First, let me start this blog with a heartfelt apology to all those involved in my 4th grade summer camp - the counselors, the campers, and even my mom. Why the need for an apology? Because I was a world-class negative brat the entire week. Let me fill you in -- I left for camp with packed bags and an optimistic outlook, but I had no idea that being homesick would completely take over. It was my very first sleep-away camp, and although I did have a few friends who went with me, I just couldn’t shake the sadness and worry about being away from my family -- or could I? I’m not the first kid to get homesick, and I certainly won’t be the last, and this camp was totally prepared for kids like me. From the moment we stepped on the bus, they started the so-called fun. There were games and singing and lots of laughing -- but not from me. I was homesick. At camp, they offered swimming and archery and crafts led by enthusiastic counselors, but I didn’t participate. I was too busy being homesick. They even planned a big “Shampoo Party” where we wore our bathing suits into the showers and played with bubbles. It looked like great fun, but I told the counselors that I “couldn’t use different shampoos because they made my hair oily.” Seriously, I really told them that!! See what I mean -- whenever I found myself feeling less homesick and having even a little bit of fun, I would stop and remember that I was too homesick to participate. I even wrote my mom a letter (remember I’m old -- we used to have to mail letters!!) that said, “I need to go now so I can have time to cry myself to sleep.” Luckily, I had a Funny Letters from Camp book at home, so my mom thought I was just joking and didn’t worry. Looking back, I was such a brat, and I’m sure the counselors thought “if she would only stop being so negative, she could have such a great time!”
Are you sometimes my 4th grade self? Do you allow negativity to keep you from a great time? Or for this blog’s sake, do you allow negativity to keep you from communicating effectively? Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina continues to intensively research the effects of positive emotions. To sum up her research (in my own interpretation), negative thinking prevents your brain from seeing options and choices as you are only in survival mode working to get through the situation. Positive thinking - or as Frederickson calls the “Broaden-and-Build Theory” - leads to a greater sense of possibilities with new actions and ideas. The research shows that when you work to be more positive, you become more open to ideas, more curious, more receptive to others, and even more productive. Wow!!! Although I would LOVE to spend the rest of this blog (and then a million others) discussing how we can all be more positive in life, I think I better stick to some ideas about how to be more positive in our communication (the real purpose of my blogs!).
Positive Point #1 (like how I did that??) - Change your words!
This is such a simple but effective way to be more positive. Change “I can’t meet with you on Tuesday” to “I can meet with you on Thursday.” Change “We are unable to meet that deadline.” to “We can complete the project to your complete satisfaction by ______.” Using positive words in face-to-face communication, in emails and texts, and in all written communication reduces conflict, creates that open line of communication, and makes you look more credible.
Positive Point #2 - Give positive reinforcement!
Face it -- we all LOVE the gold star! So work to give out a few of those stars whenever you can. Use phrases like “I admire how you…” or “Thanks so much for …” or “I really enjoy working with you because …” Research also shows that positivity (as well as negativity) can grow and spread. Why don’t you be the positivity-spreader? And put it in writing sometimes -- I guarantee that your coworker will keep it to read again!
etc Strategies believes that creating and promoting positive communication will lead to a happier, more productive personal and professional life. And a few simple strategies can produce BIG results. By the way, for those of you concerned, the next summer I tried summer camp again and had a great time! After a long talk with my mom, I did approach this camp with a more positive attitude, but (to be honest) I think the fact that this camp also had boys probably helped more than the positivity!!
After graduating from Texas A&M and marrying me shortly thereafter, Scott began his naval career on the USS Yorktown stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. With no children and no house payment, I was lucky enough to travel to meet his ship in Italy and France. During our trip to Paris, we used the metro to see the tourist attractions. One afternoon on the return trip to our hotel, I looked across the aisle at a girl about our age and smiled at her. She jumped out of her seat and beelined over to us shouting, “Are you Americans?” After hurried introductions (she was attending college in Paris), she said, “I knew you were American as soon as I saw your smiling face.” What a nice compliment! I loved that my facial expression was welcoming and friendly. But that same face (with its very obvious facial expressions) also got me in trouble a time or two. One afternoon during my first year teaching in Cy-Fair ISD, I attended a parent/teacher conference with my 8th grade team. The student was struggling academically but also treated teachers and other students very disrespectfully. We hoped that by meeting with his parents, we could work together to steer him in the right direction. Well, you’ve heard the expression, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? The dad treated us (all women) with an even greater disrespect, so our very experienced counselor quickly ended the conference knowing that we would not be able to forge a plan with this dad. She asked me to stay after the meeting for a chat. “Julie, your face showed your every emotion.” Remember how earlier I thought that characteristic was a positive one? In this case, according to the counselor, as the dad negatively talked down to all of us, my face showed the disgust and anger I’m sure that we all felt. But in this professional environment, my facial expressions probably contributed to the dad’s very negative ranting and did not help the situation. So over the years, I have worked to control my facial expressions and many times repeat over and over in my head, “neutral face, neutral face” to help me remember to NOT always show how I feel.
