Resolve to Become a Better Communicator

By Caroline M. Cole

Wrapping up one year and launching into another, many of us will spend a few moments reflecting upon the successes and challenges of the past 12 months so as to identify ways to make this new year better than the last. Formally or informally listing resolutions, some of us will promise to spend quality time with family and friends, while others of us will commit to improving our health and minds. Others will devote their energies to finding better opportunities at work, or even a more fitting career path. And some individuals will focus on managing their finances, organizing their worlds, volunteering their time and talents, or simply enjoying life. Whatever goals make the final cut on this year’s list of resolutions, we should all resolve to become better communicators.Resolve to Become a Better Communicator

Consider, for example, that on August 4, 2010, at the Techonomy Conference in Lake Tahoe, Google CEO Eric Schmidt claimed that every two days, we create as much information as the “5 Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003… and the pace is increasing.” In other words, according to Schmidt’s calculations, we are creating the equivalent of information contained in 37,000 new libraries the size of the Library of Congress book collections every 48 hours. It’s a stunning revelation that has prompted countless reiterations and, of course, challenges—including one by the founder and CEO of RJMetrics, Robert J. Moore, who writes, “Based on the primary sources I’ve been able to piece together, the more accurate (but far less sensational) quote would be: ‘23 Exabytes of information was recorded and replicated in 2002. We now record and transfer that much information every 7 days.’” Yet regardless of the exact number of Exabytes we are creating or transmitting every 2–7 days, we are confronted with far more information today than previous generations, prompting us to consider the quality of the communication we personally are adding to mix—whether it’s a spontaneous text or tweet, an email, a YouTube video, a formal report or presentation, or an impromptu conversation with acquaintances or strangers.

We can tell ourselves that we should do better in the messages we transmit and in the interactions in which we participate but, as anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution can verify, the best intentions are seldom realized without sustained, purposeful action to create or develop better habits and, hence, better practices.

Psychologists define habits as learned behaviors that happen efficiently and automatically in response to particular situations or cues in the environment. People traditionally have argued that it takes 21 days to modify or establish habits but, in their research on habit formation, University College London health psychologist Phillippa Lally and her colleagues have found that, depending on the action being automatized, it can take people anywhere from 18–254 days, with an average of 66 days, to create a habit. Timeframes aside, Lally et al. conclude that, because some behaviors may require multiple repetitions for individuals to “reach their highest level of automaticity,” the creation of new habits requires persistent attention for “a significant period” if the desired behaviors are to become second nature; in other words, wanting to improve is not enough, nor is occasional, haphazard practice. Thus, if effective communication is to become an ingrained practice in our lives, we must make its learning and improvement a conscientious part of our routine.

Recognizing, however, that some things are easier said than done, this discussion offers concrete, manageable ways we can develop the habit of better communication, regardless of our current behaviors and practices.

* * *

To start, we must consider the forums in which we communicate and the types of interactions each forum values. We might then begin collecting representative copies of such materials that we generate on a regular basis. For instance, depending on our position, we might find ourselves writing due diligence reports, client pitches, press releases, grant proposals, collection notices, catalog copy, letters of transmittal, customer service follow-ups, product specifications, call center scripts, fundraising materials, project updates, performance reviews, executive summaries, and so forth on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. Certainly the details may change with each document’s production, but finding a typical or current version of each type of item can offer a tangible starting point for resolute improvement.

Once we locate sample materials, we should print out a copy of each type of document, stripping it of any identifying information before printing. The resulting hard copies will become forums in which to we can practice and refine various communication strategies and, in doing so, develop a databank of writing samples we can use as models or for inspiration when generating comparable materials, often under time constraints.

The next step is to schedule a standard time and, ideally, a consistent space in which to work with these materials. Lally et al. find that “as behaviors are repeated in consistent settings they begin to proceed more efficiently and with less thought as control of the behaviour transfers to cues in the environment that activate an automatic response.” Unfortunately, some behaviors and actions lend themselves more readily to consistent repetition than writing; therefore, we should resist trying to build consistency around particular documents or so-called writing problems and, instead, focus on building our routines around variables that can be more easily regulated, such as the approach we take or the time we spend.

For example, during each session we might commit to improving 1–2 paragraphs, or we might resolve to work for 15–20 minutes, or we might challenge ourselves to make one higher-order improvement or a select number of middle- and lower-order improvements. The objective is to create a tangible goal that has definitive starting and stopping points to minimize any frustration that can emerge from abstraction; these tangible goals can also help us schedule time to work explicitly on our writing and track our efforts in acquiring better communication habits, even when the individual writing practices we are addressing may vary from session to session.

Having identified recurring behaviors to ground the routines of each session, we then can move through the following tasks—either focusing on one document at a time, or addressing like-elements across multiple documents.

Rate the document’s effectiveness. The goal of communication is to convey information in a way that generates the desired results—most commonly, the document’s target audience ultimately learns something, does something, or both. Additional considerations might be the time it took to achieve those results; whether any subsequent action was necessary on our part (or someone else’s) to clarify or nudge; and whether our relationship with the document’s readers has improved, declined, or remained the same since they’ve read our materials. To gauge the effectiveness of our writing in general and of documents in particular, then, we should start by assessing the extent to which each of the documents we’ve printed out has achieved its goals accurately, efficiently, and effectively.

Consider, for example, rating each document on a scale of 1 to 10, whereas 1 represents “failed to achieve” and 10 is “achieved” the desired results accurately, efficiently, and effectively. By using hindsight to give the document a numerical rating and by writing a phrase or two about the document’s impact on its target audience, we can begin to evaluate the products we write against the results they generate, helping us to build upon our success and to modify elements that may be hindering our efforts.

• Identify 1–2 things in the document that could have been more effective. Although it may be easier to see things we can or should improve in the documents we rate “5” or lower, documents rated “9” or even “10” can also be improved. After all, distance may help us see ways we could make a document more precise, concise, or reader-friendly if we had the luxury of time and perspective while generating the document. But that’s exactly what these improvement sessions aim to offer: the opportunity to identify ways we can enhance even our strongest materials and, in doing so, develop habits around the strategies and tactics that help us achieve our goals. By using scheduled sessions to recognize such areas, we can promote efficient automation of the best choices in our writing.

• Make changes on the hard copy of each document. Having identified areas to improve, we should then spend time actually revising the document; that is, we need to push ourselves beyond thinking about what we could do and test whether those possibilities work in practice. Using a hard copy, we should make corrections in a way that “shows our work,” allowing us to see the alternative, more effective strategy alongside the original. Then, as we move through the printouts we’ve made, we should transfer comparable changes from one document to the others, both reinforcing particular practices and ritualizing approaches that move us closer to the objectives we have when writing.

• Update electronic copies of the document. The final step might be to transpose the changes we make to an electronic copy of the document, perhaps generating templates or (de-identified) samples we can use as the starting point for creating comparable documents in the future. Certainly we would need to modify the document to accommodate the latest contexts, but starting with an increasingly polished framework of information would allow us to devote the time we have to making the document’s original information as effective as possible.

To supplement the documents we’ve personally written and, now, are in the process of revising or editing for greater precision and clarity, we might compile and annotate materials that have made us respond positively to the document’s content, objectives, or even the writers themselves. This compilation—coupled with the printouts of materials we are revising and editing—can provide a tangible databank of ever-evolving, continually improving models we can consult, emulate, and habituate, thereby ensuring the most effective presentation of our ideas in the documents we write.

The resolution to become better communicators can apply to exchanges beyond the written word but here, too, we may need motivation to move us beyond mere intension and into action. For that, we might consider what hidden camera-oriented shows can teach us.

In the 1960s, Allen Funt hosted a show on NBC television in which everyday, unsuspecting people were confronted by or otherwise incorporated into outrageous stunts and pranks before being placated with the show’s tagline: “Smile, You’re on Candid Camera.” In 2008, ABC began airing its own version of the hidden camera genre, adding a twist.

In Primetime: What Would You Do?, actors engage in various scenarios to see what bystanders and passersby would do if they were to witness conflict or even illegal activity taking place in public forums; for example, servers refusing to take the order of an interracial couple in a restaurant, parents criticizing children for their weight, shoppers insulting retail employees with disabilities, a gay couple being harassed in a sports bar, individuals sharing racist or sexist jokes on public transportation, people stealing or vandalizing items.

A scenario is enacted several times during an episode, but with each enactment, something is altered—the age, sex, or race of one or more of the participants; the introduction or removal children; clothing styles or other indicators of culture or socioeconomic class—allowing audience members to see what factor(s), if any, evoke and possibly alter responses from those witnessing the situation first-hand. Offering a voice-over commentary about each enactment and its variations, news correspondent and host John Quiñones invites those watching the show to consider what they would do if they were to find themselves in a similar situation, giving viewers the opportunity to answer in the comfort and safety of their own homes.

Our lives seldom work on endless loops that replay interactions with subtle variations, allowing us to test alternate approaches with minimal repercussions. As such, our spectatorial “could’ve-should’ve-would’ve” responses remain idealistically theoretical until we find ourselves in a similar situation. Unfortunately, by then it may be too late.

Contrary to what various resources seem to suggest, communication is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; it is purpose-, participant-, and context-specific. As such, we need to consider how subtle variations—like those tweaked or altered in a Primetime broadcast—might affect the conversations we have. By adopting the mindset of the hidden-camera archetype and by mentally playing and replaying particular high-stakes interactions, altering variables each time, we may be able to foresee possible outcomes that can help us avoid the “Gotcha!” moment that bystanders observing the situation often see coming. As importantly, by predicting likely responses to varied approaches, we can identify, reinforce, and ingrain the communication strategies that can help us achieve our goals in the exchange.

As discussed in “Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection, in Communication,” it is not enough to participate in an activity if we aim to improve; that is, simply writing or speaking, even a great deal, will not make us better communicators. We must deliberately and systematically develop particular elements of our craft if we are to strengthen our overall performance. By resolving to become better communicators and by taking concrete, calculated steps to routinely move forward in our efforts, we can develop habits to consistently present ourselves in the best possible manner, ensuring the contributions we make to our generation’s Exabytes of information are, in fact, the best they can be.

Working toward Areté
What actions will you take to improve your communication in the new year? Share your ideas in the space below.

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One of the Greatest Gifts We Can Offer, or Receive

By Caroline M. Cole

The first one appeared when I was 13 years old. Waking up on Christmas morning, I felt the envelope under my pillow. My younger sister, with whom I shared a room, also had one: an envelope bearing our name and, inside, a handwritten letter from our mother on a 5″ x 8″ sheet of yellow, lined paper. Writing in pencil, my mother reflected on the season, commented on the progress she had seen me make, and offered her desires for me in the new year.One of the Greatest Gifts We Can Offer, Or Receive

My younger sister received a comparable letter and, we learned later, our older sister, who had her own bedroom, did as well, and so began my mother’s tradition of placing a letter under each of our pillows every Christmas Eve.

