Communication: Apologies and Forgiveness
Monday, April 8, 2019
Apologies. At some point in life we have all wronged another person and may have hoped for forgiveness. We may be embarrassed by our gaff, unaware we have transgressed or even blamed the other person for the situation. It is important to know that the words “I’m sorry” may not be enough to gain forgiveness.
A thorough apology consists of three parts. The first step is to acknowledge that the transgression was wrong. “I acted unprofessionally when I made sarcastic comments about your report.” This acknowledgment needs to be followed by a sincere apology. “I’m really sorry. I feel awful for my behaviour.” The final part includes an offer of some kind of compensation to the wronged person. “If I act that way again, you can call me on it immediately.” A true apology needs our words, body language and tone of voice to be in sync to send a message of honest apology.
Even the sincerest apology may not garner you immediate forgiveness. Trust has been breached and the wronged party may want to see proof of your sincerity over time. To apologize with no guarantee of forgiveness feels like a risk however it is better for a relationship than no apology at all.
There is also an art to forgiveness. A statement of forgiveness has two parts. The first is an explicit statement. “I was embarrassed by your comments in the staff meeting.” The second half includes implications of the situation and the future of the relationship. “If you speak like that to me again I will not work with you on future projects.”
Take the time to develop the skills of making a good apology. It is more likely to earn you forgiveness and also sets a good example to those around you.
Fern Richardson MBA PHEc
Communication and Writing
Monday, February 4, 2019
Most people who like to write want to provide readers with information that is accessible and easily understood. The following ideas on how to improve nonfiction writing come from author and professor, Steven Pinker.
- Be a reader of good writing. Watch how authors capture your interest and reverse engineer it for your own writing.
- Focus on what the reader knows. This is a challenge as we can’t know everyone that will read our work. Think about what they might need or want to know.
- Have others read your work and offer feedback. If a suggested revision comes from more than one reader or makes good sense to you as the writer then make the change.
- Use technical terms that are easy to understand and remember.
- Watch for overuse of jargon, abbreviations or technical terms. Some specialty language crosses over into common usage but we overestimate how often this happens. When using a technical term or uncommon word add a definition or a few words of explanation. If you can add one or two examples it helps the reader triangulate on the definition. This can increase comprehension and retention of the word or concept. For example, in its early days the internet was often described as an information superhighway.
- Avoid clichés and look for fresh ways to express your thoughts. Use the dictionary and thesaurus. They are your friends and are easy to find on the information superhighway or internet. (You may notice that novel explanations often become clichés over time.)
- A little wordplay and fun, even in serious writing, can be a welcome surprise to your reader.
- Place uncommon words or idioms with simple nouns and verbs.
- Good writing finishes on a strong note and although not commonly used, a one sentence paragraph can provide that strong finish.
- Editing is part of good writing. Take time away and come back to the draft with fresh eyes.
We all have something to say. If we want others to read our ideas we owe it to them to write in an engaging and understandable way.
Fern Richardson MBA PHEc
Communication and Getting a Dialogue
Thursday, September 13, 2018
It can be fun to debate the issues of the day. However, if the issue is important and you value the relationship, consider dialogue over debate.
There are concrete steps to take in preparation for dialogue. You need to know what you want and need from the conversation and the relationship, both now and in the future.
Start with a commitment to dialogue. Discuss what good dialogue means to both you and your partner. This requires careful listening to both sides. It may include things to avoid like “hot button” words, personal attacks, sarcasm and dismissive body language.
Seek common ground. What do you both want or agree on? When we find common ground it makes the discussion of differences go more smoothly.
Look for the value and rightness in all positions under discussion. This helps provide greater common ground on which to build a solution. Consider collaborative solutions as opposed to either/or thinking. The latter is more likely to end in debate as opposed to dialogue.
Finally, put forward solutions in a tentative manner to prevent defensiveness in the other person. It might sound like this:
Here’s what I see…
Here’s an idea that might work for us…
What do you think?
It is easy to go with guns a blazing, into a debate but if you value the relationship and are looking for real solutions to challenges, dialogue will get you there in the long run.
