Lessons in Strategic Communications from an Admiral

You may have missed it. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a clinic in communications, public relations and sales. It was in late August–perhaps that’s why you didn’t hear of it.

Of course, it was also cleverly disguised as a critique of the US government’s communications policy with respect to the Muslim world. But no matter, it was a clinic nonetheless. Here is Adm. Mike Mullen:

"To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate…

…most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all," he wrote. "They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."

What constitutes good communication? According to Adm. Mullen:

"…having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves. We shouldn’t care if people don’t like us. That isn’t the goal. The goal is credibility. And we earn that over time.

[our messages] lack credibility, because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises."

Clearly Mullen is confusing his skillset with that of a communications expert. What else does he think good communication requires?

"It’s not about telling our story," he stated. "We must also be better listeners."

You may think Mullen is out of his league. Then again, if you are reading this blog, you probably recognize his wisdom. But let’s pile on some more anyway.

Communication is a Two Way Street

The heart of influence lies not in our fancy powerpoints or elegantly crafted talking points. Ironically, paradoxically, it lies in listening before we talk.

Thomas Friedman articulated this well in his commencement address at Williams College a few years ago:

The most important part of listening is that is is a sign of respect. It’s not just what you hear by listening that is important. It is what you say by listening that is important…

Never underestimate how much people just want to feel that they have been heard, and once you have given them that chance they will hear you.

The Psychology of Communication

Communication is a dance, not a diktat. The establishment of trust requires communication, in an ascending exchange of reciprocal acts of listening.

Being right is an overrated virtue. In fact, being right too soon has the effect of pissing people off. There is a time for every season, including stating opinions. And that time is after you have listened.

Not all truisms are true, but this one is:

–People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.

That simple little sentence, phrased in an intentionally corny manner so as to increase the odds of remembering it, is very sound psychology.

Communications, influence and trust have a few very simple rules: one is, first you listen.

  • Shrinks know this.
  • Good salespeople know this.
  • Good diplomats know this.

Apparently, so do Admirals.

Thanks for the clinic, Admiral.







The Great Empathy Famine

I spent the weekend in California. It started as a mini-vacation—joining a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. It ended with most of the time in my hotel room with the flu.

At first, my demeanor was positive (why compound physical misery with a bad attitude) but steadily declined as I negotiated all the logistical changes required to extend my stay until I could haul my ailing self back across the country. 

Of all the service providers with whom I interacted (hotel desk clerks, cleaning ladies, airport rental car attendant), not one acknowledged my matter-of-fact revelation that I was asking for help because I was sick and couldn’t go home.

Why Is Empathy So Hard to Find?

Now, I wasn’t looking for sympathy from these folk (well, maybe a tad).  It just would have been nice if, when they learned of my situation, they had given some hint that they had actually heard what I said.  "Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” would have completely sufficed. Or “Oh dear!” Even “Bummer, dude.” 

But no.  Nothin’.  Nada. When I finally emerged from my room, the cleaning lady had an attitude – the Do Not Disturb sign that hung on the door for 48 hours straight had kept her from doing her job.

The Alamo car check-in guy dutifully read – word-for-word – the statement on the back of my agreement justifying the additional $10.99 late return charge.  Waiving the $10 might have made me a customer for life.   Just saying, “I’m so sorry that my job requires me to tack on this extra fee under the circumstances” might have led me to consider  renting from Alamo again.

These are not unhappy or unfriendly people. Hey, it’s California. They get a lot of sun. And it’s not like they were in roles not requiring interpersonal skills — I’ll give the hotel housekeeper a pass, but the rest were front-line customer service types.  And honestly, I wasn’t being a cranky-whiny-pain-in-the-you-know-what sick person – I promise.

I’m not sure what the problem was.  Perhaps they weren’t really listening. Or they just didn’t know what to say.

Empathy Isn’t Really All That Difficult

The thing is, empathy isn’t that hard. It comes in many forms: “I’m terribly sorry,” or “I’m sure that wasn’t how you wanted to spend your weekend here!”  or even “That sucks!” (sorry, Mom, I know you hate that word).

Just acknowledge — rather than avoid — the emotional reality of the human being on the other end of the phone/service counter/board room table.
Are you uncomfortable in this touchy-feely zone? That’s perfectly normal.  But it’s also a bad excuse for doing nothing. Awkward empathy beats no empathy any day of the week.

In our Trusted Advisor and Trust-Based Selling  programs we spend a lot of time practicing empathy. Put in the terms of the Trust Equation, empathy creates intimacy and intimacy builds trust.