The following year, my mother wrote her observations—a handful of sentences—inside of a card that had on its cover a drawing of a wicker basket containing apples and pears. The year after that, her note was on a sheet of paper with “Seasons Greetings” in gold script across the top. A three-page letter followed; then a 4-page letter inside of a tri-fold holiday card embossed with poinsettias; then a note inside of a card from the Art Institute of Chicago, which featured Renoir’s Woman at the Piano on the front; and so on through the years.

The details of my mother’s letter would change from year to year, but each offered her reflection on the challenges and successes I had experienced, her appreciation for the growth in our relationship, a reminder to use my talents and resources to serve others, and her wishes for me in the coming year. Such were the elements that appeared in her distinct, Palmer Method handwriting, but there were others that simply infused each production: her love for me, her unwavering support of my efforts, and her belief that I could do or become anything. And, over time, the letters my mother left under my pillow were as eagerly awaited as any gift under the tree.

Unsure if I were the only one who looked forward to these envelopes, a modest shift in my mother’s approach made me acutely aware that my sisters also anticipated these letters. Ten years into the tradition, my mother decided to make an audio cassette letter. As in the past, she offered her observations about the holidays in general, the hurdles and victories we had throughout the year (both individually and jointly), and her aspirations for my future, wherever it would lead; this time, however, she shared her voice rather than her penmanship, and she filled the remaining time on the cassette with Christmas music she loved. She then crafted a cassette box insert from a sheet of textured ivory art paper, decorated it with leaves of holly, and left the wrapped cassette under our pillow. That morning, my sisters and I collectively asked, “…but where’s our letter?”

This tradition continued through my undergraduate education, and even when my parents separated and, ultimately, divorced, thereby making it impossible for her to leave the letters under my pillow, my mother continued to write them and pass them along when we got together for the holiday. Today these letters—including the audio cassette—are stored among the ornaments and other decorations, providing a miniature time capsule I revisit each year, once I put up a tree.

I am grateful, however, that letters from my mother were not reserved for the holidays. During my first year as an undergraduate, for example, I received 2–3 pieces of mail from my mother each week: a postcard describing the scenes out her window; a letter reporting events of the past few days; or, perhaps, an envelope containing miscellaneous comic strips, a newspaper clipping, annotated doodles, photos, or any combination thereof, but always with a few words—sometimes written on an index card or even a Post-it—saying something like, “The enclosed items made me think of you… .” One day I even received a letter “written” by our dog, Isabelle. Using a page from the financial section of the newspaper, my mother scratched out in a chunky black marker Isabelle’s observations of being left at home for the day while my mother went to her studio; it was signed with a paw print.

Even when e-mail became a faster, cheaper, and more convenient mode of communication, my mother continued to supplement my electronic inbox with conventional mail. Quickly jotted notes, goofy cards, reflections on career challenges, suggestions for things we might do or places we might visit when I was next in town… such were the contents of the correspondence with my mother, and each item helped me stay connected to what was happening at home, no matter where I was. More importantly, each item was a tangible reminder that someone was thinking about me, and I have savored every one.

Perhaps it was seeing my mother sitting at a desk writing letters to her friends and family and, eventually, becoming a recipient of those small gifts of herself that planted and cultivated the seeds of my interests in and appreciation of the written word in general. Modeling the way a handful of sentences could be used to encourage, comfort, prod, support, and love, my mother’s letters became evidence that words were powerful. They also provided evidence that someone though I mattered, offering concrete artifacts I could revisit and sit with to remind me of that fact when things seemed particularly overwhelming.

To be fair, I have received numerous messages electronically that have connected me with people across the miles, reinforcing how much my life has been blessed by the people I have had the opportunity to meet or work alongside, but electronic messages seldom compare to the handwritten note. The implements writers use, or the slant of their handwriting, or their stationery and envelopes, or their stamps (and, on occasion, their artful placement), the materials accompanying a letter, and so on all have the power to transport us to specific times and places in our lives in ways that an email, text, or typed letter cannot. And over the years, we may discover how meaningful these seemingly mundane elements of a handwritten note actually become.

Today, for example, my mother is no longer able to dash off a quick note about her day, share her observations regarding current events, or clip articles—at least not without substantial assistance. She has Alzheimer’s, so writing out a recipient’s address on a letter or postcard—much less the letter or card itself—requires significantly more time and concentration than ever, making anything she writes less a record of her spirit and energy, and more an exercise in memory and motor skills, such as how to spell words or how to form letters. Eventually, she will be unable to remember me, my sisters, or most of her own world but, at present, we have switched roles: I write her every 2–3 days. Yes, I can—and do—call her, but the letters and post cards are now for her (as they were for me) tangible reminders that she is being thought about, that she has connections, and that someone thinks she is amazing, even when she may not be able to remember these things herself.

Several years ago, my mother gave me a lacquered box, about the size of a box of staples, with a hinged lid and gold clasp. In it were 31 neatly folded strips of paper, each containing a sentiment or wish written in my mother’s hand. It was a “note-a-day” to help me think of my mother and to know that she was thinking of me, despite our being more than 3,000 miles apart. But what my mother may not have known was that I have kept the letters and cards she has sent over the years, resulting in a much larger box of materials that will help me think about her for years to come. These items—these pieces of her sprinkled gently throughout each stage of my life—have been and will remain one of the greatest gifts she has offered, and it all began with a letter place under a pillow on Christmas Eve.One of the Greatest Gifts

As people scramble to find the perfect present—the one that will prompt the oohs and the ahhs—I suggested one that doesn’t cost anything, but which will continue to grow in value: A piece of yourself in the form of a letter or note to the recipient.

It doesn’t have to be long, or fancy, profound or poetic. It doesn’t need to be on expensive paper. It just needs to be from your authentic self. Maybe it will be a Post-it note accompanying a child’s lunch, or perhaps it will be a card slipped into a student’s backpack before an exam, or into a spouse’s briefcase or purse before they head off to work. Perhaps it will a note left on a coworker’s desk, or a handwritten letter to a client or service provider. Perhaps it will be a card sent to someone who has made an impact on your life that has only recently been revealed. Or maybe it will be a postcard letting someone simply know that you’re thinking about him or her.

This post is not a call to forego electronic communication and return to the days of quill pens and carrier pigeons. It is a push to supplement these interactions with more of ourselves than we might otherwise provide in our present-day correspondence, for in offering such gifts year-round, we may find that we, too, are enriched in the exchange.

Working toward Areté
Commit to writing a note of encouragement, thanks, or recognition to someone important in your life. Or, in the space below, share your experiences with the handwritten letters you’ve received or have given.

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Using a Helicopter View to Improve Our Writing

By Caroline M. Cole

Wanting to improve their writing, many people look online for guidance and find countless resources offering information such as the “4 Habits of the Most Successful Writers,” “Best Ways to Reach an Audience,” “Seven Steps to Better Writing,” “Quick Tips to Improve Your Communication,” “How to Tame the Unwieldy Message,” “Key Writing Mistakes to Avoid,” “Simple Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Document,” “Clearer Correspondence in 5 Minutes,” and so on. Promising titles and yet each resource seems to offer the same handful of suggestions regurgitated and repackaged ad infinitum: resist jargon and buzzwords; be specific; use powerful words; vary the length of sentences; avoid passive voice; incorporate bullets; prefer short paragraphs; show, don’t tell; fix cumbersome phrases; make information parallel; avoid clichés; be concise; and use grammar and punctuation correctly. Then, of course, there’s the suggestion that we simply read more or write more—or both.Helicopter View to Improve Writing

These and comparable suggestions can lead to more effective writing, providing the writer understands what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why to do it—that is, the rationale behind the advice other than, “…because a professional writer, teacher, or online resource said I should.” Unfortunately, most of these guidelines assume both that people recognize why each suggestion contributes to some apparent standard of “good writing” and that they are skilled in the discrete writing practices underlining each suggestion; they simply need to be reminded to do these things, prompting endless lists of things to do or avoid while writing. Little wonder that, despite following such advice, people continue to struggle to present their ideas effectively.

To be fair, a single lesson, post, or discussion on communication strategies will not make us masterful writers or speakers. At most, these resources can sensitize us to the existence of and rationale behind various communication practices. Depending on the context and audience, they might even offer “how-to” information, thereby helping us understand the tactics of a given strategy. Ultimately, however, skill in communication—like skill in any endeavor—requires sustained practice whereby we continually learn about, apply, test, assess, and modify individual techniques (ideally in various contexts) to understand how, why, and to what extent some approaches and practices work, while others do not. It is in the acquisition and honing of these individual techniques that we develop a repertoire of strategies we can use in countless combinations, in much the same way that a handful of notes can generate innumerable musical compositions. But if time and practice are key to writing development, what could another post on how to improve writing add to the conversation?

This discussion aims to provide a helicopter view of the context most writing advice assumes. Specifically, by pulling up a bit to get a fuller sense of the landscape than lists of discrete steps, tips, tricks, and so on can offer, writers of all levels can better identify and understand where they might focus their energy to improve their documents.

To begin, we must clarify the differences between revising, editing, and proofreading, for using these terms interchangeably confuses what elements of a document may need attention.

Some people think that revision is simply a matter of running the spell checker and grammar checker to make sure they haven’t broken any writing “rules” in presenting ideas that seem clear to them. In fact, “revision” is from the Latin verb revidere, with the root videre, meaning “to see,” suggesting that when we re-vise, we “look at again” or “re-see” information to locate areas for improvement.

As Nancy Sommers, former director of the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University, explains in her oft-cited article on revision strategies, revision is the process of writers “finding the form or shape” of an argument, anticipating a reader’s judgment, recognizing “incongruities between intention and execution,” and continually moving between the whole of the document and its parts to identify which “details are added, dropped, substituted, or reordered…to make their writing consonant with [their] vision.”

In brief, it is the work that addresses the higher-order elements of a text: making sure that the information we present is complete, accurate, organized, and effectively framed so we can achieve the goals we have from the audiences to whom we are making our appeal in the contexts in which we are working.

Mini-Test for Revision…
The success of a document is, ultimately, whether we achieve the goals we have; therefore, revision should be guided by whether readers leave the document knowing what we need or want them to know.

