Sunday, August 14, 2016

Compassionate Communication, Part 3 - The Importance of Worldview


We've all heard the adage, "Think before you speak."  This blog exists to help you think about how you speak (or write) to make sure your message is having its optimal impact.  This post is the third in a series called Compassionate Communication which focuses on the importance of achieving a heart. connection with your audience.  If you want to get the full context, go back and read the prior two posts, here and here.   

Think about why you talk. Passing on a message is only part of it,  There's something far bigger going on. 

 In our first post in this series, we talked about why children first learn to use words: to enlist help doing something they can't do alone.  As adults, we still reach out and communicate countless times a day, motivated by the desire to shape our life experience in collaboration with others.

In the business world, a great deal of our communicating is undertaken to build passion and performance around a project.  Whether we are team leaders or team players, we are still using words to get help, all day long, in every task on our agenda.

Boil it down and you get to this realization: 


Communication is not just to tell someone something. 
It's to sell someone something.

In the last post, I asked you to consider how your worldview is being communicated to others, every time you open your mouth. That may seem at odds with the idea of on-the-job messaging, but I assure you, it's not.  It's a fundamental part of team communications.  Let me prove it to you:
 . 
Stop right here and think about your top project at work right now.  Got it?  Now, think about the other people with whom you need to work.  These may be people who report to you, people above you on the org chart, or people who report to someone else --  people parallel to you.  Take a minute to identify three or four names.  Do you have your list?  Fill them in:

         My Project: ______________________

         My People:  ______________________
                              ______________________
                              ______________________                                                                        
                              ______________________

Now, on this project, with these people, what are your hottest issues?  They probably involve compiling and interpreting data, competing for resources or prioritization, making sure that standard processes are being followed, proving the reliability of the end product, and dealing with setbacks as they occur,  All those situations have a common denominator: you need to ask people to put in effort.

Scan the names on your list.  Chances are, when you deal with issues like the ones above, you communicate in a different style with different people. 

  • For some people, you need to craft your message diplomatically, using formal language.  Your communication may include extensive background context, including explanations of rationale, citing of precedents, and even name-dropping to establish validity.  You may work up a draft, then edit it down strategically,  fearing that the person will lose interest or become impatient with you.  Even after you send your perfect message, you might anticipate having to go through some additional back-and-forth dialogue to overcome objections before getting the outcome you need. All of this takes a lot of investment of time and energy on your part.  
  • With other people, it's just a simple one-liner: "Here's what we need, when can we get it?"  One-and-done messaging, with a more-or-less guaranteed outcome.
Which type of messaging would you rather do?  (Well, that's not even a question, is it?) 


What's the difference between the two?  Worldview.  

The "easy" people on your list are the ones with whom you already have a comfortable relationship -- the people about whom you might say, "We have an understanding."  More precisely put, they have already gotten a taste of how you operate, and have judged that it's based on a worldview that is compatible with their own.  Your story aligns with theirs -- or, if it doesn't align completely, at least it aligns enough for them to be able to predict your behavior, and conclude that their world won't be at risk if they accept your message and act on it.  

How much people trust your worldview equals how much they will cooperate with you.  

Actually, this is where a lot of leaders go the Breaking Bad route.  They use threats to get people in compliance -- that is, they project a worldview that power dictates privilege, and bad things will happen to people who don't toe the line.  Whether you're the head of a drug cartel, or the Human Resources Director of a huge organization, the tactics are still the same: abuse, intimidation, outbursts, retribution.  

Companies with a top-down structure of veiled agendas and political favoritism invest overwhelmingly in this bullying worldview, with significant short-term success.  But they also end up losing their best people. In fact, one of the surest ways that you can track an organization's decline is to look at who's leaving of their own accord within any twelve month period.   (One of my most reliable mottoes, proven over decades in the workplace, is this one:  Healthy organizations attract healthy people.  Unhealthy organizations attract unhealthy people.)

Bullying may seem effective in the short run, but in the long run it decimates the team and sabotages real teamwork, and real success.  The people who remain are fearful.  Fearful people are passive-aggressive people, and there's no way to gain a competitive edge when the shop floor culture is covertly planning to overthrow the dictatorship!   


  • Engagement withers in a Fear Factor culture where individuals feel steeped in a worldview based on negative messages: "You do this, or go."   


  • Engagement blossoms in a culture where individuals feel supported by a worldview based on positive messages: "Let's do this, and grow!"

Does this sound too naive?  Too Utopian?  Not a bit.  This is how real progress -- and measurable market share gains -- occur.  This is why true employee buy-in is crucial. This is why it's about the sell, not merely the tell. 

To get people to maximize their work product, we need to reassure them that they are working for a common good that they can not only accept intellectually, but absolutely bask in emotionally.

Just as a salesperson needs to make a positive connection with the client to sell the product, you need to make a positive connection with your colleagues to sell the project.  

Even before they hear the particulars of what you have to say, people need to feel "bought in"  to some degree.  If they don't feel that connection, they won't even listen.  But if they do feel that they can share in your perspective and your values, even a little, they will open up to what you have to say, with their whole being -- head, heart, and hands.

In our next posts, we'll share five tips for how to revise your messaging to communicate a positive holistic worldview that can achieve buy-in and maximize collaboration.  It's simpler than it sounds... actually, it's really just a checklist. (An incredibly powerful one!)

Meanwhile, here's some homework: think about the project and the people that you identified earlier.  Consider why it's easier to talk to some colleagues than to others.  How much does worldview play a role in your workplace?

Start thinking about all those carefully crafted emails and well-rehearsed phone calls into which you put so much effort every week. Wouldn't it be much easier if everyone was on the same side of the issues, seeing things from the same worldview?  

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Compassionate Communication, Part 2: Political Messaging's Parallels to Workforce Communication

In my last post, I made this statement:

The dynamics of effective on-the-job communication involve the intentional undoing of basic human biases that have deep, deep roots.

Watching the recent American political conventions, I was impressed by how applicable that statement is to political messaging as well.

There were many "No" and "Mine" themes in the speeches -- and also many attempts to link the pursuit of "No" and "Mine" individual preferences to maintaining the overall "Yes" and "Share" good of the organization.

(Don't know what I mean?  Click here to read my previous post and find out.)

Political Persuasion and Point of View

I'm not that interested in debating the various planks in political platforms, but I do find politics to be a fascinating window on humanity -- and particularly on human communication strategies. Just as the conflicts of early childhood set the stage for all human communication, the power struggles of adulthood play up those same conflicts and the same motivation to persuade, and prevail, in a war of words.  

In that vein, do you agree with this statement from a noted political analyst?

"We have now finished two weeks of two conventions by two parties....They weren't just offering two different political visions. In many ways, they were offering two radically different versions of reality.
In that sense, the gap between the two conventions was an accurate reflection of where we are as a country. There really are two very different visions of reality competing in the political campaigns underway this year--with their own value systems, sets of ideas, and interpretations of the facts... two very different versions of reality in America...
The election this November is certainly a contest between two candidates, but it is also a contest between these two versions of reality."

Is that true?  Is the current American presidential campaign also a bigger referendum on how to interpret our present world?

If so, shouldn't American voters consider, not just the candidates' worth, but the basic validity of the views they espouse? Instead of merely letting either candidate tell us how to think, or letting our own prejudices tell us which team to blindly follow, shouldn't we first do our own research and draw our own conclusions about the state of the country and the world, so that we get a clear and rational picture of our own version of reality?

That's some assignment. But, fellow Americans, as of today we have 99 days to do it. If we challenge ourselves to take our citizenship seriously, I think that over the next 16 weeks, we might each be able to indulge in a little less mindless entertainment to spend some time giving mindful attention to what's really going on in the world.

Then, on Election Day, should we really merely "vote our conscience"? Or should we also vote our congruity?

Political Persuasion: The Workplace Parallel

Business people:  do you realize that your messaging to your workforce sets up a similar comparison?  Your employees are interpreting your every announcement, email, casual remark, and non-verbal signal as an indicator of your own worldview.  They want to evaluate, not just what you say, but the version of reality from which you speak.  And they have the power to "vote their congruity" every time they clock in and start their workday.  

To the extent that you can make it plain to your employees that your worldview is compatible with their own, you can persuade them to work for your "cause" (your company) with a fuller measure of engagement.

