We’re over-apologizers. “I’m sorry” is over-used, a subconscious reaction to any slight we make towards others. The repetitiveness of its use dilutes its authenticity and the proof of its inundation is the robotic response when we do. “It’s ok.” If that were true, was the apology necessary? Apologies are to be rare and genuine, reserved only for when someone has the courage to apologize holistically, and those are the ones that should be gratuitously accepted.
What then separates a rapid-fire apology from one we want to listen to?
Don’t follow up an apology with an excuse. Add-ons like but, I just, or I didn’t mean it isn’t owning up to the apology. Regardless of what you intended, it was received differently. Apologize without defense. Making excuses leads the receiver to believer they’re in the wrong, that they should not have been off-put from what was said initially.
They’re not to be self-serving. If you’re apologizing for your own conscious or guilt, it’s the wrong reason. People don’t hear words, people hear intent. If the only reason you are saying it is if you think you have to, don’t. Take some time for reflection and distance for perspective. Come back when you understand their response.
Do apologize face-to-face, if possible. The delivery method in which content is sent is more influential than the content itself. Making a genuine apology is already Showing Up emotionally, might as well Show Up physically too.
As someone listening to any apology, thank them for it. It shows that you recognize they care enough to make amends. If you’re truly “OK”, thank them regardless and say it was no big deal. However, if your feelings were indeed diminished, let them know. They were willing to start a candid conversation so lean into their vulnerability with your own by explaining your why.
In the end, stop apologizing for the fast and loose, the forgettable, and the unimportant. Do apologize when you fall flat. Relationships are not built on a few comments, but the actions we take over time. One mishap will not break the bank so long as there remains a balance of generosity and kindness. To quote Maya Angelou – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it. We have talked enough; but we have not listened.” – William H. Whyte
I could end this post there, these words reverberating with such clarity that it is worthy of both the beginning and the end. Fortunately, I hope for you and me being a purveyor of words, I wish to expound on it.
Passive Communication and Selfish Behaviors
Communication consumes a vast amount of our lives. Company culture, marketing, social media, politics, relationships, parenting, and countless other facets. The exchange of symbols or words, spoken, written, or signed, is correlated to steady and lasting marriages and companies spend millions of dollars annually ensuring they convey the right “message” to their target audience.
However grand scale communication can be, the small role we play dictates our influence over others and helps express our emotions. Unfortunately, our innate biases and assumptions, or perhaps even ego can get in the way of stellar communication. From that we can find ourselves becoming passive and selfish communicators.
“The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it.”
We believe it has taken place where from another’s perspective, it has not. In my observations passive communication is our default. When it comes to our wants and needs, we refrain for fear of judgement or hurting one’s feelings. Instead, we dance around the primary intent by dropping cues either through body language, tone of voice, or carefully selected words.
What I also know is that at times, we, I included, are abysmal at picking up social cues. Why? Perception is a function of one’s experience. My awareness of cues or how I’m perceiving cues is influenced by my norms which differ than yours. We can not expect both parties in every interaction to have an intimate understanding of individual communication styles. We may have globally recognized social cues but the nuance lies in the intensity. How large of a cue you give is based on what you know has worked previously.
The Magic Act
Herein lies the illusion of communication. On one end, we have a passive communicator believing they’ve dealt their hand without ambiguity but all the observer sees or hears is smoke and mirrors. Furthermore, the deceit doesn’t end there. Assisting the illusionary act are deeper emotional ramifications.
Passive communication is like walking on glass holding fifty pound weights. Constantly picking words or actions to not offend not only is a burden but makes for anxious and sweaty hands. It feels as though one slip can shatter the relationship you’ve put so much energy into building so to circumvent, you say nothing going along with the majority and pretending it is ok when internally, there is shame, anger, stress, and anxiety building on the premise your voice is not being heard when you believe you’ve given all the right signs.
Becoming a more assertive communicator is aligning the internal thoughts with the spoken word. Assertive is not aggressive. Assertive is direct and honest. While social cues have their place, it is far better to not rely on them in hopes one sees through the illusion. Another transformative quote you’ll find most fitting here is Brené Brown’s “Clear is Kind.”
Selfish to Selfless
“We have talked enough; but we have not listened.”
Communication requires two. It must be received and while we might be hearing, we’re not listening. Truly listening, is a selfless act and too often we’re in a selfish state. When you’re hearing someone speak, are you hearing to respond? Beginning to form a rebuttal before they’re finished? Think you already know the perfect advice to give and don’t need to hear that unabridged version? As if you’re saying “Hurry up and finish, my words are of greater rank than yours.” You would be taken aback if someone interrupted with that but you may as well be if you’re not listening wholeheartedly.