To that end, we might give our document to someone with a different directive than the one most people typically offer. That is, instead of relinquishing our materials to someone else’s proverbial red pen by asking people what they think we should do to make our writing better, we should focus on learning what, exactly, our documents may be saying to others. We can do so by approaching someone with a piece of our writing and the following request:

“I’m working on a document, but have a few questions about it. I’m looking for people who’d be willing to read it quickly, but carefully, and then answer a few questions so I can decide what to do next. I’m not asking for people fix or otherwise edit the materials—just those who can read it and answer 2–3 questions. Would you have a few minutes to help?

Although the phrasing you use may differ, you should stress that you’re not wanting someone to make comments on the document itself; you’re simply looking for a thoughtful reader.

Once you find someone who agrees and once that person finishes reading your document, take the document back (to minimize the reader’s temptation to use it as reference) and ask, “What do you see as the point of this document?” Then, simply listen. No harrumphing and arguing, no leading the witness, no challenging or criticizing the reader’s interpretation… . Just listen without judgment and, perhaps, write down the reader’s comments and observations.

If you’re able to remain neutral for more information, ask the reader: “What details or segments of the document led you to that understanding?” Then, again, just listen and record.

The final question, if you can stay impartial, might be, “What do you remember most from the document?”

The goal of this exercise is to understand what someone is taking away from the document as it is presently written—not to debate whether the reader’s understanding is accurate or to call attention to what you were trying to do. By understanding what our readers see in, focus on, and take away from our materials, we can identify elements that help (or hinder) readers from getting the messages we intend, narrowing the field of where we might focus our attention.

After revising the document, we might repeat this exercise (ideally with different people) until readers leave the document knowing or doing what we intend.

Editing or copyediting is the process of refining the presentation of information, all the while making sure the information remains an accurate reflection of the writer’s ideas and positions. Granted, we may find ourselves inadvertently editing portions of our document as we are writing and revising, because such work can help us clarify our own understanding of the materials. Yet by the time a document is ready for editorial work, its purpose should be evident; its content should be complete; and its information should appear in a logical, reader-friendly manner. Editing simply ensures that readers can quickly and accurately follow the discussion from start to finish.

Mini-Tests for Editing…
The gauge the clarity of our documents, we need to understand what others experience while reading our materials. Whereas the “Mini-Test for Revision” aims to identify dissonance in a reader’s interpretation of what we are saying, the “Mini-Tests for Editing” calls out places a reader may struggle with how we are saying it. Below are ways to identify areas we may need to edit.

Read the Document Aloud. Many writers are advised to read portions of their documents, or the entire piece, out loud, listening for cumbersome sentences, awkward phrasing, grammatical problems, and so on.

While reading aloud can help us hear some of the problems in a document, this advice is limited for two reasons. First, it assumes everyone has the same views of how good writing sounds when, in fact, whether a document “sounds fine” depends upon the benchmark(s) we’re using to evaluate a document’s rhythm—patterns that are shaped by sentence structure, diction, punctuation, and so on. As such, using the conversation patterns of our immediate social circles may not give us “an ear” for the language patterns used in or expected by other forums. Therefore, simply listening for whether something sounds right may not help us identify areas that will create problems for our readers.

Another, related concern is that this suggestion works best when writers have not seen or read the document for a few hours or, ideally, a few days—a timeframe that might not be feasible for every document we write. Unfortunately, without such distance, writers tend to read not what is on the page but, rather, what should be on the page, filling in the gaps with information they’re still working out in their minds.

Reading our own materials out loud may not help us identify everything that needs attention in our writing, but there are ways we can supplement this read-aloud strategy.

• • •

Proxy Read-Aloud, Part I. To offset the biases we might bring to the reading of our own documents, we can give someone else our document to read out loud as we follow along—silently—marking on a second copy of the document places the reader stumbles over words or phrases; repeats or re-reads passages; struggles with unpunctuated, or incorrectly punctuated sentences; or any other place we might be tempted to jump up, grab the text from the reader’s hands, and yell, “You’re not reading it right!”

Throughout, we must keep in mind that the person is reading the document the way it is written so, rather than challenge or otherwise criticize proxy readers, we should thank them for their time and use their performance to identify places to edit our document to help others follow our ideas with greater efficiency.

• • •

Proxy Read-Aloud, Part II. Recognizing that we may not always be able to find someone who has time or interest to read our documents out loud, another way we can get comparable feedback for how to document sounds is by configuring our computer’s accessibility features to read a document as we follow along, marking areas to edit on a hard copy. Certainly this method may result in a more robotic presentation than a human reader could offer; nevertheless, a computer will read exactly—and only—what appears on the page, helping us locate areas with missing or misused words, inaccurately used punctuation, sentence fragments, and so on that we can edit before giving our document to others.

Proofreading is the surface-level polishing stage of writing, verifying the accuracy of our document’s grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Running a spell checker and a grammar checker may be the first step, but we should recognize that these tools cannot catch everything that may need attention. For example, a spell checker will not be able to identify missing, additional, or misused used words; it may also increase the number of errors by, say, changing the accurate spelling of unfamiliar words—a common response to proper names and other unconventional words. Therefore, while word processing tools can offer another filter for our writing, we should still review documents personally to make sure they convey the information we aim to offer our readers.

Mini-Test for Proofreading…
As explained with the read-aloud suggestion, writers tend to read what should appear on the page, regardless of whether it’s actually written on the page. One reason for this tendency is that we often become so accustomed to the idea we’re trying to present and the order of that information on the page that our brains begin to clump or gloss over individual passages, sentences, and words; in doing so, it becomes harder to notice the discrete, minute details that could, in fact, cause problems for our readers. Having someone else or even a computer read the document out loud can mitigate this concern, but if we are simply wanting to verify that sentences are coherent or grammatically accurate, we can trick our mind into seeing familiar sentences anew by reading sentences in reverse order; that is, start with the last sentence, then the second to last sentence, then the third to last sentence, and so on.

To make this process easier, we might insert 1–2 hard returns between each sentence, physically separating ideas in a way that allows us to address information in discrete units; this strategy would also help us see how long our sentences are, which could help us combine and condense the information in a strings of one-line sentences or, conversely, break up the content of several consecutive, multi-lined sentences. Or, we might use two sheets of paper—one to cover the sentences above the one we’re working on, and one to cover the sentences below—to isolate the area needing our attention. Whatever method we use, reading sentences in inverse order makes us less concerned with the flow of information, allowing us to concentrate on whether individual sentences are complete, coherent, or grammatically correct.

* * *

In light of these definitions we can see why most “tip lists” create problems for writers: Pulling strategies from each level and presenting them in a single list of things to know or do, they inaccurately suggest that each effort is of equal value. They are not. Diction, for example, is important in communication but, ultimately, the words we use won’t matter if we are missing information our audiences need to understand what we’re trying to say. Similarly, if the accuracy, structure, or framing of information does not serve our document’s purpose, no amount of active voice constructions, cohesive devices, or rhetorical grammar will make our writing “work.”

We must become agile in moving between and among these various levels that affect writing, addressing the dissonance that emerges in trying to convey information to others who have their own views, values, biases, interpretations, goals and so on of the materials at hand.

By adopting a helicopter view of writing, we can be more strategic in identifying the areas we must address, and develop a better framework for understanding the writing advice we encounter. Together, this information will help us improve individual documents and our overall mastery of communication.

Working toward Areté
For a .pdf summarizing the difference between and among revising, editing, and proofreading, click here. Then share your own observations about ways to improve writing in the space below.

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How to Mentor with the Greatest Impact

By Caroline M. Cole

The post “How to Find a Mentor and Foster a Meaningful Relationship” discusses how we might find and work with mentors to achieve professional and personal goals with greater ease. On occasion, however, we may find ourselves mentoring someone else, either formally or informally. This discussion examines ways to make that work rewarding for all participants.How to Be a Mentor

The term mentor has become synonymous with traits of wisdom, solid council, sage advice, guidance, support, and encouragement—traits that were assumed to be part of Homer’s character Mentor, who was asked to serve as Telemachus’ guardian while his father, Odysseus, was away at war. Ironically, as Andy Roberts from the University College Birmingham argues in “Homer’s Mentor: Duties Fulfilled or Misconstrued,” Mentor himself failed to live up to the characteristics he’s now credited with having bestowed upon or otherwise used to guide the young Telemachus. In fact, Roberts points out, if anyone in Homer’s work deserves credit for these characteristics, it is Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who adopts the form of Mentor so as to counsel, guide, and assist Telemachus in finding Odysseus and bringing him back to Ithaca. Yet before we consider mentoring as the sole purview of shape-shifting gods and goddesses, Roberts goes on to identify a more likely, and human, source for our current views of mentorship: François de Salinas de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651–1715), a Roman Catholic priest who eventually became the tutor of Louis XIV’s eldest son and heir to the throne, the Duke of Burgundy.

Believing that kings should rule with wisdom and restraint, Fénelon wrote Les Adventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus, in English), using Mentor and Telemachus’ relationship as a parallel for his own efforts to instruct the young Dauphin in simplicity, temperance, peace, selflessness, and equity. Despite being seen as a scathing commentary on Louis XIV’s autocracy, Les Adventures de Télémaque was a favorite among educators—including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose work Emile both extends the tradition of moralistic tales and adds to our understanding of mentorship by offering a series of stories on how to raise an imaginary pupil to be “an inhabitant of the earth” who is “fit for all human conditions.”

Whether the story involves Greek gods, French royalty, hypothetical children, or individuals simply looking to navigate the challenges of today’s world so as to become noteworthy members of a particular community, mentors can be instrumental. Therefore, when we find ourselves in a position to guide individuals for part of their journey, we should look to incorporate the following actions and characteristics to mentor with the greatest impact:

• Ensure we are the most appropriate guide. Being asked to serve as a mentor is flattering, but given the responsibilities of this relationship, we should verify whether we are—or could be—the most appropriate person to serve in this capacity. Our first task, then, is to understand what the prospective protégé is wanting, making the initial conversations invaluable.

By talking with prospective mentees about their interests, desires, and motivations, as well as any strategies and rationale they may have for achieving their goals, we can learn more about their ambitions, thereby allowing us to identify where and how we might be of assistance, if at all. In some cases, a prospective mentee might come to us with a specific request—such as guidance in learning how to do something—so early conversations might focus on ways we could accommodate those needs. In other cases, mentees may share their goals but have little to no idea of how to achieve them, shifting initial conversations to explorations of whether we could be of service. Whatever the case, if early discussions reveal that we cannot provide the assistance mentees want or need, we should decline their request to serve as a mentor and point them toward others who may be a more suitable match. In doing so, we promote their development even when we may not be active participants in the process.

