Being realistic about “Yes, and…”

Every now and again, you read a heartwarming story about a client who needed something and the customer service associate who went above and beyond. You know the story: He wanted the gift wrapped, they didn’t wrap presents, so a heroic associate went downtown, bought some wrapping paper, came back and wrapped it and everybody thought that was great. And you know what? It was great. It was really great. But then a lot of other executives read the story and said, “Why don’t we provide that level of customer service?” They sent out some memos. And then they laid off a few people because if you’ve got eyes, fingers, a mouth and ears, you should be able to do an online live chat and take a phone call at the same time and the company could use those savings…

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t go above and beyond for your customers. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep an eye on costs. I’m saying that you have to align your resources, what you want to be able to do and what you’re willing to pay to do. And if there are trade-offs, you have to be prepared to deal with that.

I recently encountered the phrase, “Yes, and…” in the context of brainstorming. And it was lovely, there, a way to encourage the acceptance of any ideas as a starting point for investigating the world’s possibilities. But I’ve also encountered, “Yes, and…” in the context of closing sales. And there, it can turn into a nightmare of overpromising and underdelivering. Because the truth is that while it’s important to be open to new possibilities, it’s also important to set limits. I am writing about this here, on a career communication blog, because you need to know that if you don’t modify your communication approach as you move from the brainstorming phase of a communication arc to the solidifying details phase, you’re setting yourself up to overpromise, underdeliver and become known as unreliable.

So, let’s talk a little about this. It’s important, especially because depending on your culture and background, there may be places where speaking up feels a little too natural – you want to be gentle during the brainstorming phase – or possibly rude – you need to set limits, even on people who outrank you or are buying from you during the finalization of details.

Brainstorming phrases:

  • Interesting idea! What if…
  • Yes, we should do something about that. How would you…
  • I like that. Is there a way to…

Details phrases:

  • Do you want to do X, or is Y more important?
  • We can add X, but only if we increase Y to cover the cost.
  • Doing X and Y could be redundant. Which one should we keep?

And, for the details phase, there’s one more important thing you have to be willing to say: We can only promise to do our part if you do your part. Please initial here to confirm that you understand this.

Whether you are working with colleagues, clients or even friends or family, an essential part of communication is being open to try new things but prepared to set limits on just what you can or are willing to do. Just like a company, if you really want to be full service, you have to be willing to invest the time and resources to go above and beyond: desire is not enough. And just like a company, if you want to be known for delivering, you have to only promise what you can deliver.

Being true to yourself with your communication

I have written before about the false conflict between positioning and being true to yourself. Today, though, I would like to look at another false conflict: Is it hypocritical to not give my unvarnished opinion? A lot of people complain about political correctness. A lot of other people defend it as simply being polite. But the truth is you have to find a middle ground between policing your every thought and being totally unfiltered. People who tell their boss or customers they are idiots don’t go very far, especially when it’s true!

In some cultures, being direct and telling it like it is can be prized as strong and assertive. This used to be the case in corporate America… if you were the boss. Let’s be honest, it was never great for one’s career to be blunt with people above you on the org chart unless you knew in advance that they would be in at least partial agreement. In other cultures, on the other hand, deference and avoidance of conflict is very important. In the United States, what tends to be most prized is sort of telling it like it is.

More in sorrow than in anger… Truth tellers in the typical American corporation do not delight in delivering news that has a hard edge. They feel bad about it. They say what has to be said and let the chips fall where they may, but only after they’ve made a mental calculation about which chips and where. That done, they couch what they’re saying in terms that will be understanding, inclusive and with a positive framing – challenges, not problems.

The thing is, if delivering bad news isn’t fun, it is still necessary. If you see a problem and don’t say anything, you will be blamed if something blows up and your colleagues are taken by surprise. So just as those who pride themselves on being direct have to dial it back to the “More in sorrow than in anger…” framing, those who don’t like to give bad news have to work their way up to using this framing.

You’ll notice that so far, I have not talked about expressing yourself authentically. Here’s the thing, the mantra I keep coming back to: Successful communication does not say what you want to say; it gets people to hear what you need them to hear. Being true to yourself means making sure what you stand for is heard. Because if you just say what you think, or say nothing at all, there is a communication block where you will be either misunderstood or not heard at all.

Being heard the way you want to be heard starts with basic civility. The person who greets people kindly, asks how they’re doing, says please and thank you, is a person that other people are open to. So even if it feels phony to you, be polite, be open, be generous in your assessments of others, at least in your speaking. It will allow you to be heard when you have something important to say. And that is the true essence of being true to yourself.

