Chief Operating Officer, 10+ Years in Business Development & Leadership, Former Infantry Officer
April 25th, 2018
Where was I five years ago? At the company headquarters of D Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment located in the Center of the Universe -- AKA, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
I had the honor of being Dog 6, the company commander of D Company, responsible for everything D Company did or didn’t do.
At the time, we were about to go to the field for a week’s worth of training, including marksmanship and war-fighting.
My Executive Officer (XO) was my logistics leader. He was responsible for making sure we had everything we needed to set the conditions for our platoon leaders to conduct this training.
On the morning of the first day, he came into my office while I was packing my bag to tell me that a resource we needed would not be coming through.
And there was nothing we could do about it.
I remember losing my mind. My flash-to-bang was instantaneous. Without seeking to understand anything my XO told me, I began lashing out at him.
“How can you be so useless? You’d better figure something out and fix this. How did you not double check and make sure we were set?”
It wasn’t my finest moment.
I was loud. I was furious. I lost my cool. I was mindless.
My XO was embarrassed in front of the troopers -- who were within earshot -- and I looked like a complete jackass, in addition to the fact that we still didn’t have the resource we thought we needed.
Now, I have a question for you:
Did you relate to that story? Or, does that not sound like you at all?
I ask because I’m not special for having a story like that to share. In fact, I shared my experience to illustrate a core challenge all leaders and followers find themselves addressing at some point in their career, no matter how evolved they are -- or think they are.
How Quick Is Your Own Flash-to-Bang Response?
If you’re not sure, here are a few more questions:
Do you react immediately when presented with information? Especially if it is bad news, news of something going wrong, or when someone presents you with problems and not solutions.
Do you have a tendency to dictate to your team? In essence, you know what they need to do, so you simply say things like, “If I were you I’d do this or that…”
Do you find yourself responding to questions before the other person has finished their sentence?
Do you get defensive, before they are done speaking?
Before you embrace the reflex to say, “I don’t do any of that stuff,” know that I am only writing this because I am able to answer yes to every single one of those questions.
Throughout my career, my “flash-to-bang” has been almost immediate.
I have been quick to anger, dictated to my team, and have answered more questions -- usually not those asked -- before the other person has said five words.
This is not a way to lead.
Unfortunately, it is probably one of the most common ways leaders act.
So, for those of us who realize we need to address this kind of behavior within ourselves, what do we do?
Before I answer that, a quick disclaimer.
I don’t like writing how-to articles that say, “This is the only way to achieve success!”
On top of that, like many other leaders out there, I sometimes find myself feeling the never-ending clutches of impostor syndrome. When I feel the urge to help, my shame demons start wailing, “Am I really qualified to give advice on this?”
The only way I’ve found to fight the shame demons, however, is head-on.
That’s why I’m going to ignore them today and offer you some thoughts on how to be a better leader -- even if only a tiny bit better.
So, what I’m going to do is lay out what I think the main reasons leaders allow themselves to act this way. Then, I will share the ways I’ve worked to combat these issues for myself.
The 2 Causes of Quick Flash-to-Bang
In my experience, the triggers to acting like I described above fall into one of two categories:
the idea that you know everything (a.k.a., you’re closed-minded).
Given that miscommunication is the larger and more fixable issue, I will spend much more time talking about that today.
Plus, if you are close-minded, you probably aren’t reading this.
(Although, if you fall into the latter category and you’ve decided to see what this is all about, know that it is really easy to open your mind and understand that there is always room for growth.)
Now, let’s talk about miscommunication.
When Does Miscommunication Happen?
Most of us would probably say we communicate well -- or at least well enough, right? I recently attended a two-day course at Skyline Technology Solutions focused on communication fundamentals and we began our first day discussing the following:
“If our communication is good enough, is it really good? Can we afford to not sharpen our skills on this most basic function of business and more importantly life?” Think about this, what are all of the negative consequences of miscommunication? If your communication is just “good enough,” are you sure you aren’t miscommunicating? There are countless reasons why we don’t communicate well, so, I am going to focus on four major causes:
Lack of clarity;
Listening issues; and/or
And, drumroll please, you!
Here’s the catch -- the four causes can be all be rolled up into that last one -- you. You’re the culprit. You bring your assumptions, worldview, and preconceived notions to the table each time you communicate with another human.
If you’re not aware of this, you’re more likely to fall prey to the traps our biases bring. An argument can be made that the person or people you are communicating with aren’t being clear, so you can push the fault to them-- Still, that’s wrong.
It’s your responsibility to gain clarity. It's hard to effectively communicate if you’re not listening -- and I mean really listening. If your mind is going in a million directions and isn’t focused on the topic at hand, you’re going to struggle. All of these causes for miscommunication can be solved, but the only person who can solve them is the dude or dudette in the mirror.
“Wait, If We’re the Problem, What Do We Do About It?”
This is the right question to ask.
If we know we’re the real reason miscommunication happens in our orbit, how do we attack those shortcomings head-on, so we can improve and get after it?
As we did above, we’ve identified and understood we must hold ourselves responsible for our communication with others.
Ensure the Message is Received
It’s our responsibility to ensure that not only was our message received but, more importantly, that it was also understood. But a simple, “We good?” at the end of a meeting or conversation isn’t going to cut it. It takes more than that.
