Two Ears, One Mouth: Such Good Advice

Listening comes first in effective communication

I am honoured when people find my work useful to them in their everyday lives. I am particularly honoured when those people are other professionals whom I respect deeply. One such is Patricia Evans. She generously attended a workshop I presented recently, and has blogged about her experience. You can read it here:

And while you’re on her site, check out the rest of the information. She is a highly accomplished professional, and a darn fine lady, too. I am pleased to call her friend.

By the way, don’t forget the advice: we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. They are meant to be used in that proportion. Best wishes to all.


Copyright(c) 2015 Carol J. Sutton Cert.ConRes.

Reaping Benefits From Our Differences

Remove barriers through essential conflict resolution processes

Communication skills. Leadership abilities. Emotional and social intelligence. Today, organizations expect a lot from us – both as individuals and team members. Communication proficiency is crucial because it immediately affects our ability to get work done together and thus reach demanding goals.

Thrive on Disagreement
Counter-intuitive perhaps, but conflict – about truly important issues – can actually be beneficial in the workplace. I am referring to the kind of conflict that comes from contrary ideas of substance, not mere personality or style differences. In fact, negative reactions generally emerge from how we express and handle our personal diversity, not the variations themselves.

The conflict may arise because one of the best ways to stimulate creative juices is by rubbing your mind against others’ to produce new and improved concepts and procedures. As differences emerge, we need serviceable conflict resolution skills to manage them well. Then our organization flourishes, not despite the differences but because of them. This process is called “creative abrasion” and “fruitful dissent”.*

Only through sharing differing opinions, beliefs, experiences and goals can any group of people exceed their individual boundaries. Organizations – boards, teams, whole companies – who create ways to make the most of their diversity share a variety of essential characteristics*, such as having common goals firmly in place; basing discussion on facts rather than opinion; developing a wide range of options instead of just a few alternatives, and ensuring everyone feels comfortable speaking up. Not least among the common elements is humour; teams that can lighten up and let off steam among the whole group are also able to disagree, respectfully.

Create Positive Outcomes
Each of us has the power to select our response to people and circumstances. In fact, humans are the only beings on the planet able to separate stimulus from response to choose a reaction: in what manner will we engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret and respond? Our choices shape the outcome of our interactions and create an effect, either positive or negative.

At the most basic level, just the discovery of a different point of view can enable us to see something that had not occurred to us individually. Through sharing ideas openly, focused on what a person’s ideas have to offer – not his or her personality – we are able to generate fewer problems and greater benefits than any one of our preferences might have produced on its own.

Reap the Benefits
Understanding your own and others’ communication and conflict styles can help you to master the strategy of “creative abrasion”, and produce benefits for your organization. For teams, this means increased capacity to manage differences productively; for the organization, it means greater creativity and innovation from the members’ enhanced abilities.

*    How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight”; Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy, L.J. Bourgeois III; Harvard Business Review, July-Aug 1997.
*      “Putting Your Company’s Whole Brain to Work”, Dorothy Leonard and Susaan Straus; Harvard Business Review, July-August 1997
Copyright(c) 2015 Carol J. Sutton Cert.ConRes.

Whatever The Subject, Get The Most For Your Money Through Effective Communication

Why don’t people demonstrate better results from training once back on the job?

Last year, you sent your supervisors and lead hands to that conflict resolution course on how to speak to employees to get their cooperation. Remember the results? A few weeks of brave new talk and then everyone calmed down and went back to “normal”. More recently, two of your key operators attended the manufacturer’s training sessions to learn how to maximize the output of your new technology. Now only they know how to make it run well – even though you specifically asked them to focus on communicating the information to their team members.

And today your operations team asked you to foot the bill for a project management skills program, claiming that it will save re-work and reduce down-time so much that you will recoup the cost of the training in six months. Yeah, right. No wonder your feel sceptical; all too often the benefits we expect to see in individual capabilities and company return-on-investment never materializes. What’s wrong with this picture? In my opinion, it is not complete because training is only one element.

No matter how well the employee masters the information and techniques being taught, when he – or she – comes back to the job, nothing can change if the rest of the circumstances stay exactly as they were before. It is those very constraints that keep everyone and everything pumping out the same results, regardless of individual variation.

For instance, if the supervisor or manager to whom he reports refuses to participate in the new way of doing things, the newly-trained employee will be frustrated in his efforts to think, speak and act differently. If the employee finds out the new skills – whether technical or managerial – are not rewarded in his job appraisal, what incentive is there for him or her to try?

We need everyone to participate for the new ways to work.

