Entries in Communication (10)

How My Cardiologist Almost Gave Me a Heart Attack (or, the Right and Wrong Ways to Communicate Numbers)

After going through a series of routine heart exams the other day (EKG, Echocardiogram, cholesterol check, etc.), the cardiologist comes in and says:

“Based on all your lab results, and calculating all your risk factors, you have about a 5% chance of having a heart attack within the next ten years.”

Getting weak in the knees, heart pounding through my chest, and feeling like I am about to pass out from the shock of this death sentence, I pause long enough to say:

“Wait. Doesn’t that mean that there’s more than a 95% chance that I WON’T have a heart attack within the next ten years???”

To which he replies: “Yes…I guess that’s another way of looking at it.”


In fact, he goes on to say that my results are excellent and that my heart is in perfect shape. As it turns out, statistically, 5% is the odds of ANY 50-plus-year-old male having a heart attack within the next ten years! So, despite the temporary panic he caused, it turns out that I am completely normal…heart-wise, anyway.

So what can we take from this near-fatal incident in terms of communicating numbers?


Businesspeople communicate in numbers almost every single day. Regardless of what function you work in, numbers are, typically, how we gauge -- and explain to others -- how we’re doing. And it's how most managers manage.

As management guru Peter Drucker famously put it, “It you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

But a crucially important point to keep in mind – whether delivering a presentation, or writing a report, and whether communicating to your boss, employees, or customers – is that it’s not the numbers themselves that matter; it’s the story the numbers tell…and the message you intend to deliver.

Numbers without context are absolutely meaningless and confusing...and, worst case, potentially damaging.

A few examples:

  • If I tell you that I have “a 250 average” is that good or bad? The answer – as is the answer to most questions (*my students all know this :) is: “It depends”! If that “250” number is my baseball or softball batting average, it’s not too great. If 250 is my bowling average, you can sign me up right now for the Pro Bowler’s Tour!
  • When the iPod first came out way back in 2001, if Steve Jobs had announced with great fanfare that it had a 5GB hard drive, how many non-techies would have been impressed with that and raced out to buy one? Not too many, probably. But by saying that this tiny little gadget will fit “1000 songs in your pocket,” well, communicating it to a global audience in that way changed the world.
  • Let’s say we’re discussing high school graduation rates and I show you a complicated, detailed graph that indicates that, nationwide, 30% of high school students end up not graduating. Is that impactful? Maybe...once you’ve deciphered it. But what if, instead of saying “30%” I show you a photo of ten bright-faced high school students…and then put X’s across the faces of three of them, while stating: “See this group of ten kids? Three of them will not graduate from high school. Now that we know this…what are we going to do about it?” Which of those two scenarios do you think will have a greater emotional impact? 

So, again, it's not the NUMBERS that matter, but the story, and the meaning, and the humanity, and the emotion behind those numbers. That’s what moves people and spurs them to action.

And when communicating numbers (whether spoken or written), keep in mind that it’s not just WHAT we say (the facts and figures), but HOW we say it (tone of voice, body language, facial expression, framing).

So, going forward, when communicating numbers, I urge you to consider your listeners or readers, by putting yourself in their shoes and using empathy and emotional intelligence to visualize and anticipate how your message may, ultimately, be received.

Otherwise, failure to do so can, literally, give someone a heart attack.

Listen Up! 8 Tips for Becoming a Better Leader By Being a Better Listener

Quick! Who’s the best manager you’ve ever worked for? Picture him or her in your mind. Now think: what made you pick this person?

OK, now: Who was the worst manager you’ve ever had? Do the same thing: visualize working for this person while thinking about what made them so horrible.

I can’t guarantee it, but if I had to guess, one of the key differences between these two people was that the good manager actually listened to you, while the bad one didn’t.

Am I right?

When the good manager listened to you, how did it make you feel? Valued? Validated? Respected? Trusted? Confident? Engaged? Empowered? Smart?

And how did the bad manager make you feel most of the time? Probably the exact opposite.

So if you’re a manager — or even if you’re not — look yourself in the mirror and answer this question honestly: Are you a good listener?

More importantly, if you asked other people that question, what would they say about you? If you’re interested in becoming a better manager -- and a more effective leader -- you might find it valuable to revisit how, how often, and how well you listen.