Research shows that only 7% of what we communicate is based on the words we say while 38% is based on voice inflection. The remaining 55% comes from nonverbal expression including facial expressions and body language. In other words, over half of what we communicate is visual not verbal. Yet, we don’t spend much time or make much effort to control our nonverbal communication (at least until a wise colleague points out that we need to work on it!). We do spend a fair amount of time trying to read other’s nonverbal cues, but for today’s blog, I want to focus on what YOU can do to help more effectively communicate nonverbally.
Rule #1 - Fake it til you make it!
We all know that being engaged in the communication experience will lead to greater success and understanding. We also know that nonverbal signs of being engaged are eye contact, head nodding, leaning in towards the speaker, and mirroring the other’s body language. So if we know the nonverbal signs of being engaged, why don’t we consciously use those behaviors? Make a conscious choice to increase eye contact or lean in. Work to mirror the body language (a sign of bonding). And here’s the clincher -- as you thought you were “faking” it by making these choices, you were really “making” a better communication experience by increasing the engagement.
Rule #2 - Smile with your eyes!
Research also shows that a genuine smile includes the eyes as seen by the crinkling skin on the sides (think crow’s feet!). So it’s easy to tell if you (or anyone else) is NOT smiling in a genuine way. Don’t try to use a smile to hide what you are thinking or feeling. Instead, allow your smile to show when you are truly happy or pleased. And remember “neutral face” if you’re not so happy but don’t want it to show.
Rule #3 - Get real!
There are some universal nonverbal gestures that totally “tell on you” and show your true emotions. Crossed arms signal a barrier to communication. Lack of eye contact shows disinterest or dishonesty. Jaw tension indicates stress or discomfort. Most people can read your nonverbal cues, so work to make sure your words and facial expressions/body language are “saying” the same thing. If you are angry, perhaps you should calm down before communicating. If you are bored, work to re-engage in the communication experience. If you are happy, smile with your eyes.
Instead of a picture, I think your face (and other nonverbal gestures) is worth a thousand words, and etc Strategies believes that you can work to make sure that your facial expressions, your body language, and your words all say the same thing. So whether you smile or frown or furrow your brow, be aware of what your face (and body) is saying. And when in France (or for that matter anywhere), smile at everyone you see!!
Forget premarital counseling on finances, religion, or the number of children you may have one day. Before you ever walk down the aisle, talk about your retirement plans. You heard me -- retirement plans. Little did I know that Scott always dreamed of retiring to a ranch with cows and chickens, far away from civilization somewhere in the middle of West Texas. I always dreamed of downsizing to a condo or townhouse within walking distance to shops and restaurants (do I sound like House Hunters??), preferably in a cute little college town and then traveling the world to see new things. So when we got to “that age” and started to discuss our very different retirement plans, compromise became the word of the day (and the month and the year!). After many, many long “discussions,” we finally decided to buy some land for the cows and chickens, near 2 college towns (College Station and Huntsville), purchase a motorhome (at least to travel the US), and someday build a dream house. Compromise at its finest!!
This past weekend, Scott and I fought the onslaught of love bugs to work on this retirement land. We used the tractor (another “dream” purchase of Scott’s) to clear some underbrush from an area near where we store the motorhome. Scott wanted a better view of the grazing field so he can watch the cows in the morning (trust me - he’s totally lost it about these cows!). Anyway, as we were working (Scott would wrap the chain around some of the smaller trees, and I would use the tractor to pull them up), the very curious cows gathered around us to watch. So with very little to distract me (except for swatting all of the love bugs - and I don’t “love” them at all), I noticed some communication lessons we can learn from our cows.
Lesson # 1 If It Ain’t Broke!
