Connecting Requires Credibility

This morning I got up to do my regular weekday morning routine.  I made coffee, took the dog out, read for half an hour, then grabbed my laptop to start writing. I had plugged it in yesterday because the battery was low so I unplugged the charger from the laptop and pushed the button to turn it on … nothing. “What in the world,” I wondered. I looked at the charger and followed the cord to the wall socket. It was not plugged in at the wall.  No wonder. By all appearances my laptop should have been charged up and ready to go. But, the reality was there was no juice going to it to charge it up. There it is. The difference between appearances and reality is what we call credibility. When appearances and reality align there is credibility. When they are different there is a credibility gap. Connecting with people requires credibility. Here are several questions to help measure our credibility.

Have I connected with myself?

Integrity means, in its second definition, the state of being whole and undivided. It comes from the Latin word integer meaning “In tact.” The English word “Integer” means a whole number that is not a fraction. One way I think of integrity is being the same on the outside as you are on the inside. Whether you are or you’re not, people know it.

Have I made right my wrongs?

Imagine yourself talking to a group of people about the importance of collaboration and teamwork. Now imagine seeing, in the group, the face of a person you had wronged in some way and never corrected the wrong. That uncomfortable feeling is the gap between the words you are saying (appearance) and what you had done (reality). That feeling is your credibility gap. Often when we right our wrongs it not only repairs our credibility, it improves our credibility.

Am I accountable?

I like to ask the question, “What does accountability mean to you?” when I’m interviewing someone for a job. I am looking for people who answer that question first by talking about being accountable, not about how they hold others accountable. When you make a commitment you create hope. When you keep a commitment you create trust. Being accountable is how you create trust.

Do I lead like I live?

This is the outflow of integrity. If I’m the same on the inside as I am on the outside then I will lead like I live. I cannot give to others what I do not have.

Do I tell the truth?

This seems like a no-brainer. How can you have credibility if you lie? Notice, I did not ask, “Do I not lie?” I asked, “Do I tell the truth?” There is an ancient proverb that says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” I once attended a meeting of division presidents held by the company’s CEO. I was amazed as I watched everyone around the table nod at everything the CEO said like bobble-heads, except one guy. He spoke up and voiced disagreement when he didn’t like what he heard. Later, I wasn’t surprised to learn that guy had become a close adviser to the CEO. Because he had credibility the others lacked. He told the truth.

Am I vulnerable?

This is just another way of telling the truth. Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, says, “We all know that perfection is a mask. So we don’t trust the people behind know-it-all masks. They’re not being honest with us. The people with whom we have deepest connection are those who acknowledge their weaknesses.”

Do I follow the “Golden Rule?”

This is not the version that says, “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” This is the true version that says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What would happen to families, to communities, to countries, to the world if everyone treated others the way they wanted to be treated? Imagine! The interesting thing about the Golden Rule is that it’s not something you wait for others to do.

Do I deliver Results?

Am I a charger plugged into a device but not plugged into the wall or do I really bring the juice? People usually want to learn from someone who has something to show for their efforts. Here’s another way of looking at it. When we interview someone for a leadership position we ask them questions to determine whether or not they will be a good fit. We are better off asking questions about what they’ve done rather than what they would do. For example, “Could you tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer?” is a better question than, “What would you do if you discovered your customer was angry?” The reason it’s better is that it asks for results the candidate can point to as a way of demonstrating how they might bring the juice in the future.

No one wants to connect with a fake, a blow-hard, a know-it-all, or someone who appears hollow. These are all the opposite of credibility. Connection requires credibility. Credibility means “the quality of being trusted and believed in.” Let’s work toward being credible.

Connect On Common Ground

Last week we talked about the fact that connecting is more skill than natural talent. I shared with you 5 factors that will help you make connections with people.  The bottom line in each of those and any other connection factor is common ground. Finding common ground is what connects you with others. It’s usually pretty easy to spot what makes us all different from each other. But we connect when we find what we share in common.

