Monday, August 31, 2009

But Are You Listening?

We've all heard that good leaders are good listeners. Yes, they are good at processing words and understanding content. However, good listening goes beyond the art of hearing and processing. Good listening involves a level of emotional intelligence. Reading facial expressions, body language, and intonation may be just as telling as the words someone speaks. In many cases, these may be clearer indicators of the current conditions than the words being spoken. This is not a foreign concept, many have heard it before and many consider themselves adept at reading people. However, it's not as easy of a skill as you think it might be. Miscommunications are common and in most cases it's not because of a limited vocabulary.

For example, even television shows and movies don't trust us anymore to read the actors. These people are trained to portray feelings and emotions to the audience. However, how do we know the character is in suspense? Well, the soundtrack. How do we know characters are heartbroken? Sad music tugs at our hearts of course. We are obviously better at interpreting sounds than facial expressions and body language because we're fed music for every emotion from grief to joy and everything in between. Perhaps this is just to enhance the experience but I think some part of it is because we've become unreliable in the area of emotional intelligence.

I for one and often more attuned to the sound track of a show or movie than I am to the dialogue. I'm the one constantly pausing the TiVo to go back and re-listen to lyrics so I can go google that song later and download it. The music often tells the story better and more beautifully anyway.

So, here's my challenge to you: add a soundtrack to your conversations. Next time you're listening to someone - be it a family member, coleague, or friend, as they speak to you, try to imagine what soundtrack you would add to enhance their message. Do their words and body language jive? Is there anxiety under the surface? Is their joy authentic? Is there distrust? If the song you pick to go with their body language sends a different message than their words, you have more listening to do. You have more questions to ask. You don't have the entire story.

You can take this a step further and consider the soundtrack you want to go with your message and make sure your expressions and body language match that feeling and message to reduce the possibility of sending your constituents mixed signals.

To drive home my point, this is one of my favorite songs. Same words in each video but the one I prefer depends on what mood I'm in. Before I try to give a positive message, I sometimes have to take the time to shift my day's soundtrack. What about you?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

No Really...Size Matters

Today is Sunday but my lesson I have yet to share with you is from yesterday. I was too tired to write it yesterday because I was completely waterlogged with Chatahoochie River water and starving when I returned home from a day of "Shooting the Hooch" as we Georgia-Folk call it (for you Yankees, that's floating an innertube down the Chatahoochie River, attempting to avoid rocks, and most importantly, keeping the cooler of... "refreshments" upright). Once I returned home, fed myself, washed myself, it wasn't long before I was dozing off in front of the television.

What I realized during this trek down the River with 4 innertubes and a floating cooler all tied together with a spiderweb of nylon rope is that it is hard to get that many objects moving together in the same direction. I've made this trip before with friends in which we were not tied together and paddling around was much more efficient. Once you've tied yourselves into a floating blob, not only do you move more slowly, but it's impossible to all work towards the same goal efficiently because you're all facing different directions. Ideally, the river would just sweep you along in the correct path. Ideally, the river would not have any bridges to go under, fallen trees, or sharp rocks to navigate. This river is not ideal.

Likewise, most projects are not ideal. It's not a foreign concept that we try to keep project teams as small as possible in order to reduce "drag" and keep the project momentum going forward. However, how many times do you approach a project deadline and realize that with time running low you need to add resources to finish the project on time and you start adding players to the team like Brad and Angelina add kids to the family? However, instead of moving along at the same efficient pace, you find that work becomes slower, more labor intensive, and the people stuck in the middle of this blob are getting rope burn from the tangle of rafts tied together around them?

It became obvious how difficult it was to maneuver 5 floatation devices around the rocks and trees at multiple points throughout the day. Luckily we all had one common goal, "KEEP THE COOLER UPRIGHT!" The real tragedy would have been a cooler full of river water and warm ...refreshments. It took only one tube getting stuck to hold up the entire team. Two tubes stuck could easily flip over another tube as I discovered. And, if you're the tube in the center of the blob, expect some rope burn when the other tubes are not all working together.

We made it to the end of the float with the only major injury being one split toenail resulting from stubbing a toe on a rock. Luckily, I had enough refreshments to dull the pain until I got home and into the shower. It may be a few days before I'm back in my stillettos and I may be cancelling that pedicure I was looking forward to so much.

The thing I realized is this: if we'd collected team members as we progressed down the river, we would have had more people to help paddle but we only would have gone in circles more. We would have had more people to push and pull when we got jammed but we would have hit more snags. We would have had more people working to keep the cooler upright but we would have had to share the refreshments with everyone.

