Humor, used effectively, can defuse tense situations. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for using humor to defuse tension and bring confrontations, meetings, and conversations back to a place where thinking can resume. Available here and by RSS on April 29.
And on May 6: Compulsive Talkers at Work:Part I
Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about, or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do about this? Available here and by RSS on May 6.
Most of us have to talk to other people at work. Whether to peers, subordinates, or superiors, sometimes we must convey information that can be complicated when delivered in full detail. To convey complicated ideas effectively, avoid suspense.
When people relate stories at work, what seems important to one person can feel irrelevant to someone else. Being subjected to one irrelevant detail after another can be as exasperating as being told repeatedly to get to the point. How can we find a balance?
Detecting lies by someone intent on misrepresentation is an important skill for executives, managers, project managers, and just about anyone involved in knowledge-oriented organizations. Here's Part III of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
Virtual presentations are unlike face-to-face presentations, because in the virtual environment, we're competing for audience attention against unanticipated distractions. Here's Part II of a collection of tips for masterful virtual presentations.
Virtual presentations are like face-to-face presentations, in that one (or a few) people present a program to an audience. But the similarity ends there. In the virtual environment, we have to adapt if we want to deliver a message effectively. We must learn to be captivating.
Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases — let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content, even when what they contain is little more than "um."
When we address others, we sometimes use filler — so-called automatic speech or embolalia — without thinking. Examples are "uh," "um," and "er," but there are more complex forms, too. Embolalia are usually harmless, if mildly annoying to some. But sometimes they can be damaging.
When we use the hurtfully dismissive remarks of others to make ourselves feel bad, there are techniques for recovering relatively quickly. But we can also learn to respond to these remarks altogether differently. When we do that, recovery is unnecessary.
Targets of dismissive remarks often feel that their concerns are being judged as unimportant, which can be painful when their concerns are real. But there is an alternative to pain. It requires a little skill and discipline, but it can work.
"Never mind" can mean anything from "Excuse me, I'm sorry," to, "You lame idiot, it's beyond you," and more. The former is apologetic and courteous. The latter is dismissive and hurtful. We have dozens of verbal tactics for hurting each other dismissively. How can we recognize them?
Team leaders often facilitate their own meetings, and although there are problems associated with that dual role, it's so familiar that it works well enough, most of the time. Less widely understood are the problems that arise when other meeting participants make facilitation suggestions.
In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation can be challenging for some.
Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.
We have choices about how we conduct social transactions — greetings, partings, opening doors, and so on. Some transactions require that we collaborate with others. In social transactions, how do we decide whose preferences rule?
Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand. Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
In virtual or global teams, conversations are sources of risk to the collaboration. Because the closed-loop response time for exchanges can be a day or more, long-loop conversations generate misunderstanding, toxic conflict, errors, delays, and rework. One strategy for controlling these phenomena is anticipation.
In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question. Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could change our lives.
If you have more than ten days of messages in your inbox, you probably consider it to be bloated. If it's been bloated for a while, you probably want to clear it, but you've tried many times, and you can't. Here are some effective suggestions.
Modern team efforts almost certainly involve teleconferences, and many teleconferences include presentations, often augmented with video or graphics. Delivering these virtual presentations effectively requires an approach tailored to the medium.
At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing comity by slowing down.
When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
Communication templates are patterns that are so widely used that once identified, nearly everyone recognizes them. In this Part II we consider some of the more toxic — less innocuous — communication templates.
Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.
We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
In the modern organization, it's common to have meetings in which some people have never met — and some never will. For these meetings, which are often telemeetings, an agenda isn't enough. You need a program.
Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.
Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary, devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope with them?
When leaders try to motivate organizational change, they often resort to clever sloganeering. One of the most commonly used slogans is a definition of insanity. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't pass the sanity test.
Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather, they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to do to improve your empathy skills.
Ever had one of those forehead-slapping moments when someone explained something, or you suddenly realized something? They usually involve some idea or insight that would have saved you much pain, trouble, and heartache, if only you had known.
Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the headline first, and then offer the details.
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection. Here are some of them.
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect it if we know their techniques.
At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing more effectively?
Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships, and create an atmosphere of fear.
The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you and your message.
Condescending remarks hurt. When we feel that pain, we often feel the urge to retaliate, even when retaliation might not be appropriate. Our responses are more effective when we understand where condescending remarks come from.
Condescension is one reason why healthy conflict becomes destructive. It's a conversational technique that many use without thinking, and others use with aggressive intention. Either way, it can hurt everyone involved.
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
Whether you're a CEO or a project champion, you occasionally have to persuade decision-makers who have some kind of power over you. What do they look for? What are the key elements of an effective pitch? What does it take to Persuade Power?
Whether you're a CEO appealing to your Board of Directors, your stockholders or regulators, or a project champion appealing to a senior manager, you have to "sell uphill" from time to time. Persuading decision-makers who have some kind of power over us is a challenging task. How can we prepare the way for success now and in the future?
When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use is very common.
Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
When we offer a contribution to a discussion, and everyone ignores it and moves on, we sometimes feel that our contribution has "plopped." We feel devalued. Rarely is this interpretation correct. What is going on?
Probably the most widely used tactic of persuasion, "What's In It For Me," or WIIFM, can be toxic to an organization. There's a much healthier approach that provides a competitive advantage to organizations that use it.
"Would you like some feedback on that?" Uh-oh, you think, absolutely not. But if you're like many of us, your response is something like, "Sure, I'd be very interested in your thoughts." Why is giving and receiving feedback so difficult?
Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage organizational rumors?
In tense discussions, the language we use often contributes to the tension. If we can transform the statements we make about each other into statements about ourselves, we can eliminate an important source of tension and stress.
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the group toward joint problem solving.
One of our great strengths as Humans is our ability to name things. Naming empowers us by helping us think about and communicate complex ideas. But naming has a dark side, too. We use naming to oversimplify, to denigrate, to disempower, and even to dehumanize. When we abuse this tool, we hurt our companies, our colleagues, and ourselves.
Have you ever heard nasty rumors about yourself? When rumors are damaging, they can hurt our careers, our self-esteem, and even our health. Sadly, our response to rumors often compounds the serious damage they do.
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
I recently upgraded my email program to a new version that "monitors messages for offensive text." It hasn't worked out well. But the whole affair got me to think about everyday phrases that do tend to set people off. Here's a little catalog.
"If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope" tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks that push our buttons.
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