In his book called Am I Making Myself Clear?  Terry Felber says that people have different representational systems based on the five senses that provide the primary basis for their thoughts and feelings. For example, if several people walked down the beach together, their recollections of the experience would be very different based on their representational system. One might remember how the sun felt on his skin and sand on his feet. Another might remember the look of the water and the vivid colors of the sunset. The third might be able to describe the sounds of the ocean and birds, and another, the smell of the salty air and the tanning lotion of nearby sunbathers. Each of us creates a framework for the way we process information. Felber says, “If you can learn to pinpoint how those around you experience the world, and really try to experience the same world they do, you’ll be amazed at how effective your communication will become.” That’s basically the same thing as saying find common ground.

Four Barriers to Finding Common Ground

What might prevent us from finding common ground with people? John Maxwell, in his book Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, identifies these four barriers to finding common ground:

Assumption– “I already know what others know, feel, and want.” “All miscommunications are a result of differing assumptions.” —Jerry Ballard.

Arrogance– “I don’t need to know what others know, feel, or want.” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis observed, “Nine-tenths of the serious controversies that arise in life result from misunderstanding, from one man not knowing the facts which to the other man seem important, or otherwise failing to appreciate his point of view.”

Indifference– “I don’t care to know what others know, feel, or want.” Comedian George Carlin joked, “Scientists announced today that they had found a cure for apathy. However, they claim no one has shown the slightest bit of interest in it.”

Control– “I don’t want others to know what I know, feel, or think.”

Four Choices That Will Help You Find Common Ground

Be Present – Spend time with people. How will you ever get to know someone or find common ground if you don’t spend time together? Two subpoints to this one:

  • Be Present Informally – allow yourself to “waste time” with people. The time spent in casual or fun conversation and activity reveals more potential common ground than when it’s all about the work.
  • Be Present Mentally – Connection doesn’t happen by osmosis due to physical proximity alone. You have to get out of your own head (or device) and engage in the moment.

Listen – If you’re on the beach with someone, to use the example from Felber, listen to how they’re describing the experience. Are they seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling? Is that the same experience you’re having? If so, common ground! If not, could you adjust your way of experiencing it to see what it’s like to be them? You have to listen to the other person first in order to find common ground.

Ask Questions – This is another form of listening. In fact, in another post, I call this “listening with your mouth.” Asking questions shows the other person that you’re engaged in the conversation, that you’re interested in what they have to say (in other words, in them), and it helps you find out more about them by inviting them to expand on what they’re saying.

Be Humble – Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less. That frees up your mind to think of others more. Humility begins with awareness. Who am I thinking about in this moment? What is my motive for this action? Then it involves a choice. What is the other person thinking about? What are they experiencing? When you make that choice enough times, it becomes a habit. When you habitually think of others first, it becomes your character, how others know you. I put Be Humble last on the list for emphasis because it is really the first step in connecting with people.

Connecting is a Skill

Happy 3rd Birthday, Engager Dynamics! My firsts post, Star Performance, went up on April 15, 2018, so this is celebration week. This time last year, who could have imagined what was in store? We thought we’d be out of this pandemic lockdown soon for one thing.  We sold the home we’d lived in the longest of any since we got married and moved to “The Ranch.” Let’s not even mention the interesting politics with the campaigns, the rallies, the demonstrations, the conventions, and the election. What a year!

Work, for those who still have jobs, has largely become a virtual world of masked colleagues at least six feet away if not miles. Connecting is more important now than ever. This is a good time to talk about the fact that connecting is more skill than natural talent. We can learn to connect. True, some people seem to connect more easily than others, but we can all learn to connect. Great connectors tend to draw on one or more of several factors to create a connection. Here are five to consider. Which of these might you have? The factors will be different depending on with whom you’re connecting.

Relationships – who you know.

A quick way to gain credibility with an individual, a group, or an audience is to borrow it from someone who has credibility with them. “Who” you know can open the door for you to connect with someone. I was at a convention in Orlando, Florida in August of 2019, for example. I met a guy and we started talking. You know, the small talk that we use to find something in common. As it turned out, we had lived in the same town during high school and knew some of the same people particularly a guy I had played football with. There was an instant connection. The level of conversation changed from small talk to connection.

Insight – what you know.

