What’s Your Communication Style?

At It’s Understood, we have lots of projects on the go. One that’s occupying much of my (Sue’s) time is completing Talk To Me: A User’s Guide To Workplace Communication. I aim to make it available, in February, as a Kindle eBook. (If people like it, we’ll publish for Kobo, iPad, Blackberry Playbook and in traditional book format.)

One of the communication concepts the book tackles is that people have distinct communication styles. Each of us is unique, yet our differences are somewhat predictable.

In my communication coaching, I often use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as a starting point in exploring relationships. That reliable and validated assessment is wonderful, but I needed something simpler to use in workshops and presentations. So I created Communication Styles as a way to highlight the different ways people like to receive and share information, especially in conversation. It’s a fun way to discover why individuals respond differently to your message – and to figure out how to present your ideas so they’ll be understood.

We’ve created an online version of the assessment and a special report that explains how it works. You’ll find the link on our web site (look to your right). It’s free. I love that price. Just sign up with your name and email – and have fun.

As a bonus, signing up also gets you our occasional email update “Be Understood.”


Give them a reason to pay attention!

Cartoon about a conversation that's not workingHere’s a post from Sue’s writing blog that applies to conversation as well as writing.

In my line of work, eavesdropping is research. That may sound like a lame excuse for (rudely?) listening in on other people’s conversations; however, sometimes, they’re simply too loud to ignore. A research opportunity showed up, this week, as I overheard a chat between some people we’ll call Manny and Franny.  . .

Read the rest at Sue’s writing site.

Contrary to popular belief, SLACK is not a four-letter word.

“It’s possible,” Tom DeMarco writes, “to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack.”

The myth of efficiency

The relentless pursuit of efficiency has the unintended result of eroding our effectiveness. Daily, our attention is consumed by the immediate and the urgent. Overall the consequence is less time spent thinking as we are consumed by doing. The capacity to think, create and innovate has been driven out of organizations along with the perceived slack. Somewhere along the line “slack” has become a bad thing.

PuzzleEfficient puzzle?In his book Slack, Tom DeMarco illustrates the issue clearly with a simple puzzle. The challenge is to move the numbered tiles into numeric order.

Filling the empty space achieves an impressive 11 per cent ‘efficiency’ gain but renders us incapable of solving the puzzle. We have no room to move. No slack.

The need for reflection

Our brains filter out most of the sensory data we encounter daily. Yet the connections we make between the information that does register don’t always happen automatically. Sometimes we need to think things through to build relevance, connections and insight in response to what we experience.  For knowledge workers, in particular, this is critical. Gaining insight from thinking is hard cognitive work. We don’t respect the time and conditions needed to do it well. Interrupting a programmer who is working with a complex mental map of a system is guaranteed to cost time and effort  to reconstruct the cognitive state he or she needs to work well.

To a degree, this is influenced by cultural norms. In some countries, a worker sitting quietly at his or her desk, deep in thought, is unlikely to be approached. In North America it’s an invitation to be interrupted.

Stop being busy

The inability to carve out time for reflection can be self-inflicted. We sometimes make poor choices about where to spend the currency that is our attention. A powerful ‘litmus-test’ is a simple question: Is this useful or merely interesting? Pausing to ask this question can steer us to more effective use of our limited attention, time and energy.

Decide where to spend your attention

So how do we create slack for ourselves? There are many sources of advice on time management and setting priorities. Stephen Covey’s matrix has stood the test of time as a useful approach. Assessing activities by contrasting importance and urgency gives us a visual guide to what’s consuming our attention. Working to spend more time in the upper right quadrant (the reflection space) provides the slack we need to think about how to address the important and urgent events in our lives more effectively.

Help for the emotionally inarticulate

Many of us are poor at accurately describing our emotional state. And worse at identifying other people’s. This can be unhelpful when we’re having a emotion-laden conversation.

I think it’s because we tend to have a limited emotional vocabulary. It’s hard to talk about things we can’t name. The words exist – in English there are a few hundred emotion words. The big ones are seldom a problem: joy, sorrow, anger, fear, disgust and surprise. It’s the subtler ones that often escape us. When we seldom use them it’s not surprising they don’t spring to mind when we need them most.

Our brains are highly attuned to the sensation of our own emotions and emotional signals sent by others. But when we’re asked to name these emotional states many of us stumble. It’s like trying to describe a colourful scene when all we know are names of the primary hues – the millions of shades we perceive but can’t easily name remain unmentioned. This can be a hurdle to understanding communication dynamics and to being understood. Especially when we’re not thinking clearly.

