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We’re excited at CEI for all the new and interesting directions our business is heading in. Hope 2007 is going great for you, too!

We’re starting off this year by taking a long look at something we’ve been calling “High-Stakes Communication.” Situations are high-stakes when it’s make-or-break time, when the situation can go amazingly well or horribly wrong. A high-stakes communication event could be a life-changing job interview, a sales presentation to close a $250M deal, or a sensitive conversation with a difficult but valuable employee. Jan and I have been doing a lot of reflecting on high-stakes situations like these and believe there is much to be learned from them that will benefit your everyday life. So over the next few issues, we’re going to be sharing some of these thoughts about the most pivotal communication encounters you’ll face in your life.

So let’s begin by taking a look at some of the key building blocks of High-Stakes Communication, starting with the Scout motto…

“Be Prepared”
Vol. 4, No. 1

I was 16 with a newly minted driver’s license, barreling along a country road in northern Michigan in the dead of winter. My companion, with a license a brief one year older than mine, and I were breezily conversing when all of a sudden, we hit a patch of ice. You can guess what came next. With my friend screaming to me the words our driving instructors drilled into us to “turn in the direction of the skid” (I still don’t know what that means), I did what any new driver would do and slammed on the brakes. And, of course, I totally lost control of the car, plowing it into a rather large elm tree. Luckily, neither of us was hurt, but the car was in pretty bad shape.

Right after my father “rescued” us, and after I got the lecture of my young life, he boomed, “driver’s training at school isn’t enough. You’re going to learn from a pro—a cop, unless, of course, you don’t ever want to drive my cars again.” His argument was impeccable. After I agreed to his “deal I couldn’t refuse,” he said the words I’ve never forgotten: “Neal, you’re only as good a driver as what you do in an emergency.”

I’m sure this advice has kept me from any serious car accidents since then, but I’m also sure that it has made me really believe in the Scout motto applied to most any aspect of my life. Because, you see, I would add one additional modification to my father’s sage advice: the best driver is the one who is most prepared for an emergency.

Now the place we see “Be Prepared” working in one of its most powerful ways is in communication. In fact, my driving incident has some interesting parallels to most people’s approach to communication. First, many people have the curious notion that just because they speak a human language, they can communicate. In short, like me at 16, they don’t know what they don’t know. And like me, they just figure they can wing it in whatever communication situation they find themselves. Being prepared for critical communication encounters is the last thing on  their minds.

For instance, people like these go into a big job interview, thinking that the best thing they can do is tell their prospective employer how much they’d like the job, how it would give them a great workplace to help them develop their creativity, and maybe even, as one person who interviewed with us once declared, “I want to work here to become your competition!” (What you need to know in this situation is another topic for another time.) They’ve not been prepared to realize that their interviewer is there to evaluate how they could benefit the organization, not to provide them a cushy workplace and a ton of money! So with lack of knowledge and a self-centered attitude, they blow the interview.

Next, there are those unprepared people who travel along life’s roads, pretty oblivious to some “trees” waiting ahead in their path. What’s bad about not knowing what you don’t know is that you’re not seeing the warning signs of impending danger. Just the way I didn’t piece together the signs of the weather, road conditions, time of day, etc., many people miss what we call “messages from the world,” one of the topics of an upcoming issue of PSSP.

Consider the mid-level executive we’ll call Mike, who has been passed over for promotion several times. Mike is a hard-working, intelligent contributor to his organization. One day, Mike learns from his boss that several of his subordinates will now be reporting to one of his colleagues. Then he finds out he is no longer on a critical management committee. He then is told he’s off a major company project, so that he now has far less access to information and contact with mahogany row. The message is clear, Mike: you’re on your way out! If Mike had a more developed political sense, he might have remembered, among other things, the time he embarrassed his boss in front of some out-of-town clients. Or the time he let loose with some inappropriate humor at a business lunch. And finally, when he openly joked that a certain senior manager was “one can less than a six-pack.”

Then there are unprepared people who have been adversely “prepared” for high-stakes communication situations. These people are usually the victims of bad communication advice offered by well-meaning family members. Probably more damage is done by friends and family in the life of a budding communicator than from almost any other source. This sad state of affairs often occurs with a person who starts out fairly shy, and for whom her parents keep reinforcing that condition. “You just never come out of your shell,” repeat the well-meaning but frustrated parents. This creates a self-image that persists into adulthood, ruining many opportunities for her professional growth and happy relationships.

Next, lack of preparation takes still another form. Unprepared people are more likely to be governed by emotion, which can give them a distorted or diminished view of their own capabilities. This is almost as bad as the situation with the well-meaning family members. Under the pressure of strong negative emotion, we almost always misjudge how well we handle people. In our PSSP issue “Bridging the Perceptual Gap,” we show how we often do not see ourselves as others see us, both positively and negatively. Lacking an accurate view of yourself leads to indecision and outright bungling of critical encounters.

People like these often have highly negative experiences with communication. Again, like me, either having been burned by smashing into a tree or crashing and burning while giving a public speech, they have let that painful experience stop them from ever trying to speak in public again. What they don’t realize is the toll this decision has taken throughout their careers—missed promotions, wasted opportunities to grow in influence, and unrealized relationships that would have meant great personal and professional satisfaction.

There are some fortunate people, however, who realize, as my father did, that to really excel in anything, including communication, you need training before you get in up to your neck. It’s at this point that you really start to learn “what you don’t know.” I remember one of my driving lessons in the police officer’s dual-controlled car, when he ordered me to parallel park for the first time. As I gradually turned the wheel, he swung his steering wheel abruptly to the left, shouting, “cut harder!” When I did, it looked like we were at a 90° angle to the rest of the cars by the curb. But to my amazement, he maneuvered me into the slot. After a while, this angle became second nature since I knew it would get me the desired result. But it could never have become second nature without formal training. The same is true with communication.

People we coach in business presentations are in much the same place. To a soft-spoken, sometimes shy person, we’ll say “talk louder!” Invariably, they’ll retort, “I can’t. I feel like I’m shouting.” When, however, we play back the tape, with this so-called shouting, they discover that they’re much more hearable and much more energetic. It doesn’t take long for these people to really break out of their shells. They like what they see and hear. Many of these people go on to very successful public speaking engagements, community leadership, and professional advancement.

So the motto many of us learned as children still applies today. “Be Prepared” means getting the knowledge and developing the skills before you hit the ice and the trees in your communication life. By the time the stakes are highest, it’s too late to prepare!

Yours in great communication,

Jan and Neal Palmer


Interested in learning more about how we train executives in interpersonal communication, public speaking, and team-building, when the stakes are high? Please give us a call at (800) 410-4CEI (4234) or send us an email at cei@talk2cei.com. We’d be glad to talk with you.

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