, the science of “occulasics,” as it called, is very complex – too complex to address in this post.  Other clues are more obvious.  Look for these clues:

Word choice what sort of metaphors does the speaker seem to prefer when making general comments?  Does he or she fairly consistently use visual terms, like “the way I see it …” or does the person choose auditory or kinesthetic references, as described above?

Speech patterns and pace – does the person speak quickly and, along with a lot of visual references, does their speaking style include a lot of vocal inflection (ups and downs)?  Are the gestures that accompany his or her dialogue, fairly large, sweeping, and mostly at eye level, as if the person were drawing a picture as they speak?  Are they quick to draw diagrams? Likely they are a visual person.

Intense ListeningDoes the person speak in a more mono-tonal style with less inflection and a somewhat slower pace?  Do they tend to use tighter, more subtle gestures that mainly occur at their chest to belt level?  Do they prefer to display information in tables or columns? Do they fairly consistently use auditory metaphors, such as “the thing that made it click for me was …” If so, they find it comfortable to work in the auditory realm of communication.

Finally, does the person speak very slowly and deliberately?  Is there conversation punctuated with frequent pauses while they appear to search for just the right word?  Are their gestures very close, sometimes almost as if they are hugging themselves, or clutching their stomach?  If so, they may prefer a more kinesthetic style of communication.

It’s very important to remember that all of us use each style, depending on the circumstances.  So, for example, if you ask a person to recall a very stressful topic, such as the death of a loved one, or how they felt after an unwelcomed sexual encounter, virtuallyhugging core everyone will respond with a kinesthetic response. So getting to know the person and their style over a window of time before jumping to conclusions is very appropriate.

Finally, why does this matter?  Let me speak to this from personal experience. At one point in my career long ago, I was responsible for managing a large employee relations function.  In this role I was responsible for reviewing case trends and making recommendations to senior management to address policy gaps or to address problem patterns in management. As a highly visual person, I made the mistake of presuming that packaging the information with graphs and supporting statistics, would convince my manager of the need for the changes I recommended.  To my dismay, I found after repeated encounters, that my reports left my manager completely cold and not motivated to make any changes.  Only when I figured out, that my manager was an extremely kinesthetic processor, did I figure out that I had to completely change my approach.  Instead of charts and graphs and statistics, I had to come in with stories that compellingly illustrated the unfairness of the behavior or the unfairness of the unintended consequences of a policy glitch.

As my career has progressed, I have worked with clients and executives who each have demonstrated a different preference in how to receive information for important decisions.  One person was even more visual than I.  Big picture charts and graphs worked well and our communications, on that level, were always easy.  Another was strongly auditory, and I found that, rather than packaging the data in graphics, if I took the same basic information to him columns and tables (in other words the data I would have used to populate my charts), he was much more comfortable.

Over my career, I have found that the time invested in pausing to figure out the most congruent way to share my thoughts and information with another in an important communication, pays great dividends in terms of building rapport and easy communication with that person.  Of course, it is not just selecting a particular processing style approach, but a much broader approach to bringing congruence to our communications.  This typically includes carefully and subtly managing my body language, my conscious metaphor choices, and my weighting of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic approaches to information sharing.  The four posts on congruence in this blog stream only skim the surface with regard to the large topic of congruence.  Congruence in communication can also involve many other things:  how we dress, our body shape, how we use space and touch, and we work with the other person’s sense of time and values.

Congruence in our relationships typically happens without thinking – it is automatic and subconscious. So, we don’t often pause to consider just what it is in this particular relationship that makes it rewarding and easy.  Perhaps our largest challenge in area is when we find that a particular relationship is just not working comfortably.  Why?   This is the time when you may have a good opportunity to stand back and look at things like framing, word choice, metaphor selection, and auditory/visual/kinesthetic communication congruence or gaps.  This is a challenging area, and I hope that these posts provide at least a starting point for those of you who may be struggling with building rapport in an important relationship.

My next post will focus on managing gaps in style and a little more on word choice as we cover the next to tips on effective communication.

© Bruce J. MacAllister, October 2013, all rights reserved.

Posted in Communication Skills, Conflict Resolution, General Activities and Topics, Listening | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments