The 8 Powerful Communications Secrets Every Person Can Use
This article first appeared on my regular column at Forbes.com.
I have recently re-connected with a personal hero of mine: Pamela Maier, a personal counselor or “life coach” as she describes the role she fulfills, “because I now have a life.” Pamela is a delightful individual who’s lived a variety of experiences in her 79 years. Beginning at an orphanage in England, she was raised by a foster mom and married an officer in the Royal Navy, a PhD who was both a psychologist and a professional illusionist. She had a career in singing and dancing, and was a proprietor with her husband of an immersive live-in program for children designated as “mentally retarded” to determine what the children were genuinely capable of before returning them to their parents and homes. She experienced parenthood and grandparenthood. She was widowed after 42 years of marriage and married in 2000 to lifelong friend Richard Maier, now her partner in business and life.
“Life coach” Pamela Maier offers communications perspective for entrepreneurs.
Her teachings have indelibly affected not only my life, but also my business. My partners have heard me repeat “Pamela wisdom” on many occasions. Pamela resides with husband Richard in Southern California, but thanks to the magic of Skype is able to counsel her clients from anywhere, which allows me the chance to check back in with her now and again.
I met Pamela during the hardest time of my life. In 2001, as the mother of five and one of three owners of a marketing and public relations business that was struggling to endure the dot.com crash, I also found myself in the midst of divorce. It was a difficult time made still harder by the fact that I lived and worked in a close-knit and highly conservative town.
When I finally mentioned the divorce to friend and professional mentor Craig Burton in an email, he immediately picked up the phone. (Surely he’d heard the scandalous news far sooner, but he’d graciously avoided the topic until I’d brought it up.) “Stop everything,” he said. “Call Pamela Maier. Book a flight and go to Orange County this weekend.” And so I did, spending money I could not afford at the time. I’ve been forever grateful since then that I did.
Pam taught me, the PR expert, a thing or two (or 20) about core life skills and communications. Her advice didn’t change my hard situation, but it changed me. In negotiations, in conflicts, and even in day-to-day communication, the principles she talked about have come to life many times. Recently we re-connected as she spent some time with my son. “Have you ever written these principles down?” I asked her. It turns out she had, and she emailed the manuscript of her unpublished book, The Art of Communication. I was overjoyed. Better still, she’s given me permission to share some of the elements from her manuscript here. So here they are – eight of my favorite communications truths from Pamela Maier:
- You must be fully comfortable within yourself before you can be effective in communicating with others. True discussion requires the ability to be fully present and fully interested in the perspective of others. It is a discussion between equals, in which you are solid and aligned within yourself to the point that you are able to hear and desire to understand the opinion of another without interruption, without anger, and without “the need to be ‘right’.” There’s not necessarily a need to agree, but the ability to genuinely strive to understand another person’s perspective is a vital skill you should call upon often.
- Take the time to increase your awareness. As we tend to “close ourselves off” to the world outside of our phones, the television, iPad, computer or our favorite book, what other information might await as we open ourselves up to confronting the world around us every day in 3D? The outdoors, your own space, the objects around you—pick them up, feel them, hold them, genuinely discover them and you may be amazed by the things you will learn. From the moment your feet hit the floor in the morning, become aware of the solidness of the floor, and take a moment to throw open the drapes and really take in the characteristics of the space that surrounds you. From this vantage point, you can spend the rest of your day with an attitude of looking “out” instead of contracting “inward.” It will make a great difference in the perspectives you see.
- True integrity requires learning to be yourself – the same self – at all times and with all people. We’ve all seen the people who shift like a chameleon to be the person they consider fitting for every occasion. The suave and entertaining person who is life of the party and then goes home to yell at a spouse. The boss who shines like a star from the podium and after the program is over shouts abuse at his staff. The person who feigns religious piety or political conservatism in front of the parent or boss and then becomes a different person entirely for the rest of the week. Great communication requires that you “lose the attitudes” you put on like a coat from your closet and learn to exist as the same authentic and integrated person in the presence of everyone else in your life. Who is that person? If you aren’t sure or the question is suddenly giving you pause, you have work to do.
- Help is only “help” in the eye of the receiver. People can become upset if the “help” you provide isn’t helpful for them. As you provide something others didn’t really want or weren’t expecting, they become annoyed and you consider them ungrateful. As a boss, the help you are needing should take the form of a job description (the clearer the better). As a manager or team member, learn to ask the deeper questions such as, “Of everything on your plate, if you were to receive help, what would be most beneficial?” or “What kinds of feedback or additional information would be most useful to you?” These small steps can save untold anxiety while also respecting and empowering the people you serve. It is also interesting to note that research shows millennial employees are especially poised to thrive on help—not on getting help, but on giving it. The opportunity to serve others in a way they consider meaningful can be extremely motivational and rewarding for them. (Pamela notes that this principle is highly true when working with children as well.)
