Tools like slack and email on the phone have made it easier for us to go back-and-forth with colleagues on questions. I’ve been paying attention to the many times I’ve been guilty of initiating these sorts of conversations.

These start with an unassuming “Hey, quick question -” and soon spiral into – “Oh, does that mean….?”

Every once a while, these back-and-forths exist because of the complexity of the problem. It is hard to ask that next question if you know little about the problem. But, more often than not, a little bit of upfront thought could help us lay out the 4-5 questions we actually do want to ask.

Giving that extra bit of thought upfront and batching our questions can make a big difference to the productivity of the person on the receiving end.

Here’s to doing that.

Explaining problems better

Here are 5 questions I’ve been thinking about a lot as I seek to explain problems better (no shortage of ongoing issues :-))-

1. What is the problem?

2. Where does it lie?

3. Why does it exist?

4. What could we do about it?

5. What should we do about it?

I’ve been finding it helpful to just write out my answers to these questions and then rearrange them in some version of “Situation-Complication-Solution.”

The principle here is to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process. And, the first step to separating the thinking process is ensuring the thinking is done in the first place.

(H/T Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle for recommending these questions when approaching problem solving)

Filler words

Sort of
Kind of

These are the filler words I’ve found myself using in order of frequency.

I noticed last week in a conversation with a wiser acquaintance that he used no filler words. None. Zilch. And, this was a normal conversation. We spoke about a bunch of topics and I asked him a couple of questions that definitely made him think. Even then, he spoke with a clarity that felt inspiring.

So, I’ve resolved to cut out filler words. They’ve largely seeped into my language out of habit and association. This journey will likely take a long while as it means undoing some very old habits.

But, it has begun with an increased awareness around how I speak. And, I’m excited about growing through this process of learning to think and communicate with clarity.

“Jennifer, relax.”

As an old gentleman walked into a super market, he noticed a small girl crying loudly. She was no older than 2 and was trying to persuade her mom to buy her something she wanted. Her mom just said calmly – “Jennifer, relax.”

The girl immediately started crying even louder. Again, her mom said – “Jennifer, relax.”

By now, the girl had started screaming and was attracting a lot of attention. This time, her mom said calmly – “Jennifer, you don’t want to create a scene in the supermarket. So, relax.”

The man walked to the mom and said – “I am amazed at how calm you are. But, surely, she can’t understand what you’re saying, can she?”

“What makes you think I was talking to her?” – the mom replied.

(I can’t find the source for this story. All I know that it is an excerpt from a talk that was passed on, via a Whatsapp message, by a Mr.Rajan – so, thank you Mr Rajan – wherever you are.)

I thought the takeaway from this talk is brilliant – the quality of your communication with the world determines your impact, but it is the quality of your communication with yourself that determines your happiness.

And, I’d argue that impact made without happiness is akin to an artificial flower – looks good from a distance but lacks the substance and aroma that makes a flower special.

So, let’s communicate better with ourselves this week and remember to treat ourselves with infinite patience and kindness. And, of course, the next time you find yourself in a situation that tests your patience, remember.. “Jennifer, relax.”

Listening to and listening for

When people choose to listen, there are two types of listening that take place – “listening to” and “listening for.”

“Listening for” is the most common form of listening and means listening is being done for a purpose. Common purposes are affirmation, adulation, communicating politeness and, sometimes, the desire to make a good impression.

“Listening to” is the sort of listening when someone really listens to understand. It involves being willing to having your point of view changed by the views of the other person. This sort of openness necessitates a positive self image, however.

It is impossible to “listen to” someone when you feel insecure (Notice, I say “feel,” not “are” – for the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to deal with the feeling of insecurity). And this has 3 important implications for us as communicators.

First, it is in our interest to make people feel comfortable and secure. This is another way of saying that it is in our interest to be genuinely nice. To really “be” nice, we have to care and have to be prepared to listen ourselves. We have to also learn how to ensure people feel completely secure and at ease about where they stand in our eyes. This means ensuring we don’t take nice things from people around us for granted, this means ensuring we communicate happiness and this means not being an insensitive jerk.

Second, we have to learn to communicate any issues that are blocking us from being truly open. Sometimes, a feeling of doubt or unease about our equation with the person we’re speaking to can act as a communication barrier. Talk about it. Else, it will show.

Third, we have to make it a habit to have the difficult conversation. As leaders, it is important to make the process of giving feedback habitual. No one on your team should feel like it is a big deal if you say something needs improvement. Similarly, in our lives, it is in our best interest to have the difficult conversations and break the peace for a little while. If we want to be able to listen without judgment and communicate without judgment, we need to be open. And, effective communication is all about habitually building environments where openness is welcomed.

Final 2 notes –
1. Notice how any conversation about other people listening to you begins with you being open yourself. Having others listen to you is one of the purest forms of leadership. And leadership requires you to take charge of creating an ideal environment – in this case, that would be an environment of openness.
2. Communication only occurs when people really listen to you. In order for them to listen to you and not just listen for affirmation, you need to ensure you do whatever it takes to create that environment of openness. This will not always work. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, communications will break down. That’s okay – we only control the process, not the results. Let’s nail the process.

The ladder of control – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to

David Marquet, Captain of the USS Santa Fe, followed a leadership principle – push authority to as low a level as possible. Under normal practice, officers would “request permission to” perform operations such as submerge the ship. The captain would approve and the officer would carry out the task.

David insisted his officers move up the ladder of control (below), stop asking permission, and instead state “Captain, I intend to submerge the ship” to which he would respond, “very well.” Initially, he had a lot of questions for the officers about whether it was safe, whether the preconditions were met, whether the team was ready, and whether it was the right thing to do. With time, he asked fewer and fewer questions as the officers learned to provide that necessary information at the same time they stated their intent.

The immediate and obvious benefit was that with this small shift in language, just a few words really, the officers became the driving force behind the submarine’s operations.

Perhaps we ought to consider moving our teams up the ladder of control as well..

Ladder of control

Source and thanks to:

‘Moving people from “request permission” to “I intend to…” raised them one rung on the ladder of control, from passive followers doing what they were told at the bottom to proactive engaged leaders, crafting the future, at the top. ‘ | David Marquet

Email and constructive communication

I was once part of a heated email chain a couple of years back. As with most heated email chains, this began with a misunderstanding which was only amplified with time. I was the junior-most member of the team and was more the by-stander who was being called on from time to time to produce one number or another.

At one point, our senior-most team member sent an email to a couple of us on one side of the argument that read something like this – STOP REPLYING TO THE EMAIL CHAIN. WE WILL TAKE THIS OFFLINE AND SORT THIS OUT.

He immediately set up some time with each of us, listened to us, focused on the next steps and  methodically worked his way through the issues. And sort it out we did.

Emails are good for a whole lot of things – sharing status updates, ensuring information is shared, asking questions and engaging in discussions, and setting up real life conversations. They are, however, not good for any communication that isn’t constructive and almost always make things worse. Deprived of context and facial expressions, we always assume the worst.

The learning for me was simple – the moment you sense an email thread going negative, take it offline. And, as my wise colleague would say, STOP.