If you share an area of expertise generously with others, you give people reasons to respect you and they will develop a sense of connection with you. What are you really good at that most people aren’t? Can you draw? Are you good with Excel? Are you a history buff? Whatever it is that people look to you for can be a point of connection when you share it with them.

Success – what you have done.

People want to be successful and they seek out others who have accomplished something to get their advice. If you are successful in anything you do, there will be people who will want to listen to you and connect with you.

Ability – what you can do.

If you have a high level of ability in an area, others may want to connect with you because of that ability. Excellence connects. Individuals who perform at a high level in their profession often have instant credibility with others. People admire them. They want to be like them. They feel connected to them. When they speak, others listen.

Think about Michael Jordan. He’s made more money from endorsements than he ever did playing basketball. Is it because of his knowledge or use of the products he endorses? No. It’s because of what he can do with a basketball.

Sacrifice – how you have lived.

If you’ve made sacrifices, suffered tragedy, or overcome painful obstacles, many people will relate to you. If you have been able to remain positive yet humble in the midst of life’s difficulties, others will admire you and will connect with you.

Not everyone is Michael Jordan. But you don’t have to be him to be recognized for your ability at something. Ability is only one possible way to connect and these are only five of many possible connecting points. When you find a connecting point with someone or with a group, you can sense a switch from communication to connection. Finding those connecting points is a skill. I’ve just given you five places to look.

Life In The Ranch – Trouble In Paradise

I drove up to The Ranch one afternoon shortly after we bought it and noticed water dripping from the insulation underneath, near the front middle of the RV. Uh Oh. I went to the side and saw a gap between the screws holding up the insulation and pulled down slightly to see if I could find out anything about the source of the water. When I pulled down it created a low spot at the edge of the RV and out poured a lot of water that had been sitting in there. The good news is the water was clear, meaning it was grey water at worst, fresh water at best. In case you don’t know, RVs have three kinds of tanks. One holds freshwater for if you’re camping somewhere without a connection to city water. Another holds “grey water” which is the wastewater from your sinks and shower. “Blackwater” is the wastewater from your toilet. Now you know why I said clear was the good news.

Now What?

The dealer we bought the unit from had gone to great lengths telling us how differently they do business, that “As Is” (which is how used units are sold) doesn’t mean “you’re on your own once you drive off the lot.” He told me how they inspect the units carefully to be sure all the systems are working and that if there was anything they missed I should call him directly and “hit him between the eyes with the news.” So I called him. He asked me to send him some pictures which I did. I will admit, I was skeptical he would do anything. My skepticism seemed justified when he said on the phone, “I don’t know what to do, Jim. My repair guy won’t travel that far.”

I decided to try something. I called a local dealership and asked if they had or knew of someone locally who would come to my site and work on my rig. To my surprise, they referred me to a guy named Chris. I called him and described my situation. I told him I was hoping to get the guy I bought the unit from to pay for the repair. He didn’t think that was going to happen and told me he thought it would cost around $1,400 to repair my leak and good luck getting the dealer to pay for it. “I’ve worked with guys like that before,” he said.

I called the dealer and told him I’d found a local guy who would come look at it. He was skeptical. He said, “I’ve worked with guys like that before (funny huh?) “They’ll take you to the cleaners.” When I told him what Chris had estimated the costs to be, he said “See, he’s setting you up for a big bill.” But, to my pleasant surprise, he agreed to talk to Chris.

Then What?

Chris agreed to talk to the dealer but said he would only come if he paid for the service call upfront, $100. I gave Chris the dealer’s number and a little while later he called me back to set up an appointment.  Wow! I thought. This might work out after all. Chris explained what he and the dealer had worked out about how to approach the diagnosis of the problem and asked if I was OK with that. When I agreed he said, “I’ll see you then.”

Chris actually showed up. He drove up in his car, popped the trunk where he had a toolbox and a creeper (a board with casters for rolling around under things on your back). I hung out with him while he worked because I like to learn new things and I wanted to understand what was under The Ranch and what he would be doing to fix my leak. He cut into the underbelly insulating cover and peeled it back.  He discovered that one of the greywater tanks was completely full and, instead of backing up into the kitchen sink like it was supposed to when it was full, it was overflowing underneath.

