Grasp the missing link that will power your interactions

She came into my training workshop, and from the look on her face I knew she'd be trouble - the one to challenge me throughout the day.

She sat heavily and let out a sigh, glancing disdainfully at the training materials in front of her. “Yep, ” I thought to myself, “there’s always one”.

As I got the day underway, I could hear her muttering in a critical tone to the guy beside her. I asked participants to share one word they associated with "influential communication". Someone said "apprehensive", others used equally tentative language. What did she say? "Confident" - and I didn’t doubt her for a second. This lady thought she already knew everything about the subject matter, and I hadn’t begun.

Later, when I asked the group to stand and change seats, guess who doggedly stayed put and let everyone move around her. I tried to joke about it and she rolled her eyes and offered smugly: “Well, why should I move when everybody else is moving?”

Despite my one problem child, the day was going well. During the lunch break I stole five minutes of sitting time in a quiet corner and was surprised to see her approaching me.

“Sitting on your own isn’t a good look,” she started and my heart sank. I thought, "Great, I’ve managed to snatch a few moments of peace and she's about to ruin it."

We chatted and she loosened up a little. I asked which floor of the building she worked on and she responded that she normally worked from home as she lived some distance away. I asked  where, and we then had one of those interactions where the other person keeps repeating "you're kidding me!"  Not only did we live in the same suburb of the same regional city - more than an hour away from the training location - we lived around the corner from each other.

From that instant, our relationship transformed. Next thing, she was laughing and telling me what she did on the weekend, and we were comparing notes about living in a wonderful part of the world away from the bustling city.

The afternoon session took on a completely different flavour. Far from being the thorn in my side, she became my greatest ally; offering supportive comments and happily taking part in all the discussions.

At the end, when everyone was sharing what they’d taken away from the day, she was enthusiastic in describing her key learnings and what she would apply. It was a massive turn around.

Pondering it later, one word stood out in my mind. Rapport.

It’s so easy to form a negative impression of someone in the first few seconds of encounter. By finding something that connects us as humans -  in this case  accidentally -  we can achieve great things.

Often, our day-to-day busy-ness gets in the way of building rapport with those around us. We race in and out of meetings and have rapid-fire conversations where we quickly say our piece and escape. Taking a few seconds to go deeper and explore the element you have in common with can make a significant difference to everything you do.

What can you do today to build rapport? You'll also be strengthening trust and nurturing valuable relationships that can power you towards shared results.

The formula for standing out - from a world-renowned speaker

I’ve been guilty of this, and wonder if you have too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that to stand out in business - or even as an individual - you need to do something splashy and innovative to get attention.

I was reminded recently that doing simple things well is the formula for success.

Amanda Gore graces the global stage in front of hundreds and thousands of people. She doesn’t turn up in a slick business suit and reel off trendy catch phrases. She has a straightforward message about bringing more joy into your life and work - and she delivers it in a way that's honest, authentic Amanda.

Watching her in all her simple magnificence, three key elements resounded for me:

1.     Be yourself.

Amanda might speak in front of huge audiences but she's also humble and down to earth. She is herself whether on stage or off, reminding me that creating a lasting impression doesn't come from sounding important. It’s about being the best version of yourself.

Coupled with that authenticity is a sense of wicked fun, unifying large groups of people in shared laughter. Ironically, Amanda stands out because she doesn’t try to do so. She seeks to blend in, to relate directly to the issues, challenges and funny moments experienced by her audiences. 

2.     It’s all about them.

I’ve heard this message many times and I use it frequently in my own workshops and presentations - and Amanda Gore embodies it. During every moment in front of an audience, she  demonstrates her concern and care for the individuals she's speaking to. When she presents, her attention is outside of her own body and focused on the value she can deliver to those listening.

One of her techniques is internalising her content rather than rehearsing it. Her material is second nature through many hours of preparation, but just before stepping on stage she lets it go. The whole experience is about the audience and what they need.

That means content often doesn't come out in the planned order, and the presentation isn't perfect in a technical sense. What it is, however, is real and genuine - delivering the messages people need to hear,  right where they are.