- Be aware of your emotional level before you respond. Beyond words, we live in a continuum of attitudes and emotions. At any instant our emotional state can range from zero (complete apathy) to ten (flaming rage). We are at our cognitive best when we are operating at or near the center of the emotional spectrum. Before making a major choice, and especially before responding in a difficult situation, it is vital to step back and take your emotional pulse. Especially when you are angry, ask yourself “What is it I want to happen? Is what I’m about to say or do the best way to achieve that result?” As Pamela will say, “Words have power. You can’t take them back. Use them with care.” Of all the “Pam Lessons” that have stayed with me, this single principle has changed outcomes within my business again and again. Always sleep on a hard decision or discussion before acting. Avoid the temptation to react to a volatile situation with ill chosen words. This advice applies to “bragging” as well—when a former business competitor bragged about a contract before the deal was actually won, it reminded me to reach back out to the former account. The result: it was my team who won the sizeable deal. In another company a highly accomplished sales VP, after drinking too much on the eve of a major company conference, bragged that his company and CEO were inferior but were leading the market anyway due entirely to his brilliant performance in sales. The next morning, he was relieved of his job. It is also interesting in business (and personal) situations to observe that the greatest power in the room is often held by the individuals who aren’t speaking–the strongest people in the room are often the ones who have sufficient confidence and emotional restraint to keep their mouths closed.
- Trust, loyalty, faithfulness and honesty are the cornerstones to resolving misunderstandings and lies. Unless people are deliberately vicious and evil, they don’t purposely tell lies, they simply interpret what they see or are told. If there’s a “drama queen” in the person’s nature, they’ll also embellish it a bit for a better story. But at all times, as a communicator, be careful and aware of the assumptions you make. Allow other parties to explain themselves, or take the time to investigate the facts sufficiently before you jump to accuse. You should put critical communications in writing. However, when misunderstandings occur, if the four key elements are present—trust, loyalty, faithfulness and honesty–the majority of misunderstandings are quickly resolved. No matter how dire a misunderstanding, great communicators will seek out the information they need before reacting and will maintain an atmosphere of respect in the conversation that ensues. If it turns out that the worst has actually happened, you will at least be armed with correct information (and the advantage of forethought) before acting. Remember that with an attitude of respect you can be successful within most any conversation, no matter how tough. However, if respect and honesty aren’t possible on either side of the table, there is little basis for the partnership to exist and very little hope the relationship can be saved.
- Fear is the enemy of communication. Anxiety, nervousness, panic, loss of control (or the need to take full control) are the signposts of fear. At a primal level, fear is your brain’s way of warning you to react quickly (even instantly) to present dangers or to triggers that appear similar to bad experiences you’ve had in the past. Healthy fear reacts to real and present dangers. Unhealthy fear makes people feel insecure. They don’t trust others, nor do they trust themselves to be strong enough to handle the negative situations they may face. What are your own fears? Name them – remember them – and determine once and for all (if needed, with a counselor’s help) if these are real dangers or simply the unhealthy act of giving away strength to the irrelevant thing that you fear. As you determine what you’re afraid of (and why) it may help to ask yourself just how big the danger is. Bigger than an avalanche? And now describe a fear you don’t have that’s even bigger than that. A train wreck? Or a bomb explosion? From that perspective, perhaps your fear of giving a speech is not such a big deal after all, and you can free yourself to proceed.
- Blame is an irresponsible attitude. When you assign blame, you demonstrate to the world that you are too weak to own the responsibility of your actions. When a person jumps to blame others, they lose the ability to make a truthful assessment of the relevant facts. Blame becomes wrapped up with its companions of Shame and Regret. The opposite of blame is responsibility (response+ability), the power to respond to a situation and the ability to make it right, if possible. Sincere apologies are the result of responsibility. But a person who is shamed into apologizing is not genuinely apologizing at all. And regret is a useless emotion that leaves a person mired and “stuck” in the past. So the next time you are tempted to blame the tool you’ve used, or the manufacturer, or another person, take the time to investigate all of the facts and enact a responsible solution instead.
There is much more, of course. But the crux of these eight Pamela lessons can make a profound difference for any business, any leader, and any personal or working relationship.
Should every entrepreneur participate in life coaching? Whether it’s a little or a lot, I would say emphatically “yes,” or at least that it just doesn’t hurt. Pamela doesn’t recommend that her clients continue forever, but notes that in even the most challenging situations (short of longterm addiction/recovery), within the space of 30 hours of work she can help an individual develop an inner foundation of strength that should allow them to continue forward with success on their own.
Whether or not you pursue life coaching, I suggest that every entrepreneur or executive develop a habit of reading and absorbing all information on beneficial communications you can find. (For example, you could use the books and audio materials on Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations to make a positive start.) You can also bookmark or print this article as a periodic reminder. But in a nutshell, remember the Golden Rule of Communication, according to Pam: “Do as you would be done by” and her philosophy to live by, “You Live as you Think.” These are wise words from a wise lady. Those who would like to connect with Pamela directly can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org.