Learning to Speak and Listen in Actions, not Words.
We humans are a strange bunch. Being equipped with the miracle of verbal and written communication, we get a 'pass' on something the rest of the animal kingdom relies on for survival: Speaking and listening in actions, not words.
It's taken me a long time to realize how poorly my action-related communication syncs to my verbal communication. I grew up believing it was OK to say one thing, but to do another. Many of us do. It's easy to fabricate worlds where we say one thing but do something completely contrary, and as a society few people call us out on the disparity. I'm not sure why this is. The best reason I've come up with is that few of us are tuned into "listening to actions, not words" enough to notice it.
As I've slowly become aware of the disparity, the main reason I've often failed to achieve parity between my spoken commitments and my actions is that it's a really, really hard skill to master. It takes meaningful, consistent effort to 'say as you do, and do as you say'. Life is full of small opportunities to massage the effect of one's actions with a stream of words that cover up the true meaning of the underlying actions. Our spoken (and written -- but mainly spoken, since it's more extemporaneous) communication acts as a type of elbow grease that makes interactions between humans run more smoothly -- or so we think.
Examples are plentiful and commonplace:
- A co-worker is late to a meeting. When they arrive, they rant about how bad the traffic was. Everyone says they understand -- traffic is terrible these days. But the real message their action is shouting is that the meeting wasn't as important as whatever they were doing before the meeting, because if it was, they would've arrived early.
- The husband says he'll be home by 6pm but doesn't arrive until 9pm. When he gets home the talks about how much work he had to leave at the office. This works for a while, but eventually the wife gets fed up: "If you say you're going to be home by six, then get home by six." Often though, partners don't call each other on the disparity. "That's just the way he is," she'll tell her girlfriends.
- A family member says they'd love to come visit, but now just isn't a good time. While the words are full of promise and hope, the action tells a different story: Whatever is happening at home is more important than making time for the trip.
My entire life, I've been really guilty of these types of offenses. As an entrepreneur, this problem becomes magnified because I have an incredible number of stressors pulling me in all directions. There's not enough time for everything that needs to be done. Creating something out of nothing is really, really hard work. It becomes easy to use words to smooth over the difficult choices entrepreneurs have to make with their actions.
In the last few years, I've decided to work hard on making my actions sync with my words. Here are the steps I'm taking to do as I say, and say as I do:
- The first thing I had to do was accept that my actions often weren't consistent with my words, and decide to fix that. Most people never take this important initial step.
- When I find that my actions aren't syncing with my words, the first thing I'll do is reset the verbal expectation I've given somebody. Part of doing as you say is changing what you say to reflect what you're doing. It's hard to keep the two in sync, so being very proactive in communicating changes to expectations you've set is a valuable relief valve when you've made promises you find you can't keep.
- I'm also working very hard to listen to other people's actions over their words. The saying "actions speak louder than words" is well known, yet few of us listen to actions. I'll discount by 99% the words someone is giving me when their actions don't line up with their words. When I see a disparity, actions win by a landslide every time. A person's actions will always reveal the way they prioritize their lives. I've also stopped being shy about pointing out to someone when there's an inconsistency. You see large disparities in actions vs. words when someone doesn't value the other person in some way (even if they say they do). A caveat here: It was hard for me to write that last sentence, because I've often been guilty of having words not sync with actions, and by writing this, I'm admitting to myself that it means I haven't been valuing people in my life highly enough -- people that are important to me. But if I'm serious about this philosophy, I have to accept the truth, which is that I've often prioritized the importance of my time over others' -- even those dearest to me. To those of you for whom I've been guilty of this offense: Admitting you have a problem is the first step in recovery, right? I'm really working on it now, so thanks for sticking with me for so long when I didn't realize the havoc I was creating in your lives.
- I've also begun using Pivotal Tracker and scrum methodologies in my personal life, which is immensely helpful from a prioritization perspective. I won't go into great detail in scrum here, but if you'd like to learn more, read my blog on why I love scrum. The main thing to know about scrum for the purpose of this blog is that it forces you to order the things you want to accomplish. You can't do two things in any one single span of time. Two things can't be equally important. One has to come first. It's a simple but powerful idea, and living your life in "series" rather than "parallel" helps put the most important things in focus. If you think multitasking is a way around this, then your time span is simply too broad. Multitasking is just a rapid re-prioritization of actions over multiple blocks of time, and while it serves a purpose, it can also mean that you get a lot of things kinda-done.
I'd love to hear your comments about the importance of listening to actions. I'm doing my best to learn what the rest of the animal kingdom already knows: Actions speak loudest of all.
The picture above isn't exactly relevant, but is tangentially: It's from a Socialize pitch I gave recently, and the big word "action" on the screen behind me is what caused me to post it here. What's funny is that Socialize is all about social actions, which should really be called social words since actions in the virtual sense are comprised of words.