3.     Hard work.

Like anyone who is a master of their craft, Amanda makes it look effortless - like she just jumped out of bed and came up with some life-transforming messages on the spur of the moment. But by her own admission she continuously studies. Even though she’s one of the world’s most successful speakers, she has mentors and regularly attends training in specific areas.

It’s a reminder that we never truly get there, no matter how successful we might feel. There’s always more to learn, always a new way to bring something even better into your life.

 

These ideas aren’t new, but I suspect most people don’t apply them in their every day world. What can you do to be more of yourself when relating to others?

How can you make sure that whenever you interact with another, you focus on them, truly connect with them?

What are you doing to continually learn?

If you want to be a stand-out, do the simple things really well.

The simple concept that could create your life shift

Do you have days when your confidence deserts you?

I’ve noticed confidence - or lack of it-  isn’t tied to position or job title; some senior executives shy away from situations that require putting themselves out there.

Natural confidence is distributed unevenly across the population; some have lots of it, many can find it sometimes but not always, and a percentage struggle to latch onto it at all. In my programs, I've found the number one issue that hinders effective communication is lack of self-belief.

I’m not talking about a specific situation that makes you nervous. I’m referring to a deep inner feeling that can undermine your ability to perform at your best. That nagging voice in your head keeps questioning whether you’re up to the task.

Based on my own journey, I know there's no quick fix for a self-belief reservoir that’s run low. It’s more like a life’s work to make sure it’s constantly being refilled. What I’ve learned, though, is that small, daily steps make a huge difference.

I discovered this after a particularly nasty relationship breakup many years ago. My confidence evaporated and I could barely manage to function, let alone behave confidently in a professional setting.

Clutching for an anchor, I stumbled across some writings by Louise Hay. I’d never heard of her, and I was completely new to the concept that your thoughts have a dramatic impact on what happens in your life.

I devoured her entire library; it was like discovering an immense revelation. I realise some people consider Ms Hay's work too simple to be effective, but I found the opposite was true. The very simplicity of her message made it work.

A concept that changed my world was the notion that suggesting thoughts to yourself could shift your mindset and behaviour. I was skeptical at first - I mean, what a naive idea - but decided to give it a try.

One recommendation was to repeat the affirmation “I approve of myself”. The first few times I did it, I felt like an idiot and was glad no one was watching. Louise suggested saying it hundreds of times a day, regardless of whether it felt true. If negative thoughts cropped up, she recommended repeating it even more.

I figured I had nothing to lose, so over the next few weeks I became a self-approving parrot, repeating my mantra over and over.

Nothing dramatic happened at first, but gradually I saw changes. I began to look at myself differently. I actually felt different. What was even more convincing was that other people began to notice. My friends commented that I looked happier, the "vibe" about me had changed. Then, various personal and professional relationships started to improve. Conversations I’d found difficult became much easier.

Ultimately, I began to have an incredible sense of what I now recognise as joy bubbling up inside me. It's the biggest life shift I've ever experienced - from such simple beginnings.

In the intervening years life has taken many turns. Another big lesson is that building self-belief is like having a shower; you can’t do it once and forget about it. It’s an ongoing practice; something you need to experience daily.

Saying affirmations is a starting point. It lays a firm foundation for many other actions that build confidence and self-belief. It's about getting the inside right, setting a platform that enables you to layer many other skills like effective networking, public speaking and leadership.

You might be able to fake some communication abilities, but it won’t mean much if you don’t feel good within yourself. If lack of confidence resonates with you, work on the inside as well as your external skills and you’ll significantly boost your results.

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The lesson in a coffee cup that will make you a better communicator

As I arrived, bleary-eyed, at the busy airport terminal for an early morning flight, I had only one thing on my mind – caffeine.

I hadn’t been to this airport before. After going through security I headed straight to the one coffee shop in sight.

There was a queue for ordering, but it could have been worse. A horde of peopIe converged on the cafe after me, and I was relieved I'd reached the line-up just ahead of them. By the time I clasped eager hands around my coffee, the queue snaked away from the cafe's counter across the terminal space.

It was only then, when I moved away from the crowd, that I realised the space opened up to a whole food court containing numerous coffee shops - with no queues and very few customers.  I’d had to battle the hordes for somewhere to sit but here, at these previously hidden outlets, there were plenty of seats.

