Category Archives: Communications

The Lamest Question

Picture this: you’re at a professional event, and you meet someone new. You extend your hand and introduce yourself. Next, you likely utter the lamest question known to man: what do you do?

Sound familiar? Don’t feel bad. The smart ass in me always wants to offer a reply like, “I help unicorns make magic” or “I run a luxury refuge for stray Siamese cats. We’re up to 4,000 residents. Let me show you all of their pictures!”

The question, “What do you do?” is a standard part of any introduction. But, it’s always struck me as lazy and a little rude. First, it’s so commonplace that it doesn’t make you a memorable conversationalist. Second, it’s no secret that many people mistake vocation for worth. Your job title and company become a proxy for how much money you make. Even worse, the person posing the question is often only doing it to tell you what he does. And, then you get to listen to him drone on about himself.

The point of networking is to make meaningful connections with people so you can achieve great things together. And, intuitively, we all know that there’s much more to someone than a job title. We just have to ask the right questions to learn more and build a foundation for connecting.

Salaam Coleman Smith, former President of Style Network, once gave me a great piece of career advice. She told me that, more than anything else, the ability to make people feel at ease determines career success. It’s a building block for fostering trust. Once you become an executive, your skill set and ability to do the nuts and bolts of the job is a given. But, the ability to make people feel at ease is a game changer.

As part of my attempt to make people feel at ease, I ask people high quality questions when I first meet them. These typically tell me something substantive about the person, and they give us both a springboard for more meaningful interaction. I often like to pose questions about family and hobbies because people tend to care about those things most. Don’t get me wrong: occupation will often come up in the course of the conversation. But, it’s an organic part of the exchange and not the opening shot.

The next time you’re at a professional event, consider some of the following alternatives to the standard “what do you do?” question:

  1. How long have you been coming to [insert event name]?
  2. Are you enjoying the event so far? What did you think of the keynote speaker?
  3. Are you based here in [insert city name]? Are you a native? If not, where are you from?
  4. Do you have kids? This can spawn a million follow-up questions.
  5. Are you married? How long have you been married? How did you and your spouse meet?
  6. Seasonal questions are good ones. In the summer, you might ask, “Have you taken any amazing summer vacations?” If its close to a holiday, you might ask, “Do you have any special holiday plans?”

The next time you’re tempted to ask the lamest question, think about how unimportant job titles are in the grand scheme of life. I know it sounds extreme, but imagine how you want your tombstone to read. I don’t know about you, but “Denise Conroy, President & CEO” just doesn’t cut it for me.

Constructive Conflict

When I was in graduate school, I worked with kids involved in gangs in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. My work was part of a federally funded program to teach gang members conflict resolution skills. Every week, we’d have group sessions with these young gang members so they could talk through their issues and learn the language of constructive conflict resolution. I know it sounds very “touchy-feely,” but it worked.

One morning, one of our group members arrived late and visibly shaken. He apologized and explained that his mother and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight the night before. The fight went on all night and ended with the boyfriend holding his mother at knifepoint well into the morning. When we all voiced our sympathy, he quickly responded, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

I’ve thought about that kid a lot throughout the years – and that quote. (NOTE: It’s actually part of a longer, very powerful Frederick Douglass quote.) Work environments tend to be conflict averse. When examined within the context of that kid’s struggles and those of the quote’s original author, our aversion is, well…pathetic.

155HHow conflict averse are we? A recent survey published in June’s Harvard Business Review revealed that over a quarter of people hint at disagreement rather than objecting outright. Furthermore, only 28% say they “always speak up when they feel they’ve been misunderstood.”

That’s unfortunate, as conflict can often give birth to great things, especially when that conflict is constructive. At its best, conflict gives daylight to divergent views and starts a meaningful dialogue among smart people. It can also be a great way to destroy silos, build team cohesion and improve working relationships.

People tend to think that conflict has to be unpleasant and include yelling. It doesn’t. Here are five things to keep in mind when initiating constructive conflict at work:

  1. You’re Paid to Have a Clear Point of View. People value individuals with a clear perspective. In order to show yours, you may need to disagree with your colleagues. That’s ok. Keep it calm, professional and thoughtful.
  2. Minimize Emotion…And, PLEASE Don’t Whine or Cry. I’m amazed at the number of high-level executives I have witnessed resort to whining when they disagree. Resist the urge. It makes you look like a two year-old and diminishes your reputation. Similarly, if you’re going to cry, don’t. Take a step back, get some perspective and address the issue when you can do it sans tears. I’d like to say that tip is directed solely at women. Sadly, it is not.
  3. Use Your Words. Instead of bluntly saying, “I disagree,” sometimes it’s better to say something like, “I have a bit of a different view. Let me explain…” For the really sensitive one-on-one discussions, use the classic active listening formula. For example, let’s say someone leading another department (Bob) hasn’t been responsive to collaborating with your team, and it’s no bueno for growth and progress. I recommend approaching Bob and saying something like, “I feel frustrated when you don’t respond to my calls/emails to improve our teams’ working relationship. I’d like to work with you to find a way forward.”
  4. Keep It Out in the Open. Passive-aggressive behavior is so common in today’s workplace. And, it’s absolutely destructive. If you have to disagree with someone, go directly to that person and privately explain your perspective. If you need to offer an opposing perspective to a group, do it with the group instead of complaining after the group has disbanded. Being open and direct will lead people to view you as a straight shooter, and that’s a good thing.
  5. Get Over It. Once you’ve offered your differing point of view, move on. Grudges are toxic – for you and the people around you.

