Category Archives: Communication

Precise, Positive, and Professional

What we say matters. How we say it matters even more. Especially in an email, when people cannot read our tone of voice or see the emotions on our face, we need to be sure that we communicate a precise message with a positive tone. Otherwise we open the door for confusion and a negative reaction.

Here is an example for us to study. It is a mass email recently sent from the marketing department of an online retailer.

Dear Customer:

I want to thank you for being a loyal customer. I truly value your business and noticed that you are not receiving emails about promotions and specials that are available to you in addition to the special pricing you receive from us.

After looking into this, I believe this was an error. You can update your preferences by clicking below.

Please see below for an example of a promotion and offer you are missing out on. Regardless of your response, please accept this offer as a token of our appreciation for letting us serve you. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the number below.

Again, thank you for your business and I am available to help you anytime you need me.

Best regards,
Your Sales Rep

(The special offer below was a coupon for $20 off the next order.)

The obvious goal is to have customers opt in for email specials and notifications in order to increase savings (and spending). That is a great goal, but let’s examine this from a marketing perspective and see if the message intended was the message received. What were the customer’s perceptions? (Keep in mind that this is not just an academic exercise but is based on actual responses from customers who received this email).

1. There is something wrong with our account.

The customer was told that they were not getting promotions and specials and that “this was an error.” When a customer hears the word “error” the natural assumption is, “You are the experts when it comes to my account with you. If there was a mistake, you messed up my account and as a result I am paying too much for what I buy from you.”

Suddenly they feel cheated and overcharged. That is not what was said, but what they heard. This reaction happens is response to a negative statement. Even if something is wrong and needs to be corrected, there is a positive way to communicate that message. This email could just have easily have stated:

“As a valued customer, we want to assure you that we are working diligently on your behalf to save you time and money. One of the best ways we can help save you even more is by making sure that you are receiving email offers and promotions above and beyond the special pricing you already receive as our customer.”

This is a positive message about an added value. It builds on the relationship. It cements the fact that this business relationship is a collaboration and works for their benefit. This kind of positive message will generate a response, not a reaction. A reaction is most often negative and emotionally charged. And when someone complains about others making a mistake that is not good advertising.

2. We are not getting the best deal possible.

Customers were notified that they were not receiving promotional emails. This aroused suspicion which was compounded when they read, “see below for an example of a promotion and offer you are missing out on.” Again, this is a negative message that made them wonder what else they are missing.

When a seed of doubt is planted in a customer’s mind they are motivated to investigate other, better options, i.e. the competition. Maybe they can get better pricing from that salesman that called them and told them they were being over charged by their current vendor. This gives legs to lingering doubts.

3. We get a consolation prize for your mistake.

Finally, a “token” is offered even though it is something that they should already be receiving. A token is an apology or a consolation prize. It is like saying, “We are glad you are buying from us but sorry things are messed up and you aren’t getting the best deal. We will fix it, and to show you how serious we are, here’s $20.”

Again, focusing on a precise and positive way to communicate, this could just as easily have been stated, “Here is a current offer we wanted to pass along to help save you more on your next purchase.”


These points do not even take into consideration the poor grammar in the note. The messages we send others need to be precise, positive and professional. Grammatically incorrect messages not only serve to make us look unprofessional, they are unprofessional.

Working hard to build a strong relationship with customers can be wasted effort if the relationship is undermined by fear, confusion, or doubt raised by a badly communicated message. Some people say we need to work smarter not harder, but we need to work smarter and harder. Hopefully a little critical thinking and concentrated effort can help us continue to improve our communication skills and see greater success as a result.

We have to remember that we all communicate differently. That means we cannot assume that anyone else knows exactly what we are saying. Next time we have a failure to communicate, let’s keep two questions in mind, “Can you hear me now?”, and “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” When we get the answers, we have bridged the failure to communicate and are actually participating in a two-way conversation.

Now go talk among yourselves.

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Mission Critical

I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism. – Charles Schwab

Picking up where we left off last time we are taking a look at how we understand and use criticism. It is amazing to think that to be a critic means to separate the good and bad, noting both the positive and negative aspects of any given situation. We are amazed by this of course because so often in our daily lives the only kind of criticism that we deal with is negative, demeaning, and discouraging.

