Taking Your Stage Blog  
  Helping you improve the communication skills of the leaders and teams in your organization.  

5 items categorized "People Skills"


4 Tips to Become an “Agile Communicator”

IStock_000001355840_web2It was time for the conference call that I had dreaded.  Our new customer was not happy with the implementation we were delivering and had demanded a call with the project manager (me), program manager, a couple of people whom I don’t remember, and our president (whom I do remember).

I had just come from an informal meeting with one of our developers to talk about how the development work on another project was proceeding.  As I passed the doorway into the program manager’s office (that’s where the conference call was initiated), it felt like I was walking onto a stage.  It was like I had to switch roles and “get in character” in order to become effective on this important call.

Two Observations

Looking back now, I recognize two things: 1) there have been many scenarios in my career where I felt the need to “switch roles” and change how I was communicating (almost every day in fact); 2) my proficiency in whatever I was doing has often been tied to how well I can communicate with agility.

Being an agile communicator means that you demonstrate agility and flexibility by adapting your communication to the other person(s).

The Negative and Positive

There is a negative side to this with which I have wrestled.  Sometimes I change my communication in order to either impress someone else or shield myself from negative repercussions.  I never experience that feeling of satisfaction after these situations… because the focus is on myself and not on my “audience” thus curtailing my ability to communicate and influence effectively long-term.

But there is also a positive side to agile communication that occurs when I adapt my communication based on the “audience” for the purpose of communicating in a way that benefits them.

In this sense, it is not dissimilar to how actors take on a role in a play, movie, or even one of our presentations.  The best actors focus on the audience and adapt in order to give the audience what they want (you always wanted to be an actor, didn’t you?).

Peg Allen, one of our facilitator coaches, commonly says that it is not the other person’s responsibility to adapt to us, it is our responsibility to adapt our communication to the other person.  That’s agile communication.

Four Tips...

So here are 4 tips to become more of an agile communicator - able to communicate effectively to team members, customers, executives, and really anyone:

 1.  Be present in the “scene”

To me, this means that you can’t just physically be there, you have to really be there.  You have to be engaged, listening intensely, making eye contact, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, trying to understand their perspective.  This takes more effort for some (myself included) than others.

2.  Consistently evaluate your “audience”

When you enter a “scene” (a meeting, 1-on-1, or whatever) immediately evaluate the style of your audience.  Are they more assertive or less assertive?  Do they want to get to the point or delve into the details?  Do they want to connect personally or stick with the facts?  Knowing their style will give you clues to adapt your communication to them.

3.  Give more than you receive

If your focus is to give more than you receive, it will change the way you think, which will change the way you communicate, which will change your level of effectiveness.  What can you give during the conversation that the recipient cannot obtain themselves?  How can you be selfless and exhibit servant leadership?

4. Don't block

A primary rule of Improv theatre is to not block the dialogue but to add to the dialogue.  That doesn't necessarily mean you agree, but that you want to keep the dialogue going and validate the other person's perspective.  A simple way to stop blocking is to remove the word "but" and replace it with something like "yes", "yes, and", or "I heard what you said, what do you think about..."

So was my important conference call successful?  Yes and no.  We were able to move the conflict a step towards resolution, but we eventually lost the customer.  Would I do it differently now?  Yes, my focus would be much more on my “audience” and not solely on solving the problem for my own purposes.

Does this always work?  No - we are dealing with people - but more often than not it will.  AND you will experience (as I do) a much deeper sense of satisfaction.

We all know this stuff at some level, we just lose sight of it and don’t do it.  So start now.  Pick one thing that you will change so that when you next find yourself walking “onto the stage” and switching roles, you will be a better agile communicator that gets results.




“Say What?” The 5 Levels of Listening

“Amazing, simply amazing. Melt-in-your mouth. Your mama was a keeper.” Beth watched her dad’s mouth move, describing the delectable German chocolate cakes her mom used to bake, but all she could think was, “He’s a diabetic! He should not be talking about mom’s cakes. He’s only making it harder for himself.”

Beth didn’t know it, but she wasn’t really listening. At least, not in the highest possible sense of the word.


Peg Allen, communication trainer with Hippo Solutions, teaches that there are actually five levels of listening. The fifth level is “Not Listening.” At this level, we have our fingers in our ears and our eyes closed, repeating “La, la, la, la, la…”   We can’t hear the other person at all.

If you’ve ever been on the other end, trying to talk to a person with his "fingers in his ears", you know it’s absolutely infuriating. We are left misunderstood, unable to clarify, with no sense of value to our voice.

When we listen at the fourth level, we are “Listening for Judgment.” This is Beth’s level, judging her dad’s words. At this level, we are so preoccupied with our own thoughts, evaluating what the other person is saying, that we can’t actually hear the meaning behind the words. This preoccupation hinders our ability to connect with the other person on a heart level.

At the third level, we are “Listening to Tell Our Story.” Instead of actually focusing on the other person’s story, we are thinking of how our own story relates to her story. We are listening for a break, a pause, a moment when we can interject.

The fourth level is “Listening for Application.” When we listen for how we can learn from the information or apply it to our own work or lives in some way, we really are listening intently because we are motivated by the usefulness of the information. Yet, we still aren’t listening at the highest level.

At the top of the pyramid, the first level, we are “Listening to understand.” Our thoughts are focused on the other person instead of ourselves, and we want to understand for their sake, not our sake. I believe at this level, our listening is motivated by respect and value. And as the other person feels heard, understood, and known by our attentive listening, he or she experiences being valued.

With the swirl of activities, tasks, work, responsibilities, twitter feeds and random thoughts, choosing to listen to understand is extremely challenging. It takes work and intentionality. But when we listen for the heart behind the words and respond in a way that communicates we understand, our connection with the other person is deepened, and trust is established.

“Wait, did you say ‘Your mama was a keeper?’” Beth asked her father. He nodded, “She sure was.” Beth thought for a moment, and then asked, “Are you missing her today?” He nodded again, tears in his eyes. “I miss her every day.” Beth reached out and hugged him. He hugged her back. And she finally understood.




4 Tips to Communicate with an Analytic

IMG_0797_webI confess.  I am an analytic.  I love details, solving problems, and getting things done.   For those of us who are more analytic, I'd like to help you communicate with us more effectively because we know who you are.  You get frustrated when talking with us.  You wish we would stop being so detail oriented and get to the point.  You want us to just get the job done.  But if you understand us, you'll be amazed by what you get out of us.

We analytics can get a bad rap when really we just want to understanding things correctly in order to do things right the first time!  If you are feeling a bit of frustration with folks in your organization that are more detail oriented (such as those in a technical position), here are four suggestions just for you:

1.  We LOVE to solve your problem...usually

If you need someone to analyze and solve a problem, we're your person!  We love to think through problems, brainstorm options, and work out the best solution.  Throw us a problem now and then to show that you appreciate our "superior" (at least we think so) problem-solving skills.

However, if the problem is a result of someone's stupidity or lack of planning, we'd rather sing "Oh Suzanna" 100 times while walking around the building...in the rain.  We want no part of it.  So if you need to approach us about a problem like this, bring some contriteness with you.

2.  Give us INFORMATION..but keep us from overanalyzing!

We crave the details.  If you ask us to make a decision without enough details, we're going to be hurting.  The only thing we hate more than making a wrong decision is being forced to make a decision without all of the pertinent data.  While there may be times where you need to challenge us to be more decisive (instead of over-analyzing), most of the time you are going to get our best when you give us the details we need to make a good decision.  Or...you give us the time to get the details ourselves - we're ok with that too.  And yes at some point, challenge us to step up, stop analyzing, and make a decision (after we have had the opportunity to do at least some analyzing).

3.  Let us talk

When we pause in a conversation, that just means we are thinking about what we want to say.  It doesn't mean it's your turn to continue to ramble now.  Some of you can't stand the silence.  We know this because you can't let two seconds go by without filling the silence with more talking.  This wears us out.  Many times you will finally give us the opportunity to say something, but when we pause to think about what we are going to say next, you start talking again.  This irritates us and causes us to disengage from the conversation.  Here's a suggestion: if we pause, count to 10 (one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, etc.) before speaking again.  It's like a "pause war."  But we probably still have something to say.

4.  Give us a goal!

We love goals.  Give us a goal, an objective, a mission, and we'll fulfill it.  Just make sure it is crystal clear because we will take it at face value.  We appreciate recognition as well, but that is not as satisfying as the feeling of a job well done.  So give us something clear and challenging, and we'll run with it!

As with any style, you can get a lot of your analytic folks if you take the time to understand them instead of running over them.  Take a minute to jot down the names of the analytics on your team, and think about how you have interacted with them recently.  How can you adapt to utilize their strengths?