Keep these simple things in mind, and remember that constructive conflict is the surest route to progress. And, as my friend from grad school reminds me daily, progress is the goal.

Tell Me More About That

library

Ned and I on our wedding day. He’s mesmerizing me with his mad listening skills.

My husband, Ned, is a master conversationalist. He’s gregarious, articulate, well read, authentic and very funny. But, it’s not what he says that makes him special. It’s actually his listening ability that sets him apart. He has a very simple yet effective tool that he uses in conversation. He often inquisitively utters the phrase, “Tell me more about that.” It’s amazing to watch that simple phrase transform a conversation. The other person lights up. And, Ned gets the opportunity to listen and learn.

I’ve always been fascinated with people. I’m curious about what makes them tick. It’s little wonder that I started my career in market research. Focus groups, surveys, quick polls…I love it all.

Obviously, listening is a huge part of understanding people. And, I’ve always considered myself to be a good listener. So, imagine my dismay in 2009 when I went through a professional 360 survey and learned otherwise. For those not familiar, “a 360” is a type of employee evaluation where you get reviewed by your manager, employees and peers. The intent is to give a well-rounded assessment of performance, where you’re at in your career and the things you can focus on to progress.

SelfawareI did my first 360 as the kick-off to the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute (BMLI). A yearlong program, BMLI is the flagship leadership development program for female executives in the cable TV industry. It’s also a life changing experience. Since its inception 20 years ago, the program has mentored over 800 executives.

For a high-strung Type A personality, your first 360 can be intense and harrowing. You can get 1,000 pieces of positive feedback, but it’s the areas for improvement that are emblazoned on your perfectionist brain. I learned that people didn’t think I listened very well which came off as arrogant. My first reaction was something like this:

“What?!?! Me? Arrogant? I’m the most down to earth person I know! Who said that? Those people are jerks. Humility is my middle name. I’ll bet it was Jeff who said that….”

Once I calmed down, I met with an executive coach who was able to put everything into perspective. The first thing she asked me about was my speaking style. She asked me how often I asked questions that started with words like “how” or “what.” The benefit to these sorts of questions is that they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They require a more detailed response, and they also require the person posing the question to listen.

92HI started to reflect on my behavior. I realized that I frequently relied on closed-ended questions in the interest of getting things done. I’d wrap up meetings with phrases like, “Everyone good with that?” Unbeknownst to me, I was curtailing discussion and conveying that I knew all the answers. What sorts of people know all the answers? Arrogant ones.

Honing your listening skills isn’t just important for the knowledge you can gain. It directly affects people’s perception of you. Perception is everything. Here are a few things I’ve learned on my path to becoming a better listener:

  1. Watch the Closed-Ended Questions. Closed-ended questions are a one-way street. I know we’re all in a hurry, trying to accomplish more and more. But, be mindful of how many times in the course of a day you ask questions that can only be answered with a simple yes or no. If it’s the majority of your questions, you’re probably missing out on some good collaboration and the opportunity to let your direct reports solve problems.
  2. Pose “HWW” Questions. Ask questions that start with the words how, what or why. These sorts of questions encourage dialogue and provide the opportunity for you to become a better listener. Example: You might ask your team, “How might we proceed on this project?” instead of “Should we come up with a promotional plan and timeline to move this thing forward?”
  3. Be Patient. If you’ve been asking primarily closed-ended questions for a long time, people get used to that style. It’s very intimidating to some. So, when you start asking open-ended questions, be prepared to hear crickets. It will take people a little time to adjust to having the opportunity to talk more. The first few times you pose an “HWW” question, you may have to wait as long as 20 seconds for a response. It will seem like an eternity, but stick with it.
  4. Practice and Keep Track. Like any good habit, becoming a better question asker/listener takes lots of practice. When you start out, keep track of how many times in the course of the day you ask open-ended questions. And, note how people respond. I know it sounds nerdy, but when I started building this skill, I used a simple spreadsheet to keep track. I noted the question I asked in one column and how people responded in another. At the end of the day, I reflected on it. It only took a few weeks before it became a habit.

