Top Three Pieces of Communication Advice

Hearing Those Who Sacrificed for Our Freedom

Reading out loud the names of fallen soldiers this Memorial Day as I walk through the cemetery, I hear the bravery of those who gave their lives for our freedom and the sorrow of those who lost their loved ones. They no longer speak, but we can still hear the meaning of their sacrifice as we live our privileged lives of freedom. Strength can be found in acknowledging all those who came before us and especially those who died defending our country. Those with medals of honor and those unknown soldiers all deserve to be heard on this day of remembrance.

Dum Tacet Clamat – Though Silent, He Speaks

Graves of Unknown Soldiers

Bearing Witness to Ease Suffering

In times of great personal and community suffering, we can ease others’ pain through listening, through bearing witness to their experience. We encounter others’ distress through social media, but we also encounter it at work as we hear stories of our colleagues going through hard times. This blog was motivated by my personal encounters of suffering this week including stories of war, the continued pandemic suffering, and the death of a dear friend’s mother. I was also inspired by a conversation with a client who provides palliative care. Sometimes the pain around us gets to be so much we are at a loss of what to do. In these times we can remember the power of bearing witness, of validating the existence of something simply by being present.

My client Dr. Cheng provides palliative care to patients at UCSF’s Cancer Center. In preparing to speak on the topic of palliative care and integrative medicine, Dr. Cheng commented, “Palliative care welcomes grief into the room and allows it. Given the times – pandemic and war – we need to let grief and pain in the room.” I asked how we actually do that and the response was, “Inviting people to share whatever they are experiencing and bearing witness and deep listening and letting go of other agendas. As you and I know, the caregiver and facilitator need to first do that for themselves.”

What a powerful reminder. 

Inviting People to Share

Asking open-ended questions is the best way to invite people to share. These questions allow for expression of whatever is occurring for the person at the time. We make room for what arises by being open to anything people choose to say. Open ended questions often start with the word ‘what’ as these examples below show.

  • What would be most helpful for you to share about your experience?
  • What is most present for you at this moment?
  • What are you experiencing right now?
  • What was that like for you?

Bearing Witness with Deep Listening

Verifying that something exists can be done through deep listening. Listening is a gift and can be demonstrated by being fully present, setting intentions, and giving appropriate cues. We can intend to hear everything others are expressing with voice and body and we can avoid thinking of other things while they speak. If we start to plan our response while someone is speaking, we can just acknowledge but not follow that train of thought and return to deep listening. The nonverbal listening cues of head tilting and nodding help the speaker feel heard and are likely to come naturally when we are listening deeply.

Letting Go of Other Agendas

When we are being mindful, we might notice that we actually have something we want out of supporting others. We might want them to perceive us as being helpful. We might want to make things better by offering our hard-earned advice. We want might to demonstrate that we understand by sharing an experience of our own. These are our agendas. It is instinctive to have agendas, but when we are bearing witness, our agendas are not helpful. We can let go of our agendas by naming them in our heads as they arise and then visualizing them passing on, like a leaf floating down a river. We can focus entirely on bearing witness. The kindness of letting go of our agendas gives more space for others, more room for grief to be present.

Building Our Strength First

Bearing witness is emotional work. It might sound simple through the steps just outlined, but simple is not easy. We feel others’ pain when we hear their stories. To be in a place to offer this deep listening, we need to first take care of ourselves. That means making space for our own pain or grief and listening to ourselves without any self-criticism about how things ‘should’ be at any given time.    

We all encounter others’ suffering on a regular basis at work, in our personal lives, and through world news in various forms of media. While we don’t have the power to stop war or solve a colleague’s woes, we do have the power to bear witness to others’ experience and, being resolutely present, ease the pain.

Virtual Teams Require Explicit Communication

Teamwork is helpful but hard – and virtual teamwork is even harder. In an increasingly distributed work environment, more explicit communication is required in virtual teams to make up for the missing subtle communication that automatically occurs when in person.

When teams are effective, the outcomes are impressive. Research shows effective teams generate better solutions to problems with multiple possible outcomes, which is just about every 21st century problem we face. The key word here is “effective.” An effective team achieves their tasks, has high satisfaction among team members, and has viability for the future. It also has a high level of team virtuousness, or adoption of norms and moral commitment, which leads to team cohesiveness. On the flip side, ineffective teams can slow things down and create interpersonal conflict.

As we know from experience, so much of success and satisfaction with teamwork happens through communication. In person, this includes all the subtly of nonverbal communication. We notice our teammate is having a bad day by the way they sit at their desk, a bit slumped with their head hanging, so we save our critical feedback on their part of the project until tomorrow. We can tell by their upright and leaning forward posture when we discuss one element of an issue that it is of great interest to that team member, so we suggest they take it on. In person, we take in myriads of signals that guide how we relate to team members to help us be part of an effective team. When we lack all those signals, it gets more challenging.

