Monday, June 22, 2015

Please Understand Me

One of the most common failures in effective communication is to speak to people as if they were carbon copies of us. My father, for example, had one—and only one—style of communication: direct and blunt. Like Joe Friday (Dragnet), dad was a “Just the facts, ma’am” kind of guy, so that was his mode of communicating. Of course this also meant that you were all-in on bluntness. As he experienced a good measure of success with his style, he never saw any need to expand his repertoire. This, too, is quite common: a little success often gets in the way of increasing our effectiveness.

“But this is me, the full me, all me. If people don’t like it, they can move along.” So, let me get this straight: the intent and goal of your communication takes a back seat to your style and mode of communicating? Really? And, when people do not “hear” you, this is the mindset that leads you to conclude, “You can’t handle the truth!”  (Best ever imitation of Jack Nicholson.)  The reality for your audience, however, was that they hadn’t heard much of anything you said, as they were preoccupied with feeling invisible.

Demonstrating Understanding
There is no communication without rapport. Whatever the context of our communication, our listeners need to sense that we have an appropriate understanding of who they are as individuals--their needs and wants, their personalities and preferences, their hopes and fears--before they will give us the right to influence, persuade or instruct them.

If you have little or no understanding of your audiences’ core beliefs, cultures, personality make-ups, and past experiences with those who sought to communicate what you are communicating, sell what you are selling, or teach what you are teaching, you are going to be clueless as to how best to frame your communication. Without sufficient understanding of your audience’s identity, the chances for attaining and maintaining rapport are pretty much nil.

Listen. I am not saying that we must undergo a total personality makeover each time the makeup of our audience changes. I am suggesting that effective communication requires that we avoid unnecessary barriers (for example: forgo direct and blunt, when your audience prefers indirect and solicitous, or vice versa), and that we do everything in our power to discover the mindsets and heart-sets of those with whom we intend to communicate.

Think of it this way: Everyone with whom we speak, be it with loved ones, students, employers or employees, team members, clients, or parishioners, has a request of us – Please understand me. Unless and until we grant their request with ongoing demonstrations of understanding, pretty much every word we speak is heard as only so much blah, blah, I don’t care enough to discover what makes you tick, blah. If all that matters is delivering our thoughts, then, by all means, talk on. If, however, we genuinely wish to be heard, then we will want to grant our audience’s request.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015

Monday, June 8, 2015

John Paul II: The Power of a Compelling Vision

[John Paul] was addressing them not as another diplomat speaking the language of power according to club rules, but as a witness to the truth about “man in his wholeness,” in all the fullness and manifold riches of his spiritual existence.
-George Weigel

Solely hammering away at what you are against in our culture is not an effective strategy for persuading others to your point of view. Human nature, such as it is, has a proclivity for pushing back, when told, “Bad boy: bad, bad, boy!” Critique alone never persuades people to change directions. Not for long, anyway. Only the presentation of a compelling vision will do this.   

While John Paul certainly critiqued modern cultures, it was always within the larger framework of his vision. When he condemned decadence and libertinism, for example, it was while presenting his vision of the purposes and responsibilities of true freedom. When he stood against men seeking to dominate women, it was within the context of his belief in “a radical equality of men and women as images of God.” * As he saw it, the liberation of women from such domination was not liberation against men but a liberation for their “personal originality,” and for the “restoration of communion, of free and equal self-giving.” Keeping the vision at the forefront of his message not only kept John Paul from coming across as a nay-saying old curmudgeon but also imbued his communications with joy and hope.

To whom would you rather listen: a killjoy or a messenger of hope?

If we wish to create conversations with possibilities for persuading others, we will want to consistently present our vision of what we believe is true, right, good, beautiful, and noble, in a spirit of love and respect.  When our message is restricted to standing against something, our communication is perceived as being against our listeners. Sharing our vision in the light of “this is how we were made and for what we were made,” frames the conversation within the context of our being for our listeners. Mind you, if doing this is only a strategy for effective communication and not our true state of mind, our audience will sense that they are being played.  

I am not suggesting that we refrain from calling evil, evil. For example, tyranny, wherever and however it rears its head, is evil. The question, however, is this: what is your vision of what good governance looks like? How do parents, teachers, business owners, and political leaders, govern in ways that respect the dignity and unalienable God-given rights of others? 

Speaking of questions…

Answering the Big Questions
As a man who carried on conversations with scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, politicians, artists, and educators, around the world, John Paul had a firm grasp on the burning issues of his times. He knew what people were asking: knew of their fears and concerns, of their plights and their yearnings.

Ask yourself this: is it possible to present a compelling vision, if I do not know what my audience is asking? The answer, of course, is no, because I would not be able to present my vision as a possible answer to their specific questions, which leaves me talking at my audience rather than responding to them.

