Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Communicating to Connect, Part 2

(heads up since this post has religious references)

Following up from last week’s post on connecting, I wanted to examine other approaches to communication from a biblical perspective. An obvious choice is looking at Jesus’ manner of connecting with people. The difficulty of course is appreciating his humanity and the limits he experienced in his human form. Many people, including me, tend to coalesce his adept human interactions with his divine power.

In analyzing Christ’s communication skills, an appreciation for his humanity is needed so we can seek to apply the skills to our own lives. For me, there are a few abilities that stand out and merit discussion:

1. Astute perception of needs and addressing them. At various times, Jesus identified the basic needs of the people he was speaking to. When he miraculously fed four thousand people, he explained:

“I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
Mark 8:2-3 New International Version

It’s important to note not only Jesus’ concern that they were hungry, but that he wanted to meet that need (just how he did that is a remarkable story). As leaders, it is sometimes easy to recognize a need but ignore it or do nothing about it. The second step is as important as the first if you want people to listen and follow you.

As a manager or executive at a company, the need might not be hunger but a real appetite for career development advice, personal guidance or dispute resolution for people you manage. During my second technology startup, we grew rapidly from a handful to over fifty people in six months. About a third of my time was spent counseling and mediating between my team members, and sometimes even between people from different divisions of our company. At one point I remember likening my role to a grade school teacher and was tempted to just say, “Why don’t you two just talk to each other like adults and leave me out of it?” I refrained since I realized it was necessary for the two people involved to resolve their conflict in order to be happy at the company and continue being effective contributors.

2. Effective storytelling. Jesus’ parables were always culturally relevant and allowed for an important and sometimes complex message to be delivered effectively. Whether about mustard seeds, vineyards or wedding banquets, his stories allowed the people of his time to understand topics that were normally limited to religious leaders and scholars.

Some people believe a characteristic of a great scholar is the ability to take a complex idea and describe it in the simplest form so that anyone could comprehend it. This was Jesus’ strength as a teacher and communicator.

That doesn’t mean Jesus gave easy answers to complicated questions. In fact, his stories sometimes drove people to think more deeply for themselves, abandon religious clichés and embrace deeper wisdom and practices. In our modern times, Albert Einstein had a tremendous effect on raising the public consciousness of theoretical physics. He simplified his ground-breaking theories so people could begin to grasp his ideas or lead them into deeper thoughts, so his explanations were easy to swallow but rarely easy to digest.

Becoming an effective storyteller takes practices. A core skill to develop as a storyteller is creating analogies for your ideas that relate to the audience. You don’t have to speak in parables (which in most social settings might make you an outcast), but telling a good story captivates and creates a stronger bond with those who listen.

3. Wide base of knowledge. Jesus’ impact as a storyteller and teacher was driven by his wide base of knowledge. Even people who do not believe in his divinity but in a historical Jesus have wondered how a carpenter obtained such a knowledge base.

He had a swift and clear understanding of the cultural, political and religious issues of his day. This allowed him to speak in parables and connect immediately with his audience (see, for example, Luke 13:1-9). His intimate knowledge of God and the Scriptures enabled the other side of his effective storytelling.

In today’s world, many executives make it a habit to keep up-to-date on current affairs and thinking. Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute, is well known for his habit of gathering a phenomenal amount of information (starting with dozens of publications each morning), especially when he was at the Worldwatch Institute, which published the yearly “State of the World Report.” His reading, listening, and meeting with people from various fields led the effort to launch this annual publication that has been called the “earth’s report card.”

Jesus may have seen things no one else could see. But he just as surely practiced connecting skills the rest of us can master. As a professional and leader, each of these attributes can help you become more effective in the workplace.

(originally posted at InsideWork)

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