GOP: The Mandate for Change

 

Conservatives are entering week two of the worst election hangover ever experienced.  I was never so close to the national process so as to discern the true topline expectations for the 2012 presidential race, but the view from the ground was that it was nothing short of a disaster for Republicans.

Just two days after the election, Politico’s Kenneth Vogel voiced the frustration of high level GOP donors, wondering whether this presidential race was simply a “Billion Dollar Bust?”  Stan Hubbard, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Freiss, Ron Kauffman, and the Koch brothers are but a few names on a long list of conservatives who invested tens of millions to ultimately see the Romney campaign fail to secure a single battleground state.

That said the loss could actually be a blessing in disguise if we take time to step back, look inward, and realize that we can make certain changes and become a national party once again.  There are a number of fundamental facts that will have to be true if conservatives and Republicans are to truly affect the direction of our country into the future.

The Rebuilding Must Begin Immediately.  The 2014 midterms are absolutely critical.  In 2012, Republicans lost at least seven seats in the House and now sit at an eight seat disadvantage in the Senate.  However, in 2014 Democrats will defend 20 seats, while Republicans only have to defend 13.  Six of those Democrats come from “red” states.  If we’re to make ideological and strategic adjustments as a party, they must begin now, and be in place for the midterms.

The Establishment Isn’t Working.  The current GOP establishment isn’t delivering. We now have three presidential election cycles (Bush 2004 was an anomaly) and the accompanying midterms (particularly the disastrous midterms of 2006) of data.  That data screams that the GOP establishment is outdated, out of touch, and unable to deliver.  We need fresh ideas, fresh leadership, and a new outlook (not driven by fringes and pledges).

We Must Solve Our Issuephrenia.  Are we social conservatives?  Are we fiscal conservatives? We are a fractured party, filled with single issue voters, values voters, pragmatists, fiscal voters, and traditional voters. We MUST re-define what our party is about. Sunday, Senator Tom Coburn (R – OK) mourned the failure of the GOP to establish a positive vision in the 2012 elections. Specifically, we must move national security back to the forefront.  We must repackage how we discuss economic issues and the national debt – fiscal conservatism is a tough pitch when the average family is swimming in credit card debt – and doesn’t care. We need to embrace certain parts of the libertarian movement – we cannot ask the government to leave our guns alone and, at the same time, ask the government to interfere with the sexual decisions of a person inside their own home.  Finally, social conservatism is, and can be, cool.  See 2012 Republican Presidential Primary: Rick Santorum for President.

We’re Getting Whipped At The Line of Scrimmage. As an SEC fan, hardly a day passes from September to January that I don’t hear some version of “Our football games are won in the trenches, at the line of scrimmage.” In the SEC, the team with the best linemen wins. That’s also true in politics.  The line of scrimmage is the beginning of the debate, where definitions take place.  We’re allowing the other side to define our values, our issues, and our personality as a party.  That trend must stop. For example, we must stop allowing the left to define us as “anti-woman,” as opposed to defining ourselves as pro-family. This also speaks to the previous point about pitching a positive vision – as long as the left is able to define us as the “party of no,” we lose.

The GOP Must Accept That We Have Failed at Diversity and Commit to Change. Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez chastised the GOP yesterday on CNN’s State of the Union for their poor performance with Hispanic voters.  In 2000, Bush won over 40% of the Hispanic vote.  In 2008, McCain squeaked out just over 30%, and Romney won a little over 20%.  The numbers are bad, and the trend is even worse.  It’s even more repulsive when you accept the fact that Hispanic voters are values voters – family centered, faith driven, and defined by work ethic.  There’s no excuse for these statistics.  The same goes for African American voters.  There’s no excuse for only winning 4% of ANY particular voting bloc.

Stop Ignoring the Generational Gap.  President Obama overwhelmingly won young voters in the 2012 elections, and Democrats consistently perform better with younger voters.  This point is tied directly to the leadership of the GOP.  It’s time for the old guard to retire, and a new generation to step up and take the initiative for assuring the future of our party.

We Must Learn How to Fire Up The Base.  Hundreds of emails flew about prior to the 2012 election, lauding the excitement of the Republican base. It wasn’t the base.  Activists were fired up, but the base was not.  Until we find a way to hook and involve average voters with whom we have ideological identification, we will continue to lose the ground game.

