Conversation/Communication Archives

Image and video hosting by TinyPicIf you’d like to get better at everyday communication… or want to improve the writing or speaking you do for the public, such as blog posts, lectures to students, sermons, presentations at work, etc… then the below formula will help you.

Every communication should have what Aristotle called: logos, pathos, and ethos.

Logos – Something for the mind. This could be a new piece of information or tip that the reader/listener can apply. It could be a story that doesn’t outright teach but lets the reader come to the conclusion himself. It is the substance of what you are saying/writing. Make sure you actually have something to say and don’t tell them something they’ve heard hundreds of times already.

Pathos – Something for the emotions. Ask yourself how you want the reader/listener to feel afterwards. Uplifted? Sad? Motivated? Angry and ready to take action? When your reader/listener is feeling that particular emotion they will be more interested in what you say.

People tend to remember how you make them feel more than what you actually say. Also, they are going to feel a certain way afterwards anyway, even if you give it no thought, so you might as well give this consideration while preparing.

Above all, you should avoid making them feel bored. Get to the point. If you have a clear beginning, middle and end to your communication, it will help you avoid the trap of writing/speaking in circles until you find something to say.

I have several blog posts sitting in my draft file because I don’t have a good beginning or middle or conclusion to them. I’ve ditched many drafts of writing projects for clients for the same reason. Perhaps the most common mistake I see is when a writer/speaker has only a middle and no beginning or conclusion.

If your topic is dry in nature, you can still alleviate the boredom by making it more fun by adding visuals such as a video, photos or clip art, or telling an interesting story associated with the topic. The fun factor doesn’t have to be of the “hahaha” variety, but simply anything that helps make your reader/listener feel more energized by what you have to say.

Ethos – Something for the imagination. The reader should be able to imagine how your message will apply to their life. It should be clear to them what they are to do with your information. Don’t leave them hanging.

Speaking/writing is a two way street: you communicate your message and the reader/listener runs with it. It’s not all about you.

The word “imagine” is one of the most powerful words you can use. Storytelling is the best device for engaging the imagination of your readers/listeners and for applying this entire formula.

(H/T – Getting The Word Out Hollywood Style)


A street fight with vulnerability

Below is a TED talk by Brene Brown about the role of shame and vulnerability in how we connect with other people.

She has a Ph.D. in Social Work and, while doing research on what makes connection unravel, she discovered shame and excruciating vulnerability are at the core of that.

So she set out on a one year study to “deconstruct shame and outsmart vulnerability.”

It turned into a six year study and she gathered thousands of stories. She learned that those that are the most connected with other people believe they are worthy of love and belonging.

They believe this because they have courage, according to the Latin definition of the word, which means the ability to tell your story wholeheartedly. Because of this they aren’t afraid to lean into discomfort and aren’t as much in service to anxiety management systems.

They also fully embrace vulnerability. It’s not excruciating for them because they believe vulnerability makes them beautiful.

She finally had to begin to deal with her own difficulties with vulnerability on a personal level. At the 12:00 mark in the video she talks in a self-deprecating way about her year of therapy, which she describes as a “street fight” with vulnerability.

During this street fight she learned:

* You can’t selectively numb emotions. When you numb one you numb them all, including the positive ones like joy.

* We tend to want to make the uncertain certain, even in religion (reminds me of my recent post about getting over certainty).

* We pretend what we do doesn’t affect others (this includes not just us as individuals but corporations, the government, etc.).

* We try to perfect ourselves and, more dangerously, our children.

To get beyond this, she says we need to let ourselves be seen, practice gratitude, and love with our whole hearts.

Sounds easy, but how many public and private places do you know of where you are comfortably vulnerable? I’m reminded of what some people who have done 12 Step programs have said about how everyone there was so open with each other about how they are messed up. Such a spirit doesn’t permeate many of the public spaces of our life. It’s also difficult to be comfortable with the vulnerability of those private anxious moments of waiting for the results of a medical test, waiting for a child to come home who is past curfew, initiating a conversation with your spouse that you know will be difficult, etc. etc.

Anyway, here’s the video:


What you can learn from The Cat in the Hat

Image and video hosting by TinyPicYesterday was Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Happy birthday Dr. Seuss! My 7-year-old daughter and her classmates made Dr. Seuss hats yesterday and have been wearing mismatched socks and clothing all work in celebration.

