Author Archive | Jean Moroney

Having a Point

There are some skills that people self-identify they need. And there are others that they don’t.

Many people who have a problem getting to the point don’t realize it. But when you talk with them, you see their problem reflected in your own frustration. They say something, you try to clarify. They neither agree nor disagree, but sheer off onto another topic. You ask them a question. The answer doesn’t address the question. The conversation rambles and digresses and circles around, and you can’t pin them down.

Now, sometimes this is deliberate evasiveness, but that is not usually the case. Usually the problem is that they don’t know how to get to the point.

This is a skill that I had to learn consciously, so I am aware, both of how surprising it is to realize you are not, in fact, communicating well, and what is needed to communicate better. There are a number of best practices, but the crucial prerequisite is to have a point.

All three words are crucial.

First, you need to have a point. Many times people come into conversation without a clear purpose. They do not know what they want to say, or even why they are having the conversation. It is impossible to get to the point if you don’t know what it is–you can’t aim for a destination until it’s been identified.

This is why you need to spend at least a moment figuring out why you are having a conversation. If your purpose is to convince the other person of something, you need to know what you are trying to convince them of–you need to identify the point.

On the  other hand, if your purpose is to pass the time, or to explore issues, there may not be a point to communicate–and then you need to make sure you don’t give them reason to believe there is. If you are just exploring and playing devil’s advocate, but you’re acting as if you are trying to convince them of something, they may both confused and frustrated.

Second, in order to get to the point, you need to have one point. One point. If you have multiple points, you need to make them one at a time–and wait until you’ve gotten one across before going on to the next. If you try to make several points at once, the other person will likely not be able to follow you.

Third, the point needs to be a point. A point is a single thought–one complete sentence–which is the conclusion you are trying to get them to reach. You may give examples to concretize the point, you may make an argument to prove the point, you may give contrasting cases to differentiate the point. But whatever you do, whatever you say, it needs to be logically connected to validating the point. You may address their concerns by clarifying the points. You may say a lot of things, but if you want to get to the point, everything you say needs to add up logically to the one point–the conclusion that you are trying to get across.

When everything adds up, a pyramid becomes a great metaphor for the conversation. You build a layers of evidence on a base, narrowing to the point.

But if you include the kitchen sink and anything else that occurs to you along with logical material, you get a pile, not a point.

March 26, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Evening Review

To keep on track with a workload, you need to review your progress daily. I generally recommend taking 15 minutes in the morning to see what you got done, and what you need to do. However, there is a good case to be made to spend a little more time to review in the evening. I was inspired to do this after reading The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

The evening is the perfect time to reflect on how the day went. Did you do what I intended to do? If so, what made that possible? If not, why not? How would I plan differently another day?

5-10 minutes of “thinking on paper” on these topics is very valuable, because it helps you figure out how to tinker with your schedule. It’s not always obvious how much time certain work will take. Nor is it obvious how much pleasure some recreational activity will bring. To arrange your days to run happily and productively, your need to review what works and what doesn’t.

This works better at night, when you can focus on looking back. In the morning, that can bog you down, just as you are trying to get geared up for the day. At night, it’s satisfying to take a few minutes to reflect. But there’s little risk of bogging down in reflection when you’re tired and ready to go to sleep!

As an added bonus, you get to sleep on it. So when you get to planning the next day, you have already percolated on any issues from the previous day, and a few ideas will probably have come up for what to do differently today. The bottom line: if you take a few minutes for an evening review, it takes less time the next day to get started, and less total time reviewing and planning. Who’da thunk it?

 

 

February 24, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Freewriting

Every tactic is useful only in a context. That includes my favorite general-purpose workhorse, “thinking on paper.” Sometimes it is more efficient to think in your head. Sometimes it is more efficient to discuss an issue with someone else. And sometimes it is more efficient to “freewrite.”

Freewriting is like thinking on paper: you record your thoughts in full sentences as you think them. It’s different because…you have no thinking goal. You record a stream of consciousness, without worrying whether it will go anywhere or not.