I have devoted many posts on this blog to messaging tips and techniques that increase employee engagement (type polarization in the Search window to see some of them).  However, if your goal is 100 % engagement, nothing you do can be as effective as what you ultimately believe -- because that will color all your communications.  It is a reflection of who you ultimately are.  And people are most most loyal to someone who shares their idea of what is important. 

Bottom line:

  • If they can truly believe in your cause (your company) -- if its purpose and policies are a strong fit with their interpretation of reality -- then employees will be your willing (and productive) partners. Your role will be that of a positive creativity enhancer, providing tools, tips and motivation for staff to do their jobs well and take pride in the organization's achievements.
  • If there is any gap at all between your values and theirs, there will be a corresponding "reluctance gap" that will interfere in nearly every task your employees undertake. To the degree that happens, your management role will become that of a negative relationship repairer. Instead of pulling from the front, you will be pushing from behind, more concerned with the trailing edge of trouble than the leading edge of innovation and accomplishment.

Ask yourself:  Which of those classifications describe the bulk of your daily workforce communications? 

I honestly can't say that either American presidential candidate is doing a great job as a "positive creativity enhancer" at this point.  It's not an easy target for business leaders, either.  Remember, workforce messaging is all about overcoming the earliest self-serving human biases to direct people's interest and energy toward meeting the needs of the group. And that's a tall order.

Take a look at the vision of reality that you project into every message you send out.  Is it a workable vision for your employees?  Are they feeling a resonance, and reapplying themselves daily to pursuing great results?  Or are they sensing a dissonance, and digging in their heels to impede progress?

Still to come: We're still just beginning on this journey.  Part 3 of this series will consider how to make Compassionate Communication a working element of your leadership messaging -- in whichever role you are currently compelled to play.




Monday, April 25, 2016

The Early Origins of Problem Workforce Communication

My goal in this blog is to promote effective messaging. This is the first post in a series about transforming the way we use messaging within organizations in order to transform business culture and business results. Please read on and enjoy!

We were all about this little guy's age when we figured out this monumental truth:

I can't do it by myself.  To transform my big ideas into reality, I need the help of others.  And to get that help, I need to pack my ideas into these strange packages called words, and ship them out into the world.

In the world of a toddler, success hinges on getting other people to meet your needs. You have to communicate.

In the world of business, success hinges on getting, and keeping, whole groups of people in sync to meet the needs of the business. We have to super-communicate.  This involves:

  • explaining concepts;
  • expressing goals;
  • training processes;
  • establishing expectations;
  • evaluating progress;
  • providing feedback.

All told, an extraordinary bandwidth of information needs to be exchanged and received in order to work together.  But this information exchange does not come easily to us. 

In fact, the problems of communication on the job start when we are in the nursery.    


Early Biases, And Their Effects On Everyday Business

Brain scan studies have confirmed that as early as 5 months, infants are observing the speech of others with their prefrontal cortex fully engaged.  That means that before we can sit up by ourselves, and months before we articulate our first word, we are already mentally rehearsing the dynamics of communicating. Awesome, isn't it?  

By the time we are two years old -- the age of the child in the picture above -- we are ready to give our first verbal messages to the world.  And each of us has the same two messages to tell.

Our two first messages set the tone for all our messaging to come -- and that tone is most certainly NOT one of cooperation and respect.  

Want to guess what those first two messages are?

Think.  What are the two words that all toddlers fall in love with first? 

Parents, you probably got them right away:  "No"  and "Mine."   Remember when your precious little one discovered these?  

Think about these messages and what they mean. 
  • The first one, No,  is an outraged protest against anything that doesn't fit our immediately-perceived best outcome. 
  • The second, Mine,  is a territorial declaration that erects a verbal barrier to retain personal advantage.  
Please understand, as boundary-setting tools, these are necessary and healthy concepts for a growing child to put into play.  But as platforms for exchanging ideas, they aren't exactly award-winners. They are arbitrary, one-way messages, used for projecting power and quelling dissent.  And that's where we start to see a fatal limitation.

We basically carry this "No/Mine" communications bias throughout life.  Most of our natural messaging tends to fall into these two categories.  In fact, if left to ourselves, each of us would only default to alternatively communicating outrage ("No")  and defensiveness ("Mine") for the rest of our lives.  

