Communication discussion starter

If communication was a vehicle what would it be?

When doing my workshops, I do like a good analogy. I find that likening one thing to another helps us process what we are talking about and create a mental picture. Because I see a workshop and the discussions that take place as a journey, something that moves forwards and gains momentum as it does so, I frequently use analogies that involve moving. These are often related to vehicles, roads, rivers, maps and journeys, so I have created a short exercise, a discussion starter mapping communication onto different vehicles!

How does it work?

Well, first have a think about communication, what is it, what does it mean, how does it feel. Try to visualise it. Communication means different things to different people, and that’s where things can go a bit awry. So it’s good to create space to discuss it. For some it’s all about clarity, for some it’s about speed, for some it’s about quality. Perhaps listening is most important. It may be the two way nature, or it may be the versatility, or maybe the depth and range of things we can do with communication. It will inevitably be a combination of things, but different combinations for different people. Think for a couple of minutes what it means to you.

Next imagine if your idea of communication could be represented as a vehicle, what vehicle would it be? Perhaps you see communication as something that is slick and efficient, but perhaps (particularly with all the different mediums available to us) it can be a bit high maintenance. Perhaps a high end car. But maybe you think communication needs to be something that glides along smoothly, that you like it to be simple and uncomplicated, maybe that makes you think of a boat gliding down a river. It’s completely up to you.

Then you draw your vehicle.

Communication discussion starter

 

There is no right or wrong answer. I did a workshop recently where someone drew a picture of a tank! They saw communication as a bit of a struggle, and they needed it to be like a tank to get through, to get their message heard. The point is to use this as a discussion starter, to use the analogy to explore what different people think, to gather opinions and to get everyone thinking. One of the things you might find is that actually a certain vehicle is great for a number of things, but that there are many things it cannot do. One mode of transport does not quite represent all the facets of communication. It is a multidimensional thing. This exercise is a way of starting to explore that. From this starting point you may go on to dig deeper into communication problems, challenges, ideas for improvement, setting goals to move forwards, creating actions. But that’s the real heart of the workshop. This is just to warm you up.

It can also be a bit of fun and can be good to break the ice. This analogy can be used for other things too, not just to discuss communication – you can make it about anything you want.

Have a go and I’d love to hear the results, and I’d really like to see some pictures too!

What vehicle did you choose?

How do you create a communication environment that’s right for you?

I’ve just been trying to organise a night out with a group of friends – can’t be that hard can it? Well, Christmas aside, yes it is. And it’s not because we’re all busy (although we are, of course, isn’t everybody?) but because we’re all on different channels. By which I mean, everyone’s on Whatsapp except one person who can’t get into it because she’s forgotten her password. Not an unsolvable issue, but certainly one that might make you not really want to bother. Everyone’s on Facebook messenger except one person who doesn’t like Facebook. Everyone’s able to text but we can’t do a group text/reply and we all have different phone systems. See where I am going with this?

I do rather love a bit of technology, and I wholeheartedly embrace a whole host of Social Media. I am not one of the naysayers, despite my overwhelming love of face to face communication. But amongst the myriad of different issues the world may have with hi tech communication, it is the number of options available that often leave me frustrated. Too much choice can definitely scupper our chances of doing what many of these things are set up to do  –  allow us to communicate effectively.

When you are in a social group, the stakes are low. Someone may get a bit peeved that they didn’t get an invitation to something, and someone else will probably make sure they get the message a different way. But imagine this in a workplace setting. The stakes are far higher; frustration amongst employees, huge amounts of time wasted chasing things, and worse the haemorrhaging of important information. The possibilities for how to communicate are almost endless; Whatsapp, e-mail, texts, Facebook messenger, Slack, Skype, Snapchat, Yammer, the good old fashioned phone, and a whole lots of other things that I don’t even know about. There is rarely just one system, but there are always a lot of different preferences. We all like different things, and we all like to do things in slightly different ways.

So what’s the answer?

Well, one of the things that can be done in a proactive way, to prevent this discombobulated communication is to have a conversation. Get your employees together and create an opportunity for discussion. Whether this is a meeting, or workshop, or discussion forum, face to face communication is definitely the way forward if you want to alleviate misunderstanding and ambiguity.

  • Ask people what they think works
  • Ask them what they think doesn’t work
  • Tell them what the business needs
  • Find out what they need
  • Look for some common ideas
  • Consider some action steps and agreement use

By getting people to work together, face to face, person to person to share their views you will be providing everyone equal opportunity to get involved. That’s not to say you can’t use technology to hold a workshop or meeting of some kind, and how you do it is important. How you have that discussion matters if you want to get the most out of it. But the getting together of people and engaging staff in this way shows that you care what they think. It demonstrates that you want to find the best way of doing things for everyone. And this matters because they are the ones who will be using it.

