Staying relevant during changing times is critical if we want to remain valuable to clients, colleagues and other important audiences. Here are a few simple tips to help you stay competitive in business today.
Years ago my college aged son asked me if he could take his car back to school. I immediately said No!”. When he asked why, I danced around an explanation but gave no real reason other than I didn’t think he needed a car on campus. He reminded me that when I was his age, I had a car at school. Times were different, I told him as I heard my own mother in my head. He was a very responsible dean’s list student and other than he’s still my baby and I worry when he drives, I couldn’t come up with a good reason. He’s 32 now, married and a good driver. Yet, even now, sometimes I hesitate when I hand him the keys to my car.
While I never considered myself one of those overprotective helicopter parents, I have always been a worrier when it comes to my kids. Regardless of age, like parents everywhere, I want to protect them from harm but have come to realize that if I pump the brakes too often, I could send wrong messages about trust, independence, and responsibility—character traits I strongly admire in both of my boys.
It’s not that different in the workplace when bosses and managers are too controlling, which may send silent signals that they’re not confident in someone’s ability to get the job done. Like overprotected children, employees who are robbed of responsibility may be prevented from growing into strong leaders who by example have learned how to empower others.
As parents, it’s sometimes difficult to accept that as your children get older, you lose control. While leaders can’t always control what happens, like parents, they can foster understanding, shape perceptions and influence outcomes through communication. It should begin with encouraging two-way conversations at all levels.
The front office may make decisions, but it’s important not to leave middle management and other communicators out of the loop. These people can deliver your message and control rumors if they are kept informed.
Hear it from you
Talk to people, not about them. If you have a problem with someone or want them to do something differently, let them hear from you to avoid second-guessing and misinterpretation.
Provide feedback that is specific, so people understand your expectations, what they need to work on and what tasks you want them to tackle.
Face to face
It’s easier to dash off an e-mail than pick up the phone or walk down the hall, but when times are tough or you have to deliver unpleasant news, nothing replaces face-to-face contact even if that’s online.
Easy does it
Put systems in place to foster open communication where people are not embarrassed to ask questions, seek feedback, and create dialogue. You may be surprised at the problems they solve.
Teach, don’t tell
Think about mentors you’ve had in your life. They lead by showing and helping, not by intimidation and fear or doing the work instead.
Speak from the heart
How your message is received can directly impact how your vision and direction is embraced. That’s why it’s so important to speak from your heart to their hearts so they understand how your words impact, benefits or affects them. When you make people feel valued, they will be more empowered to follow your lead.
In case you are wondering, I did agree to let my son take his car to school but only after I shared my concerns and laid down some rules. At the time, I knew he didn’t fully understand what the fuss was about, but he recognized Mom was slowly letting go. Perhaps if he has a family of his own one day, when the time is right, he’ll remember how he felt when Mom handed him the keys.
Some of the best storytellers I have ever heard are country music singers. Unanswered Prayer by Garth Brooks, You Belong With Me by Taylor Swift or The Devil Went Down to Georgia by the Charlie Daniels band are great examples of how to capture love, heartbreak and pain that tugs at your heartstrings in three minutes or less. With its heartfelt lyrics and soulful melodies, like any well-crafted story, country music typically conveys powerful emotions that captures the essence of the human experience and can teach business communicators valuable lessons about storytelling.
- Emotion and Authenticity
One of the key elements of country music’s powerful storytelling is its ability to evoke strong emotions. Look no further than Carrie Underwoods All American Girl which tells a heartwarming story that spans multiple generations in just over three minutes. As storytellers, business communicators can also draw from their personal experiences to craft more compelling narratives that audiences can relate to.
- Universal Challenges
Country music often portrays everyday struggles and challenges others can relate to. By using examples of workplace problems and challenges, communicators can better connect with listeners making their messages more impactful.
- Visuals and Metaphors
Country and other popular songs are filled with vivid descriptions, sharp metaphors and memorable one liners. As examples, Life is a Highway by Tom Cocrane or You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog by Elvis Presley paint pictures in our minds making them more engaging and memorable. A good speaker can also use descriptive language to create more compelling talks and presentations.
Yet, when I suggest people incorporate storytelling into their talks, many balk claiming it’s not their strength or they don’t have time. I beg to differ. No matter who you are, you are a storyteller. You have been sharing stories since you learned to speak. You shared them on the playground, after summer vacations, in the workplace and at home with your family. Yet at work so many wallow in too many details or data packed slides to convey information.
