Several conversations with colleagues, mentors and the AHA Creative Strategies team recently inspired me to take on an interesting campaign. We’re calling it The AHA 100 Cups of Coffee Campaign. In a nutshell, I am aiming to meet 100 different individuals for a cup of coffee (or tea – we’re not sticklers for that detail) from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017.
There appears to be an unfortunate trend happening in how we communicate. It’s the “you’re wrong” approach, typically followed by “and I am right.” It is an incredibly ineffective, divisive approach to authentic and engaging communication, yet it is one that is growing – particularly when it comes to public discussion and discourse. The challenge is that once this type of approach becomes “normal” or typical, it bleeds into how we communicate in other ways.
The recent Canadian federal election and the upcoming U.S. presidential election appear to be key contributors to this fast-growing trend – as do many of the challenging social and political situations that we are facing in the world. Recently, on Facebook, I watched a discussion on something that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, said. And, the fact is, it really wasn’t a discussion – it was a series of smart, educated, caring people stating things like:
- “Americans are so stupid. Why can’t you see how evil he is?”
- “I can’t believe that people are dumb enough to be fooled by him.”
- “The U.S. is full of idiots and fools.”
In my experience, this isn’t the way to get someone to actually listen to you. If someone spoke to me in this way, I don’t think I would feel encouraged to have a respectful dialogue with them. And a respectful dialogue might lead to both of us learning something and opening our minds.
Now, this post isn’t about Trump, the U.S. election or any specific event or situation. It is about understanding a more strategic, respectful and inclusive approach to sharing an opinion, idea or ideology – even when you are passionate and truly believe that you are right. The declarations about Trump and the U.S. could have been about coffee (“I can’t believe you don’t drink coffee in the morning; you are stupid not to see how good it is.”) or anything else.
Many of our clients often have to put forward information that stakeholders don’t want to hear, might not agree with, or that just makes them feel frustrated or angry. In order to do this, it is always crucial to understand what it will feel like for the stakeholder (employee, partner, customer, etc.) to hear this news or information. It is important to listen to why they feel a certain way and what their perspective is – even if you don’t agree with it or understand it.
This is an active listening approach – where you actually listen to what is being said. The how, why and, often, what isn’t being said are important here too. It is why authentic public consultation has become an integral part of any large-scale change by both public and private sector organizations. Respectful, authentic engagement is at the heart of effective communications – and a solid, well-functioning society.
We have worked with countless clients on stakeholder communications, managing public consultation initiatives and organizational change, where engagement was key. Anytime we have experienced real challenges, we could trace a direct line back to the stakeholder group feeling unheard, disrespected or disconnected.
What happens when absolute and insulting statements, like the ones I saw on Facebook, are put forward? It pushes people farther away from finding any common ground, from working to understand the situation from a different perspective, and from engaging so that they can learn more. Unfortunately, it appears that we are losing sight of that, especially in the world of social media.
Author and communications professional Jim Hoggan has written a great book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up on this subject. I am about one-third of the way through the book and I think it’s worth a read for everyone – not just communications professionals.
I have recently had several conversations with colleagues and clients about the importance and value of a strategic approach. One former colleague, and now friend, who leads the communications efforts for a large multi-national organization was complaining about the lack of strategic thinking from her team, many of whom are mid-20s to late 30s. She was wondering what she could do about it and whether strategic thinking can be taught.
I said that I believed that it could. It takes effort and, wait for it – strategic leadership on her part – but I think that part of the challenge of today’s fast paced, 24/7 connected world is that we don’t provide enough time to develop strategic thinkers in the workplace.
My friend was saying that she sees an excellent work ethic, strong integrity and great intentions from her team, but that their solutions and approaches are tactical in nature – and are often reactive. The conversation was interesting because in the past several months, we have had clients come to us with exactly this type of challenge. We have been asked to review communications plans, campaigns and other initiatives because what they feel is missing at their organization is the team’s ability to see the big picture, recognize opportunities – and risk – and to frame solutions or their approach within the broader organizational strategy.
Supporting people to incorporate strategic thinking is a commitment to your team – and it’s one that should be taken seriously. To begin with, it is important to encourage individuals to think things through and not just react. But, let’s be honest, this is not an easy thing to do these days with fast and furious conversations happening on social media – which is why a social media content, distribution and issues strategy is crucial. Asking for several solutions to a challenge or for an opportunity and helping people to identify the one that offers the best long-term benefit for the organization is important. It’s easy to step in and do it yourself, if you are a strategic thinker… but if you want to help develop this skill with your team, your role should be to support and provide feedback as they work through this process themselves.