Empathy is imperative in professional services; listening is what drives influence.  Just asking good questions is not enough to be a good listener.

Having your client get that you got him — emotionally as well as cognitively — is what earns you the Top Listener award, which in turn earns you the right to be heard.

Next time you ask your client how her weekend was, and she mutters “Not quite what I expected,” try putting the meeting agenda aside just long enough to say, “I’m sorry to hear that” or – context-permitting – “Bummer, dude.”

And if your client ever reveals something that leaves you feeling itchy and unsure what to say, say that (“Oh … I’m not sure what to say”). Any attempt will do.

What’s Trust Got to Do With Respect?

On the one hand, the connection between trust and respect seems clear. As Thomas Friedman put it:

I’m often asked how I, an American Jew, have been able to operate so successfully in the Arab world. My answer is simple: it is to be a good listener. It has never failed me. Listening is a sign of respect. If you truly listen to the other person, they will then listen to what you have to say.

Aretha Franklin just spelled it out.

Behaving respectfully toward others is likely to increase your trustworthiness in others’ eyes, and to make them more likely to trust you.

But should it work the other way? What if someone is disrespectful to us? Should we then behave in a less trustworthy way toward them? Should we trust them less?

There’s an equally venerable point of view that says get over it, sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, someone can hurt you emotionally only with your permission, hear other people but do not allow your emotions to be held hostage by theirs.

Of course, sometimes name-calling is a prelude to violence; disrespect can signal untrustworthiness. Only a fool doesn’t look for a nearby exit door in such situations.

But we over-rate how often that is true.

This territory of trust, listening and respect is rife with opportunities for self-improvement. Strive to respect others—not in the ways you would be respected, but in ways the other person would consider as being respected. Which means listening, very attentively.

But when disrespected, strive to rise above it. Return respect for disrespect, by listening for motives and for understanding.

Does this mean holding ourselves to a higher standard than others? And is that disrespectful in itself?

I’d like to think not. On some absolute scale, all of us are awful at this. When you behave disrespectfully, notice it and resolve to do better in future. When someone is disrespectful towards you, notice how much like them you are, and resolve to overlook it on the spot.

Listening for Litigators

Jean is an experienced attorney in California—doing mainly litigation.  She told me how she practices listening while taking depositions.

Jean: The main thing I do is I’m genuinely curious about what the defendant thinks.  I’m just curious.

Me: Don’t you have to find weaknesses in their stories?

Jean: That’s an outcome, not an objective.  I’m not looking for “gotchas” as an end in itself.  If I can understand their full story from their perspective, then I can understand where their case is weak, and where it’s strong.  Then in court I have no danger of taking things out of context—I know their context.

Me: Do people share things with you that are surprising?

Jean: Astonishing.  Sometimes their own counsel will elbow them to say, ‘shut up, that’s enough,’ and they’ll push back ‘no, I want to tell my story.’  People just want to be understood. 

Me: Don’t they know you’re hostile?

Jean: They know. But I think the desire to communicate overcomes that.  And, I suspect, if they feel heard and understood, then perhaps they’ll be more accepting of the court’s outcome—they’ve had their ‘day in court,’ and I play a role in that.

Me: Does this work for you?

Jean: Hugely.  The younger lawyers acknowledge me as being pretty effective.  They want to know how I do it.  I tell them, but they don’t get it.

Me: How’s that?

Jean: I have no secrets; I tell them the trick is to be a good listener, which means being curious about what makes the other person tick.  But they don’t seem to be able to get it.

I think in part it’s because they simply do not know how to listen, at all.  Hence they can’t hear me when I try to explain how to listen.  If you can’t listen, you can’t hear someone explain it.  Maybe they think it can’t be so easy.

Maybe it’s because they can’t get out of the adversarial mode.  Maybe that comes with maturity.  You don’t have to fight all the time to win cases.  Sometimes you just go with the flow, and you end up winning because of it.  They can’t seem to grasp that simple Aikido-like principle, use the energy presented to you to find the right answer.  And if you’re right, you win.  And if you didn’t win, well maybe you were wrong.

I was very taken by Jean’s description.  Isn’t this how the law, and lawyers, should function?  With genuine curiosity about the litigants’ respective positions? 

Is being an advocate necessarily at odds with forming relationships?  I’d like to think not, and that Jean is one of those who seems to understand just how to do it.

Zen and the Art of Trusted Advisorship

In our Trusted Advisor workshops and coaching engagements, we spend a lot of time on listening. Why? Because not listening is one of the top two causes of trust breakdown. (The other — accelerating too quickly to a solution – is another form of not listening.)