Every evening, the cows mosey (just staying with the theme!) over to the same area by our pond for dinner. Every morning, the cows mosey over to the left field to eat breakfast. Every afternoon, the cows mosey to the wooded area to take a nap in the shade. The cows have a routine that works for them. Sometimes we should look at communication strategies in this same way. With our ever-changing technology, we tend to try the newest, greatest way to do things. And don’t get me wrong -- sometimes we need to change. But don’t be afraid to keep the same routine if it is working. If your Monday morning staff meeting effectively communicates information and allows for personal connections, keep it even if emailing might save some time. If sending a handwritten correspondence strengthens your connection with your customers, keep writing those notes even if a phone call or text might be easier. And if you try a new strategy but the old way works better, go back to the old routine.
Lesson # 2 Dive In!
We have 2 ponds on our land, and at this point, they are both kinda brown and murky looking. Scott assures me that over time the ponds will clear up, but right now, I think that they are ugly and gross. Luckily, the cows don’t agree with me. And on a hot (or even sorta hot) day, the cows love to “dive” right in the pond. Okay -- not actually “dive” -- more like slowly and carefully walk into the water. Even with the murky, unclear water, the cows know that cooling off in the pond will make the day way better. Although lesson #2 may seem to contradict lesson #1, there is a time to “dive” in and try new communication strategies - even if they seem “murky and unclear” - especially those designed to make your life easier. I love the app that allows me to save and organize business cards on my phone. I love using the reminders function on my computer and phone to help me remember meetings and appointments. Don’t be afraid to try new technology. But then don’t be afraid (as the movie says) to “let it go” if the new strategy isn’t helpful. (See Lesson #1!)
As with most things in life, when it comes to better communication, we seem to do better with a mixture of the old and the new. I guess there needs to be a bit of compromise (like our new and improved retirement plan!). etc Strategies believes that we should evaluate our strategies and methods and use both old and new ways to communicate more effectively. And never doubt the intelligence of cows (as some people do!) -- we can learn great communication lessons from them.
When I started dating Scott in college, I had no idea that I would get a “package deal” that included his roommate, Jeff, and all of Scott’s Texas A&M Corps of Cadets buddies. Don’t get me wrong -- I loved the “package deal” and the guys were (and still are) the very best. But because of a teeny, tiny dorm room and NO cell phones (we are super old), sometimes those guys (especially Jeff) became an unwanted part of our relationship. Jeff loves to embarass Scott and tell the story of how Scott would get under the desk when talking to me on the phone. Scott swears he moved there to keep from disturbing Jeff. Jeff swears Scott moved there so he could sweet-talk me without anyone listening. But either way, Jeff ended up hearing on more than one occasion when Scott said those three little words, “I love you.” And although Scott wishes Jeff was not a part of those times, I’m pretty sure Jeff probably still laughs about it!
But my blog today is about three different little words -- I am sorry.
To catch up any readers who missed last week’s blog, Karen and I now live in Houston, but not too long ago, we lived in the Beaumont and Sour Lake areas. We experienced Hurricane Harvey last week but fortunately made it through with no damage and flooding. But we are the lucky ones. So many areas in Houston and in Texas were hard hit, and every house in my former neighborhood of Pinewood is devastated. You heard me -- EVERY HOUSE. And as of today, the water is still there making it impossible to begin the cleanup and recovery. Although the school itself is dry and undamaged, many of my former colleagues at Hardin Jefferson High School are now faced with flooded houses and cars and belongings. Beaumont is still without water, and friends are faced with a lack of groceries and supplies. Our hearts are truly breaking for our friends and any others impacted by the storm.
And we want to help. So we find opportunities to serve and sort and gather. We cut and clean and haul. We donate (again check out the organizations at the bottom of this blog that we recommend you give to) and pray and shop around to find the last refrigerator in stock at Home Depot. We offer to help in the future as friends return to their homes and face the devastation.
So here is the communication lesson for today -- as we are helping, we need to only use those three little words -- I am sorry. Please don’t say, “Well, you’re safe, and you can replace your things.” Please don’t say, “You can now have a brand new house!” Please don’t say, “I remember when I …” Just say those three little words -- I am sorry. And then be there to listen. Let the person share and validate all feelings. There will be sadness and happiness. There will be anger and resignation. There will be tears and laughter. And your job is to keep saying those three little words -- I am sorry. I didn’t lose my house or my car or my clothes or my pictures. I didn’t watch my house fill with water on videos taken by boats or drones or helicopters. I didn’t wonder where I would go or how I would get out. But many, many people out there did experience all of those things. So all I can say to you is -- I am sorry. And we will do our very best to help and support you as you work to recover and rebuild.
PS - And it never hurts to use those other three little words - so to all my friends - I love you!
Please communicate your care and support by giving to one of the following organizations:
Houston Food Bank
SPCA of Texas