I was wrapping up a call with a CEO client this past week when he summed up our session with a bit of praise I'm only too happy to share with you today.
"You have a good way of helping me reorganise my approach to a potentially explosive issue," he said. "I was initially inclined to deliver a reactive response that could have lasting negative effects, but by talking it over with you - you reframed it toward a more positive solution. You help me appeal to the best in people."
While I appreciate the compliment, it comes with a confession: I'm not naturally like that. My instinct is to take things too personally.
I can feel overwhelmed, bruised, offended or belittled way too quickly. I roll up my shirt sleeve to hide my heart I'm wearing there.
That said, my experience after years of working with people all over the world, tells me that most of us default this way. It's back to the old cave man (and woman) world of being mentally wired to fight or flight. Our natural instincts are to either lash out or duck, cover and run.
Fortunately, I am convinced we can overcome. It takes concerted effort to communicate with purpose. Outwardly to others and inwardly to yourself. I am also convinced that improving your conscious awareness to communicating effectively with other people - and yourself - depends on your understanding of three major influences on our lives.
1 Consider early influences
How you were raised forms the foundation of who you are today. Your unique story is part of why you act in certain ways to certain triggers.
Being aware of what moulded you during formative years is an important step toward understanding either how to reinforce the tendencies that developed from those experiences or to distance yourself from them depending on your desired outcomes. Build upon your foundation - or work to tear it down to build something new and different. Build a little here. Replace a little there.
In addition to considering your individual experience, also consider larger group dynamics.
"Each generation is shaped by technological, political and global events," says Joni Daniels, a US-based management development consultant and author I spoke to last week.
"I tell the Baby Boomers and Xers and Millennials that when each generation comes into the workplace, they're not going to behave exactly like you, because they have been shaped by events different than you." Joni, a Boomer, goes on to give a quick definer for each generation working together today.
"I grew up with three channels of television. And no remote. You (she's talking to me as a Gen Xer,) had cable, MTV and a remote. Ys grew up with cell phones, but Millennials have grown up with smartphones.
"Those events impact varying expectations. We are more likely to understand the concept of delayed gratification. Ys and Millennials are not as good at this.
"When an older boss goes in and tells the young tech team that some new project is going to take 14 months, he or she better find a way to reward these kids every three months. They won't last that long. They'll expect to be promoted by then."
2 Commit to ongoing education
I had another phone conversation this week. This one with an executive from a Chicago-based tech organisation I thought I might include in the book I am writing about improving connections in the workplace.
But, whoa, was I surprised at the outdated answer I received to my question of 'how do you train your employees to collaborate better?' The reply I received was this: "You can't train soft skills. They're learned from parents and schools. In the workplace, you have to call offenders out on the carpet a couple of times and tell them what they're doing wrong." What? Really? I was shocked.
But the answer certainly illustrates that if you aren't committed to providing or participating in Learning and Development Programmes, you won't learn or develop. That organisation, at least that manager's department, seems to be operating more like a version of TV's Mad Men, that dysfunctional 1960s advertising agency.
Joni, on the other hand, offered some advice based on more modern methods.
"Give employees parameters," she said. "Set expectations early on so everyone understands the culture. If you don't clearly define what the standards are, employees won't know when they fall short.
"For example, if you're trying to encourage initiative, first explain what the word means and what is expected. If there's a gap, describe the observable behaviours that will close it. Next, make sure to provide incremental awards toward meeting goals to encourage behaviour modification."
3 Seek outside support and coaching
Soft skills can be learned. Transforming from a fight or flight reactive caveman to a modern career professional who learns, pauses, reflects and reframes has plenty of rewards.
Employers have a responsibility to provide support and training and not to presume everyone understands what's expected and how to properly communicate. As Joni summed up: "If they already knew it, we'd never have any problems."