In this Blog RH gets a little deep; but it’s worth it and the water’s fine.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I have spent all of my adult life working to understand and improve communication skills in myself—and others. The more I learn, the less I know. I used to think I could actually figure it out. I remember those moments in graduate school (usually reading something deep by Kenneth Burke) when the awesome scope of our symbolic world would take shape for a fleeting second, and then evaporate.
I remember getting stuck on one of Burke’s basic questions; “Which of our motives arise from our animality and which from our symbolocity?” It was basically a fancy way of asking how what we do stems from our existence as animals with all sorts of hard-wired biological needs, and how much of what we do is a function of our ability to think and use language.
I am still stuck on that question…
But fear not noble reader! This blog is not meant to be some (boring) esoteric deep-dive into symbolic philosophy. I felt it important to open the blog this way to (a) better establish my credibility as a communication-thinker and (b) to call out the critical skill of looking at communication behavior abstractly. In our book Evolutionaries, Cindy Tortorici says that the best leaders are self-aware and know the “why” behind their leadership calling. While I certainly agree with that—I am talking here about a more fundamental skill to reliably interpret what is happening in social/business situations. Cindy is saying that you need to know your own mind; I am asking how well you can assess the minds and motives of others. Can you objectively assess the situations that you are a part of?
My major premise is that it is one thing to be able to accurately perceive “stuff in the world” (e.g., this is a board meeting) and another thing to be able to accurately perceive communication dynamics (e.g., there is about to be a shouting match…). My minor premise is that the ability to accurately perceive communication dynamics is critical to the art of leading change. So much meaning in a situation is left unsaid. It is about tuning in to the undercurrents and feelings that set the context for what is spoken “on the record.” One of the first great tests you need to give anyone that you think might be a strong leader is to see if they can accurately interpret the verbal, nonverbal, and culturally bound symbols in any given situation. If you want, you can test yourself at www.glennrowe.net/BaronCohen/Faces/EyesTest.aspx.
One way to understand what I mean is to look at people who are unable to accurately assess common social situations. Researchers have demonstrated that people with a propensity for domestic violence and violence against women simply don’t interpret common negative signals like “Go away!” “Stop!” “Leave me alone!” in a normal fashion. In fact, they create elaborate alternative reality scenarios where those clear entreaties are actually interpreted as complements and encouragements. Yuck! Yes these people are scary, dangerous, and pathological. But hopefully, you get my point. The ability to accurately read social situations is a foundational skill for any citizen of the world and it needs to be a highly refined skill for any change leader.
Over the years I’ve coached dozens of students for competitive speaking. One thing I always ask after the speaker finishes their presentation is “How did it go?” I want to hear their perception of how they performed and more importantly, how they thought they were perceived by the audience. One of my students would say, “I was going a little bit fast in the introduction, but I slowed down and hit all the main points. I nailed the conclusion. There is no way I didn’t win that round.” Unfortunately, he never won the round. When the results came back he would say, “Wow, well now we know that New England judges must hate Southerners!”
Whether it is a function of some elaborate subconscious defense mechanism, or some misfire in the perceptual process, the inability to accurately read the situation is a serious flaw for a would-be leader. In fact, I believe that my student never won the round precisely because he was unable to accurately read the situation and make the 1000 minor adjustments that make the presentation work in that room, at that time, for that audience.
I have also seen the flip-side. I know speakers who knock the presentation out of the park and then dolefully report, “Well, I don’t know…It went OK…But there were a couple people just stuck in their cell phones in the back… so they were probably bored…” Again, this miss-read is dangerous. It may be some passive-aggressive attempt to get complements and positive feedback, “Oh no you rocked the house! That was a great speech!” Or the speaker may miss picking up the very real opportunities that are on the table as a result of his/her success.
The older I get the more I realize how profoundly difficult (perhaps impossible) it is to “see things as they really are.” Again, I am not going to start waxing philosophical about how symbols create reality (but they do). My main point is to say that the best leaders are able to blend perception, experience, and intuition into coldly accurate judgment of a complex social situation—like a Board meeting or a negotiation. It seems the people who do this the best share certain qualities:
- They can take and give precise criticism
- They are able to see trends in the behavior of others; they will see a spark of interest from a listener—and they will also see when it fades
- They adapt their communication style and messaging and observe the effects of those adaptations in real time
- They fail like everyone else, but they are tenacious about understanding exactly why they failed
- They have a good sense for statistics; they understand randomness and probability; they think in terms of confidence intervals and inferences
- They are less interested in being liked than they are of actually achieving their goal
- They are very clear about their goal
- Their goal is very important
- Total victory is not required, but progress and momentum are essential
- They know the good is not all that good and the bad is not all that bad
Take time to notice how leaders you respect assess and describe their performance and the performance of others in classic business situations.
See if you agree that they are effective to the precise extent that they are able to accurately “see” what is going on around them.
Then let me know when you figure out that whole animality and symbolicity thing…