The only sure way to make sure that you find out exactly what everyone thinks, is to ask. If you do this right you will have:

  • Had an opportunity to share with everyone the systems that are currently in place
  • Found out which ones are used most and which ones are disregarded
  • Deduced which ones work best and in what situation
  • Given everyone the opportunity to say what they think and to ask questions
  • Involved you staff in creating their own solutions, and to have a say in what happens next. This buy in is probably the most crucial aspect. You need people on board, to use the system in the first place for it to work.

If this type of communication conundrum sounds familiar then why not give me a call. I have been working with Gerald Crittle from GAcceleration, an expert in business communication technology to create some workshop packages. The focus of these workshops is internal communication, and more effective meetings, and both workshops have an employee engagement phase, followed by a technical training. The workshops are carefully designed to make sure everyone that needs to be is involved, engaged and on board so that you can create a communication environment that is right for everyone.

 

Awareness in the Fast Lane

When I was growing up I used to do lot of swimming. It’s the only sport I’m really any good at. I don’t like running. Not at all! These days I can still hold my own in the pool even if my butterfly is limited to two lengths before I’m complete custard. And it’s generally the fast lane that I head for when I go to my local pool, along with a lot of other swimmers who clearly think, believe and know beyond a doubt that they are also fast.

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The problem is, that having decided they’re fast, they absolutely need to be in that fast lane.  They have read the sign and that’s that. There’s not much that will move them from the fast lane. Even, it seems the fact that it is packed to the point where its nearly impossible to swim. They seem to be having these conversations with themselves:

“It says fast, so I must stay here.”

“Hmmm, but the medium lane is far less full.”

“But it tells me this is where the fast people need to be. I need to be with the fast people. Here is where I’m staying”.FAST2

I am however hot foot over to the medium lane, which I have checked out and can see is far less full. The “fast lane”label is actually rather defunct as no one is able to swim properly, it’s too packed. But somehow the congestion in the fast lane seems to be created by that word; “fast”. No one else seems to have cottoned on, they are so keen to be fast……..

And for me, this behaviour is all about awareness. Or lack of it. Which amounts basically to carrying on with what you are doing without really thinking about it. Determined to fulfil a goal, without monitoring your progress.

It’s very much like carrying on regaling someone with a tale without realising that they are bored to tears. We all do this sometimes and if you spend any length of time observing people having conversations then you will see what I mean, particularly in groups when there are a lot of different people taking part. It is usually just a few people that find it harder to take on board their surroundings, but in doing so they do show this kind of “plough on anyway” behaviour – I’ve started so I’ll finish as Magnus Magnusson used to say.

This often manifests itself as not listening. But its not just about listening. It’s about paying attention to all sorts of different things going on; it’s the body language, the frequency of exchanges, the types of conversations being had and the level of language used. It’s about hearing responses and connecting them to what you are talking about. Particularly in a group there is always a danger that we just do what everyone else does, what we think is expected of us without actually checking first.

And if you are determined to be in the fast lane regardless you are quite possibly focusing on the wrong thing. You are not seeing that there are other ways to get what you want, to speak to people, to have a conversation. There are other ways to ask questions, tell a story or discuss a problem. If you want to stay fixed to your goal without thinking about the other people around, then you might actually end up achieving it slower. You need to have the buy in of other people into your conversation or it’s not really a conversation, but one way traffic.

So next time you have that “fast lane feeling”, maybe stop and collect yourself a bit. We are all guilty of this trait on one level or another and we don’t always employ our best awareness tactics. I know, really that telling my daughter to put her shoes on in the morning 5 times in a row isn’t effective. Yet I still do it. Maybe if I gave her the chance to finish what she is doing first, we might get better results but somehow my fast lane feeling can sometimes become the default setting when under pressure, when in a rush.

We all sometimes miss the important signs, the subtle things, the less obvious. We are constantly distracted and diverted by our busy lives and our need to get things done. If we take a look at other approaches available to us once in a while and think about the alternatives to steaming on regardless there may be some surprising results.

 

Sorry About the Meetings….What Should we Change?

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I came across an article the other day, talking about something that is, I think, fairly well known, about the way women often struggle with meetings, are perceived as bossy when they speak up and often use apologetic language. I am sure it is not just women that encounter difficulties participating in meetings in crushingly corporate environments. Meetings are a fact of life and teaching people ways to survive and perhaps thrive in such situations (such as those discussed in the article) does sound like a very decent plan . If this was me I would probably love a lifeline like the Get Heard in Meetings Course – workshops in how to do things differently, how to learn poise, speak louder, get yourself listened to. I am a sucker for a good workshop, and this does look fun!

I read this not long after another article about the Google App “Just Not Sorry” that helps women to stop saying sorry via e-mail. And I watched again a brilliant sketch by Amy Schumer “I’m sorry – A Conference Goes Awry” I have seen this several times – it’s also about women saying sorry. This made me cringe and laugh out loud at the same time.

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It is a thing. Women do often say sorry a lot. And it’s not just that, there are many many things about the way we communicate that are vastly different from the way men do. Women fitting into predominantly male environments is not a new topic of discussion. I know that it’s not just about communication and not just meetings, there is far more to these kinds of workplace difficulties where men and women in particular clash. That is a bigger conversation…..

But I confess to being the proud owner and purveyor of “soft skills”, I am a people person and I like it when people get on. I am a facilitator and my job is very much about adapting the environment to include the people. Not the other way around.

So I can’t help thinking that when looking at the bigger picture, this is all slightly back to front. Like most people I have been to all sorts of meetings in my life. Some I have felt comfortable in, some less so and for all sorts of different reasons. True, I have never been employed in a male dominated highly corporate environment, but I have worked and networked with plenty of men. I have facilitated workshops on many occasions where I am the only woman. I have also facilitated meetings. So I do know the scenario, it is not a myth.  And in many situations where you have clashes of communication, culture and style things can be tricky to say the least, and soul destroying at worst if this is your norm.

But it doesn’t make sense that women (or anyone for that matter) should have to learn to behave differently in order to be a part of a meeting. Presumably the people attending the meetings are skilled in their fields, expert and knowledgeable. Is it reasonable to expect them to learn something extra just to be able to share that with people?

I would say no.

Meetings themselves are very often at the heart of the way businesses are run. They are also the bug bear of many. They can be a necessity and a time waster, an efficient way of delivering and discussing information, or completely fruitless. A way of informing and feeding back or a lot of hot air. They are that double edged sword that many people loathe, but we all have to embrace on some level.

What about focusing on running meetings better? Managing meetings so they make space to include the people that need to be included, women and men alike. Rather than sticking to a format that excludes people, necessitating them to learn how to cope, wouldn’t it be better to revisit the way the meeting functions? Using some well founded techniques to encourage people to feel like they want to go to meetings, that they will get a lot out of them and will be able to put a lot in to them is surely a good idea. Much has been written about ways to run meetings better. A good chair or a facilitator, a focus on engagement and a clear agenda are a good start. Teaching people to listen is also a valuable skill that we could all work harder on, and something that goes far beyond meetings. Focusing on the people in the meeting is, I think fairly fundamental – after all, the people are what make the meeting.

Knowing there is a place to learn skills to enable you to get on better in meetings is great. Tools that are out there to help women “manage” their communication (whatever the format) are clearly important. But encouraging people to run better meetings in the first place would be a much larger win, have far wider implications and a much deeper impact. After all, it’s better for everyone when we are all less sorry!

Digital Coffee Break Communication

What would Harrison Owen have developed instead I ask myself, if he had been thinking about the coffee breaks of today? Open Space technology as a facilitation method was developed using the idea of a coffee break, where he realised that the most valuable conversations often happen between meetings, and in coffee breaks. Not in the actual meetings themselves.

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Looking around at many of the participants at a workshop I participated in recently it seemed that most of the conversations in the coffee break were taking place outside the room. Most of the conversations were with other people far away and with people probably doing a million and one things other than being in a workshop. These conversations were the digital kind, the tweeting kind, the messaging kind or the putting comments on facebook kind. Ok, so it was a Social Media course, with perhaps a little extra inspiration to be doing this, but still indicative of the kind of cultural communication shift that frames our coffee breaks these days.

And it wasn’t as if there weren’t any conversations, it was that they were mostly silent and not taking place between human beings sat conversing face to face.

It wasn’t that there wasn’t communication, it was just digital rather verbal.

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And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that the participants didn’t want to talk to each other, we just had, during the workshop which was participatory and engaging in a way that involved everyone and gave us opportunities to talk.

I wonder if it was more to do with the fact that there is an extra dimension to the way we communicate these days, and we somehow need to make space for it. We need to have conversations with each other face to face, but we also crave that interaction with others in another way using the powers of technology. So, having just conversed and discussed and questioned all through the workshop, maybe there was this sense of having had enough of actual people, of being sociable in the traditional sense. And in doing so, using the digital world as some kind of break from verbal interaction people, the need to switch modes, to do something other than talk to each other.

But how does this all fit in, and what is the priority? Surely there is room for both, whether in our every day personal life, or at work. The way we communicate has become super multidimensional. But has something had to give, has one type of communication been diminished at the expense of another? Or are we just adapting in a very fast way, without really knowing about it? Quantity is not necessarily quality, maybe our face to face conversations have become more efficient as we need to ensure we have time for the other types of conversations. Maybe if we equate coffee to actual face to face conversation, we are need to equate tea and herbal tea and smoothies and juices and other soft drinks to the different type of communication available. We like choice, don’t we?

I like to think that there is room for everything, at some point, in its place. But it is a question of balance. And getting that balance right, having the right conversations in the right place, with the right people has perhaps become more complicated. The rules of engagement are constantly changing and the methods that we use to engage so vast and fluid that perhaps we need to take care we don’t get lost in the choices.

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I do like to think that the coffee break to some degree will always involve a bit of banter, and chatter and that there will always be those spontaneous conversations at the vending machine or over the kettle. There is an intrinsic and irreplaceable value in our face to face conversations and interactions. But they are very seldom just face to face for very long and our conversations may need to be created in different ways as people divide their time between the here and now, the face to face and that need to digitally connect.