So, before you go adding resources to your next project because of time constraints, consider the drawbacks. Larger project teams are far more cumbersome. Even with more people to do the work, there's the time it takes to get them up to speed. There's the risk of doing the same work twice. Coordination of more people is much more complicated and time-consuming. You're increasing the chances for mistakes and you're depleating your payoff. In some cases, you may just be better off working at a steady pace without adding extra people. Carefully weigh the cost and benefit.

Finally, as I have displayed a blatant lack of responsibility, I feel a final disclaimer is required before I sign off:

I highly recommend taking a fun day and spending it on the Chatahoochie River tubing. If you do, take precautions. Some areas are deep and swift and can be dangerous. If you are not a good swimmer, wear a life vest. Tying tubes together creates a hazard if someone falls out - you could get tangled in the ropes. You should never mix alcohol and water activites. Be responsible.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dumb Questions, Better Solutions

Someone suggested to me that every day I think back over my day and try to highlight a few things that I've learned that day and maybe even write them down for myself. I was further challenged to look for lessons that could apply to multiple areas of my life.

This sounded daunting but I agreed to give it a go. It has been surprisingly easy to highlight lessons learned in a day, the hard part has been deciding which one was most likely to impact my life in the future and figuring out how to apply it to other areas of my life. However, even these steps weren't that hard with a little bit of pontification. In only a few days it became an activity I began to look forward to. I was able to identify weaknesses in myself and set up goals to reach to improve myself in those areas. I know finding flaws in yourself sounds about as fun as doing your own dental work, but I assure you, it is not as painful as it sounds.

Most of my lessons so far haven't been that shocking. I learned that I need to be a better listener. I was able to find articles on how to be a better listener and picked 3 traits of a good listener that I decided to actively concentrate on in the next few months. I already feel like I'm a better listener just because I'm conscious of my little lesson.

Not all lessons require research and a plan. Some are just so blatantly obvious that you never realized or thought about it before. It's amazing what this process brings to the surface.

Today's lesson was pretty potent to me. I hate asking questions. I am the one that will sit in class and be completely confused and fear of being the only one in the class that doesn't get it will prevent me from asking questions. Instead, I'll go home, use the book, and in extreme cases even email the instructor for assistance.

When I get vague instructions from a client, I probably don't ask enough questions. I rely too much upon past experience and while that has served me well in many situation, in others it's resulted in problems related to my poor interpretation of the instructions for which I failed to ask for further clarification.

Today was a good illustration of why questions are so important. I received a phone call from a client requesting my presence on a job site for 4 days in September. They happen to be the 4 days I have a vacation scheduled. I told him that I wouldn't be available that week but I could send a coleague. He told me that he didn't want one of my coleagues, he wanted me to be there. He asked if I could send a coleague to whatever other project I would be working on that week so I could help him. I didn't tell him that it wasn't a project, it was my vacation, my birthday, a family trip, an important family trip.

I told him I would see what I could do. I hung up the phone feeling a little sick to my stomach. I was either going to have to disappoint the client and potentially lose him as a client (and he's a source for a lot of work) or skip a vacation I've had planned for 4 months. Neither one felt like an acceptable option. I had no idea what to do. Finally, I told myself that there's no reason a coleague can't go in my place and the coleague I would send has more experience than I do. So, I picked up the phone and called him back. I explained that there wasn't a project scheduling conflict with the week in question, the conflict was a family vacation. I explained to him that this vacation marked a big milestone for my family and it was important that I be there. I then carefully asked if he would share with me his reasons for specifically needing me to be the engineer on-site.

He explained that the other engineer had a much higher billing rate since he's the assistant manager. Since I have a lower billing rate, they'd like to save the money where the can. It was like seeing a silver lining. I knew I could fix this. I asked him if billing rates were his only concern and if I could guarantee my billing rate, would he mind a coleague going in my place. He assured me that this would be fine. A few phone calls to my manager, corporate, and accounting and I've got someone filling in at my billing rate and I don't have to miss my vacation. My company doesn't loose a valuable customer. I feel so relieved.

If I hadn't called him back and asked the question, I wouldn't have been able to come up with a solution that helps everyone. So, if you're like me and you'd rather just figure it out for yourself, remember that swallowing your pride and asking a few dumb questions could just be the answer you're looking for. Ask a dumb question, get a better solution.

As graduate classes start next week, I plan to challenge myself to ask questions in class. After all, I am paying for this experience to learn, I should get the most out of it. Asking questions might make me feel uncomfortable at times but if I understand better and faster then I'm getting more value out of my classes.

I challenge you to consciously identify times when you are confused next week. Then go back and ask questions or get clarification. If you are never confused, I envy you and I hope you are not in any of my graduate classes.