Creating a culture where your team is encouraged to ask “why” and “when” questions is also a key element. The “how” usually comes out in the tactics once you have answered “why” and “when.” And when showcasing a solution or idea, having the person presenting explain what underlying strategic goal it serves and what impact it will have on internal and external stakeholders also helps to shift the thinking to the bigger picture.
Strategic thinking is a crucial skill to have in any professional role – especially in communications and, of course, in leadership. Helping your team develop and increase their strategic thinking ability is an excellent investment in the people and in the organization. The benefits of helping your team develop this skill are well worth the time and resources it takes.
I am a student of human behavior. I people watch wherever I am – in meetings, at coffee shops, in airports, on the ferry, in waiting rooms and in reception areas. I am always interested in how people act in public, when they think no one is watching. It is always interesting to see who is considerate and who isn’t. And I’m not talking about being a doormat here. Polite, considerate and courteous people can – and do – communicate when they are unhappy with something or are upset with someone’s actions. We just do it in a way that helps to manage the process in a more positive manner.
Being polite, considerate and courteous is second nature to me. I was taught to say please and thank you and to take other peoples’ feelings into consideration. My parents were sticklers for this. And it has served me well in both my personal and professional lives. It helps to build positive relationships with clients, partners, journalists and, of course, my fabulous AHA colleagues. I know that I have been given opportunities, had introductions made for me, and had doors opened because of these interpersonal skills.
I recently had two very different experiences that highlight the power of this. The first one was with a former client who asked for a proposal for a proactive marketing communications campaign from us. We sent over the proposal and he e-mailed back thanking me for it and saying he had a couple of urgent matters on his plate and would get back to me in a few days. A few days went by and he e-mailed again saying: “I haven’t forgotten about you; it’s just a bit hairy here right now. I promise I will get back to you by the end of the week about your proposal.” He was considerate and made the effort to reach out and acknowledge that we had a proposal in with him and that he hadn’t had a chance to review it yet. This is the type of client we want to work for – someone who sees us as partners and treats us with respect.
The other experience was completely the opposite. I was asked to sit on the board of a high-profile, national organization as co-communications director. This is a volunteer board and the organization wants to completely rebrand itself in 2016. That meant a huge amount of work on my part. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to manage the amount of time and effort that it would take and asked a few questions about it. I had to follow up several times and, eventually, a phone call was set up with three other board members. We spoke for about an hour. I thanked them for their time and told them I would get back to them within 48 hours about whether I felt I could fulfil the demands of this role. Within 24 hours, I knew that, as much as it would have been an interesting experience, it was too much to take on with everything that we have going on here at AHA. I sent out an e-mail thanking the chair and the board members for considering me, but that I had to decline because I didn’t feel that I could make the type of time commitment that was necessary. I wished them well but heard nothing back from anyone – no response at all. Thinking that perhaps my e-mail had gone into their junk folders, I resent. That was three months ago and I still haven’t received a response.
Interestingly enough, I had a colleague ask me if I could recommend someone for a pretty lucrative contract that was right up the alley of one of the board members I had e-mailed. Given that client service and communication was a key element of this project and I had seen firsthand that he wasn’t great at that – he couldn’t even be bothered to respond to my e-mail – I didn’t feel comfortable recommending him for the job. It’s funny how that works.
Please, thank you, if you have time, I really appreciate this… There are so many phrases that make life easier. It sounds so small, but basic courtesy is a valuable skill. I know that being polite, considerate and courteous has positively affected my career and my personal life. And it’s really not hard to do. Take the time today to be considerate and courteous to the people you work with and to the people you share your life with. I promise you, it’s worth the effort.
Don’t believe everything you are told or read. Use critical thinking to go through what is being presented, shared, told or provided to you – and verify that information. There is always more than one side to a story. Fact checking is not always done with mainstream media articles or for pieces uploaded to the web and – even if you are hearing it from someone in person – they could have an agenda.
We are working with a client that has an issue. He works in a highly competitive industry – and one that seems to think it is a good business strategy to level accusations at competitors. One of the challenges that he is facing is that there is information online about his business dealings. It is inaccurate and, in some cases, completely wrong. Potential clients, investors, contractors, employees, media and other stakeholders Google him, see this negative information, and some of them believe it is true. It is incredibly frustrating for this client. He wants to set the record straight, but preconceived opinions hamper that effort.
Over time, his actions will speak louder than words. But for the moment, as he takes his business to the next level, this is an issue that we have to deal with. There are several options for us to shift perception of him and we are doing that, but it takes time and effort. We will be writing a case study on this client and how we helped to re-establish a good reputation once we have gone through the process and achieved our goals.
In the meantime – don’t believe everything you are told or read. It’s important to verify facts and to use critical thinking to ensure you aren’t being manipulated as a part of someone else’s misunderstanding, miscommunication, errors or agenda.