AIMS Communication Review – Part 3

Aloha! This is post 3 of the series, and just this morning I determined that there will be 2 more after this. So buckle up, and get ready to tackle YOUR communication struggles!

Biggest communication struggle: Tact

For this one, I thought it would be a good idea to look at the definition:

Tact: a keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense; skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations. –

I think another way to put this is… “how to not make things worse.”  Which is something we have all done in the past.

Unfortunately, tact is something you learn by actually making things worse… at first. Certainly this is not your intent, but you don’t develop “a keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense” without at some point doing or saying something that DID give offense.  The more you interact with people, the more you develop that sense.

That is not to say that you can’t apply what you have learned about one person to the interactions you have with another. You absolutely can use those experiences as a guide – but remember that everyone is different, and you also need to take into account what you know about that individual to determine what is going to make things worse, or give offense.

Spider-man has his spidey-sense that helps alert him to imminent danger.  You need to develop a similar sense in yourself that alerts you to when you are about to make things worse.

The definition also mentions “skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations”.  What makes the situation difficult or delicate?  Generally, it’s the people you are interacting with (their personality or behavioral trends) or the subject matter.  To me, the ultimate use of ‘tact’ is when you have to tell someone something that they really don’t want to hear.

Let’s say an employee did not get the promotion they were going for.  One approach would be to say, “You didn’t get it.  Too bad, so sad”.  Pretty easy to see that those last 4 words were not only inappropriate, but most likely will make a difficult, potentially awkward situation, worse.

Using a little more tact, you would take into consideration what kind of employee they are, how far away from being qualified were they, and how much of the relationship do you want to preserve?  This is where your powers of observation and perception come in, to guide your keen sense of what to do and how to approach the individual.  You probably want to communicate WHY they didn’t get the promotion, and offer up any insight you have about what they could have done to increase their chances of consideration in the future.  If you want this employee to continue to be a productive member of the staff, you have to approach this with their thoughts, feelings, impressions and desires in mind.

Most likely when you take all of those things into consideration, you will be acting with the appropriate amount of tact.

Biggest communication struggle: Not listening

Huh?  What’d you say?

Whoever wrote this is not alone.  Listening is a HUGE issue for many of us.  We unfortunately now live in a society that, in public arenas, does not value true listening, but stating your case at all costs.  There is no better example of ineffective communication than two people screaming at, and over, each other.

You said what you wanted to say, good for you.  No one was listening.  It’s like that question about the tree falling in the woods… it does make a sound, but no one is there to hear it, so it doesn’t matter.

If you know that listening is an issue for you, there are two major questions to ask yourself (and be honest with the answer, ‘cuz it doesn’t work any other way).

  • Are there particular situations that I find it more difficult to truly listen?
  • Are there specific people I tend not to listen to?

Notice I said nothing about the physical ability to hear. That’s because hearing and listening are two different things.  It takes ears and the mechanisms in the ear canal to “hear” it takes an open mind to “listen”.

If you identified certain situations where it’s more difficult to listen, what are the common factors?  Do you not like or understand the subject matter, does it not interest you, do you have opposing view points, is it due to distractions, either physical or mental…?  The list goes on… Whatever you have identified, is there a way for you to get over that roadblock so you CAN listen?  Even if you don’t like the subject matter, if you find that it’s important information you can use for your job, it can be easier to digest and willingly listen to.

If it’s a person, examine the level of trust and respect you have for them. We tend not to actively listen to those we don’t trust.  It’s survival thing. Work on the trust and you’ll increase your ability to listen to them.

Listening takes focus, and it’s a skill you can develop. The distractions you create for yourself, the inner story you tell yourself that may or may not be true, clouds your ability to take in information more than any external factors ever could.  The next time you feel yourself not listening, no matter the situation, try this:

  • Clear your mind of assumptions and preconceived notions from the past
  • Avoid the temptation to judge what you are hearing as its being said
  • Allow the other person to speak without interruption
  • Ask unassuming, non-threatening questions to clarify meaning and intent
  • THINK before you respond (see post 1 for a piece on being patient)

This works for ‘tact’, too!