It’s the Ground Game, Stupid.  The age old, organically created ground game of the labor movement has dominated grassroots politics for decades, and 2012 was no exception.  The pro-business, free market leaders of the western world must learn to create an organic, aggressive political machine to match the labor unions. Buying millions in TV ads doesn’t count – it must be manifested in ground troops and political elbow grease.

The Fringes Must Be Managed.  Those to whom we can offer our thanks for Todd Akin, Richard Murdock, and pledges for every issue under the sun have been a nice experiment.  Certain parts of the tea party have done a fabulous job bringing fundamental fiscal issues back to the forefront.  Since that time, most of the fringe elements of the GOP have demonstrated a consistent record of political tomfoolery (see “Romney lost because he was too moderate;” “Hey, y’all, let’s just secede!” In which he calls Romney a “poopyhead.”)

We Must Revitalize The Process for Vetting Candidates.  Though we can fundamentally thank the tea party for candidates like Todd Akin, it’s still incumbent upon the Republican Party structure to ensure that candidates like Sarah Palin, Todd Akin, and Linda McMahon aren’t the nominees in critical elections.  See importance of 2014 midterms.

We Must Refine Our Voter Expectations.  Are voters in the U.S. selfless?  Do they care about future generations?  Are we still fundamentally a center right nation? How do we exactly expect Americans to vote?  For my part, I still consider us to be a center right nation, though I question the true character of our voting electorate.  We cannot effectively communicate with voters if we’ve fundamentally mischaracterized them in our messaging assumptions.

Retail Politics Still Works.  Again, see 2012 Republican Presidential Primary: Rick Santorum for President.  And, if 2012 is any indication, we can’t advertise our way into winning the electoral college.

We Cannot Forsake the Ghost of Reagan.  Last week, a local pundit insisted that it was time for the Republican Party to leave behind the ghost of Ronald Reagan.  I couldn’t disagree more strongly.  The principles and strategies upon which Reagan based his decisions and administrations are more relevant today in democratic republicanism than ever before.  It’s critical that we determine how to revitalize and reapply those principles.

Is Surviving Really Winning?

This post is only about two days late, but I guess late is better than never.  For the first time in quite awhile, I actually looked forward to the Presidential debate this week.  Contrary to my previously aloof attitude about such events, I’d already planned to put my reaction on paper.  So, I watched the debate, and my social media feeds, with far a far more intensity than I have in years.  Several factors stuck out to me.

First, CNN’s rolling poll on male and female voters showed Romney getting consistently better reactions from female voters than male voters.

Second, the participants in the town hall, though perhaps self identified undecided voters, didn’t appear to be so undecided.  The Commission should be embarrassed at the composition of both the audience and the questions.

Third, Governor Romney clearly flubbed the answer on Libya.  He was given a golden opportunity and whiffed.  That said, I think he whiffed because, as psychologically mature and tempered as he is, he was absolutely floored by what President Obama implied in discussing the Rose Garden press conference.

Finally, I like Candy Crowley.  Depending on our church schedule, I typically either watch or record State of the Union on Sundays. However, as a moderator, Ms. Crowley did a poor job keeping the time of possession, structure of the conversation, and general atmosphere balanced and under control.  Neither candidate helped with their approach, but the moderator has a duty to keep things running professionally and fairly.  Ms. Crowley did neither.

Had this debate been the first of the season, Governor Romney would have won by a slight edge.  His command of numbers, statistics, and general facts places him in a significantly better position.  However, the benchmark for success changed dramatically as a result of President Obama’s poor performance in the first debate.

This round, President Obama was far more alert, aggressive, and attentive.  As such, earned both a slight win and, we thought 48 hours ago, a chance to stop the bleeding.

Today, Gallup’s 7-day rolling poll indicates that Governor Romney has a 7 point advantage over likely voters.  Despite his vastly improved performance this week, President Obama is running at a disadvantage because the Romney campaign can, and will, continue to hammer home his absolute lack of first term success.  The numbers don’t lie, and the last four years have been a resounding failure in terms of the economy, jobs, fiscal health, and even foreign policy.  Unless President Obama can find a way to direct the discussion away from the failures of the Bush administration, the failures of the Obama administration, and forward to how he plans to fix our economy, he will continue to lose momentum.

Living Your Life

Sometimes life has the tendency to get in the way of things.  Other times, life seems to get in the way of life itself.  But, God often has a way of working even our busyness and inability to prioritize for our good.  As a new Dad, a young professional, and an aspiring leader, I’m becoming more grateful for that every day.

Yesterday, in the midst of a conversation over coffee, a new friend offered an offhand premise for our conversation about life, finances, and goals. Since then, that statement has been rolling around in my mind as a principle that, for me, could be foundational in my development as a husband, father, and professional.

“I want to live my life, and live it well.”

Often I find myself adopting the goals, aspirations, and standards of other people.  Suddenly, I’m working towards their paycheck, their standard of living, their level of responsibility, and yet, when I take a moment to re-evaluate, I find that those things aren’t really that important to me.

A few moments retrospect causes me to realize that God’s given me a career that I love, a family that blesses me beyond imagination, and that’s just the beginning.  I need to stop second guessing myself and focus on enjoying and living my life well.

The Lost Art of the Handwritten Thank You Note

 

Over the last two years, I had the privilege of participating in two Georgia based political leadership programs.  Both of these programs are an outgrowth of a program founded by Georgia’s late Senator Paul Coverdell.  Through the class, I built some friendships I believe will last a lifetime, and also gained some valuable professional knowledge.  However, one of the greatest benefits I gained from the class was a reminder of an ageless art that, in our digital age, seems to be fading into the distance along with compact discs, the Space Shuttle, and the Pro Bowl.

After each class concluded, we were given a list of the sponsors for that class and asked to send each one a written thank you note.  Written thank you notes are a discipline I’ve tried hard to develop over the years, and so I grudgingly added each one to my list and completed it.  However, the value of what we were doing didn’t hit home until later.

After graduating from the program, I was honored to be invited back to present two workshops on different public affairs disciplines to the class after mine.  And, true to form, a week or so after each workshop, I received several hand written thank you notes from attendees who’d been subjected to my prattling.  It was one of the few times that I recall ever having received a personal, hand written thank you note and it was a gesture I greatly appreciated.

The art of the handwritten thank you note is truly that – an art.  The are numerous benefits, both personally and professionally, that come from the practice.  Writing a personal thank you note:

1. Distinguishes you from 95% of the other people with whom that other person will meet.  As goes the old saying, “Scarcity determines value,” and the relative rarity of handwritten thank you notes in today’s digital age will almost immediately distinguish from most of your colleagues and competitors.

2. Forces us to expand our ability to communicate.  After a few botched attempts (there is no spell check or backspace), we learn very quickly to create such thank you notes thoughtfully and deliberately.  This skill will serve us well in other areas of verbal and written communications.

3.  Shows the person to whom you’re sending the note that you actually care about what you discussed, the information they provided you, or the project on which you’re collaborating.  Showing an emotional investment in the meeting, discussion, or collaboration you shared with that person creates an additional layer of trust and credibility in the relationship building process.

4.  Helps that person remember you.  In the case of a cold call, initial conversation, interview, or quasi request for help, it’s critical to leave your potential customer or client with a positive memory of their experience with you as a person and professional.  There’s no better way to leave that positive impression than with a personalized, handwritten communique.

5.  Finally, this practice will help you stop and slowly think through your meeting or conversation.  This will allow you to think creatively about takeaways, followups, or other mental reviews that help you maximize the meeting and relationship.

For me, it has been an invaluable professional development discipline to write personal thank you notes once per week.  If you’ve never done it, I highly recommend you give it a shot for a month or two.  You might be surprised at the results.

Fundamental Habits: Situational Awareness

 

Several years ago, Kara and I were in a department store Christmas shopping.  It was partially our fault for having waited so long to finish our shopping, but there we were in a crush of shoppers two days before Christmas.  Needless to say, it was a struggle for my wife, who’s the definition of petite.  No sooner had we walked through the front door than another man and his wife came flying around the corner and nearly knocked Kara off her feet. Needless to say, I had some stern words for that couple that amounted to a little less than “Have a Merry Christmas.” Thank goodness he didn’t actually hit her, or it would have been something akin to Christmas with the Kranks.

Last week, I was at the gym with my brother in law.  We were in the middle of a three station circuit and had to stop three different times for people ignoring the towels and water bottles laying on the floor and jumping in front of us.  I considered a confrontation before I just gave up and moved on.  Maybe that was because several weeks before, I’d had to apologize to a guy who turned out to be a super nice guy after I called him out for jumping in front of us.

As I was thinking back over those incidents, I began to realize the true source of my irritation, and, much to my embarrassment, the lesson I should have been learning. It should have quickly made me aware of my own lack of situational awareness.

United States Coast Guard training manual defines situational awareness as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission.  More simply, it’s knowing what’s going on around you.

For military guys, this is probably not a foreign concept.  However, for guys without formal operational training, it’s not second nature to consider what’s going on around you.  I know it’s not for me.  There are plenty of things I’ve done over the years to offend other people, act inconsiderately, or generally make a fool of myself.  It’s all too easy as busy men with jobs, families, and community responsibilities to get in a zone and completely forget to pay attention to what’s going on around us.

However, our failure to notice what’s going on around us may be more of a disservice to us than to anyone else.  When we lack situational awareness, we miss opportunities to network, opportunities to build relationships, opportunities to serve others, opportunities to build business, opportunities to learn, opportunities to love, opportunities to sacrifice, and opportunities to share.

So, here are three quick habits I’ve been trying to incorporate into my day in order to increase my situational awareness.

First, I’ve found that I need to more completely embrace my responsibility as a protector and provider for those around me.  It is my responsibility as a leader in my home, church, and workplace to serve those around me.  I’ve been given many blessings in a wonderful family, a great job, a healthy body, and a great group of friends.  Because I’m so blessed, I owe it to those around me to try to be a blessing to them.

Secondly, I try (and don’t always succeed) to look for reasons to go out of my way to help people I am around each day.  I try to find excuses to be more considerate of my wife, my extended family, my co-workers, and the guys I see at the gym.  I’m learning that if I look for reasons to help other people, they’re pretty easy to find.

Finally, rather than rushing each morning to gather my clothes for the gym, brew and gulp down coffee, and finish my personal devotions, I start the night before.  The worst enemy of situational awareness is running so far behind schedule that your day is a blur, so the easiest way to avoid running behind is to begin the night before.  I set our coffee maker, compose my to-do list, pack my bag for the gym, and double check my alarm clock.  My worst days are the days I’m running behind, short on caffeine, and quite frankly don’t care what’s going on around me because I’m so focused on making up for my own laziness.

I’m discovering that situational awareness can radically change how I relate to the world around me, and how the world relates to me.  Most, if not all, of us have seen this Liberty Mutual commercial that shows the effects of being aware of situations around us.  I encourage you to give it a try, as well.

The Essential Discipline: 7 Steps to Becoming Well Read

So what steps do we take to become readers?  What about those of us who are busy, tired, and just want to vegetate when we’re done with work?  How do we develop the practical discipline of reading and building our intellect?
  • This process begins with making the personal decision that we will become better readers.  It’s just like becoming fed up with our physical condition and joining a gym and changing out diet.  We have to make the decision that being out of shape intellectually is unacceptable and that we will take steps to change it.
  • Set aside a consistent schedule of time for reading.  It can be a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule, but we must begin by setting time aside specifically for reading. Additionally, I recommend setting a goal for how many books you want to read each year.  At a minimum, we should make it a goal to read at least one book each month.  Confucious reminded us that “No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”
  • Remember that variety is key.  Reading multiple books at one time, or consistently changing the subject matter of what you are reading will ensure that you receive maximum intellectual benefit from your reading activities.  Jim Rohn said that “We need a variety of input and influence and voices. You cannot get all the answers to life and business from one person or from one source. “
  • Remember that in variety, you need to read enjoyable material, as well.  It doesn’t always have to be deep philosophical or professional development material.  Make sure that you include periodicals, magazines, and other subjects that are of personal interest and enjoyment to you.
  • Consider alternative forms of reading.  In today’s busy society, it is hard to sit down and thumb through a book.  To help with that, I’ve found it very helpful to use audio books and e-readers.  One of the best presents I’ve gotten in a long time was the Kindle that my wife gave me a couple of years ago.  Since then, I’ve converted to the Kindle app for iPad, but the Kindle platform has revolutionized my ability to read.  It allows me to read at any time and in any place.  Additionally, I’ve begun using Amazon’s Audible.com service.  For $7.99 a month, I can download one book each month and listen to it while I’m driving or working out.
  • Edmund Burke said that “Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” It’s critical to, when we’re reading professional development or learning books, to take notes that we can go back and review later.  It’s often those nuggets of insight or information that will offer critical advice at times in the future when we don’t have time to search through a book.
  • Finally, begin to build a library.  Use your personal reading program as an opportunity to invest in books that you can read multiple times in the future. These are resources to which you’ll return multiple times.  These are also resources you can share with other people that you’re mentoring or training. Ultimately, you can pass them on to your children or other family members. As you build your library, you’ll be drawn to a short list of books that you read periodically.  For me, these books include The Sampson Syndrome, by Mark Atteberry; Wild at Heart, by John Eldridge; Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis; Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell; Conscience of a Conservative, by Barry Goldwater; The Art of War, by Sunzi; Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell; and Ten Men in the Huddle, by Bill Curry.  These are the books that most motivate, instruct, and inspire you.  Make it a point to read them at least twice a year.
In today’s society, reading has truly become a lost art, and as such, has also become the essential disciplines.  Austin Phelps said it best: “Wear the old coat and buy the new book.”

The Essential Discipline of Reading

 

The older I get, the more I realize how important my daily time management is, and how much my success as a professional, a husband, and a father is related to how I spend my time each day.  I was blessed, as a young boy, to grow up in a household that taught the value of reading.  We didn’t watch much television growing up, and, as a result, the spare moments (not involved in chores, sports, debate, mock trial, or 4-H) I had were spent reading.  I’d return from a trip to the library with bags full of historical fiction, junior level biographies, and even the Hardy Boys.  On more than one occasion I got busted for smuggling a flashlight to bed so I could read after the house was dark.

However, after I left home, I got busy with work and trying to build a career and my time became occupied with other pursuits.  I lost my familiarity with books, and my professional and personal habits began to suffer.  I became a living example of the timeless words of Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, who said “You’re the same today as you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read.” Without realizing it, I began to stunt my personal and professional growth by neglecting the essential discipline of reading.  Unfortunately, I’m apparently not alone.

Brian Tracy, in his essay The Discipline of Reading, reported that 58% of American adults have never read a non-fiction book all the way through.  Gallup reports that the average American doesn’t read more than one book per year.  Unfortunately, 50 million Americans have graduated from high school with poor reading proficiency.  

History is full of examples of wealthy, successful men who served their families, communities, and countries in powerful ways.  The diversity of their background, upbringing, training, and occupation is as varied as the continents and countries from which they came.  There is one common thread, however – many of them were self educated.  Ernest Hemingway decided to skip college and later won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature.  Many of today’s most successful filmmakers were self taught, including James Cameron, Steven Spielburg, and Quentin Tarantino.  Neither of the Wright brothers technically graduated from high school.  Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, George Green, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Knox, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln are all pillars of democracy and science and were all largely self educated.

The point is not to drop out of school, or avoid college at all costs.  However, these examples can’t overstate the value of being personally committed to the discipline of reading, and when appropriate, study of subjects that will empower us as leaders and professionals.  Former President Harry S. Truman stated that “Not all leaders are readers, but all readers are leaders.”

To that end, I’ve worked over the last several years to force myself to re-develop the discipline of reading and studying on a consistent basis.  It’s an art I certainly haven’t mastered, but one I’m enjoying building and one that has certainly become beneficial to me. There are a number of intangible benefits to forcing yourself to read on a regular basis.

First, it forces us to learn to focus on the content of what we’re reading and tune out the distractions that are around us.  Groucho Marx often said that television was the most educational activity he’d ever experienced – when someone turned on the TV, he went in another room to read.  Secondly, reading improves our vocabulary.  Most modern publishing houses produce books between 50,000-120,000 words.  Our chances of expanding our personal vocabulary increase dramatically by reading consistently.  Third, reading books simply allows us to expand our ability to reason, consider, and converse about current events and philosophical issues. This fundamentally makes us more mature intellectually.  Finally, becoming well-read automatically places us in the top tier of leaders in contemporary society, particularly when it comes to our reasoning, conversation, and decision making ability.

Stay tuned for 7 suggestions on how to build your own personal reading plan…

 

Decisions And The 10% Principle

 

Editorial note: despite my best intentions to continue blogging twice a week for the foreseeable future, the birth of my son and a suddenly exploding work schedule have caused the obvious lag in content.  My hope is that I’ll get back to writing consistently later this spring.  Thanks for continuing to read despite the lack of consistency.   SM

Several weeks ago, my boss and I were talking about how men relate to life and leadership decisions in general.  He made a pretty profound statement: “90% of the time, guys make good decisions – it’s the other 10% when we’re wrong that it kills us.”  It really caused me to think about some of the decisions I’ve made over the course of my life.  I feel like I’m the “girl with the curl” of decision making.  When I make good decisions, they’re pretty good.  But when I make bad ones, they’re absolutely horrid.  So what can I be doing to minimize the 10% and grow the 90%? After all, the fewer bad decision I make, the more successful I’ll be, both personally and professionally.  So how do I change those numbers?

As I look back at some of the decisions I’ve made in the past, one factor that has had a direct impact on those decisions is the people with whom I surround myself. I’ve written previously on the value of staying close to our families and surrounding ourselves with good people. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I think the first factor that affects our decision making as leaders is the supporting cast we’ve chosen.

A close second is our willingness and ability to ask those people for advice as we’re faced with decisions.  The older I get, the more I realize how much modern culture discourages the offering of unsolicited advice.  In fact, even when I ask people for their opinion, they still sometime hesitate to be candid.  It’s incumbent upon us when we’re unsure about decisions to ask for others’ advice and help – it’s not likely we’ll get it otherwise.

I’ve come to realize that some of my worst decisions have come when I have to make a snap judgment call.  Historically, the biggest impediment to my ability to make wise decisions is time.  My margin of error increases proportionally with the size of my window of opportunity.  To the extent we’re able, we should always leave ourselves plenty of time to think, pray, and discuss major decisions before pulling the trigger.

Finally, wise decisions should always be based on sound values.  Roy Disney once said “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” Ultimately, when we have thought about a decision ad nauseum and still don’t have peace about it, we can always return to our statement of values for a reminder of what should structure our decisions.

 

8 Ways To Become a Magnetic Conversationalist

 

“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

My natural aversion to long phone conversations made dating my wife one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever faced.  We used to average about two hours a day on the phone because we lived three hours away from one another.  I know in today’s hi-tech world that’s not unusual, but for me, it was tough.  Not only was I consistently far away from the girl I wanted to marry, but I had to spend hours a day on the phone.  It sucked!  It wasn’t until years later that I’ve begun to realize that I hated it because I’m a terrible conversationalist.  Oh, I can talk, but I’m not good at the art of engaging people in conversation.  I think I’m stereotypical of many guys out there, and I am terrible at conversation for three primary reasons:

1.  I’m too busy.  Even as I sit here writing this post, I’m sitting in a meeting planning the rest of my day.  As soon as this meeting is over, I’m bolting for the door so I can get back to the office and get back to work.  I don’t really want to talk to anyone, and I darn sure don’t have time to!

2.  I like to talk too much about myself.  When I get into conversations professionally, I find myself trying to boost my value drivers by talking about my accomplishments or dropping names. When I’m talking to my wife, I’m often too concerned with venting about my day to ask about hers. When you open your mouth and the verbal assault is like a fire hydrant, no one wants to talk to you.

3.  I don’t think enough about what I say before I say it.  As a result, much of what comes out of my mouth is boring, rambling, insensitive, or incoherent.  I have a pretty bad case of ADD, and many times I’ll say something, assuming everyone is following my thought process and sentence structure.  Most of the time? They’re not.

As a result, I’ve been working hard lately to become a better conversationalist.  As I work through that struggle, there are a few basic ground rules that I’ve begun to learn.  Maybe these will be helpful to you as you work on becoming a better communicator and conversationalist.

