A skill for all seasons
As any soon-to-be high school graduate can remind us, there are so many different things that one can learn, so many careeers and skills we can choose to learn more about. Some, however, add more capability to your toolkit, no matter what you end up doing in life.
I came to this realization later on in my career, and in fact, after making a change in my career. My first career was in public relations—the art and science of influencing behavior. That may sound manipulative to someone outside of this field of practice. But we all attempt to influence each other all the time. We have so many moments when getting a thought or an idea across to someone can make a difference in our life. Helping someone or a group of people to understand our point of view, for example, in our personal and professional lives is an important skill. We all do this, and most of the time we are not trying to manipulate anyone. We are just trying to help someone understand something. After completing an undergrad degree in public relations, I worked at HP and gained experience in this field. Everything that followed in my career, including a masters in counseling psychology and a PhD in organizational psychology, benefited from my foundation in communications. If I was given a magical redo in life—not that I want one, the one thing I would not change is my education in communications. The ability to communicate, I believe, is the most valuable human skill.
Communicate is a narrower definition than what I'm really talking about here. Let me clarify. In my public relations program, we were taught to communicate, true. More importantly though, we were taught to relate, which is to say connect. We were taught to understand relationships and the human condition, as well as the engineering of consent. What I've come to realize is that no matter what we do for a living, what we do mostly is communicate and relate with others.
Learning to connect and communicate with people requires learning at several levels:
- • personal psychology: personality, development, character, confidence, compassion, integrity...
- • skills based learning: writing, understanding your audience, messaging and selecting the right channel for a given message, and so on.
- • psychology of communication: human behavior, what motivates people, how to influence people to do something, credibility, reputation
- • psychology of organizations: structure, strategy, change, leadership, culture, business
Our ability to communicate begins with our own personal relationship within. The quality of our relationship with others is influenced by the quality of our relationship within, with how well we understand ourselves and with our development of an integrated personality.
"The whole task of psychotherapy is to deal with a failure of communication. In emotionally maladjusted people, communication within has broken down" (Rogers, 1991). Rogers points out that one of the barriers to effective communication is our tendency to evaluate. How we judge and evaluate others is really more about how we see ourselves and about the truth within, and how truthful we can be with ourselves. It is that inner critic that limits our potential. When we begin to believe what that inner critic is telling us, fear grows, we stop exploring, and we lose our sense of joy. We lose our ability to be happy within.
This blog is about all things organizational, so, what does this have to do with organizations and leaders? Leaders cannot effectively lead unless they can communicate and relate to others effectively. How well they relate to others comes back to how well they know themselves. Dysfunctional leadership styles suggest an unbalanced self image. A leader with narcissistic personality, for example, has an inflated self image. Their world revolves around them, rather than viewing leadership as a privilege to serve others. Don't get me wrong, a positive sense of self is great, unless our self image and self importance blocks our ability to see the truth and to relate with and support others. Our current president suffers from this kind of unbalanced self image. I wish that he could see this within himself and I think this could make him far more successful in his relationships.
When our sense of self is over inflated, it is like a cloud blocking the sun. We can no longer see the wholeness of things and the patterns of relationships around us. Such leaders need help. They need to develop a more balanced personality. They need more humility. One method of helping the self absorbed leader is to help them focus on others. A supportive behavioral coaching approach that provides opportunities to be of service to others works well with this personality type.
So how do we become better at communicating with others? As you probably have guessed by now, it is a process, a process that starts within by expanding our awareness of self and our relationship to others and the world. Once we have done our internal work—not that it ever ends, we are better equipped to work on social skills, like interpersonal relations and communications. I have found Zen to be a wonderful way of seeing life and growing as a person. Mindfulness and meditation are the core practices in Zen, but there is much more to it than what is often shared in articles and stories. The point is that we begin within and work outward.