I had an interesting email show up in my inbox last week. That’s not an unusual occurrence in itself. The more I speak and write and generally make my ideas visible, the more I get input and feedback and responses (all of which is awesome and entirely welcome).
Sometimes, the responses are a simple “Thanks! Liked your presentation/article/idea, and it was really relevant to what I’m working on right now!” Or they share some additional information that they have found that is meaningful to the topic at hand. Sometimes I get a more direct solicitation, whether it’s someone looking for a job, or a referral or a recommendation. And every once in a while, it’s someone disagreeing with something I’ve said or written (which is still welcome when it’s thought out and well argued, and in some way deals with the substance of what I was talking about in the first place).
This message was a little bit different. It was a follow up to connect with me on LinkedIn after they had seen me speak (again, not overly rare). But after a brief introduction and overview of their background, they indicated: “I wanted get your guidance in specifically 3 areas: 1. How can I be effective communicator? 2. How can I improve on my analytical skills? 3. What mistake(s) should I avoid in my first few initial projects?”
My first thought was “That’s an awfully presumptive request.” Which my brain immediately followed up with the query, “Well, just why are you thinking it’s presumptive?” And I had to give that some thought. On the face of it, the questions are relatively innocent and straightforward. There is rarely any harm in asking. I would have liked to know the answers to those questions when I was starting out my career.
Answering those questions, however, is an entirely different challenge. I don’t know the person. Apart from a two line explanation, I don’t know their background or experience. I don’t know their situation. I don’t have an appreciation of their current skill levels, what their future career goals are and what gaps they are going to have to fill in order to get there. In other words, while they are simple questions to ask, they are much harder questions to answer without some context.
My brain being what it is, it then offered me a new and different challenge: Why don’t you answer anyway? But then you could use the answers as a blog post? (I secretly suspect my brain actually hates me, but it also gives some very good ideas sometimes, so there you are). And so, dear reader, you get to benefit as well, as I attempt to answer some simply phrased questions, weighted as they are with monstrously complicated implications.
So, for starters, how can one be an effective communicator? Communicate. Lots. Then get feedback. Lots. And have enough humility to accept the feedback, and enough ego not to be crushed by it. (See? I told you this wasn’t going to be easy).
Of course, it’s not as simple as all of that. Communications is one off the hardest things we do as human beings. Jobs have been lost. Friendships have been crippled. Marriages have been destroyed. Heck, entire wars have been fought over our inability to effectively communicate (and more may yet be fought, but that’s a conversation for another day).
Communications is so hard because of the nuances, and sender-receiver models in their naive simplicity just don’t cut it. We need to understand our recipient, and their motives, their preferences, their biases and their preferred form of interaction. We have to assess how they communicate best, the way they are most likely to receive our message in the spirit it was intended, and the level of detail they value—as well as their likely attention span and ability, interest or desire to absorb what we are trying to relate to them.
We also need to assess the message itself. We need to know the degree to which what we are trying to communicate is simple, complicated or complex. We need to choose a form of communication that is most appropriate. In the vast majority of instances, that’s probably not going to be email. It’s almost certainly not going to be text. And don’t get me started on the theoretical virtues of Snapchat.
Not a week goes by where I don’t receive several emails where my immediate, innate response is to pick up the phone and call the recipient. Email is a horrible communication medium for anything that doesn’t require a “yes” or “no” answer, and even then a simple positive or negative response can have nuance and complexity that leads to unfortunate misunderstanding. When there are a lot of moving parts, where responses to one question are conditional on how we have responded to other questions, and when those responses are further conditional on intent, motive, feelings, preferences and moods, the opportunity for things to go downhill fast is nothing short of epic.
There are many people that don’t like any of this. They just want to cut to the chase. They think that business is business, that answers should be clear and direct, and that stark black and white contrasts offer entirely ample clarity for the vast majority of worldviews. There are also those that render judgements in infinite shades of grey. And there are those that want a clear answer, but also want you to understand and embrace all the detail, all the analysis, all the options and all of the data that have been rendered, sifted, sorted and prioritized in order to allow you to provide said clear answer. These are the people that will be mortally offended not by the answer you provide (which they may very well agree with) but because you’ve made a decision without first carefully considering all of the consequences that they have.
This is what makes us wonderfully, delightfully, blissfully, maddeningly human. And what makes communication such an area of fascination to study, and such a minefield to actually navigate. In short, and to revisit the original question, how to communicate better isn’t a product of developing technical master of your email program, or of Microsoft Word or (even worse) Microsoft PowerPoint. Better communication comes with a better understanding of human nature. We need to build understanding and appreciation of others, we need develop the ability to assess and appraise moods and preference and perspectives, and we need the range of communication abilities to respond appropriately and intelligently.
To the second question, on how to improve analytical skills, that’s going to be about as complicated. Analysis is no more black and white than communications, and it’s subject to a lot of the same forces, complexities and challenges. As I’ve written about before, decision making is rarely as logical, as rational, as reasoned or as objective as many would like to think. As humans, we are not rational beasts, brilliant cognitive capacity notwithstanding. We don’t find perfect choices, we find acceptable ones. But we’re cognitively lazy, and we tend to stop as soon as we find a sufficiently reasonable answer that ticks most of the boxes.
To illustrate, we don’t buy a house (or a car, or a computer, or a vacation) by objectively collecting information about all of our options and rigorously analyzing each option against all possible criteria. We start somewhere (a neighbourhood, or a brand, or a location) and we work out from there. When are feeling discouraged by the options that don’t work, and somewhat buoyed that we’ve found an option that mostly works—imperfections notwithstanding—we go for it. What other options were waiting at the next house, the next car dealership or the next travel web site, we will never know. It might have been even better. But we have a surprising willingness to settle for good enough.
That’s not a bad thing, mind you. To comprehensively analyze would be to exhaust ourselves before we even got going. We satisfice and simplify (the technical terms for what we are doing) because they are efficient. They allow us to make a decision and move on.
So to improve analytical skills, we need to make a reasoned and rational assessment of how much analysis is enough. Of what criteria are reasonable and appropriate to assess. Of what analytical approach we will use (which can range from comprehensive decision trees to a vigorous game of “rock, paper, scissors”) to come up with an answer. We need to know when analysis matters, and when making a decision quickly matters. We need to accept good enough, and we need to be good at explaining to others why good enough is actually good enough (which gets us back to improving our communication skills).
Finally, what mistakes should one avoid in managing our first few projects? The easy, facile answer would be “Those that will get you fired.” But that’s not terribly helpful, so I’ll expand on that.
If I reflect on the mistakes I’ve made in managing projects (and I have certainly made mistakes, and even if I knew what I know now, I would have made different, more interesting mistakes) there are a few key themes that emerge:
- For starters, don’t take information at face value. This ties back into the analysis, and the fact that we tend to simplify choices and go with what seems easy. And it actually, to a certain extent, contradicts it. We’ll get information that is easily available, that people want to share, and that they offer willingly and even gleefully. While that’s great, take the time to validate. Question. Challenge. Don’t assume, and don’t accept. As my father somewhat sarcastically (but not unhelpfully) offered to me: “Trust, but verify.”
- Don’t pretend you know more than you actually do. This is particularly a challenge when we are starting out. We want to look like we know what we are doing. We want to assure that we are in control. We want to project expertise and confidence. And those that actually do have expertise, knowledge and confidence are going to see through it, and judge us unfavourably as a consequence. It is entirely acceptable, and in fact preferred, to admit that you don’t know something. This is especially true if you are also willing to learn, and demonstrate that willingness. Acknowledge your knowledge gaps. Ask for help. Accept advice. Then go back and confirm that advice with someone else.
- It’s perfectly okay to pretend you know less than you actually know. In fact, this can be an useful—if counter-intuitive—strategy. I work in a unique place where I’m asked to take on challenges that are way out of my—and anyone else’s—comfort zone. I accept the need for a steep learning curve in most engagements. Speaking personally, I enjoy the challenge. That also means that I’ve needed to go into situations where I am working with experts far more knowledgeable than I am, and ask what I know to be basic—and possibly stupid—questions. Which often reveals responses that start with, “That’s a really good question…” In zen circles, this could be characterized as “beginner’s mind.” And if that works for you, go for it. But in essence, be willing to ask the stupid questions, because they’re often not stupid, and frequently lead to important insights that you need to know. Then go someone else the same stupid question, and see if you get the same thoughtful answer. Repeat as necessary.
- Ask for help, even when you think you can do it on your own. In fact, try as a rule to graciously accept help whenever it is offered. People genuinely want to help and contribute, and feel like they have a role to play. And they tend to get discouraged, or frustrated, or pack up their toys and go home, if there isn’t an opportunity to contribute. Value people’s willingness and desire to contribute, and try to avoid discouraging them. Give them an assignment. Be clear about what you are asking of them, and what a successful result looks like. Give them freedom to get that result in a way that works for them. Don’t micromanage.
- And so, to answer some simple (but interesting) questions, those would be my responses. Or at the very least, those would be my initial thoughts. I have some other perspectives as well, but they depend a great deal on context and nuance. And they don’t even begin to be able to be answered with the brevity I’ve employed here.
Aren’t you glad you asked?