Listening is critical to advice-giving because it’s through listening that we earn the right to offer advice.

There are many reasons we humans do a crappy job of listening. One of my favorites: the little internal voice that clogs our brain with incessant chatter.

(Don’t have a little voice in your head? Your little voice is the one that says, “What little voice? I don’t have a little voice.”)

A 30-second snippet from a typical internal dialogue:

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

Your little voice: “Uh oh. I should have spent more time preparing for this meeting. You know, I’m not sure I like this guy.”

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

LV: “I do like his tie. The suit, not so much.”

LV: “Did I remember to take my black suit to the drycleaner?”

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

LV: “I wish he’d hurry up and finish so I can re-focus this conversation. He’s taken us way off course.”

And so it goes. Like static on a radio station, the little voice interferes with our ability to tune in.

Which begs the question: How to reduce the static to improve our listening so that we, in turn, will be listened to?

Unfortunately, that little voice will never go away – it comes with being human. But there are ways to minimize it. Here are my Top Three:

1. Prepare your mind. This suggestion comes directly from The Trusted Advisor (page 200, if you must know). Train your brain to notice random chatter, and substitute some wry wisdom of your own choosing. Examples:

“I am not the center of the universe.

"It’s a ‘we’ game, not a ‘me’ game.”

“A point of view doesn’t commit you for life.”

“Knowing the truth is better than not knowing it.”

You can also make this part of your pre-flight checklist before your next big client meeting.

2. Get a little Zen. When the chatter arises, notice and observe it; raise your consciousness about it in the moment and gently but swiftly return your focus to the real conversation at-hand. This is similar to the practice that experienced meditators use of returning to the breath when “monkey mind” (a mind that jumps from thought to thought like a monkey jumps from tree to tree) takes over.

3. Think out loud. Get the chatter out of your head and into the conversation. This is especially valuable when your little voice is expressing a concern. Here are some examples:

LV: “He seems distracted.”

What you might say: “Let’s take a time out to be sure we’re going in the right direction with this conversation.”

LV: “I’m not sure she understands what I’m getting at.”

What you might say: “At the risk of appearing a little assertive here, may I be blunt?”

LV: “I am doing a lot of talking; someone shut me up!”

What you might say: “I’m hearing myself doing a lot of the talking here. What haven’t I asked about that’s important for me to know?”

This one requires some risk-taking. As does all trust.

You’re not crazy for having the little voice; you’re human. Do your clients – and yourself – a favor by training your brain to tune chatter out, client in. By listening, you earn the right to be listened to.

Selling to the Primal Instinct in All of Us

If you’re in sales, this blogpost is for you.

If you have a toddler at home, ditto.

And if you’re a toddler parent who sells for a living, you just hit the jackpot. Listen up.

I recently wrote an article on selling called The Point of Listening is Not What You Hear, But the Listening Itself.  (Or, read the shorter, blog version).

The title pretty much says it. A lot of sales programs focus on listening for content; but unless the customer feels heard, all you’ve done is a brain-suck, and that feels invasive to the customer.

That idea won’t be new to some salespeople, or to afficionados of communications theory.  But I had no idea how firmly based it is in develomental history.

From the NYTimes Feb. 7, we have “Coping with the Caveman in the Crib.” 

If there is such a person as a “baby whisperer,” it is the pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, whose uncanny ability to quiet crying babies became the best-selling book “The Happiest Baby on the Block.”

Dr. Karp’s method [works with] fussy babies who are quickly, almost eerily soothed by a combination of tight swaddling, loud shushing and swinging, which he says mimics the sensations of the womb.

Now Dr. Karp, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, has turned his attention to the toddler years…A wailing baby is nothing compared with the defiant behavior and tantrums common among toddlers.

But Dr. Karp’s method of toddler communication is not for the self-conscious. It involves bringing yourself, both mentally and physically, down to a child’s level when he or she is upset. The goal is not to give in to a child’s demands, but to communicate in a child’s own language of “toddler-ese.”

This means using short phrases with lots of repetition, and reflecting the child’s emotions in your tone and facial expressions. And, most awkward, it means repeating the very words the child is using, over and over again.

For instance, a toddler throwing a tantrum over a cookie might wail, “I want it. I want it. I want cookie now.”

Often, a parent will adopt a soothing tone saying, “No, honey, you have to wait until after dinner for a cookie.”

