Bridging Communication Gaps in a Transforming, Time-Challenged World 


W O R D S   C O U N T ™

A series of continuing essays about the link between communication and success in today's world


What does communication have to do with success?

Let's look at it this way: How can we achieve extraordinary results if we're only having ordinary conversations? And what about the conversations we avoid altogether or, by the time we have them, it's almost too late?

Twenty-five years of troubleshooting-in businesses, nonprofits and government-has shown me that most roadblocks are caused by someone's failure to have successfully had a vital, yet seemingly difficult conversation with a customer, patient, partner, peer, vendor, employee, boss, constituent, or Board member. These conversations-about tricky personnel issues, pricing, clarifying expectations, misunderstandings, differences of opinion, and responding to change-are conversations that we often avoid, don't know we need to have, or conduct in (costly) ways that don't get the results we expected.

Ask yourself.In:

  • my meeting today,

  • my negotiation,

  • my project launch,

  • my email to colleagues,

  • my proposal for a new program,

  • my one-on-one with an employee or a patient.

    How do I know that what I said was what they heard and 
    what they heard was what I meant?  
    And what about what I (or they) didn't say?

Someone once said, "words are cheap."  I beg to differ. Words cost.

Words cost time, money, and relationships when not spoken at the right time, in the right way, to the right person. Most importantly, the key ingredient required for a successful conversation is all but lost in today's just do it world. What's missing in most conversations in organizations? Curiosity!*  We assume, conclude, judge, think we know the answer and we miss most of what was said and neither we nor the other person may realize this.

And it costs us in time and effort to even discover the "missed understanding" let alone remedy it. 

Often we don't realize that our conversations in the workplace create a confusion that has a cost-in lost productivity, people, and profits. It's often the conversations you are not having that cost you the most. 
You can't go beyond where you are if you won't talk about it.  

One of the things I've discovered is a process to help professionals have a clarity in their conversations that enables them to seize opportunities and solve problems far more effectively. It takes courage to admit that you don't have the answer. And it takes a commitment to being more than just "right" to learn what you don't know. What are you committed to?

This is the power of courageous conversations

*To see curiosity in action see the excerpt
Turning angry customers into loyal fans

from the Healing Conversations in the Workplace section of the book.

What to Say and What Not to Say to
Disaster Survivors and Volunteers

We all know the statistics: Devastation.   We've seen the footage: Unimaginable. 

We want to help.   Here's something we all can do - whether you are a survivor, a witness, an employer, a volunteer or are about to embrace survivors in your city and don't know what to do.  

Here's some important coaching on what to say or what not to say when reaching out to survivors of disasters and to those who are mobilizing to help them.

What can you possibly say to help someone who is living in say the aftermath of a major hurricane such as Katrina or a terrorist bombing in London, Madrid or Bali?  Contrary to what many people think, talk isn't cheap, words matter and it pays to Pause and THINK before we automatically try to tell someone who is in the midst of a disaster that: 
"we're sorry"
"at least you are alive"  or we ask or simply think to ourselves, 
"why didn't you leave when they asked you to?"

  • What can you really say or do for a friend who tells you he fled his devastated city in a caravan of family members... and tells you despite everything he plans to eventually return home to rebuild?

  • What do you say to a client who has lost not just her business but also an entire town, her way of life and an entire industry?

  • What can you do for a colleague who has no idea of what to do first because the loss is so overwhelming?

  • What kind of friend can you be to a neighbor whose relatives are missing or have died?

  • How can you be supportive for a friend whose family is trying to figure out a way to reach their stranded parents who fled to a city that is now without power, communications, or transportation?

  • What do you say to employees who are distracted and trying to help friends and family or who are on the front lines themselves, overwhelmed with the magnitude of people's suffering and need?

  • How do you support someone whose friend or family member is volunteering to help, or has been deployed to help at shelters on the Gulf Coast, South Florida or even a Caribbean Island - and is now in the midst of unimaginable suffering?


One way to help people who are in shock or who are trying to help others is to realize:

  • They need to talk and they need us to listen without interrupting them.