Biggest communication struggle: Hot headed/emotions clouding communication

I’m not sure if these folks meant that other peoples’ hot headedness was clouding the communication or if it was their own. If others are getting hot headed, please refer to exhibit A & B (the previous topics in this post).  If YOU are the hot head, read on.

We are emotional creatures, and that’s not something that will change. Emotions often drive our thoughts, which drive our behaviors.  Sometimes when we think about things too much, and our multiplied thoughts actually drive our emotions, which drive our behaviors.  Either way, our emotions are in the drivers seat, or are at least riding shotgun.

That means we need to be acutely aware of the things that DO boil our blood, and how to remain tactful (again, see exhibit A) in those situations. If you already know what kinds of things get under your skin, you can brace yourself when you sense them coming and CHOOSE to take a different path.

Since everything we do is a choice, choosing how you react to a situation is up to you – even if it angers you to the point of a vein popping out of your forehead.  The key is to be ready for it… remember that a pot of water on a stove doesn’t boil (or boil over) immediately.  It takes time to reach the right temperature.  You generally have a “warming period” that you can use to examine the situation and choose a different path.  Take a deep breath.  Consider your options. Consider what blowing a gasket will do and how it probably is not the best scenario in the long run.  Take another deep breath.  Count to ten. Don’t you feel better already?

And you are probably thinking clearer, too, which can only help in the long run.

But what about those situations where you seem to go from 0 to 700 MPH in a split second?  Well, you either don’t know your triggers, or other things have been building up that you have not addressed. When we don’t address things (i.e. closure), our emotions don’t get a sense of resolve; they still feel uneasy or unsettled.  That’s like a bomb just waiting to go off… and you may never see who lit the fuse or just how short the fuse was.

The next time that happens, take a minute afterwords to replay the incident in your mind.  Was there a trigger this time, or was this a little thing that is equivalent to the straw breaking the camel’s back?  If so, what are the unresolved issues that have been ignored and that need to be dealt with?

One last thing that helps control or reduce our hot headed outbursts is trying to understand the other point of view.  It’s not always easy, but if you have an appreciation of where they are coming from, you will see that they probably have some validity, even some things in common with what you are saying.  If you are too busy trying to yell over them and make YOUR case, you’ll never hear that.  And they won’t actually listen to you, either, no matter how loud you yell.

Thanks for reading!


Okay, so that was a long one.  How about no more reading for now?  Instead, here are two nerds on a roller coaster.  Can anyone tell what coaster this is?



Don’t be afraid of the answer

How many times do you hear (even from me) that as leaders we have to be able to ask the right (and tough) questions?

We have to ask our applicants the right questions to see if they would be a good fit for the company.

We have to ask our employees the right questions to see if they are satisfied with their work experience.

We have to ask our customers the right questions to be sure they like our products.

We have to ask the right questions about our organization to make sure we are as efficient and productive as possible.

So we are asking lots of questions, but do we really want to hear the answer?
If not, what are we afraid of?

Recently I got the chance to hear a good friend do a presentation.  He had great content and developed an immediate rapport with his audience.  He also asked some really insightful and thought-provoking questions during the session.  And then HE answered them.

We spoke after the session, and I asked about the questions he asked and the fact that the audience didn’t have a chance to respond.  Here’s what he said, “I’m not really a fan of asking questions during a session like that.  You never know what people are going to say.”  He said he didn’t want someone grandstanding or taking the conversation off course.  He was afraid of the impact that would have on his presentation.

On the other hand, what if allowing the audience to answer gives you more information, provides additional insight to the other audience members and further engages them because they got to participate?  That would be good, right?

So what are we afraid of? Usually it’s the unknown, and whether or not we’ll be able to handle it.

If we ask our employees about their experience, are we afraid they’ll actually tell us – and that we could be the problem?  If that’s the case, we probably already know that there is something else we could be doing to make their experience better so they could further help us achieve the company mission.  We just may not know what it is.

But what if this happened… what if your employees pointed out a potential short-coming in your abilities or the employment experience you created?  Isn’t there a possibility that that information could lead to you improving your performance, which could lead to higher morale, less turnover and higher profits?

If you agree that yes, that is a possibility, then go ahead and ask the question AND be ready to listen to the answer.

Thanks for reading!


About the author: Matt asks questions all the time about what organizations need to be successful. The answer he hears? “We need our front-line and seasonal supervisors to have the skills needed to actually LEAD.  Matt listened. Click here to learn how to prepare and motivate your leaders for the upcoming season.

The Kids Are Alright

How many “generational” experts have you heard talking about how different the generations are? While it’s true that each generation has their own idiosyncrasies, couldn’t you say the same about genders, races, and socioeconomic classes?

But what we have learned (or should have learned) about these other groups? By thinking of them specifically by their stereotypical characteristics, we often get a skewed view of that group, and forget to treat them as individuals.

The same thing has happened with all this talk of different generations, and it kind of bugs me. Why spend all this time talking about how we are different? Wouldn’t it be more productive to focus in what we have in common so we can get along better?

This “differences are bad” mentality was punctuated by a comment overheard by fellow passengers on a recent Southwest flight.

If you aren’t familiar with Southwest’s boarding procedure, they don’t assign seats. Instead, they give you a boarding position, and you stand in line (and then board) according to the position assigned. For this flight, I was B15.

Passengers B14 and B19 were already discussing this procedure when I arrived. B14 said, “I thought this system was stupid when it first came out, but it actually works.”

B19 replied, “Yeah, I know some people don’t like it, but I don’t mind.”

“It was probably thought up by some intern“, B14 joked.

Why is this a bad thing? Does he think only well seasoned, experienced executives can make good decisions?  He seems to be indicating that he thinks interns, by default, come up with stupid ideas, further perpetuating the divide between generations.  Well done, B14.

Interns and young employees have some great and innovative ideas, and we need to get out of our own way and listen to what they have to say if we are going to lead our teams and companies into the future. The problem is that often their ideas sound so “out-of-the-box” that someone with too much experience maintaining the status quo could never even fathom it working, so it’s called stupid.

Of course this goes both ways, young people also still need to listen to more experienced employees to learn from what has happened in the past to avoid previous failures or build on successes.

No matter your gender, race, generation or NFL franchise loyalties, one of the things we all have in common is ego. More than any of these other differences, it is our ego that can lead to an unwillingness to admit that someone else might have a good idea.  This is REALLY what gets in the way when it comes to listening to each other and building cooperation.

So check your ego, embrace the fact that other people have good ideas and intentions, and the “differences” these experts keep talking about will become virtually irrelevant.

What is your experience?

Thanks for reading!


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Give Your Peeps a Chance

So Rush just released their 20th studio album entitled Clockwork Angels.  60+ minutes of music from three guys who have been together for over 30 years and are each pushing the 60 year-old mark.  If that weren’t incredible enough, it’s actually a really good album, but then again, I am a Rush fan.

What that means is that I will certainly give them a chance when they release new material.  They are typically treading in some new territory, and as fans we’ve become accustomed to their desire to change course musically over the years. That’s probably what has kept them thriving and relevant since 1974.

What this also means is that it might take some time to get used to their new direction.  Mention Rush to 99% of the population, and they will immediately think of the song, “Tom Sawyer.”  Even if they liked that song, they may not have liked other things they heard by the band because it wasn’t exactly like (or very close to) the style of Tom Sawyer.  The same is true of this new album, but I realized a few things as I listened to it multiple times (that WILL lead to some leadership insight, I promise!).

  • Rush music challenges the listener.  They certainly don’t play what you are expecting. Unfamiliar chord changes, arrangements and melodies seem to be their norm, if that makes sense.  Again, that might make it tough to sonically digest for some.  What it does for the people who stick with it for a few listens is that it helps to expand their musical vocabulary, like listening to different points of view on a particular topic.
  • Rush fans trust the band to make it worth their while. Rush has been around long enough to build up a pretty loyal fan base that will take the time to listen to and absorb the new music they create.  One of the most often heard comments about a Rush album, especially this one, is that it gets better with each listen.  Nuances of the music are discovered which makes you want to listen AGAIN to hear what ELSE might be going on that you missed the first 7 times.  By this point you are very familiar with the music, and most likely, the oddness of the new direction is growing on you or it’s not.  Thing is, you’ve already invested significant time… what’s one more listen to be sure?

Here’s how this all relates to leadership (at least in my mind)…

We all have people in our personal and professional lives that challenge us. Sometimes that challenge seems like a good thing that helps us grow, sometimes it’s just annoying.  What we have to realize is that even the annoying challenges help us grow.  Think about that employee who just seems to rub you the wrong way.  Everything they say is like nails on a chalkboard, and you usually do what you can to avoid them.  Well… what if you really gave them a chance and REALLY listened to them?  What are they trying to tell you?  What nuances of their personality have you missed because you dismissed their annoying persona from the get go?

Like I am a fan of Rush, I think it is important for leaders to be a fan of people.  Not crazy, paint your face kind of fans… well… maybe – why not?  What shows your enthusiasm for your team more than your willingness to go out on a limb for them?  What instills loyalty more than consistently delivering on your promise to be there for them?  What creates more “I will do whatever it takes” type of attitudes than having complete trust in someone and their ability to lead you in the right direction?

That’s what a fan sees.  That’s what you want your employees to see in you.  But like many things, it starts with you.

Be a fan of theirs, they will be a fan of yours.

Thanks for reading!

About the author: Matt Heller attended his first Rush concert in 1984.  He was 14 and had to buy and extra ticket so his Dad could come along as the chaperone. True story.

Great music (and leadership) starts with listening

I did it.  I said I was going to do it, and I did it.  On a recent trip to New Orleans for the World Waterpark Association Symposium, I took some time to head down to the French Quarter to go to Preservation Hall.  This is a tiny little historic music hall that is home to the quintessential New Orleans jazz experience.  I was there last in 1996, had a blast, and was NOT going to miss it this time around.

So I went.  Heard some GREAT jazz in an intimate setting, and along the way I learned a thing or two about listening.  And it wasn’t just about how the audience was listening to the band, it was also about how the musicians were listening to each other.  It made me think about how we may or may not listen to each other or our employees, but also what kind of great music we could make if we did.

The really cool thing about Preservation Hall is that all of the instruments are acoustic.  No amplifiers or speakers or monitors or wires or microphones.  Just a clarinet, piano, sousaphone, trombone, trumpet and a drum kit.  It was really cool to watch the interaction among these acoustic musicians, it’s an art form that is often lost in bands with enough electronic firepower to make the neighbors go deaf.

What we saw were little head nods, a look, even a word or two between players.  When the piano had a solo, the rest of band played softer.  In the musical world that’s called dynamics.  The volume swelled when it needed to and pulled back when it needed to.  Sometimes various players would lay out (not play at all) to feature another member of the band.  What did they do when laying out? They weren’t checking email on their phone, they were listening to the other players.  At one point during a drum break, the sousaphone player closed his eyes and just bobbed his head to the groove.

You could tell this was a group of well tuned (pun intended) musicians who understand that hearing what each other plays is as important as any note that they play.

Let’s put that in our terms.  Hearing what someone else has to say is as important as anything we have to say.


Do you feel that way?  Do you know people who seem to feel exactly the opposite… that anything they say is more important than what you say?  These folks will typically talk over you, interrupt, or generally won’t listen.

There are numerous reasons for this, and we don’t have space to Dr. Phil the issue.  What I do want to emphasize is how YOU listen, since that is what we can control.

To listen effectively, I think it takes these three things (some not always associated with listening)

  • Patience – Don’t worry, you will get your turn.  A little patience goes a long way and shows people that you care (because you are listening)
  • Confidence – You need to feel good enough about your topic or position (and maybe your stance on it) to know that simply letting someone else share their opinion is not a personal attack, but just a difference of opinion.  Another dose of patience can be inserted here as well.
  • Focus – we’ve all seen distracted listeners.  Eyes moving around the room, looking at their watch, can’t intelligently respond to your last comment or question.  Don’t be that person.  Avoid distractions and focus your listening attention and energy on the person speaking.  You might just learn something.

I’ve probably said this before but it’s worth repeating here.  Studies show that being listened to is so close to being loved that most people can’t tell the difference.  If that’s true, there was a lot of love at Preservation Hall that night.

What do you think?