Here’s something that may help.

Psychologist Robert Plutchik proposed a visualization of eight primary emotions and their less intense variations arranged in a “colour” wheel that illustrates the interplay of core and related emotions. Using his “Multidimensional Model of the Emotions” we can “mix” emotions to express variations and nuance.

Note: This image has been attributed to Annette DeFarrari , here

Being better able to describe our own emotions lets us interact better with others. This tool can help us stretch our emotional vocabulary to enhance self-awareness and communication. Think of it as an exercise in emotional intelligence.

I hope you find it as useful as I have.

Confronting the Thief of Time.

“Procrastination is the thief of time.” – Edward Young (1683-1765)

We all do it. But for some, the practice of procrastination – delay without good reason, can become a chronic habit.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird , tells this poignant story of the consequences of delay:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Procrastination Venn Diagram

We now know that procrastinaton isn’t a time management issue. There are powerful cognitive issues at play and our brains are not being our friends. But like any learned behaviour, we can displace it with another learned behaviour.

The irony of procrastination is that we succumb to it to feel better (in the short term) but the result is usually the opposite. Annoyance, stress and guilt quickly erode the fleeting sense of satisfaction provided by the distraction of the choice we make in the present moment. Procrastination simply doesn’t make us feel great. This distress seldom prevents the development of a procrastination habit.

A good place to begin

Whatever it is you need to get done – just start. Then revise and improve.
You need to give yourself permission to do less than a perfect job on the first pass. It’s considerably easier to edit, expand or criticize something than it is to wait in suspended animation with nothing in hand.
The key is to assess, realistically, the cost of delay – to you and others. There are many reasons to delay starting. But, at least for me,  the fleeting pay-off of delay seldom exceeds the cost of anxiety.

Two inspirational resources

If Google search results are any indication, I’m convinced interest in conquering the scourge of procrastination ranks with achieving world peace. But among the overwhelming options here are two resources that I’ve found enaging and useful:

Dr. Timothy Pychyl has spent his career exploring procrastination. He makes his research accessible to those who need practical guidance through his blogging at Psychology Today and now, in an excellent short ebook called The Procrastinators Digest. If you want to understand and counter procrastination tendencies I think it’s the best $2.99 you could ever spend.

Dr. Piers Steel conducted a meta-survey of formal academic publications that analysed over 800 scholarly papers on procrastination. This effort, along with his own research, has provided the insight he shares in his new book The Procrastination Equation (available December 28, 2010)

In it Steel debunks long-standing theories (and myths) regarding procrastination and proposes a new explanation that provides guidance towards overcoming our tendencies to delay.  Based on previews and testimonials alone, this is not to be missed if procrastination is on your mind.

If you’re keen to see where you rank in Steel’s procrastination continuum and are willing to further his research you can take his survey.

What’s the flip side? How to create another point of view when you’re stumped.

We all like to think we’re instinctively creative thinkers but we’re not. Overcoming the constraints our existing mental maps impose and the unconscious pattern-matching that filters our senses and thoughts makes the process of thinking of and assessing new ideas hard cognitive work.

So we avoid or are deflected from doing it. When it comes to creative thinking our brains often are not our best allies.

When you feel you’re stuck in a rut, succumbing to groupthink or simply at an impasse with respect to generating options try looking at the flip side.

This is a straightforward technique called “reversal”. Consciously thinking about the opposite position or situation – however contrived – can be a powerful catalyst for new ideas and insight. If you’re trying to change: How can you guarantee the status quo? If you’re trying to improve: What can be done to make things worse?

Sounds too easy? Here are two short videos (~5 minutes total) that drive the point home and provide visual and emotional hooks to hang the idea on.

The first is an award-winning video from UK publishers Dorling Kindersley called the Future of Publishing. It addresses the view that physical books will become less relevant in a digital world populated by a cynical new generation of digital natives. In a stunning (and literal) reversal of the opening argument we may think otherwise (Be sure to watch past the midpoint!)

The second offering comes from Derek Sivers in a presentation made at TED India. He introduces thought-provoking examples from his travels that illustrate viable options exist as opposites to aspects of the world we take for granted in urban western society. His advice: ask the question “Could the opposite be true?”

So the next time you feel blocked in your thinking, whether alone or in a group, try asking: Could the opposite be true? Even if the answer isn’t useful the process certainly will be.