You need to ask folks to summarize what they are taking away, so you can be certain they really get it.
Don’t let your folks leave the table until you are sure of this. If someone tells you something, do the same thing in reverse. State back to them what you heard and ask them if you got it right. This may seem redundant, but trust me -- it is much worse to miscommunicate unknowingly than it is to take an additional minute or two for clarifying a conversation that will confirm everyone is on the same page. As a leader, you need to own these tasks.
It is up to you to ensure everyone is at the same place and is walking away with a shared understanding of what was communicated.
Listen to Understand, Not Respond.
Okay, now let’s dive a little deeper.
Communication isn’t just about what you say, it’s about how you listen. As a result, miscommunication isn’t just caused by what you say, it’s also by how you listen.
One of the many problems, when we speak with folks, is that we are listening to respond rather than listening to understand.
That’s probably why Stephen Covey’s fifth habit is, “Seek first to understand, then be understood,”
This must become your mantra as a leader and communicator. How can you make good decisions if you aren’t willing to understand what your team is telling you?
If you only seek to be understood, you may fall into the group of close-minded leaders who always believe they are the smartest person in the room. Guess what? This also doesn’t work.
In business and in life, you need a growth mindset. One that allows you to walk into a room or a conversation knowing you can grow from the experience. When you walk in with this mindset, you are more prone to seek to understand from the beginning.
And when you listen to understand, rather than respond, as the primary objective, you will have a greater chance of effectively communicating with your people.
Create Space & Be Present to Address Your Flash-to-Bang
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
I love that quote by Viktor Frankl because it gets to the heart of what I’m talking about today.
It’s about that nebulous in-between moment of when someone says something to you, or you’re presented with a problem or situation (the flash), and we jump to respond (the bang).
But how do we create the necessary space between the external flash and our bang?
Well, some people are naturally wired to have the ability to create this space.
Most people, however, are not. So, we need train our brains to allow us to create that space. To allow us to understand the message, think about it, and respond thoughtfully, rather than simply react. The answer for me lies with mindfulness.
Meditation Isn’t Just for Monks & Pricey Yoga Classes
There’s been a ton of talk about meditation and mindfulness in the leadership arena recently -- so much so that it actually makes my skin crawl a bit to be diving into this.
There are really two reasons for this:
I am a beginner in terms of meditation and my practice. I haven’t been to a silent retreat yet or had any formal instruction outside of courses within apps on my iPhone. I am doing a ton of reading on mindfulness and its origins, but I am not anything more than a student.
I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon. I write about problems and solutions that I am dealing with, not what is trending on Twitter. I am writing this because it talks about a problem I am dealing with that I think can be helpful to others.
That said, if I don’t talk about it, I would be doing a disservice to all of you.
Here’s what I will offer about my own experience mindful meditation:
It has allowed me to live more in the moment -- to put things in perspective, before I respond.
What I’ve found is that this has made me a better communicator at the office and at home. (And, it’s slowed down my flash-to-bang!) When you can create this space between stimulus and response -- maybe it’s through mindful meditation, or something else you find that works -- you are more present in the moment.
You are able to actually understand what is being said. To think through things and to ensure the actions we take aren’t rushed. You will also help mitigate the second- and third-order effects of our actions.
Note: There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about meditation. I am also not going to list them here or talk to you about what to do to start a practice.
Numerous folks much smarter than I am can educate you if that’s what you want. (If you’re interested in meditation read Rob Dube’s book donothing and Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier.)
The best advice I can give is to find what works for you.
I know, that’s a terrible answer, but it’s the truth. To help you get started, here are the things I am doing to become a better leader, coach, mentor, and human. Read. Then, go read some more. Books have become my “happy place.” There are so many great works out there right now on leadership, culture, meditation, personal growth... the list could go on forever. I’ve found that by reading a ton I have opened myself up to more ideas than ever before. It’s like having my own board of directors or a team of leadership coaches to help me see things in a slightly different way.
This has allowed for me to become more open to ideas and to challenge the way things have always been done. (Check out my Goodreads profile to see what I’m reading, and what I’ve read, if you want to dive deeper.) I use devices -- mainly my pens -- as a tool to remind myself to listen for understanding. Having your own tool to serve as a reminder of your purpose, listening, you may find that you are more prone to work on understanding and less apt to react. My meditation practice has grown and changed over the last year. Today, I sit (meditate) for 40 minutes (at least) daily. I start my day with a 20-minute mindfulness meditation to get myself “in the moment” right from the get-go. Then, throughout the day, I remind myself to be mindful in everything I do. To understand the environment I’m in and am aware of the thoughts going through my head.
I have actually found myself making mental and actual notes about how something is making me feel. By doing this, I find that I prevent myself from outwardly showing anger or frustration and can actually be present to help my team through whatever the issue is. Finally, at night, I do another 20-minute sit to help me wind down. This may make me sound irrational, but I’ve never felt better in my life.
I am a much more fun person to be around, and I am a much more effective leader today than ever before. For some people, meditation is too foreign. I totally get that, but before you blow it off, check out some of these articles on the value it can have.
No matter what path you choose to travel, your goal should be to slow down your response time, be a better listener, and make your team better by simply understanding that miscommunication and not listening are your enemy.
After that, be diligent in your practice, combatting those impulses to react one conversation at a time.