  • They don't always want us to take charge and tell them what to do-at least not right away. 
    Often they want to feel that they have some control in a world that feels turned upside down.

  • They need a sounding board to bounce ideas off of, to see if they can make sense of their options-even if they seem unreasonable at first.

  • We can ask them whether they would like some suggestions or whether right now all they need to do is think out loud or tell us their story without our needing to do anything more than just let them get it out of their system.

People around the country also want to know what they should NOT say to people who are going through a difficult time?  Here are some things to avoid saying, even with the best of intentions:


"I know how you feel".

Even if we have been through a natural disaster or trauma, we can never really know how someone feels and it can make people angry or resentful to tell them that we know what they're going through. We think it will make them feel that they aren't so alone in what they're feeling. However, when people are in the early days of a disaster it can be more helpful to simply say...  
"I cannot possibly know how you feel at this moment. I'm thankful that you are alive and I'll do what I can to help you-not just for today, but also over the long haul."

"Let me tell you what happened to me"

Maybe down the road, later in their recovery, people can learn or laugh when they hear your story but initially when people are going through unimaginable loss they either want to talk about their own feelings or may not even want to talk about their story, let alone hear about yours. It is O.K. if you give them the option by saying...  
"I'm not sure if it would help you to share what I learned when .but if it would help either now or some other time, I'd be willing to talk to you about it."

"I'm so glad you are O.K"

We mean well when we say this but if you think about it, is someone really O.K. when they have lost their home, their city, their neighborhood, their friends and loved ones are missing, perhaps they've lost pets and they have no idea of how they will reinvent their life?  What if we had the grace and gentle courage to say what's in our hearts... 
"I'm so relieved that you are alive. I was scared that you had died or were badly hurt. I don't know what I would do if you were missing or gone."

"What can I do?"

It's such a natural response to ask this question and yet we've just unintentionally put the burden on the person who needs our help to now help us help them. Instead of automatically reaching out with this question, take a few minutes to pause and offer something specific that they can respond to with a, "Gee thanks, well no I don't need that but could you do this.or they might take you up on the offer, later. Often people in shock or overwhelm can't tell us what they need but once we make a few specific suggestions it's easier for them to start thinking, "ok, yes to that and no but what about this.?" 

Some suggestions to get you started are listed below.


Practice the Power of Pause® by taking some time to think through some options for them - especially if they are injured, ill, or are asking outright for your help. Some ideas include:

  • Be honest with yourself, and them: If after talking to your own family, you can honestly open your home to someone, then go ahead, as long as you take the time to be realistic with yourself and with them about any limitations you might have. They'll appreciate your candor and won't feel that you are offering more than they can handle.

  • Be generous but don't insist: If you can offer someone money or a loan, even if they don't need it right now, it may give them comfort to know they can turn to you down the road if things get worse. You could say, "I don't know whether this would be helpful right now but if I were in your shoes I might need help with finances so I'm happy to offer it to you now, in increments, or later." Even if they never need it they will feel that you've put a deposit in their emotional bank account and that counts.

  • Create a Care ForceT: If you know someone else who could open their home to a friend or relative, that's also a possibility-you'd be creating a CARE FORCET of friends helping friends.

  • Be a resource broker: Let them know what kinds of resources you have access to that you can mobilize on their behalf. Or, remembering that they may want to be in control, tell them how they can contact them. With the phone lines down and information in short supply offer to make phone calls for them if they can reach you via wireless or internet to give you a list of what they need you to do. Tell them you can track down information for them about dealing with insurance, federal relief and other kinds of assistance.

  • Network your network of spiritual support: Find out what your church or synagogue or other spiritual center is doing to provide help as they may be a resource and have answers or ideas you haven't thought of yet.

  • Try to think about what you would or wouldn't accept or want if you were in their shoes: Remember, most of us aren't comfortable asking for or accepting help. It can be especially comforting to people who aren't used to asking for help much less accepting it to make this offer to them:  "Please don't hesitate to ask me for help and I promise that if it's not something I can do I will tell you. I'll do my best to find someone else who can help you with that need or I'll tell you what I can do instead."



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