That was actually good news. I was happy it wasn’t anything that needed to be replaced. It did raise a question, though. How did that tank get so full? I had emptied the grey water tank. It turns out there was a valve to open this tank located away from the other valves for the black water tanks and the other grey water tank. I hadn’t seen it. We opened that valve and the water drained out. The system shouldn’t work like that but it’s something I can manage now that I know. So Chris left to call the dealer with the report and get paid and I was happy with the result.

So What? – The Flexibility of Stories

As I was thinking about telling this story, I realized it could be told with a different emphasis to make the story about one thing or another. That’s really true about any story, isn’t it? This could have been about how the dealer kept his word. It could have been about the action I took to help get my problem corrected. I could have made it more about the colorful character that is Chris. Or, it could have been about systems in a 5th wheel. That’s one of the great things about stories. They can be true while remaining flexible to make different points.

An Indescribable Gift

This is the season of gift-giving. In fact, I’m posting this during Christmas week. This year, 2020, has been the most unusual year in my lifetime. With all that has been happening, it seems we need the hope Christmas brings more than ever. Last year I had the privilege of speaking at Grace Community Church in Lathrop, CA during the Christmas season. What I’ve included below is an expanded outline of a message I shared about God’s indescribable gift to us. A full transcript would make for too long a post, so I hope this will get the points across. Merry Christmas!

INTRODUCTION

Have you ever received a gift that left you speechless? It was so extravagant, or so unexpected, so beautiful, so personal … you couldn’t find the words to speak.

That’s how we’ve felt each time we met one of our children for the first time.

That’s how I felt when Suzi said, “Yes” that night on December 7, 1979, under the lightly falling snow on the corner of Dearborn and Chestnut Streets in Chicago when I asked her to marry me.

Paul had that reaction in 2CO 9:15. He is talking about financial assistance to those in need. That leads him to talk about how God supplies, and he ends with the exclamation “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift”. The gift he’s talking about is called in another translation “unspeakable.” It’s unutterable, it’s inexpressible, it’s incomprehensible, it’s extraordinary because it’s paradoxical. Let me show you what I mean. Four Paradoxes of God’s Indescribable Gift …

This gift is given to everyone but only a few receive it

  1. It has been delivered to every front door – in fact, it’s said to be knocking at the door, but people don’t receive it
    1. Reject it – “Return to sender” because they don’t trust the giver
    2. Don’t know about it – someone needs to tell them what that knocking is at the front door.
    3. Don’t “need” it – what do you give the person who has everything?
    4. Are afraid of it (don’t know the giver) – what’s in the box? It could be a bomb, anthrax, who knows
    5. Ignore it – no time, no interest
  2. (JOH 1:12 Yet to all who did receive [this gift], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God) – heirs to the throne of heaven!

This gift is absolutely free, but it will cost you everything

  1. It’s free
    1. You can’t buy it – this offer is not available in stores (or online for that matter) You can’t get it at Amazon, there is no auction on e-Bay, Wal-Mart doesn’t carry it. You won’t find it at Nordstrom. Even Neiman Marcus doesn’t carry it. (Simon the sorcerer tried to ACT 8:18) the price is too high. You couldn’t afford it. No one but God could afford to pay for it.
    2. You can’t earn it (LUK 18 the young ruler, “What must I do …?”; ROM 6:23 wages vs gift)
    3. You can’t bargain for it – (“God, if you get me out of this, I’ll start going to church!” I’ll give you this if you give me that or do that for me) It’s not a quid pro quo transaction
  2. It will cost you everything
    1. When you receive it, (take it up, essentially “sign for it”) it changes your Character – This is not a gift you can just stick in your back pocket, or hang around your neck, or put up in the closet. When you take hold of this gift, it takes hold of you. It gets inside you and begins to change you from the inside out. Just looking at it transforms [metamorphosis] you 2 CO 3:18.
      1. Cost you who you are today to become who you were meant to be
      2. Cost you energy
      3. Cost you money
      4. Cost you friends
      5. It has cost many their lives – HEB 11, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Jim Elliott
    2. When you receive this gift, it changes your trajectory. This gift comes from God and it takes you back to God for eternity.
      1. Redeems your life from bondage
      2. Restores your soul
      3. Remakes your brokenness
      4. Resurrects you from spiritual deadness, and
      5. Returns you to the one who gave it forever