But we are not left to ourselves. Life happens.  We undergo a rigorous socialization process, in our family, at school, and among our peers.  Then we leave this childhood and adolescent socializing experience, however good or bad that may have been, and we enter the workplace. 

Now, for the first time, communication equates to income -- or to put it in toddler terms, our "No" will have a direct impact on our "Mine."  We have to message as though our lives depended on it -- for certainly our livelihoods now do.  

By this point, we've acquired some further skills for communicating. Most of them, though,  still revolve around our first two favorite words.  

We've learned a spectrum of more sophisticated ways to say our "No" to get our own way.  We now know how to charm, cajole, persuade, manipulate,  ingratiate, appease,argue, accuse, lie, sneer, scoff, and shame.   

We use the same set of skills to create more elegant versions of how to say our "Mine" to keep our advantage, once attained.  We can add that we also now know how to avoid, divert, stonewall, threaten, attack, and when all else fails, sue.   

As you may have already surmised, the skills based on our "No/Mine" bias are not the best tools for achieving cooperation, respect, and results in the business world.


Grow And Tell

To corral our inner two-year-olds and get them to work together, we need to fundamentally alter our early "No/Mine" assumptions. We have to make room for someone else.  We must realize two truths: 

  1. Getting my own immediately-perceived best outcome may not be in my ultimate long-term best interest.  In other words, my "No" might need to become "Yes" -- at least for a while. I may have to do some things I don't want to do (hard work that someone else assigns me) in order to get the job done and get my reward (a paycheck that someone else pays me).  This is called delayed gratification.  And in operational messaging, it translates into taking direction.
  2. Preserving my own advantage may equate to meeting the needs of the group.  Or to put it in toddler-speak, my "Mine" might need to become "Share" -- at least for a while. I may need to allow undesirable elements (boss, co-workers, tasks, projects) to infiltrate my territory (my time, my attention, my choices) in order to retain my advantage (economic stability, status, material goods).  In operational messaging, this called establishing buy-in
We can see that much of what happens on the job is counter-intuitive to our earliest motivations.  If you're looking for the main insight of this post, that's it.  I said all that to say this: 


The dynamics of effective on-the-job communication involve the intentional undoing of basic human biases that have deep, deep roots.

What do you think?  Do you agree with that statement?

If you do, then you are beginning to realize that workforce messaging requires strategy, delicacy, and artistry that goes way beyond what we use in everyday life. We don't just tell people what to do and expect them to do it.  To get our best results, we need to work much harder than that. We need to super-communicate:

We need construct a message that gives the other person the tools they need to de-construct their own inherent resistance and re-construct a collaborative platform.  And we have to do this with every message, every time.

Challenging?  You bet.

Actually, with this post,  I am trying to do some intentional undoing of my own.  Dear reader, I am trying to undo your own deep "No/Mine" underpinnings.  

My goal is in this blog is to promote effective workforce messaging.  And to do that, I need to get you to reframe how you look at your own job environment.  The first step is to get ahead of your own inner two-year-old to identify the fact that your own basic wants and defenses are usually the very things that subconsciously make you resist the work required for effective workforce messaging.


Evaluating Your Own "No/Mine" Mindset

Is your two-year-old self calling your communications shots?  Take this test. Give a ranking between 0 and 5  to each of the following statements (0 equals Never, 5 equals Always):

1. My interactions with people at work are dominated by conflicts.

2. I carry grudges against one or more coworkers.

3. I have not submitted a new idea for process improvement within the past year.

4. I just want to be left alone to do my job.

5.  My baseline mood at work is one of annoyance.

6. I have to play the boss card to force people to cooperate.

7. I know other people are after my job and/or are trying to make me look bad.

8.  I have favorites among my team, and they know who they are.

9.  I refuse to put up with incompetence; I won't tolerate bozos, and I work to get them fired.

10. I came up short in the last round of raises (or bonuses, or promotions, etc.), so now my attitude is, why put in the extra effort?

If any of these statements are 5's by your estimation, then you may be carrying a toddler mindset into work every day.  You may need to take some steps to develop new super-communicating skills that will truly get your best outcomes and preserve your deepest advantages.

But how do you do that?

The answer, in my opinion, is a little thing I invented called Compassionate Communicating.  It involves escaping beyond our own "No/Mine" bias to give your co-workers and colleagues a higher quality of messaging.  It means modeling a "Yes/Share" open communications model.   It's all about turning each person's inner toddler into a willing teammate.  

