My son, Gary is a business consultant and trainer http://eckstein.id.au and is based in Sydney, Australia. He says that in order to really understand and practise negotiation skills, you need to have a lot to do with young children. I agree. Through our interaction and communicating with young children we can learn a great deal that will help us in leading or managing adults.
When you have a message to deliver, consider how differently you’d deliver it to a five-year old, a teenager, a young working adult, and a highly specialised adult. These layers of complexity help us to understand our own message and the best way to deliver it. There needs to be as small a gap as possible between our intention in sending the message and the perception of the message’s content by the person receiving the message. The bigger the gap between the two, the more the person will fill it with what they thought your intention might have been - and this can lead to great misunderstanding.
During this trip to Australia for four days a week I was privileged in ‘looking after’ my granddaughter, Ella who turned five in January and started her first year at ‘big school’ in February this year. This was a great opportunity to get to know her better and build positive relationships. What I didn’t realise was how much she’d be teaching me! - and what wonderful examples she’d be providing for the leadership and communication skills training I present.
So, what lessons did I learn from this charming young five-year old?
The importance of a positive attitude
As we walked into the local shopping centre, I mentioned that I’d like to go and say ‘hello’ to my friend Margaret whom I hadn’t yet seen this trip. I reminded Ella that she had met Margaret 18 months ago. At first, Ella was deeply concerned because at that point she couldn’t remember Margaret.
After a few seconds as we walked along, she said, ‘but Granny Brenda, that’s good!’ I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. So, I asked her and she explained: ‘It’s good that we can’t remember some things because it makes more space in our brains for new things’. How true! And as adults many of us could use that thinking to justify our failing memories!
The ability to find positives in every negative situation is a skill which many adults have not yet mastered. It requires creativity – and this little girl sure taught me a lesson or two!
Incidentally, as we arrived at Margaret’s place of work, Ella suddenly remembered her. And she was relieved. (I didn’t pursue its impact on her perceived ‘space’ in her brain!)
As adults, a positive attitude helps to build relationships. Within positive relationships we can achieve better outcomes and there is more likely to be an ‘absence of malice’ if things do go wrong. In addition, people are more receptive to any message which we may wish to convey.
Think about things. Don’t take anything for granted.
I presumed that going to town by train would be a great treat. But Ella said, ‘Granny Brenda, I’ve been on a train a few times, and that would be good, but I’ve never ever been on a bus’. What fun we had going by bus!
This adventure provided many learning experiences for both of us. For example, as we took our seats on the bus she asked with disbelief: ‘But, Granny Brenda, why did we have to pay to go on the bus?’ If she hadn’t asked, I would have taken it for granted that everybody knew you paid to go on a public bus! This led to stimulating conversation.
It requires skill for us to convey a message in a way that is suitable for the person we are speaking with. How do you describe capitalism, economic supply and demand, or basic business principles to a five-year-old? I pursued the topic and thought I’d explained in a way that was suitable for her. However, later that day she showed that I had not covered the topic in enough detail. ‘Granny, the man driving the bus, does he own the bus?’
So, when leading or managing your teams, think about the amount of information you need to convey. Don’t take anything for granted. Make it easy for people to ask relevant questions – either at the time, or later.
The importance of really listening to the words we use
I have mentioned one of the highlights of our time together, the day we spent in the city (Sydney). Although we traveled in by bus, we returned to the suburb where she lives by train. Although she had been on trains before, this was an adventure.
During the journey, she suddenly said, with great indignation, ‘That’s not right!’ I was confused and asked her what she was talking about. She explained: “the man said ‘please stand clear of the doors’”. She was talking about an announcement she’d just heard as the train departed from a station.
I still didn’t understand. ‘Well’ she said indignantly, ‘Granny Brenda, we aren’t standing. We are sitting.’ She was right. The message didn’t apply to us – at that time. But it did apply to many others.
It’s a matter of awareness. Think about what you are hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and feeling. Have an opinion on everything. You don’t have to express it. But think about things. As one of the great presenters in Australia teaches, develop ‘contributory and contradictory thinking’.
In ‘contributory thinking’, even if you agree with what the person is saying, you ask yourself ‘what else can I add to that?’ Take the same statement and use ‘contradictory thinking’. In other words, you may agree with the basic statement, but you know it wouldn’t work under certain circumstances.
So, in the case of the announcement at the station, ‘the man’ was right in telling people to ‘stand clear’ of the doors (to prevent danger). And there could have been accidents on that train (and on any train leaving that station – or any other station) if people hadn’t obeyed (contributory thinking). However, although he was right, his command didn’t apply to us as we were sitting safely in the train. (Contradictory)
So, listen to messages we receive. Think about any message we convey and test both against ‘contributory’ and ‘contradictory’ thinking. That way our communication will be more effective.
Practise your conversation skills
In my communication skills workshops I constantly stress the importance of practising ‘quality conversation’. The rationale is that we all prefer to deal with people we know and trust. Building trust goes hand-in-hand with building positive relationships. Conversation is a tool for building those relationships.
I always tell people to regularly practise the simple conversation techniques we cover in the workshops and I have been excited by the feedback from people who have done this. For example, one business executive decided that every morning while driving his teenage daughter to school, for those 40 minutes he’d ask her to help him practise the techniques. So, instead of silence and just listening to the radio in the car, they began to have stimulating conversations. They both began to look forward to the daily practice session and they added new elements. The father delegated reading the daily newspaper to his daughter so that they could discuss current events. Hearing each other’s views added richness to their relationship. He was so very grateful that his relationship with his daughter had moved from ‘average’ to ‘outstanding’.
We all need to practise our conversation skills and what better place to do it than with our families? And it doesn’t matter how old our conversation partners are, it helps to improve the quality not only of conversation, but also of relationships.
Ella, as mentioned earlier in this article is only 5 years old and has a natural ability to communicate. But doesn’t almost every child? She I enjoy the most wonderful conversations following the ‘listen – comment – (open) question’ principles which I teach adult participants during my training courses. We can enrich our understanding or others by engaging in quality conversation. So, practise your conversation skills and you’ll enrich the lives of those you practise with and enhance your performance in the workplace.
There are lessons all around us. Recognise and optimise opportunities. I’m grateful for the privilege of spending many days learning from a five-year old.