Here’s a good article about what writers can learn from Dr. Seuss. In reading the five points I noticed they could apply to just about anything else, too:

1. See the fun in what you do and share it with others.

2. It’s OK to be different.

3. Exaggerate if you have to.

I tend to basically exaggerate in life, and in writing, it’s fine to exaggerate. I really enjoy overstating for the purpose of getting a laugh. It’s very flattering, that laugh, and at the same time it gives pleasure to the audience and accomplishes more than writing very serious things. For another thing, writing is easier than digging ditches. Well, actually that’s an exaggeration. It isn’t. – Dr. Seuss

That reminds me of advice I got from Erma Bombeck in a letter many years ago. I wrote to ask her if it’s OK to exaggerate the truth as a writer and she said the truth is like bubble gum, you can stretch it, play with it, even swallow it.

4. Keep it short. This might be my favorite. As a writer I make my living as a short copy specialist and write best in 500 word chunks or less (one reason I like blogging). The “keep it short” maxim applies well to conversation and other forms of communication too.

It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.

-Dr. Seuss


How to give a compliment that lasts for 3 years

Mark Twain once said he could live two months on a good compliment.

I have evidence that a good compliment can last for at least three years but more on that in a minute.

First I need to address the question on the mind of at least three of you who have recently wondered to me if giving me (or anyone) a compliment is the same thing as approval.  After all, according to this post of mine, approval is a bad thing, right?

Well, in my opinion, giving a compliment isn’t the same thing as approval.

Approval is as damaging as criticism when it’s an overall atmosphere in a relationship. Particularly a relationship where one person is an authority figure. For example, teacher/student, boss/employee, priest/parishoner, parent/child. It can also creep into marriage or in friendships if one person is needier than the other.

In relationships like that, approval can become like a drug. One hit is never enough.

Approval will make you complacent and afraid to try new things.

So when asking someone for advice, make sure you are truly asking for information that you don’t already know. Too often, asking for advice means you are really looking for approval and no one, ultimately, can give you approval, so it becomes a never-ending quest.

Anyway, just wanted to clear that up, because I’d hate to think anyone would hold back on giving compliments because of that.

A compliment is a form of praise. I like what C. S. Lewis said about praise:

The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.

I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least.

Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.

Isn’t that last line especially cool? “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”

Three years ago while buying something at Shopko the clerk gave me a compliment that I remember to this day and will probably always remember because it gave me such a lift. More importantly, it gave me a template for how to give a compliment because it’s never been my forte.

Specificity and spontaneity are the key to a really good compliment. “Nice dress” isn’t as memorable as, “I love the color you painted your living room wall because it’s so calming and makes me feel rested. I want to paint a wall this color.”

Unexpectedness is another key to a good compliment. You expect someone to say “great speech” after you’ve given a speech. But you don’t expect a compliment when you’re checking out at Shopko.

But, really, any praise is fine, don’t worry about it, because it’s likely that what you’ve noticed as being praiseworthy is something the other person didn’t realize was noteworthy at all, and you’ll make their day. Or even their next three years.


Questions, Questions

When I was a teenager my dad set a tape recorder on top of the bar in my grandparents’ basement bar (remember when homes built in the 1950s and 1960s often had basement bars? Ah the good old days…).

He pushed record and interviewed his father – my grandfather – for about a half hour. Then he flipped the tape over and interviewed my grandmother.

They told stories I had mostly heard before but I found it compelling to watch this dialogue in a formal interview format.

It was even more interesting when my father had to hit pause because my grandfather started crying when he talked about how much his wedding day meant to him.

StoryCorps is an organization dedicated to helping people conduct interviews like these. The interviews last 40 minutes and StoryCorps keeps a copy for history and the participants get a copy.

I’m reading their book Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project right now, which is a collection of some of these stories. Each story is only a few pages and are interviews between husbands and wives, siblings, adopted child and biological parent, friends, etc.

StoryCorps believes that everyone has a story to tell and provides a list of their most popular questions. You could use these questions on your own to interview someone…or just use them to reflect on your own life:

* What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?

* Who was the most important person in your life?

* Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did this person teach you?

* Who has been the kindest to you in your life?

* What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?

* What is your earliest memory?

* What is your favorite memory of me?

* If you could hold on to one memory from your life for eternity, what would that be?

* Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to me?

* What are you proudest of in your life?

* How would you lie to be remembered?

* Do you have any regrets?

* What does your future hold?

* Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?

* Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?

* Turn the tables: This is your chance to tell the person you’re interviewing what you’ve learned from him or her and what that person means to you.

I confess I feel tired reading that list, as I’ve kind of had question fatigue the past several years, what with young children asking me questions all the time, having to ask clients questions for projects, etc.

But then I recall how eagerly I and my mother read through a diary of my aunt Lois’s, shortly after her death – a diary that asked a bunch of questions like these as well as more mundane ones about her childhood, and how even my mother learned things she never knew before about her sister after reading all her answers.

As Einstein said, the important thing is to not stop asking questions (but don’t tell my 8-year-old he said that :D).


How to NOT listen to a talkaholic

I know I’ve gone on before about the importance of listening. Well, when it comes to talkaholics, scratch all that.

I’m kidding, a little, but in the presence of a talkaholic, listening isn’t really an option anyway. Conversation management is the best you can do.

Conversation management skills are a must when dealing with a talkaholic. Otherwise you’ll get so blown away and overwhelmed by their chatter that your life force completely drains out of you.

Ideally, conversation management skills will help talkaholics curb their habit of incessantly engaging in incessant chatter with much incessance.

Although all talkaholics are extroverts, not all extroverts are talkaholics. Far from it. Many of the best conversationalists I’ve known are extroverts – capable of back and forth conversation where each person speaks as much as the other and ask interesting, non-intrusive, questions.

And before you think I’m letting introverts off the hook here, I’m not.

Introverts aren’t talkaholics but some of them have a tendency to indulge in monologues. That is, they will go on for several minutes in excruciating detail about an area of expertise or topic of interest only to them and not their conversation partner.

While monologuing, they remain oblivious to verbal and non-verbal cues of boredom from their conversation partner, just like talkaholics do.

So the following conversation management skills apply when dealing with them too. Note how this type of listening is pretty much the opposite of how you would listen to someone in a normal conversation:

1. Interrupt. Often. Constantly. I confess that this doesn’t always work for me like I wish it would.

2. Ask intrusive questions. Maybe your rudeness will scare them away.

3. Selfishly redirect the conversation. I use this one the most. If I must endure chatter, it might as well be about something I’m at least vaguely interested in.

An example: a year or so ago, an introvert went on for about 15 minutes about the minutiae of his job. My total silence and lack of encouraging facial expressions and gestures should have given him an indication that he was being boring. Nope.

Finally, I said, “Unfortunately this is a topic I know absolutely nothing about and I have nothing to contribute to this conversation. So how about those Cubs!” Remarkably, he got the hint.

4. Use hand signals when necessary. I like this one, from the movie Devil Wears Prada:

Now for some speculation as to what causes talkaholism.

Open wounds don’t tend to heal…they fester. And one of the ways they can fester is through talkaholism.

So compassion is warranted.

Yet at the same time conversation is supposed be a two way street.  So when you find yourself on the wrong end of a one way street in a conversation with a talkaholic, it’s OK to speak up.

It’s very important to treat other’s people’s time  like the precious commodity it is and not selfishly consume it.

Or, in other words, all of us, talkaholics and non-talkaholics alike, need to STFU a lot more.


The case for loneliness

Wanting to break through the wall of loneliness is a basic instinct. It’s often at the root of many behaviors, such as changing jobs, churches, moving to a new neighborhood/city, etc.

It’s also not unusual to go through a difficult struggle and emerge from it saying, “I want to help others going through similar struggles so they won’t feel alone like I did.”

Unfortunately it seems that loneliness is inherent in many struggles. But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

I’m reading  The Wounded Healer by Henri J. M. Nouwen and he makes a case for loneliness:

But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon – a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and understanding.

Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects it and cherishes it as a precious gift.

…Perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

He goes on to say that our desire to avoid loneliness sets us up for relating to the world and other people with “devastating expectations.” For example, marriages are often ruined because neither partner was able to take completely take away the other’s loneliness.

We keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potential, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home.

Such false help leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our absolutistic expectations.

When you start claiming your bouts of loneliness as a source of human understanding – rather than something to avoid at all costs – only then will you be able to offer real service to others who need help understanding their suffering.


Communication is Overrated

Most every married person has probably said to themselves at one point, “Why does communication have to be so difficult?”

As someone who has been married almost 22 years, I came to the conclusion many years ago that communication is overrated.

A psychologist recently told me that when married people come to him and say, “We need to learn to communicate better!” he tells them that what they are really looking for is better debate skills, so they can get their way more often.

I was pleased to come across this passage in Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man, as it supports my communication is overrated theory:

One of the nice things about our marriage, at least to my way of thinking, is that my wife and I no longer have to argue everything through. We each know what the other will say, and so the saying becomes an unnecessary formality. No doubt some marriage counselor would explain to us that our problem is a failure to communicate, but to my way of thinking we’ve worked so long and hard to achieve this silence, Lily’s and mine, so fraught with mutual understanding.


The Mrs. Peel Approach To Needs

Have you ever worried that you’re not meeting someone’s needs or had times you were afraid to express your needs?

Thoughts like these usually make me think of the opening scene of the 1960s Avengers episodes with the spy duo Emma Peel and John Steed.

These scenes always began with Steed letting Mrs. Peel know that they were needed for an assignment.

He used clever ways to do this, as you can see in this montage of opening scenes (and check out those yellow ankle boots at the 5:15 mark):

I like these “Mrs Peel, We’re Needed” scenes because:

*You never see Mrs. Peel wringing her hands, wondering if anyone needs her. She’s comfortable hanging out in the science lab, practicing fencing, working on a painting, etc.

*Mrs. Peel herself isn’t needy – other than that one scene where she lets Steed know via a rubber duck that he’s needed. In the fight scenes she saves him as much as he saves her.

*Steed isn’t afraid to express that he needs her but does it in such a creative way that she smiles…he’s able to make her feel appreciated in the way he asks for her help. A simple “you’re needed” is often all it takes.

A final thought about needs: if no one has said, “you’re needed” yet you still think you should offer help, stop and ask yourself if your desire to help is simply because you want to feel needed. If so, your help might not be all that helpful.

It can be hard to wait for the “you’re needed” summons. You could always take up fencing to help pass the time…


If I was in charge of meetings…

There’s no avoiding meetings completely, even if you don’t work at a corporation.

I spent two evenings this week at meetings and I was reminded yet again how inefficient meetings always are.

Meetings are among the worst forms of communication because they don’t encourage true listening or actual conversation.

This classic “ad” would apply to most meetings:

If I was in charge of meetings, here’s what I would implement (many of these ideas come from Seth Godin, with several of my own thrown in):

*No chairs. If everyone stands, the meeting will go much quicker and people will be alert.

*No food.

*Each presenter only gets 4 minutes, tops. Use a timer. The average person speaks at a rate of 150 words per minute so in 4 minutes that’s 600 words. That’s plenty. Make sure to include what you think the next action step is. Give a written summary of your presentation to the meeting leader at the end.

*If someone arrives more than two minutes later than the last person to arrive, they have to put $10 in the coffee fund.

*The organizer of the meeting has to email a summary of the meeting to the attendees right after the end of the meeting, along with the next action steps.

*If you find you aren’t adding value to the meeting, leave. You can read the summary later. I’ve been exercising this option more and more often (of course I never get email summaries). I left one of the meetings early this week because it dragged on so long I was in danger of missing an important Lost episode. No meeting is worth that.

*No “what does everyone think?” questions. Save those for email.

*No “We can’t possibly decide on this tonight” statements. Meetings should have a specific agenda and end with a decision. If that’s not possible, then you’re not ready for a meeting and need more preparation.

*If it’s an informational meeting, make sure the Q & A at the end is highly focused. Nothing drains the energy out of a meeting more than a Q & A session that is open ended and where people are allowed to hold forth at length without a time limit. Much better to end the meeting decisively.

Yeah, I’d be highly delusional if I thought that meetings would ever resemble something like this. But just imagine if every meeting adopted even ONE of these tactics. There might be less notes like these afterwards: