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Communicate – Don’t Accumulate

I know a guy – I’ll call him Russ – who is especially proud of the regard people have for him. He is pretty sure that he is admired, and that whoever spends time with him finds it a valuable and worthwhile experience. That is pretty much true, from my observation. People gravitate to him and he welcomes their company.

One oddity though, shows up when any of those people fail to keep the promises they have made to him – even about something as simple as refunding him for a purchase he made for them, or bringing him the book they promised to leave on his desk. The oddity is that he is unwilling to call them on it. He won’t dial their number or send an email to say, “Hey, did you send me a check for that seminar I paid for you to attend?”, or, “I thought you were going to bring me that book. When will you bring it over?”

Even when he sees them in the cafeteria or a coffee shop, he doesn’t mention it to them. Russ insists that, “It’s not worth it. What’s a couple of bucks?”

I asked him, “Don’t you get a little reminder in your brain when you see somebody who told you that they were going to do something, and they didn’t do it? How do you deal with that little nudge without mentioning that bit of unfinished business and resolving it with them?”

Russ laughed. “It’s not worth getting into it or mentioning their failure to come through. Maybe they just made a mistake. I just blow it off.” Maybe Russ would rather keep the relationship free of anything that could disturb their positive view of him. Or maybe he really thinks he can “blow it off”.

I disagree. Those little uncommunicated things are incomplete – and they accumulate over time, like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. They will be there forever in that relationship, little negative nags.

Russ is a shop owner, too, who is often is unwilling to tell his staff what he really thinks about their performance. I tried talking with him about using “closure conversations” to give useful feedback so they could improve. “No way, he said. They would only get upset, defend themselves, and offer explanations. I haven’t got time for that.”

Coincidentally, I just received a book in the mail titled, “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)”. The subtitle is, “Why we Fear it, How to Fix it”. The author, M. Tamra Chandler, looks at the negative ideas around feedback and creates a fresh viewpoint, allowing us to reconsider feedback as providing value and being beneficial and supportive. Now I can see it as a way of getting those little negative nags out of other people’s heads as well as my own.

I can’t say how living with undelivered communications is for Russ – he doesn’t seem to mind carrying those barnacles. Maybe they don’t slow him down or crop up in his head as brain-litter, or worse. They do for me. Brain litter is a distraction that takes me away from what I’m doing, thinking or creating, and gives me a flash of annoyance to realize that it’s still there. I started, some years ago, using that flash of annoyance as a reminder to close out that incomplete item, but I still need the reminder sometimes. Those barnacles bother me, and as much as I wish they would go away by themselves, they do not.

I’m going to send a copy of “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)” to that manager.

Lack of Integrity – It’s a Loose Connection, Right?

I have a nodding acquaintance – I’ll call her Liza – who says things like, “I’ll get back to you on that this week”; and “I will ask Nate to call you tomorrow;” and “I’ll text you about dinner plans.” Then nothing happens: she doesn’t deliver. Her mouth is not connected to her brain. It’s not connected to her Do-Due List or her Calendar either. Or maybe she doesn’t have a Do-Due List or a Calendar to help keep her brain connected to her word.

Liza is not somebody I interact with – she belongs to a colleague of mine. I wouldn’t put up with it. After the 2nd time she failed to do what she said, I’d have to say, “The last two times you told me you would do something like that, you didn’t deliver. You kept me waiting and expecting, and now I don’t trust that you will remember your promises.” She would be upset, maybe, but at least we could stop pretending that she cares about keeping her word.

I hear about Liza from my colleague, who doesn’t want to cause a conflict, or create bad feelings. So, it’s better to put up with someone whose word is meaningless and just keep letting her get away with it? No thanks.

Connecting my word to my behavior is on my mind because we are moving – downsizing to a smaller home in another state – and there’s a lot to handle. I am using those two tools (a Do-Due List and a Calendar) to manage our transition. The individuals in my ever-changing set of Outlook contacts are of many types and flavors, and I want to say proper Goodbyes, Hellos, and other conversations that honor their value to me. Same with organizations: cancel memberships, stop payments, open new accounts, etc.

I keep my Do-Due List on a journalist’s notepad. When a page gets too messy to read, I copy the still-undone To-Do’s and Due-To’s onto a fresh page and toss the old one. The Calendar is a printout of our 3-month transition schedule; one of those months is now gone. If it gets too messy with blue-inked notes and red-inked stars, I’ll just reprint it.

These documents help me avoid overtaxing my memory, and possibly create chaos or hurt feelings or wasted time and effort. Out integrity is costly – at work, at home, and among friends. If I connect my promises (the agreements I make with others) to my Do-Due List and my Calendar, then people won’t roll their eyes when I tell them I’ll do something. And they won’t say what people say about Liza: her word is worthless.

Ouch! I’m going to review my Do-Due List and Calendar right now to be sure it’s up to date!

A Non-Apology is Not a Closure Conversation

A new conversation is now officially open: When is an apology an actual apology? The answer: When it creates a sense of closure for all involved. This week’s most famous non-apology failed that test.

“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said. Why isn’t that an apology?

Because he did not say exactly what he was “wrong” about. His statement sort of referred to “whatever” it was that he had said, which he later clarified as “locker room talk”. So he apologized for his locker room talk – is that an apology?

Not yet, because he didn’t say to whom he was apologizing. To the audience? To the people who listened to the tape, or read about it? To all woman-kind? To Americans, for causing an international embarrassment? Not clear.

One other misdemeanor was his follow-up: “That was locker room talk,” he said a few minutes later. “And certainly I’m not proud of it, but that was something that happened.”