This gift is given to you, but it is not for you (only)

  1. You’re intended to re-gift this gift – the words from a song that plays at Christmas are, “Last Christmas I gave you my heart. The very next day, you gave it away.” In the song that’s a bad thing, but God says “Yes! And the next day and the day after that. Give it away.” You may just get a case of the “can’t help its.” Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. (1951 Alistair Sim version). “I don’t know what to do! I’m as light as a feather! I’m as happy as an angel! I’m as silly as a schoolboy! I’m as giddy as a drunken man!”
  2. Part of the transformation is from selfish to selfless
  3. None of God’s gits is intended to flow into you like a reservoir, intended to flow through you like a river to benefit others – 1PE 4:10  “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
    1. Individuals – horde my gift away and maybe talk about it once in a while
    2. Congregations – sing and learn about our gift and invite people to come to see it – go give it away
  4. This gift grows in value as you give it away. You reap all the benefits of the gift and it continues to deliver – it’s the gift that keeps on giving

This gift is both a what and a whom

  1. This gift is not a thing – not a fire insurance policy – not a certificate of membership is some club.
  2. This is God’s gift of Jesus and all he is and brings when he is received.
  3. Jesus is called many things in the Bible. At this time of year we think especially of “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” I love the title King; King of Kings and Lord of Lords. My journal, “I serve at the pleasure of the King.”
  4. In 1981, my senior year at MBI, Suzi and I attended Moody’s Founder’s Week in February S.M. Lockridge spoke. His message was entitled, “Amen.” During that message, he delivered this now-famous description of the indescribable Jesus! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzqTFNfeDnE 

CONCLUSION:

Pastor Lockridge asked several times, “Do you know him?”
Have you opened the door and signed for the gift God has delivered to you?

The Cover Letter

A Friend of mine is a highly successful salesmen. We’ve worked together on some big projects in the past so I know firsthand how good he is. He is especially good at writing. Whatever he writes is concise, precise, clear, engaging, sometimes entertaining (when appropriate), always on point. So you can imagine my surprise when he called and asked me to review something he’d written as a cover letter for a potentially huge deal. I was humbled and honored by the request.

What he sent me was typical of his work and required none of the editorial comments you see in the picture I chose for this post (it is one of the pictures that came up in my search for “cover letters”). In fact, he not only told a story, he told two. They were both hypothetical stories that came from his understanding of the needs of this potential client and how the service he was selling would specifically connect to meet those needs.

The Power of Stories

Last week I wrote about how I used a personal story to connect with an audience. I mentioned that stories are powerful to connect, to teach, and to persuade. We often make a big mistake when we set out to connect, teach, or persuade. That mistake is that we aim for the head. We think that we need to engage a person’s thinking to achieve those goals. We eventually do want the person to think but the heart is the gateway to the head. I must know, like, and trust you before I would be willing to connect with you, learn from you, or be persuaded by you.

One of the most powerful things about stories is that they engage the heart. Whenever I speak to an audience, I hear comments afterward like, “I love that story you told about …” or “It’s cool how you talk about your family.” I don’t often hear, “Now I understand the definition of …” or, “Your second point was very informative.” But guess what, the story that person loved actually defined the term and what I said about my family drove home the second point of my speech.

Stories are about ROI (return on investment). People remember stories more easily than they remember facts. If you want someone to remember a point you’re making, make the point with a story. If you are trying, for example, to advocate for children in the foster care system, it’s overwhelming to hear there are over 400,000 of them. It’s so overwhelming that we can’t take it in. If, however, you tell me the story of Alicia (made up name), who had a particular experience in the foster care system, I can grasp that. The story elicits far more from me than the numbers.

  • Stories connect
  • Stories illuminate
  • Stories illustrate
  • Stories explain
  • Stories inspire
  • Stories are powerful

Your Stories

After hearing Suzi and me share one of our stories, someone said, “You should write a book.” We’ve had a few people say that, actually, so one day we thought it would be fun to sit down and list episodes in our life that were memorable for us. I think at that point we ended up with a list of around 65 stories. Some more significant, others less but still memorable. Some of them were sad, some hilarious. It was a fun exercise, like going through a verbal photo album.