Such a response will, almost certainly, make matters worse. “It’s loving, logical and reasonable,” notes Dr. Karp. “And it’s infuriating to a toddler. Now they have to say it over harder and louder to get you to understand.”

Dr. Karp adopts a soothing, childlike voice to demonstrate how to respond to the toddler’s cookie demands.

“You want. You want. You want cookie. You say, ‘Cookie, now. Cookie now.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine an adult talking like this in a public place. But Dr. Karp notes that this same form of “active listening” is a method adults use all the time. The goal is not simply to repeat words but to make it clear that you hear someone’s complaint.  “If you were upset and fuming mad, I might say, ‘I know. I know. I know. I get it. I’m really really sorry. I’m sorry.’ That sounds like gibberish out of context,” he says.

On his DVD, Dr. Karp demonstrates the method. Within seconds, teary-eyed toddlers calm and look at him quizzically as he repeats their concerns back at them.

“The goal is not simply to repeat words, but to make it clear that you hear someone’s complaint.”

The point of listening is not what you hear, but the act of listening itself. Or, to be more correct, the result of that act, namely the customer’s experience of being heard.

Sometimes what works on kids also works on adults.  Sometimes not.  My tummy tells me this is the former.

And it’s basic. Primal.  It’s about empathy, not about exchange of cognitive information.

Don’t listen to do a brain-suck. Listen so the customer (or your toddler) feels heard.

And to all you salesperson/parents out there—you’re welcome.  Wish I’d’a knew it!

The Point of Listening Is Not What You Hear, but the Hearing Itself

In the category of “Things We Find Completely Obvious—But Aren’t True,” number one—the classic in this category—was “The Earth Is Flat.”

Number 27 is: “Listen to Customers to Identify their Needs and Wants.”

Seems obvious. Listen to learn, so that you can then:

• tweak what you’re selling to fit what they need, or
• find someone else who can give the customer what they need, or
• change the problem definition so you can help them get something else they need.

That’s what just about any sales book will tell you.

But—just like Flat Earth—it turns out to be wrong. Or, to be clear—less than 100% right. Way less.

Sure, you listen for specs. And you listen for missing benefits. And you listen for opportunities to meet those needs and wants and provide those benefits.
But there’s something much, much bigger at stake.

The main reason for listening to customers is to allow the customer to be heard.

Really heard.

As in, another human being actually paying attention to them.

Listening for the sake of listening.

Listening to understand, period—no strings attached, no links back to your product, no refined problem statements.

Not listening to do a brain-suck.

Not listening to pounce on needs, which are one nano-second away from selling opportunities.

Not listening with an ulterior motive, or even a secondary motive.

Just listening for the sake of listening.

Because that’s what people in relationships, at their best, really do. They listen because they want to know what the other person thinks. About whatever the other person is interested in talking about.

You won’t find that in sales books. You’ll find a million questions aimed at furthering problem definition, or moving toward a close, or “handling” objections.

But you won’t find too many books (mine is an exception; so is Brooks and Travesano’s “You’re Working Too Hard to Make the Sale”) that talk about the power of just plain listening.

But that power is huge. Pure listening, for its own sake, validates other people. It connects us to them. It provides meaning.

Brooks and Travesano note that people greatly prefer to buy what they need from those who understand what it is that they want.

Read that over again, carefully.

People prefer to buy what they need (stuff they’re going to buy anyway), from those who understand them on the basis of what they want (things in life they’d love to have—wishes, hopes, desires.)

You don’t even have to give them what they want; it’s enough to understand them.

This triggers the reciprocity interchange between people; according to Robert Cialdini, the most powerful factor affecting influence.

And therein lies the paradox. The most powerful way to sell depends on giving up your attachment to selling—and instead, just listen. Not listening for anything. Just listening.

Listen not for what you hear—but for the act of listening itself.

It is that act that creates value, and relationships.

And—if you can let it be a side-effect, not a goal—sales too.

(Here are some ideas on how to do it).

The Cold War, the Hot Line and Twitter

August 30 was the 44th anniversary of the "Hot Line" linking the White House and the Kremlin, developed after the Cuban Missile Crisis as a way to prevent future such crises.

I recall vague images of a red, rotary-style telephone, with translators hovering over Krushchev and Kennedy, all ears glued to the receiver.

In truth, while it was dedicated, it was more a line than a handset; and it took 15 minutes to set up a call.

But the idea seems sound. By linking the Head of the Free World and the Head Red, world wars would be averted.

And—indeed, we’ve had no world wars since. Of course, we can’t infer from their absence that the Hot Line can take credit.

