Better Dialogue

This week during three separate coaching sessions, clients asked me how to be better at communicating. As I explored with each the ‘issue behind the issue’ it was clear the person felt he/she tended to jump into conversations in a rapid-fire, your turn/my turn manner.

“When we’re in meetings,” one said, “it’s as if the entire room is salivating in anticipation of a small sliver of an opening so someone else can speak. There’s never silence.”

I asked questions to help him find clarity about what his preferred style would be, and he realized the true desire is to not react poorly to something someone said. From his perspective, there is a tendency to say things abruptly that heighten the energy flowing around the room or in one-on-one discussions, then he regrets it afterward… and often has to circle back to conduct damage control.

There is a technique called ‘take a pause’ that I shared with him, and we did some role-playing so he could be comfortable with silence. The first time I asked him to remain silent for 10 seconds after I finished talking. I ran a stopwatch, and he was surprised to learn his first words came only six seconds later. We began to reduce the time expanse until he had a sense of the length of just a two-second moment of silence.

If you find yourself struggling with non-stop, rapid-fire conversations – or in meetings you’re chomping at the bit to get in a word edgewise, practice taking a pause. Not only will you have more peace inside, you’ll find your answers are more concise and appropriate. It’s amazing what a difference two seconds will make in your effectiveness.


Random Selection

The Jury Summons arrived three weeks ago… instructing me to be in the holding room before 9 a.m. today. Traffic during the commute was congestion-free, so I walked through the doors of an empty courthouse 45 minutes early. I had turned in one page of paperwork and read two chapters of a novel on my Kindle by 10 o’clock, when the clerk finally arranged us with instructions to ‘not get out of order.’ I convinced myself it was my juror number that placed me as the first to enter the courtroom and be seated – and not my punctuality.

The bailiff said, “All rise,” and the robed judge appeared from behind closed doors. After swearing in and a few minutes of instruction, he turned voir dire over to the opposing counsels. Thirty minutes later, the Honorable Tom Lawrence told each party to present its ‘strikes’ and soon called out the accepted jurors. Much to my surprise, he skipped past me and proceeded to name numbers two through five, followed by a couple of more strikes, before identifying the final two members of the five male and one female panel that is likely rendering judgment as I write this recap. A quick ‘thank you for your service’ and 18 people – all seemingly smiling brighter than a half hour earlier – quickly left the building.

On the drive back to my office, I thought about the Q&A that led to the half dozen selected to determine a gentleman’s fate. There weren’t any of those ‘I couldn’t possibly find someone guilty’ answers I heard some of the other six other times I experienced this process. The only question asked directly to me was by the defendant’s side. “I’m not trying to be funny or disrespectful, Mr. Handler, but what exactly is an executive business coach?” When I saw him quickly write something on my questionnaire during my response, it occurred to me that “I help business leaders focus on what they’re trying to achieve” probably wasn’t the right juror for someone accused of defaulting on a contract.

Jury duty is a privilege Americans are blessed to have… yet I don’t know anyone who reacts with a resounding ‘how lucky am I’ when he/she pulls a summons out of the mailbox. There are way too many things going on in our busy lives to take a day or two away from work and watch the wheels of justice slowly turn. Good idea – as long as it’s someone else serving. Then again, if I ever have the unfortunate experience of being party to a trial, I hope citizens fulfill their responsibility and show up at the designated time. I’d sure want someone like me on that jury.


Cold Shoulders

When you live in Texas and see news about snowstorms affecting other parts of the country, you think, “Glad that’s not us.” Until, of course, when the Super Bowl decides to come to DFW. Watching ESPN the past few days, folks across America could have been convinced the Lone Star State is frozen tundra during February. Even here in Houston – 270 miles to the south – they’re predicting several inches of snow over the next 24 hours.

It’s amazing how easily perceptions are embedded deeply in folk’s minds. In my coaching work with executives, I’ll interview a dozen people the client feels know him or her best, then share their quotes without attribution. Inevitably I’ll hear from the client, “That comment about me being condescending refers to one thing that happened a couple of years ago.” Yet there it is, a big enough issue to a team member that he felt the need to tell me about it during our 15-minute conversation.

While a single comment may or may not be relevant to a leader’s long-term success, understanding that supervisors, peers and direct reports have long memories is important. That quip you blurt out in a meeting that makes light of someone’s slip-up – the one everybody laughs at and you think is completely harmless – may have a lasting impact on your relationship with the object of your humor.

The snow in DFW will be forgotten once the NFL leaves town and temperatures rise; perceptions others hold of you aren’t so easily changed. So if your relationship with someone seems to be on ice, ask her what you did. If she tells you, apologize. Chances are it’s not too late to repair the misstep you don’t remember and warm up the chill in the air.


Lessons Learned – #3

What’s the third most important lesson I learned during 2010?

Big Oops II – During a leadership meeting I facilitated, someone asked how to overcome those times when what you say comes out wrong. I eloquently explained: “If you speak in public, you’ll slip on occasion. Apologize and move on.” Two hours later, another person asked how to confront a team member who gets upset easily. My response: “Begin by acknowledging the conversation could become emotional.” I immediately felt the energy drain from the room, which consisted of 28 women and four men. For the next half hour the discussion was ‘words a guy should never say to a woman.’ Of course, I apologized… several times. My face may have turned red, too.


Bountiful Feast

Yesterday during a phone coaching session with one of the franchising groups I facilitate (our monthly lunch-and-learn discussion), someone commented they’re awaiting the economic turnaround to occur before making a big decision about an opportunity for their business. This person suggested there is too much uncertainty right now to commit without knowing when things will get better. I responded they might want to consider ordering off that menu now in order to position themselves ahead of everyone else when a better day arrives.

You have to eliminate inertia to achieve results – in business or boiling water. While this is not the time to spend lavishly at five-star restaurants, it’s also important not to be paralyzed by fear and eat TV dinners. The objective, during high-flying times and periods of hunkering down, is to improve the bottom line. If you’re like most businesses, you’ve carved all the fat out of expenses. That means the only way to improve profitability is to increase sales, and with your customers in a similar dollar-menu mindset, you’re going to have to take market share from competitors in order to enjoy your desserts.

During economic expansion there’s room for everyone at the dinner table… and the feast is extravagant. Today, it’s a blue plate special… and there aren’t as many place settings. To ensure you don’t go away hungry, you need to be assertive and show up early while others are standing around waiting on an invitation. Eventually, everyone will be clamoring to get inside the most popular establishments; you’ll already be there dining on the delicious entrée.