I’d like to suggest that you do the same. Take some time to jot down as many significant events in your life as you can remember in one sitting. Then pick a handful of them and write out each full story. That’s an exercise great communicators do to sharpen their communication skills. When you’re communicating, use one of your stories to connect, inform, or persuade.

My Black Swan

Several years ago I took my young family on vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was just Suzi, our oldest son, Joshua, and me at the time. The resort had a tall hotel on the beach and a condominium style set of single story units arranged around a beautiful pond behind it which is where we stayed. When we first arrived and were checking the place out, I noticed three beautiful black swans gliding across the water on the pond. I grabbed Joshua and the camera and said, “Let’s go see the swans, buddy.” As we approached the water’s edge, the swans gently turned and started to swim in our direction. “Cool,” I thought, “if they get close enough, we’ll be able to get a great picture.”

I got to the edge and crouched down holding Joshua between my knees to keep him steady by the water. By this time the swans were moving in our direction. “Look at that, Josh,” I said, “they’re coming to get their picture taken.” While I watched the swans through the viewfinder of my kodak instamatic camera three things suddenly began to occur to me all at once. 1. Items seen through the viewfinder of this camera appear farther away than they actually are, 2. I had a vague recollection that someone once told me swans are mean, 3. The two outside henchmen swans had stopped swimming and the bigger boss swan was coming up out of the water right at us.

I dropped the camera, quickly picked Joshua up and started backpedaling as fast as I could. I slipped on the wet ground, got up, lifted Joshua into the air and turned away from the attacking swan in one movement. Just then the monster swan reached out and bit me on the butt. I screamed like a little girl (no offense to little girls intended) and ran to the deck where my lovely wife was laughing hysterically. The black swan literally did a victory dance around the deck with it’s wings flapping and then went back to join it’s henchmen in the pond.

To make matters worse, there was a group of construction workers across the pond on top of some scaffolding who had seen the whole thing, too. The roar of their laughter from across the pond completed my humiliation.

So, my Black Swan Event was literally a black swan.

So Why The Story?

I began with that story a few years ago at a high school graduation where I’d been asked to give the commencement speech. I felt less humiliated when they roared with laughter, probably because I hammed it up and acted out some of the story. They especially liked when I grabbed my butt while describing where the swan bit me.

As I explained to that audience, my black swan story had nothing and everything to do with the topic of the speech. They agreed when I suggested that my story had connected us in an unexpected way. Many of them didn’t know me and I only knew a few of them. But, because of my story, they now knew they liked me and believed they could trust someone who would be that funny and vulnerable in public.

The topic of my speech was the power of stories. This was a Christian School so I went on to show how God uses stories throughout the Bible to connect with us, to inform us and to persuade us.

Then I turned to the graduates. “Most of your story is yet to be written,” I said. I played the Natasha Bedingfield song, “Unwritten” for them and then challenged them to think about what kind of story they were going to write and how their story might impact the world. Stories are powerful.

Regardless of where you are in life, whether you’re retired, you’re approaching “retirement age,” are in college, or you’re in the middle of life, family, and career, the same thing that was true of those high school graduates is true of you. The rest of your story is yet unwritten.

I’d like to encourage you to do two things. First, use your story up to this point to connect with people. Don’t be afraid to let people get to know you a little bit by sharing some of your story. Second, think about how the next few chapters of your story will go. Will they be about consistency, surprise, struggle, achievement, overcoming? How will your story impact others? I’d love to hear some of your story in the comments below this post.

Using the Speed Gap Trap to Your Advantage

Last week I listed one of 7 barriers to good listening as “The Speed Gap Trap.” I called it that because of the gap between the speed of speech and the speed of thought. I called it a trap because it’s in that gap that most good listening gets stuck. Most often people don’t listen well because their minds wander while the other person is talking or because they use the gap to plan their reply.

Bonus Brain Time

There is a completely opposite way to look at the speed gap. It can be listening’s worsts enemy, or it can be listening’s greatest ally. What makes the difference? Intentionality. You can learn to use the gap to your listening advantage.