One of my core values underneath Showing Up is curiosity and a segment of that is staying committed to another’s thoughts and feelings. In order to do that, I try my best in allowing people center stage before I give any cue I’m ready to play a supporting role. Here’s two rules I’ve formed that support this:
Number one, before speaking, inhale through your nose and number two, only do number one in silence.
When people want to say something, there’s a tendency to inhale quickly through the mouth and the shoulders raise slightly. It’s obvious enough that the person speaking prematurely cuts themselves off allowing you to speak. Rather, inhaling through the nose does not give that indication. The secondary benefit is that because it’s not as natural and therefore must be conscious and intentional, it takes two seconds longer. In those two seconds you’ll find people continue to speak where you assumed they were finished. If they do continue, exhale and maintain selfless listening.
This is where number two comes in. Do not listen for the end of sentences to begin inhaling as they wind down. That is hearing to respond. Only after they have finished do you inhale giving the full two seconds of downtime. I know, this means there will be silence in a conversation and silence is awkward. Embrace it.
BONUS: Inhaling through your nose before speaking allows deeper breaths which helps you sound more confident as you finish out sentences with the same vigor as you started instead of squeaking out those last few words.
We can be selfish listeners towards the non-verbal too. Especially in our high-speed work environments with digital communication. It is almost intoxicating to fall prey to the melodic rhythm of responding to messages.
*Type type type*, *backspace backspace*, *type type*, “Thanks”, and send…*Type type type*, *backspace backspace*, *type type*, “Thanks”, and send.
Are you responding only to empty the inbox? To get it off your list? Selfish…selfish.
Selfless listening in an electronic world entails re-reading messages multiple times for total comprehension. Embrace the silence by waiting five minutes before responding. Read the entire chain! Absolutely if you’re late to the party. There is valuable insight in the tenth email down be it supporting information or the original objective that, now on the twelfth email, has been unbelievably misconstrued as it passed different hands. Lastly, my personal plea, respond fully. If two questions are asked, answer both.
I believe I’ve held my promise of expounding on those eloquent twenty-one words that began this post and in place of a traditional closing paragraph reiterating main points with witty remarks, I will double down on those same words that are truly befitting of the beginning and the end.
“The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it. We have talked enough; but we have not listened.”
I’m on the younger end of the millennial generation so I feel that I have a right to speak freely about my own people. There’s no denying that we are the generation of technology. From Windows ’95 and its eerie theme song of dial up to Google, an infinite encyclopedia at our fingertips to Apple’s release of the iPhone. With these society shifting innovations, we’re mere taps from anything we want within seconds forcing a belief that we can DO anything we want within seconds. Millennials quickly became self-proclaimed experts at multi-tasking. Unfortunately, I’ve only witnessed one singular output from it all – distraction.
The Rise of Multi-Tasking
The ability to multi-task is a fallacy. Still, some use it as a defining personality or a skill on a resume. Merriam-Webster’s definition is “The concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer.” Two things I find striking.
Only it’s performance is concurrent. Not it’s accuracy, completion, or efficiency.
By a computer. Yes, the original definition was used to describe the processing power of computers.
We took it from it’s technological roots and not only applied it to human behavior but praised individuals claiming mastery over it. You’ll find plenty of articles showing research that this simply is untrue. What we think of multi-tasking is really our brains rapidly switching between tasks. Computers can process dozens of signals at once, but it doesn’t work out so well for us. In fact, it takes close to twenty minutes for your brain to fully focus back on one task.
Leading With Progress Over Verbing
When I was in Boy Scouts, our patrol leader ended all his meetings with “Let’s verb.” It was a innocuous phrase that we could fill with endless possibilities. Today, if I heard a leader end their meeting with this, I’d raise not only an eyebrow but a red flag. Leaders are leaders because they give direction and purpose behind that direction. I wouldn’t find much confidence in a leader that tells their team to go do *insert work* here.
Walk the Talk…
I draw a parallel between this and the act of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is telling someone to go off and try to complete three tasks in the time of one, doesn’t matter the tasks chosen. Both these phrases lack specificity. Simply completing tasks for the sake of completion or doing them concurrently is muddy. As a leader, instead of just “verbing” we need to stop multi-tasking, make teams aware of their goals, and get everyone walking in the same direction. Only then can progress start to be seen but before you can get a team to stop the madness, the leader has to show it’s possible. Be a reflection of what’s expected.