Yet we tend to treat communication as a panacea. How many times have you heard (or said) that the key to world peace (or a happy marriage, or racial harmony) “all boils down to communication. If everyone just communicated more, it’d all work out.”

What if the Red Phone had always been on? A permanent connection, picking up everything on each end?

What if JFK and Krushchev had had access to—Twitter?

Twitter is software that allows users to digitally emulate being a Siamese twin, sharing via cellphones or IMs material like “I’m going to go get a coke,” or “it’s really humid today,” or "I just had two bowls of curry." It tells you how many seconds old the news is. (Barack Obama is on Twitter. So’s Hillary. Rudy’s entry is a month old. No surprises.)

If some communication is good—isn’t more better?

Maybe not.

The world is already a-twitter. Think cell phone conversations on the bus or train. Popup ads. Spam. Facebook’s Wall. Everything-cams. Ads that address you as “America.” Message-based t-shirts and bumper stickers. Waiters who tell you their name.

Communication may be necessary—but it’s not sufficient. The world probably is safer when leaders look face to face, rather than demonize from afar. Sales and negotiation and relationships all benefit from greater communication.

But familiarity breeds contempt. Taking a bathroom break? TMI, thanks very much. And I’d prefer Snakes on Planes to Cellphones in the Friendly Skies.

Effective communication requires, three prerequisites:

  • Veto power,
  • Permission, and
  • Relevance

I want to be able to shut you out when I want; I need a mute button or kill switch before I let you in at all.

For me to re-up—to keep my channel open—you need to continually earn the right to my attention, by being relevant. And relevance isn’t a fixed function of content; it’s the result of constantly monitoring what my current hot-buttons are, and—respectfully—offering content to match.

Communication isn’t just an “always-on” shared experience. It can feel that way when young, when the heady sense of connection with an Other relieves the pain of teen-age alienation.

But as we mature, communication looks more like a constantly renewing process of gaining permission through observing, noticing, making assessments of the Other’s interests. With respect. Including knowing when to leave well enough alone.

Silence is often the best communication. The Quakers got that right.

Don’t Believe What They Say About Listening and Sales

Try Googling “sales” and “listen.” Here’s a sampling—look for the common theme:

Rhonda Abrams, from Gannett News Service, says:

When calling on a customer, it’s tempting to want to immediately launch into a sales pitch, especially if you’re nervous. But by listening, you can better understand how your product or service meets the customer’s needs and desires.

In Business Week’s Savvy Selling section, Michelle Nichols says:

Although speaking clearly, succinctly, and persuasively are crucial selling skills, sharp listening skills are equally important today. In fact, it’s the professionals who ask good questions and then listen hard for the answers who are closing more sales than peers who are stuck in the "smooth talker" era.

At, we get:

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason – we’re meant to listen twice as much as we talk. This maxim is never truer than it is in negotiation. It’s amazing what you will learn about the "true" negotiation position, just by listening better. Don’t do all the talking – keep asking questions and listen to the answers.

The admonition to listen is usually justified—as in these three cases—on the basis of the answers’ content. If you listen more—particularly in response to good questions—then you will hear answers that help you sell. That’s the received wisdom.

If that sounds self-evident, think of what is not being said:

that the larger value of listening lies not in the content of the response, but in the act of listening itself.

Q&A listening for content is the hallmark of consultative selling and needs-based selling. You got a need? I probe and find out the specs of that need; I tune my offering to meet it. And so forth.

Nothing wrong with that; but it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the power of a different kind of listening.

Needs are just mechanical specifications for stuff we gotta have anyway—toothpaste, audits, bicycles.

Wants, by contrast, are where the action is—wants are hopes, fears, ambitions, wishes, desires.

>Listening for answers identifies needs; but listening for listening’s sake gets to wants;

>Listening for answers generates a list of specs; listening for listening’s sake generates a connection;

>Listening for answers generates transactions; listening for listening’s sake builds relationships.

If your listening always has an agenda—to sell—then you’re not doing much to build trust. If your listening has no agenda beyond being in service to that customer in that moment, then you are potentially creating a trust bond with that customer.

We often hear that listening is a skill that we should practice. But that’s Q&A listening they’re talking about, listening with an agenda—your agenda. And it’s got limited benefits.

By contrast, listening for listening’s sake is not a skill; it’s a gift—the rare gift of your fine attention. It’s also one of those gifts that gives back.

And—the icing on the cake—listening for listening’s sake ends up more powerfully driving sales than does listening to execute the sale.

It’s a trust thing.