Outswimming

HARVEY MACKAY

A construction worker walked up to the reception desk at a doctor's office and was asked why he was there.

"I have shingles," he replied.

The receptionist asked for his name, address and insurance information and told him to have a seat.

Ten minutes later, a nurse called his name, took him back to the examining room and asked him again why he came to the office. Again, he answered, "I have shingles." She asked him some medical questions and told him to stay there until he could be seen.

A short while passed, and a different nurse entered the room, took his blood pressure and temperature, and asked him to change into a gown. She told him the doctor would see him shortly.

Thirty minutes later, the doctor finally appeared. He said, "I understand you have shingles. Where are they?"

The construction worker replied, "Outside in my truck. Where do you want them? And can I get dressed now?"

Talk about a breakdown in communication!

It's been said that a message sent is only as good as the receiver's perception of it.

Verbal communications tend to create confusion and misunderstanding for a very simple reason: The 500 most commonly used words in the English language have more than 14,000 definitions.

To make communication really work, we have to make sure that the people we're talking to clearly understand what we are saying, and that we understand it just as clearly. Communication requires effective sending and receiving.

The most basic yet crucial leadership skill is communication. From time to time, re-evaluate your performance in these fundamental areas: speaking, listening, writing, leading meetings and resolving conflict.

Good verbal skills are essential. You have to be able to explain your requests, instructions, ideas and strategies to people inside and outside your organization. Look for opportunities to hone your speaking skills at conferences, in meetings and among friends. Pay attention to the people around you. Repeat and paraphrase what they say to make sure you understand — and to show that you take their opinions seriously.

The paper trail you leave tells people a lot about how clearly you think and express yourself. Don't send even the simplest e-mail without rereading it critically to be sure it says exactly what you want it to say.

Sharpen your ability to keep meetings on track and elicit productive comments. You should encourage other people to share their ideas without letting discussions meander aimlessly. Remember that every meeting should begin with a solid agenda and conclude with a commitment for action. And it is helpful to circulate a written recap so that no details are overlooked and everyone has the same information.

Conflict can be subtle, but you still must defuse it if you want things to get done. You'll use a lot of the skills already discussed to encourage people to open up and clear the air about their disagreements. Maintaining good communication is most important when conflicting ideas arise.

Finally, never underestimate the value of not saying something. Silence can be a very effective form of communication, and can prevent problems. Even carefully chosen words can be turned against you.

Consider the challenge said to have once faced Thomas Edison. A big company wanted to buy one of his inventions. But Edison had no idea how much he should ask for it, so he requested a few days to think about the price.

Edison and his wife discussed things. He was stunned when his wife suggested he ask for $20,000, a huge price tag in those times. But he agreed to float that figure.

When he met with the company representatives, he intended to ask for $20,000. But he just couldn't get the number out, and remained silent. After an uncomfortable silence, the Western Union rep finally said, "How about $100,000?" For the second time in a few days, Edison was stunned. His silence said much more than his words.

Mackay's Moral: Talk is cheap, but misunderstandings can be costly.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.