Category Archives: Communication

Talk Less, Smile More….Civil Discourse


This summer my daughter was asked to memorize a song from the musical Hamilton as part of an audition for camp. We downloaded the sound track and she proceeded to memorize the music from the entire first act. As I proceeded to listened to her sing it over and over, there was one line that stuck out to me, “talk less, smile more”. Honestly, when you listen to the song, the intended meaning of the completed line is a bit different then what I want to write about here… but those four words got me thinking.

Why did this phrase get me thinking? Because so often when we are having conversations with other people we are so focused on what we are saying, our perspective, and what our response is going to be, we never really listen for understanding. And if we are not listening for understanding, we are not truly communicating. True communication is about more than speaking, it is about talking less, listening more, and is accentuated by our body language.

Recently I spent some time with a person who loves to play the “devils advocate” and often challenges what other people are saying. Sometimes this is a great way to get a thoughtful conversation going, but in this circumstance it doesn’t, because the person is always preparing their next response and not listening to what other people are saying. She is more in her head with her thoughts, rather then listening and fully engaging in the conversation. Conversations with this person usually dead-end and leave the other participants frustrated.

According to and Wikipedia “civil (courteous) discourse (conversation) is engagement in discourse intended to enhance understanding”. There is nothing I like better then civil discourse, the opportunity to have a discussion with someone who hopefully has a different understanding or perspective then I have. It gives me a chance to consider and test my stance, and if I am lucky… it allows me to add something to my knowledge base… but it only works if my participation in the conversation includes listening for understanding. When someone else is speaking, I can not be half listening and half considering my rebuttal. I must be fully engaging in what the other person is saying. And then when I don’t understand the other person’s perspective or the information being presented, it is my job as a communicator to pause and to reciprocate with questions to dig deeper and gain understanding. Even if in the end we agree to disagree, my goal is to walk away from the conversation having a deeper awareness of the other participant’s perspective.

Another important aspect of civil discourse is maintaining a level of respect for the other communicator… even if your perspectives are at odds with one another.  How we listen, the tone of our voice, and the words we choose to respond with are important aspects to maintaining respect, but just as important is how we respond with our bodies. Are we leaning in, smiling, showing interest by looking at the speaker or are we crossing our arms, rolling our eyes (something my family has told me I do on occasion) and looking away? Are we telling the other communicator we are open to understanding their perspective or are we closed off and unwilling to really participate in civil discourse?

We are living in a time of divisiveness. More and more often friends, neighbors and family members are finding themselves at odds with each other over their perspectives of how the world should work and rather than participating in civil discourse we shut each other out. It can be a real downer. However, on a recent Sunday evening (September 24, 2017), shortly after I had started to write this blog post, my family was watching 60 Minutes. One of the segments called Divided was a conversation facilitated by none other then Oprah Winfrey, the newly hired 60 Minutes part time commentator. The conversation examined the polarization of the United States and included 14 panelists from the state of Michigan with widely varying perspectives. I can not say there was much shift in perspectives, but it was an example of civil discourse on national television and I loved it.

Engaging in civil discourse, by respectfully listening for understanding and responding with openness is not always easy. It takes awareness and discipline. It is something that requires ongoing practice over a lifetime. But I truly believe if each of us talks less and smiles more while participating in civil discourse, great things can happen.





Experiencing and Reflecting on Leadership Abilities

In March of this year, I wrote a blog post titled The 4 Characteristics of a Leader . In the post I identified and described four important leadership abilities I hold close, based on my professional experience and research. They are the ability to build positive relationships, the ability to develop and communicate a vision, the ability to be collaborative, and the ability to be adaptable. Recently, while I participated in a grass roots volunteer effort at my daughter’s school, I had the opportunity to personally feel how a participant’s experience is affected by the abilities and effectiveness of the leaders.

Wanting to contribute to and support the PTO of my daughter’s school, I answered an email call for volunteer help for the “43rd annual Halloween Carnival, the largest fundraiser of the year”. Although I never received a follow-up email or any details, I arrived on the indicated day ready to give 3 hours to the effort. As I entered, I observed the PTO leadership focused and hard at work. Recognizing there were not many other volunteers present, I quickly asked what tasks they had for me to do. Surprisingly, the leadership group was not able to immediately come up with a definitive answer. Luckily I had been a volunteer during the previous year’s event, so I was able to find myself a job and got going.