After decades of suffering under the tyrannies of Nazism and Communism in Poland and a lifetime spent having conversations with people around the world, John Paul understood the most critical question of his times:

The crucial issue of the times, [John Paul II] suggested, was the human person: a unique being, who lived in a material world but had intense spiritual longings, a mystery to himself and to others. A creature whose dignity emerged from an interior life imprinted with the image and likeness of God. The world wanted to hear what the Church had to say about the human person and the human condition, particularly in light of other proposals—“scientific, positivist, dialectical”—that imagined themselves humanistic and presented themselves as roads to liberation. At the end of 2,000 years of Christian history, the world had a question to put to the Church: What was Christian humanism and how was it different from the sundry other humanisms on offer in late modernity? What was the Church’s answer to modernity’s widespread “despair [about] and all human existence?

The responses to John Paul’s public addresses, homilies, writings, and conversations, were astoundingly positive, even when taking very unpopular positions. I believe this was due to the fact that people perceived him as being for them: a defender of their dignity, their rights, and the freedoms required for doing what they ought. Simply put, his vision both resonated with and gave hope to his listeners.

* Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, by George Weigel, Cliff Street Books, 1999

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lessons From a Combatant in the Culture Wars: John Paul and The Power to Persuade

The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power. –John Paul II *

As a corporate trainer who specializes in communication and persuasion, I am constantly studying legendary communicators. I want to know how it is they are able to communicate so effectively and what their process is for persuading their audiences, especially hostile audiences. Given the worldwide impact John Paul had on people and cultures around the world, he was and is someone whom I have studied in great depth. While there are many things we can learn from him here, there are only two lessons I want to highlight: the necessity of connecting with our audience and the power of a compelling vision.

As a young man, John Paul immersed himself in theater. Working on a stage “honed his sense of timing, made him more articulate, and taught him the necessity of connecting with an audience.” * Over the decades of his speaking in stadiums, churches, conferences, and in front of television cameras, one of the most common observations was regarding his uncanny ability to make every person in the audience sense that he was speaking directly to them, even when his audience was over one million people.

Two minors from Katowice were attending one of the Pope’s Masses at Czetochowa, surrounded by a million fellow Poles. One began to make a remark during John Paul’s homily when his friend quickly interrupted, “Damn it, don’t talk when the Pope’s talking to me.” *

My experience of many who aspire to being cultural influence agents is that they talk at people. Most everything they say or write comes across as a “canned presentation,” a sermon, as propaganda, that will be regurgitated over and over again, regardless of the audience, the moment, the platform, or the medium. The effect of such presentations on the audience, either consciously or unconsciously, is, “S/he doesn’t have a clue as to who I am, what makes me tick, or why I believe what I do.” Communicators, who genuinely intend for their message to be heard, will take this “feedback” and seek to discover how to connect with people. Remember: without rapport, there is no communication.

How do we do this?

Henri de Lubac, one of John Paul’s closest friends and fellow priests, wrote, “If you do not live, think, and suffer with the men of your time, as one of them, in vain will you pretend, when the moment comes to speak to them, to adapt your language to their ear.” The operative word here is, “with.” How many face-to-face and heart-to-heart conversations have we had with those whom we seek to communicate our vision and values: conversations that entail far more listening than speaking? For many influence agents, the number is paltry, which, of course, leaves them incapable of communicating any degree of understanding the minds and hearts of those to whom they are seeking to persuade.

When it comes to maintaining a connection with our audience, word choices matter. Our words and how they are spoken can communicate understanding, empathy, and respect, or they can leave our audiences dumfounded and confused as to what we are seeking to convey and to whom we were actually speaking. In other words, we leave them feeling invisible. The remedy for this is not a thesaurus: it is relationships. 

John Paul wrote of presenting “the sacred in such a manner as seems entirely fitting to the men of today.” * If our communications about what we hold as sacred are, for example, framed for and presented to audiences of the 1700s or 1950s, no matter how true our words, no matter how “sacred” our visions and values, they will remain muted, because we are speaking to an audience (culture) that is no longer in existence.  

Yes, no matter how cogent and clear our communication, there will always be those whom disagree. However, for people to walk away thinking and feeling we are clueless as to their concerns, fears, needs, beliefs, and questions, should be utterly unacceptable. Connecting with our audiences, attaining and maintaining rapport with people, is on the communicator, not the listeners. The first step to accomplishing this, as Lubac pointed out, is living, thinking, and suffering with the men and women of our time, as one of them.

Next week: The Power of a Compelling Vision.

* Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, by George Weigel, Cliff Street Books, 1999

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015