Fern Richardson MBA PHEc
Communication Training and Fessing up
Friday, June 1, 2018
“When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.”
An important part of building relationships is the art of fessing up when you need to admit a mistake or apologize. It can be an uncomfortable situation as we live in a mistake-phobic culture where errors are often linked to incompetence or stupidity. We are also good at developing self-justification for our actions and we may not realize an apology is in order.
Some advantages of stepping up to admit a mistake include setting a good example for those around you and inspiring a possible solution to the situation. Relationship repair is generally easier when dealt with sooner rather than later.
As individuals we need to develop our self-awareness by being a dispassionate self-observer. Watch for the glimmerings of self-justification and nip it in the bud. It is important to be open to the possibility that you can make mistakes. Let go of the need to be right and be willing to learn from your mistakes.
Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc
Communication and Device-free Time
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Our digital devices bring the world to our finger tips. This constant connection can be a two edged sword and we should consider creating some device-free time in our day. To enjoy the benefits and avoid the drawbacks, research suggests some boundary setting techniques to gain the best that technology has to offer.
A phone in plain sight subtly signals our divided attention. It limits how we listen, what we discuss (generally only lighter topics) and the degree of connection we feel with the other people. Few people want to lose their digital connectivity however we can all benefit from using technology with greater intention. Some ways to do this are:
- Create time and space for conversation. In a family this may be phone free time at meals or in the car.
- Know the right tool for the right job. We need eye contact for important conversation. It provides emotional stability and social fluency. Constant phone checking sends the message that the other person is less important and can be interrupted.
- Learn to be comfortable with solitude. Time when we temporarily disconnect allows us to slow down and listen to our own thoughts. This is also time for incubation of ideas and creativity. For example rather than send an immediate response to an email request, send an acknowledgment and request time to think it over and provide a well-considered answer.
- It’s okay to feel bored with a conversation. All conversation has lulls and boring bits. Keep listening to find something that interests you. Researcher Sherry Turkle suggests a seven minute rule. If you are still disinterested with the conversation after seven minutes it may be time to move on.
- Speak up in a difficult conversation. Conflict is a part of life. Learn and use assertive communication skills. It gets easier the more you practice.
- Talk to people with whom you disagree. The goal of a conversation like this is not to convince the other person or be convinced. It is about the exchange of ideas and understanding their view of the world.
- Create some device free time to uni-task. Time spent on a task without interruption increases your performance and decreases stress.
Learn to be comfortable with device-free time. Take the time you need for quality work, creative thinking, self-reflection and meaningful conversation. It’s all about balance.
Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc
Communication and Correct Technology
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Recently my daughter gently corrected me when, in conversation, I referred to an autistic child. She shared with me that the correct term was child with autism. I don’t know about you but sometimes I find it hard to keep up with changing terminology outside my field. Like most of us, I never want to offend others by using an outdated or inappropriate term. However, if you aren’t part of the group or don’t connect with them regularly it can be hard to keep up with changes.
Many times old terms become slurs embedded in our day-to-day language. We are often unaware that the words are slurs. This is especially damaging as slurs, even when used in generic situations, bring up negative connotations about the group. Research shows this affects how the group is treated in the future. Slurs have a long half-life.
When you hear someone use an inappropriate term how can you make a difference? Researcher Benjamin K Bergen has the following suggestions:
- help well-meaning people see the connection between the word and its potential to be inappropriate or hurtful,
- if you are unsure about the appropriate term to use, ask a group member what they prefer.
I appreciated my daughter’s gentle correction and am grateful she brought it to my attention. No doubt about it, I’m a work in progress just like the rest of us.
Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc
Communication Training and Presentation Visuals
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Visuals can enhance a presentation or leave the audience wondering what the heck just happened. Often people are told “don`t read your slides`. This is good advice. Generally, your audience can read and the back of your head is not particularly inspiring. You can take short glances at the screen but fifteen seconds or less should be enough. Avoid planting yourself in the corner of a darkened room and letting the visuals speak for you. If the entire presentation is the visuals then why not email it and save everyone some time. Remember, they asked you to speak because they want to see and hear you.