Shortly after I got started, the mother of a kindergartener arrived to help. We were acquainted because her child had been in my preschool class. As we talked, I could tell she was excited to be participating in the effort on behalf of her son and I recognized her potential to become a long term committed PTO volunteer and as an emerging leader. While we were talking she expressed uncertainty as to what she should be doing. She had also asked for an assignment from the PTO leadership and had not been given anything specific to do. I helped her find a job and on we went, a bit confused, but doing what we could. As I continued to set up and later during the event, I could not help but reflect on this situation and recognize that several of the key components of effect leadership were missing.

With respect, I want point out the PTO leadership was working tirelessly to make the annual Halloween Carnival a success. They were dedicated to getting the job done no matter what it took on their part. Even as they were focused on this year’s carnival, they were working on a project to make next year’s setup more streamline. THEY HAD A VISION… The problem was they were not prepared to communicate their vision and delegate responsibility so others could successfully contribute. In the end they did most of the work themselves while the rest of us walked away feeling confused, underutilized, and a bit disrespected. The long-term effect of this type of leadership is a burned out, resentful leadership group and volunteers who are not compelled to come back.

Whether in the workplace or in a volunteer position, people show up, physically and mentally, because they want to contribute to something in a meaningful way. An effective leader respects this desire to contribute and reciprocates with a plan. To do this well, the leader takes the time to build relationships and get to know those with whom they will be working, enabling them to utilize the energy and talents of their team members in the best possible way. In turn, everyone responds by working hard and feeling good about their contribution. The long-term effect of this type of leadership is all participants, including the leaders leave the experience feeling energized and open to next steps and new possibilities.

In the book Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence the authors explain when leaders share their vision to “help people to see how their work fits into the big picture, lending people a clear sense not just that what they do matters, but also why, it maximizes buy-in for the organizations overall long term goals” (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).   Based on my recent PTO experience I have pinpointed a few simple steps that any organization can take to help move them toward maximum buy-in from their team.   Leaders must start by recognizing a participant’s willingness to contribute by responding to messages and being prepared when they arrive to participate. Leaders must continue by sharing their overall vision along with a collective list of tasks and responsibilities, asking participants to provide input on how they feel their strengths can be utilized. This sharing of information transforms the leaders vision into a collective vision with each participant understanding how and why they can be involved in a meaningful way.  Finally, each task should have a clear goal with a beginning and an end so everyone can feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction as they contribute to reaching the collective vision.

When leaders take the time to use their ability to connect and build relationships with their team members, their ability to develop and communicate their vision, and their ability to work collectively and collaboratively, everyone feels valued, creating a foundation for continued and expanded involvement.



Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the

power of emotional intelligence. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School


Tidbits of Wisdom

We do not progress from error to truth, but from truth to truth.   Thus we must see that none can be blamed for what they are doing, because they are, at this time, doing the best they can. We learn only from experience.

Swami Vivekananda

During my nearly 30-year career, I have been fortunate to have had wonderful mentors who supported and challenged me as I developed as a leader.   Often when reflecting on how I approached a situation, I recognize a tidbit of wisdom shared by one of these mentors that contributed to my ability to maneuver through the situation successfully.

Recently I found myself thinking about one mentor, my former supervisor from St. John’s Medical Center, Sandy Cameron. She was a member of the human resources department and acted as a liaison between the employees of the medical center and the administration. Sandy had a beautiful way of handling difficult situations with respect and fairness. She always focused on what was not working in the process rather then the individuals involved. She had high expectations of professional conduct and if an individual was open to coaching she believed everyone could be successful.

The following are three tidbits of wisdom Sandy shared with me that I hold close and would like to share here. They were presented to me in the context of the workplace, but I have used them in all aspects of my life, especially the first one.