When we do 360 degree evaluations, "Listening" is very often one of the categories that most managers rate themselves the highest in...while others around them rate them the lowest. In other words -- this is where we find the biggest gap: Between the ears. 

Good Leaders Listen

Early in my career, I temped in the PR department of a major Hollywood studio. Despite the excitement of working on a studio lot, the job, itself, was mind-numbingly boring, consisting mostly of answering phones, taking messages, and making copies. If you’ve ever temped, you know what that’s like to sit there all day, watching the minutes drag by, while your brain turns to mush. Especially if you aspire to doing something a little more creative and stimulating with your life.

One afternoon, one of the department managers came running out of her office, frantically looking for a PR rep to proofread and edit an urgent press release that needed to go out.

Finding the office empty (with the exception of yours truly sitting there doing nothing), she barked at me: “Where the hell is everybody?” I told her that they were all out to lunch, but that I’d be more than happy to take a crack at it. Without even looking at me, she snarled: “What are you talking about? You can’t do this: you’re just a temp.”

I tried to tell her that I had a B.A. in English, a Master’s degree in Communication, and a year’s experience working for a top New York ad agency, but she just didn’t have any interest at all in listening to me. She left the press release draft on my desk, told me to give it to the first PR rep I saw, and dashed out to a meeting.

The press release was a mess. It was badly written, poorly structured, and filled with grammatical and spelling errors. With nothing else to do, I took it upon myself to re-write it...just as an exercise to alleviate my boredom.

When one of the PR reps finally got back, I explained the situation to him and gave him both the original copy and my revised version — without telling him I was the one who did it. His response regarding my revision: "This looks fine -- what's the problem -- just send it out!" So they sent my version out to print...without making a single edit. And no one ever knew -- or asked -- who did it.

This department was always short-handed, overworked, and in need of help. And I was right there in front of them -- ready, willing, and able. I tried numerous times to bring this to their attention, but my offers to assist went unheard, as no one was willing to listen.

A week later, I was hired -- full-time -- to work as an assistant to a comedy writer/producer at Disney. On my first day on the job, I asked him what made him hire me over three other candidates with stronger resumes. His response: “During the interview, you asked really good questions. And no one else did. You struck me as a good listener; and I need someone who knows how to listen.”

So, asking and listening -- not telling -- is what got me that job.

And I soon discovered that having a manager who was willing to listen to me made him a pleasure to work for. 

The simple lesson: To be a better manager – or just a better human being – it doesn't hurt to try being a better listener.

8 Quick Tips for Becoming a Better Listener: L-I-S-T-E-N-U-P!

Look at the person: Make eye contact. Pay attention to facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. There’s an old saying that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should spend twice as much time listening as talking. Management guru Peter Drucker said that “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” And that can only happen if we make the time, and take the time, to truly stop, look, and listen.

Inquire: Ask questions. Ask follow-up questions. Delve deeper. Seek examples. Use paraphrasing and summary clarification to validate understanding. When someone asks you a question, don’t just answer the question — care enough to answer the question behind the question. And when you listen to the response, actively listen to gain true understanding...rather than just selectively listening or listening to respond.

Show that you’re interested: When someone is talking to you, it’s important to physically demonstrate that you value the speaker -- as well as what’s being spoken. Put yourself in their shoes, try to see things from their point of view, and listen with empathy. Engage them in dialogue to make them feel like they’re the most important person in the room. But it must be done genuinely and sincerely -- or it doesn't count. People can see right through you when you're faking it.

Treat the person with respect: Even if you disagree with what they're saying, and may not even like the person, show respect for their viewpoint, and express appreciation for their candor and their contributions. Seek to connect with them on a human level, and on an equal level – person-to-person – regardless of title, status or position -- and even if you are more knowledgeable or experienced. If you treat them with dignity and respect, you will earn their trust and respect in return.

Encourage the other person: Engage them in dialogue and empower them to speak their mind without hesitancy, self-censorship, or fear of retribution. Create an environment of dialogue, exchange, interaction, openness, honesty, self-disclosure, vulnerability, and trust.

Never make the person regret that they opened up to you: Once you lose the person's trust and damage or destroy the relationship, it’s almost impossible to get it back. Allow the other person to be vulnerable, and be willing to display your vulnerability as well. Maintain confidences and confidentiality. Don’t gossip or talk behind anyone’s back. And follow the “Vegas Rule”: What’s said here, stays here.

