Trying to make those passes hard and exact
My son Jack, making those passes hard and exact.

My son Jack is 7 1/2 years old and playing his third season of soccer. He has a terrific coach this year, Coach Laurie. She’s led them through the season without a loss (though we’re not supposed to be counting points). Last week they won 4 to 1. That’s been their closest game.

How does she do it? Her mantra is “Hard and exact!”–with everything they do–”do it hard and exact”.

You don’t just move the ball downfield. You anticipate where your teammate will be and you kick it there hard and exact. You don’t just find an open space for the throw from the sideline, you move down the line. You don’t just do anything; you do something in particular, and you do it precisely .

That’s what we want from a coach of athletic sports, isn’t it?  That’s what makes legends of men like Vince Lombardi, the coach who led the Packers to the NFL’s first two Superbowl titles–demanding discipline. That’s what Coach Laurie provides, and it pays off for the team every week.

That’s what great communications takes? It may sound melodramatic, but it’s true. Here’s an example.

A couple of weeks ago, I was coaching executives from a small internet firm. They were practicing how to challenge and support an underperforming peer who was defensive. Just about any system of communications skills you learn will tell you to refect back what you see–call out the data, make observations, reflect what you see.

They were trying to do that:
“So, I see you’re feeling pretty defensive…”
“When I hear you complain like that, I think…”
“I can see you’re pretty sensitive about this, but…”

and they were getting lots of pushback from the people they were trying to support:
“I’m not defensive, you just don’t know what it’s like.”
“I’m not complaining, I’m telling you how it is.”
“Now you’re trying to tell me how I should feel?”

Making observations, like many skills in communications is a precise practice. Knowing that you should do it isn’t enough as you can see above.

When making observations, you need to report what a video camera could pick up. As examples:
Rather than “I see you’re feeling defensive…”, it’s “I see you cross your arms and look down”.
Rather than “I hear you complain…”, it’s “When I hear you use words like petty and sneaky…”.
Rather than “I see you’re pretty sensitive…”, it’s “When I see you smile and your cheeks get red…”.

In my experience, language like that is surprisingly difficult for people to muster. Usually, there are two reasons. We think that stating what we’re seeing and hearing is too obvious, that the statements don’t add enough value or move the action along quickly enough. But often, especially when someone is upset, they’re not aware of what they’re doing. And even when they are, it’s nice for someone to acknowledge it. And if you report your interpretations (you’re defensive) rather than your observations (you’re crossing your arms), you’ll sound judgmental rather than supportive.

Second, we think our interpretations are right (well, he is defensive!). The problem is a fundamental bias in communications called the “observer’s bias” or the “attribution bias”. Essentially, it’s this: You do what you do because of the kind of person you are, but I do what I do because of the way you and the world treat me .

For example, you cross your arms because you’re defensive, while I cross my arms as a rational response to you waiting for me to make a mistake so you can pounce on me.

Whatever reason we have for reporting our interpretations instead of our observations, it reliably triggers defensiveness in the other person. And that sets communications back.

Tim’s Takeaway

Great communication is a skill, actually a set of skills. If you believe great communication is important to your success, you need to practice precision.

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Filed under: Conflict and Dispute ResolutionInfluence and PersuasionLeadershipPatient Service

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