Outcome, Strategy, Projects

Adopting the hierarchy of Outcome -> Strategy -> Projects (thanks to some well-timed coaching :-)) has been a recent revelation of sorts in driving better thinking, higher quality communication, and, thus, more productive conversations.

Conversations that derail or go nowhere are almost always conversations about projects. And, these conversations are transformed when we move up the hierarchy to talking about outcomes and strategy instead.

It also turns out that working through outcomes and strategy before getting to projects helps create the kind of focus that leads to the right projects being discussed and prioritized.


Over-communication and incentives

Why over-communication matters in a period of change – “It is difficult to get a person to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.”

It is also a helpful reminder to not take it personally if something you’ve been working hard to communicate isn’t landing as yet.

Incentives are powerful.

Minimizing contribution

“If your habit is to clear your throat, apologize a few times, minimize the quality of the work you’re about to share and in general, apologize for the assertions you’re about to make…

you probably realize that this is not an effective way to give a talk, lead a class or have a strategic discussion.” – Seth’s post on “The minimizing coin

As I was reminded after a meeting recently that I minimized my/our contribution (and have been known to do this in the past), this post couldn’t have come at a better time.

In all the instances where I’ve learned that I do this, the awareness was brought about by feedback from someone else. So, the first step to solving this is becoming aware of when I do it.

All of this ties back to my new year theme to communicate constructively and with clarity. As the year progresses, I’m coming to realize that all progress on communication comes with more awareness.

And, awareness comes with intention.

What consistently good communicators do

What consistently good communicators do: Prepare thoroughly, show up on time, seek to understand, be thoughtful about their contributions, pay attention to non-verbal cues, and follow up.

When they do all of this, they succeed in reaching the people they’re speaking to in the right context – unerringly.

It turns out that being a consistently good communicator is largely determined by what we do when we’re not trying to communicate.

Filler words – 2019 edition

Self-improvement projects that require us to break old habits are hard. Such projects aren’t settled in a few weeks – instead, I think of them as 3 year construction projects.

One of the many gifts I’ve received from writing everyday here for ~11 years is the ability to work on a few such 3 year construction projects. Writing here forces a level of accountability that I’d otherwise not have. But, while I’ve made visible progress on many self improvement projects, an area where I’ve repeatedly failed is in eliminating filler words.

I was in a conversation recently where I thought I used more filler words – “kinda” and “I think” – than actual words. It was disappointing to hear myself stammer and stutter in my attempts to make a point.

As I reflected on that conversation this weekend, I was reminded of a post on the topic from Seth’s blog that inspired me to revisit this habit a few years back. A few of my favorite bits from the post –

“For a million years, people have been judging each other based on voice. Not just on what we say, but on how we say it.

I heard a Pulitzer-prize winning author interviewed on a local radio show. The tension of the interview caused an “um” eruption—your words and your approach sell your ideas, and at least on this interview, nothing much got sold.”

“Persuade yourself that the person you’re talking to will give you the floor, that he won’t jump in the moment you hesitate. You actually don’t have to keep making sounds in order to keep your turn as the speaker. The fastest speaker is not the speaker who is heard best or even most.

Next step: First on your own, eventually practicing with friends, replace the “um” with nothing. With silence.”

“Talk as slowly as you need to. Every time you want to insert a podium-holding stall-for-time word, say nothing instead. Merely pause.”

“You’re not teaching yourself to get rid of “um.” You’re replacing the um with silence. You’re going slow enough that this isn’t an issue.”

“Our default assumption is that people who choose their words carefully are quite smart. Like you.”

Communicating constructively and with clarity is one of my 2019 themes. Unlike in past attempts, I intend to stick with the filler words this time till it gets solved.

Fourth time’s a charm, I hope.

See you in 2022.

Misusing the word feel

What percentage of our use of “I feel” is actually followed by a feeling?

When we use phrases like “I feel that” or “I feel like,” we communicate thoughts and judgments instead of feelings. The appropriate use of “I feel” would be to say “I feel hurt” or “I feel frustrated.” Even saying “I feel misunderstood” communicates a judgment.

There is great power in communicating feelings and needs because they enable us to focus on the issue at hand while ensuring we move past passing judgments about others. But, channeling that power requires us to use language the way it was intended.

And, the first step to that is to pay attention to the language we use.. and misuse.

My biggest reflection from this idea is the importance of clarity in our bid to communicate constructively. When I wrote out my theme – “Communicate constructively and with clarity” – I thought of these as two separate goals. But, they’re likely more related than I initially thought.

(H/T: Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg)

Violent communication

When I was recommended “Nonviolent Communication” after I asked for resources on productive communication in October, my first reaction was wondering if the book was for me. “Violent” sounded like a strong word.

Then, I heard this passage…

“If “violent” means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate – judging others, bullying, having racial bias, blaming, finger pointing, discriminating, speaking without listening, criticizing others or ourselves, name-calling, reacting when angry, using political rhetoric, being defensive or judging who’s “good/bad” or what’s “right/wrong” with people – could indeed be called “violent communication.”

…and realized I’d found the exact resource I needed.

Putting the lessons learnt from this book into action is going to be one of my top 3 themes for next year – so, plenty more to follow on that journey in 2019. The immediate next step is for a second read of the book over the holidays. :-)

The clarity overestimation problem

As speakers, we overestimate how clearly we communicate. And, as listeners, we overestimate how much we understand.

Aside from long term investments in learning to communicate clearly and becoming better listeners (both valuable), it helps to have a short term counter to this asymmetry. And, the best I’ve found is habitually replaying what we think we just heard and requesting listeners to share what they think they took away.

We aren’t going to solve the overestimation habit (we all like to believe we are above average) – so, we might as well get on with solving the resulting issue.

Observation and Evaluation

“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” | J Krishnamurthi.

Our natural instincts tend to have us overdo evaluation and under-do observation. They also push us to conflate both by attempting to do both at the same time.

There’s a time to observe and a time to evaluate. And, learning to keep observation and evaluation separate in our thinking and communication is a superpower because it enables us to have consistently productive and constructive conversations.

Next step for myself: Learn how to better separate the two. :-)

(H/T Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg)

Behind every effortless display of skill

Behind every effortless display of skill lies thousands of hours of effortful deliberate practice.

I recently had the opportunity to ask a fantastic communicator about his journey to effortless public speaking. He shared two nuggets.

First, he talked about the commitment he made when he decided to become a great communicator. He realized it mattered to him and wanted to get really good. So, he committed to doing 50 speaking events in the next twelve months. 10 speaking events would be a lot for most people. But, he started with a talk at the local library and went on to complete 50 in about 18 months.

Now that he had established a level of comfort and expertise, the next step was continuous improvement. Before every talk, he asks a friend/colleague to look out for 1-2 things he can do better. By making a specific request, he ensures there’s no cop out “you did great!” answer. He then follows up after the talk on the feedback and incorporates it for the next one. He’s been doing this for a decade.

It is worth repeating again then – behind every effortless display of skill lies thousands of hours of effortful deliberate practice.