Are visuals important? Absolutely! I develop my training workshops and seminar content first then create the visual presentation piece afterward. This helps me decide what is most important and what key information needs to be visually displayed. Generally supplementary and secondary points are discussed and not displayed.
When considering the use of a visual ask yourself:
- Will the visual add value and clarity for the audience?
- Why do I think these particular points are compelling?
- Do the points match the objectives of my presentation?
- Am I giving the right amount of information or is there too much clutter?
- Is there a better way to display the information such as drawing a diagram on a flipchart or white board?
I once watched a presenter use fifty slides in a seven minute presentation. It was like watching tennis at Wimbledon being played at warp speed. The audience was so focused on watching the slides whiz by I`m not sure any of the message was absorbed. Although there is no hard and fast number, a rule of thumb is six to ten slides or less for a 30 minute presentation.
When developing your slides, go for minimum content and maximum visual impact. The goal of a visual is to simplify the information. Graphs and charts can be great tools to represent and clarify your data. Here are some guidelines to make graphs and charts work for you:
- Multi-line graphs should show a maximum of three lines to minimize clutter
- Bar charts are easy to produce and give maximum impact
- Stacked bar charts are simple to understand
- Pie charts, especially with floating wedges attract your audiences` eyes
- Graphics that clearly show relationships help the audience understand at a glance.
The use of visuals can put your presentation over the top. However, as my design professor once said, “When you think it needs just one more thing, that`s the time to stop.” Visuals… just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc
Communication Training and Presentations
Monday, July 4, 2016
If you are going to do a presentation you will have an audience. Many times presentations lack impact because the presenter fails to spend enough time thinking about the presentation from the audience`s perspective. What do they need or want from you? A careful audience audit will help you meet their needs. Find out who they are, what they need to know, their level of experience and how they will benefit from listening to you.
Sometimes a speaker is unsure of how to interact with the audience. It’s important to remember interaction indicates the audience is listening. If you hear:
- Agreement with your points from statements made by an audience member respond or acknowledge the comment and thank them for their input
- Additions or follow-up information to what you have presented, thank them as well
- Objections from the audience, paraphrase the point and check for understanding, a gentle disagreement from your perspective may be in order and possible follow-up from you
- Disruptions in the audience or questions which aren’t logical or disturb the flow of your presentation acknowledge them and then bring the talk back and continue.
If you provide an opportunity for questions be sure to listen carefully, confirm your understanding, think about the question`s merit and respond thoughtfully and respectfully. If you receive a multi-pronged question or a request for your response to several related issues:
- Paraphrase to confirm your understanding
- Ask them to repeat themselves if the questions are unclear to you
- Arrange the questions in the order you wish to respond to them
If you are asked a question and you don`t know the answer or it is a question with no answer:
- Acknowledge your inability to answer at present and offer to find out
- Throw the question out to the audience. If there is no response acknowledge it is a challenging question.
If you prefer not to take questions during your presentation give participants a piece of paper to note down their questions or use a ‘parking lot’. A parking lot is a place to gather questions from the group that can be addressed at the end of the talk. It can be helpful for another person to handle the parking lot while you continue presenting.
I believe a great presentation is all about the audience. No matter how comfortable you become with presenting, proper care and attention to your audience never goes out of style.
Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc
Communications Basics - Part 5
Monday, February 16, 2015
Communication Basics- Listening
Previous posts in the Communication Training series included the basic process of communication, barriers to getting the message across and the impact of nonverbal and paraverbal behaviour. This leaves us with what I consider the most important ingredient in successful communication- listening. It has been noted that we have two ears and one mouth which suggests we should probably listen twice as much as we speak. Strong listening skills are critical for effective communication and for many of us, listening may be one of the hardest areas to develop.
Good listeners have a larger listening “tool kit” and some skill applying those tools. This allows them to choose the most appropriate behaviour in a given situation. They consider the communication from multiple perspectives and use their empathy to understand the speaker’s perspective as well as their own. During the conversation effective listeners are self-aware and understand how their reactions may impact the conversation. Perhaps most importantly, good listeners care and strive to be better communicators.