I’ve been present with a leader with this exact challenge. They spoke well, listened intently, and cared for people around them but flew at Mach 3. At first, it sounds impressive that one could handle so many moving parts and divert attention so quickly but over time, behind the curtain, the set was on fire. Requests made to direct reports weren’t followed up on and projects started with gusto yet never made it far. The team felt they were always in react mode and began betting which requests seriously needed action. “Why should I dedicate my time and effort when they’ll forget they even asked tomorrow?” The leader spent much of their day multi-tasking and ultimately the team felt like their leader was adhering to everyone else’s agenda but theirs. They chose to verb.
Where’s Our Focus?
The output of our multi-tasking is distraction. In an organization it could be a blockade to progress but in smaller groups distractions take us away from the present. A present I see too much of it being lost by trying to capture it over experiencing it. While they certainly exist in organizations, it’s more prevalent in our social lives. I call them micro distractions. Posting your elegant dinner takes away from relishing in it’s craftmanship and exemplary service you’re receiving. Immediate discovery through Google erases the joy of curiosity, of just being ok with not knowing. Notifications pull more attention than conversations, taking stock of Facebook outranks taking stock of nature, and more e-mails are read than non-verbal cues.
Our brains crave habits because they’re easy. They’re mental shortcuts that take less processing as the pattern is recognized and those habits are formed from connections we make with our environment. The next time you’re in a restaurant, watch the waiting area. Count the number of people who check in then sit down to wait and almost immediately look towards a phone, likely without thinking twice. It’s no better at the table either. Take a look at this photo. How many devices can you see?
The problem with some habits is that it’s a potentially damaging connection. In this case of micro distractions when we connect to a device, we disconnect from reality. No one would argue that a connection to the unrealistic is disingenuous and inauthentic and yet where we have the option, we’ll choose it almost every time. In the long run, what’s more important? That Snapchat story or a friend needing to unload a tough week? These are opportunities to form deeper relationships and stronger bonds but the moment our focus is pulled elsewhere, we’re saying “I have somewhere else to be” or “this text is more important”. Side note: On the chance one of those is true, you should be asking yourself “What lead me to be here?Was I afraid of saying no to this commitment”?
We’re the Problem and Answer
Personally, I wonder for some if it’s avoidance. That these micro distractions are a form of get out of jail free card. Go back to the waiting area at a restaurant example. Silence can be awkward and not knowing how to engage is uncomfortable. Rather than stepping into it, we hunch our shoulders, look down, and try to be small, unnoticeable. As if we’re saying “I’m looking at something else and not responsible for this.” I’ve got news, the silence is still there. The awkwardness is unbearable and you’re the cause. The door to better relationships is open. You’re choosing to close it.
We’ve got a put an end to these micro distractions starting with ending multi-tasking. Showing Up is about being present and when you’re multi-tasking you’re not 100% there. The first step is moving from the unconscious habits to awareness. If you’re struggling to do so on your own, enlist a close friend or co-worker to call you out when they observe you multi-tasking. Social accountability is a powerful weapon.
For more specific strategies, try closing e-mails when it’s not needed. Make a rule that phones stay hidden while in restaurants, waiting areas included. Silence doesn’t have to be awkward. They’re natural breaks in conversations. Breathe in your surroundings, then spark a new topic. If you can’t think of one, prompt open-ended questions. Show up by choosing progress instead of ambiguous verbs and leave the multi-tasking to the computers.
No impactful decision comes without contemplation, evaluation of opportunity costs, and weighing pros and cons. It consumes even more energy when it’s for the first time. I think of these as thresholds – like through a door. The physical doors in our life can play tricks on us. We’ve all walked into a room and immediately forgotten our thoughts or why we walked in there the first place. Just the same, the metaphorical doors can have the same effect. You can scheme up a hundred possibilities but no matter how many practice rounds you take, it never goes exactly like you’d imagine after you stepped through. Once you’re in the arena, emotions take over rationale and you’ve forgotten it all. Luckily, understanding this truth is an amazing first step.
I separate these types of situations into two different terms. Experience thresholds, physically participating in an event for the first time, and relationship thresholds, the first few conversations with someone new. You can only do something new once while each relationship is unique.
Behind Door #1
Relationship thresholds can feel like a maze as even before that first interaction we can be influenced from all different directions. This is especially true in work cultures where rumors run rampant. For example, imagine you’re set to meet with a manager from a different department on a cross-functional project. You tell some of your co-works and it’s almost too easy for them to list off their two cents.
“I’ve heard that manager is all work and no feeling.” “I heard they’re combative in meetings.” “The emails I’ve been copied on are brash and passive aggressive.”