Let mentees set the agenda. Unless the mentorship is part of a larger enterprise in which the participants have pre-defined goals (for instance, mentorship programs for academic performance or employee development), those being mentored should take the lead in determining when to meet, how, and why. In the early stages of the relationship we might assume a more proactive role, say, by asking our mentees for updates on their work or by passing along information that may be of interest, in order to confirm our interest in and availability to them. But, ultimately, we should encourage mentees to take responsibility for and control of the relationship so they can remain on target for achieving the goals they have in mind.

Guide rather than direct. Ernest Hemmingway observed that “it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Of course we should be helping our mentees move toward the end of their journey but, in doing so, we should be more like a travel agent than a GPS. That is, we should use our mentees’ interests, goals, comments, questions, and concerns to suggest places they might like to visit, rather than offer block-by-block directives for which exit to use or direction to turn. In doing so, we can call attention to interesting stops or noteworthy destinations that might appear along the way, but we should allow our protégés to chart and navigate the course for getting there.

• Listen actively. Stephen R. Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” and the mentors who believe their job is to offer advice are at greatest risk of not listening to their mentees. The irony here, however, is that the only way we could offer advice our mentees could use—if advice is, in fact, what our mentees need—is to fully and accurately understand the situation as they see it.  Certainly we may need to ask questions as they are talking in order to clarify context, but our primary goal should be to understand the questions, concerns, anxieties, values, and so forth as they see them so we can ask better questions, introduce better frameworks, point them toward better resources, and promote better strategies, or so we can know when to be simply a better sounding board.

• Ask questions to encourage discovery. The paths to achieving our goals are seldom singular or linear. We may start down one road only to linger, stray, or completely veer from the route as we explore various sites, get distracted by other things and people along the way, or even discover completely different maps. Recognizing the myriad ways to achieve a goal and knowing that original destinations may change as more information becomes available, we can be of service by continually encouraging mentees to assess their present itinerary and any tentative alterations to their path in light of the goals they have articulated at the onset of their journey. By inviting mentees to work through questions concerning what they’re doing, where things are working, where things are not working, what changes may be necessary, where and how any alternations might be incorporated, what the advantages or disadvantages of those alterations would be, and so on, we can help mentees identify whether their present course is serving their needs, which detours may be worth their time, and which paths might offer a more scenic or a more direct route, as their interests dictate. We likewise model ways our mentees could evaluate the detours and alternate routes that will continue to appear on their journey as their interests evolve.

• Offer constructive feedback, but allow mentees to stay in control. Any feedback we offer our mentees should be framed by the goals they have laid out for themselves; in other words, we must consider if and how the information we think we should offer could help our mentees achieve their objectives with greater proficiency, ease, and success. As importantly, when mentees ask for our opinions, we should share ideas that help them move forward in the ways they want to advance so they can become the best versions of themselves.

Whatever the circumstances behind our offering feedback, however, we must remain indifferent to whether our mentees do anything with our comments. As explained in “The Best Advice You Can Offer,” if we are working from the assumption that our mentees must incorporate our feedback, we are working from a position that privileges our ego, rather than our mentees’ ability to evaluate and respond to information in ways that work best for them. Therefore, we should commit to ensuring that any feedback we offer aims to move our mentees closer to their objectives. In doing so, we may discover that such information is what mentees continue to seek out and value most.

Model practices. “Do as I say, not as I do” may work in some contexts, but this motto has no place in mentorships. In fact, some of the most important work we do as mentors is  through example, primarily in the values we uphold and the practices we adopt. We may not always be able to live up to our own ideals, yet by continually and actively working to maintain the professional and personal views we espouse, we can make the greatest impression upon those looking for guidance in what, how, and why to take up in their own lives.

Advocate for our mentees. One of the greatest resources we can offer those we mentor is our advocacy. Our experiences may provide us with insights that may not be (readily) available to those who have not been through comparable circumstances. Granted, contexts, purposes, participants, and other variables will inevitably alter the ways someone might experience something, but our having been though a similar situation can help us advocate on behalf of someone who presently may not know which questions to ask, which evidence to consider, and which resources to consult. Moreover, our positions, connections, and reputations could help us support someone who may not have access to the forums, resources, and people that could make the greatest difference in their progress.

These actions are the foundation of most successful mentorships, but to make an even greater impact as mentors, we should demonstrate the following characteristics or work from the following dispositions:

Patience, recognizing that our mentees’ growth and development is a process and that some stages inevitably require more time, practice, and guidance than others.

• Humility, resisting the urge to boast about our own accomplishments so as to keep the focus on our mentees and their progress.

• Honesty, sharing our own struggles, disappointments, and even failures to remind our mentees that we all face challenges, albeit at different times or in different ways.

• Curiosity, remaining open to discovery in our pursuits, reinforcing for mentees that learning is an ongoing process, even as we become more masterful.

• Support, providing a safe harbor for mentees to discover options, exchange ideas, recognize errors and, as necessary, rectify mistakes with the confidence that we will continue to see their worth.

Generosity, offering our time, ideas, energy, and resources to help our mentees realize their goals in ways that make the greatest contributions.

• Optimism, believing in the possibilities—even when answers may not be immediately evident—and helping mentees find ways to make things work.

• Respect, viewing mentors as less experienced, though equally competent and capable of making exceptional contributions, even when disagreements arise.

•  Non-competitiveness, setting aside our egos and being able to walking alongside our mentees on their path, allowing them to remain in control of the itinerary.

As significant as these dispositions may be, the greatest disposition a mentor can offer is service. Asking our mentees how we can help them reach their goals and looking for ways to make their journey more enjoyable and successful is the foundation of mentorship. At times our services may involve helping mentees identify which paths to pursue, or how to chart the best course, or ways to read the signs along the route, or how to maneuver around obstacles they encounter, or when to take a detour, or what to do when they find a fork in the road. And in any one of these endeavors, we may find ourselves with them on the road, or we may be on the sidelines cheering them on. We may be vocal or quiet but, throughout, we must remain available, accessible, and ready to help when and as we are able if we are to make the greatest impact.

Studies show the benefits of being a mentor, including greater visibility, more leadership opportunities, broader networks, higher salaries and, depending on the forum, more occasions to identify talent. But perhaps the greatest benefit of being a mentor is the opportunity the pay back (or pay forward) the assistance we have received in our lives. By helping others see and navigate the obstacles they encounter, we help our mentees find a place at the table and, in doing so, we encourage more equitable, representative, and successful communities to do the work that matters most.

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How to Find a Mentor and Foster a Mutually Rewarding Relationship

By Caroline M. Cole

The first recorded use of the word “mentor” appears in Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey, which focuses on the final days of Troy and Odysseus’ attempt to return to Ithaca after the war. Readers learn that before he leaves for battle, Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, entrusts his friend Mentor to look after his household—which includes his wife, Penelope, and newborn son, Telemachus—and it is from this story that many have and continue to define a mentor as someone who nurtures, protects, advises, and guides younger individuals toward their potential.

Although Mentor and Telemachus’ relationship is mediated by a third party, some mentorships evolve organically, while others are initiated by those wanting guidance in reaching their more goals more efficiently and effectively. But whatever the context or origin of these relationships, there are strategies that can help us find a mentor and foster a mutually rewarding relationship. The strategies below can help in these endeavors.How to Find a Mentor

• Identify the area(s) for growth. The first step in strategically finding a mentor is identifying the area(s) or characteristic(s) we want to develop. Mentors are increasingly common in professional contexts, where employees look for allies, advisors, and advocates that can help them meet their short- and long-term goals in the office or in the larger field. Mentors do, however, exist in the personal realm, offering feedback and support to promote self-development. And, of course, there are mentors who can bridge professional and personal forums, depending on their familiarity with both areas of our lives or the types of things we’d like to improve. By identifying the skills or characteristics we’d like to develop and, as necessary, the forums in which we’d like to address those elements, we can make better choices about the people who may be able to help us move forward in the ways we seek.

Survey the field. Once we have named the abilities and qualities we want to develop, we must then consider how we’d like to develop them. After all, there are countless ways we could reach our objective but, ideally, we can find a path that not only will lead us to our target destination, but do so in a way that is consistent with our values. To help narrow the possibilities then, we should look around our environment(s) and identify people who are doing the work we’d like to do, or individuals who are reflecting the characteristics we’d like to develop, in ways that we admire and respect. In other words, we should do more than simply look for people who are capable of achieving particular goals; we should aim to learn from those who reflect the principles we strive to uphold in our work and in our lives.

Having identified such individuals, we then should take a closer look at the work they do, asking how they are different from others in the same arena. For example, are the differences in their contexts, their reasons, their audiences, their resources, their methods, or their attitudes—or any combination thereof? Or might the differences be contingent upon other things that align with or deviate from our own circumstances? By examining what helps the individuals we admire stand out from others doing comparable work, we can identify role models who may be in a position to help us reach similar goals while maintaining the principles that matter to us.

• Select prospective mentors wisely. Wanting to ensure the greatest success, many people work to align themselves with superstars in the field, using these performers’ accomplishments as evidence that they have much to teach those who want to achieve similar greatness. Despite our admiration of and attraction to star performers, however, research on role models suggests that the upper echelon may have less to offer than we might assume.

Consider, for example, research by Jerker Denrell, Professor of Strategy and Decision Making at the University of Oxford, and Chengwei Liu, Assistant Professor of Strategy and Behavioral Science at the Warwick Business School. In their study of top performers, Denrell and Liu challenge the notion that higher performance indicates higher skill and, subsequently, the inference that people wanting to succeed should simply emulate the habits of the most successful individuals in the target field. Finding that “extremely high performance could be due to excessive risk taking rather than prudent strategy and exceptional skill,” Denrell and Liu ultimately suggest that it can be more beneficial to imitate high—though not necessarily exceptional—performers.

Simply observing and imitating the habits of high performers can provide us with countless informal mentors, but if we are looking for more direct or individualized guidance, we need to find people who are more than just high performers; we need to find individuals who are generous with their talents, supportive of others’ efforts and ambitions, constructively honest in their feedback and, most importantly for this discussions, willing and able to work with us—for these characteristics are the foundation of a successful mentorship.

• Explicitly ask for guidance. Having identified individuals we’d like to work with and learn from directly, we must then ask if they would be willing to take us under their wing and serve as our mentors. Regardless of whether we know the prospective mentor well or not at all, we should be prepared to explain what we aim to learn or hope to develop through a mentorship and why that person may be the best to help in those efforts. But herein lies the challenge: While mentorships will inevitably serve our needs, prospective mentors need to know what’s in it for them. In other words, why should they invest any time, energy, and resources in us?

The answer to this question should not be monetary, for if we are paying someone for their guidance, we do not have a mentor; we have hired a consultant or a coach. Even so, we should be able to explain how, why, and to what extent the prospective mentor’s time would be well spent, reinforcing the importance of choosing prospective mentors wisely.