Virtual teams have a harder time communicating the subtleties of interpersonal relationships, requiring different tactics. Of course, there are benefits of virtual teams, including being able to tap experts regardless of geography and being able to build a team of diverse members. Innovative technologies, such as video and chat and so many collaboration applications, have made it logistically easier for virtual teams to share content and interact. But even video does not provide the richness of interaction that benefits in-person teams. Since we know virtual teams are here to stay and communication is more difficult without in-person nonverbal cues, we can compensate with more explicit communication processes and techniques.

Explicit communication processes and techniques that are helpful for virtual teams include consistent structured and unstructured team meetings, reflecting back to indicate we listened, and metacommunication to adjust for effectiveness.

Consistent Team Meetings

Because virtual teams lose much of the ability to have “water cooler” talk, consistent meetings become more important. Having calendared time that team members can depend upon for working through strategy and task execution increases effectiveness and satisfaction. Both structured and unstructured meetings are important because they serve different purposes. Structured meetings with set agendas move things forward for the team and give team members a way to share and discuss items in a timely fashion. Unstructured meetings serve the purpose of letting team members communicate issues and ideas that are not specifically task related. Even in unstructured meetings, there still needs to be mechanisms to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak their minds, such as round-robin shares prior to open discussion. But the agendas can be open and fluid with any team member bringing up something that is top of their mind.

Reflecting Back

At a micro level, interpersonal communication on virtual teams can improve just by making the practice of reflecting back a team norm. Reflecting back, sometimes called replay, is when one team member shares what they perceive they heard from another team member. For example, when a team member says, “I don’t know why everyone has to edit each document before it gets posted. I don’t have time for that much editing and other team members just need to trust that I am an expert in my area.” Another team member could reflect back, “I hear you are feeling time pressure and want to be respected for your level of expertise, and that makes total sense. Is that an accurate depiction?” Notice that there was no judgment nor any recommended action or solution in that reflect-back statement. Reflecting back is purely a technique for making team members feel heard. It occurs before the problem-solving step. It replaces the subtle nonverbal communication of the empathetic head nod and facial expressions we would give in person to make somebody feel heard.


Metacommunication is the discussion of how interactions are occurring. Just like metadata, it is pulling up a level to get a new perspective. This technique is helpful in many situations where there is a misunderstanding, but it is imperative for virtual teams to meet the third element of effectiveness: viability for the future. No matter how much team members are committed, the very nature of being human means there will be miscommunication. When the team norm is to apply metacommunication when things are not running smoothly, problems can be efficiently addressed. Miscommunications are often about differing perceptions of the same thing. For example, one team member perceives moving quickly through a portion of the agenda as indictive as that part not being important, while another perceives it as a means to keeping the meeting on topic and on time. The first team member might feel disrespected if that section was about content that they felt was important. By pulling up a level and having metacommunication about the incident, the second team member could make it abundantly clear that they highly respect that person and their work and they were just working to keep the meeting on time.    

Since we know that virtual teams will be part of the workforce in the foreseeable future, adjusting our communication to make our teams effective is critical. Meeting consistently, replaying content to make people feel heard, and using metacommunication to resolve issues are techniques that help make up for the missing nonverbal cues we get with in-person teams.

Creating Progress: John J. Kelly, Good Samaritan

Our world needs kind leaders who create progress, and John J. Kelly was one such leader helping people improve their lives. The recently published book, The Quintessential Good Samaritan, tells of John Kelly’s life work in making a difference in the lives of so many people. Through many engaging stories we learn of his compassionate leadership style. What stood out in his leadership is humble connections with others, good story telling, and persistent pursuit of his ideals no matter the pushback. Over the course of his life, he did this as a priest, and educator, an advocate for the poor, a mentor for troubled youth, and an inspiration to the incarcerated.

Humble Connections

Time and time again, people recount how John Kelly met them as they were as an equal.  He was able to erase the power gap of his position in society and truly connect human-to-human with others. One example of this connection was how at risk-youth went from making no eye contact and not speaking to calling John ‘abuelo’ (grandfather) and teasing him about his common expression ‘oh stop it’ as they laughed with him.  A San Quentin inmate who built a strong relationship with John Kelly in his progress of turning his life from prisoner to positive community contributor in society, told of John’s connections to other as recounted in the book. “ . . . he was in his mid-seventies, yet he engaged nineteen and twenty-year old gang bangers – Noreños, Sereños, Black folks from the East Bay. You could look at him as a friend . . . He always came as an equal which attracted people to him.”