Compassionate Communicating is a way to come together to form passionate  bonds that turn work relationships into trust relationships -- and transform resistance into results. 

If you are interested in this concept, browse through my earlier blog entries to get a feel for my approach. Then, watch for my next post.  In it, I will describe the role and responsibilities of a Compassionate Communicator -- and the advantages of becoming one.

Meanwhile, if you have some insight to add - especially if it's a Yes or a Share --  please leave a comment!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Other Two Emails That Will Save Your Sanity

The purpose of this Remarkable Messaging blog is to help average people overcome communications barriers.  Since all of life that isn't isolation requires communication, that leaves a pretty broad spectrum of topics to explore.  This post continues to address common workplace communication deficits. 

Work is hard.  That's why it's called work. But the plague of poor communication makes it harder than it needs to be.  

In my previous post, I introduced the first of my three emails to combat fuzzy communication.  I called it the Just To Confirm email. This email seeks to nail down aspects of what's already been communicated,  (To read more about it, click here.)  


By contrast, my second sanity-saving email seeks to fill in aspects that are missing. 

The pace of the workday is increasingly frantic.  The hours in the workday whiz by like the cars of a speeding commuter train. To save time, people shorten their messages.  They clip meetings short,  send terse emails, and use sloppy language. The result?   Depending on your company's culture, the average workday might be full of situations where key facts are unstated, and more explanation is needed. A lot of us must then spend a good amount of our day running behind the train, trying to fill in the blanks in others' messaging in order to get our own work done. 

Sound familiar?  

When people must engage in puzzling and problem-solving just to figure out what is expected of them, it's a triple-whammy.

  • Productivity suffers.  Time is spent on buzz instead of business:  "Did the boss mean x or y?"  Frustration distorts a process that should be simple. Worry and indecision infiltrate the work stream, weighing down subsequent progress.  
  • Relationship suffers.  As I declared in my previous post about Email #1: uncertainty feels like abuse.   Every business has a hierarchy, and withholding information (even by accident) tends to be interpreted as a political power move. The energy wasted on office intrigue is substantial, and subversive to success.  When this negative energy infects a project, it takes center stage, and people are so busy taking sides that they lose sight of the true objective.
  • Wrong assumptions are made.  This is the worst risk of all, since ambiguities can lead to assumptions that spur work in the wrong direction, wasting time, wreaking havoc, and requiring costly rework later on.  

The risks posed by missing information are significant.  So the smart thing to do is to get ahead of these risks, before they becomes a problem.  How?  Remember my motto from my previous post:  the cure for fuzzy communication is focused communication.  So get ready to communicate your confusion in a friendly and focused way that brings results. 

The first step is to identify the gaps in the story that need to be filled in.  Sometimes that's a skill in itself!  (See my next blog post to learn about my favorite strategy for this.)

 After you have determined exactly what information you need, identify who has the information, and craft a direct and respectful message to obtain it.



Email # 2: Just To Clarify

A Just To Clarify email is the message you'll send when you determine that a strategic knowledge gap exists. Like for Email # 1, the objective is better understanding. 

The Magic of Email # 2

Before we talk about the email itself, let's begin with explaining the phrase we use to begin it.  
When an email starts with the words "Just to clarify..." the reader will immediately know that strategic information is being sought.  Also, and even more importantly, the phrase "Just to clarify..." establishes a breezy tone of collaboration, as opposed to a brittle tone of accusation.  In the blame-rich atmosphere of most workplaces, setting this positive tone is vital for maintaining equilibrium and efficiency... and for getting a response. I cannot stress this enough.  The fact is, many people read their emails looking for reasons to put off answering them.  Never let your tone provide a convenient excuse for a non-response.

When you start with "Just to clarify...", you front-load your email for success. It creates the impression that you value what was said already, and are seeking to build on its value.  So don't play around with that starting phrase.  Always use it; you'll get optimal results, every time.