Depending on the context we are in or the guidance we seek, the people we ask to mentor us may get little, if anything, directly or immediately from us. If, however, we are able to find individuals with comparable goals, values, and views, we may be able to show that their mentoring us would ultimately be extending their reach and magnifying their effect. The only way we could make such an argument, however, is by being able to accurately and sincerely discuss what a prospective mentor does and how our being mentored in comparable efforts could supplement their own, albeit in different ways or venues. Surveying the field and selecting prospective mentors whose work or character resonates with or maps onto our own interests can help us make such a case.

Be proactive in the relationship. Once someone agrees to serve as our mentor, the heavy lifting for how—or if—the relationship develops rests upon us. Therefore, we must remain proactive if we are to maintain and develop a mentorship in which both parties feel that their time is being well-spent.

Some mentees, for example, request ongoing, face-to-face meetings at designated intervals; in such cases, however, mentees should come to these sessions prepared to discuss what they have been doing since the last meeting, the success or failure of those efforts, plans for moving forward, and any questions and concerns that may affect their progress. Other mentees work on an ad hoc basis, arranging sessions as questions, concerns, or developments arise. Similarly, depending on the physical proximity of participants or the nature of the mentorship, connections might be in person, through virtual means (for example, email, conference calls), or a combination of the two.

The frequency or method of communication matters less than the fact that the connections take place, and since we are the ones who have pursued this type of relationship, it remains our responsibility to initiate the connection, set the agenda, manage any logistics, and remain as flexible as possible in accommodating our mentors’ schedules and forum preferences.

• Remain curious and open to learning. In their book Mentoring: The Tao of Giving and Receiving Wisdom, Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch explain the importance of remaining an “empty vessel” by relaying the story of an arrogant professor who visits a Zen master to learn about Buddhism. Inviting the professor to tea, the Zen master continues pouring tea into the professor’s cup, even after it begins to overflow. When the professor calls attention to this fact, the Zen master replies, “Exactly. Your knowledge is already spilling over, so how can I offer you any more?”

Learning is only possible when we’re willing to acknowledge what we don’t know. By recognizing there is always more to learn—even as we continue to gain proficiency and expertise—we can use our curiosity to ask better questions and, in turn, acquire better information.

• Be open to feedback. Mentors can help us see things we may not be able to see on our own, and while sometimes their observations may encourage us to look outside of ourselves—say at opportunities we might pursue or directions we might consider—at other times their observations may require us to look within, making us vulnerable to information we may not be ready or wanting to hear. For example, a mentor may ask questions that push us to consider why we act or pause in particular contexts. Or, a mentor might help us discover talents, strengths, and gifts we didn’t know had. Or a mentor may help us identify behaviors or characteristics that may be hindering or even sabotaging our efforts to move in the directions or into the forums we desire.

As these examples demonstrate, feedback can be neutral, favorable, or negative; therefore, we must seek out mentors who can offer constructive feedback so that, regardless of the feedback we receive, we can be assured it is being offered with our best interests in mind. As a corollary, if we believe we have chosen our mentors wisely, we should remain open to what they have to say if we are to identify ways we might reach our goals.

• Respond to feedback. Soliciting guidance from those with more experience is the foundation of a successful mentorship, but it is not enough to simply ask for someone’s thoughts or ideas; we must be prepared to do something with that information. To be clear, this strategy does not obligate us to do whatever our mentors suggest. It does, however, ask us to think about; evaluate; and purposefully decide whether to adopt, reject, or modify our mentor’s observations and suggestions. In doing so, we demonstrate our recognition of and appreciation for our mentors’ efforts in helping us achieve our goals.

• Resist copying a mentor’s style. Imitation may be a form of flattery, but mentors offer guidance and feedback, not a blueprint or template for success. Therefore, we should resist mimicking our mentors and, as Sir Isaac Newton observed, “see further… by standing on the shoulder of giants.” In doing so, we build upon—rather than duplicate—the wisdom and experiences of others and discover ways to make the contributions only we can make.

Mentorships can last a few weeks, or they can last a lifetime, but mentorships are seldom constant from start to finish. The best mentorships are fluid and dynamic, evolving to accommodate particular needs at particular times and, in the process, they help us discover things about the world and about ourselves that we could have never predicted at the onset of the relationship. Such relationships, however, don’t just happen. They must be nurtured, but the rewards of fostering mutually beneficial mentorships are fields of allies and advocates who are willing to help us grow into the people we aspire to be.

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Carve Out Time to Be Consciously, Purposefully Grateful

By Caroline M. Cole

Signs were evident in mid-August. Subtle in some stores and on full display in others, Christmas decorations were making their appearance among the costumes, ghostly embellishments, and bags of candy meant to welcome trick-or-treaters—one of many warnings that the holidays were a mere four months away and that stores were already gearing up to usher us through the experience. And now that Halloween has passed, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and daily reminders that there are only “X-more days of shopping…” continue to push us toward malls, outlets, and online retailers. These rites of passage have become as much a tradition as the holidays themselves, but this year offers something new: numerous stores have announced they are bypassing the midnight bewitching hour that used to attract only the heartiest of Black Friday shoppers and opening their doors to customers on Thanksgiving Day itself.Carve Out Time to be Grateful

Since the announcement, retailers have been scrambling to offer the most tantalizing   “doorbuster” deals so as to attract prospective customers now faced with myriad options for how to spend their evening once the turkey has been devoured and the dishes put away. Meanwhile, some shoppers have been strategizing about which stores to target for the most lucrative offers, while others—with still a week to go—have already pitched their tents in parking lots and claimed their place in line, hoping to score the best deal and the bragging rights that go with it. Critics are chiming in as well. Asking if we really need another day to shop, many grouse this shift simply reinforces our reputation as a shallow, consumer-driven society; others complain that businesses are once again putting profits before people, requiring conventionally overworked and underpaid employees to spend more time away from their families. And, of course, there are those who remain bewildered by the controversy itself.

Regardless of when, how, or even if we might personally enter the fray, all of us should be concerned that opportunities to reflect on what we have are increasingly eclipsed by events that push us to focus on what we want, for by relinquishing time to be consciously, purposefully grateful, we are at risk of giving up more than just a holiday.

Studies show that gratitude can lead to better health, sounder sleep, less aggression, greater empathy, kinder behavior, and a more positive outlook on life. Gratitude also promotes prosocial behavior, reinforcing and motivating altruistic efforts among both the acquainted and strangers. Yet while such benefits should compel us to take full advantage of the opportunities to give thanks, much continues to get in the way of our ability to feel grateful. Health problems, relationship difficulties, financial struggles, job or unemployment challenges, housing uncertainties, and so on can leave us feeling beaten down, damaged, and alone—feelings that run counter to gratitude. Yet, as Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology notes, it’s precisely in these moments that gratitude is essential.

In “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times,” Emmons writes that “in the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.” He is, however, quick to clarify that there is a difference between feeling grateful and being grateful. Whereas feelings originate in our emotions which, according to Emmons, are often affected by “the way we look at the world, thoughts we have about the way things are, the way things should be, and the distance between these two points…, being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude.” As such, Emmons continues, gratitude “is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives.”

Emotions and the feelings they evoke can be difficult to control. Gratitude, on the other hand, can be cultivated, but therein lies the challenge, for gratitude develops most during trials and tribulations—the very occasions most people work to avoid. But Emmons says there’s another deterrent to gratitude: a consumer-driven, materialistic culture.

Things, in and of themselves, are not the problem. Rather, as Emmons explains, it’s the pursuit of things—believing their acquisition and accumulation will make us happier—because seeing life through the lens of buying and selling encourages us to view things and relationships as disposable. Equally problematic is that when we focus on things we can acquire, we begin to believe that we are owed certain things and that we’re entitled to what we get, giving us little reason to feel grateful. After all, Emmons posits, why be grateful for things we feel we deserve? Unfortunately, expectations can shape our experiences and, subsequently, the ways we interact with others.

Consider, for example, being told that we should expect to pay $1,000 for a computer with the options and software we want. Finding that computer for $900 would seem like a bargain, while seeing the computer for $1,100 would seem outrageous, prompting us to think that someone is trying to rip us off—all because of the expectations we had entering the exchange. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, explains it this way: “If we expect X and get X, there is a slight rise in dopamine [a neurotransmitter in the brain that effects pleasure and motivation]. If we expect X and get 2X, there’s a greater rise.” However, Rock notes, “if we expect X and get 0.9X…we get a much bigger drop” and, he adds, “when we don’t get our expectations, our brain doesn’t get just slightly unhappy, it sends a message of danger or threat.” Little wonder that Black Friday events of late have become increasingly aggressive and dangerous, if not deadly. When customers expect rock-bottom prices, anything or anyone that jeopardizes those expectations becomes the enemy.

So what does all of this have to do with communication?

As explained in the post “Addicted to Devices, and the Messages We Transmit,” the word communication (connected to the Latin verb commūnicarē, meaning “to share, divide out; to impart, inform; to join, unite, participate in”) assumes more than simply making information available; it requires an exchange—a reciprocal give and take—that is grounded in an affinity with, respect for, and commitment to the well-being and enrichment of the other person. Similarly, the word gratitude (derived from the Latin gratia, which means “grace, graciousness, gratefulness”) has to do with generousness and reciprocity, making it—like communication—outwardly focused. Thus, like effective communication, gratitude encourages us to see and promote our connection to and interdependence with other people in ways that enrich those individuals and, by extension, ourselves.

The Ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero observed that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others,” an observation that seems to ground the gratitude journals, recognition letters, random acts of kindness, appreciation circles, five-minute favors, and other prosocial behaviors and movements aimed at countering what Emmons has called the “exaggerated deservingness that marks narcissistic entitlement.” But virtues must be cultivated and nurtured if they are to become an authentic part of our lives, and for gratitude, that cultivation starts with the seeds of thanks: “Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude,” writes Swiss philosopher and poet Henri Frederic Amiel. “Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.”

Wherever and however we spend Thanksgiving, the subsequent holidays, and our days throughout the year, we should welcome and hold tightly to the opportunities we have to purposefully and conscientiously recognize the people, circumstances, environments and, yes, even the things that make our lives more meaningful than they would be otherwise, for in doing so, we sow the seeds that bind us together in the most authentic, meaningful ways.