The major skills of effective listening are attending, following and reflecting. Attending skills show we are ready and want to listen. Body language, eye contact and a distraction free environment are examples of attending. Following skills indicate we are still “at home” and want to be part of the conversation. Acknowledgements, prompts for more information and silence are following skills. Reflecting skills show the speaker we understand their viewpoint. We may ask questions, paraphrase, summarize and share our own experience to reflect our desire to understand their communication fully.
Communication is something we all do; however we don’t all do it well! Communication is a complex process. Barriers, nonverbal and paraverbal language and inadequate listening skills are some reasons why this seemingly simple communication process is less than simple. The good news is communication skills can always be developed and improved. Effective communication is within everyone’s grasp.
Communication Basics - Part 4
Monday, February 16, 2015
Communication Basics- Nonverbal and Paraverbal Components
Previous posts in the Communication Training Basics Series looked at the process of communication and barriers that can get in the way of clear communication. Other considerations include both the nonverbal and paraverbal components of interaction.
Imagine this. You are busy at your desk and a colleague walks by coming back from an important meeting with the manager.
Scenario one: Magda is smiling and she moves with quick, confident strides. When you ask how the meeting went she responds with an upbeat, “Fine.”
Do you think Magda had a successful meeting? Why?
Scenario two: Magda is scowling, her shoulders droop; her steps drag as she walks by your desk. When you ask how the meeting went she responds with a short and unenthusiastic, “Fine.”
Do you think Mary had a successful meeting? Why?
As you considered these two scenarios you used interpretation skills in both nonverbal communication, sometimes called body language, and paraverbal communication. Paraverbal or paralanguage refers to the vocal aspects of a communication. Paralanguage provides information beyond the word’s literal meaning. For example Magda’s tone of voice and the nuances in her response result in a different interpretation of each scenario.
If the words, body language and paraverbal component don’t match we put more emphasis on the body language and paralanguage. For example, in scenario two when Magda’s response is “Fine.” her tone of voice and body language tell us things are not so fine.
Reading nonverbal and paraverbal language is an art and a science. Some individuals display obvious signals and others are more contained. Many nonverbal gestures do not translate across cultures. For example, “thumbs up” in North America indicates something positive; in many other countries it is a rude gesture. Finally, the interpretation of communication clues and cues must be considered within the context of the complete message. An individual standing with arms folded across his chest could be: unhappy with the message, standing comfortably, cold or any other number of reasons.
It is important to remember you are both sending and receiving these nonverbal and paraverbal messages during every communication. These nuances form a critical component of the communication process.
Communication Basics - Part 3
Sunday, December 21, 2014
Communication Training- Part 3 Barriers
Previous posts in the Communication Training series highlighted the communication process. There are other factors to consider. For example, can you think of a time when communication went wrong in your workplace? What barriers caused the communication breakdown? What kinds of costs were associated with the miscommunication?
Communication barriers are often grouped under three major headings: physical barriers, word barriers, and emotional or judgment barriers.
Physical barriers can include issues such as hearing loss and environmental issues such as noisy or distracting workplace environments.
Word barriers can be related to grammar and punctuation (especially when communicating in writing); interpretation of the message which is based on the knowledge, education and experience of the individuals; the choice of appropriate language such as technical terminology and jargon; and in English many words have multiple meanings. For example, how many meanings can you think of for the word fast? Dictionary.com provides seventeen adjectives, seven adverbs, one noun and two idioms. Many of the shortest words in the English language have multiple meanings which increase the potential of misunderstanding.
Emotional or judgment barriers may be the most significant of the three barrier categories. We think more rapidly than we speak therefore a common judgment barrier is to prejudge what the individual is saying. We often prepare a response even before they are finished speaking! Additionally, we all carry perceptions, biases and stereotypes which impact our interpretation of the message. Individuals who are preoccupied or emotional can often miss the complete message being conveyed or the nuances being expressed.
When we start to recognize physical, word and emotional or judgment barriers we can correct them during a conversation and minimize the costs of communication breakdown.
