ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - November 2001


Issue Highlight — Actions That Might Matter
- In Actions That Might Matter, Peter Block challenges us to rethink our well-intended and often automatic urge during difficult times to just "Do Something!" Think instead, he asks, about authentic change, shifting consciousness, relationships, and reconciliation.

What Did You Just Say?
Tips to More Effective Communication

As you approach your supervisor’s door, you can’t help but notice the knot in your stomach and the overwhelming desire to turn around and walk the other way. But, you know how important this conversation will be to your career and you resolve to face it head-on. After all, you are prepared, aren’t you?

  According to Steve Kaye, there are many aspects that must be considered when entering into a conversation of any type. From location and surroundings to the ability to remain in the right mind frame when others react immaturely, there are several elements to consider that may provide a more thorough, productive conversation.

  In cities across the country, there is one thing many people will encounter at least a few times every day—conversations. And whether they revolve around something as simple as office supplies or as drastic as cutting employees, many don’t realize the importance of effective communication skills. From the environment in which the conversation takes place to word choice and listening techniques, almost everyone is sure to find an area in which he or she could improve. After working in major corporations for 20 years, author and consultant Steve Kaye, Placentia, Calif., has found various facets of communication he believes many people could harness in order to generate more productive, useful conversations.

Safe and Sound
Although it may appear a conversation begins with a simple “hello” or a stern “please sit down,” any encounter should start long before the discussion is initiated. In an exchange there must be at least two parties, and both should be held somewhat responsible for the environment created while the interaction takes place. When entering into any conversation, each party should individually resolve that he or she will approach the dialogue in a positive manner, refusing to fall into any unproductive behavior his or her counterpart may initiate, thus creating a safe environment—the first important facet to more successful communication.

  The next important way to create a safe environment involves the actual manner of the parties responsible for the interaction. This manner must convey acceptance—meaning each person remains calm and collected regardless of the topic at hand. “Even if one person begins behaving poorly,” Kaye notes, “the other person continues to react in such a way as to keep the environment as safe and as positive as possible. Basically, the other person doesn’t counter attack.” This tactic, according to Kaye, involves basic emotional intelligence, a fancy name for maturity. Kaye explains: “Almost any form of negative behavior is an indication of immaturity as well as a projection of fear. Both parties are challenged to behave with courage, maturity, and respect.”

  By choosing a positive vocabulary and responding to topics in a positive way contributors to the conversation continue to create this safe environment. The simplest way to do this is to stray away from the use of negative words. Even simple negative phrases, such as “I will not” can create a downbeat atmosphere. Instead, approach the topic with what you will or can do.

  The last way in which Kaye recommends participants can create this feeling of safety is through the avoidance of assumptions and “hot-button” words. An extreme example of an assumption would occur if a person asked a colleague, “What are you trying to do, fool me?” In response to this type of questioning, the other person will either immediately become defensive or will counterattack, ending in an escalation of the situation. “Hot-button” words to avoid can range anywhere from name calling to obscenities and vulgarities. Use of this type of language, according to Kaye, immediately indicates immature behavior and an attempt to gain power through intimidation. “I was once invited to meet with a committee about my workshop,” Kaye recalls, “and the president of the company repeatedly used one obscene word that he slipped into almost every single sentence. It was almost his verbal scepter. Sometimes people get the impression that being angry and tough and negative and harsh is a sign of strength, when, to the contrary, it’s a sign of weakness.”

Are You Listening?
The next facet to superior communication involves various skills to help the conversant in listening more effectively. The broadest technique, according to Kaye, is to “just plain pay attention.” Asking questions, repetition, and affirmation follow. All of these techniques help to treat the person with respect and dignity. One way to better pay attention is by thoroughly listening to each other’s sentences. “I can recall a conversation I had recently,” Kaye says, “where the person would interrupt my sentences because this person, apparently, had already decided what I was going to say. It’s disrespectful because this person is not really finding out what I want to say and is sometimes guessing wrong.”

  The second way to improve listening skills is through asking questions. This simple tactic can not only demonstrate a sincere interest in what someone is saying, but it can also build upon the information received, resulting in a more complete picture of what someone is trying to convey. When asking these questions, it is particularly important to make sure they are phrased in a positive manner. Kaye comments that questions negatively accusing rather than positively inquiring such as, “Why would you do something like this?” will only shut down effective listening.