5 Tools to Get Out of a Communication Rut

IStock_000001355840_web2So often our communication in business gets in a rut - we do things the same way day after day.  I recently read a story about an actor who was having a difficult time "getting into the flow" while practicing his scenes for an upcoming rehearsal.  He felt disjointed, uncomfortable, and uninspired.  He was in a rut.  The next day some people were gathered in an adjacent room so he had to change his practice routine so that he would not disturb them.  He went to the opposite side of the room and spoke in a quiet voice.  He found that his mood and demeanor were transformed.

While we are not practicing to perform in an actual play each of us performs on our own "stage" every day, whether it is a team meeting, a one-on-one conversation, a phone call, or a presentation.  How we present and conduct ourselves goes a long way towards our ability to shape and be successfully in the "scene."

Too often we get stuck in a rut where we do things the same way every time.  We lead meetings the same way, we prepare the same way for presentations, we approach someone the same way for a one-on-one discussion.

Instead, if we are serious about becoming a great communicator that is highly proficient at what we do, we need to mix things up and continue to try new things.

Try these 5 simple tools to simply do something different:

1. Stand

If you always sit down to lead a meeting, try standing.  Standing changes your energy level and commands more respect.  In fact, studies have shown that people are more persuaded by people who are standing as opposed to sitting.

2.  Add Emotion

On a phone call or a one-on-one, change the inflection of your voice to add some emotion to it.  Just once.  How does that change the conversation and even your energy level?

3. Use Silence

In your next briefing or presentation, strategically insert silence.  Make a statement to your audience and let it hang out there for a few seconds before speaking again.  Silence is one of those simple but powerful tools to keep your message from getting in a rut.

4. Do Something Unexpected

If you always start the meeting the same way, do something different.  Try an icebreaker.  Tell a (tasteful) joke.  Have your "audience" do something unexpected, such as find one thing they don't know about another person.

5. Tell a Story

One of the single most powerful tools you can use to spice up your communication effectiveness is to inject a story.  Tell a story to start off a meeting, presentation, or even a one-on-one.  Keep it short and concise and tie it into the objective for your conversation.

I find often that our level of confidence in our job is tied to our level of confidence in communicating to others.  Try something new each day and watch how the effectiveness of your "performance" increases.




Is Your Listener's Capacity Overflowing? 7 Questions to Ask Yourself

IStock_000010987814_webLast year while coaching my daughter’s soccer team (she is seven), I realized that I was communicating too much.  The listening capacity of the girls was overflowing.  We covered passing, dribbling, throw-ins, corner kicks, and more.  I was playing the role of the talkative leader and did not have a proper awareness of when their listening “cup” was full.  Contrast that with this last Tuesday when I had one primary focus during practice: triangles (a way to teach passing and moving in soccer).  Most of the girls left practice talking about triangles.  It was far more effective.

While adults have a higher listening capacity than seven year olds, many times we can still take on the role of the overly-talkative leader.  We cause our listener’s capacity to fill up and overflow, either when talking one-on-one or to our business team.  I have had this experience myself when someone is telling me story and after story and making point after point.  All of a sudden I realize that I have glazed over and have not been paying attention, despite my good intention.

Ask yourself these seven questions to determine if you are playing the role of the “overly talkative leader”:

1. Are you asking questions or making statements?

If you are making a lot of statements, this is probably a one-sided conversation.  Start counting how many questions you are asking in a conversation.

2. Are you answering your own questions?

The hardest part about asking a question is to shut up and let the other person answer it.

3. Are you allowing pauses?

For many people, a pause after you have asked a question doesn’t mean that you need to fill it with words.  It means they are collecting their thoughts before answering your question.

4. How many topics did you cover?

Keep it focused and they'll remember it.

5. How many times did you interrupt them?

Once can be excused.  More than once means you are more interested in telling your story.

6. Do you start the conversation with a story or statement without being prompted?

Or do you start by asking a question and listening to the response?

7. Is the body language of the other person changing?

If they start shifting, tapping their fingers, moving eye contact, or a number of other small signs, you are talking too much.  Be aware of these subtle signs.

It is easy to fall into the trap of being an overly talkative leader, especially if your style is more assertive and outgoing.  But that can come across as disrespectful and becomes ineffective with your listeners, just like my daughter's soccer team was not able to soak up my good information.  We can all become more effective communicators and listeners, and raising self-awareness is often the first step.