Smarter than your Average Business Communication Consultant

Author: Nick Hawcroft | February 2, 2021

Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015) was a baseball catcher, manager, and coach for the New York Yankees. He won a record 10 World Series titles as a player – but he is also remembered for his unique way with words.

His so-called “Yogi-isms” include such gems as “Ninety per cent of baseball is mental; the other half is physical” and “Always go to other people’s funerals – otherwise, they won’t go to yours.”

But such is the law of averages, one of his Yogi-isms actually made a lot of business sense: “It was impossible to get a conversation going: everybody was talking too much.”

This is something we tackle in our Crucial Conversations course. Imagine you’re on a train. The driver is your team leader or CEO, and he’s taking the train full speed towards a collapsing bridge. Pointing this out would be a good idea, right? But the chat in the team meeting is revolving around “What lovely countryside we’re passing through!”, “Have you seen the delicious items on the menu?”, and “My my, aren’t we going fast?” No one is bringing up the really important topic – we’re about to plunge into a canyon.

On a less potentially lethal note, how often have you sat through a 1-hour meeting and thought “Well, what now”? People spend the meeting talking – but not really saying much. You leave the meeting unsure of the next steps – what are you expected to do? There were a couple of moments where you were about to raise your hand and ask a question but you were scared of provoking conflict.

Neither of these scenarios fits the definition of a “crucial conversation”: a spoken exchange of ideas, feelings, thoughts, and/or opinions that are extremely significant or important to the resolution of a crisis or for making an appropriate decision.

In her book “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity”, former Google exec Kim Scott advocates breaking the old habit of disguising our true feelings with meaningless conversation and instead expressing ourselves with extreme frankness and sincerity. Her advice revolves around Caring Personally (building strong relationships by “not leaving your humanity at home when you go to work” – a mantra that probably made more sense before lockdown and virtual offices) and Challenging Directly (challenging mindsets and sharing your opinions openly). All a far cry from “Everyone was talking so much that we couldn’t have a real conversation”.

Challenging often means you might, in the words of business management author Patrick Lencioni, “enter the danger”: encounter one of those stressful moments when you’re afraid to say something. But it’s exactly at those moments that you need to step in and say something: “Hey guys – the train is heading straight for a canyon.” It is a risky thing to do. If the issue is sensitive and you are presenting an opposing opinion, then it is possible that you will evoke strong emotions. But at that moment, if you remain silent, you are being dishonest—either with the other people in the room (regarding your feelings and thoughts) or with yourself… or both.

Finding yourself in a crucial conversation can be worrying – how do you handle it? A useful tip is to bear 3 questions in mind: What do I really want for myself? What do I really want for others? And what do I really want for the relationship? Taking a moment to focus on these questions can help you re-align the conversation towards those things that are really important. And you’d keep people like Yogi happy.

Speaking of the great man, let’s close with a few more Yogi-isms that perhaps don’t make as much sense…

“It’s deja-vu all over again.”

“You can observe a lot by watching.”

“I really didn’t say everything I said.”

(On why he no longer went to Rigazzi’s, a St. Louis restaurant): “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

(Giving directions to his New Jersey home): “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

(After a pitch invasion by multiple streakers): “I don’t know if they were men or women. They had bags over their heads.”

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