If you’re like me, you spend a large percentage of your day in meetings or on conference calls. While this can be frustrating because it leaves little time to get real work done, it would be even more wasteful if all that time in conversation resulted in marginally useful information exchange, miscommunication and poor decision making. Unfortunately, for most organizations this is the unadmitted norm. Meetings are just not as productive as they could be.
There are lots of structural things we could do to improve the usefulness of meetings, like the knee-jerk reaction to make every meeting have an agenda. Unfortunately, agendas are not the answer. I don’t necessarily disagree with having an agenda, as they can be useful. However, I prefer a purpose statement over an agenda for any interaction an hour or less because it states an intended outcome, not just topics to be discussed. Typically all agendas do is structure the content of the meeting, so you have a structured waste of time. Not sure that’s what we’re looking for.
What we really need for better meetings and interactions are changes to the way we communicate: speaking and listening.
Communication Is Messy — Say Yes to the Mess
If your position going in is that communication is difficult and messy, you can take steps to prepare.
Let’s face it, truly effective communication is not easy. There are too many filters, cognitive biases, distractions, ill-defined terms and of course, those nasty emotions and personal (unpublished and non-productive) agendas. And all of this goes on under time pressures and shifting subjects and audiences from meeting to meeting. If your position going in is that communication is difficult and messy, you can take steps to better prepare for a messy event.
When my daughter Erika was young, she loved to help me in the kitchen. A mess was inevitable. That was just the way that event was going to go. I could have kept her hands out of the mess to spare myself the eventual clean-up, but that would have been no fun. Instead, knowing it was going to be untidy, we prepared for it. A large apron, bigger bowls to crack the eggs in, smaller mounds of flour to spill on the floor, and everything away from the edge of the counter. The point is, a few small changes ahead of time can save a lot of clean-up later. The same holds true for communication.
Don’t Spill Your Thoughts — Distill Them
Most of us don’t have or take the time to properly prepare for an interaction. Consequently, we end up spilling out thoughts like a leaky faucet — or worse, a fire hose — hoping that somehow what we meant to say will get said. We ramble on because we have not rehearsed our thoughts in any way and our speech is an externalization of the poorly formulated ideas running from our mind to our mouth aimlessly.
Mark Twain is credited with saying, “If I had more time I would have written less.” It takes time to organize your thoughts before speaking. We have become so used to ad hoc communication and impromptu conversations that we don’t feel the need to prepare. We end up in a reactive conversation that may not even resemble the initial intent of the communication. Unless you’re in a brainstorming session, this is not a very productive approach. Take time to distill your thoughts before speaking.
Studies show that our conscious minds can only retain a tiny bit of information for about a half minute or less before it is booted out of working memory by a new piece of information. Knowing this, we’d be more effective if we spoke for just 2-3 sentences, and then take a rest to give the other person a chance to absorb or react. This not only lets the other person know they are welcome to join in whenever they want, but also leaves them free to listen without anxiously waiting for you to stop so they can blurt out what they were preparing to say instead of listening intently.
In our teams’ daily scrums, team members are expected to talk for approximately 30 seconds about what they are working on or challenges in their way. Anything longer than that goes to the parking lot, where only those interested will hang around to hear. Not everyone does. In general, people struggle to listen to one person or maintain focus for very long. If people are checking out after 30 seconds, there is not a lot of sense in saying much more. If we understand this, we’ll speak briefly.
Speak More Slowly
Why do we have so much trouble pausing in the course of daily conversational speech or when delivering a presentation? Are we concerned that other people will intervene and not allow us to finish what we are saying (that we didn’t take the time to distill ahead of time)? Or will the break in fluency be interpreted by others as a lack of knowledge or proficiency in the topic that is being discussed?
I think we are just afraid of the quiet nothing. Good public speakers know that no word is ever as effective as the well placed pause.
It can be incredibly helpful to give your words an extra second or two to fully come out of your mouth. Deliberate and intentional pausing is powerful. Periodic pausing allows the person with whom you’re speaking to digest all of the words you’ve just said. Speaking fast creates mistrust, especially when seeking mutual agreement. A slow voice has a calming effect on the listener and creates a tone for collaboration. If we remember this, we’ll slow down and pause a little more.
Listen Deeply — To Others and Yourself
Speaking is only one half of the communication equation. Listening is the other. Think of listening as a gift to the person speaking. We all seek to be fully listened to and understood by others. Listening is a foundational element of building trust and deepening relationships. We all want to be heard, and that’s why we ramble on, wanting to be heard.
More often while “listening” we are really just preparing what we want to say. One way to demonstrate we are truly listening is to maintain the flow of a conversation to completion. Responding to what was just said when someone pauses, instead of shifting to what you were previously saying or to a different topic, reaffirms the speaker. Shifting the conversation breaks the flow of the exchange and can send the message to the speaker that you were not really listening, which is probably true.
When you slow down and speak briefly and concisely, you also give yourself the opportunity to listen to yourself. As you listen to yourself, ask “How else could what I’m saying be interpreted? What assumptions am I making about my audience? Are we all using the same terms to mean the same things?” I’m not suggesting you second guess every word you say, but listening to yourself can give you a whole new perspective on how you communicate. The messier the communication, the more intently we need to listen, to others and ourselves.
So, here’s a challenge. In your next conversation, conference call, or interaction, try these three simple things:
Say what you want to say silently to yourself before you say anything aloud and ask yourself if what you are going to say will improve on the silence.
When and if you do talk, speak slowly, with intentional pauses, for no more than 30 seconds.
Then stop, take a breath, and listen intently with no personal agenda.
One of my favorite things to do with my daughters when they were younger was to go for a ride in the car. We had each other as a captive audience (granted this was before the days of smartphones and Candy Crush), and plenty of time to talk and listen. It was easy to speak slowly and listen intently, allowing space for some silence. Often that was the best form of communication for us.
So, it was no surprise to Erika when I invited her boyfriend of less than six months to take a four-hour drive with me to a speaking engagement. I don’t think he knew what he was in for, but I’m sure Erika did.
And, in case you are still listening, they’re still together.