Watch where you step! said
Xolani. I nodded and looked down at some of the largest piles
of manure I ever recalled seeing not that I usually keep
track of such things.
Our group of seven
then stopped as Xolani asked us to look carefully at the
manure again, not a typical request. By the time we finished
a brief lecture on the deeper meaning of rhino poop, the
Rosenberg family and two young, British newlyweds had been
schooled in the proper method and manner to recognize the
difference between a white rhino and a black rhino.
We learned from careful
observation what the eating habits were when the particular
rhino involved had last been in the area and a variety of
other fascinating rhino tidbits. We moved on for the rest of
what was a very exciting learning experience complete with
adrenaline rush. That experience was a walking safari in
KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. We learned to observe, and
from that learning we were enriched.
Every elected or appointed
public official not to mention moms, dads and spouses
spends a lot of time in meetings or one-on-one communication
efforts. We speak before large crowds or with an individual
colleague. We have messages we hope to deliver, and we hope
they are delivered clearly and in a way that causes an
We may have a discussion,
for example, on the need to trim a budget, with the hope that
our colleagues will agree with our vision of what needs to be
done, why, what time frames to follow and how to know when the
particular goal has been met.
Professionals in human
resources encounter people whose behavior at work or
performance on the job is less than we expect, hope and
require. As a result, not only is every manager a coach, but
every successful manager must also be a communicator and an
observer of responses.
Some responses are easy to
identify. They include falling asleep in the middle of a
presentation hopefully not yours. They include people
leaving early or playing with their cell phones. Now we live
in a world where smart phones allow us to also send text
messages, play games, check the weather reports in Alaska,
watch the stock market as our deferred compensation portfolios
shrink and much more.
All of these are ways not
only to evade paying specific attention in a conversation or
communication, but also they are important signs for an
observant speaker or a leader to recognize and respond
Perhaps the most obvious of
these signs, especially to the parents of teenagers, was
shared with me by my new friend, trauma surgeon, Dr. Niamh
Harrington. It may be thought of as ocular
insubordination. In this model of response, the person we
think is receiving the communication may roll their eyes, look
away, glare or otherwise use their eyeballs as WMDs.
They are commenting,
reacting and otherwise sending out signals thinking that the
other party might not ever notice. They may be communicating
with other people in the room through the function of their
eyeballs, or they may be spending precious moments of life
thinking about the 7,812 places they would rather be at that
particular moment. All of this communicating can occur without
saying a word, without making any other gesture and without
most other people in the room noticing.
However, when the speaker is
observant and perceives what is occurring, a great lesson is
offered in the course of ocular insubordination. Many
speakers, especially in small group meetings or family
settings may respond with a direct and negative reaction
shouting or attacking the person but hopefully not
physically. We have rules about such things in the
In effect, over-reactors may
be saying How dare you not offer uncompromised attention to
everything Im saying for as long as Im saying it!
However, there are other, better and more productive
One of them is to focus more
attention during the presentation on the very person whose
ocular behavior was noticed in the first place, move toward
that person, engage them visually, maintain eye contact, send
an indirect message to them that you have observed the
behavior and are concerned about it.
Another approach is to
realize that maybe the message they are sending is very
important to you as their speaker. Maybe you are droning on
far longer than you should. Maybe the message youre
delivering is not clear or is inconsistent. Worst of all,
maybe it is personally embarrassing or offensive and you may
not even realize it.
Finally, the leader can
simply ask that the owner of those eyeballs to meet afterwards
for a private discussion. At that point, the
leader-turned-coach can ask what might have been wrong in the
meeting, what might have led the person to appear
disinterested or hostile to what was being said.
A sharp observer will not
only ask those questions in the hope of drawing out from the
other person what they might be feeling. Just as importantly,
the leader may be able to hear and learn about how her own
message may not be as clear as she thought, might be on the
wrong track, or, in fact, that her presentation skills might
be sorely in need of improvement.
In other words, observing as
you journey through a meeting, or a safari for that matter, is
a key tool available to a leader to maintain contact and a
positive relationship with the audience whether the audience
is your 14-year-old daughter, your boss, people who report to
you or a thousand people in an auditorium.
The best leaders are the
best listeners. The best listeners observe and recognize that
every leader has to be an HR manager and a thoughtful observer
in order to create the charisma that leads to success at work
and in life. Observing (including careful listening) is as
important in the study of rhino poop as it is in developing
your own career!