Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Listening is the hardest skill to master

Waiting for the coming snow storm, writing odds and sods, listening to the wind outside and the silence in the house...

Silence is rare. We put on music, have TVs play in the background, radios hum, appliance motors kick on, BBs beep. Oh - and there goes my graceful cat, tumbling like a bowling ball down the stairs. There is always some form of noise happening; no wonder stopping to listening is hard. We are attuned to noise and can sometimes not notice a switch in the tone indicating a need to truly listen.

There are courses and books about how to listen offering great advice like:

  • Ask more questions and wait for the answers
  • Don't interrupt (have you met my family?)
  • Paraphrase what you believe you heard to indicate listening and ensure you've got the message correctly.

We all want to be heard. We have great stories to tell and ideas to share. It's true we don't listen well but it's rarely from malice or disdain.

It's a two-way effort. With so much background noise, so much information coming to us on a daily basis, so many things competing for our attention, the speaker also needs to help the audience listen.

  • First, by asking for undivided attention. If something doesn't require undivided attention, don't ask for it.
  • Then helping the audience be in a place where listening is possible. A quiet room. A scheduled time. A private space. 
  • Frame the message clearly: what I need you to know; why; if there is some action to be taken. 
  • Allow for questions (that's the best place for background information).
  • Restate the key point and request. 

Listening is a collaborative skill - it's one half of the conversation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Post-Valentine's Day

I used to throw an Anti-Valentine's Day bash for several years. It started as a small dinner at my house, complete with balloons, wine and a B-movie from the 50s. It grew to be a massive pot luck for 50 where all the food was red or black and my favourite gift was a bouquet of beheaded dead roses. For many years after that it was held at a bar, playwrights did reading of anti-love scenes and I know of at least one proposal. Then I took a break.

Surrounded by the hearts, the flowers, the chocolate (in which I indulged) this year, I found myself a little less cynical. So what if it's a commerical cash grab? Why not have a day when it's ok to give a hug and say "I love you"? We often try so hard to avoid connecting that maybe a little help can't hurt.

This week I plan to hand out "post-Valentine's Day hugs." Mostly for myself :-) but hopefully creating a moment for some of my circles along the way.Silly? Maybe. Cynical? Less so every year.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Networking Events 101 - play hostess

There are few worse feelings than going to an event to network and then standing on the side. It conjures up every high school dance ever attended, every bad party, every school sports team where I was picked last. (softball was my game; dodge ball was not)

If you've got your introduction down and are prepared for the event but still can't simply wade into the crowd, then here are a few ways to avoid the wallflower syndrome:

1 - Volunteer
Hand out drink tickets; pass out name tags; greet people... if you have a reason to be in the room, it is easier to talk to people.

2 - Play hostess
So what if it isn't your event! Bring a plate of nibblies to the ladies working the reception desk; ask the organizer if you can do something to help; offer to usher speakers to the podium

3 - Adopt other wallflowers
Find folks standing alone and go stand with them. Ask if they know anyone. Suggest you both walk up to other groups or start your own and collect more wallflowers. People are often grateful for the support.

Any other ideas?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Small talk

I'm not sure how to conquer small talk...

I understand its purpose; small talk is how we bridge personal distance and build relationships by finding common interests (or intriguing opposites). It is key to networking. It is usually focused on positive or neutral topics and helps us decide how much closer (or not) to bring someone into our circles. It requires very little vulnerability and requires no ongoing commitment should the budding relationship not go any further.

Knowing all that doesn't make it easier to do.

No one wants to appear boring /dull/ zoned out. Yet, when we don't know someone, how are we to have an engaging conversation without having an established connection or topic?

I'm as guilty as anyone about talking about the weather. Searching for common ground in the first two minutes (sometimes the only two minutes) of conversation is tough.

Here's a few ways that I try to connect:

  • pay a compliment about something that matters to me (shoes! or a great comment or the speaker or an idea raised)
  • ask a question for which the answer matters to me (where did you get those shoes? or "Did I hear correctly when X was said?")
  • if I'm stuck on the weather, make it  more personal to solicit an opinion or commiserate (How many of your team couldn't make it in today? Can you believe people were out in loafers and no socks?)
  • talk about the food (if there is any) ... I love figuring out what's in things or what might complement the dish and that usually raises spirited debate and helps me find interesting folks (or restaurant recommendations)
  • play hot potato and hope the new addition kick-starts a good topic
  • acknowledge the search for a topic and ask "what do you think is the hot topic in this room?"
Any other ideas?