Monday, December 11, 2006

Grace Under Pressure

Grace Under Pressure was the title of an Op Ed piece by Peggy Noonan that appeared in the weekend edition of the Journal on December 2nd.

Yes, that Peggy Noonan, you’ll remember her memorable words typically uttered by Ronald Reagan and later for the first George Bush campaign in ’88.

If you haven't read it, I commend it to your attention, but not because I have decided to shift the focus of these commentaries from the human capital management space to the political arena (heaven help me!) Point being, that just because Ms. Noonan is the author, don't be concerned that the piece is written to sway you to a particular point of view. In actuality, I found it to be a pretty profound commentary on relationships be they inside or outside of the business world and as such, it had some pretty powerful "learnings" that any of us as managers of people and/or an enterprise would do well to reflect upon.

When things are not going well, it creates, as we all know, high levels of stress. The stress is born of many factors not the least of which is fear of failure. As we all know when that happens, human nature is to become defensive, and one of the first outcomes of falling into defensive mode is to "open mouth, insert foot, close mouth and chew." We've all been there.

One of the key points that Peggy makes in this piece was the degree to which she feels the impact of interviews and so called discussions as they are heard or seen as they air on radio and/or TV. Specifically she talks about not only the physical volume levels of people's voices, but more importantly the degree to which people interrupt one another before thoughts are completed and as important, the 'tone' of superiority and judgement the interruptions take.

I wonder how many of us recall the communications exercises from Management Skills 101 in which we were taught to not only listen to what the other person had to say, but before we were allowed to express our counter-argument (which we knew and had composed in our heads well before they had spoken 10 words and we were sure would blow away anything they might have to say that might, by some miracle, approach something that could be viewed as a legitimate point) we had to reflect back to them what they had said and we were not allowed to state our point of view until they confirmed to us that "yes, that is what I said, and you know understand what I was trying to say.

I don't know about you, but when I have done this, what I discovered was that by the time the other person gave me the go ahead to state my position, I realized that what I thought were opinions separated by light years were, in fact, much closer to my colleague's point of view than I thought.

Of course, the self-discipline that it takes to stop me from saying things like "I hear you but...," or "let me tell you about...," or "wait a minute, I think you are missing the point," etc., for most of us takes the patience of a saint.

They also say that one of the key skills needed by successful executives are communications skills. I would argue, and I think this is part of what Peggy was saying too, is that maybe we ought to put more emphasis on the skill it takes to LISTEN versus TALKING.

It if takes the patience of a saint, then I guess we're also saying that it takes a fair amount of courage because you feel forced to go against every instinct you have to defend yourself. If I don't defend, won't I lose?

To keep from immediately traveling down that road is not an easy behavior to acquire. In other words, it does, as Peggy has noted take "grace under pressure." Apparently Hemingway agreed with her when he said "Courage is grace under pressure."

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