After those first three magic words, keep the rest of this email simple.  
  • State the topic right away. 
  • If not clear, include a reason why you need this information
  • Keep questions short, focused, and direct. 
  • Include a deadline if there is one. 
  • Don't introduce other topics, argue other points, or overwhelm the reader with any other messages (send those in a separate email).  Just request your info and bow out.  
Here's a template to follow:


Sample Just To Clarify Email

Hi Peter, [breezy salutation that sets an informal tone]

Just to clarify re: the recent pigpen repairs:  [header sentence that defines the topic and sets expectations]

I'm preparing a report for the Budget Committee and I need to know: [reason the info is needed]
  •  What is the invoice amount? [main question]
  •  Is the payment coming out of  cost center 123?.[main question]
  • If not, what cost center will be used?.[contingency question]

Hoping to hear from you by end of day so I can send my report in time for tomorrow's meeting.  [deadline]

Thanks for your help as we work to provide the information the committee needs to close the books in time for the quarterly call,  [closing sentence that includes a shared objective]

Priscilla 

After you've composed your Just to Clarify email following this framework, simply press Send and wait.  You have a very high likelihood of getting an answer by your deadline.

But what if the answer doesn't come?  No problem!  For that situation, you have my final email that will save your sanity:

Email # 3:  Just Circling Back

You send a Just Circling Back email  when you don't get a response by the deadline you specified in Email #1 or #2.  It is a follow-up to your prior request for information.  Its purpose is to keep your first email request from getting lost.  To build this email, you add it as another message when you forward the first email to the recipient again.  

The Just Circling Back email always follows the same brief but strategic format:

Sample Just Circling Back Email

Hi Peter, [breezy salutation that sets an informal tone]

Just circling back to see if you've had a chance to look into my budget questions about the recent pigpen repairs (see forwarded email below). [header sentence that defines the topic and sets expectations]

Would you be able to provide this info by 11:00 this morning? [deadline phrased as a question]

If not, I'll need to send my report without it.  I'll let the committee know that this info is still to be determined.  [closing sentence that includes a logical consequence]

Thanks again for your help,  Priscilla


The Magic of Email # 3

Just like the other two emails that save your sanity, Email # 3 is crafted very intentionally.  


  • It leads off with a very intentional phrase to set the right tone.  When an email starts with the words "Just circling back..." the reader will immediately know that it's a follow-up communication.  But obce more, there's a non-accusatory tone of collaboration. Judgment is entirely absent. Equilibrium is maintained. The recipient only has to give the info.  No explanation for the delay is required.  Can you see how this lightens the mood from the start?
  • Likewise, when the deadline is restated in the form of a question, it gives the recipient a feeling of respect and empowerment, instead of guilt and embarrassment.  There is no snarky subtext about dropping the ball, holding up the project, etc.  It's just a simple, hey, can you get this to me in time?
  •  Finally, the Just Circling Back email contains a logical consequence for non-compliance. This is not a threat meant to frighten, or a manipulation meant to shame the person into action. It's just a simple neutral statement about what will need to happen if the information is not obtained by the deadline. The objective is plainly to keep pushing the project forward -- not to start a war.  

The Just Circling Back email will help you gently help others accept responsibility for their contributions (or lack of contributions), as you maintain an appreciative and constructive tone.    It frames the issue in a positive way.  And in my experience,  it usually elicits the same kind of response.  You'll get your missing information, and the other person will continue to feel respected and valued.  

Win-win.  

Sanity Saved. Problems Prevented. Integrity Intact.

So to sum up: the Three Emails are your arsenal against the ambiguity of fuzzy messaging.  One of them will usually be the answer for any communications shortfall that you experience.  And all three will do much more than merely help you get the information you need to succeed.  They will help you continue to build positive relationships among your colleagues, even when you need to hold them accountable for their fast, furious and fuzzy communications.  The Three Emails position you for optimal collaboration by helping you avoid the blame game, keep projects politics-neutral, and underscore your positive intent to ensure success for everyone concerned.

Moreover, when you use them as part of an overall communications plan, the Three Emails will help build your reputation for excellence throughout your department, division, organization, and industry.  I know that's a pretty big claim.  How can I make it?  Because I diligently use them -- and that's exactly the reputation that I have with all my professional relationships, past and present. Just saying!  

Are any fuzzy communication issues lurking in your current project portfolio?  I challenge you to use the Three Emails on exactly those issues during your upcoming week.  See if they help you "Just to Confirm" and/or "Clarify" the knowledge gaps that threaten to torpedo your To Do list.  And, when you reap the results of your focused messaging, I suggest that you "Just Circle Back" and leave a comment below to share your success!    



Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Three Emails That Will Save Your Sanity: Here's Email # 1

Note: This is a follow-up to an earlier post, Diagnosing the Various Strains of Business Flu.  To read that post first, click here.  

"My new job is nonstop craziness!"

Elaine's* an intelligent,  level-headed, and accomplished professional.  It's been years since we were employed at the same company, but we keep in touch and meet up occasionally to trade stories about our latest workplace experiences.  

This time, Elaine had a desperate look in her eyes.  She was struggling at the small firm where she now worked.   What had looked so promising at first was now sheer pressure.  The executive team had the habit of dropping new assignments in her lap unexpectedly, and her workload was constantly expanding.  When her boss signed her up to attend meetings, she was often unsure why she was there. Goals and priorities were always shifting.  Rapid-fire verbal exchanges left her breathless and intimidated.  She had no idea what success was supposed to look like, or how she was supposed to get there.

What's the main cause of workplace misery?  

If I had to boil it down to one thing only, it would be: uncertainty.  

Think about it.  When the rules are constantly in flux -- when you're not sure about where you stand, or what's expected of you  -- it's pretty hard to focus on the task at hand. Instead of forging ahead confidently, you spend a lot of energy figuring out what you should do, then second-guessing your every action.  That's a terrible place to be -- and that's where Elaine found herself now. 

Where is the misery spot in your work life?  You probably have a few. Name one.  It could be:

  •  a project that's out of control 
  •  a process that's broken 
  •  a peer relationship that's dysfunctional 
I'm betting that if you really analyzed the situation -- if you kept asking, "Where is the real problem here?" -- you'd probably discover that lack of communication was at the heart of it.  

Poor communication happens when somebody's not effectively saying something they need to say. And this blog, Remarkable Messaging, has a lot to say about saying.  


 The Uncertainty Solution

I sized up the situation as she spoke, then I shared with Elaine my suspicion that plain old poor communication practices were to blame.  The power players in her company were sending confusing signals. Whether they were doing it on purpose, or whether they were oblivious and didn't know any better, the impact was the same: it came across as disorienting, and even disheartening.  

The truth is, there is an emotional outcome to poor communication.  Uncertainty is not just uncomfortable and unproductive.  It makes us feel off-balance and insecure.  It raises our anxiety level, and triggers anger and fear. Uncertainty feels like abuse.  That's what makes it so crazy-making.  Before we even understand what's going on, we are casting ourselves in the victim role: either suffering in mute anguish, or simmering in silent fury.   

Then I told Elaine the good news.  She could change the dynamic.  She didn't have to stay passive and surrender her self-esteem.  She didn't have to be aggressive and go on the warpath, either. She could sail above the emotional turmoil, and win without firing a shot.  She just had to do three things: stay attentive, be assertive, and use what I lovingly call The Three Emails That Will Save Your Sanity.  

Oh, yeah, those.  They're why you're reading this post, right?  I'll get to Email # 1 in a minute.  But first, I want to underscore the importance of the first two parts of the Uncertainty Solution:


  1. Stay attentive. For the Three Emails to work, you can't be late to the party.  You have to show up first, pay attention, and be a dynamic listener.  That means your radar is on full blast to follow every word and every nuance.  Hear every comment, and read every message.  Take notes.  Look up references.  Make the most of whatever communication comes your way, no matter how incomplete it is.  If you are a diligent and receptive listener, you will eliminate a lot of needless confusion and ensure that your Three Emails are only used as weapons of last resort.
  2. Be assertive.  Hendrie Weisinger, in his breakthrough book Emotional Intelligence At Work, defines assertiveness as "the ability to stand up for your rights, opinions, ideas, beliefs, and desires while at the same time respecting those of others."  Maintaining an assertive posture, instead of a passive one or an aggressive one, is key.  To neutralize the emotional fallout of poor communication, you must bypass those feelings of victimization, remain respectful, and treat the situation objectively. Bear in mind: it's not about whose ego is bigger, who threatens who, who's smarter, or even who's right.  It's ONLY about what needs to happen to get the job done.  To figure that out, you have just as much right to an explanation as anyone else... and no one can fault you for taking assertive steps to obtain one. 