  The repetition technique is another way to build upon the information received throughout a conversation. This technique, which can be used throughout the course of a conversation, is a straightforward method that involves repeating simply a word at the end of the other person’s sentence with the intent to draw the person into saying more. For example, if two colleagues approached one another and the first mentioned she had just returned from a meeting, the second colleague would respond with, “Meeting?” This can continue for quite a while, thus hopefully gaining the desired information.

  The final active listening technique is affirmation. With affirmation, it is important to address each situation with what you know to be true—especially when the situation is potentially risky. Kaye describes a situation of an employee approaching his or her boss with a new idea: “The employee could go in with an affirmation such as, ‘I know you’re the boss and I know you have to the final say on this, and I know you make all the decisions here. Still, I wonder if you’d be interested in hearing about a new idea?’ After hearing those affirmations, most bosses would feel relaxed and willing to listen.”

Watch Your Step
The final facet addressed by Kaye in attempting to communicate more efficiently is the avoidance or elimination of obstacles to listening. These obstacles result from a variety of areas, including: mental, procedural, and situational obstacles.

  Mental obstacles are those that exist in each individual’s mind in one way or another. Whether through prejudice, prejudgment, or just heightened emotions, these feelings can greatly affect the usefulness of any conversation. Kaye points out that because we are human, from time to time most of us hear something that presses our buttons. This is when it’s important to harness our emotions in order to continue with the conversation at hand. “What we need to do,” Kaye contends, “is to grab that surge, recognize that we feel this surge of anger, and let the wave roll by. Then, on the backside, respond in a mature, positive way.” Kaye recommends asking questions like, “Could you tell me more about what you’re saying?” Or, “That sounds like an insult, is that what you intended?” This reflection-type of questioning will help you regain control of the situation.

  Procedures used when attempting to communicate with others can either help or hinder the progress made in any conversation. Procedures that can ultimately lead to failed communication include talking too much, interrupting, and the loss of focus. “Some people believe that talking a lot demonstrates intelligence,” Kaye says, “actually it demonstrates disrespect. When you’re talking, you’re not learning. Most people want to be made to feel important and they’ll feel important if they’re given some air in which they can speak.” Loss of focus can be caused by a multitude of things—from watching others as they pass by to planning what will be said next—not listening to the actual conversation will ultimately inhibit all parties involved.

  Bad situations may be an obstacle commonly present in everyday conversation, but it is also relatively simple to remedy. The most common undesirable situations result from three areas: noise, information overload, and fatigue. Noise, although everywhere, can sometimes distract even the most serious of conversations. Eliminating noise through a location change or other method is vital to effective communication. Information overload may not be as easy to spot, but it can also be fixed. When experiencing this “overload,” interrupting the speaker and taking notes can help sort out the problem. “One way to pace someone else’s talking is to say the words out loud as you write them down,” Kaye recommends. “This tells the person the rate at which you’re processing the information.” The third situational obstacle, fatigue, can be solved with the simple willingness to be honest. From time to time everyone has found him- or herself nodding off despite all attempts to the contrary. Instead of dealing with this, or pinching yourself to stay awake, Kaye recommends mentioning the problem, postponing the conversation, and taking a brisk walk to the water fountain. Although this tactic may seem in some ways inconsiderate, it is important to note that it may be more inconsiderate to miss what is said due to fatigue. “Simply say, ‘I’m suddenly tired and having difficulty paying attention. I know what you’re telling me is important and I want to catch all of it. How about we do this...?’” Kaye says.

  All in all, Kaye finds one overwhelming truth: “Everything is based on compassion for other people. That means recognizing that other people are human beings, just like we are, who have feelings and lives and complications, just like we do. If we acknowledge that, we will treat them with the respect and courtesy we all deserve.”

November 2001 News for a Change Homepage

 In This Issue...
Global Quality from Johnsonville, WI, to Durban, South Africa, with Jennifer James
The Drugs Are
in the Mail

Virtually Amazing
Why Can’t We All Just Get Along
What Did You Just Say?

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

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