Earlier in the year I spent two days working with and teaching a number individuals helping them improve their ability to hold difficult conversations. After the session one of the organization’s directors who stopped by to observe said, “This is all well and good, but you know, you can’t teach a pig to sing!” I was taken back by this statement because not only was it a crude metaphor for the individuals who were honestly trying to increase their people-skills, but it was also allusion to his own lack of commitment to what others were trying to accomplish. I couldn’t help myself, so I said, “I guess that would depend on who is the pig and how good the singing has to be.” He promptly turned and left the room.
Sometimes we can become the greatest barrier to those who want to change something about their lives. We come to adopt a mental picture of people in certain situations and then we tend to continue to see them in that light. Because we are unaware of an individual’s internal struggles, challenges, or aspirations, we reject any attempt on their part to become anything other than what they have always been to us. Simply, we are not very forgiving nor are we accepting when people fall short of our expectations or when they want to change negative behavior.
We think, “I can’t teach a pig to sing.”
Here are some questions that will help you examine your own attitude and behavior toward those who are trying to learn to “sing” a new or different song:
What thoughts or judgments do you possess about those who are trying to change?
Examining your thoughts can be very revealing. In the example above, the director revealed his attitude toward those who were willing to try something new. I can’t help but wonder what effect that attitude had on those who might attempt something and not succeed the first time out. If you can become aware of your own negative thinking toward people and their efforts, perhaps you can challenge your thoughts or ask yourself if there is another more objective way to interpret the same set of facts.
How do you speak about others?
Someone wise once said that out of the heart, the mouth speaketh. What do your words reveal about your thoughts? Referring to people in derogatory and demeaning language says more about you than it does about them. If you can catch yourself speaking poorly about others, then you might explore the source of those thoughts and determine if they are serving you or others in a way that is uplifting and energizing.
Do you dump your doubts on others?
The way we speak to others about their performance may impact their willingness to continue with their efforts. Providing support and encouragement of any effort to improve will sustain people when they falter. It is also important to take the time and make the effort to offer suggestions or ideas that will help the individual. Your support can go a long way in helping an individual feel like the challenge of learning and its accompanying hurdles is worth the effort.
Are you willing to change and improve?
Sometimes our unwillingness to change hinders others from making an effort to do the same. Example is the great teacher. What other people experience as they observe your feelings, words, and actions tells them what is acceptable to you and what is not. Remember, in the absence of data people will interpret meaning in the worst possible way. If you are in a position of authority over others, they may not be willing to exceed or go beyond their perceptions of your thoughts and feelings. Many people will never attempt to rise above the example of their leaders.
Do you think you can’t, so you’ve decided you won’t?
When the director said what he did, I thought, “Of course you can teach an individual to sing.” What I also interpreted him to say was, either these people can’t do it or they won’t do it. I also wondered if he believed that he couldn’t so he wouldn’t try to help his people improve. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to explore that. However, what is obvious is that if you think you can’t, then you probably won’t make the attempt. I have found over the years that skill impacts will. When people have the skills and are confident in their ability to use their skills, then they will make the effort.
Can you let go of the past to move forward into the future?
Sometimes our history with certain people or with a particular organization can keep us from improving. We need to do a better job of identifying what is holding us back and take steps to do something that will propel us forward. You might ask yourself, “How fast will you allow yourself to change?” Only you can determine what you will do to improve.
Is your behavior consistent with your goals?
If the organization is encouraging everyone to improve the way people communicate, then any behavior or speech that runs contrary to that goal will not lead to the desired success. The culture of the organization can be negatively impacted by those few who outwardly oppose the efforts of the many. Doing whatever it takes to get on board and be supportive of others will contribute to the success of any change process.
What change would you like to see in yourself and others?
Being deliberate about what you would like to improve should lead you to take decisive action. Once you have identified a goal, then you can implement the plans that will result in the attainment of your goals. Helping others set specific goals, being supportive of the process, and holding them accountable will help them to be successful.
What is the cost of doing nothing?
When presented with opportunities to change, the easiest route is to agree and then do nothing. If you continue to do what you have always done, then you will continue to receive what you have always gotten. Unfortunately, people don’t usually change until the benefit for change outweighs the pain for doing so. Improving one’s people skills in any organization is paramount given that there is very little that isn’t impacted by how individuals communicate with one another. Counting the cost of your current results or the lack of results can be a great motivator to improve and change for the better.
There are opportunities all around us to improve our results and the results of others. We should be more engaged in taking responsibility for the outcomes we seek, rather than seeking self-justification for inaction based on whether the other person will learn how to sing or not. Success will come to those who make the attempt rather than those who condemn the efforts of others. Your words and actions are powerful. May I encourage you to lift and enliven the people around you.
I was stuck in Phoenix on the way to El Paso because of a malfunction on our aircraft. You know the drill. Everyone is on the plane and then they announce that something isn’t working. However, we were assured that the problem would be fixed after maintenance took a few moments to look things over and figure if they had the part they needed. Forty-five minutes later, the flight attendant announced that everyone would have to vacate the plane because the aircraft wasn’t going anywhere.
Next, the poor airline personnel tried to figure out what they were going to do with all the folks who were wondering if they would ever get to their destination before nightfall. Unfortunately the supervisor of three ticket agents became more agitated at her workers than the passengers were for the current inconvenience. In her frustration, she started criticizing the agents who were doing the best they could. As her emotion increased so did the number of personal attacks. She yelled, accused her people of being stupid, too slow, and generally falling in the category of subhuman human beings. The more her criticism and emotion increased, the more mistakes the agents made. It was clear that they were rattled beyond the point of being able to maintain their rational composure and didn’t know what to do to help remedy the situation.
This poor supervisor clearly flunked the interpersonal skills portion of her training in supervisor school. Perhaps such extreme behavior is more exception than the rule, but I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some tactics for dealing with those individuals who could use a course in emotional intelligence.
Don’t take it personally. I would offer that a person’s emotion says more about them than it does about you. Why? An individual’s “hot” emotional reaction is the product of their thinking or their perception based on something that they are observing. Unfortunately, when people are highly emotional, we know that the rational regions of their brain quit functioning. Consequently, they are not very good at clearly explaining in a respectful way what challenges need to be addressed. Remaining calm and detached from their response will help you to maintain your rationality during a tense situation.
Listen for the data. If someone is being super critical, listen for the data or facts that they are sharing. If there is a lack of specificity, ask for it. Without a clear understanding of their concerns, you may not understand the gravity of the situation, nor will you be able to take the necessary steps to achieve the expected results.
Paraphrase or summarize back. If you are not getting the specific direction that you need, try and paraphrase or summarize what you are hearing. Hopefully, hearing the lack of direction specifics will help your manager realize what they are saying. Recognizing they lack clear feedback will lead them to improve the quality of their message.
Ask for examples. When an individual’s message is unclear, asking for examples of what needs to be addressed and undertaken will help you understand the expectations you need to meet.
Be in control of your emotions. Do not let your emotions get the best of you. Often when a person’s emotional intensity has reached a fever pitch, there is the chance that others’ feelings will be raised to the same level as the individual who is upset. When this happens you may not be able to effectively communicate with the person who is trying to provide direction, and you may also end up dealing with others at this same level of negative emotional intensity.
Evaluate the message. If you are the recipient of the criticism or negative feedback, evaluate what you are hearing. Ask yourself if you agree, disagree, or if the information is accurate, whole or complete. If there is more data that needs to be considered and shared, organize your thoughts and be prepared to offer additional information at another time. If you agree with the criticism, acknowledge your effort or misstep and make the needed correction in your performance.
Pick the proper time and place. Confronting or offering your perspective in the heat of the moment is not a good idea, particularly in front of customers or other potentially impacted clientele. You will need to pick a time that is devoid of emotion and a place that is private to share your perspective and any additional data that needs to be considered.
Manage your expressions. If you are visibly upset at the feedback you are given in a hostile situation, this may serve to further irritate the person who is criticizing you. If you work with someone who frequently reacts emotionally, try to anticipate this behavior so that when it occurs, you will not be negatively influenced by it.
We would like to think that the type of behavior that I witnessed is not a common occurrence. However, we are all human, and sometimes negative situations get the best of us. Unfortunately, when we are on the receiving end of such a tirade, how we choose to respond can make all the difference in how the situation unfolds and resolves. Taking deliberate steps to manage this type of situation can help improve our working relationships and the quality of results that we ultimately achieve.
My uncle Mel passed away after living a wonderful life. He was one of those brave souls who fought in World War II and was lucky to make it home. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was a member of 87th Infantry Division that came up from the south on the west side of Bastogne. He was a lieutenant who was a company commander because the army was short of officers at the time.
He once told us of an experience where his commanding officer, a captain, ordered him and another company to take a hill where a suspected sniper nest was located. There was a valley that gently ascended until it reached the top of the hill. As he led his company up the middle of the valley, he began to have a very uneasy feeling. It dawned on him that where they were headed was subject to perfect grazing fire. “Grazing fire” refers to the fact that bullets sprayed down on them from the top of the hill would follow a course of about three feet off of the ground all the way down the hill. Anyone attempting to come up the hill would be easily shot and killed.
About half way up the hill, he decided to disobey orders and stop their ascent of the hill and go around the side of the valley and take the top of the hill from the back side. The other company commander disagreed and decided to continue the frontal assault of the hill. My uncle’s company was successful in taking the hill and capturing the sniper nest only after the snipers had killed everyone in the other unit. Although my uncle was chastised by command for disobeying orders, he was also awarded a citation for saving his company and taking the hill. His decision was the correct course of action in this situation.
This week in preparation for the celebration for the Fourth of July, I told my extended family Uncle Mel’s story at a family meeting and asked them, “Of all the freedoms that you enjoy, which do you value the most?” Here are their responses.
1. Freedom of choice. Of all the family members that I asked this question, this was the most frequent response. Our freedom to choose is to make a number of choices for which we are responsible. In other words, when we make a choice, we are then responsible for the consequences of that choice. This freedom allows us to answer for our actions. Everyone responded that they would rather have this freedom than allowing others to decide for them and then force them to do what they may not want to do.
2. Freedom of opportunity. A number of family members indicated that they loved the fact that they could make decisions about their future and then could work to achieve their dreams and goals through their own industry and commitment to what was most important to them.
3. Freedom of worship. Being able to worship who, how, where, and what they may was a preference of a few others. They were grateful that religious freedom was within the scope of the freedoms that everyone enjoys. And that everyone should have that opportunity without the ridicule and criticism of those who may not hold the same beliefs that they do.
4. Freedom of speech. I was surprised when my 13 year-old daughter said this was her most valued freedom. She indicated that although we are free to speak as we may desire, there seems to be more and more negative consequences that come because we may not believe or support certain causes that others do. She indicated that she hoped that there would be more tolerance and understanding of those with differing viewpoints. I was surprised by her sensitivity toward this freedom as a rather young person.
5. Freedom of association. This was expressed by my seven-year old daughter who referred to this freedom as the opportunity to play with her friends. Although this sounded so simple, after reflection, I thought that there are some places in the world where people or groups of people are not allowed to associate with those who are judged to be different. Being able to be with people of our choice is a freedom that we sometimes take for granted.
6. Freedom to work. Some in their early 20’s mentioned the opportunity to work in order to succeed. I remember a quote from Thomas Edison I heard in my youth, wherein he stated, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” I remembered my own optimism when I first heard this statement coming from one of the smartest individuals to ever live on the planet. I began to believe that perhaps it really was possible to accomplish one’s dreams if one was willing to sacrifice and work for what one wanted. I thought this sentiment was admirable coming from a younger person, when so many today seem to want to avoid the difficulty of sacrifice necessary to succeed.
7. Freedom to learn. In addition to the important freedoms mentioned above, I wanted to add this one to our list. I have noticed that many of the lessons in life seem to be repeatedly offered and taught until we learn the lesson that is necessary for us to learn. Some of those lessons can be quite painful, but once we learn them, they shape our character and our ability to lift and help others which strengthens and improves the quality of life for everyone.
There are many more freedoms that are worth our consideration. However, you must decide for yourself which freedom you will chose to celebrate this coming holiday. Wherever you are or in whatever country you find yourself, there are freedoms that are worth identifying and cherishing. I know that Uncle Mel’s freedom to choose and be responsible for his actions saved himself and the lives of others who impacted others within his generation. We should be appreciative of our freedoms and do all within our power to protect them for ourselves and others.