Before we go any further, I want to try an experiment with you. Think about a red balloon . . . What came to mind? Was it a big hot air balloon or a smaller helium filled birthday party balloon? Now, think about a green chair . . . Did you have a specific chair that came to mind or did you imagine one? It doesn’t matter. The point of the experiment is to show that you can choose what you think about. If you followed the instructions, you directed your mind to a red balloon and a green chair, and you did it in no time at all. You’re pretty amazing!

What you are experiencing now is something called meta-cognition. That’s a fancy word for thinking about your thinking. You have the ability to examine your thought processes while they’re occurring. Think about that. If you apply that ability while you are listening, you can turn “The Speed Gap Trap” into what I call “Bonus Brain Time.” Use the speed gap to think about your listening and direct your thinking to focus on the speaker.

Putting Bonus Brain Time to Work

Try an exercise. During your next conversation, practice being aware of how you are listening. First, pay attention to your own posture and attention. Are you giving eye contact? Are you listening to what is being said or are you planning what you will say next? One signal that you are planning what to say next instead of listening is the urge to interrupt. If you feel that, you are more than likely not listening as well as you could.

Next, pay attention to the person talking. What words are they using? What are their body language and facial expressions saying to you? I call this listening with your ears and listening with your eyes. How do the things they are saying come together to form a picture (listening with your brain)? How do you feel about what you’re hearing (listening with your gut)? Does it strike you as authentic? Is there any prejudice on your part that would lead you to believe one way or another?

After the conversation is over, make some notes. How did you do? What did you learn about the person who was talking? Even more, what did you learn about your listening? Yourself as a listener? Practice that same process over and over. It will be very useful as you develop your listening skills.

7 Barriers to Good Listening

At work we often talk about “Barriers.” They are those things, people, rules, policies, etc. that “prevent movement, or access, or progress.” In a coaching conversation, for example, you might ask, “have you experienced any barriers to meeting the expectation?” In other words, “is there anything outside or within your control that has prevented you from achieving the desired result?” In their book, The Oz Principle, authors Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman write about overcoming barriers to achieve results as part of being accountable.

We have a 9 month old puppy named Zuzu. It appears that one of her primary goals in life is to overcome barriers. While we were training her to go outside, we placed various barriers at entrances to rooms with carpeting or a rug and to keep her in the family room with us which has a tile floor. Mind you, Zuzu is a 5 pound puppy. It has been incredibly entertaining to watch her find ways to get beyond those barriers. She uses her nose, her paws, her teeth, whatever she can, to move (thankfully never destroy ) any barrier.

We’ve been talking this month about Listening. There are many potential barriers to good listening. One of them is he belief that because we hear, we listen. Hearing is part of listening, but only part. Listening, as I’ve written about elsewhere, is a full contact sport.

There are several other barriers to good listening. Here are a few of them:

The Speed Gap Trap

This refers to the difference in the speed at which people speak and the speed at which we can process speech. Most of the time, people speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute. But, we can hear at a rate of 500 – 800 words per minute. What happens to all that extra time? That’s where the untrained listener’s mind wanders, they lose concentration and wind up being accused of not listening.

The Vapor Effect

Hearing is the most ephemeral of senses. Sounds are vibrations. Once the vibration is over, it’s gone. That’s why we take notes or make audio recordings of lectures in school. That’s also why its a good idea to take notes during certain conversations. Because, if we don’t make some concerted effort to retain the words that have been spoken, they won’t last any longer than the vibration that carried them.

The Me Focus

“Self-Centered” means to be preoccupied with oneself and one’s own affairs. Often when we are in conversation our focus is us. What do I want to gain from this discussion? What do I want to say next? How can I prove my point? Again, this speaks to how we use our Bonus Brain Time. If my focus in our conversation is me, what are the chances I’ll ever reach super-power listening skills?

Now, there is a difference between being self-centered and being self-aware, a huge difference. Self awareness is linked to “Meta-cognition” which is something we’ve talked more about in another post. Basically it means “Thinking about our thinking.” For our topic we could say it means, “Thinking about our listening as we’re doing it.” This self-awareness is a powerful tool for developing our listening skills. Self-Centeredness is the opposite.