So are you staying attentive, and being assertive?  OK -- NOW you're ready to pull out   Email # 1. It is, simply put, a tool for resolving communications gaps.  Its structure will help you do it calmly, cleanly, and casually, so that you can get the information you need while remaining immune to emotional turmoil.  


Email # 1: Just To Confirm

"Just to confirm..." is the way you begin every Email # 1.  It's the email you send after every hurried phone call, hectic meeting or hotel lobby conversation -- basically, any time you have a significant verbal interchange.   

The objective of the Just To Confirm email is a request to nail down what was decided, so that everyone can avoid errors and optimize the outcome.  It summarizes what was said and requests confirmation.

You may be saying at this point, "That's all?  That's the big miracle cure?"  Yes.  The cure for fuzzy communication is focused communication.  Moreover, using Just To Confirm emails will start you on the path to fixing the bigger problem that's usually been causing the insanity -- a company communications culture that allows, and possibly even encourages, information gaps.  

But back to the email itself.  Since it is battling fuzzy communication, its structure is important. Brevity is critical. You will want to organize your message well, then slash it down to the basics.  Above all, the tone is always professional, neutral and collaborative.

Want to try out the concept?  Here's a template to follow.  The bold-font bracketed words explain the intended purpose behind each element:  
_______________


Sample Just To Confirm Email

Hi Pat, [breezy salutation that sets an informal tone]

Just to confirm, in our conversation this morning regarding the pigpen, we determined the following: [header sentence that defines the topic and sets expectations]


  • The pigpen is broken.  Past pigpen repairs have proven to be partial only, perpetuating the problem. [define the issues]
  • The pigs are at risk of getting out again.  We're also at risk of violating the state's Pigpen Provision and paying a Pigpen Penalty. [define the risks]
  • Three loose pen panels need to be replaced. [define the need}
  • This needs to happen by the end of the day.  [define the deadline]
  • You'll call the panel people and schedule the replacement; I'll put the pigs in the penthouse this morning.  [action steps, with ownership -- now] 
  • You'll pass along the replacement price to Peter; Peter will prepare to pay the panel people. [action steps, with ownership -- future]
  • I'll ping you when the pigs are in the penthouse.  Also, I'm looping in Peter and Penny on this email so they know the plan; you'll report the progress to Pablo and Pasquale on the project call tomorrow. [communications plan]


Please let me know if you have any corrections or additions so I can note them before moving forward. [mutual accountability hook]

Thanks for your help as we plan for peak pig production. [closing paragraph that states a shared objective] 

-- Priscilla (from the Special Pigs Unit) [sender sign-off / role reinforcement as needed]
_________________

Your "Just To Confirm" emails may vary from the format above.  All of these elements aren't always needed. However, for complex issues, you very well may want to include every bullet point presented here.   

The Magic of Email # 1

A Just To Confirm email nails down decisions, prevents assumptions, and avoids misinterpretations.  Most importantly, it gives you an email trail to fall back on.  If your colleague goes rogue on everyone later on, and claims it was because you said to do x, not y, you can calmly pull out your Just To Confirm email to clear things up.   

Your Just To Confirm email makes it clear that everyone is being held accountable for the success of the project.  It's neutral, so it short-circuits turf wars and ego flare-ups.  It boils down the issue into small sound bites, so it's easy to understand. It's brief, so it's easy to respond to. 

Remember the misery spot you identified earlier?  Why not try out a Just To Confirm email this week to address its information gaps?  The next time you have a dialogue related to that particular topic, craft and send a Just To Confirm email. See if it helps you fill in the blanks and reduce the insanity.  If it does, leave a comment below to report your success!  

If you don't think your situation will be helped by this type of email, then watch for my next post which will showcase Email # 2 and Email # 3.  To be continued....

Till then, let me remind you once more: 


Don't be a passive victim of poor communication.  
Get the knowledge you need to succeed.


*I have changed Elaine's name in case her management team is reading this blog.  If you're a boss, ask yourself: might you have an Elaine or two in your organization?   If so, maybe you have to admit that your organization is communications-challenged. Good news: my favorite authority on organizational health, Pat Lencioni, has a book that is just for you.  It's called The Advantage.  Read it, and do it -- and the Elaines on your staff will never need to send you a Just To Confirm email!