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I had to chuckle at myself. When I entered the terminal, I was so fixated by my quest for coffee I could only see the one cafe.  Like a sleep-deprived sheep I'd headed straight for the crowd, believing it was my only chance at a caffeine hit before boarding (and after all that, the coffee was only average). I didn’t look further than what was right in front of me, even though logic would suggest a city airport would have more than one coffee shop.

So what does coffee have to do with communication? This incident reminded me of a common trap for many of us. Whether at work or in our relationships with friends or family, we can fool ourselves into believing we're good listeners; skilled at extracting meaning from others. What we're more likely to do is latch onto the obvious comment or facial expression in front of us, when there could be a whole host of other meanings lying just beneath it.

In Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny and Ron McMillan, the authors describe the "path to action" we commonly take when communicating. We see or hear something, then tell ourselves a story about it based on our own back story and experience. That story might be very different from the facts, but that doesn’t stop us.

We then allow the story to fuel our emotions. We think we’re reacting to the situation when we’re actually reacting to the story we’ve told ourselves. That reaction then leads us to take a particular course of action, which might be completely at odds with the facts at the heart of the matter.

What stories are you telling yourself that get in the way of healthy communication? It's important to clarify the facts first, before your story leads you to do or say something that takes the situation in the wrong direction and potentially harms the relationship.

If I hadn’t spun myself the line that the airport cafe must be the only one in this hemisphere, I would have avoided a lengthy queue and enjoyed a better coffee in a quiet environment. 

Outstanding communication skills are much more than a "nice to have" if you want to succeed in your career, in business and in life.  Rather than wasting time on misunderstandings, be the one who takes the communication back to the facts.

Get curious, clarify, truly listen to the other person and aim to reach a shared meaning rather than firing yourself up on your own version of the story. Not only will you build your own credibility, you'll be adding a huge amount of value for those around you.

The downside of too much or too little leadership communication

I once had a boss who had a visibility problem. He believed he was good at giving orders from a distance, but lacked connection with his teams.

He had good reason for thinking that way. He spent most of his time in his magnificent office, behind two beautifully crafted timber doors. It was easy to admire the workmanship in those portals, because they were usually closed. Not surprisingly (to everyone but him, it seemed), staff gave his office a wide berth.

As the newly-arrived communications manager at the time, I was asked if I could help. At the risk of stating the bleedin' obvious, I suggested that an open-door policy would be a good start.

The response I received was interesting, to say the least. “I tried an open-door policy but it was a disaster. Everyone kept wanting to see me!” he lamented.

It was clear from that conversation the problem wasn’t the closed doors; it was the attitude of the person sitting behind the closed doors. He might have said he wanted better relationships with his teams, but he preferred the distance created by physical and other barriers.

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Great leaders need strong visibility in their business. With all the digital platforms available today, there are many ways to engage with employees across the organisation. But how much communication is too much? Is punching out the occasional blog too little?

I heard a great analogy recently. Imagine you're at a dinner party, seated between two very different guests. On one side you have the reluctant conversationalist; a reticent type who mumbles in monosyllables. It takes all your resolve and enthusiasm to keep the conversation going.

Seated on the other side is the blabber; you know the type, the person so full of how awesome they are they can’t wait to share it with you - including everything they’ve done for the past year.

Which way do you turn at the table? Which neighbour makes it easier to build rapport? An early exit from the table seems the most appealing approach. 

Leaders can fall into the trap of being one of these types of party guest; either reluctant to engage so people feel they have to drag information out of them, or oversharing to the point that it's overwhelming and uncomfortable. Like those fairy tales say, it’s a matter of getting it just right.

Some leaders strike a great balance. Rather than posting continuously in a one-way information barrage through the business communication channels, they mix it up by sometimes posting content and at others asking questions and engaging with those who put forward their views. On other occasions, they show support by simply liking what others post.

It used to be part of the communication team's role to produce content on behalf of the business leader (I’ve done plenty of that myself over the years). These days, those who support leaders give them a far more valuable gift by building the leader's capability to engage in their own right; creating their own posts and conversation initiatives rather than having professional communicators do it for them.

If you're a leader, be visible in the right proportions. Communicating with people in your own authentic voice builds credibility and respect; both vital in this reputation-driven economy.

Are you "staff first" when it comes to communication?

