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?
JB: Empathy for sure. An awareness of interpersonal and group dynamics. Being able to speak clearly, concisely, and non-defensively. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?
PJ: What’s your secret sauce? When you sit down to write an important message to your team or clients, what process or method do you use?
JB: The main thing is to understand others’ frames of reference. That’s why listening is so important as an ongoing practice. Whether it’s one-on-one or to a group of hundreds, my goal is to (a) connect what’s important to me with what’s important to them, both in the message itself and in the way it’s delivered; and (b) keep the dynamics and talk time balanced.
PJ: Does that process change when you’re under pressure with a short deadline? How?
JB: It accordions. With more time to prepare I can be more strategic. But even in impromptu situations you can state your understanding of others’ current needs or circumstances, state your own, keep things mutual, and create a common platform for problem solving or action.
PJ: Some people say emotions are irrelevant at work: “Focus on the facts!” What’s your take on that?
JB: First, humans are emotional beings; it’s impossible to leave your feelings at the door.
Second, this issue only comes up around negative emotions – you don’t hear organizations say “leave your enthusiasm and passion at home!”
Emotions are energy. Great leaders know that if they can effectively address emotions like disappointment, anger, disillusionment, etc., they can transform that energy, helping employees be more resourceful and engaged. When leaders don’t do this, it’s often because their emotions are in the way.
PJ: What’s your favourite quote or saying about communication (serious or funny)?
JB: “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while (s)he gets to know something.”— Wilson Mizner
PJ: What advice would you give people who aren’t confident communicators or want to improve?
JB: Care. Most people communicate from their own frame of reference without consideration for others. You’ll be surprised how this one change can impact your relationships and results with people.
PJ: Who do you personally know that you admire as an extraordinary communicator? What makes them so good?
JB: The best I can think of is my business coach, Bob Waterloo. He’s a great person to be around so I always feel energized after being with him. As a communicator, there are three things I value in him:
- I know he cares about me and my success; he has my best interests at heart and helps me be accountable to those interests, too.
- He asks questions that get me thinking about my circumstances and my assumptions in fresh ways.
- He’s patient when it takes time for me to wrestle with what he’s saying, especially when I don’t like it.
Thanks, Paul, for a great conversation. You can read the entire interview here. While you’re there, be sure to check out Magneto’s excellent real-time editing app, Credosity. Credosity analyses your writing for readability and errors, and helps you quickly improve the quality of your communication. It’s a great tool.
As always, thanks for listening!