Archive for July, 2010
I just read one of the best articles I’ve ever come across on interpersonal communication and particularly on the sources of misunderstanding: How to Avoid (and Quickly Recover from) Misunderstandings, by Peter Bregman. Don’t just read my musings about it; read the article, it’s worth your time.
There are a couple of things that make it a great article. First, he uses a very specific example that most of us can relate to, a misunderstanding about a simple, everyday conversation between him and his wife, and he tells the story well. He tells us what was said, what he was thinking, and what he finally learned that she was thinking.
Then he takes us through his mental and emotional process of first being frustrated and self-absorbed, then questioning his assumptions, then beginning to understand how his wife might be feeling, and finally checking out his assumptions with her by asking questions.
Finally, he makes a great point: that when misunderstandings arise, the responsibility to ask questions and get to the bottom of it falls to whoever sees the misunderstanding first. It doesn’t matter who “fault” it is. What matters is who has the insight to fix it first.
What the article made me think about is that specific examples and good stories we can relate to are what’s so often missing from communication and interpersonal skills training, and are what makes the difference between training that sticks and training that doesn’t. We can present models and theories all day, but telling a good, realistic story about a workplace miscommunication, a story that makes everyone say, “Yeah, I’ve been there,” is what really makes a difference. I try to do this in my own communication skills workshops by writing workplace scenarios for the participants to dissect, but it’s hard to get that edge of realism. I don’t do it nearly as well as Bregman does.
So I’ve resolved, from now on, to carry a notebook for this purpose. Whenever I see a workplace interaction that makes a good story, or hear about one in a training session or meeting, I’ll write it down. And if you have any of your own, I hope you’ll share them here.
Of all the wonderful self discovery assessments and tools out there, my personal favorite is the one I’ll call Interpersonal Styles. I first came across it in the form of an assessment called Social Style and put out by The Tracom Group. Like many other such tools, it’s used in many different forms by many different organizations using different names. I prefer to call it Interpersonal Styles, since it deals primarily with how people work and communicate with others.
One of the primary things that distinguishes it from Myers Briggs or DISC is that it focuses on how others see you rather than how you see yourself. Done in full format through The Tracom Group, it includes a 360 assessment. It also includes a “versatility rating,” which measures the degree to which others see you as flexing your style to meet the needs of another.
The best thing about it for me is that the model is very intuitive. I can present a 10-minute overview to a group of people and have them grasp it immediately, and even make references to it throughout the rest of the meeting.
The model includes two rating scales, one for “assertiveness” and one for “responsiveness,” the latter measuring the degree to which a person shows emotion. Combining the two scales, there are four distinct styles: expressive, driver, analytical and amiable. While there are many parallels to the four DISC styles, there are differences also.
When I was first introduced to the model, about 10 years ago, it helped me make an important self-discovery: that while my natural interpersonal style was “expressive,” my colleagues saw me as “amiable,” and this was because I was deliberately cultivating a style I thought was expected of me as an HR person. I came to realize that it was much more effective to be myself and focus my energies elsewhere.
How about you; what’s your favorite personal discovery tool or assessment and what stories do you have about it?
Recently I wrote a blog post called Overcoming objections to alternative work arrangements. A reader named Sharon made some interesting additional points about why telecommuting causes heartburn for many managers: “Every management position has power. Some power is visible in symbols such as corner offices and floors of open cubicles with workers answering phones and talking into headsets. Maybe we just need to figure out a good way to give managers a power symbol for how many people they have working for them… kind of like the power bars on the phone.”
As I was thinking about that, I came across a blog post on Harvard Business Publishing’s site called Grooming Leaders to Handle Ambiguity by Scott Anthony. Anthony says that in most companies, size matters, and therefore we look to give our up-and-coming leaders bigger territory as they move up the ladder. He asks whether this is the right approach in a changing world where complexity and ambiguity are increasingly the factors that provide challenge. “I’ve never run a multi-billion dollar company, but I’m willing to bet the difference in complexity between managing $1 billion and $10 billion in revenues, or 1,000 versus 10,000 employees isn’t that great. In other words, giving up-and-comers more responsibility helps them to refine skills they already have, when what they need to do is to develop the capability to flexibly respond to unanticipated challenges.” Anthony proposes giving star leaders new geographic markets and new business models rather than bigger territories.
Is that the answer—to change our paradigm rather than search for alternative power symbols based on size? Another recent HBR blog post reinforces the idea from another perspective. Whitney Johnson in Venus May Be Rising but Don’t Neglect Mars says that the danger inherent in the rise of female power in the workplace is that women rise by emulating the way men wield their power. “Is there the risk,” she asks, “of a turnabout attitude of ‘now it’s my turn to bully you’”? Johnson hopes not, because successful corporations are finding ways to harness the unique strengths of both men and women, including the “feminine strengths of interpersonal connectedness, care, sensitivity, and responsibility to people.” That’s a concept that sounds to me a lot more like ambiguity and complexity than size-equals-power.
Returning to our remote worker issue, our new paradigm would look like this: status would be accorded to the manager who most successfully handles the complexity of building a high-performing team despite the challenges of dispersed work spaces and hours. The metrics used to measure this success wouldn’t be a whole lot different than the metrics we typically use: How much did they get done? How fast? With what quality? What customer feedback? The difference would be that senior leadership would emphasize the fact that it got done with a virtual team.
I hope to get some feedback on these thoughts, because I’d like to take it further! How do we change the paradigm? And what would be the visible symbols of this new power? Or am I barking up an impossible tree?
If there’s one thing all customer service workshops have in common, in my experience, it’s the big picture stuff: why customer service is important, the costs and benefits, the organizational philosophy around customer service. And the basic skills that customer service providers need, like active listening, courteous communication, anticipation of needs, managing non-verbal behavior, etc.
All that is certainly important. But what front line employees also need are the nuts and bolts of specific techniques for specific situations. Here are a couple of examples:
1. Telephone silence: When someone is very upset on the phone, they may talk incessantly. Say absolutely nothing, not even “uh huh”. Eventually the customer will stop and say, “Are you there?” and this will allow you an opening to respond.
2. Distraction: Designed to break the anger cycle by getting customers to shift their attention away from their anger and toward a physical object. For example, “If you’ll take a look at the computer screen (swivel the screen toward the customer) you’ll see that we have your policy expiration date as November 6th”.
3. Questioning instead of stating: Questions can be used to soften a statement or command. Instead of saying “Do this online” you can say, “Did you know that this can be done online now?”
The next step after giving class participants these kinds of practical techniques is to have them apply the techniques to realistic workplace scenarios. Make sure the workplace scenarios are written for your workplace, and deal with the very types of challenges your service providers are faced with on a regular basis. Nothing is a bigger waste of time than using generic scenarios that are written for another organization in another industry and address different challenges.
Some people say that you can’t just teach customer service providers how to deal with specific situations because you can’t cover everything that could possibly come up—so you have to teach them to think in ways that allow them to solve any problem on their own. I agree to a certain point, but I think in order to teach them how to think critically you have to work with real scenarios. Then they learn to adapt the techniques for those scenarios to fit others.
What do you think? Customer service trainers out there, what has worked for you?