I spoke this week at a conference on internal communication, and also had the benefit of listening to other leaders in this vital field.

There was a common theme in the room; communicating with employees is the glue that holds your business or organisation together. Yet it’s often a forgotten element, both in day-to-day activities and when major projects or changes are on the horizon.

Currently, I’m involved in a project that didn't start well. When it kicked off, communicating with staff was the last thing on the business’s leader's mind. When I suggested he should take a staff first approach, he looked at me like something radical had come out of my mouth.

People in your business are your most powerful reputation ambassadors. They should be the ones you talk to first, before you go to outside audiences.

An interesting topic at the conference was the growth of email tracking platforms for communication within organisations. There are many of these tracking programs, including PoliteMail, Convo, TailoredMail, and Bananatag to name just a few.

I don’t propose to recommend or critique any of them, but their brand promise might appeal to those looking to improve engagement with teams inside their business.

Whether we like it or not, email is still a key plank of the way we reach employees. We all whinge about it, yet for many of us it's still our go-to channel. Having a method to track emails serves some useful purposes.

1.     Gathering statistics

Internal communication is traditionally the poor relation in the broader communication family. Getting solid data on what employees are reading and when, can be powerful when it comes to seeking more resources or tweaking your approach to internal communications.

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2.     Allocating resources

If you know what’s working, where and when, you can better decide how communication resources are allocated. That’s very valuable at a time when communication staff have never had more to juggle and more pressure to protect the reputation of the business.

3.     Reducing email overload

This is the one that really resonated with me. Is there anyone out there who’s not drowning under emails?

Research by the Radicati Group in February this year estimated the number of emails sent worldwide every day is now 205 billion - which means nearly 2.4 million emails are sent every second! No wonder we’re all overwhelmed.

Tracking your internal communication emails lets you know who has opened and read your message. If it’s an important piece of information (and if it’s not, why are you emailing it?) you can use another means, like a phone call, to follow up those who don’t open or read it. Even better, you can leave alone the people who have already got on board with your message.

This simple benefit of a tracking tool could be useful in any business where email content has been cheapened by an oversupply of meaningless or less important messages.

 

Whether you have a tracking program or not, the over-arching principle remains the same. Communicating with your team is critical. You can’t hope to have an outstanding reputation in the outside world if you don’t communicate first with the people who matter most; those inside your business.

You can't simply be good at what you do; you must be known for it as well

Most people would agree that having a positive reputation - individually and as a business - is critical for survival in today’s economy. Once lost, a personal or professional reputation can take a lifetime to rebuild.

I’m enjoying reading The Reputation Game by David Waller and Rupert Younger. Their insights are a reminder that we have various reputations, depending on the audience we’re dealing with at the time.

It’s possible to enjoy a great reputation with one group, for example your staff, yet have a less-than-perfect reputation with other audiences, such as the broader community or the business world. It’s important not to assume that just because you’ve got a good reputation in one area, it's replicated across all audiences.

Waller and Younger also point out that there are, in fact, two types of reputation; your capability reputation and your character reputation.

Your capability reputation is what others think of your ability to do what you do; your skill set, experience and expertise. Your character reputation, on the other hand, is what they think of you as a person.

It’s possible to have completely different reputations across these two areas at the same time. For example, at work you could be known as someone who’s brilliant at their job and always delivers results, but on the personal front you might be considered abrupt, disorganised or even distracted or over-emotional. Conversely, you could be renowned as the nicest person in the business, but unreliable when it comes to getting things done.

The same can be said for a business as a whole. An organisation can enjoy a fabulous reputation for products or services and at the same time be known as difficult to deal with. Or, they can be a joy to buy from but the products themselves leave a lot to be desired.

When considering your branding - whether personal or organisational - remember the two  types of reputation and the fact that you can be perceived differently across different audiences.

Of course, reputation is what other people think of you. It’s their collective perception that makes up that elusive dimension that precedes you and sticks like glue . But, you can influence your reputation by what you do and say and how others directly experience you.

Waller and Younger indicate that people tend to be more forgiving of flaws in your capability reputation, but your character reputation is truly precious, volatile and easily changed for the worse. That explains why businesses that have gone through highly public crises for bad behaviour can still enjoy a positive reputation for their strongly branded products or services.