Imagine this. Moses is wandering the desert when God speaks to him. He tells Moses he has heard the cries of His people in Egypt, and he would like Moses to tell him how he will lead them out of captivity. The next day Moses returns to God and presents a data packed PowerPoint complete with maps, directional charts, compass settings, seasonal climate trends in the dessert and a breakdown of costs.
God is overwhelmed and doesn’t understand. He sends Moses back to the desert, telling him he does not have what it takes to lead the Israelites to a land flowing with milk and honey.
Obviously, it didn’t happen that way. Yet, everyday communicators overload listeners mistaking complicated information for engaging conversation. That is not storytelling.
- Simple Complexity
Country music has a unique ability to present complex emotions in a very simple way. You can do the same. If it takes you two minutes to say something, try saying it in half the time to keep people’s attention.
- Beginning. Middle. End.
Country songs, like many narratives, have a beginning, middle and end. They take the listener on a winding journey that ends with a resolution. Like a songwriter, speakers can learn to structure their stories in a similar manner to keep listeners tuned in.
Like country music, if speakers better organize, convey images, and strive for simplicity, they will create narratives that capture, inspire, motivate, and resonate with a wide variety of audiences. Like a great song, that narrative may even be so memorable that it will stand the test of time.
You don’t have to be a country singer to master the art of storytelling. You just have to take note from so many valuable lessons in their songbook.
Consider these two scenarios:
1. An emotional employee shares a personal problem with their boss. Due to this difficult time in their life, they are requesting some time off. The boss doesn’t acknowledge their struggle and says “This really puts us in a bind. We’re already short-staffed and I don’t have anyone to fill in for you.”
2. In a different scenario, the same emotional employee explains their situation to a boss. This boss says “I’m so sorry that you are going through this, it must be very difficult for you. As you know, we are already short-staffed, but give me a day or two to figure something out.”
In the first scenario, the boss is devoid of empathy. Their self-absorbed response communicates a lack of compassion and an inability to step into someone else’s shoes. In the second scenario, the boss’s response signals understanding and willingness to find a solution. Even if that leader did not have an immediate solution, by acknowledging the employee’s situation and expressing empathy, the employee feels heard and understood.
Empathy is a key leadership skill that builds trust and strengthens relationships. While all of us, leaders included, have different levels of empathy, during difficult times the ability to acknowledge someone else’s problem, show concern and attempt to solve problems can forge a stronger and more unified workplace.
In a July 2020 McKinsey & Company article published in the Harvard Business Review, Paul Tufano, CEO of AmeriHealth Caritas explained “This has been a sustained period of uncertainty and fear, but also a great opportunity to forge a stronger, more cohesive, and more motivated workforce. If CEOs can step into a ministerial role — extending hands virtually, truly listening, relating to, and connecting with people where they are — there is enormous potential to inspire people and strengthen bonds and loyalties within the company.”
There are four key challenges of communicating without compassion in the workplace:
- Misunderstandings and Misinterpretations: Without compassion, communication may just be an exchange of words that doesn’t convey true understanding. The lack of emotional tones behind someone’s words can result in conflicts and misunderstandings.
- Emotional Disconnection: When someone fails to recognize the emotions of others, it can leave people feeling unheard and emotionally detached. That can cause frustration, anger, and a feeling of isolation.
- Defensive and Reactive Responses: In the absence of empathy, people may feel threatened which causes tension and can prevent productive conversations.
- Lack of Collaboration: Because compassion builds trust, it can facilitate collaboration. Otherwise, people may hesitate to share their thoughts and ideas fearing judgment or dismissive responses.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus is famous for the following quote: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” While his words were spoken more than two-thousand years ago, the importance of listening still holds true today. By giving your full attention to the person speaking, you are communicating that you are trying to understand their point of view.
To better communicate with empathy, consider these five key tips:
- Focus on the other person, not yourself to make the person feel heard
- Listen first, speak later.
- Use words and phrases that demonstrate your concern such as “I understand how difficult this must be for you”.
- Do not interrupt.
- Ask clarifying and open-ended questions to promote dialogue and increase understanding.
The poet Maya Angelou is famous for saying “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
By making people feel heard and valued when we communicate with empathy and compassion, we can de-escalate situations and create a safe space for people to express their feelings. Safe spaces foster meaningful connections, strengthen relationships, resolve conflicts, and build stronger organizations.