Communications Skills – Be Hard and Exact

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. Read the rest of this entry

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

It’s no secret that gov. Sarah Palin is a controversial pick as a Vice Presidential running mate for Senator John McCain. A Google on her name will lead you to pages of conflicting analysis.

What we’re interested in here is the communications strategy the sides deploy. And Ms. Palin’s pre-nomination throws into relief the failure of the democrat’s charge of “inexperience” against her at least in the context of on-air debates.

The reason the inexperience charge fails is that it invites rebuttal and the rebuttal is too easy and too obvious. Larry King Live last night, for example, hosted James Carville, CNN Political Contributor and Obama support and Nancy Pfotenhauer, advisor to the McCain campaign. Here’s an excerpt of the debate

James Carville

James Carville, CNN Commentator, Obama Supporter

CARVILLE: “I am completely floored by this choice.”

Nancy Pfotenhauer, McCain Strategist

Nancy Pfotenhauer, McCain Strategist

KING: “Honestly put, Nancy — and it’s a fair question — of all the Republicans, is she the most qualified to be next commander-in- chief?”

PFOTENHAUER: “Well, I think that she is eminently qualified to be vice president.

In fact, Senator McCain’s picking Governor Palin, she has more experienced as the V.P. nominee than Senator Obama has as a presidential nominee.”

My issue is not whether Sarah Palin has the experience to be Vice President. It’s that James Carville is a communications strategist and he lost a point on national television that he should have anticipated he would. And, in fact, I saw him and Paul Begala, another democratic strategist lose this point again and again all night. And I’ve been watching democratic strategists lose this point again this morning in the same way. Read the rest of this entry

Communication Skills – How Accountable Are You?

Keith Rosen

Keith Rosen

Keith Rosen recently wrote a nice article listing 10 questions you can ask yourself to improve your communications skills.  Here are a few excerpts from his list.

Am I taking full responsibility for the message being heard by the other person?
Did I acknowledge them?
Did I make my request clear?
Am I checking to see if the conversation was successful?

The thing I want to underscore is his emphasis on being personally accountable for the accuracy of your communications.

This is something I find many people, especially people who are accustomed to dominant roles, reticent to take on completely. Their reluctance shows up in small turns of phrases.

I was working with a woman who believed she put off other women in discussions with them. I sat in a discussion with her and noticed a pattern of dominance showing up in her speech. She would say, “You understand?” instead of “Am I being clear?” And again, ‘You’re just like me” but never “I’m just like you.” In fact, when I pointed out that last comment she said she wouldn’t feel comfortable saying it the other way around, even though the phrases have very similar meanings; it was giving away too much to the other person.  No wonder she had trouble connecting at times.

Tim’s Takeaway:

I’m not arguing for becoming submissive in your communications. Rather, I’m cheering Keith for reminding us that accountability is leadership. If you’re going to lead conversations, that means accepting responsibility for making sure the other person hears what you mean.

Stuart Bradford's Illustration in the NYTTara Parker-Pope, a journalist and blogger for the Well Blog on the New York Times, has been writing post after post this week on the growing recognition of how deep the rift is between doctors and their patients. Every post she writes get upwards of 150 comments. Her article summarizing the problem has attracted over 300 comments since she posted it Monday. There’s so much spleen being vented by readers on the web pages of the Times right now that it brings new meaning to the old joke, “what’s black, white, and red all over?”

Patients are upset, yes,

To the Doctors who say their patients don’t trust their medical knowledge I, as patient, say stop acting like you know everything – you don’t, so admit it and we patients may stop distrusting your quick off the line, glib diagnosis.
— Posted by Tom in California

but not just patients. Tara cites a Reader’s Digest article that excerpts doctors’ comments about dealing with patients. Much of it is poignant or insightful.

Though we don’t cry in front of you, we sometimes do cry about your situation at home.
Pediatrician, Chicago

And there’s impatience with patients as well.

So let me get this straight: You want a referral to three specialists, an MRI, the medication you saw on TV, and an extra hour for this visit. Gotcha. Do you want fries with that?
Douglas Farrago, MD

There’s almost too much to process and comment on. I’ve spent years training doctors and other medical staff to have conversations with patients that are both efficient and empathetic, though, and two things ring out to me, one about the healthcare industry and another about the fundamental nature of this conflict.

First, there’s the insightful comment by Shelley Holloway, a global customer service analyst. “Guess what folks?” she says, ” The medical field is a Customer Service Industry! … When I or my employer pays for a service, I want excellent treatment/response just as I would for any product/service I might buy.”

