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Monday, July 30, 2012

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

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

Monday, July 23, 2012

Betty Parker's Rules of Electronic Engagement

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

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

Monday, July 16, 2012

Responding Responsibly

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

Monday, July 9, 2012

Direct--Not Rude

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

Monday, July 2, 2012

WTF! The Impact of Profanity in Communications

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