The other pieces are how we match changes in the environment and work processes to employees’ new skills and knowledge, so the benefits can take hold. That is what “human performance improvement” is all about. This is the focus of the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI– Its last conference was probably the best I have ever I attended, because the calibre of the presenters was so high and everyone was focused on bringing their special knowledge to the service of performance improvement. Academic researchers, change experts, tactical professionals, instructional designers, trainers, and systems technologists all provided insights on the multiple aspects of this key business arena. I could not wait to get back and start putting the tools, techniques and concepts I discovered to work for my clients!

As a practitioner of human performance improvement, I continually remind myself that even very high levels of personal skill are not enough to compensate for problems in the system, and even the best systems still require high levels of personal skill for complete effectiveness.

I would love to hear about the returns your company has achieved – or not – through staff development and training. If the ROI is not what you expected, maybe some systemic changes to remove communication barriers are due. Let me know!


Copyright(c) 2015 Carol J. Sutton Cert.ConRes.

Get Buy-In Up and Down the Organization

Try A More Effective Communication Model: You Go First 

What is “buy-in”? For me, it is when a group of people have worked through the most likely possibilities for their situation, and agreed on what seems to be the best option at the time. You cannot make someone “buy into” your ideas unless you have the communication skills – and maybe conflict resolution capabilities – to illustrate why cooperation with you is in their best interest.

We help our teammates and direct reports – and even those to whom we report – reach this important stage by remembering that it is not change, per se, that people resist. It’s actually the sense of “being changed” that results in most people digging in their heels. Being told what to think about and which perspective to take is a sure way to get my back up. You, too? (Yes, I thought so.)

Furthermore, recognize that any change worth making is bound to generate some resistance, if people are actually thinking for themselves. No push-back means that the change probably isn’t very important. The vital point is whether the people who are pushing back are raising valid points. Are they intelligent, engaged people whose resistance challenges us to search for better answers? If the answer to such questions is yes, then invite the resisters into the tent where they can be useful. They obviously care about the outcome.

So, buy-in is not about swearing undying loyalty to a cause or suppressing one’s own ideas and concerns. For me, buy-in is the flip side of resistance, defined as the “negative expression of an unmet need.”

Self-knowledge is the foundation

The first step in building buy-in is to acknowledge and work with one’s own needs, strengths, and style preferences. And then comes the really hard part – practising what we preach. One of the most important things to understand is one’s pre-disposition toward authority.  Do you tend toward counter-dependent behaviour – i.e., resent and rebel; or over-react in the other direction and become strongly compliant? That’s just as damaging. The latter assumes a parent/child relationship, and that does not lead to good business decisions.

If we want to create greater buy-in, the onus ultimately is on me and you, the subordinates, first to understand ourselves to the best of our ability, and then to extend similar understanding to those in the organization who depend on us –  above, below and all around.


Copyright(c) 2015 Carol J. Sutton Cert.ConRes.

Good Communication = Big Payoff

Eliminate Barriers to Effective Communication to Reap Rewards

When I say “good communication” do you think I am talking about people being polite to each other?

Sure, that’s part of it. No one wants to collaborate with people who treat us rudely. And yet effective communication is so much more than that.

It is senior management having the confidence to allow employees to speak up about things going wrong without shooting the messenger. It is middle managers who make it safe for employees to push back – reasonably, of course – with empathy for the effort required to change. And it is employees who strive to make their greatest contribution, even when we feel we might be doing more than our share on any given day.

Why should anyone put all this effort into behaving in ways that help other people feel comfortable? Because it not only eliminates barriers to effective communication, this level of skill reduces the chances of unwarranted conflict arising. That makes it a crucial factor in managing people well, and good people management increases individual and group productivity, as well as quality levels.

Think of it as treating your employees right, demonstrating the behaviour you would like them to show toward the people who buy your products or services. Customer service expert Jeff Disend says,  “How companies act toward employees largely determines how well employees will serve customers.” *

There is no sense in taking employees through customer service training – or any other type for that matter – unless we allow them to exercise the new behaviours they have learned. Without permission to integrate the changes, people just snap right back to their previous ways.

So, who goes first? In Is Silence Killing Your Company, Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams look at the price of silence in several different types of organizations. They assert that, “We all have the power to express ourselves and to encourage others to speak freely. … We need to be willing to take the first step ourselves – to bring differences out into the open so that they can be explored.”

Bringing differences out into the open requires the confidence that can come from having mastered basic communication and conflict resolution skills. Their lack is often a barrier to effective communication as people retreat back into the silence.

*    How to Provide Excellent Service in Any Organization: A blueprint for making all of the theories work; Jeffrey E. Disend; 1991

*    Is Silence Killing Your Company, Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams (Harvard Business Review, May 2003)


Copyright(c) 2015 Carol J. Sutton Cert.ConRes.