Take every opportunity to build  capital across the full scope of your reputation, every day. It’s something many people take for granted  - but they'll certainly notice when it’s not there.

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How Simple Skills Get Communication Cut-through

There's been plenty in the media lately about the gender pay gap and the challenges faced by women in leadership roles.

It was refreshing to hear powerful messages recently from a senior leader in the NSW government who's been quietly getting on with the job, taking on a series of male-dominated roles during her impressive career.

As she explains, she didn't always know she was the first woman to go into a role; it was only when she got there that she realised she was actually blazing a trail.

What particularly impresses me about this leader's style is the care she takes in getting to know individual staff even though she manages a large agency. She describes how she makes it her business to have a one-on-one with every staff member in her extended team, even driving long distances to meet with individuals based at remote locations.

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She always asks them five questions:
1.     Tell me about your job
2.     What do you like about your job?
3.     What don't you like about it?
4.     How can I support you in your role?
5.     What can we as an agency do better to deliver the services we’re here to deliver?

Asking and really listening has enabled her to build a powerful profile of the agency's capabilities along with a strong network of support. She can make confident decisions based on direct information from those at the coal face.

Often in the digital age we rely on technology to do the communicating for us - but nothing beats face to face communication, however inconvenient it might seem.

Being able to look into the other person's eyes, read their body language and make a personal connection cuts through much of the noise that gets in the way of emails and other more distant forms of interacting.

It's clear to me why this manager has enjoyed such a successful career and no doubt has an even brighter future. She also shared a wonderful quote (and I hope I’m expressing it correctly).  Written in her autograph book when she was a child, by her grandmother,  it goes like this:

“Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.”

 

Should Skydive Australia have taken the red pen to this statement?

When it comes to crisis communication, where does a business draw the line between empathy and "business as usual"?

Skydive Australia (Skydive the Beach Group Limited) a successful and reputable young company, has found itself a key player in Friday's skydiving tragedy at Mission Beach in Queensland in which three people died.

The incident, which is now being investigated, is believed to have involved a collision between a solo skydiver and tandem skydivers.

It’s interesting to note that while Skydive Australia has been quoted in media reports, its own public communication channels remain largely silent about the tragedy.

The company’s Facebook page makes no mention of it. The Skydive Australia website contains a sole statement - difficult to find in the Investors section - which acknowledges the tragedy and sends "heartfelt condolences" to the families of those who died, then moves immediately to expressing how the company is looking forward to recommencing operations shortly at Mission Beach.

At the same time, its website home page expounds that “we’re energetic, experienced and committed to making your skydive a safe and memorable experience you'll never forget.”

At its most basic, effective crisis communication needs to include three elements: 

  1. What happened
  2. Empathy for those affected
  3. Action steps - what happens next

I believed that at this stage it's simply too soon for the company to express eager anticipation about recommencing operations at Mission Beach. A critical incident is not business as usual. How a business responds amid such a tragedy often determines how quickly it re-establishes reputation and builds valuable resilience tools from the lessons learned.

When the operators of Dreamworld talked about plans to reopen the amusement complex after last October's tragedy which claimed four lives on the Thunder River Rapids ride, they were widely criticised and the reopening plans were quickly put on hold. So far at least, Skydive Australia has been fortunate to escape such media scrutiny.

That may be because there's a community belief that skydiving is inherently more risky than taking an amusement ride. It might be because some of the players in the Dreamworld tragedy were seen as “tall poppies” and became media targets – not helped by the fact that they got it so wrong immediately after the event.

In any case, Skydive Australia would be wise to learn from the Dreamworld tragedy. Go softly, go slowly, and remain humble. Acknowledge the facts of what happened; don't ignore them in your public communication and don't be over-eager to restore usual operations.

Should Skydive Australia have taken the red pen to this statement?

 

Dr Neryl East is a speaker and trainer on reputation credibility and communication. www.neryleast.com

Blurred lines, quick posts and your career

Have you posted something on social media that you've later regretted?

Maybe it caused you embarrassment - or perhaps it had more serious implications.

However much we try to play it down, the actions we take online have a direct impact in our offline world - as one employee of a small business recently discovered.

Here are my thoughts on the blurring of lines between our public and private lives.