Assume positive intent

 “Assuming positive intent in the workplace means consciously choosing to assume that our co-workers are operating to the best of their ability, and are acting with the best interest of the company and their colleagues in mind (

In my experience both in the workplace and beyond, when it really comes down to it, most of the time individuals are not consciously making decisions using a hidden agenda to sabotage an individual, a project or an organization. More often they simply have a misunderstanding or different interpretation of what they should be doing or they may not have the skills and abilities to do what they have been asked.   Another possibility is they may see another, sometimes better, way to get to the same outcome. By assuming positive intent in any of these situations, we open ourselves up to be respectful as we ask for clarification and work together to reach common ground.   In the end, when we assume positive intent we are able to focus on the process and positive outcomes without negativity or disrespect.

Your human resources are your most important resources treat them with respect.

 A good leader understands an organization is made up of people and for an organization “to grow and adapt, the leadership must recognize the value and contribution of people” ( While an organization’s bottom-line, efficiency, goals and outcomes are important, they can only be met when leaders create an environment that reflects respect, reciprocation and responsiveness to the people. To do this, leaders must be courteous in even the most difficult situations, maintain open lines of two-way communication, and provide the training, resources and support necessary for individuals to get their job done effectively. In an environment where the people are respected and supported they have the confidence and desire to respect and support the organization right back.

 Don’t make it personal.

An organization’s people bring with them a variety of personalities, life experiences, and perspectives. A good leader has the ability to build respectful relationships valuing the individual, while also being able to communicate clear expectations. In some cases the expectations will be the policies and performance standards of a business, in others it might be the amount of time and attention someone can give to a volunteer committee or even a book group. In any case, creating a respectful environment focused on agreed upon expectations removes much of the opportunity for individuals to make things personal.   In other words it is not about who the person is, but rather their ability to meet the established expectations.  And if an individual is challenged to meet expectations it creates an opportunity for shared goal setting and supported growth allowing them to develop through experience.



Shared Goals and Nonviolent Communication

Communication during conflict has a reputation of being aggressive and unproductive, however it does not have to be that way at all. In fact, working through opposing views using nonviolent communication (NVC) techniques can lead to overall stronger outcomes by weaving the best of all perspectives together. The Nonviolent Communication model is based on empathetically listening and honestly expressing (Center for Nonviolent Communication, 2013b). When a person listens with empathy, they observe the other person openly and without judgment, seeking to understand their feelings, needs, and motivation for their requests. When a person expresses honestly they openly share their observations, truthfully express their feelings and needs, and make their requests without demanding them.

By listening with empathy and expressing honestly, communicators and collaborators are embracing the 3 Rs of communication. They are participating in respectful, reciprocal, and responsive interactions. When listening with empathy and expressing with honesty an individual is being respectful to their communication partner by considering their unique perspective and needs. They are being reciprocal by continuously sharing ideas back and forth. They are being responsive by taking the time to understand the big picture and to come to a common solution. By using the 3 Rs a person is choosing to be a competent communicator.

When working in collaborative situations with a variety of stakeholders, everyone comes to the table with a set of goals. Often the goals are aligned, but the focus is skewed based on the needs and perspectives of the individual organization or contributor. When these organizations or individuals only focus on what will best move their work forward without considering what is best for all, then they are contributing to unproductive conflict.   When they take the time to observe and understand what they need and make a clear request, as they observe and understand the needs and requests of the other stakeholders focusing on the goals of the entire group, then they are committed to NVC.

In the field of early childhood, it seems we often live in the silos of our particular interest, home care, for profit centers, non profit centers, Head Start, TANF, higher education, accreditation, QRIS, Strong Start and other special interest groups. Although we all have a common goal focused on creating programs, policies and practices that are in the best interest of all young children, their families and the professionals who work with them, we can become skewed by our particular focus and hold tight to our needs. As a field of practice, I would suggest, all facets of the field of early childhood care and education must embrace NVC techniques and use the 3Rs of communication so we can weave together the best of what each of our perspectives are and reach our shared goal.



Center for Nonviolent Communication. (2013a). NVC Concepts. Retrieved from

Cetner for Nonviolent Communication. (2013b) The NVC Model. Retrieved from: