Vince Cavello at the Center for Risk Communication sums up his organization’s raison d’etre as, “High stress changes the communications rules.” He has advocated that there is real science behind communicating, and his tips and tactics can be applied in everyday life, even if they were designed for organizational and corporate situations. He starts with the assumption that when people are upset or emotional, they have a hard time hearing. He teaches, for example, that women are always assumed to be empathetic but must establish credibility. Men are “given” credibility and must establish empathy. So when PR professionals prepare clients for board meetings, or press conferences, we will often tell women to lead with their resume—Hello my name is, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from Stanford, and I have been the president and CEO of this successful business for a hundred years; we encourage men to lead with “I am the proud father of many children, the loving husband of a wonderful woman, and the primary caretaker for my aging parents.” By establishing either our expertise or our emotional involvement, we have taken a strong first step towards positioning ourselves for a meaningful conversation.
Yesterday, I advised a client heading into what he expected would be a very difficult meeting that his three messages needed to be:
- I care.
- I care.
- I care.
I know this is oversimplifying. And there were two other messages to get across (“I acknowledge you had a problem” and “I am going to try and fix the problem.”) But a difficult conversation, in our personal lives as well as our professional, can be managed more easily when we have a plan, when we know who we are talking to and we know what we want to convey.
One of the best communication tools is listening. It’s amazing to see the difference when we just stop talking. Perhaps it’s human nature to want to fill the void, to rush in and answer, to share our own relevant experiences. As a professional, I find that silence is often appropriate—and can be revelatory. As a mother it’s hard as hell to keep my mouth shut—see Formidable.