Indeed, a couple of years ago, I was so taken by the connection between talking to Alexandra and Marissa and talking with clients that I started to think of a book that would capture my work advice as talking with them. The premise would be that we are, or at least should be, better communicators with young people that we care about. At our best we are more patient, encouraging, engaged, and insightful. Let’s not devote any space here to being at our worst with them.
I remember though a friend/client telling me it wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to hear a bunch of advice to kids? Make a book that you’ll write to adults.” For whatever reason, that seemed to make perfect sense. (It certainly gave me one more way to procrastinate from writing!) Yet this week, as the bags are being packed for the bus to camp, I realize that the idea has never left.
Other moments are conspiring to clarify the importance of this theme. As I’ve been thinking about uniquely impactful client moments, I’ve strung together a set of stories of conversations over the years where a group I was working with identified a set of core values for them to do their work together by. Whenever that question would arise, I would try to unify their effort by inviting them to think about how they would advise a young person who came to them for their insight on how to successfully work in an organization. The thought-fullness that that question generates never ceases to amaze me by its ability to cut to the essence of our best actions with each other.
I also am seeing a lot more examples of a big difference between grown ups and kids. Simply put, kids haven’t decided as much about what can’t change. They’re not so doubt-full. If you’re one of my grown up clients, at your best, you more likely struggle to fight back the thoughts of “that’s not how it’s done; that’ll never change; I can’t do that . . . “
Sticking with the struggle and fight metaphor, perhaps the case can be made that teaching grownups is a losing proposition and that efforts from people like me would be better placed solely in young people. Its like a scene out of an episode of M*A*S*H; as the causalities pile up, the doctors do triage to gauge who’s worth working on and who must be left because they’re too far gone to help.
For the time being at least, I’m not going to give into such a dire choice. I am, though, going to pay increasing attention to what works with kids and continue to creatively apply that to the grown ups that still care to listen. Hopefully, the great writer Leo Rosten was right:
You can understand and relate to most people better if you look at them – no matter how old or impressive they may be – as if they were children. For most of us really never grow up or mature that much – we simply grow taller. Oh, to be sure, we laugh less and play less and wear uncomfortable disguises like adults, but beneath the costume is the child we always are, whose needs are simple, whose daily life is still described by fairy tales.
What were they thinking about right before they showed up?
A few years ago, I was coaching a new senior executive before her first big group meeting, and when I arrived in the room right before said meeting, I noticed her seat at the head of the big table was empty. As I stepped out to see where she might be, there she was, running down the hall. Into the room she flew, flushed face and rapid breath, all the time making indelible impressions on those who would sit in judgment of her actions. (As everyone does of everyone else at every meeting you attend).
My point here is not one of telling you to never hurry. Fact of life is that it sometimes has to happen. Rather, my question here is, "What do you think about when you’re getting ready for the next thing?" Whether it’s a meeting or a phone call or a speech or a talk with your kid, or just the day ahead, by nature we are engaged in some thought, right? Dan Gilbert, one of the most compelling neuroscientists I’ve read stuff from, has pointed out that humans are the only population on earth who use their brain to time travel. You will be at your most productive and healthiest when you can slow down your time before something of any importance happens. In that slowing, (which, btw, only YOU can control) you can begin to ask yourself some pretty simple questions:
- What am I trying to get accomplished?
- What can I do towards that end?
- How can I help the other(s) benefit?
I know, I know. I hear it from clients and friends and family every day. “I’m slammed in back-to-back meetings all day; how am I supposed to find the time to think like that?! There’s just so much to do!” All I can say is that the right preparation is key to a successful outcome of ANYTHING you care about. And the more excuses you use about preparing that allow you to not show up RIGHT, the more WRONG the result will be.
Thankfully, the opposite is just as true.
That was the opening line of my presentational life.
Forty-three years later, if you’re reading this, despite dire predictions by some, the sky hasn’t completely fallen. It was not, though, the recent warning of Judgment Day that generated today’s entry. It was, rather, a comment from a client yesterday that in my work of giving feedback, I talk too much about what the bad news is. This client had asked me to interview forty employees who worked in a department that my client helped manage. In those interviews, the employees revealed some very concerning things about what is was like to work in the department. (As had the client and some of his colleagues when I interviewed them) To say the least, there was, in my opinion, important and hard work ahead. Most concerning to me was very little if anything had ever been done to talk about the issues in a constructive way. Lots of private gossip and complaining, but little else.
It is never surprising to me that many will react to hearing candid feedback by accusing it (and me) of being “too negative,” or “not balanced.” The challenge one faces in pointing out negative things (cardboard headdress or not) is that unless you effectively move beyond the squawking and onto the encouragement and solutions, you run the risk that people will, out of their fear, stop listening before they move toward making it better. Ultimately, it is my responsibility when asked to listen for and present feedback to assure that healthy solutions lie just beyond the discomfort of seeing the problems. And it is the obligation of those who contribute to those problems through their actions to also bring patience and optimism. Tall order for people who’ve been afraid to talk about hard things? Absolutely.
But it beats falling sky.
When I use that story to begin presentations about risk taking and change, it’s fun to watch the audience get it. It typically takes a few extra seconds though for them to get that we all sometimes choose to stay on a path of behavior, even though we know that there’s a more productive option. We reject that option, though, by convincing ourselves it’s just easier and safer to crawl where we are.
I’m learning a lot these days about the crawling. Just this week alone, people in five very different organizations all shared a similar thing they were clearly frightened of. It wasn’t about the economy or retribution from Al-Qaeda.
They were all afraid of a conversation.
They knew they should have it, even acknowledged that if they did, things stood to be much better. They even admitted that if they didn’t have it, things would get worse. Not only would the specific relationship not get better, the “business” could inevitably suffer.
I can optimistically report that in each of these organizations, they have moved a little closer to getting off their hands and knees and toward where the keys were dropped. At least, for this week, they have each lifted their eyes off the pavement, and are gazing toward their front door. There are specific commitments made in each place to keep talking about what they know they MUST talk about, no matter how scary it is.
I wish, in the spirit of Mother’s Day, I could channel my Mom and assure you and them that everything is going to work out fine. I don’t know that though. What I do know is that there is a better chance now than there was before they stopped crawling.
Imagine you had the money and could make the time; would you know what to teach? Heads become still.
Yet, leave our schools alone for a moment. They certainly have plenty to take care of. Instead, let’s go home. My questions today are for parents:
What are you teaching your kids about becoming the kind of communicator that they must become in order to function, let alone prosper?
Based on your experience in the world (and my watching adults struggle with it for twenty five years), some fundamental skills eventually come to mind, right?
- Can they speak up in front of other people and get their point out in an interesting way?
- Can they ask good questions and really listen to the answers?
- Can they say things that are important and hard to say?
Speaking of the future, consider one bigger skill for your kids. In my opinion it is the motherboard of all communication excellence. Without it, struggle and dysfunction is assured.
Believing that we can choose what we say to ourselves.
Do your children understand that their actions are intimately linked to what they are telling themselves? That they will act like they think. Have they at least begun to learn about and practice choosing words and thoughts that lead to good results?
I will be producing much more on this in the near future. In the meantime, maybe a better question to leave you with is: Do YOU believe you can choose what you say to yourself? I didn’t ask do you know you can. Do you believe you can? To me, the difference between knowing and believing is in how much you actually live it and not just say it. If you don’t genuinely believe it, then you will fail to teach it well.
Little or no good will come from that.