Five Stars

Have you ever been having a conversation with a friend when they suddenly deliver some unexpected negative feedback about yourself that has some truth to it? It feels like getting punched in the stomach, and is exactly what happened to me on New Years Eve.

I was talking to a friend about my desire to improve my communication skills. I was explaining that people who communicate their ideas in a way that others can understand will gain more influence and be able to accomplish more. This friend confirmed that I am an introvert, that I lack social skills, and began to question why I wanted to be a better communicator. This friend implied I would not be able to improve in this area and that it was not a good idea.

After hearing this feedback I felt terrible. After our conversation I began to come up with reasons why this person was wrong and how I should have responded in the conversation. As the days have passed I have realized what this person gave me was a gift. Although they could have provided the feedback in a better way, they helped me see how others may perceive me. I do not agree with everything they said, however, some of it has truth. I cannot pushback on negative feedback only because it makes me feel bad. If it is true I should listen regardless of how it makes me feel. As they say “Eat the fish and leave the bones.” Listening to feedback and criticism is like drinking cough syrup when you are sick. It tastes terrible and you want to avoid drinking it but ultimately it helps you get better in the long run. Drink the truth and disregard the rest.

I may have room to improve my communication skills but that does not need to be the end of the story which is why I am pleased to have just finished a fantastic book called Five Stars by Carmine Gallo. The book is split into 3 parts. In the first part Gallo aims to convince the reader that communication skills are important. I read this pretty fast as I did not need a lot of convincing. In the second part he shares inspiring stories of great communicators. In the third part he shares practical tips and techniques to be a better communicator. Here are three tips that stuck out to me that I want to apply to hone my own communication skills.

1. Stories are better than facts

We can use stories to appeal to an audience’s emotions. Emotions help us connect with people and help our message be way more memorable. Everyone wants to have meaning and purpose in life and if they can see themselves in your story it will move them.

2. Analogies and metaphors give your words “verbal beauty”

Analogies and metaphors work because they compare the abstract with what is familiar. They get us out of conventional thinking and distill what is complex. People love analogies because they help our brains conserve energy.

3. Reappraisal and Rehearsal

Many of us lack confidence and fear public speaking. Gallo advocates the idea of reappraisal, which simply means changing the way we think about ourselves. Fear and doubt can cripple us but it is important to remember these are self-imposed. If we can impose them on ourselves we also have the power to lift them off. I have heard it said before, “If you fight for your limitations you get to keep them.” Instead of fighting for your limitations, believe better about yourself. The second R is rehearsal, which simply means practice and repetition. Repeated exposure helps change stage fright into “performance energy.”

Although the conversation I had on New Year’s Eve did not leave me feeling great, I learned from it. I am trying to teach myself that people’s words and behavior only have power over me if I allow it. My identity is not determined by what people say about me. No matter what I decide to improve, communication skills or something else, I can do so if I put my mind to it. As Henry Ford put it “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

Blink

It can be difficult to distill a book into a few main ideas. I find it particularly difficult to distill Malcolm Gladwell’s books because of all of the stories and anecdotes interwoven throughout the book. For me, this style is what makes him an expert storyteller; however, it makes it difficult to pull out main ideas without retelling all of the stories.

The basic premise of Gladwell’s book Blink is to investigate how people make decisions and judgments. We basically rely on 2 different strategies to make sense of situations: conscious and unconscious. The conscious strategy relies on logic, knowledge, and works slowly, whereas our unconscious strategy happens quickly and under the surface. In general we tend to think that to make good decisions we must gather as much information as possible and take as much time as possible to reach the best decision. Gladwell shows that this isn’t always the case and that decisions made quickly can be as good as those made slowly.

Thin-slicing

Thin-slicing is a persons ability to unconsciously recognize patterns in situations and behaviors in a very short amount of time or slice of an experience. An experiment that Gladwell references to illustrate thin-slicing involved developing a “personality workup” on 80 college students and then seeing how closely their friends could measure their personality in a questionnaire versus complete strangers. The strangers were only allowed 15 minutes to look around in the college students’ dorm rooms. On the whole, the strangers were a bit more accurate. This experiment shows that you can often learn a lot more from a private space than from the image people display. By only being exposed to a “thin slice” of an experience with the students, the strangers did not have the distractions or confusing and irrelevant information that comes along with knowing someone personally.

Rapid Cognition Gone Wrong

Although thin-slicing and first impressions can often reveal more than we imagine, there are times when rapid cognition leads us in the wrong direction. The example that Gladwell provides is president Warren Harding. The impression people got of him was that he was handsome and distinguished-looking, therefore, he must be intelligent and a man of integrity. Gladwell describes Harding’s path to presidency but the general idea was that he advanced not because of his political or leadership abilities but because he looked like a good president. The general consensus from historians is that he was “…one of the worst presidents in American History.”

The truth is that our first impressions and snap judgments are driven by our experiences and environment. The only way to change our impression on race, for instance, is to change the experiences and environment we live which creates a negative impression.

Effective Rapid Cognition

It is true that rapid cognition can lead us astray due to our previous experiences, but it is also true that sometimes it is a person’s experience and intuition that allows them to make a good decisions in a high stress situation. Gladwell mentions Gary Klein’s study of nurses and firefighters who often have to make decisions under lots of pressure. There simply isn’t enough time to systematically and logically go through all the data. These decisions have to be made quickly and are often based on experience. Good decisions made under high pressure are not random but stem from good training, following rules, and doing rehearsals. Someone inexperienced without a lot of training that is forced to make a decision under high stress will confront more information than his or her unconscious is comfortable with and this is paralyzing. The trick is to eliminate all the extra information and focus only on what is important.

High Stress Effects on Decisions

Good decisions can be made under high stress situations; however, there are limits to this. Gladwell mentions a former army lieutenant named Dave Grossman who argues that the best performance occurs when a person’s heart rate is in the range of 115-145 beats per minute. What happens above this range? Gladwell uses stories of high speed police chases and shootings to illustrate this idea. When a cop is in a fast-paced, high stress, situation after a high-speed chase it is easy to understand how they wouldn’t be in the optimal mindset for decision-making. Cops in these situations tend to display “temporary autism” and lose their ability to take in details. Their thinking narrows, their mind becomes very rigid, and all additional evidence or factors don’t register in their mind. This tends to lead to low-quality intuitive reactions, which rely on stereotypes, bias, and prejudices.

In this book Gladwell gives a very thoughtful presentation how people think and make decisions. He shows how thin-slicing and rapid cognition can lead to effective decisions which cut out all the clutter. On the other hand, he also shows how high stress situations can have disastrous effects on our decisions. If you want to read good stories interwoven with thoughtful information that will make you think, this is the book for you.