Understanding is the key: It’s not enough to simply hear the words being said; you must get at the meaning and the intent of those words. Listen not only with your ears, but with your eyes, your brain, your head, and your heart.

Put your smartphone down: This might be our biggest obstacle to true listening in this day and age. We’re so busy with our devices that we ignore the people right in front of us. Ask yourself: Is the person on the other end of your device more important than the person or people right there in the room with you? If not, put the phone down. Seriously, put it down. Face down. Or in a pocket or drawer or briefcase. Be present. Be focused. Be here now. And give the person speaking to you your undivided attention. Isn’t that what you would want? I think it is.

In closing, many managers feel and act like their job is to do all the talking and provide all the answers. But the best leaders know that they don't. They recognize the value and the power of leveraging the collective brain power of the people around them -- by listening. 

Steve Jobs said that we shouldn't hire smart people only to tell them what to do; we should hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do.

So, for a leader, listening requires self-awareness, time, effort, vulnerability, and courage.

Or, as Winston Churchill put it: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Why My Wife Doesn’t Trust Me Anymore*


*When it comes to bugs.


Let me explain…

Early last Saturday morning I was awoken by the blood-curdling sound of my wife screaming from the other room. Still half-asleep and half-dressed I bolted out of bed in a panic yelling, “What happened!? What happened!?”

“There’s a giant roach in the bathroom!!! It’s so disgusting! It’s like six inches long – and it just ran behind the sink! You have to kill it!”

So I raced back into the bedroom to get my glasses, grabbed a rolled up New Yorker magazine (after quickly checking to make sure I was done reading it), opened the bathroom door, slammed it behind me, and prepared for battle.

After multiple attempts of swiping and missing (and, yes, I must admit, yelling and cursing), I finally crushed this hideous beast which was the size of a two-pound lobster, and flushed its remains down the toilet. (Alright, in all honesty, it wasn’t that big, but it was sizable. And it was really, really disgusting.)

With that Kafkaesque horror story now over, I crawled back into bed with the intention of picking up where I left off, to get a couple more hours of sleep.

But just as I was about to doze off, my wife came in and sat down on the bed next to me to ask me this crucially-important question:

“Did you really kill it…or are you just lying to me again?”

Not fully awake and coherent, and after the exhaustion of my traumatic bug-battle -- combined with this now, second, rude awakening -- I was like, “What -- what are you talking about???”

At which point I remembered – and burst out laughing from the recollection of -- the one and only time I lied to her in our ten-plus years of marriage:

It was back in 2007 and we had just moved into our new apartment. Having just sat down to dinner, we were both jolted out of our seats in horror by the sight of a gigantic, disgusting roach (is there any other kind in NYC?) that had come crawling out of a still-open hole in the floorboard where we just had some construction work done.

After many attempts of swiping and slamming at it with a rolled-up newspaper, I finally yelled, "Got him!", gathered up the dead roach in a paper towel, and made a huge show of crumbling it up and tossing it into the kitchen trash can.

My wife’s elated response, “My hero!”

Only, the truth is: I didn't get him. After much chasing and swatting and missing, my tiny tormentor had darted and dashed and evaded me, eventually scurrying back into the hole in the wall from whence he came. And I was hungry and just wanted to eat my dinner which was getting cold. So I doused the floorboard area with Raid, sealed up the hole with paper towels and aluminum foil, and sat down to eat my dinner. Done.

Only it wasn’t done: The nightmare was just beginning.

For, five minutes later, after finally diving into our dinner, my wife shrieked, “Oh my god – there’s another one!!!”

Uh oh. This was a literal “Moment of Truth”: Do I confess that I had failed miserably in my Battle of the Roach, and that I had given up the chase because I just wanted to sit down to eat my dinner – and, thereby, lose my “hero” status in the eyes of my new wife and be labeled from this day forward as a bald-faced liar; or do I continue my charade of having killed the previous roach…which would then only lead my wife to think we had a large-scale infestation problem on our hands in our new apartment…in which case we would have no other choice but to move out?

Do I tell the truth…or was I now in what Seinfeld would have labeled a “must-lie situation”?

So I made the decision: I would come clean and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And I made the promise – to myself and to my wife – to never lie to her about anything ever again.

A Few Leadership Lessons From This "Bug's Life" Tale

So what lessons can we take from this episode that we can apply not only to our personal relationships, but to the world of business and leadership as well? 

In short, when you lie – about anything – that’s it: You are now, from this day forth, branded “a liar.” That is now your reputation. Once you plant a seed of doubt in someone’s mind, no matter how small and/or trivial, that seed never goes away. Luckily for me, my wife now only distrusts me when it comes to bugs. But to someone else, or if you have been found to lie or bend the truth repeatedly, everything you say thereafter will be subject to questioning and testing of its validity. And it forever casts its doubt on your trustworthiness – as a person, and as a leader.

Sadly, in this “post-truth” world we’re currently living in – of fake news, falsified data, and “alternative facts” – it is more important than ever to be viewed as a person of integrity, honesty, credibility, and trust. For, once you lose people’s trust, that’s it…your reputation is shot. This is deadly for a leader, or somehow who aspires to be. And once you lose it, it is almost impossible to get it back. I am reminded of the saying (author unknown) that “The truth doesn’t cost anything; but a lie could cost you everything.”

So what can we do to be seen as one of those rare (in this day of age) people of integrity, honesty, credibility, and trust? Here are a few simple tips and guidelines to keep in mind:

  • It’s sounds obvious, but always tell the truth. ALWAYS. Without spin, or bias. Separate verifiable, reality-based “facts” from claims or opinions…and make it clear at any given time, which it is that you are expressing.
  • Be authentic; be transparent; be accountable.
  • Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
  • Remember the old saying that “Actions speak louder than words.” It’s true.
  • Keep promises and commitments, follow-up, and follow-through.
  • If you don’t know something, just say you don’t know; don’t just make sh*t up as so many seem to do.
  • If you know, but honestly can’t say (e.g., for reasons of confidentiality, or for ethical or legal reasons)…just say, “I know, but, sorry, I cannot say.” People will respect that.
  • If you have inadvertently provided untrue, inaccurate, or mistaken information, acknowledge it, admit it, apologize for it, and correct it. Again, people will respect and appreciate that. And you will re-gain their trust as a result.

And, lastly, remember that one little lie about one little (ok, gigantic and hideous) insect could potentially continue to haunt you – and may continue to “bug” the person you lied to – even a decade or more later.

For more on this important topic of building trust, please see my post entitled “For a Leader, Is It More Important To Be Liked, Admired, Respected, or Trusted?” featuring my Hierarchy of Followership model.


De Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”: A Powerful Visual Thinking Method That Will Forever Change the Way You Think












Of all the different management, leadership, communication, innovation, and thinking tools, tips and techniques that I’ve learned over the years, nothing has impacted me more, or has had more practical applications and benefits, than Edward de Bono’s classic “Six Thinking Hats” model.

De Bono, the guru of “thinking about thinking,” originated this framework that I now use -- either consciously or unconsciously -- literally every single day. It’s one of the best examples of how we can use visual and metaphorical thinking and communicating to solve real-world challenges.

The model in brief: There are six metaphorical “hats” — each a different color...and each hat represents a different type of thinking. By metaphorically "taking off" or "putting on" a different hat, you can intentionally and strategically switch to a different type of thinking.

Here are the six hat colors, and a brief overview of what type of thinking each represents:

1. White Hat: Neutral; objective; facts; data; information; objectivity

2. Red Hat: Emotion; gut feeling; intuition; passion; subjectivity

3. Black Hat: Cons; critical; caution; risks; costs; weaknesses; disadvantages

4. Yellow Hat: Pros; optimism; benefits; strengths; advantages

5. Green Hat: Creativity; innovation; brainstorming; new ideas; possibilities

6. Blue Hat: Process; structure; thinking about thinking; next steps


The Six Thinking Hats method can be applied in many different types of situations, for example:

  • In a meeting: as a formalized, structured process (e.g., a group brainstorming or strategy process);  
  • In a one-on-one discussion: as a common language that will encourage dialogue and minimize conflict;
  • In your own mind: as a way to frame your own thinking, separate fact from emotion, and make better decisions.

When used in a group, it enables what de Bono calls “parallel thinking,” which occurs when all members metaphorically “wear” the same color hat at the same time. This dramatically improves communication, minimizes conflict, and fosters innovation.

How do the Six Thinking Hats do this? The best way to understand it is through a real-life illustration:

Say you’re in a meeting, trying to reach a decision. Instead of the normal chaos and conflict caused by endless debate, cross-talk, shooting down ideas, etc., what if we were able to say:

“Let’s temporarily put aside our Red Hats (our emotional reactions), our Black (negative/critical) and Yellow (positive/supportive) opinions, and all put on our White Hats to first objectively identify the objective facts and relevant data, before we start jumping to possible solutions (Green Hat) and proposing next steps (Blue Hat).”

Once agreed, from there the group can efficiently, and with minimal conflict and debate, run the situation through this simple and logically sequenced series of questions:

1. White Hat: What are the facts about the situation at hand?

2. Red Hat: How do people feel, emotionally, about the situation?

3. Black Hat: What’s not working — and why?

4. Yellow Hat: What is working – and why?

5. Green Hat: What’s new (ideas, possibilities)?

6. Blue Hat: What’s next (where do we go from here)?

(Note: You don’t necessarily always have to use the hats in this exact sequence; but this is an example of a very common and effective approach.)

By enabling parallel thinking – by having everyone "wear" the same color hat at the same time (and headed together in the same direction) — you will see how much more orderly your meetings will be, and how much more quickly you can reach decisions and get things done!

And if you assign one person in the meeting to be the Blue Hat leader, that person (regardless of organizational role or rank) will serve to make sure that things run smoothly, stay on track, and that everyone plays by the rules.

Using this methodology, my company has successfully conducted numerous executive-level strategy meetings, facilitated cross-functional team-building and brainstorming sessions, and helped hundreds of individuals maximize the effectiveness of their own decision-making skills, along with their ability to more effectively conceive and communicate ideas.

Here’s another real-life example, this one using the Six Thinking Hats method relative to a job search:

Let’s say that you were presented with a potential job opportunity. What kind of question might each Thinking Hat pose to help you make the best possible decision?

1. White Hat: What are the objective facts about the position and the company (title, salary, benefits, location, industry, work environment, department, new manager, etc.)?

2. Red Hat: How do I feel about this opportunity; what is my gut telling me (am I excited, nervous, hesitant, concerned, etc)?

3. Black Hat: What don‘t I like about it, what’s bad about it — and why (i.e., what are the negatives or concerns associated with the White Hat facts and my Red Hat feelings)?

4. Yellow Hat: What do I like about it, what’s good about it – and why (what are the positives associated with the White Hat facts and my Red Hat feelings)?

5. Green Hat: What are the various options, alternatives, choices available to me (i.e., what’s going through my mind in terms of what-ifs, and out-of-the-box possibilities; what does it look like if I visualize actually taking this job)?

6. Blue Hat: What are the next steps; where do I go from here (when do I have to make a decision by, what do I have to do next, what actions should I take)?

Although this is just one simple and common example, you can easily see how using the Six Thinking Hats to frame your thinking can go a long way toward maximizing your effectiveness – and enhancing your confidence – when it comes to making any decision.

It is important to note, however, that while it takes just a few minutes to learn this seemingly simple model, it takes time, training, and much practice to truly master it.

For more on de Bono and his Six Thinking Hats method, there are tons of online resources, including a number of good (as well as some really bad) YouTube videos available, including this three-minute clip of de Bono himself talking about it. I also highly recommend the Six Thinking Hats book itself...which just might be the best $12 you spend this week!

Ice, Rice, or Mice? Six tips for avoiding miscommunication

 My Diet Coke had gotten warm, so I asked the waitress for “some more ice.” A few minutes later, instead of the ice, she brought me another bowl of white rice.

I said “more ice”; she heard “more rice.” So whose fault was it? (And good thing I didn’t say “some ice”…or I might have ended up with “some mice”!)

It happens all the time: We say something that is crystal clear in our own mind, and yet the person on the receiving end hears something completely different. The ice vs. rice mix-up was a relatively low-cost, low stakes mistake (and, I actually wanted some more white rice anyway), but what if the stakes were higher?

What are the potential costs when an important job interview or work-related communication is lost in translation? 

Please click here to read the rest of my post on LinkedIn.