It’s one of those days. I am casting a vacant look at my blank screen as if some words will tumble out of it and write my post magically. As if I’ll just write “Peace. Swami” and not the more appropriate “Peace, Swami” in two lines and this post will auto-complete. “Siri,” I should say, “write me a post.”
Now, wouldn’t that be nice? 1
A blank screen is a non-issue and a blank mind a divine blessing but not when you want your mind to be brimming with ideas and your screen with words.
Right now, you are lurking at the back of my mind like a playful child prancing around his mother while she’s finishing that important work email. 2 I know some of you wait for my post every 1st and 3rd Saturday. It also gives me the chance to show up for you and connect with you. Today is no different.
Like the morning sun gradually sliding out of the mountains, I can feel a post idea rising from the valley of my subconscious mind to the peaks of my consciousness.
I reckon it’s a strange world because we teach children multiple languages but not the art of communication, or effective communication skills. We tell them all about the human heart in biology but not about love, we teach them the law of gravity but not the science of gravitas. How have we missed the fact that we spend two-thirds of our time communicating with other people and yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea of how to say what we want to say?
Come to think of it, clarity of thought and the art of communication are what differentiate leaders from followers, it is the difference between a great mind and an average one.
In fact, it is the single most important factor between success and failure. To quote Eric Hoffer:
We know that words cannot move mountains, but they can move the multitude. … Words shape thought, stir feeling, and beget action; they kill and revive, corrupt and cure. The “men of words” — priests, prophets, intellectuals — have played a more decisive role in history than military leaders, statesmen, and businessmen. 3
As Tim David writes in Magic Words (a book I’ll be quoting throughout this post), “In order to be an effective communicator, you must embrace this fact: Whether you intend to or not, you are manipulating the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others.” There is truth in Tim’s statement, I feel. And while we may not be manipulating, we are certainly influencing.
Communication even in the most positive sense involves influencing the thought process of the listener so they broaden their perspective to make room for your views. So, I thought I should share three magic words from his book that are the bedrock of meaningful and persuasive communication.
Nearly seven years ago, I wrote a post on saying yes to life. Yes is the most important word and yet millions around us squander their entire lives closeted in the “no”. In the name of stability, their default response to all new things is no. Check out a new place? No. Wanna try this new thing? No. Try this delicious curry? No. New dessert? No. New friends? No. New routine? No. New job? No. No, no, no, no. We can be so rigid in communication and set in our ways that anything new gets a spontaneous No.
In any relationship, however, one way to make it more fulfilling is to say Yes. For, you won’t know whether you like something until you try it. If you remain closed to possibilities and new experiences, you soon turn into a stone in a living body. Such people become increasingly frustrated, bitter and resentful making not just their own life difficult but the lives of those around them too.
In a functional relationship, there’s always a certain freedom of saying no or yes without constantly worrying about what the other person might think. You are not judged or punished for expressing your opinion.
As they say, “If you feel you can’t say no, at least to some things, some of the time, then you are not being loved — you are being controlled.” 4
Saying Yes doesn’t mean you agree to act against your wishes, but that you consider the possibility of spreading your wings and taking flight. Newness in life keeps us alive. In the absence of freshness, our minds, festered with rotting ideas, become stagnant pretty quickly. When life knocks on your door, at least take a peek at what it’s got in the offing rather than reject it outright just because the new feels unfamiliar or no is easier.
Step out, my friend. Figuratively and otherwise. New friends, new places, new ways, new thinking, say Yes.
If someone asked me to single out the most important word in effective communication, without a moment’s hesitation, I’d pluck “but” out of the dictionary.
Human beings have long known that in any sentence, anything that comes after the word “but” is FAR more important than whatever comes before. That’s why we mentally erase everything we hear just before the word “but” and direct our attention intently to what comes after it. Take a look at the But Effect in action: “I’d love to go out with you, but I can’t.” 5
If you wish to offer any constructive criticism, the use of any positive remark before “but” is pointless. For example, “I quite like your work and I think you are very intelligent, but I don’t think you are a team player, otherwise why would you fail in achieving your targets.”
Any compliment before “but” has no meaning or retention value in the mind of the listener. Whatever you say after but is what the listener retains. If must you use “but” use it the other way around. That is, “You know you have missed your performance goals. I am not sure if it’s the team or your personal lacking but I do think you are quite intelligent and I certainly like your work.”
There are two halves to the But Effect: the But Eraser and the But Enhancer. I don’t care what they sound like; these are not late-night infomercial products. For the listener, everything said before the word “but” is erased, and everything after the word “but” is enhanced. 6
Here’s an example. Let’s say you are buying a new TV and you want to buy a Sony one whereas your spouse likes LG. You want him to see your perspective. He tells you all the wonderful things about the new LG model.