When I first heard about freewriting, I was skeptical, and maybe you are, too. But I have found it valuable for creative thinking tasks.

Sometimes when I am trying to come up with a new idea (e.g., newsletter topics or marketing angles), my thinking on paper becomes strained. Systematic questions that usually bring up good ideas stop working. In this situation, I need some way to stay on task, keep ideas percolating, and remove the strain.

Freewriting works perfectly for this. I still have the larger goal of generating a new idea. But my immediate focus is to simply record what’s going on in my mind, some of which is complaints, and some of which is banal. Within about five minutes of starting, some new ideas occur to me spontaneously.

Freewriting helps for several reasons. First, it completely eliminates criticism which can stop new ideas from bubbling up.

Second, it clears out the complaints and banality, just as thinking on paper does. Third, it keeps you at the ready to notice new connections when they get made. And they will. Connections to additional ideas are constantly being triggered from your subconscious. Even your stream of consciousness can provide stimulus for triggering those new connections.

So, if you are feeling stuck while thinking on paper, give yourself permission to freewrite for a few minutes, and see if that frees the logjam.

 

 

 

February 19, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Reminder Cards

I advocate a lot of simple tools. Here’s one for remembering good advice: Make a pack of reminder cards. By reminder cards, I literally mean 3″x5″ index cards with handwriting on them.

So, for example, over the years, I developed a pack of about 30 blue index cards with writing advice. Several cards consisted of editing checklists. Others listed questions to ask before or during writing. Several listed steps to take in the writing process. I read probably 50 books on writing over a 10 year period, and whenever found a great new idea, I summarized it on a card. For years, whenever I had problems writing, I shuffled through that card deck to find a critical tip. (Eventually, I organized this into my Nonfiction Writing Handbook.)

Similarly, I developed a pack of about 15 purple index cards with exercises. Some are stretching sequences, some are breathing or Alexander Technique exercises, some are physical therapy exercises. I would use a card regularly for a while, then it would stay in the pack. If I needed a refresher, I’d go back and find the appropriate purple card.

I also have stacks of cards for motivational quotes (which can give a little boost of encouragement), warmup questions for thinking, procedures for planning, and a few other miscellaneous categories.

I keep them all together in a little bin on my desk, and I add to them whenever I see a gem I want to remember. Sorting through the physical cards is a pleasurable experience. As I read each one, I remember why I thought the advice was so good, and how that idea could help me at present.

Some of you may think this is old fashioned. Why not use a notes program instead of cards? I say, if a file works for you, great. Cards are better for me. I can spread them out and look at them all at once. Plus, the need to write out the advice on a physical card helps me be selective about what I include. If I just had to cut and paste into a file, I would be indiscriminate. Soon I’d have an unwieldy mess–too much information to be helpful.

My little pack of cards keeps useful ideas at my finger tips. If you are finding some of the tips I send out helpful, why not start your pack of cards with some of them now?

 

February 17, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The One Thing Missing from the Advice You’ve Gotten from Me

If you’ve been reading my blog, or my website, you’ve read about a lot of processes and procedures you can use to help get your mental wheels turning when you’re feeling overloaded, or conflicted, or doubtful, or otherwise not sure what to do. They’re great ideas. Believe me, I have used every one of them, and seen others use every one of them.

There’s just one thing missing: you only get the value from using the tactics. If you don’t use them, they’re not helpful.

So here’s some meta-advice, to apply both to what you read from me and to what you read from others. If you discover an interesting technique that seems useful, test drive it. Take that one idea and be a fanatic about it for three days. Use it 3-4 times a day, for several days, to see how it works, and especially, how it works for you.

This is how I develop every tactic I teach. I read about it, or hear about it, or make it up, and then use it like a fanatic for several days until I have seen it be effective again and again, figured out why it worked, and decided to keep it in my toolkit for the future.

For example–I made up the AND List technique because I realized I was in conflict and I needed to “hold all the values with care.” It’s a cross between Improv (which teaches you to use “Yes, and” rather than “but”), and NVC (Nonviolent Communication), which teaches that you can be in conflict and still value both sides of the conflict.