Why would you need a communication coach?

Do you need a communication coach? And what is a communication coach, anyway? Is that like debate prep? Well, no, a communication coach is a sort of life coach/career coach with a special focus. You see, often people work hard or have great ideas, but somehow there’s a problem getting other people to buy in to what they have to offer. And a big reason for that is that you’re not presenting and positioning yourself in a way that allows you to have the impact you want.

On this blog, I have written about some of the communication missteps I’ve made and how I’ve corrected them. More important, though, as a language teacher I’ve found myself time and again helping people who were saying what they wanted to say, but not the right way to get the response they wanted.

One of the biggest issues we run into in communication is how you position yourself. We would like to believe that if we work hard and do a good job, people will notice and appreciate our efforts. And if you toot your own horn, you can come across as self-involved or demanding too much attention. At the same time, if you don’t draw attention to the things you’re getting done, your work will be taken for granted, not celebrated.

If getting yourself recognized is important, it’s also important to get recognition for others who deserve it. By being an advocate for your peers, you can do your part to create an environment where everyone’s contribution is recognized. You can also gain allies in building this kind of culture and take on a leadership role by being the first to act, while giving credit to those who work with you.

There is one other place where I see communication creating a lot of issues with success, and that is being culturally appropriate. Whether you’re working in a different country or even a different part of the U.S., you are going to encounter cultural differences that make the communication style that succeeded where you grew up fizzle where you are now. Developing strategies to understand how you are perceived and how you can change that perception to align with who you are at your best can be the difference between getting a promotion and being deemed difficult to work with or insufficiently proactive.

If you have a feeling that you are doing your best but people just aren’t appreciating it, whether in life or at work, a communication coach can help. Part of it may be you. Part of it may be those other people who don’t get where you’re coming from. But either way, you need to adjust how you work with other people – and with your own internal narrative! – if you want to make a change. A coach who can help you find that new perspective – a new way of winning – and hold you accountable for growing and learning may be just what you need.

It’s not about me

Earlier, I wrote a general post, It’s not about you, that discussed the importance of focusing on business and people impacts, not your own personal feelings, when you are e-mailing. Today, I would like to take a look at this in my own career.

There was a time when I was young and foolish, when I thought that the fact that something troubled me was enough to warrant pushing for corporate change. In this case, it had to to with the way certain aspects of customer intake where handled in the organization. I wrote to my boss, in copy to his superior, that I was spending too much time on something I didn’t think was my job. I imagine my boss heard about it from his superior. I know I heard about it in all directions. And with good reason: I had kicked up a fuss without offering either a definition of the problem nor any good solutions.

I subsequently backed up and made some adjustments to my own workflow. And I discovered that I could work with the adjustments in a way that was satisfactory to me. But the business results in customer intake faltered. Here, then, was a problem not for me, but for the organization. And as I looked at it, I realized that I myself did not have enough cycles to fix it – I was hourly and not allowed overtime. This time I pulled up the numbers, made graphs of several inputs and outputs, and showed that there was a cost to the way we were doing things. This time, when I wrote, I closed by noting that in my own role, things were working fine – no negative feedback on metrics related specifically to my job description – but that what was happening wasn’t healthy for the business.

My second e-mail got a lot more attention because it was not about me, but about the business. It wasn’t based on feelings, but on data. And it didn’t simply say that something wasn’t right, it highlighted missed opportunities. This prompted a review of the workflow in the office and this time changes were made.

I’ve learned a lot since then – it was more than a decade ago – and since then I have helped others avoid the same mistake I made.

To learn more about how I can help you, please visit my main page at

Communication in the era of COVID: issues with ZOOM calls

When I started working in corporate America, we had a CEO who hated e-mail. He would tell everyone to stop playing games copying everybody all over the place and just pick up the phone. The phone had two definite advantages: It was immediate, and you could speak candidly without leaving a permanent record. The downside, of course, is that your side of the conversation could be misreported by the other party, and the other party wasn’t tied down to any commitments they had made. That’s why, in my experience, it’s a good idea to go with e-mail if you really want to get something done, not just feel good about things getting done when you hang up the phone.

In the era of COVID, though, we’re moving into different types of challenges for communication. One of the biggest is the ZOOM call. At its best, ZOOM and other such platforms allow a small group of people to get together, work sort of face to face, and then get to work on what was decided. But the more people on a call, the more things are going to blend in with an old style corporate conference call. This means that when you speak, maybe half the people are listening and the other half are working on something else. Worse, the half that are working on something else will be listening for keywords and will tend to pop up with questions or comments about things that were discussed twenty minutes ago. Worst of all, some of the time you’re going to be the person who was working on something else. Those lower than you on the totem pole will grumble, but if anybody above you happens to be paying attention at that moment, this is also an opportunity to make a bad impression.

They say that 90% of communication is non-verbal. The ZOOM call doesn’t change this. But it can be a challenge because the things that catch attention now – the confused response when your name comes up, your talking too long or cutting something too short and all those other things that make certain meetings tedious – are not things where you can feel the mood in the room. And yet, everything you do – and some things you don’t – will affect how you are positioning yourself for the others on the call.

A few tips:

  1. Pay attention to the number of attendees going up or down.
  2. If you’re speaking and another mic cuts in, make sure you’re not cutting someone off.
  3. Before the meeting, have a list of keywords you’re watching for, but make sure to note other ways those topics might come up. You don’t want to miss something because you were paying attention for the wrong thing.
  4. Watch the chat and the microphone icons. If someone who usually has useful comments isn’t saying anything, they may be trying to communicate. Looping them in will both advance the meeting and make you a friend.
  5. Be extra polite. You can’t really tell who’s listening without saying anything and you want to be sure who is frustrated but silent the way you can in an in-person meeting.

Above all, remember that even after COVID, a lot more people are going to be working from home. But we’re not in the era of The Year Without Pants anymore. A lot of the people working from home will not be techies who think Slack is the greatest thing ever invented. So you still need to watch your communication. The message you’re giving is nice, but the impression you’re giving is going to be super important for building alliances, getting your points across and having people want to make the things you believe in happen. Stay safe out there!

It’s not about you

First thoughts: It is now 15 years since I began working with non-native speakers of English trying to find their way in corporate America. The clients have usually not been people who really needed to improve their English, per se. What they needed was to replace a style of communication appropriate to their country with something that would work in corporate America. The short essays here are intended to give some hints for effectively communicating in corporate America, whether you’re a non-native speaker or just somebody trying to move up the corporate ladder. This first essay addresses what I think is one of the biggest challenges people run into in the world of corporate e-mails: casual comments taken the wrong way.

If you’ve ever taken a writing class of any kind, one of the key questions you learned to ask yourself is: Who is my audience? But in an era where we write e-mails and texts more often than formal letters or proposals, it’s easy to forget that everything we write has an audience, and it may not be the audience we were expecting. Before you start to write anything, there are three questions you have to ask yourself:

  1. Who am I writing to?
  2. Who am I writing for?
  3. Who else might see this?

E-mails are copied to people. Maybe you’ve written someone and copied their manager. Or your manager. Sometimes, the whole purpose of responding to someone’s e-mail is not to respond to them, but to make sure that someone else sees your response. And before you hit send, you have to consider who they might copy in their response! This stuff should, of course, be corporate e-mail strategy 101. But way too often, people get burned. Once, I wrote an e-mail with a sarcastic tone. The person I wrote to was also a sarcastic person. And so he didn’t think twice before forwarding it. It made for a long day for both of us when someone higher up the chain took offense.

If you’re commenting on corporate strategy, and you think an idea is stupid, be very, very careful. If you’re commenting on friction between employees, be even more careful. Ask yourself, if a senior manager sees this, will she say, “Golly gee, what a clever person who wrote this”? Or will she see someone snarky and unhelpful? Go ahead and write your snarky e-mail. But do not fill in any recipients, that way you don’t accidentally send it before you delete it.

After you have written your snarky e-mail that captures what you think, it’s time to write a new one. In this one, you should express concern about people who are off track and suggestions about “refining” ideas that you think are problematic. Don’t say, “We tried this before!” Say, “When we tried this before, we had unexpected outcome X. If we make adjustment Y, it could change the results.” Keep yourself out of it. It’s not about what you think, but about what the business needs to avoid harm and to grow. Make sure your message is focused on what the company needs, not what you want. This exercise will not only help you position yourself as a team player, it will teach you to think like one.

Always remember to ask before you hit send: Would I be worried if I found out this was forwarded to the CEO? Or would I be glad she’s seeing my great ideas? This is the best way to serve not only your career, but also your team and your company.