Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Need to Adjust

One of the fun debates to have is over who was the best hitter of all time in baseball. One reason it is fun - at least to me - is that a person can make a good argument for a number of players. But no matter who deserves that accolade, without question one player who deserves strong consideration is Ted Williams. His lifetime batting average was over .340, he hit over 500 home runs in his career, and he remains the last player to average over .400 in one season. Williams did all this despite the fact over four years of his prime playing years were lost when he was drafted into the military for both World War 11 and the Korean conflict.

Williams was such a strong hitter that other teams initiated what came to be called "the Williams shift" to make it harder for him to get a hit. A left-handed batter, Williams had difficulty hitting to the opposite field. Consequently, almost all of his focus was hitting the ball hard and invariably to the right side of the field. The shift constituted players shifting over to that side of the field because they knew Williams was not going to try and hit the ball anywhere else. As good as he was, Williams was stubborn. As a matter of pride, he refused to adjust to this changing circumstance. Later, looking back on his career, Williams estimated his failure to adjust took 20 points off his lifetime batting average.

One of the key elements to effective communication is being able to do what Williams did not. As great as he was, Williams could have been greater had he been able or willing to adjust. Circumstances for all of us change almost on a daily basis. We have to talk loud or soft. The person we are with is distracted so we have to connect in a way that regains their attention. What we trying to say is not understandable so we have to figure out a way to re-state our message. Examples of how and why we need to adjust in our communication efforts abound. Yes, Williams did well. But think how much better he could have been. What about us as communicators?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Not Natural

Communication is natural. Effective communication is not. Hearing is natural. Listening is not. So, given that, where does that leaves any of us when it comes to maintaining ties with others? Isn't establishing a two-way connection with another supposed to be what we do? The simple answer, of course, is "yes." Humans are social creatures that are driven each day to connect with others. We need the touch, sound, feedback of others to help provide us with helpful information, affirmation, and even some sort of pleasure. Communication at its basic, including hearing, help do that but only to a certain degree.

To get more, that is, to gain a deeper sense of gratification requires a deeper level of out-reach. Yes, we can express our feelings to another, but without some sort of response, then where does that expression leave us? More to the point, where does it leave us when it comes to establishing a connection with another? The answer to that question is "not far." Such a one-way exchange is unfulfilling to both the sender of a message and the receiver of it. To improve upon that or, at least, avoid it is where the hard work comes in. This means doing more than simply putting forth a message that another can hear.

To communicate effectively requires taking the time and conducting the research to properly craft a message that another does more than hear. The proper work results in a message that is understood, engaging and trusted. It is a message that triggers a genuine response. And when that response occurs, active listening comes into play so the originator of the message can and does truly appreciate how well received what they put forth was. Such a basic exchange is not nearly as easy as it may appear. It requires commitment and commitment requires - say it with me - hard work.let us be honest, doing the unnatural is never all that easy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


No doubt this sounds like the lead-in to a bad joke. In my defense, it is true. I was sitting in a meeting at work the other day when the earth moved. Our building rocked back and forth for a few seconds. Fortunately, the movement was gentle and lasted only a few seconds. No damage was done and, generally, people carried on with the rest of their day without any other disruptions. Some folks, I learned, were not even aware of what just happened. Still, it turns out, the earthquake registered 5.5 on the Richter Scale. Where I am currently located is in a growing community called Songdo, located just outside of Incheon in South Korea. 

The people with whom I was meeting noticed what was going on right away. Our conversation came to an abrupt halt as we looked around us and then moved out into the hallway to check on others and to see what we might be able to find out as to what had happened. When the unexpected or unanticipated occurs, information is vital. What happened yesterday served as a perfect example. People want to know. More importantly, people need to know. In our case, the tremors were slight and brief, so those affected did not need much coaxing to carry on with their normal activities. At the same time, they were able to do so with confidence because they were provided information in a timely manner.

When life suddenly takes a sharp turn, people can easily be knocked off-balance. Depending upon the intensity or gravity of the change, not everyone reacts all that well. Panic and even violence can even ensue. What minimizes the chances of that happening is information put forth in a timely and easily-comprehensible way. Communicating with sensitivity and clarity is the key. Ideally, professional communicators on-hand play that role. But others can, too. Figuratively and even literally, earthquakes occur every day in our lives. Effective communication is the best way to cope.     

Friday, November 10, 2017

Lots of Communicating

Saturday afternoon at the local shopping mall. Thousands of people mingling about. Toddlers. Teenagers. Senior citizens. Young and middle age adults. Yakking. Juggling coats and purses and bags. Lost in conversation. Laughing. Quietly walking. Each navigating long lines. Each snaking their way through and around onrushing strangers. Some in a hurry. Some not. On the surface such a scene appears to be chaos in pure form. Where is the order? What is to prevent this scene from erupting into some kind horrible mess? The answer, of course, is the people. Even more to the point, their non-stop communicating is what keeps such a swirling mass from bursting at the seams.