Communication Basics - Part 2
Sunday, November 16, 2014
Communication Basics- Richness and Context
In the last post (Communication Basics- Part One) we saw that communication requires a bit of magic in encoding and decoding the message. If that isn’t enough there are a few other wrinkles to add to the communication process. The communication method you choose has an impact on both the intended message and how the receiver understands the message. Should you phone? Text? Talk face-to-face?
The richest method of communication is face-to-face because it includes visual, vocal and verbal cues that impact the message. The telephone is a less rich method of communication as the visual component is missing. Email conveys only the verbal part of a message and is a good example of one of the least rich ways of communication.
Another piece of the communication puzzle is the context in which the communication occurs. We chose to speak differently when we address a customer, our co-worker or the CEO of the organization. Context-related communication differences can also occur because of different physical environments, for example are you in the reception area, boardroom or loading dock.
As previously mentioned, communication is not a one way process. As the sender is creating and sending the message, the receiver is doing more than listening intently to the information. The receiver is interpreting and communicating back to the sender through visual, vocal and verbal means such as smiles, grimaces, nods and questions.
In addition to understanding the complexities of the communication process, effective communicators should consider potential barriers, the role of nonverbal and paraverbal messages and the importance of listening skills which will be discussed in future posts.
Communication Training - The Basics
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Communication Training- The Basic Process- Part One
Everyone knows how to communicate so what’s the big deal? Why provide employees with communication training for such a fundamental human skill? It’s true we all communicate however we don’t always do it effectively. Many of our communication skills are learned from and influenced by observing those around us. The question is how skilled at communication are those role models?
Consider the following workplace scenario: Beth approaches Frank at the front counter and forcefully says, “There you are. I’ve been looking for you. I have a bone to pick with you!” How do you think the rest of the conversation will go? It wouldn’t be surprising if both Beth and Frank go into the conversation with defensive attitudes making the issue more difficult to resolve.
Too often we see communication as a straightforward, one way process. Communication is something we do to others. We see it working like this: I tell you something; you listen carefully and follow my directions. What could be simpler? Unfortunately communication is not that straightforward. In reality communication is a complex process where an intangible thought or idea forms in the sender’s brain. The sender decides how to turn that intangible idea into a tangible message for the receiver. The receiver interprets the message, once again turning it into an intangible thought or idea as they seek to understand the message. As you can imagine there are any number of things that might go wrong as the message is encoded and decoded. Communication training offers ways to build on existing communication skills to overcome many of the common barriers.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series to discover what else is going on in this seemingly simple process.
Communication and Web Post Management
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Do you spend much of your time reading comments posted on websites? Some sites provide the opportunity for a useful exchange and more than a few cause me to question the value of an open opinion forum. Recently I found some great information on how to manage comment posts to create a high value discussion forum for the readers and contributors. The key is to make sure the site is actively monitored to encourage civil debate. Some ideas include:
- Be polite and civil in your posts and comments to set community standards
- Encourage quality contributions by responding personally and publicly to comments
- Differences of opinion are valuable as long as a civil discussion is maintained
- Require real name identity on comment posts. Removing anonymity can bring accountability
- Control the space and remove undesirable comments quickly
- Use strong communication skills to manage the forum effectively and share the community standards you have set
- Delete abusive posts and ban repeat offenders
Research suggests that online conversations work best when the conversation group is smaller. More tightly knit groups develop and the group takes some ownership for managing the discussions. The manager of one forum I use posts a yearly update on forum standards and practices. He doesn’t hesitate to step in with corrective information if a standard is infringed upon.
It takes time and effort to manage a website discussion forum and comments section. It is time well spent to create a useful forum for the exchange of ideas and it adds value to you, your contributors and readers.
Clive Thompson: Smarter Than You Think: How technology is changing our minds for the better. Penguin Press, 2013
Communication and Diversity Training
Friday, April 19, 2013
Canada’s workforce reflects the multicultural face of our country. This diversity brings untold opportunity when we understand and appreciate our differences. Many workplaces offer diversity training programs to help encourage the appreciation of differences. Two important issues these programs address include group norms and stereotypes.
