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Effective Communication Leads to Understanding

Vince Fitzpatrick

Effective Communication Leads to Understanding

Today's leaders engage in a multitude of conversations during their daily activities such as formal presentations, email, texting, phone conversations, social networking, etc. No matter the medium by which the communication travels, an effective leader must know how to listen to and persuade others. As stated in the SANS Leadership and Management Competencies text, "Many of the problems that occur in an organization are the direct result of people failing to communicate or communicating ineffectively" (SANS Leadership, pg 136). Leaders must be cognizant of the different strategies for overcoming potential barriers that might limit our ability to communicate and greatly reduce our powers of persuasion.

Though effective communication is important, it is not the main objective. According to Mark Sanborn (2006), a bestselling author and noted authority on leadership and team building, the objective is to achieve understanding. Sanborn believes that the word “communication” is an amorphous term that is not adequately understood. As leaders, our goal is to foster understanding, and our primary tool to achieve understanding is effective communication. Effective communication allows participants to properly exchange ideas.

Effective communication must include listening skills. You can see that this is true in any meeting where everyone is talking and no one is listening. Are these types of meetings effective? Is anyone attempting to understand another person’s view point? According to Sonya Hamlin (2006), the author of "How to Talk So People Listen," the world is composed of various personality types, all of which affect how a person will listen. Another aspect that affects how someone listens is age. A person's generation will impact how the individual accesses their news, tackles work or perceives time. For example, Baby Boomers, those born during the middle part of the 20th Century, may be more likely to read a paper to receive their news. On the other hand, Generation Xers, those born between 1961 and 1981, may tune into their favorite cable news network; and those labeled Generation Y, those born after Generation X, may receive a constant stream of information via their mobile phones. We must be aware that factors such as our age may affect our listening skills.

As security professionals, how can we ensure that we are receptive to other people’s attempts to communicate? As stated in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, researcher Rick van Baaren discovered that a waiter’s tip increased when the waiter repeated exactly what the customer had ordered, as opposed to just saying "okay" or "coming up." Van Baaren believes that restating the request strengthens the bond of communication. Leaders must listen to others’ viewpoints. Based on van Baaren's finding, it is also worth taking the time to restate the other parties’ opinions in an effort to foster effective communication.

This concept was expanded upon by Stephen R. Covey (2004), author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Covey believes that when people listen, they have four natural responses which are based on their history and perspective. The first response is to evaluate whether they will agree or disagree; the second is to probe in the effort to capture information; the third is to advise or give council; and the fourth is to interpret or explain the original message. Since we usually see the conversation from only our perspective, these autobiographical responses limit our ability to understand the other person’s opinion.

To compensate for these natural responses and promote more empathetic listening, Covey (2004) states that you must incorporate additional steps into the listening process. Like van Baaren, Covey’s first step is to mimic the content. This is a basic step that will force you to listen as you restate the other person’s message. But, Covey’s second step is to repeat the communication in the listener’s own words. His third stage is to reflect the other person’s feelings. The last stage is to both rephrase the content and reflect on the feeling. After reading Covey's book, I now can see that listening is a complicated skill, and why it is important to first seek to understand before attempting to persuade. In the communication process, one must always be willing to listen. It is best to be that leader who always ensures that proactive listening occurs.

Still, active listening is becoming more difficult in this multitasking world where we are simultaneously engaged in many conversations over various mediums. According to a study conducted by the University of Kansas, 74% of 500 individuals reported that they multitask using text based communication while also engaged in a face-to-face conversation (Baron, 2008). Furthermore, a 2005 Hewlett Packard study demonstrated that almost 90% of office workers believe their coworkers are rude when engaging in text messaging while also engaging in a face-to-face conversation (Baron, 2008). But, the Hewlett Packard study found that 33% of those surveyed believe that such multitasking techniques are an efficient use of time. It appears that the frequency of multitasking is increasing, and that there is no clear standard regarding how or when individuals in business should multitask. This is why it is important for a leader to ensure that his/her message, whether conveyed face-to-face or through text based mediums, is persuasive enough to grab the attention of the leader’s audience.

In order to grab the attention of our audience, we sometimes highlight negative behaviors. However, focusing on unwanted actions can have an undesired affect. For example, one of the most popular commercials in American television history was that of an elderly Native American shedding a tear as he reflected on the impact of litter. Cialdini, Goldstein and Martin (2008) state that this commercial presented a mixed message. The commercial unintentionally conveyed the message that littering was a common social norm and thus an acceptable behavior. As security professionals, we must attempt to correct poor behavior, but we must also ensure that we do not unintentionally encourage these actions.

Security professionals sometimes use fear to correct poor behavior. This can be seen in the numerous references to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, or the information breaches at TJ Maxx or Heartland. However, according to Cialdini, Goldstein and Martin (2008), fear will stimulate the listener to take action; but if the listener is not told how to reduce the risk, the listener will eventually block out the message. Therefore, we must be sure not only to highlight the issue but also to communicate to our audience attainable steps to reduce the risk.

Though fear can be an effective motivator, it cannot and should not be our only persuasive technique. Cialdini, Goldstein and Martin (2008) state that reciprocity can also be used as a motivator. According to the principle of reciprocity, social obligation is created when the recipient of an unsolicited favor or a service feels indebted to the presenter and will then be more likely to render additional support at a later time. Leaders occasionally come across situations that require remediation which could make someone look, rightly or wrongly, deficient in their responsibilities. I have found that if I can ethically remediate an issue without sounding the alarm throughout the whole organization, I can make a new friendship that will pay dividends in the future.

Still, it is possible to initiate reciprocity without offering a favor. Sometimes all that is required is a simple thank you or even a piece of candy. This was exemplified by Cialdini, Goldstein and Martin (2008), who concluded that how and when restaurants provide an after-dinner mint affected the amount of gratuity provided to the food servers. Their research demonstrated that after-dinner mints provided to patrons as they left the restaurant increased the gratuity by 3.3% compared to when no candy was offered. Furthermore, if the food server provided the mints to the patrons at the end of the meal while they were still seated at the table, the tip increased by 14.1% compared to when no candy was provided. Most interesting was that if the server provided a little extra personalization such as providing one piece of candy to the patrons and then immediately returning to provide an extra piece along with a kind word, the tip rose by 23%. But, the authors caution that this extra effort must not be extravagant or excessive since customers will definitely see such behavior as unethical. Sometimes the only treat leaders can provide is gratitude and praise for a job well done. Like the waiter who provided an extra piece of candy, leaders must accurately time praise and be careful to avoid extravagant or excessive praise lest it become worthless.

Both fear and reciprocity can be effective tools to persuade others to listen to our message, but sometimes it is worth offering our services without any strings attached. Cialdini, Goldstein and Martin (2008) referenced research showing that hotel guests were 45% more likely to participate in an effort to conserve water by reusing hotel towels if the guests were told that a donation would be made to a water conservation project in the guest's name. The guest was told the donation was made since the hotel was piloting a project to reuse towels in an effort to conserve water. The donation would be made whether or not the guest decided to agree to reuse their hotel towels; this was in contrast to an incentive based approach in which a donation would be made only if the guests agreed to reuse their towels. In my own experience, I have found that it is sometimes worth the gamble to assume that a colleague will make the correct decision. If need be, I can always follow up with a quick audit. If the colleague chooses the correct course of action, I can then bestow some praise. If not, I can attempt to use some fear as a motivator.

There is still another tool that is valuable in the process of persuasion. In the middle of this high-tech world, social scientist Randy Garner documented a very low-tech method to persuade others into action (Cialdini, 2008). Garner’s inexpensive but effective tool is the sticky note (a.k.a. Post-it® Note). In his research, there was a 75% rate of completion on a survey when a hard-copy of a survey was accompanied by a handwritten sticky note that personally asked for assistance. The rate dropped to a 48% completion rate when the survey was accompanied by a cover letter containing a handwritten note, and further fell to 36% when the survey was only accompanied by a cover letter. The research revealed that the recipients were more willing to respond when they felt that the request was personal, but it was unclear why the sticky note worked so well.

During the course of my work day, I often fight the tendency to address a situation using only email and have begun to incorporate Randy Garner’s technique. I recently started to take the extra initiative to either precede or follow up an important communication with a hard copy of the message accompanied by a personalized sticky note. I will drop off this message in-person or deliver it through inter-office mail. This form of communication has an additional benefit where I find myself in a personal conversation regarding not only the topic at hand but other important issues. According to Randy Garner, "an ounce of personalized extra effort is worth a pound of persuasion" (Cialdini, 2008, p. 52). Based on this research, it seems worthwhile to accompany a risk assessment, survey or an audit report with a personalized sticky note when requesting another professional's input or approval.

A sticky note may help to personalize a written communication, but what other communication techniques are at our disposal? I once had a manager who labeled those whose participation was required in most security related endeavors as the SWAT (Security Weapons and Tactics) team. By placing this label on these individuals, he fostered participation. This philosophy is reinforced by researchers Alice Tybout and Richard Yalch who documented that labeling impacts participation (Cialdini, 2008). Their research showed that if voters are labeled as “above average citizens” they are 15% more likely to vote during an election as opposed to those who were not labeled. Leaders must ensure the proper use of labels when communicating.

When the use of sticky notes, flattery or praise will not work, we can also try a technique used by Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin stated, "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself has obliged" (Cialdini, 2008, p. 84). Franklin once won over an adversary by requesting to borrow a rare book that was in the gentleman's possession. Once the man performed this small act, the seeds of a future friendship were planted. Similarly, I often use a request for education as an olive branch to an adversary. If my adversary is willing to train me on some task or technology that is his/her specialty, I am more likely to win him/her over as an ally.

This practice was exemplified by James Watson, who co-discovered the double- helix structure of DNA. Watson believed that asking for help could lead to greater productivity. In1953, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA (Cialdini, 2008). Watson stated that the most intelligent person working on the DNA project was Rosalind Franklin, but that she was so intelligent she never asked for help and thus never engaged in inspirational conversation that would lead to a revelation such as the discovery of the double-helix. Furthermore, researcher Patrick Laughlin argues that the individual could never match the collective power of the many (Cialdini, 2008). As security leaders well trained in many security domains, we must never feel we are above others, even when we are the experts in a field. Laughlin points out that we must rely on the full participation of others to accomplish our goals and protect our organization's data and systems.

Inspiration does not only come from supportive colleagues. Sometimes revelations come from those we feel we are working against, including a professional adversary. How do we handle the interactions with our adversaries? When appropriate, we must allow professional adversaries, those working on the side of good, to attempt to persuade us in the effort to ensure that we are not heading in the wrong direction. The art of persuasion and debate is a valuable part of the communication process. This point is supported by social psychologist Charles Nemeth who discovered that one dissenter whose arguments are valid and principled can effectively alter the opinions of others (Cialdini, 2008). Therefore, it is a valuable exercise to ask ourselves, when confronted by a dissenter, how do we handle the situation? Do we see dissenters as just a roadblock in our path, or do we actively engage with them to see if they offer something that can enforce or refine our mission?

It is even worthwhile to dissent against our own opinions. Arguing against our self-interest can help to highlight potential weaknesses and flaws in our position before they are exposed by others. Social psychologist Kip Williams discovered that jurors found a lawyer more trustworthy when he pointed out weaknesses in his case before the opposing lawyer did (Cialdini, 2008). Such tactics can be seen in commercials by Progressive Insurance, who state that they will provide you with another insurer's quote even if the competitor has a better price, or in the Avis advertisement that states "We're #2, but we try harder." This self assessment process can also put you in a better position to persuade your listener during future discussions.

In conclusion, the goal of communication is to foster understanding. Therefore, it is essential to actively listen to others and to ensure that our own message is clear and persuasive, regardless of the medium.

Northcutt, S. (2009). SANS Leadership and Management Competencies. Bethesda, MD: The SANS Institute
Baron, N. (2008). Always On. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Cialdini, R., Goldstein, N. & Martin, S. (2008). Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive. New York, NY: First Free Press
Covey, S. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Free Press
Hamlin, S. (2006). How to Talk so People Listen, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers
Sanborn, Mark. (2006). How Leaders Communicate; Part I. Retrieved from

== Submitted April 26, 2010