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Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection, in Communication

By Caroline M. Cole

A beautifully plated appetizer, justifying a chef’s reputation or a restaurant’s multi-star rating. An elegantly designed smart phone or tablet that prompts consumers to wait in line for hours or even days. An impeccably executed pas de deux in which dancers—intricately and seamlessly intertwined—mesmerize observers. An aria that brings audience members to tears, or a masterpiece that attracts crowds from around the world. A car with both aesthetic appeal and mechanical precision, prompting envy from others on the road. Each product or performance is not perfect, as evident in the myriad reviews, critiques, and testimonies that will inevitably follow each use of or experience with any of them. Nevertheless, each is an example of excellence, offering lessons for our own approach to communication.Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection

Whereas perfection is the constant if not compulsive pursuit of the unobtainable, excellence focuses on the highest quality outcome in light of the context and its available resources. As such, unlike perfection that is rigid and unforgiving toward any deviation of predefined expectations, excellence is malleable, adaptive, and progressive. It is a sustained, purposeful effort to constantly move beyond the ordinary. It is areté in practice. And those who rise to the top of their respective fields understand this difference.

Take Charlie Trotter, who passed away on November 5, 2013, at the age of 54. In 1987, Trotter opened a restaurant bearing his name in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, forever changing the culinary landscape. As Marc Caro summarized in a 2012 Chicago Tribune article the month Trotter closed his restaurant, Trotter can be credited with many of the things we now take for granted in our concepts of fine dining: sourcing high-quality, fresh ingredients from local venues; offering tasting menus; promoting lighter, healthier broths over the traditionally heavy French sauces; incorporating variations of textures, flavors, and food groups on a single plate; and elevating wine and food pairing to unmatched levels by sometimes adjusting dishes to better match the wine. Along the way, Trotter trained and mentored a virtual Who’s Who in the industry—including Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next), Homaro Canu (Moto), Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot), Michelle Gayer (Salty Tart), Matthias Merges (A10, Yusho), Larry Stone (Quintessa Winery), Nori Sugie (Asiate, Nombe)—and raised the bar for countless others.

In various articles about Trotter since his passing, many of the individuals who worked for or with him over the years talk about their experiences with Trotter, and the adjectives that emerge from these discussions run the gamut. While some describe Trotter as creative, inspiring, intense, masterful, and innovative, others have called him tumultuous, manic, apoplectic, merciless, and crushing. Yet regardless of the experiences these individuals may have had with Trotter professionally or personally, everyone agrees that he was unyielding in his pursuit of excellence.

Some might argue that Trotter’s hard-to-please nature seems more like perfectionist tendencies, but his willingness to tweak, change, or do away with things all together actually suggests he pursued excellence, rather than perfection. As Caro writes, “to Trotter, excellence is something more fluid and ever-changing than perfection. Dishes, no matter how awesome, should not become menu fixtures; they should never be repeated from day to day. Variations per plate are okay, desirable even, as long as certain standards are maintained. With Trotter, that standard just happens to be astronomically high.” And the results made Charlie Trotter’s a destination for foodies around the globe for a quarter century.

Steve Jobs, another visionary with a micro-precise eye for detail, also pursued excellence in all he produced. Ousted in 1985 from the company he co-founded with Steve Wozniack, he returned to Apple in 1996 and helped revamp the company by focusing on a handful of products that taught the world to “Think Different.” In doing so, Jobs helped Apple become one of the most recognized brands and most profitable companies in the world.

In his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes in that “some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture; others do so by mastering the details. Jobs did both relentlessly,” so it is little wonder that, like Trotter, Jobs was described with a spectrum of adjectives. Frequently called inventive, magical, visionary, brilliant, genius, and pioneering, Jobs has likewise been referred to as aggressive, demanding, stubborn, tyrannical, controlling, belittling, and ruthless. And yet no one questions the excellence Jobs pursued. As Jobs himself said, “be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected,” and these expectations set standards that continue to drive product development in the technology sector and beyond.

George Balanchine, one of the foremost choreographers in contemporary ballet, offers another model of excellence. Born in St. Petersburg, Balanchine danced for the Imperial Russian Ballet (more commonly known as the Kirov Ballet) and served as a choreographer for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe before moving to America. Dissatisfied with the quality of dancers in the States, Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet, which trained students in the techniques and style of classical ballet as preparation for joining the company he founded, the Ballet Society, which ultimately became the New York City Ballet.

Over the years, Balanchine is credited with having created over 400 works, but he is, perhaps, best known for bringing an exceptional standard of quality and excellence to American ballet. A champion of evolution and innovation, Balanchine adapted basic moves from the Russian ballet’s repertoire in ways that emphasized speed, balance, control, sharpness, precision, and fluidity—characteristics embodied in the dancers he launched into stardom, including Maria Tallchief, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, and Gelsey Kirkland.

Wanting to know how Balanchine was able to instill such excellence in his dancers, a 2012 panel of current and former New York City Ballet students discussed what made Balanchine so special. Panel members report that Balanchine had high expectations and pushed them hard, but he also encouraged them to find their own answers and style by working out things for themselves in the studio. It was the love and admiration they had for Balanchine as a master of his craft, panel members said, that helped “inspire their incredible devotion to excellence.”

The world of communication also offers touchstones of excellence, and while it might be easy to suggest that these models are exclusive to published authors, professional speechwriters, social media gurus, and other language experts, all of us can strive for excellence in our communication. Below are strategies for doing so.

• Master the basics. To excel, we must start with the underlying structures of the activity or task we aim to master. In the culinary arts, the basics might include knife skills, food preparation, and cooking techniques. In dance, the basics may entail particular steps and movements. For sports, it may involve an awareness of the various players and their positions, the equipment, the field of play, and rules of the games. Like these and other activities, communication is most effective when people understand the basics.

Phonology (sound system), vocabulary, and grammar are the basic building blocks of most languages, but learning the underlying structures of a language involves more than simply memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules. As explained in “To Understand Why Everyone Should ‘Do Grammar,’ Look to Ancient Greece,” we should work to understand the various constructions, forms, and uses of words so we can create and select combinations that are most effective for the purpose, audience, and context of our message. Moreover, we should be attentive to any additional elements that might signal our credibility or “right” to contribute to a given conversation—including but not limited to an awareness of and proficiency in the genres, styles, conventions, and registers valued by those with whom we aim to connect.

By developing a proficiency in the basic structures of communication—however they may be defined by the forums and fields we aim to enter—we establish a foundation for excellence in our own messages.

• Understand when, how, and why deviations may be possible. Learning the prescriptive uses of a language is the starting point for expert performance, and yet excellence requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach to any given endeavor; we must be able to adjust our practice when necessary to accommodate situational factors.

Consider, for example, a master chef who is able to improvise a meal in light of the ingredients that are on hand. Or think of golfers who learn to adjust their stroke according to the course, weather conditions, and even other players. In the same ways, we must learn where and how to purposefully alter our approach to communication in order to reach our audience in the most effective, efficient manner.

We might, for example, modify the structure, or alter the focus, or change the framing, or adopt a different register. The key, however, is that alterations and deviations must be deliberate. After all, audiences will tend to respond more favorably to those who are knowingly and strategically violating communication conventions than they will to writers and speakers who seem oblivious to these conventions’ existence.

By learning to adapt our communication styles and approaches to different circumstances, we can increase the likelihood that our messages will be heard and received by the people we aim to reach, regardless of the situation.

• Practice deliberately. Writing and speaking in various contexts can help us become more comfortable with and competent in communicating, but it is not enough to aimlessly engage in communication acts if we want to excel. Improvement requires deliberate, systematic practice.

In his research on expertise, psychologist and scholar K. Anders Ericsson argues that “experts and aspiring experts rely on deliberate practice to counteract complete automatization and to promote the development and refinement of representations.” In other words, we must do more than go through the motions or simply participate in an activity, even for extended periods of time; we must systematically develop particular elements of our craft if we are to strengthen our overall performance.

By identifying specific places our communication can be stronger and by purposefully devoting time to work on each area, we develop a greater awareness of and expertise in the communicative strategies that can help us achieve our goals.

Continue to raise the bar. The measure of effective communication is whether we achieve the goals we intend, yet even when we succeed in our efforts, we should consider how our communication could have been more effective, more efficient, and more audience-appropriate. In doing so, we move beyond the notion that something is, or will remain “good enough.”

We may never achieve perfection in our communication, but by conscientiously examining where and how we could be even more effective, we push ourselves toward better choices and practices in our later interactions.

* * *

Excellence is never whimsical or haphazard. Rather, it is a purposeful, sustained practice that allows us maintain above-average standards even as we continue to identify ways to improve our efforts. We may not aspire to be professional writers or speakers, but we can be more conscientious in making sure all of our messages represent our ideas, and of ourselves in the best possible way. In doing so, we push ourselves to reach beyond the commonplace, and in this pursuit of excellence, we discover more ways to demonstrate our mastery.

Working toward Areté
What are your strategies for pursing excellence in communication? Share your ideas in the space below.

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To Enhance the Flow in Our Communication, We Need More than Transitions

By Caroline M. Cole

“It sounds choppy… .” “Something seems to be missing… .” “It needs more flow… .” These and comparable observations emerge when people ask for feedback about their writing. And while students may be the greatest recipients of such comments, increasingly industry professionals are being flagged for their disjointed presentations of ideas. Perhaps such disconnections are the result of information overload—too many ideas about too many topics overwhelming our minds, making it impossible to sort and connect our thoughts as we could in simpler times. Or perhaps they’re a byproduct of a culture that prefers texting and tweeting random soundbytes as they come to mind. Whatever the reason, as the connections between and among ideas become thinner and thinner, audiences struggle to see the relationships we see, as we see them, weakening our ability to present meaningful information, sustain discussions, suggest relevance and, ultimately, persuade others that what we have to say is worth sharing.To Enhance the Flow in Our Communication

Cohesion (what many people refer to as “flow”) is the unified presentation of information. Ensuring that all of the details that appear in a paragraph, section, document or even discussion are both relevant and aptly placed, cohesion allows readers and listeners to follow ideas and trains of logic with ease. Consequently, whether we are students writing essays for class, industry professionals generating workplace documents, or individuals simply wanting to convey information we deem significant, our ideas should stick together in ways that help others follow our thoughts efficiently and accurately. The strategies below can help in this effort and enhance the flow of our communication.

• Use physical proximity to advantage. One of the fastest ways to promote connection is to cluster like information within the same parts of a document or discussion, preventing audiences from bouncing back and forth, trying to gather and understand all of the seemingly disparate details about a particular topic. Consider, for example, a grocery list. Although we may generate a list of things we need as items come to mind, putting items into a grocery cart in the order they appear on the list would have us running between and among the aisles in ways that could be minimized if we were to group items according to the type of product—for example, fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat, paper products—and their location in a store.

