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Monday, August 23, 2010

How are Your Communication Skills?

Communication is a critical skill in almost everything we do. Expressing our thoughts, feelings, and needs in clear, assertive ways and being able to understand these messages from others is critical for good relationships. Research on marriage confirms this importance, and good communication skills with children are essential in effective parenting. Additionally, in a 2009 survey of recruiters from companies with more than 50,000 employees, communication skills were cited as the single most important decisive factor in choosing managers.

Communication is only successful when both the sender and the receiver have a shared comprehension of information. Unfortunately, all too often there are “misses” where things are not clearly understood. However, there are specific techniques and skills that can improve communication and reduce misunderstandings.

Use of “I” statements helps with clearer communication. First ask yourself: “What are you seeing, hearing or sensing?” “What emotions are you feeling?” “What do you want?”.

It is far more effective to begin a discussion with: “When I came home and saw dinner had not been started, I felt disappointed and overwhelmed. I want to ask you to help me get this started so we can eat soon.”; rather than “ You never do anything to help around here – everything gets left up to me and I’m sick of it.”

It’s easy to see how the use of “I” statements has a better chance of being heard and possibly even agreed with than the “You” statements that tend to put others on the defensive. When people are defensive, their capacity to listen goes down.

Also helpful is to start important conversations with an invitation. Beginning with something like: “I would like to talk with you about.….. is this a good time?” asks for full engagement and focus. If someone is overwhelmed, angry, tired or emotionally unavailable for any reason, it is simply not a good time to have an important conversation.

Avoid complaints and criticisms, and express specific requests: “it would help me to …” “if you would….”. Ask for action-oriented, positive solutions rather than berating with angry expressions of frustrations. Ask for what you want and learn to negotiate.

In addition to expressing ourselves clearly and completely, listening well is one of the most important skills in effective communication. Unfortunately, research has found that we remember only 25-50% of what we hear. That means 50-75% of what is told to us by our spouses, children, friends, coworkers, and supervisors is never received. Undoubtedly listening is an important skill to develop.

One approach to improve listening is to practice “active listening”. There are five key elements.

Pay attention. Give your undivided attention by putting aside distracting thoughts. Be aware of body language and resist the temptation to be preparing your response.
Show you are listening. A smile or a nod or verbal comments like yes, and uh huh convey interest.
Provide feedback. Reflecting back your understanding of what is being said or asking for clarifications can be important
Defer judgment. Allow the speaker to finish without interruptions or counter-arguments.
Respond Appropriately. Be open and honest in your response but respond respectfully.

It takes a lot of concentration and focus to be an active listener. Old habits are hard to break. The goal is to truly hear what others are saying.

Working on improving communication skills is valuable in all interactions. Positive change in ways of expressing and listening will improve the quality of daily conversations and can significantly enhance the ability to work through more difficult conflictual exchanges.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Is Procrastination Getting in Your Way?

Procrastination is a complex behavioral and psychological issue that affects everyone to some degree. While for some it can be a minor irritation; for others it can be source of considerable difficulty – causing stress and anxiety. Procrastinators sabotage themselves and often are less effective and successful than they could be. Researchers have identified that twenty percent of people define themselves as chronic procrastinators where the habit of putting tasks off to the last possible minute is a maladaptive lifestyle that impacts personal and professional areas of life.

The causes of procrastination can be psychological. When procrastination is a persistent and debilitating disorder there may actually be an underlying psychological issue such as Depression or Attention Deficit Disorder. These underlying mental health issues can be treated with medication and/or therapy and professional assistance should be sought.

However, for most, procrastination is a behavior problem which impacts some but not all areas of life. A main reason people find it difficult to work on a particular goal is that they don’t enjoy the tasks involved in achieving the goal. There is a sense of dread and avoidance associated with difficult, unpleasant, and/or complex tasks. To help with this issue it is important to balance tasks with rewards. Guarantee the fun parts of your life first, and then schedule your work around them. The most successful among us are those who live balanced lives. Additionally, it is important to break down complex tasks into realistic manageable goals. Some tasks are overwhelming when examined in totality but easily conquered when seen as a series of smaller steps.

Perfectionism is often associated with procrastination. Most procrastinators do not think of themselves as perfectionists but the extremely critical spirit of the perfectionist can be paralyzing. Believing that you must do something perfectly is a recipe for stress and will likely prevent you from getting started on important tasks. Work to replace perfectionism with permission to be imperfectly human.

Procrastination becomes less likely on tasks that you openly and freely choose to undertake. When the goals are set and evaluated by others – particularly others in authority - procrastination can serve as a form of rebellion. This is very often seen in students with rigid and demanding teachers or parents.

One of the things that perpetuate procrastination is positive reinforcement (reward) when things are delayed. When a looming task is thrown together at the last moment and the result is accepted or even praised by others, the procrastinator may convince themselves of statements such as: “I work best under pressure” or “I had to be ready – and when I was – I got it done”. These “lies” will make it easier to accept the anxiety and stress when the next episode of procrastination occurs. It is unlikely that goals accomplished with great pain and anxiety couldn’t be met more effectively using successful time management skills.

Three basic types of procrastinators have been identified by psychologist, Dr. Joseph Ferrari:
** Arousal types, or thrill seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush.
** Avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success. Concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
** Decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.

If you identify yourself as a procrastinator with negative consequences on your life, it may be helpful to work to find a more comfortable work style with less stress and frenzy.