One way is to say, “I like LG but I like Sony more.” Anything before “but” will be immediately erased from his memory. If you want the other person to see your perspective, try, “I like LG. It surely has some good features. I wonder if Sony has them too. I am not saying Sony is infinitely better, although I do seem to like Sony more. I’m not even sure why.”
Notice, how in the second method, we have not used but anywhere. Not using but makes communication more positive and less confrontational. If must you use it, put the negative first.
“I am saying this because… I think you should do this because… Can you please do it for me because…” and so on.
Share with them your reason. Don’t keep them guessing. Trust the intelligence of others and apprise them of your rationale.
Tell them why. It helps. In fact, it is just about the only way to have the other person step into your shoes. Even within my own teams, I saw it happen all the time. People would tell other people to do something but not mention why they needed it done or decided to do it in the first place. I thought it was most baffling because it’s very simple to tell someone why you are thinking what you are. Use “because” if you want them to see your logic.
This way, they get to see your viewpoint, they will take you more seriously, they will understand you better. It then gives them a reason to disagree and not just reject you emotionally. In other words, “because” promotes reason over emotion.
And, the reason why “because” works is a no-brainer: it helps people evaluate a course of action on their own accord. When they know the reason behind their decisions, they are subconsciously aware that they are now embarking on something, knowing well what they are getting into. It becomes their idea. It’s incredibly powerful. You no longer have to manipulate or influence them in any way. From a boss you have become the leader. They now have the option to use their intelligence to make a decision.
When you instruct someone to do something without sharing why it’s important to you, be prepared to face a shoddy response (in words or actions). Such an instruction is inferior and don’t be surprised if it’s not taken seriously.
People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves.
Here’s the main point: in order to influence someone to your way of thinking, they must first believe that it is their own way of thinking. True influence is not about persuading, manipulating, or cajoling people. Rather, it is about leading them. 7
Above all, be compassionate and speak gently. When it comes to speech, it’s not just what you say but how you say it. Irrespective of the absolute choice of words, ultimately your sincerity is what will see you through.
A young rabbi became the leader of a very old Anglo-Jewish congregation. On his very first Shabbat, a heated debate erupted as to whether one should or should not stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments. The next day, the rabbi visited 97-year-old Mr. Solomons.
“Mr. Solomons, I’m asking you, as the oldest member of the community,” said the rabbi, “what is our synagogue’s tradition during the reading of the Ten Commandments?”
“Why do you ask?” asked Mr. Solomons.
“Yesterday we read the Ten Commandments. Some people stood, some people sat. The ones standing started screaming at the ones sitting, telling them to stand up. The ones sitting started screaming at the ones standing, telling them to sit down.”
“That,” said the old man, “is our tradition.” 8
The young rabbi’s quandary is the essence of all communication. It is not about right or wrong for they are merely opposing viewpoints. It is about finding a common ground. No matter how certain you are that you are right, in reality, it’s only because that’s what you think. The same goes for the other person. In persuasive communication, negotiation and even writing, keep in mind that all that we know and think is no more than a belief or a perspective, a presumption or a supposition, that too, often conditioned.
Say yes. Avoid but. Tell them why. Forgive and express your gratitude. Never put off a compliment until tomorrow.
And if you care to, join me for the creative writing workshop to learn more about effective writing. Feb 29 & Mar 1. Details here.
Update: 13-Mar. Here are the slides used by Sadhvi Vrinda Om in the Creative Writing event.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||Almost surely, one day AI will be capable of producing marvelous works of baffling creativity. As for my definition of ‘almost surely’, I encourage you to google the Infinite monkey theorem or read about it here. And no, I don’t use Siri.|
|2.||At first, I wrote while the mother’s busy baking a cake or cooking a meal, but then I thought in the present world where women have accomplished so much, we must do everything we can to break the old stereotypes. Hence, I conjured up the visual of an intelligent woman leaned over her desk, just finishing an important piece of work.|
|3.||This quote is from Eric Hoffer’s The Ordeal of Change written in 1976. (I haven’t read this book yet. Though, I’ve already ordered it. So, if I find anything more in it, I’ll try and share it with you.)
I first read the cited quote in Magic Words: The Science and Secrets Behind Seven Words That Motivate, Engage, and Influence by Tim David. It’s a nice book, a quick and easy read. Do get your hands on it if you can find the time.
|4.||This quote is from Dr. Judith Sills. Although it was first cited in an article in Psychology Today, my source remains the book by Tim David.|
|5.||Magic Words by Tim David.|
|8.||Taken verbatim from Hugh Morrison’s Jewish Jokes: Gags and Funny Stories in the Great Jewish Tradition.|