The details of the instructions came out of experimenting with it many times over several days. For example, the first step is to write “I am ambivalent,” because that makes it easy to get started. Or another example, the “AND” is in capital letters because when you’re in conflict, it’s cathartic to shout virtually.

In the classes I give, I can stop the class, and ask everyone do an individual exercise to test drive the tactics. 98% of the people who attend will try it. Most of them will find it helpful. (Typically, I do the exercise at the same time, and I find it helpful!) If they don’t find it helpful, they can ask questions.

You’re reading about tactics, here and there. It’s up to you to try them out. Try it, you’ll like it.

 

February 12, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Using Analogies for Creative Problem Solving

When you are stuck on a problem and need some new ideas, you can get creative ideas by making analogies to some other field.

An analogy is an abstract parallel between two quite different things. For example, you might analogize driving to project management. In both cases it helps to have a map (i.e., a plan) for where you’re going.

When you find one parallel, you can often find others–which is why analogies help with creativity.

For example, suppose you were a manager with an employee who was causing problems, and you were looking for ways of dealing with him. You might get some ideas by comparison to other human relationships. You might use strategies that parents use to manage children, if they were appropriate. Or you might adapt military management techniques for civilian use.

But if you are looking for something new, it pays to go farther afield. Suppose you were to compare the problem employee with a problem program on your computer. Here are four things you might do to deal with the problem program:

a) uninstall the program and use a competitor

b) reinstall the program fresh

c) upgrade the program

d) check users’ groups on the web for plugins or settings to get help with the problem

To complete the analogy, translate these back into suggestions for dealing with the employee:

a) fire the employee

b) ???

c) send the employee to training

d) ask around on discussion groups for suggestions for dealing with this particular problem

Of these, “reinstall the program fresh” didn’t have an obvious counterpart–so that case warrants more thinking. Here are three things that “reinstall the program” could suggest for dealing with the employee:

  • From the word “reinstall”: Write up a description of model employee behavior, then have a private talk with your employee to see if he’ll start anew and commit to this behavior.
  • From the word “fresh”: Find a different position in the company which is a better fit for the employee.
  • From the fact that reinstalling the program removes corrupted files: Make a list of all the prejudices and negative generalizations you’ve made about this employee and do some soul-searching on whether you’ve been fair and whether you’ve contributed to the problem. Then talk with the employee about your findings.

None of these are point-for-point analogies to reinstalling a program. But when you are using analogies to generate ideas, you don’t need to be that exact. The test is not whether the analogy passes a strict test, but whether you got a helpful idea.

Notes:

For more ideas on how to use analogies in thinking and communicating, see Anne Miller’s book on “Metaphorically Selling.”

 

 

February 10, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting Out of the “I Don’t Know” Trap

There are two kinds of “I don’t know.” One kind is accompanied by a sense of bafflement and annoyance. If you put the feeling into words, it would say, “why would you expect me to know that?” That’s how you feel when someone asks, “who’s the president of Kyrgzstan?”

The other kind of “I don’t know”–the more important and interesting kind--is accompanied by surprise and maybe chagrin, because you believe you should know the answer. For example, someone asks, “who was the US president in 1940?” and you go blank. Or a recruiter asks, “what makes you a good candidate for this job?” and no coherent thought comes to mind. When the answer “should” be “obvious,” it’s discomfiting that you have no answer.

In this situation, rookies make the mistake of repeating the question to themselves, loudly and insistently, hoping the answer will pop into mind. Occasionally it does. When it doesn’t, rookies give up. They fall into the trap of believing that they don’t know.

More likely, you do know enough to answer this question. When a direct question doesn’t trigger a direct answer, you need to switch to an indirect process.

The indirect process is thinking. You work out an answer, by thinking through what you do know, over several steps.

The first step is to ask yourself an easier question–one that you can answer. By answering an easier question, you bring to mind memories and ideas that are relevant. Just one or two easier questions usually triggers enough useful information for you to use to get an answer to your “I don’t know.”

One good way to generate an easier question is to make a specific question more general, or a general question more specific. For example, switch from “who was president?” (a specific question) to “what was going on in general in 1940?” Answer: World War II had recently started in Europe. That may well trigger that FDR was president of the US then.

Another way to generate an easier question is to be a contrarian. Instead of looking for the good, look for the bad, and vice versa. For example, if you switch from “what makes you a good candidate for this job?” to “what would make someone a bad candidate?” you will likely think of a host of weaknesses: laziness, incompetence, ignorance. You can then contrast these negatives with your own productive, talented self to answer the recruiter’s question.

It takes skill to think up a useful easier question at the moment you are surprised by “I don’t know.” People who think well “on their feet” have the skill and the presence of mind to ask an easier question and to remain poised, despite feeling stumped.

If you want to develop this skill, practice at your desk. Ask yourself the hard questions you expect from a recruiter or a boss or a listener. If you don’t know an answer, take a few minutes to think through some easier questions until you can answer that hard question. Over time, you will become adept at answering questions, despite an initial “I don’t know.”

February 5, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Playing Two Thinking Roles Can Ignite Your Thinking

Here’s a surprisingly effective technique that can pry information loose from your brain and ignite your thinking when you’re stalled: The “Q&A Technique.” [1]

Here’s the technique:

Write down a question you are puzzling over. (“How” and “Why” questions are particularly suitable.) Blurt out an answer without censoring. Then blurt out an unself-conscious follow-up question. Then another answer. Keep writing out question and answer, without pausing or second-guessing, until you reach some closure.

Here’s an example:

Q: How am I going to get this report done soon?
A: That depends on what “soon” means.

Q: What constitutes “soon”?
A: Today?

Q: Is it realistic to get it done today?
A: No.

Q: What would be a realistic timeline?
A: Well, I think I can realistically expect to have it completely
edited and ready to go Thursday. Wednesday might be cutting it
close.

Q: How are you going to get the report completely finished by
Thursday?
A: Draft today, get the sidebar blurbs drafted today and tomorrow,
Wednesday for editing and review. That leaves Thursday for any
surprises.

You may feel this example to be a little subjective. Fortunately, the only person who needs to follow the Q&A is the person doing the thinking. But I hope you also see that the questioning process quickly uncovers vague issues (“what constitutes soon?”) and mistaken ideas (“today?”). It helps you zero in on what you really need to be thinking about.

The Q&A process can’t create information from thin air. It works when you start with a question you “should” be able to answer, but you feel stuck. That’s when having a conversation with yourself playing two separate roles–naive questioner and blunt answerer– helps you clarify the issues.

To make it work, play the roles to the hilt. As the answerer, take a frank, direct attitude, simply blurting out responses without
worrying how they might look. No censoring. As the questioner, ask simple curiosity questions, following up on a term or idea in the previous answer. Keep the questions friendly and open-ended. Don’t worry about asking obvious or “dumb” questions.

When you play the two roles this way, you eliminate the performance pressure that can freeze your thinking. Playing the role
of a naive, curious questioner, you give yourself permission to raise issues and to challenge yourself. Playing the role of blunt answerer, you give yourself emotional distance from the issues.

These are two mental sets–the curious and the blunt–that you need to be able to adopt at will and switch between during thinking. Playing the “roles” helps you make the switch to the appropriate mental set.

If you have trouble getting into the two mindsets, some people find it helpful to heighten the separation between the roles by physical means. You can use two colors of ink for questioner and answerer. Or you can set up two chairs, one for questioner and one for answerer, and then act out the two roles aloud–moving between the chairs as you change perspectives.

Is this a trick? Not really. When you are feeling stuck on a question that you “should” be able to figure out, you are almost certainly shutting down your subconscious databanks with censoring. What you need is some combination of frankness and curiosity to counter the blocks. It just so happens that ad-libbing two roles, the curious questioner and the blunt answerer, is an easy, familiar way to make that important mental adjustment.


[1] I learned this technique from Marcia Yudkin’s CD set: Become a More Productive Writer”

 

 

February 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Unfounded Assumption that Can Stop Logical Thinking in Its Tracks

Join me in the campaign to eliminate prejudice against messy thinking tactics.

Floating in the back of many people’s minds is the idea that “logical” means “neat.” People sometimes hesitate to make a list unless they can write down the items in their proper order. They sometimes shy away from brainstorming because silly ideas come up. But this is an illogical prejudice, and it can stop thinking in its tracks. It confuses the desired end (a neat solution) with the means (a logical process–which may be messy).

Now, of course, neat is better than messy. Therefore, if you can write down a list in the correct order on your first try, do so. But if you hesitate for more than two seconds over the order, it will be faster if you make a quick, messy, no-particular-order list. Then you easily can figure out the proper order on a second pass.

It is logical to use the 2-pass method, because it is more efficient. If you wait until you can put down the items in the right order from scratch, you may stare at the page for a long time.

Similarly, if you already have a great idea to pursue, you have no need to brainstorm. But if you are still looking for that great idea, the messy process of brainstorming can help stimulate a variety of ideas, from which you can cull one good idea to pursue on a second pass.

Messy isn’t better than neat, it’s a means to neat. Consider the process of organizing a closet. The first step is to take  everything out and spread everything out on the floor. Messy, very messy. But this temporary disorder gives you elbow room and a bird’s-eye view, so you can more easily decide what to keep, what to throw out, and where you will put everything back so that the end result is neat.

When you can’t go straight to a neat solution in your own thinking, all it means is that you don’t have a prepackaged, worked-out answer to your question. But that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out an answer, if you give yourself permission to rummage a little through the information you do have.

So, if you ever feel stuck looking for a neat answer, don’t let an old prejudice get in your way. Give yourself the logical advice to generate a messy first answer, knowing that later you will clean it up and turn it into a neat, logical, final answer.

 

 

 

January 29, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Yes, It’s the Electronic Age, But Don’t Forget Paper-Age Lessons

Here’s some old-fashioned advice that may be just what you need to get out of a present-day thinking block: Spread out your notes all over your desk.

That’s right, your desk, not your computer screen. Yes, programs exist to move around words in many wonderful easy ways. But sometimes you need to have those words spread out over a space the size of a desk.

Take the case of outlining a presentation. In the past, the standard procedure was to write out the points on individual index cards, then sort them into stacks by similar topic, then rearrange the stacks into a logical progression. An outline was created by shuffling cards around on your desk.

Today, this procedure has been largely supplanted by programs like Powerpoint that let you rearrange points (or slides of points) with the click of a mouse. You save time because you never have to retype the points. As soon as you figure out the order, you have a clean version.

But here’s the issue: if you are bogging down trying to get a large number of points in order in Powerpoint, you probably need to go back to the low-tech alternative to get some mental leverage.

When you spread out the points all over your desk, you get two advantages.

First, you can move them with nearly zero effort. There’s no need to fuss to move the mouse to the exact location to click and drag a point. There’s no scrolling. You just grab a card and move it. It is noticeably faster.

Second, you can use perceptual cues to remember where stacks are. With a quick glance, you can find anything. You never have to stop to remember, “where in the file did I put together that stack of miscellaneous points I don’t know what to do with?” Nor do you have to interrupt your train of thought to do an electronic search.

These may seem like trivial advantages, but on a complex task, you need all the speed and brainpower you can get. The test of whether you need this advantage is, do you bog down? If you are bogging down, you need the extra mental leverage that spreading out notes on a large surface offers you.

Yes, doing things on the computer often saves retyping. But if your mental process bogs down due to the mechanics, you can easily lose all the time you might have saved.

So, monitor for your mental need for that wide, visual-spatial overview–and don’t hesitate to hit “print,” clear your desk, and pull out the scissors. The time you save will be your own.

 

 

January 27, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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