Being an effective listener is absolutely critical to being an effective leader. And, with a little self-awareness, practice and patience we can all get there.

 

 

 

 

Relentless Civility

I traveled to London on business a week ago. While stuck in traffic on the drive from Heathrow to my hotel, I had a delightful conversation with my cab driver. In our musings, we stumbled on the topic of civility. Something he said really stuck with me: “Civility is easy to give and costs absolutely nothing.” If you imagine that quote in a British accent, it’s even more erudite.

This simple statement got me thinking about civility in business – or rather what I often see as a lack of civility. Undoubtedly, business is harder than ever in many regards, and that affects simple interactions. Technology has definitely made things easier. But, it’s also eliminated boundaries, rendering us on-call 24/7. We’re now constantly bombarded with emails, texts, LinkedIn messages and myriad of push notifications.

Even the best at time management can find it overwhelming. Often, people just respond to the critical things. The rest falls by the wayside. That’s an understandable and common tactic. But, it’s extremely limiting.

Business is all about connecting with people. It’s really hard to widen your circle if you’re just doing the bare minimum to keep your head above water and make it to the next day. Relationships matter, and the world is increasingly small. Someone emailing you about a job today might be in charge of hiring for the job of your dreams tomorrow. Likewise, a cold call about a partnership that’s not a fit right now might generate ideas or open a door in the future.

During the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate to have two exemplary role models for graciousness. The first was Roger Werner. Roger was the President and CEO at Outdoor Channel, and a real pioneer in television, building and transforming cable networks like ESPN and Outdoor Life Network. He was also a master of civility. I used to marvel at his handling of virtually every cold call or introductory email that came his way. He treated every inquiry with brevity and grace. I still think about his demeanor often, as it’s such a rarity in today’s harried, disconnected business culture. He made everyone feel important and at ease.

My second role model for civility was Kathleen Finch, President of the Home Category at Scripps Networks Interactive. As the head of HGTV and DIY Network, Kathleen has reinvented both brands, catapulting them into a viewership renaissance. She’s also perhaps the most gracious person I’ve ever met. She has a super-human ability to respond to virtually everyone who contacts her. And, she’s exceedingly generous with her time, often taking time to mentor lots of people inside and outside of her organization.

It’s no accident that people like Roger and Kathleen have been successful. Treating people well matters. And, as my cabbie friend in London said, “It costs absolutely nothing.”

Admittedly, I’m not perfect when it comes to returning every email, LinkedIn/Facebook message or phone call. But, I never let perfect get in the way of better. In the last year, I’ve put disciplined effort into building better habits around increased responsiveness. My goal is relentless civility.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Turn Off Notifications. A constant barrage of email and other push notifications makes genuinely connecting with people seem daunting. Turn them off. Bonus: you’ll be more attentive to the people around you, making you more memorable — and a rarity.
  1. Set Aside Time for Civility. I set aside 90 minutes first thing in the morning and 60-90 minutes at the end of each day to return emails, phone calls and other messages. I receive anywhere from 100 – 200 emails/messages per day depending on the season/day. I make an attempt to respond to everything, including cold calls, job inquiries and introductory emails. Which brings me to my next tip…
  1. Keep It Brief and Be Honest. People tend to overthink this stuff. I hypothesize that rejecting people and ideas is perceived to be negative. Most folks avoid the negative. I believe that ignoring people under the guise of “I’m too busy and important” is a more negative signal than merely telling the truth.

Take Jane Jobseeker as an example. Her resume looks great, but you’re headcount is frozen for the foreseeable future. I have found that it is perfectly acceptable to respond by saying the following:

Hi, Jane.

Thanks for reaching out. Your resume is impressive, especially your experience with Big Data. We don’t have any roles that fit your skill set right now. Please keep in touch and ping me again in 6 months just so we can keep the lines of communication open.

Best of luck in your search,

Denise

You know how long it took to write that response? 30 seconds. It’s brief, honest and polite. And, I kept the door open to someone who could be a valuable resource in the future. Most importantly, I was gracious to someone who is working hard to find her next role. Think she’ll forget that?

  1. Be Vulnerable and Punt. Sometimes I need more time to respond to someone. I might need to do some research before offering an opinion. Or, if it’s something really critical or delicate, I may need some extra time to be thoughtful. In those instances, I just say so. I send a brief (2-3 line) email to the person and tell them why I need additional time to respond to their inquiry, and I provide a date by which I’ll respond. And, I make sure that I keep my promise and respond by that date.

For example, last week, I was playing catch-up after a chaotic week of international business travel. I needed some extra time on a few email inquiries. I simply told those people that I was playing catch-up (that’s the being vulnerable part), and I told them that I would provide them with a full response by Monday (that’s the punting part).

If all else fails, remember the advice of Henry James. The author said, “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: