Monthly Archives: July 2017

What Makes Someone An Extraordinary Communicator?

Last year I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Paul Jones, CEO of Magneto Communications, a training firm that helps people be more efficient, effective, and influential in the way they write. Paul’s blog includes interviews with thought leaders on the topics of influence and communication. I’m honored to have been included. Here’s an abridged version of that interview:

Paul Jones: Who, or what, taught you the most about communication, Jim?

Jim Bolton: I grew up in a family where communication was the family business; my dad wrote his best-selling book People Skills when I was a teenager. He half-jokingly says he wrote it to figure out how to deal with me. I’ve also had a number of great mentors along the way who taught me how to connect with others in a meaningful, authentic way. These days, it’s my teenage daughters who keep me honest.

PJ: Nature or nurture? Can people learn to be great communicators, or must you be born that way?

JB: Without any scientific basis, I’d say 90% nurture. Communication is about tuning into others. This comes easier for some people. The same is true with athletes or musicians; some start with better talents and abilities. But that doesn’t predetermine greatness. The greats work at being great. Through learning and continued practice, anyone can become a highly skilled communicator.

PJ: What makes someone an extraordinary communicator? What characteristics, personality traits, experiences or otherwise ‘add up’ to make them so?

The Risk of Everyday Communication

Ten or so years ago I got a call from a global consulting firm that specializes in risk management. They help clients around the world manage financial risk, cyber security, corporate misconduct, and fraud potential. So why were they calling Ridge? To help manage a risk they observed in their own organization: everyday communication.

I had never thought about communication as a risk in that way (or our training as a risk management strategy). But sometimes communication errors can be catastrophic.

In 1972, an air traffic controller noticed that a plane was losing elevation as it approached Miami International Airport. He radioed the plane and asked, “How are things comin’ along up there?”—not the most effective way phrase the question given the seriousness of the problem. The crew, unaware of any issue with altitude, assumed the message was in reference to a landing gear problem they had just fixed. They radioed back, “OK.” Moments later, the plane hit the ground and 101 people lost their lives.

In 1961 President John Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after he was told by military analysts that it had “a fair chance of success.” Kennedy assumed that “fair chance” meant “good chance.” Years later the author of the report said that, in his mind, a “fair chance” of success meant 3-to-1 against success. Hundreds of lives were lost and it remains what US News and World Report called “one of the worst blunders of any new president.

And then there are the horror stories we’ve all heard about doctors operating on the wrong part of a patient’s body. The Checklist Manifesto, an excellent book by author and surgeon Atul Gwande, is the result of Gwande’s efforts to boost the quality of care while minimizing the risks of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistakes made in hospitals around the world.

The errors in these examples are small and easy to make, yet the results were tragic. But it wasn’t these kinds of mega-mistakes the risk management firm wanted to guard against. It’s the small, imperceptible, everyday costs of poor communication they wanted to manage. Continue reading