The first thing you should notice is those statements are not facts nor first-hand experiences. Regardless, after hearing this you prepare to match the managers intensity, getting your facts straight, and rehearsing exactly what you want to say. Then, ten minutes into the meeting, you realize everything you heard about them is not what you’re seeing. Where someone might see combativeness, you see passion. Where someone might see passive aggressive emails, you see clear direction.
In e-mail land, it’s so important to practice positive intent. Without hearing tone and seeing non-verbal cues, an innocuous message can be twisted by the receiver that may be desperate to find hidden meaning confirming their own bias formed from preconceived notions, from the rumors, about the sender.
The meeting ends without confrontation and you leave with high aspirations of the success of your project. Yet you wonder, “Where on earth could my co-workers have gotten those ideas?” It’s incredibly easy to accept other’s perceptions especially if you trust them. We need to remember that perception is function of experience. People, from their past experiences, react to others differently. The only way we can truly know is to step over the threshold into the unknown, first-hand. These first interactions may elicit some fear or nervousness.
For me, to quiet those fears is to think back to other threshold-crossing moments. Moments that turned out fantastic in the end. The sense of confidence and courage I felt afterwards. Why should this one be any different? Once you’ve done it once, it’s replicable. I also remind myself that regardless of the outcome, I will for sure learn something about them and if I’m lucky, something about myself.
Behind Door #2
Experience thresholds is doing a physical act for the first time. One of my thresholds I have yet to cross fully is flying. I flew often as a child, younger than six. As an adult, when we’re no longer indestructible, I’ve flown just once. A ninety minute flight to Illinois for a wedding. I know; statistically planes are safer than driving, I know that. I also know my definition of flying – Listening to the slow drone of engines keeping a one-hundred and fifty ton chunk of metal cruising at thirty thousand feet in the air and me being stuck in a small cabin with no control over any of it – Not conducive to my inner peace.
I want to cross this threshold though as I can see what’s on the other side. I’d love to visit other states and someday internationally to Rome or Ireland. I’m not sure what would happen if you fold in “over water hundreds of miles from land” to my personal definition. Probably s*** a brick, which would make the plane too heavy, then panic by running down the aisle which will also make the plane become unbalanced and now given that it’s too heavy, begin barrel rolling into a uncontrollable downward spiral towards a cold, shark-infested ocean where I can’t swim. Yup.
When considering to cross an experience threshold, hesitation comes when we have a fear of it. If it were exciting, we’d go for it immediately. When we’re fearful of what might happen, we’re mostly asking ourselves if we’ll regret it later. Chip Conley’s Emotional Equations tells us two things: we more regret instances where we didn’t do something over instances we did; and we tend to weigh short term pain over long term gain. To help guide us, he asks two questions. “Is it repeatable? Can it be repaired? If it’s not repeatable, beware of saying no. If it can’t be repaired (if something goes wrong) beware of saying yes.”
I haven’t had the opportunity to put this into practice with flying. My wife however, played this out beautifully a few years ago. She had the opportunity to spend a week in Greece…for $500. Two zeroes. Her first flight ever was with me to Illinois just a few months prior but instead of ninety minutes in air, she clocked in fourteen. Applying these questions:
Is it repeatable? Will you ever get the chance to spend a week touring Greece for 5 Benjamins? Doubtful, unless you win The Price is Right.
Is it repairable? This answer is situational and less direct. What you may be most worried about going wrong differs from someone else’s and the solutions to circumvent or rationalize those concerns will also differ.
In the end, her downsides were minimal and she earned a lifetime memory.
On the Other Side
Stepping through relationship or experience thresholds is an endeavor. It means getting out of your comfort zone, accepting you don’t know what comes next despite your careful planning and forethought. On the positive, it gives way to richness and fulfillment. Deeper relationships with co-workers or friends. My final reminder that it does get easier over time and for better or worse, you’ll learn a thing or two.
Gratitude. As cliché as this word can be, especially around holidays, very few practice it regularly. Yet, taking time to reflect on what’s going well allows us to be in the present and combats the negativity so prevalent in our news and social media. However, expressing gratitude can feel awkward and uncomfortable in the workplace.
One reason for this is that we hardly see it. Gratitude can’t propagate within a team without an example, something to emulate from. It takes courage to be the first. It may not come out right the first few times and that’s ok.
I have felt almost childish at times, lacking finesse with my tone being too “Great job, have a cookie!” I have found using specifics help professionalize my tone. Additionally, being specific is more meaningful. It shows you payed attention and are being purposeful. Here are some starter sentences.
“Great job speaking up when you…”
“I appreciate how you…”
“What is great about you is…”
“Thank you for…”
If you’re not ready to verbally do it, write it down. You don’t have to share it. Let’s make a goal this week to show, or record, gratitude at least seven times, once a day.