Something that happened? There’s no ownership there – it just happened, it’s in the past for heaven’s sake, and that’s that.

There has been some discussion about the need for “contrition” and insistence that the word “sorry” must be included in an apology. I’m not sure we need to see any kind of atonement, or that a certain vocabulary is required.

When you can say exactly what mistake you made, and own it completely that you did it – it didn’t “just happen” – and apologize to those who were affected by it, you can add whatever extras are true for you, including making a promise not to do it again or offering reparations to those who are hurt in some way.

But the basics are:   Apology = For what + To whom + Personal ownership.

“I was wrong and I apologize” isn’t a Closure Conversation because it isn’t enough to create closure. I know that because this non-apology happened several days ago and it’s still making headlines, still moving people from one voting line to the other, and still a topic of discussion at the coffee shop. And I know that because I was just there and I overheard it. Case closed.

Communication Impossible: Preventing Incomplete Conversations

Did you ever see the TV show “Restaurant Impossible”? An hour of interesting communication that saves a restaurant and sometimes saves a family too. But my favorite moment is at the very end, when the show is over, and some guy – while they are turning off the final credits – says “That’s done!” He has a great voice, and now I’ve started saying it too, using the same tone he does. I finish the dishes? “That’s done!” Finish writing a blog? “That’s done!”

It is particularly interesting because I just finished a communication assessment for a client (“That’s done!”), and saw that the top workplace issues in their organization are created by what we call “incomplete conversations”. Those happen when:

  • Somebody does something really good and nobody says, “Thank you!”
  • Or somebody doesn’t keep their promise to get you that information you need when they said they’d have it – and you don’t contact them and say, “Hey, where’s that price schedule you said you’d have on my desk this morning?”
  • Or you change an appointment on your calendar and forget to notify some of the people you were supposed to meet.

The first incomplete conversation is likely to cause a little bit of hurt feelings, when the person wonders if you even noticed the good thing they did. But if you leave out that “Thank you!” on a regular basis, it can turn into a grudge, or worse.

The second one eats away at an organization’s integrity and undermines accountability. If you don’t follow up when people don’t keep their word, they will learn that you don’t really care about what you say you want. If you wonder why you don’t get what you want, read that last sentence again because it’s true. You lose your credibility, and nobody takes you seriously. So when you ask people in another department for something you need right now, well, guess what? You have trained them out of being accountable.

The third one is when you make a change and don’t really consider who will be affected by it. You can’t be surprised when they’re sort of mad at you. Maybe even more than sort of mad – they might gossip about you, say mean things to you, or just not invite you to something you should attend. Payback is a bear, but we bring it on ourselves.

So this organization is going to learn about where the incomplete conversations are. We already know they have something like all 3 of these situations, but I’m betting we will find more of them. When we find out where and when they happen, we can see how to put in the completion. That would reduce some of those negative feelings in a hurry and maybe even boost their accountability scores too: it’s not impossible.

The Problem with People: Hidden Agendas

You know those name-badges people wear at conferences? I’m thinking people should wear them to state clearly what they are – and are not –committed to in life. It would save so much wasted time and confusion.

  • Did you ever have a conversation with someone who said they wanted your help , only to discover that all they really wanted was someone to agree with what a jerk their mother-in-law (or that guy down the hall) really is? Badge: “JUST NOD YOUR HEAD AND LISTEN”.
  • Or how about being in a conversation to solve a problem, where you keep sharing your good ideas and the other person keeps saying “Mmm hmmm”, or “Maybe…” – and then later you realize they collected all your ideas and used them later, as if they’d thought of all those things themselves? Badge: “DEVOTED TO LOOKING GOOD”.
  • And have you ever worked hard to fix something or make it work better to help somebody out, and they didn’t even seem to care what you did? Badge: “YOU’RE HERE TO SERVE ME”.

Seriously, I got a call from a business manager – let’s call her Lindsey – who told me about how she worked to pull together information from 6 sales training programs that had been used in the past 4 years, and turned it all into one new training program, updated it with all the organization’s current information and ideas. It took several days to do the job, which meant she worked into the evenings to finish her regular work. But she was sure it would be appreciated, because her boss needed the program materials. He was expected to train the new sales team in the coming week, and he would not have known how to assemble something that good from the company’s program materials.

So he was delighted, right? Nope. “How do you know this is what I would want to use?” he asked Lindsey. “I was thinking we don’t need this kind of standard training thing, and I was just going to have a round-table discussion.” He did the round-table, and never said another word about it. Lindsey, of course, had to field all the complaints from sales team members: “We didn’t get trained in the methods we’re supposed to use for renewals of old systems or for selling the supplies for our new systems either,” they griped. “We got to talk about how we feel about sales.” Boss’ badge: “SELF-IMPORTANT ASS”.

The real problem is that we think everybody operates pretty much the way we do. If you’re a problem-solver, you think other people are too, and are sure they’ll be interested in that. If you’re focused on advancing your career, and one of those problem-solver people starts yammering about an idea they have to make something work better, you’ll try to be polite but wish they would pay more attention to office politics or following instructions.

The problem with people is they don’t wear their “agenda” on their lapel. So we have to figure it out ourselves, and sometimes we make mistakes that are costly. What to do? Listen carefully to learn what people care about, worry about, and what matters to them in their lives and their work. First, of course, you have set your own agenda aside – you know you have one, don’t you? – and listen well to what other people are really about. That way you’ll know how to best invest your time whenever you talk with them.