Sorting and grouping make it easier to recognize patterns and relationships—fundamental components of cohesion—but the ways we sort and group can also affect meaning. If, for example, we have a red ball, a blue pyramid, and a yellow block, we can sort by color or by shape, depending on what we want to emphasize. And while this example may seem overly simplistic, we need only consider the ways an attorney might sort and cluster individual pieces of evidence to suggest the innocence or guilt of someone on trial to understand the impact that purposeful grouping can have on our audience’s interpretation of information.

By clustering individual points into larger discussions of like elements, we can use proximity to encourage audiences to see the relationships we want them to see, especially when this strategy is coupled with the following ones.

• Strategically order information. Related to physical proximity is information ordering, which can help the audience better understand our intentions in grouping information in the ways we do. For example, if we need to convey a succession of events, we might present information chronologically. Or, we might sequence information to explain cause and effect relationships. Or, we might present general concerns before pointing out particular problems. If these or other conventional patterns of organization do not fit our purposes, we might consider providing “old” information before “new” information, which uses information the audience may already know or be familiar with to contextualize information we want to introduce. Whatever pattern(s) we select, ordering information to echo our intensions can streamline and enhance our communication.

• Purposefully repeat information. Repetition can help connect and reinforce ideas, providing any repetition is conscientiously done. For example, at times we might repeat key points by elaborating or by giving additional examples. In other cases, we might allude to previous comments or ideas to connect the present conversation to parts of an earlier one. Or, when discussing more complex information, we might recap what we have discussed before moving on to the next topic. By selectively repeating words, phrases, and concepts, we can help readers and listeners draw connections between and among points across longer discussions.

• Use connective words and cohesive devices. Connective words are the equivalent of mortar between bricks, binding individual elements together into larger, unified structures. The most common category of connective words are transitions (also known as conjunctive adverbs), one or more words that, as a unit, establish and show the relationship between seemingly separate information and ideas. For instance, the transition in addition helps the reader know that the information we are providing aims to extend the current discussion, while the phrase in other words indicates that we are explaining an idea in another way so the audience can better understand potentially complex information. Without such cues, readers may struggle to understand which details are connected, and how, as evident in the following paragraph:

Effective writing is a difficult but important skill to master. It requires long hours of practice and concentration. The time is well spent. Writing is an indispensable tool that, some believe, can help determine a person’s level of professional success. People can make their case more effectively if they know how to write. Those who can write often succeed. Good writers can derive great pride and satisfaction from their efforts. Students and industry professionals should work to improve their writing skills if they truly want to impact others with their ideas.

Although each sentence has something to do with writing, the paragraph blurts out observations, resulting in a choppy list of information. By simply inserting transitions, we can signal how these observations connect, guiding the audience through the discussion with greater ease, as the following sample revision demonstrates:

Effective writing is a difficult but important skill to master. Although effective writing requires long hours of practice and concentration, the time is well spent. After all, writing is an indispensable tool that, some believe, can help determine a person’s level of professional success. That is to say, because people can make their case more effectively if they know how to write, people who can write often succeed, thereby allowing them to derive great pride and satisfaction from their efforts. In light of this information, students and industry professionals should work to improve their writing skills if they truly want to impact others with their ideas.

Most of the transitions in this revised paragraph appear at the beginning of the sentence, but some transitions can be placed in the middle or even at the end of a sentence for stylistic variety. There is no particular rule for deciding where to place transitions; intuition is often a factor—that, and the reader or listener’s ear.

It is also important to note that while some transitions are effective for connecting sentences, they are less effective when connecting paragraphs. The phrase “In addition,” for example, may link ideas in sequential sentences, but starting a paragraph with this phrase can be problematic for readers who can’t readily identify which discussion is being extended: the information in the previous sentence? the previous paragraph? the previous section? everything up to this point?

To strengthen the cohesion between paragraphs, therefore, we should replace transitional words and phrases with a subordinate clause that helps clarify the ideas we’re connecting. For example:

In addition,… or Also,…, would become In addition to [what, exactly?],…

However,…, would become “Although [point we’re going to shift],…

Transitions can increase the cohesion of our ideas, but pronouns and synonyms can also convey relationships. For example:

The press release will announce the opening of our newest store next month. In doing so, it will be the first in a series of promotional pieces that will specifically target tri-state area customers. This announcement will, for example, highlight car chains, de-icer’s, snow blowers, and other products residents in the Peaks Plains conventionally purchase at the Adler store or order online. Because it will also be the foundation for radio spots, the piece should be sensitive both to print and oral delivery.

Pronouns and synonyms, however, each come with a caution. Pronouns, for example, must have an instantly recognizable antecedent (that is, the word the pronoun represents) if their use is to encourage cohesion and clarity. Personal pronouns (that is, I, me, you, him, her, we, us, they, them) can be easier to infer by context, even when grammatical connections could be clearer—providing multiple people aren’t being referenced. Other pronouns, however, can be confusing, as exemplified by the demonstrative pronouns this, these, and those.

Used to point out specific entities, demonstrative pronouns will prompt audiences to wonder “This what?” when multiple possibilities arise. Therefore, to ensure our readers know what we are connecting, we should always follow demonstrative pronouns with a noun. For example:

this idea… this brief… this strategy… this prospect… this pitch

these budget figures… these announcements… these campaigns…

those proposals… those reviews… those candidates… those suggestions…

Synonyms also require care, for although they can minimize repetition, their connotations may inadvertently suggest meanings we do not intend. As such, we must verify that any alternate words we use are moving our audience toward the interpretations we are, in fact, suggesting.

* * *

Using connective words and cohesive devices is one of the easiest and most common strategies for making a presentation smoother than it might be otherwise. At times, however, we may need more than transitions to help one idea flow into the next: we may need to sustain our focus.

Many people are taught that each paragraph should focus on a single idea, which is typically identified in the paragraph’s topic sentence; they are also taught that each sentence in the paragraph should connect to the previous one. Unfortunately, even writers who follow this advice can generate paragraphs that seem choppy, mostly because of the particular information they are (and are not) linking. Take, for example, the following paragraph:

Many people struggle in the early stages of a new project. These projects, especially complex ones, may have steep learning curves. Further complicating matters is the fact that employees must perform myriad tasks—some of which may be unfamiliar—under time or resource constraints. These constraints can quickly determine the success or failure of the project. Such results can increase the pressures employees feel. Supervisors might add to these pressures, unknowingly affecting the project.…

On first read, this paragraph may seem understandable. After all, the order of information seems to move readers through the struggles of a new project, the paragraph uses connective words and other cohesive devices, and each sentence seems to build upon something the previous sentence addresses. A closer read, however, reveals this paragraph is disjointed and choppy, primarily because each sentence actually takes up a different topic. To demonstrate, consider the grammatical subject of each sentence in the paragraph:

Many people struggle in the early stages of a new project. These projects, especially complex ones, may have steep learning curves. Further complicating matters is the fact that employees must perform myriad tasks—some of which may be unfamiliar—under time or resource constraints. These constraints can quickly determine the success or failure of the project. Such results can increase the pressures employees feel. Supervisors might and to these pressures, unknowingly adding variables that can affect the project.…

Grammatical subjects are the primary focus of a sentence, indicating what the sentence is about. As such, the grammatical subject of a topic sentence identifies the focus of the discussion that follows. Unfortunately, whereas this paragraph’s topic sentence suggests the discussion will focus on “many people,” each of the subsequent sentences pick up on a different conversation, resulting in six topics with little to no information about any of them. In such cases, the choppiness readers experience is due to a list of topics that transitions alone can never bridge, simply because the gap between each topic is too wide.

To increase cohesion, we need to decide the topic of our discussion and use a consistent grammatical subject to sustain the focus on that topic. To demonstrate, consider how we might revise the paragraph, depending on the topic we find most important. If, for example, employees were the main focus, the revision might read:

Many employees struggle in the early stages of a new project. Employees, for example, often find steep learning curves when they begin a project, especially complex ones. To further complicate matters, employees must often perform myriad tasks—some of which may be unfamiliar—under time or resource constraints, and employees may find that these constraints can quickly determine the success or failure of their project, increasing the pressures they may feel. Employees may likewise feel pressure from supervisors, who may be affecting the project unknowingly.…

If, however, projects were the main focus, the paragraph could read:

Projects cause many people to struggle, especially in the early stages. These projects, especially complex ones, may have steep learning curves; moreover, they may require employees to perform myriad tasks—some of which may be unfamiliar—under time or resource constraints. A project may succeed or fail because of these constraints, thereby increasing the pressures employees feel. Projects can also be affected by supervisors, who unknowingly add variables that.…

By sustaining the topic sentence’s grammatical subject in all subsequent sentences in the discussion, we can generate discussions that flow.

Cohesion is instrumental to explaining relationships, thereby allowing us to develop ideas, build cases, and convey value to others. By incorporating these strategies in isolation or in tandem, we can help our audiences see the connections we see, as we see them, and streamline the presentation of our ideas.

Working toward Areté
If you are interested in an overview of Traditional Patterns of Organization or a list of Transitional Words and Phrases, click on the links for a .pdf you can download and print. Then share your own strategies for enhancing the flow of ideas in the space below.

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Performance Reviews, Part II: How to Write Self-Evaluations that Generate Support and Respect

By Caroline M. Cole

Performance Reviews, Part I: How to Write Evaluations that Serve Employees and Organizations Alike” examines strategies for assessing others but, on occasion, we may need to evaluate ourselves. Self-evaluations, for example, are increasingly common in organizations that use 360º reviews or other multi-modal assessment protocols to generate more accurate representations of team member performance and contributions. As such, being able to represent our work and ourselves can offer a perspective that would not otherwise be available. Yet even beyond traditional performance review contexts, the ability to write credible self-evaluations is invaluable, for at their core, self-assessments explain what we have done and the value those efforts have brought to others—information that can be instrumental when we’re asking to be included on a particular project, given additional responsibilities, promoted within an organization, or even considered for a new position.Performance Reviews, Self-Evaluations that Generate Support and Respect

In brief, self-evaluations are tools that can help us move into and through forums in more strategic ways, if we know what to do. Unfortunately, whether we’re writing self-assessments that will accompany other review materials or providing stand-alone appraisals, the process can be daunting. It’s one thing, after all, to promote others, but it’s something else to promote ourselves, especially considering that there is a thin line between projecting confidence and appearing arrogant. There are, however, ways to write self-evaluations that not only depict our abilities, but generate support and respect from readers. The following strategies explain how to do so.

• Start with a job description. As explained in the previous post, evaluations are most effective when individual contributions are correlated against larger goals and directives. Therefore, the starting point for any self-evaluation should be a record of the responsibilities we were expected to meet, and job descriptions often provide a synopsis of these expectations.

Identifying general responsibilities, as well as those for particular projects and assignments, job descriptions can also call out the knowledge, skills, and training necessary to meet those expectations or otherwise complete tasks to others’ satisfaction. This information, therefore, can help us examine whether we have acquired, maintained, or enhanced our expertise in ways the organization could put to use. Recognizing, however, that job descriptions may evolve as corporate culture, office personnel, team goals, project demands, and so on change, we must also consider any additional or different expectations which may not be not reflected in our current job description. Depending on the context, we also may need to bear in mind earlier discussions or reviews that may have directly or indirectly modified the expectations others have of us.

By recognizing all that we have been asked to do, we can better explain where and how we have contributed to larger endeavors.

• Map experiences and efforts onto others’ expectations. Although identifying what we have been asked to do is the foundation of an evaluation, we must also be mindful of the criteria people will be using to assess our performance given the combinations of our responsibilities in the contexts in which we are being observed. After all, knowing which expectations people will be looking at—as well as the signs or benchmarks they may be using to evaluate whether we have, in fact, met those expectations—can help us emphasize and subordinate elements in our reviews to greatest effect.

Consider, for example, the way Olympic gymnastic performances are evaluated. Using a Code of Points that was overhauled in 2006, judges are now evaluating competitors with a combination of Composition Requirements, Difficulty scores, Difficulty Value, Connection Value, and Execution scores. In this revised system, competitors lose points for errors in execution, but gain points for degrees of difficulty, prompting gymnasts to develop routines with increasingly challenging components. Although some critics argue that this revised system promotes difficulty over form, execution, and consistency, an awareness of what counts most in their performance allows gymnasts to develop routines that can both highlight their strengths and generate more points in various events.

As employees, it’s unlikely that we will receive a Codes of Points to help us develop high-scoring routines for our respective job responsibilities. Even so, we can assume that we will be judged according to the ways we take up, execute, and “stick the landing” on our various responsibilities—especially those that help others and the larger organizations move forward with greater effectiveness and efficiency. Here, then, is where records of our contributions can be of use.

We might, for instance, review calendars, emails, project reports, deal logs, phone records, and the like to recall projects and activities that may have become less familiar in the wake of new responsibilities. Along the way, we should look for quantifiable evidence that can document the impact of our work. For example, are there indications that sales, partnerships, contracts, ventures, referrals, earnings, and so on increased, decreased, or remained static as a result of our efforts? Have we received any oral or written feedback from supervisors, peers, subordinates, or clients?

By understanding where and how our performance in different arenas have helped (or hindered) others, we can position ourselves to write self-evaluations that others judging our performance could support.

• Include the evaluative element. Most people who write self-evaluations simply report job responsibilities or tasks they have performed, assuming readers can or will infer the significance of those efforts. Unfortunately, as explained in “Performance Reviews, Part I…,” performance reviews and evaluations must do more than list or summarize what we have done; they must explain the value we have provided or created by fulfilling our responsibilities in the contexts and in the ways we did.

Again, evidence that documents an increase in sales, contracts, earnings, and so on—as well as any oral and written feedback from others about our work—can help us discuss the contributions we have made to the team, division, or larger company in concrete terms. But gathering this information is just the start. Ultimately, we must help others recognize our value, and the next strategy explains how to do so without contributing to the vain, hollow evaluations that dominate the workplace.

• Resist hyperbole, adjectives, and other relative terms. “Show, not tell” is a motto for performance reviews in general, but even more so in self-evaluations. After all, peppering our reviews with pronouncements of how amazing, wonderful, talented, exceptional, energetic… we may have been fails to elucidate the value we have provided, much less the value we could offer in other contexts. Equally problematic is that we appear overly boastful in ways that work against our case. Therefore, to demonstrate value in ways that generate consensus and respect, we must explain what we have done in ways that the people reading our self-evaluation could both recognize and support. Resisting hyperbole, adjectives, and other relative terms can help in this effort.

As explained in “Performance Reviews, Part I,” relative terms are words—typically adjectives, but also concepts—that assume identical points of reference for defining, gauging, and understanding competent, effective, proficient, fast, and other terms that people use to describe their skills in favorable ways. Hyperboles are the superlative versions of these terms (for example, excellent, extraordinary, superb, outstanding, exceptional), suggesting there is no better.

Although such words can add linguistic flair, they become problematic for those who may neither know nor have not observed what, exactly, we have done. After all, we know what we mean when we use these words, and those reading our evaluations know what they mean when they read these words, but whether we mean exactly the same thing as those reading our performance reviews is unclear, and unlikely, making it easier to understand why self-evaluations that contain references like the following raise concerns:

I am highly skilled in a range of office protocols.

Eager to provide the best experience for customers, I offer exceptional customer service.

Well-versed in all of our products, I am always prepared to meet increasing customer demand with the greatest efficiency.

I am fast learner, able to master complex information with minimal effort.

Having out-ranked most people in my division for several years, I continue to excel in various forums.

I can handle multiple projects simultaneously with ease.

Applying the “X was so Y” trope comedians would use to encourage audiences to respond, “How Y is/was it?” can help us identify ways to explain our contributions in ways others could understand, even if they have not witnessed our efforts personally. Consider, for example, the following excepts from self-assessments:

“In September, I attended the Drug Development Boot Camp at Harvard University, where I learned about the patenting, licensing, and registration of drugs. Using this information, I have been able to identify hospitals and biotechnology companies involved in pediatric research and drug development at all stages of the drug development process, doubling the number of organizations we are working with to bring our product to hospitals and private care providers by the end of next year.”

* * *

“In June, I co-facilitated the laboratory orientation for graduate student interns. After soliciting senior researchers, lab technicians, and administrators for topics to guide this 6-hour program, I helped design an itinerary that not only gave students hands-on experience with the equipment in the Zeller, Emerson, and Giggo laboratories, but that introduced students to the policies and protocols governing each lab. To supplement this training, Jeanne Lawrence and I created an orientation manual to guide discussions and to serve as a reference after the program. In the months that followed, we continued to update the manual using feedback from the interns, as well as from the senior researchers and technicians who have also consulted these materials.”

Such matter-of-fact descriptions can help others understand the contributions we make without the arrogance or self-deprecation inherent in most self-evaluation adjectives. As importantly, by giving concrete, verifiable descriptions of our work, we encourage others to become our allies and even our cheerleaders, for instead of offering a list of inflated adjectives that someone else may never use to describe our work or contributions, we provide tangible evidence others could use to pound the proverbial table on our behalf.

• Consider areas of improvement—even in places of success. As we review our list of accomplishments, we should also consider projects that did not go as planned or efforts that did not meet expectations so that we can be proactive in addressing these areas in our review. After all, being able to fairly, honestly, and objectively comment on our efforts—even those that may have been less successful than desired—can demonstrate an ability to realistically assess our skills. Moreover, it can give us more control over how these efforts are framed and, by extension, viewed by others.

To that end, we might examine what was expected, what materialized, and what may have accounted for any discrepancies. Even if we might be able to argue that others are mostly or fully liable, we should focus on where and how we may have been responsible for things that did not go as planned. For instance, could our instructions have been clearer? Should we have asked more or better questions? Should we have been more or less involved? Should our contributions have been different? Could we have been more thorough, more accurate, or more timely? Should we have noticed some things more quickly? Such questions can help us uncover areas that could have been more effective and efficient—regardless of whether we accomplished what we set out to do—and ways or forums in which to enhance our performance going forward.

Identify what is necessary to do a better job. As we look for areas to improve, we may discover that we need more assistance. At times we may need particular tools, equipment, resources, or professional training and development. At other times, we may need clearer guidelines, more explicit feedback, or stronger managerial support. Whatever the form, being able to identify what we need can help us know what to request going forward, thereby ensuring not only our success, but the success of others who depend on our work.

Develop a plan of action. Although performance reviews focus primarily on what has been done, they do so in an effort to identify where to go next. In light of where we have succeeded, and areas we could improve, we should then consider where and how to proceed to be most efficient, effective, and strategic in helping the team, division, and larger organization achieve their goals. That is, we need a plan of action.

Starting with our current job responsibilities, we might examine what we should continue to do, and what can or should change as we take up those tasks. For instance, are there things we should be doing sooner, later, or differently than we presently do them, and what might such changes look like in the weeks and months ahead? Along the way, we might consider ways to streamline responsibilities, freeing up time or other resources so we can take on other tasks or projects of interest. And, if we have demonstrated an ability to objectively and realistically assess our performance, we may be able to propose new projects and activities that align with our team or the larger organization’s goals.

Certainly others may have suggestions for where and how we are to proceed after the review, but having an idea of where we would like to go and how we might get there can prepare us for any discussions that require us to talk about short- or long-term directives we’d like to pursue.

• Set up and maintain a record of contributions for subsequent reviews. Many people think about their performance reviews and the information they may need to provide when they get notice that they’re up for evaluation. By then, however, it’s too late. Scrambling to recall and gather evidence to suggest their worth, these employees inevitably forget key details that can effectively present their contributions to decisions makers. More problematic is that these employees often believe that others can or will fill in the gaps; when they don’t, the employees are left wondering why their supervisors, peers, and subordinates didn’t do more to promote their efforts.

As explained in “Start Preparing for Your Performance Review Today,” the more we do, the more the descriptions of what we do get flattened; that is, we assume that a task, title, or forum says it all. Or, we may assume that others can remember everything we ha done with as much or greater clarity than we can, so we do not provide much information. Unfortunately, it’s the smaller, nuanced details that often make the most compelling case, but if we cannot recall those elements or give those details to others to use on our behalf, we will continually work at a disadvantage. Therefore, we must get into the habit of recording our contributions.

By keeping a record of what we do and the impact those efforts have made, we will not only be able to identify ways we are meeting, extending, or drifting from our responsibilities, but we maintain a list of concrete, verifiable information that can help us draft a self-assessment on a moment’s notice.

* * *

Employees tend to dread the self-evaluation, seeing it as one more thing on a never-ending “To Do” list, but self-evaluations provide an opportunity to participate in the assessment process which, for many organizations, has increasingly higher stakes. As importantly, self-assessments allow us to fill in, clarify, or redress interpretations and potential misunderstandings about our performance, or even ourselves. Consequently, we should welcome the opportunity to add our voice to the conversations. In doing so, we may find talents we have acquired or honed, places we have excelled, areas we can improve, projects we have enjoyed more (or less) than we might have imagined, and directions we would like to move in the weeks and months ahead. And it is this information that, ultimately, will help us become better performers with the support and respect we seek.

Working toward Arête
In the space below, share your strategies for writing self-assessments that help you reach your short- and long-term goals.

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