Norms are a standard or pattern of behaviour developed by a group of people. Norms can be positive patterns such as welcoming new employees into the workplace or negative patterns such as avoiding new people in the workplace. It seems norms affect us even when others in our group are not present. As Timothy Wilson says in his book Redirect, “We think about what we think people we care about are doing and what we think they would want us to do.“ (You may want to read that again slowly!) Wilson suggests a successful diversity program should: be sanctioned by those in authority in the organization; encourage a shared common goal; provide equal status for all and; engage the participants in a cooperative activity.
Stereotypes are exaggerated generalizations about a characteristic attributed to a group. Like norms stereotypes can be positive – Canadians are polite; or negative- today’s youth lacks a strong work ethic. Wilson offers thoughts on dealing with racial stereotypes. If we meet someone atypical of the stereotype we hold, we may choose to believe they are an anomaly and still believe the stereotype is true for all others in that group. When we have positive interactions with an individual more representative of the stereotype we hold, we may change our perspective about the stereotype. This can lead us to redraw our mental models and shift our attitude. We redirect our narrative from: “I won’t speak to him as we won’t have anything in common.” to “Maybe we have something in common…I will go talk to him.”
I have found the richest conversations about differences happen in settings where people of diverse backgrounds can share their stories, challenges and observations in a safe and open environment. Everyone walks away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of norms, stereotypes and diversity.
Timothy D. Wilson: Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change. Little Brown and Company, 2011
Thoughts on sending an employee to a training session
Monday, October 29, 2012
Managers often ask me about sending employees for a training session. They have determined the individual has a problem with communication, for example, and are looking for a training opportunity to help the employee improve.
One thing I clarify with the manager is that attendance at a training session may not solve the concern. Does the employee buy in to the idea there is an issue? Is the employee committed to doing things differently in the future? Are supports in place to help the employee after the training when back at work? These questions are critical to achieve successful change.
I also ask if the manager and employee are clear about the issue. For example, if it is a matter of communicating with customers, what are the specific complaints? Do customers feel ignored by the employee? Not listened to? Rudely treated? Unless the employer and employee are clear on the issue it is difficult to target appropriate training.
Another thing I discuss with the manger is the employee’s learning style. There are many ways to help an employee develop new skills. Training sessions work well for some individuals. Others benefit from one-to-one coaching. Perhaps the employee might do better with self-study or a mentoring experience.
Good managers are willing to invest resources in their employees and training should be win/win for both parties. Zero in on specifics and create top value for the resources invested.
Communication and Multiculturalism
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
The face and flavour of Canada reflects its multicultural policy. Whenever I talk to people from other countries I’m reminded of the challenge in moving between cultures. The immigrant experience is a lesson in bravery! In her fiction new book, How it all Began, author Penelope Lively explores issues of learning a new language and culture. The thoughts of her character Anton, a recent immigrant to England, describe this challenge:
“And parallel to this perverse, obstructive language (English) ran the words in his own head, the easy fluent eloquence of his own tongue. When in a foreign country , he thought, you are behind a fence, or in a cell- everything is going on around you but you are not quite part of it. You open your mouth and you sound like a child: you know that you are someone else, but you cannot explain it.”
We are the product of the culture in which we are raised and we are often unaware of those underpinnings and the impact it has. It’s more than a different language and includes fundamental ideas and worldviews. Some concepts are simply untranslatable across cultures and language. For example in a recent a communication workshop a participant from Romania explained there is no word for empathy in the Romanian language. The Japanese have a word, umami, which describes the meaty flavour imparted from certain amino acids- a flavor taste beyond the western idea of sweet, sour, salty, bitter.
In his recent book Redirect author Timothy Wilson discusses the challenges of cultural stereotyping and the limited success of workplace diversity training programs. It seems we are often hesitant to approach others from a different culture, each fearing the other person won’t want to interact with us. Overcoming this hurdle and conversing with others is the key to help us move beyond; “They are different than me.” to “Hey, we have something in common.” Strive to create connections by looking for common ground in your next conversation. It could be that gardening, children or a love of hockey is the starting point to successfully bridge the multicultural divide.
Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc
Penelope Lively, How it all Began. Viking Press, 2011 p. 67
Timothy D. Wilson: Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change. Little Brown and Company, 2011