Some other barriers to good listening include:

Prejudice – If we have preconceived ideas about the other person, their motives, position on a topic, or anything else, it will inhibit our ability to listen to them.

Stress – is like static in our brain and blocks out other people.

Anger – is similar to stress in its effect. When we’re angry, even if it’s not with the person who is speaking, the emotion blocks our ability to listen.

Distractions – seems pretty basic, but background noise, cell phones, TV, etc are kryptonite to super-power listening.

There are many other possible barriers to listening. How many can you think of? Understanding the barriers to good listening goes a long way in helping us get better at listening if we act like Zuzu and find a way past those barriers.

Grapevine Communication

Do you remember these guys? The California Raisins. I’m dating myself a bit. They first appeared on the scene in June of 1986. Look them up. It was an advertising coup for the California Raisin Advisory Board (I wonder if you even knew there was such a thing!) This claymation, pretend R&B group actually released 4 albums. But, when I see this picture, it’s their signature song and number one hit that comes to my mind, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” (Is it playing in your head right now?)

What does that phrase “Through the Grapevine” mean? You know me, I looked it up. Here’s what I found. The expression through the grapevine (or sometimes on the grapevine) is commonly used to mean ‘unofficially’ rather than through an official announcement, for example ‘I heard it on the grapevine that they’re planning to make some people redundant’. Rumors and gossip are spread on the grapevine but why ‘the grapevine’?

The term originated in the USA and comes from the telegraph system invented in the 19th century by Samuel Morse. The system required thousands of miles of telegraph wire to be installed, held in place several feet above the ground by telegraph poles placed at regular intervals along the telegraph route. People thought the wires and poles looked like the strings used to train vines so the telegraph lines became known as ‘the grapevine’. During the American Civil War rumors were often spread via the telegraph lines. When people were asked whether a particular story was true, they would often reply ‘I heard it through the grapevine’.

The Organizational Grapevine

We’ve been talking about Organizational Communication, it’s “W’s“, its Direction, and its Purposes. In each case the assumption was probably that we were talking about formal Organizational Communication. The “Grapevine” is the informal communication within an organization. It’s the “water cooler” conversation. It’s what people talk about over lunch and at break. It’s what people have to say when they’re outside of work or on social media.

Grapevine conversations often begin with phrases like, “Have you heard …?” or “Did you know … ?” or “Can you believe … ?” In those forms, they can sound a lot like gossip. Some of that will happen because people will be people and often people have an unhealthy interest in the affairs of other people. People will talk about their boss or about the last company event, or about their fears and uncertainty about job security, unless there’s something positive and exciting to talk about. You see, the organizational grapevine is not only a negative thing. It can also be positive. So, let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages to Grapevine Communication.

Advantages of the Grapevine

  1. The Grapevine spreads like wildfire. In that sense it is much more efficient than more formal communication. If you can manage the message, this is a great advantage.
  2. The Grapevine, in its rapid spread, also provides feedback more directly than more formal methods like employee surveys.
  3. The Grapevine can build unity among people as they share ideas and opinions
  4. The Grapevine is an opportunity for people to vent and is often a relief valve for people
  5. The Grapevine can be a handy supplement to formal communication as a way to get word out quickly and powerfully.

Disadvantages of the Grapevine

  1. The Grapevine often carries incomplete information and rumor as readily as it does solid information
  2. The Grapevine is not managed communication so it can be as unreliable as the telephone game with regard to the accuracy of the message.
  3. The Grapevine can consume enough of people’s time to make them less productive in their work.
  4. The Grapevine can foment hostility against leaders.
  5. The Grapevine can hamper the goodwill of an organization if the information is false or distorted negatively.

There is a Grapevine within any organization. A good leader will take care to avoid the disadvantages of it while understanding how to benefit from it’s advantages.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the same way, organizations abhor silence from their leaders. Understand the “5 W’s,” the “4 Directions,” the “5 Purposes,” make sure your message is true and good, and communicate, communicate, communicate. That will give you the best chance to benefit from the Grapevine.