  1. Be there.  Be in the conversation.  Don’t be thinking about what has to be done at work, your weekend plans, or how badly that person’s hairspray smells.  Keep your mind in check and focus on being in the situation.
  2. Practice asking questions.  Work on a list of questions you can ask to keep a conversation flowing.  Ask about the other person’s family, their hobbies, their job, what their current passion is…learn to ask questions.
  3. Talk less, listen more.  Most communications instructors will talk to you about your talk to listen ratio.  Any sort of talk to listen ratio less than 50-50% is unacceptable.  You should spend 50% of the conversation listening, at minimum, preferably closer to 65%.  Having trouble keeping those numbers right? Spend part of your time not talking, but asking questions.
  4. Be informed.  Today’s technology climate leaves few excuses to be uninformed about current issues.  Personally, I have found that using Google’s RSS Reader and following various news outlets on Twitter keeps me informed about contemporary issues.  These tools offer a very quick and efficient way to stay on top of issues that will come up in various social and networking conversations.
  5. Talk radio is your friend.  Personally, I prefer the sports talk variety, but I’m a firm believer that all talk radio is your friend.  Any sort of radio that is focused on sports, news, and current events presents you with an intellectual challenge to hear and process information.  Additionally, talk radio will help expand your vocabulary and ability to communicate in short, effective sentences.
  6. Get context.  If you’re involved with social media, use it as a tool.  If you’re headed to a networking social and have an idea of who’ll be there, go online and check out their social networking sites.  A quick glance at a person’s Twitter or Facebook will give you a decent glance into what’s going on with them right now, and will help equip you for a conversation with them.
  7. Make eye contact.  Making eye contact with the other person is tremendously helpful.  Eye contact gives you credibility, encourages trust, forces you to focus, and makes the other person comfortable.
  8. Be concerned about them.  Focus on what they’re saying.  Analyze their phrases and words.  Does it sound like something’s bothering them?  Do they want advice? Do they want to share an experience?  Probe the conversation and help lead them where they want to go in the conversation.

“Conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.” Truman Capote

Make sure you’re a conversationalist, not a monologuer.

Presidential Debates: Is Defending Losing?

 

When the primary race for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination kicked off, it was a pretty easy choice to keep my opinions to myself.  As a committed conservative, I sincerely believe that anyone would be better than the current occupant of the White House. Ultimately, I will be voting for the Republican in 2012.

Therefore, I had no plans to watch the debates, or really read too much of the rhetoric that came from the campaign trail.  However, as I’ve watched the social media coverage (primarily on Twitter and in various Washington publications), my interest has continued to grow.  I’m finding myself interested not primarily in the candidates themselves or the ideology they espouse, but rather the tactics and methods with which they’re approaching their campaigns.

At one point, there were two debates inside a 24 hour period – one hosted by ABC and the other hosted by NBC.  After Rick Santorum beat Mitt Romney and the political machines of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul had done millions of dollars of work to Newt Gingrich’s image in Iowa, the tone of the debates shifted dramatically.  The NBC debate on Sunday morning featured several different verbal exchanges, primarily between Speaker Gingrich and Governor Romney.  The subject matter varied, but focused primarily on approaches to campaign tactics and which of the two was more conservative.

Shortly after, I heard a couple of unnamed political commentators evaluating the debate.  One made the statement that the fundamental rule of politics is that no charge must go unanswered.  That struck me as odd, because for my entire career, I’ve been taught that if you’re in leadership and you’re explaining – you’re losing.  I’m not exactly sure who birthed the axiom, but it was repeated as recently as last February by Rep. Jeff Flake (R – Arizona).  So I’d be curious to know what you think. When you’re being attacked as a leader, should you pick your battles?  Should you answer every charge?  Or should you ignore the attacks?

For what it’s worth, I believe the appropriate strategy is a hybrid of those three approaches. First, a leader must define the terms on which any discussion takes place.  If a leader faces a disagreement or debate, it is critical that the leader define the terms on which that debate takes place.  If he does not, then he’ll be one step behind for the course of the entire discussion.  The ability to define the terms also gives one the ability to shape the destination of a discussion.  Another common axiom in law and politics is that you should never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.  The same principle applies to controversy in leadership – don’t enter into a discussion unless you are pretty confident you can control the destination.

A leader absolutely must pick his battles – there are some accusations that can, and should, go unanswered.  There are some debates in which a leader should refuse to participate.  In order to determine which battles to fight, the leader must determine what values and assumptions are key to his success as a leader.  An assault on those core values and assumptions cannot go unanswered.  If a leader gets caught up in answering every accusation thrown his way, he is losing. Therefore, it’s critical for every leader to develop a standard that defines what battles he will fight.