Often when a mistake is made the critics around us react emotionally, expressing frustration, irritation, impatience, anger, and disappointment. These negative emotions are focused on the mistake maker. A defensive response leads to things escalating. Before long, as most of us have experienced, things get out of hand and the criticism becomes very personal. Things are said that should never have been said, feelings are hurt, and relationships are damaged.

This kind of criticism destroys trust. It also causes those criticized to be on the defensive any time the criticizer says anything, positive or negative. Because there is not much in the way of positive criticism going on we become cynical. All of this stems from this deep rooted misunderstanding of criticism and how to correct mistakes.

We learned last time that the most effective way to use criticism is to use it sparingly. And what we see in the real world is that when we constantly (and honestly) praise people and encourage them, pointing out the things that they do right and well, it becomes more natural to discuss the negative things without everyone getting defensive or attitudes getting bent out of shape. The trouble is that most of those who are in a position to praise others rarely do so.

The experts tell us that for maximum positive effect, we should praise others four times for every time we have to take a negative criticism to them. Again, that does not mean that we keep count and try to find four good things to say before we bring up the bad. What it does mean is that we should habitually be praising others. It should be a natural part of our daily conversations.

Some would immediately be challenged to find 4 things positive to say about others around them. It may be a stretch for them to find anything to be positive about. That just shows us how negative we have become. As I said before, criticizing is easy. Praise takes some effort.

Think about the people in our lives that have encouraged us the most. What do these people have in common? They are overwhelmingly positive, even during tough times. They look for the silver lining. They never give up. Even if they fail they learn lessons and try again. They are persistent, patient, kind, and if they have to be critical they are usually gentle in the way they approach these kinds of confrontations.

Is this just the way they are born? No. It is a decision. Ask any of them, and they have bad days. They could be really negative, but they have learned healthy, positive habits, and as a result have a better outlook on life and work. Get that? They have learned, they have taught themselves how to respond with a positive attitude.

The difference between negative and positive criticism is that those who are positive can take a bad situation and find things to use to teach lessons and encourage others. They do not demean or use a condescending tone. They understand that the best leaders are right in the middle of it with their men, so to speak. Kind of like the war story about the USMC officer who found himself and his men completely surrounded by the enemy and so he yelled to his men, “Now we have them right where we want them – don’t let any of ‘em escape!”

When we learn to have a positive attitude then we can use criticism constructively. If we do not have a positive attitude then we really should not be criticizing anyone at all because we will only make things worse. Negative overbearing micro-managerial type criticism kills incentive. It destroys productivity. It plants seeds of discontentment and apathy. And it produces an amazing ability in people to tune us out and learn to ignore anything we say.

Our underlying attitude is the key to our outlook and our responses and reactions to others. Are we looking for the best? Are we looking for ways to improve productivity and efficiency? In other words, are we motivated by seeking things that are positive? If our motivation is negative then we will certainly find things to complain about. When our focus is on just getting the job done so that we can move on to the next assignment then we will see mistakes as a set back instead of as an opportunity to learn a lesson.

The bottom line for business (or for our relationships) is that people in a positive environment feel better and work harder. Statistics prove that they are more loyal, patient, efficient, and productive. Since we know that this is the truth, why do we think that going on a negative tirade shooting off a barrage of petty criticism will help change anything for the better? Do we really want to drive people away, make them defensive, and teach them to cringe every time we open our mouths?

Those people out there who are only negative and critical may never understand why they have such a high turnover rate at work or why people around them are always angry or frustrated. People who have to live around us and only find a constant stream of this wrong headed kind of criticism often think that they were surely better off before they met us. And they are probably right.

The best leaders know how to motivate with positive reinforcement. Let’s all do our part to make sure that people hear from us about both the positive and negative things that happen in day to day life. And remember, the negative can be used to make positive improvements. All in all, when it comes to criticism, we might be better off applying the old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” The silence may be deafening, or golden, depending on which side of the criticism we are at the time.