A closer look at this scene reveals continuous verbal and non-verbal communication. One person in a rush suddenly slows down to let an elderly couple pass. No one tells him to. It is not necessary. Two persons arrive at the same time at a check out line. They both smile and then one takes a step back to let the other in-line first. A toddler drops their stuffed animal. A woman leaves the side of her companion and retrieves the toy for that baby. And so it all goes. All day and pretty much every day. People communicating with each other despite the fact they are strangers and at the mall to carry out their own agendas.

We live in a time of much turmoil and verbal head-butting. So many public figures function in a ways that represent the opposite of mutual respect and cooperation. In the meantime, thousands and, yes, millions of average, everyday folks live their lives in harmony with others despite the many differences that distinguish them. Such a piece of reality is a wonder. Even more so, it is worth noting. Such harmony demonstrates what all of us are capable of. The magic of that scene at the mall is that despite the mass of people, there is very little actual conflict. The people are acting respectful, polite, and of good will. In a word, they are communicating.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Conference Calls

Over the past few days I have had the opportunity to participate in over a dozen conference calls. (I am co-chairing search committees for several positions we are trying to fill at work. The majority of our interviewees live and work in other countries.) Overall, it has been a frustrating experience. Before expanding on this, I must acknowledge the technology that allows multiple search committee members to interview candidates who, in some cases, are literally on the other side of the world. The fact we are able to do this is and forever will be remarkable. This entry is not about the technology itself.

The actual interacting between folks on each side of the line is less than satisfying. More than once one of the interviewers would ask a question and have it met with silence. Did the candidate actually hear what was said? More silence. "Can you hear me?" the questioner asked. More silence. Finally, the candidate's voice could be heard as they began responding to what was asked. Why the delay? What's going on? I do not pretend to know the technology behind conference calls. Still, even now it is difficult to attribute the delays to the nature of the technology behind these calls or the fact the candidates were simply trying to think about how to respond to what was asked of them.

Then there was the matter of the persons on each side of the line talking over each other. One common result of delays in conversation is that inevitably one of the participants will speak out in order to fill in the silence. In the case of the conference calls, another common occurrence was the questioner would begin repeating his or her question only to have the candidate begin answering it while the questioner is still talking. Delays. Interruptions. Interruptions. Delays. They never stopped. Rarely would these communication barriers be such a problem in an in-person exchange or even an interaction via Skype.  

Friday, November 3, 2017

Franz Reichelt

Franz Reichelt was so certain he was right. In early1912, this tailor and part-time inventor had created a parachute that he was convinced could be used by airplane plots in case they needed to jump from their flying machines if trouble occurred. No question about it, this was a very good idea on the part of Reichelt. He was so sure of his invention that early on the morning of February 4, Reichelt climbed atop the Eiffel Tower to demonstrate this sure-thing. A crowd gathered along with several film crews. Wearing both his invention and a great deal of conviction, Reichelt jumped off the Eiffel Tower.

Sadly but not surprisingly, Reichelt was dead within seconds. In fact, his leap can now even be viewed on You Tube. (He has since become known as "The Flying Tailor.") So, besides dieing, what happened? What went wrong? The answer can be summarized in one word: "research." This brave soul did not do enough of it. Blinded by the rightness of his vision, he looked at what he had created and saw what he wanted to see rather than what was actually there. Reichelt saw a viable parachute that would save pilots from sure death. In truth, what was there was an oversized coat that, in retrospect, looked silly.

For any serious undertaking to succeed, then thorough research is a necessary component. Such a truism very much applies to communication. Every day public figures seek to communicate with multiple constituents. Those that fail do so because they rely upon little else but their own gusto. Those with the best chance of succeeding do so as a result of pain-staking research on their topic and intended audience. This also applies to individuals hoping to connect with each other. Having an effective voice rarely happens without practice and homework. Any successful professional communicator will vouch for that.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Second Paragraphs

Second paragraphs are tough. Take no prisoners kind of tough. Here is an example. A person looks at a headline regarding the provocative behavior of North Korea and says something to the effect, "That country's leaders are terrible. They need to be stopped."  To the unbiased observer, such a strong comment could be viewed as a "good opener," more to the point of this entry: a good first paragraph. Such a forceful comment certainly captures the attention of those on the receiving end of it. The listener leans toward the sender of that statement with rising expectations that a notable opener will be followed by am equally notable second paragraph.

More often than we care to admit, however, the listener is doomed to be disappointed. In conversations, many of us have great "openers." But what we follow with is often a reiteration of what we just said in our "first paragraph." Going back to the North Korea example, "Yeah, the people should rise up and throw those guys out." Or "We need to send over our best jets and blow them out of the water."  That is fine. But how are such comments different from what was just said? Obviously, they are not.

Second paragraphs are designed to advance a conversation. Consequently, they require thought that enables one to support, justify and/or defend their first paragraph. Without that vital second paragraph, the first paragraph loses much of its power. It becomes an empty opinion - something everyone has. A good second paragraph helps create memorable acts of communication rather than ones that are fleeting and disposable. While these thoughts are my mine, I want to give credit to Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman of The New York Times for inspiring them. One of his recent columns touched on the ongoing challenge of second paragraphs. While he mentioned them in relation to President Trump, I believe such observation relates to all of us.