“O Wonder, How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!”
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act. V, Sc. I
courtesy of Wikipedia
People have been using this quote for 400 years, mostly ironically (in line with Shakespeare’s original use): the utterance of a protagonist who misunderstands a new world, thinking it wonderful, when it is in fact dystopic (probably the best-known example being Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel, Brave New World).
However, I’m proposing today that we can also use it in a completely positive way. Just last week I had great time doing a podcast with a wonderful guy named Tanveer Naseer. Tanveer and I started following each other last summer on Twitter. Then he responded to a query from our publicist Kaila (all via email) and indicated that he’d like to interview me for his podcast show, Leadership Biz Cafe. Tanveer and I did our interview on Skype, and now it’s available on his site.
OK, so think about this. Tanveer lives in Montreal, and I live primarily in New York City. We have (as far as I know) no intersections of school, family or friends. Without current digital technology, we never would have run into each other. And now (I’m sure) we’re permanently connected, and will support each other’s work and success in whatever ways we can.
And you – who may never have met either Tanveer or me, and perhaps never will – can benefit from our interaction as well, where ever you are. If you hear something that resonates for you in our conversation, you can use it for your own benefit, and pass it along to whomever you wish. A truly brave new world, indeed.
I know technology can do all kinds of bad stuff, and that Huxley-esque aspects exist in this “brave new world” of ours. But we can also use all of these new capabilities that exist to learn, to create connections, to innovate, to grow.
Let’s do that.
“Good humor is the health of the soul, sadness is its poison.”
– Lord Chesterfield
My colleagues and I laugh a lot at work. I take this as one of the best signs of Proteus’ health as an organization. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but when people are uncomfortable with each other, or don’t trust each other, there’s generally not a lot of laughing going on (except for the forced, awkward, hah-hah-hah kind, and that doesn’t count).
As Lord Chesterfield noted almost 300 years ago, humor promotes health – physical, emotional, and mental. But laughing with (as opposed to at or about) others benefits your professional life, as well.
Humor makes things easier…
I wrote a post at Forbes a few weeks ago about humor, Want to Get a Promotion? Be Funnny, where I cited a statistic I found fascinating,“A Robert Half International survey…found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job.”
Those are pretty impressive percentages. So, what is it about humor that makes it so important to our success?
I think of humor as one of the primary lubricants of human interaction. That is, when you share a laugh with someone, everything seems a little easier. You feel more connected, more relaxed.
For instance, when a difficult situation arises, if you’re able to see the irony or the absurdity in it, and smile or laugh with others about it, you feel as though you’re in it together – rather than that you’re facing it alone.
If there’s a tense moment between you and someone, and one of you responds with humor (especially self-deprecating humor) rather than defensiveness or confrontation – it breaks the tension and provides an opening to come back to comfort and trust.
And when a team uses humor regularly, it communicates ease and affection – “we get each other and we like each other” – in a simple and consistent way. It makes all the members of the team more likely to feel that they can come to each other with questions or problems, and that they’ll get openness and support vs. stone-walling or “not my job.” Humor builds our confidence in and reliance on each other. In the words of Maya Angelou:
“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.”
― Maya Angelou
Till next time –
Some of you may not know that I write a bi-monthly email called the “Insider List,” and send it to everyone who has opted to receive it (you can do that here on the site, if you’re interested). Last time I wrote about the slipperiness of language – and how that slipperiness makes listening even more important. The example I used was the word/phrase “mayday” or “May Day,” which can either mean a happy spring holiday or a call for help.
In response, one of my “Insiders,” a friend and colleague named Todd Sattersten, sent me an email letting me know that there’s a word for words that have two opposite meanings: they’re called contronyms. Here are a few great examples (some of them from Todd):
sanction – ‘a penalty’ or ‘official permission or approval’
fine – ‘the state of being good’ or ‘a penalty for doing something bad’
shop – ‘buy’ or ‘attempt to sell’
custom – ‘special’ or ‘usual’
bolt – ‘secure’ or ‘run away’
dust – ‘add fine particles’ or ‘remove fine particles’
strike – ‘hit’ or ‘miss (a ball)’
buckle – ‘fasten together’ or ‘break under stress’
I love such quirky, illogical, counter-intuitive, imprecise aspects of language: I get a big kick out of the fact that such words exist, and that we’ve created a word for them.
And the fact that language is often like this is one of the main reasons listening well is so important. Contronyms are simply an extreme example of the potential for misunderstanding inherent in any conversation. It’s so easy to assume you understand what someone is saying…and miss what they’re actually saying.
If, instead, we were to approach every conversation assuming we really don’t know what the person is thinking or what they intend, and then get very curious about finding that out – I’m convinced about 90% of our misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and mis-matched expectations would simply evaporate.
Contronyms (and other slippery words) would lose their power to confuse – and speaking would become a bridge to understanding rather than a barrier.
What do you think?
As you have probably figured out by now, I love language. I find the entire subject fascinating: as a writer, looking for exactly the right word or phrase to capture a particular idea or feeling; as a parent and grandparent observing and participating in the development of kids’ speech; as a language learner, reflecting on how different languages are constructed and how they embody and convey their culture; and as a student of human behavior, noticing how language is equally likely to be a source of clarity and a source of confusion.
I was just thinking about this today – how easy it is to misinterpret others’ words. It’s especially easy when one word or phrase can mean two very different things. A timely example:
May Day on May 1 is an ancient Northern Hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday; it is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures.
Mayday is an emergency procedure word used internationally as a distress signal in voice procedure radio communications. It derives from the French venez m’aider, meaning “come help me“.
Imagine the confusion that could result from the use of this simple phrase with a non-native English speaker – especially one who knew one of the meanings, but not the other!
That’s why it’s so important to communicate clearly – but perhaps even more important toget curious about how your communication is received. If you do that, you’ll be better able to ‘unpack’ the misunderstanding to achieve real communication.
For example, here’s something I’ve seen many times over the years. A manager communicates a direction, and then doesn’t get the desired result. The most common response: say it again. This is a particular problem with managers who are smart and articulate – they almost always just repeat their message, trying to be a little smarter and more articulate.
But this is probably not going to help: it’s unlikely they didn’t hear you the first time, and it’s unlikely that simply saying it again is going to make a difference.
Instead, I suggest you get curious about how the person heard you, and then you can work to resolve the misunderstanding. The simplest way I’ve found to do this is just to ask the other person to share what they’ve understood. You don’t want to sound (or be) condescending, so it’s a good idea to “preview” your question by sharing why you’re asking it. Here’s how that might sound:
“When I said, ‘this as a real may day situation,’ I was surprised that you started putting together flower baskets. What’s your understanding of what I was saying?”
“I thought we were in agreement about the bonuses, but the memo that went out didn’t reflect what I thought we were going to do. What’s your understanding of our agreement?”
Getting curious about the other person’s understanding, when there’s been a disconnect, is not only the most efficient way to get back on the same page – it’s an eminently respectful and collaborative way to do it.
Have a great May Day (the flower basket kind)…
Till next time,