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Constructive Criticism

Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving. – Dale Carnegie

In a simple world, everything is black or white. How much easier would life be if we could indeed see everything as right or wrong, good or bad? We would not have to think long and hard about some decisions we are faced with because we would know what to do and what not to do. In fact, we yearn for such an existence. Look at the themes in many of our favourite movies and TV shows. It is good vs. evil. And usually the good guys win.

In the real world, though, it is not always so clear. We are surrounded by shades of gray. The lines between right and wrong tend to get blurry and we can lose the sense of right and wrong that we need. That makes decisions a bit more difficult, especially if we are motivated by a desire to do what is right and try to avoid what is wrong.

One of the areas of confusion in the workplace (and in other parts of our lives as well) is the proper place and use for criticism. Some are of the opinion that we should never be critical. Others claim that criticism can be constructive, used as a tool to deal with errors and mistakes and prevent them from being repeated.

Those who claim that we should never criticize will soon miss important opportunities to help others learn from their mistakes. If we never utter a corrective word then there are some around us who would never know just how badly they are messing things up. Beside that, without criticism we usually end up doing more work to right the wrong. It is a waste of effort.

On the other side there are those who are always critical. Even when things are done right they will try that much harder to find something wrong. If they cannot find something big to tear apart then they will surely find something little. They are never happy until they have criticized.

Unfortunately everyone at one time or another loves being a critic. Criticism is easy. It does not take much thought at all to tell someone what they have done wrong. The problem is that we have all been lead to believe that any criticism is constructive. We have all heard the excuse when a boss tears an employee a new one and he explains his anger, frustration, and condescending tone by asking, “Haven’t you ever heard of constructive criticism?” But the truth is that not all criticism is constructive.

The root of the word teaches us that to be a “critic” is to be able “to separate” the good from the bad. It refers to judgment, or the ability to decide the difference between something that is useful and something that is not. So there is a positive and a negative side to being a critic. What we see in the real world however is that we tend to criticize only the things that are wrong. We only speak up when things need to be corrected.

To add insult to injury often those who criticize make personal attacks on the person they are being critical of – they try to tie the mistake to a character flaw or lack of intelligence. They demean and tear down without any thought for correcting the mistake in a way that will help others learn from it.

This kind of criticism is very damaging to the working environment and to relationships. It destroys trust and discourages people. It de-motivates. Because of this some have written that we should learn to praise as often, or even more often than we criticize. They teach that we should find something good to talk about before we talk about something bad.

This is referred to by trainers and motivational speakers as making a “praise sandwich”. The idea is that we should take the criticism and sandwich it between two pieces of praise. This at first glance may sound like a good idea but once we think about how most critics criticize suddenly we see that as soon as we hear something good we know that something bad is about to follow. Then there are those who make a weak attempt at finding the good just so that they can take the opportunity to unload about the bad.

The most effective way to use criticism constructively is to use it sparingly. Frankly, most people who do criticize do not know how to criticize constructively or appropriately. Their tone is demeaning, their focus is on fixing the problem instead of teaching so as to prevent a repeat, and their approach is personally insulting instead of encouraging. Did you hear that? Yes, criticism can be used to encourage. And the very fact that many of us are just now wondering how that can be shows us how wrong an idea of criticism we have.

So how do we learn to criticize constructively? That will take more room than I have left here, so be sure and tune in next time when we will pick up where we have left off. Until then, when we start to criticize, let us pause for just a moment and ask if our mood, tone, approach, and language is positive or negative. If it is negative it might be better just to keep quiet before we do more harm than good.

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Can You Hear Me Now?

“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” – Confucius

When it comes to communication there are a few foundational truths that we have to admit before we can have a fruitful discussion about the topic. First, men don’t listen. Second, women do not say what they mean. Third, two people may speak the same language and use the same words, but that does not mean that they understand each other. Forth, don’t assume anything. Now that I have alienated my entire audience, please read on.

In all honesty, men are like children in that if they are not looking at you they are not listening to you. And even then our mind may have wandered miles away from our ears. By saying that men do not listen, I do not mean that they do not hear. We hear every word. We are also quite good at tuning things out. Men and women communicate differently. Men are all about the facts. Women like all the juicy details. Men see communication as an opportunity to say what needs to be said and move on, usually the faster the better. Women take their time and try to relate, emote, interact, and see communication as a relational experience. Men want to fix things. Women want someone to just listen. This does not mean that one is better than the other; it just goes to show how different we can be.

Our second point is that women do not always say what they mean. At least to men. Why is that? It is not that they are trying to be deceptive, usually. It is that women speak with their whole being – body, mind, and soul. When talking with a woman one must take into consideration tone, facial expressions, emotions, mood, gestures, and the words being used – on both sides. If we just hear the words we miss most of what they are trying to say. Taking the words out of the context of the whole conversant event can lead to very bad things.

We also note that using the same language and the same words does not guarantee that people will understand us. Many words in the English language have multiple meanings. And many people use different words to talk about the same things. In order to be understood we need to be clear and concise when we speak. We need to make sure the people we are talking to understand what we mean.

Let us not forget that we cannot ever under any circumstance assume that we know what is going on! Whatever data we have been given, if we assume, we are probably wrong. If we assume we know what someone means we may respond or act in a manner that is directly opposite to what they want or need. Most of the time when we make assumptions it is because we are in a hurry. We simply do not take the time to really listen and understand what is being said.

So what are we to do? Let’s talk about it! There are a few tips we can learn to help us no matter who we are talking to. Let’s start with a few phrases we can use to steer us in the right direction. Every once in a while a line of dialogue from TV or a movie will make it into popular usage. Whether it is the wit, wisdom, or sheer shock of the phrase it catches on and becomes part of pop culture. When it comes to communication there are a few phrases that have found their place in the way we talk about talking. These will help us become better communicators.

The first, taken from the classic Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, is a well known and often used phrase. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” This is important because if we are having a communication break down we may not be aware of it until things get out of hand. Like many problems, admitting that we have a problem is the first step to solving it. The fact is that most of us are not great communicators. It is just too easy to say the wrong thing the wrong way, but if we know that there is a problem then we can address it. A key step here is to think about the people with whom we most often have a failure to communicate. Who are they? Are they family, co-workers, friends, the boss, customers, neighbors? If we know who then we can better diagnose where the problem is rooted.

The second is relatively new and part of an ad campaign for a wireless phone network. We all know it by heart. “Can you hear me now?” This is more than people hearing the words we use. Are they listening? Can they hear what we are saying? If they cannot hear us then we will have a failure to communicate. People do not hear us when they are distracted (watching TV, on the computer, etc). They do not hear us when they have tuned us out. They do not hear us when we turn them off with our tone, emotions, or attitude. So when we talk we need to ask, “Can you hear me now?”

The third is taken from the Rush Hour movies, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” The question itself is the key to solving many communication problems. We must ask questions. Do you understand what I just said? Questions clarify things, they remove ambiguity, they prevent assumption, and they bring the specifics to light. One of the best things we can do to improve our communication skills is to learn to ask questions – and listen to the answers. This is perhaps the single most important step we can take to better communication. We must make sure that people understand what we are saying. Not just the words, but the message we are trying to convey.

To conclude this introduction to communication I want to introduce an exercise to try out. It really works and in fact, if we take it to heart, this little method will revolutionize our ability to communicate and it will directly affect the quality of the relationships we have with those around us. So what is this wonderful tool? Just remember these three things: 1) say it, 2) listen and repeat, 3) confirm or correct.

Here is how we can practice it. Let’s sit down with our significant other or someone we communicate with regularly. Pick a topic. Any topic will work, especially an area where there may have been difficulty communicating in the past. Of the two people practicing, one is the talker, the other the listener. The talker starts by saying something. Say anything about the chosen topic. The listener then needs to repeat back what they heard the talker say. The talker can then confirm that the listener heard them and understood them, or correct what they said if it was not understood. Now swap roles and do it again. Say it. Listen and repeat. Confirm or correct.

A good phrase to remember in communication is, “This is what I heard you say. (Insert what we heard them say here). Is that what you said?” We repeat what we heard them say. Let them confirm or correct it. And pay attention! Going through this exercise a few times with people will help us learn how they talk to us and how they hear us. Suddenly it is as if our ears are open for the first time. It will start to make some sense. Often when the participants on this exercise are a married couple they learn new ways to communicate and see their way around barriers that they never knew were there.

We have to start by remembering that we all communicate differently. That means we cannot assume that anyone else knows what we are talking about. Next time we have a failure to communicate, keep two questions in mind, “Can you hear me now?”, and “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” When we get the answers, we have bridged the failure to communicate and are actually participating in a two-way conversation. So don’t stop now. Keep up the good work. Now go talk among yourselves.

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It’s Not My Fault

“We believe that to err is human. To blame it on someone else is politics.” – Vice President Hubert Humphrey

We have looked at how we have opportunities to LEARN from our mistakes and we pondered about how we react when others make mistakes that affect us. Now let’s look for a moment at what happens when we are to blame. Honestly, when the mistake is our fault we want those affected or offended to be patient, understanding, and forgiving. So why is it that we think when it is not our fault that we have a right to be abrasive, harsh, and critical? Remember, it could have been us. How would we want people to respond to us if we had made the mistake? Would we want to be blamed, yelled at, demeaned, punished, or embarrassed? Yet so often when the fault lies with someone else this is exactly how we react.

Not to be negative, but what should we not do when others make mistakes? If we want to help others learn from their mistakes, just as we hope to learn from our own, we start by refusing to play the blame game. When a mistake is made we must resist the impulse we have to find out who is to blame. This does not mean that we do not hold people responsible for their mistakes, but responsibility and blame are not the same thing. When we are responsible we own up to what we have done and we work to make it right. When we blame we are really just looking for someone to bear the brunt of our reaction to what has happened. We want someone to take it out on; we want a scapegoat.

We need to do all we are able to avoid embarrassing the mistake maker. Whether we realize it or not those who have made a mistake usually do feel badly about it, to the point that they dread our reactions and are quick to hide or deny what they have done. Too often our previous reactions have taught others that we are not to be trusted to deal with mistakes fairly.

Often after someone makes a mistake we do and say things that embarrass them, and unfortunately this is usually done in front of others. When someone makes a mistake, if we are the person responsible for correcting it, then we should do so in private. Of course the part of this that is the most critical is deciding if we are the person responsible to correct the mistake in the first place.

Most people who are affected by a mistake are not the same people who are responsible for correcting the mistake. If we take on that responsibility when it is not ours, we are setting ourselves up over others when frankly we have no right to do so. If the mistake affects us and the offender apologizes and tries to make things right, then we are responsible to forgive them and work with them to deal with the consequences. When we are not in a position of authority we should not act as if we are. It demeans a person and disheartens them. Discouragement is the enemy of education. A discouraged person is not learning from the experience, he is just trying to survive it and get on with things so he can forget the mess he caused.

While we may not be responsible for correcting a mistake we may still be able to offer some advice that will help everyone involved learn from what has happened. We need to refrain from offering free advice though. Free advice is advice we offer when our input is not requested. If someone wants to hear our opinion they will ask for it. If they don’t then we should keep quiet. Keeping quiet is a lost art these days it seems as too many people have too much to say about everything. We need to be quiet, and we need to be willing to listen and learn. If mistake makers are unwilling to take responsibility and if they are defensive about it then they won’t listen to us. Beside that, unsolicited free advice is usually worth exactly what we pay for it.

Now then, what if we are in a position to correct the mistake? We need to do so with an attitude of helping the mistake maker learn from the mistake. Our first thought is usually to find a way to punish the offender instead of disciplining them. What is the difference? Punishment is making someone pay for what they have done. Discipline comes from the root word “disciple” which means “to teach.” Discipline is not making someone pay for their mistake. Discipline is taking the opportunity to teach a lesson as a result of the mistake. To discipline is to educate. Our goal should not be to make them feel bad about what they have done, but to help them learn from their mistake so as not to repeat it.

The best way to remember how to respond to a mistake is to recall that old railroad safety campaign – “Stop, Look and Listen.” Remember the commercials? We stop at the crossing if the lights are flashing or the arms are down. If there are no lights or arms, before we cross the tracks we at least look to see if a train is coming. And even if we do not see a train, we listen. We may not see it, but we can hear it if it is coming down the tracks. When a mistake is made, even when it is not our fault, we need to “Stop, Look and Listen.” If we don’t we are sure to get run over.

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