An important note is that John Kelly, because of his humble nature, would not take credit for all that I am attributing to him here or of the achievements listed in the book. He would attribute the success to the individuals changing their own lives and to the many citizens who contributed to building community and helping others. While all of this is true, his leadership did strongly influence change and progress in countless lives.

Stories for Wisdom

Storytelling was integral to John’s leadership. He told stories to illustrate life and he facilitated others to tell their stories both as a means of self-healing and as a means of sharing wisdom with others. He told stories as a priest to bring religion into the reality of people’s lives, as a teacher to demonstrate life lessons, and as a mentor to at-risk youth and the incarcerated to inspire. When John was mentoring at-risk youth, he had inmates from San Quentin write letters to the teens he was coaching and had them read the letters out loud to each other. They told stories of how they were once in the same place as these teens, thinking that the gangs were their families, only to realize that they would be abandoned when something went wrong and they too would end up in prison. The stories from people who walked the same path were so much more effective than a school guidance counselor lecturing a student about the hazards of gangs. And through the Kairos program at San Quentin, Kelly helped inmates change their lives with the important first step of writing their own stories to acknowledge both the tragedies of their childhoods and the responsibility of their own actions.

Passionate Persistence

Persistent pursuit of equal kindness and opportunity for all people did not make Kelly popular among some in power, but it did allow him to make the change he wanted to see in the world. As a priest, John Kelly pushed against what he believed was ill-guided in the establishment. He supported striking lay (non-priest) teachers who were not receiving commensurate pay to public school teachers, he permitted non-Catholics to participate in taking communion, and he deviated from traditional mass. All of these acts of defiance were motivated by compassion for people and the community. These acts had consequence both positive and negative. He made incredible human connections and life-time friendships and he also was chastised by the religious establishment and eventually left the priesthood.  Yet his persistent pursuit of fairness continued through his work at Samaritan House and at San Quentin Prison. Many times, he bumped up against other leaders who believed he went too far in giving the disadvantaged second chances, even when they continued a life of crime. But those who managed to break the cycle would say that this unconditional love provided by Kelly was exactly what they needed to go against all odd to change their lives.

I was lucky enough to have met John Kelly on a few occasions, including when he spoke at San Francisco State University to a group of students interested in leadership and restorative justice. I saw firsthand his unrelenting passionate pursuit of ideals, his use of stories, and the human connection he so quickly created with the students. This student engagement was one more example of so many throughout John Kelly’s life where he instigated change for individuals and society.








The Case for Incremental Progress

We are embarking on a new year – what kinds of goals have you set for yourself? Setting big audacious goals and expecting quick results is tempting but can cause us to fail with inaction because we become overwhelmed by the enormity of them. Breaking those goals into smaller increments – and setting the expectation of progress in the same way – we see that it is not too much to take on. I recently added a new exercise to my morning routine and it has certainly given me practice in heeding my own advice on progress. The first day I was barely able to do one and now, after 25 days, I can do eight. My goal is 22 and it may take the better part of the year for me to get there – incremental progress.

Communication habits take time and incremental progress to change. Habits are automatic behaviors that we’ve learned from an original motivation which now occur without a conscious motivation. Changing unwanted habits requires consciously replacing that action with a new one, until the new action can occur without conscious motivation. Research shows that habits take time and repetition to build. 

Take one of the most common communication habits that people want to change: audible pauses (um, uh, so, er). We can make a goal of having silent pauses and come up with strategies, such as pressing the roof of our mouth with our tongue, but we will still use audible pauses in our speech for some time because they are a habit. They occur without conscious effort. Our original motivation that formed the habit was likely to hold our spot in a conversation so that somebody else doesn’t interrupt. We need to replace the audible pause with something else that holds our spot – such as executive presence through bold posture. Then, over time, we achieve the same goal of holding the conversation with a different action. We consciously and repeatedly replace audible pauses with bold posture and the tongue on the roof of our mouth so no sound comes out. We build a new habit – incremental progress.

Setting realistic habit-change expectations and tracking incremental progress will reduce frustration and the tendency to be self-critical, which only sets us back. In the reducing audible pauses example, it is better to start by picking one meeting a week in which fewer than five audible pauses are used. Then, the next week, pick that same meeting and one other, gradually increasing the number and types of communication interactions in which we utilize our new habit. Gentle persistence applied relentlessly.   

In this first month of the year, join me in taking on new challenges, applying persistence in small increments over time, and making progress. From Benjamin Franklin’s idiom, “Little strokes fell great oaks,” we get the reminder that small everyday efforts make change happen.