I think Ms. Holloway is right on. The healthcare industry is a customer service industry. If you need proof, here are just two observations.  According to a 2004 Harris poll, what patients valued most—even more than their doctors’ training and knowledge of new medical treatments—was their interpersonal skills: treating patients with respect, listening  carefully, being easy to talk to, taking patients’ concerns seriously, spending enough time with them, and really caring. (1) And a Harvard study of 44,821 patients found that only 1 of every 5 malpractice suits arise from medical negligence. What drives the majority of law suits, is the way patients are treated. (2)

Yet as important as customer service is in healthcare, medical schools still don’t train staff in service skills. Health systems spend millions on measuring patient satisfaction and then struggle, by and large, with what to do with low scores. Here’s Mary Malone, Executive Director of Consulting Services for Press Ganey, one of the two largest patient satisfaction measurement firms in the industry. “There is a big difference between paying “lip service” to service in a meeting and doing the hard work that’s needed to implement organizational and behavioral change. And I’m still astonished by how many health care professionals fail to make this connection.”(3)

The  healthcare industry will keep building animosity until senior management realizes they are in the business of serving patients and they happen to do it by fixing bodies, and not the other way around.

The second thing to notice, that’s important for those of us who are in relationships with others is the remarkable destructiveness of mutually perceived threat. I conducted a needs analysis years ago for an oncology department in a large hospital that was prestigious for good reason. The core of the analysis was this: your staff feels threatened by your patients and your patients feel threatened by your staff. Not everyone, not all the time, but often enough that you need to take active steps to turn the situation around. Unbeknownst to me, the analysis flew around the hospital. What started as one training turned into 16 throughout the organization. Even though staff in other departments knew the analysis wasn’t written for them, they could feel a tension that they recognized in the document.

There’s a dynamic of domination that comes up seemingly whenever people approach each other across an examination table, or a cash register, or whatever it is in your industry that separates you from those you serve. Your customers have to come to you to get service and they fear you’ll take advantage of them. You have to serve your customers, and you fear that they’ll stomp and shout and demand an unsustainably high level of service. And if you leave those mutual fears unspoken and unexamined, they fester and escalate. Joe Peschi’s famous line, “They @$%> you in the drive through!” morphs into a lawsuit over coffee served too hot.

Tim’s Takeaway:

What’s the tension in your industry with your customers? Are you courageous enough to say it outloud? Or do you assume the conversation would just be too sensitive. If you’re not addressing it openly. It’s not going away.

References:

 1. Humphrey Taylor, Chairman of The Harris Poll, in The Wall Street Journal Online, Health Care Poll, Vol. 3, Iss. 19, October 1, 2004

2. Medical malpractice as an epidemiological problem, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 59, Issue 1, July 2004, Pages 39-46, Michelle M. Mello and David Hemenway

3. Press Ganey, The Satisfaction Monitor, Sept/Oct 2000, Service InSight: Connecting the Dots, Another in the Latest & Greatest Series, Mary P. Malone, MS, JD, Executive Director, Consulting Services

Want to know how important good communication is? Here’s a great example, with a twist.  The original post, Good communication linked to high levels of engagement, appeared today on Business Education Headline News. The one-line synopsis

Research from the U.S. shows that employees who enjoy frequent communication from senior management are more likely to be engaged with their organization.

shows just how a couple of words can change meaning in crucial ways.  The synopsis claims a causal relationship that is absent from the study and from the title of the original article about that study in internalcommshub.com. Here’s what the original study found:

highly engaged employees are much more likely to receive communication from senior managers at least once a month. More than half (56%) of these employees receive communication from senior management at least monthly.

This statistic is clearly different from summary in the blog post. The blog claims that it’s the communication that predisposes employees to be engaged, while the original article claims that the engagement level of employees may make communication from senior management more common.

The real data is likely different yet. Here’s the following statement in the original article reporting on they study:

 In contrast, 42% of low-engaged employees say they receive annual communication or no communication at all.

Given research methodologies, this statement probably more closely reflects the insights the study could glean. I’d guess in the study, employees who were more engaged reported receiving more communication, while those less engaged reported receiving less communication.

That might mean communication will engage your employees, or it might simply affirm your supposition that employees who are more engaged are more attentive to the communications that everyone in the company receives.

Tim’s Takeaway:

Read your research carefully before you base policies on it. And always be suspicious of any human studies that claim to demonstrate causality. You can rarely set up a human study that shows more than relationship and correlation.

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