My recent coaching experience in Asia was an eye-opener. Perhaps the biggest shock was the overwhelming lack of communication. What little communication did occur was drowned in a sea of ambiguity. I witnessed no reliable process or protocol that allows the clear, concise transfer of information. The result was that cooperation was difficult, and reliable feedback was rare. The level of disorder would have been comical had it not had such dire consequences. Perhaps most tragically, young cricketers filled with talent and kindness, had become so accustomed to this disorder that they accepted it and unconsciously embraced it. Herein lies the topic of this piece. Communication is so important. So how can we get better?
Upon pondering this experience, it struck me that there were some comparisons to be drawn between the disorder there and an underperforming Australian cricket club I played with for a long time. Although communication was a little more open at this club – and there was lots of discussion (pre-season, pre-match, mid-match, post-match, during training) – the conversations I witnessed among our clubmen had a distinctly indirect flavor. What I mean by that is very rarely were there any significant, honest, direct exchanges in which teammates appraised or criticized one another. What’s more, whenever these exchanges did occur, the benefit was minimised, and the harm maximised, because people struggled to harmonise criticism with care and respect. This meant that future potentially effective communication was discouraged. You see, both cultures, however different on the surface, suffer essentially the same problem – one that causes a toxic environment and slows or stalls progress…
It has become uncomfortable for most people, and unacceptable for many, to be honest if it risks hurting people’s feelings. In much of Asia, rarely is it appropriate to be direct in conversation. Rarer still are the circumstances in which it is deemed acceptable to criticize directly. It is not dissimilar in the West. This leaves us with a predicament: Either we accept a flagging, if not stagnant, progression through life, remaining careful to avoid all manner of offence; or we strive to be better each day, and in doing so, learn to become more resilient in character and more skilled in communication. If we commit to this, there is a way to improve, and speak honestly, all the while strengthening, not weakening, our relationships and communities…
It is by engaging in what Kim Scott has termed ‘Radical Candour’. Scott, co-founder of Candor, Inc., has effectively created a graph that simply, yet accurately, describes the communication tendencies of people when dealing with the undesirable behaviour of others. Beyond this, it is simple to see the effect of those tendencies. Although the graph was initially designed with corporate applicability in mind, I am utterly convinced that it should dictate all communication, regardless of relationship. It is particularly useful for leaders in sports teams. It is also something I have unknowingly used in my coaching for over a decade, and I now know it to be a pillar of my success. The graph is as follows:
The horizontal axis represents the scale of one’s willingness to be direct/honest/challenging in communication, and the vertical axis represents one’s level of care/consideration/compassion for the people with whom you are communicating.
As you can see, the pitfalls of the two left-hand quadrants, and the bottom right, are obvious. The bottom-left quadrant, I’d argue, is home for those who are passive-aggressive, fearful and distant. People here engage in strained and two-faced relationships, from which little grows other than resentment.
The top-left quadrant is where you find considerate people who routinely justify their unconfrontational style as empathy or compassion, when in fact it is pity. Here’s a hint: people who want to improve don’t desire pity. Nor should we encourage those people who do desire it.
On the bottom right is where you find many old-school coaches. These people are typically gruff, despise change, are often bullies, and hold few if any meaningful functional relationships. The effect of honesty and direct challenge without care or consideration means that their message (which may be useful) if often lost on the listener.
The Radical Candour quadrant is where we should all strive to be. If we build relationships and truly care for and respect our teammates/family/friends/coworkers, we should be able to open up and be direct when speaking with them. Moreover, they will appreciate it! Instead of our direct challenge being taken to heart as a personal attack, it will rather be viewed as an act of service, which highlights rather than questions our respect and care for the recipient.
This is how I have built my coaching foundation. Good coaches invest time, energy and effort in getting to know the student as a person, not just as a player. When the relationship is strong, the communication can be direct, and received easily, without penalty. If we truly care about the people we work with/live with, we must make the effort to help them be the best they can be, which means challenging them, pushing them, and inspiring them, with the constant support of our care and compassion.
Have a think about your communication skills and your relationships. Which quadrant is home for you?
The Kim Scott article can be found here.