How to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

We live in a world full of information. Every day we are showered with hundreds of messages and ideas about a variety of issues, coming from our computers, our TVs, our phones, street advertising, or the people we talk to.

Unfortunately, many of these messages are not exactly accurate, and buying into them can be highly detrimental to us. This is where critical thinking skills come in, as a set of skills that enables us to correctly and logically asses the ideas we are exposed to, develop our own opinions and make decisions.

Not only that critical thinking skills help us possess accurate ideas, but by doing so, they also permit us to develop powerful arguments and counterarguments in our discussions with others, thus making us much more persuasive. They’re both a mental and a communication asset.

I’ve started working on developing my own critical thinking skills more than 15 years ago, back in high-school, when I joined my school’s debate club. Later I began training others in debate and critical thinking, and still later I added critical thinking enhancement as part of my communication coaching services.

Drawing from these experiences, I wanna share with you 3 powerful strategies to improve your critical thinking skills, make better decisions and be more persuasive. Here they are:

1. Question Conventional Assumptions More Often

Our minds are highly predisposed to just absorb the ideas they get exposed to, without judging their truthfulness first. Especially ideas we hear a lot. They are, in a way, like sponges for any type of information. And while this has benefits, it also goes often against critical thinking.

So a very effective way to improve your critical thinking skills is to put some effort every day into deliberately stopping when you hear or read and idea, and asking yourself (and, if suitable, your interlocutor too): “What’s the evidence that this idea is true?” In other words, you don’t just accept the idea as true, you ask for reasons to accept it.

If convincing evidence is presented, you accept the idea and move on. If not, it’s worth maintaining some doubt towards that idea.

As you practice this, your minds gradually gets used to it and it becomes a habit. You build into your thinking a natural tendency to regularly question ideas, a healthy dose of skepticism.

2. Gain a Good Understanding of Logical Biases

Logical biases are tendencies to misjudge information, reason incorrectly, and reach false conclusions.

For instance, overgeneralization is a common logical bias, which consists in the tendency to jump too quickly to a general conclusion from a small number of sample cases. For example, you meet two lawyers who are arrogant, and you conclude that all lawyers are arrogant.

Although we like to think of ourselves as rational people, the truth is that all of us frequently fall prey to biases. However, by learning about the kind of logical biases that exist and working to identify them in our own thinking, as well as in the thinking of others, we get better at spotting them, and we increase our critical thinking abilities.

There is lots of information online about logical biases. I also talk about them often in my free newsletter, which I suggest you join. The better you understand biases, the easier it is to spot them and protect yourself from them.

3. Learn About Topics from Multiple Perspectives

When we learn about a topic, it’s common to learn about it from only one source, which has a particular view on that topic, although many other views exist, some of which are at least as credible, if not more.

The problem is that if you only know one theory about something, in the absence of alternative theories, it will often seem believable even if it’s severely flawed. Knowledge-deficient minds are often credulous minds.

This is why it’s good to learn various theories about any topic and acquaint yourself with an array of perspectives on it. It makes you wiser and it trains your critical thinking skills.

For example, if you live in a very religious Christian environment and you learn that we are the descendants of Adam and Eve, that explanation sort of makes sense if you don’t know any other explanation. But if you also learn about the theory of evolution by natural selection and the evidence to support it, you have a competing explanation that’s likely to make you question the previous one.

This in itself is an invitation to research some more and think some more about this issue, which develops both your knowledge and your critical thinking on the issue. It can be frustrating to come to doubt an idea you’re used to holding, but it pays off in the end.

As you practice questioning conventional assumptions, you gain a good understanding of logical biases and you learn about topics from multiple perspectives, the entire way you see things changes. It’s like you’ve been looking at the world through a dirty window until then, and now the window gets cleaned and the image becomes much clearer.

With strong critical thinking skills, you are apt to distinguish good ideas from bad ones, make wise choice in life, communicate in a persuasive manner and have a real impact on the world.

For more advice from me on how to improve your critical thinking skills, as well as your communication skills, I encourage you to get onboard my free social success newsletter. The content I publish in it is always top-notch.

Why Social Skills Are the Shortcut to Happiness

People today are putting more conscious effort into figuring out what makes them happy and pursing that happiness. And there are many ideas out there about happiness, coming from a variety of sources: parents, teachers, friends, books, articles, media and advertising.

But I think that a lot of these ideas miss the mark; which is why I’d like to share my own perspective on the importance of one key asset in achieving happiness: your social skills. I believe they matter and they can benefit you so much that I deem good social skills a veritable shortcut to happiness.

Relationships as the Main Pillar of Happiness

Over the past decades there has been a lot of research in the field of psychology about the factors that make us happy. And the one that constantly stands out is our relationships with others. Individuals with quality relationships, who feel loved and appreciated, and have an active social life, are typically the happiest out there.

This makes perfect sense considering that we are social animals, who’ve always lived in some sort of social milieu, either a band, or a tribe, or a social group within a bigger town or city. And social cooperation has been essential in our survival and progress as a species.

social skillsPsychologist and neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman really drives this point home in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

For instance, he argues that what our brains do by default when they don’t have any particular task is to contemplate social situations and examine the social world; which shows the central role that social relationships play in our lives. Truly, there is no denying their importance.

The Best Path to Good Relationships Is Not What Most People Think

However, most people are drawn into poor views about the ways to get respect, appreciation and good relationships.

Society in general has taught us that the best ways to get such things are by being wealthy, or having a respectable profession, or following the latest trends. And so, a plethora of people are chasing these things, hoping they will get them the kind of fulfilling human connections they yearn for.

I find it particularly interesting to discuss with folks who wanna make a lot of money. There are lots of reasons why many people wanna be rich. Through money they seek experiences, variety, freedom or security.

But digging deeper into their motivations, I find that, above all, most believe money is the top way to earn the appreciation of others, in order to feel good about themselves and be able to build fulfilling relationships.

It’s such an illusion! Both my coaching and social experiences have showed me over and over that: not only is money not a necessity to be appreciated, but chasing money is the long and inexact road to appreciation. The power of wealth to nurture good relationships has been vastly exaggerated by the rampant consumer culture we live in.

Really, the most popular ways to gain appreciation, considering the time and effort they require (a lot), the amount of respect they earn you (often not that much), and the type of respect they earn you (often superficial and fleeting), don’t amount to good investments.

Social Skills Are a Much Better Path

I believe the methods described above constitute the long, roundabout path to appreciation and good relationships. The straightest and shortest path is in building sharp social skills.

You see, when you have good social skills you are able:

  • To express yourself in an articulate, convincing and alluring way.
  • To talk with a wide range of people, on a wide range of topics.
  • To empathize well will people, to understand their motivations and views.
  • To know how to adapt to others while staying true to yourself at the same time.
  • To show social intelligence and navigate complex social dynamics.
  • To manage your emotions well in social situations.

This makes social skills the direct and the best tool to connect with people, make a positive impression and nurture good relationships. All else takes longer to acquire and works less effectively.

Put two people at, say, a party, one who is a successful lawyer with lots of money, wearing a trendy suit, but with average social skills, and another who is a person with an average job, average income and average clothes, but really good social skills, and I guarantee you this second person will blow the first one out of the water in terms of likability.

While having money, working in a respectable job and being fashionable all have their merits and benefits, my point is that if you want great relationships, you should focus on developing your social skills above all. They will help you much more than these things.

Social skills take some work to improve as well, but the return on investment is much better. And fortunately, there are lots of resources out there to help you, from books and articles to classes and coaching programs.

With this in mind, I recommend you get onboard my free social success newsletter, to receive regular practical advice from me on sharpening your social skills, directly into your Inbox.

When you join, you’ll also get instant, free access to an instructional presentation in which I’ll show you my proven formula for becoming socially confident.

Go here to join the newsletter right now.

Life has a lot to offer. And social skills are a key tool to help you collect much of its fruits. Sharpen your social skills, get out there and use them, and I promise you that your happiness will soar.

4 Advanced Conversation Skills and How to Cultivate Them

In my view, you have intermediate conversation skills when you are able to start a conversation with a wide range of people, keep it going, talk about various topics and build some sort of connection with a portion of the people you talk with.

A lot of folks don’t have this level of conversation skills, and they generally struggle with making conversation. Then again, a lot of folks do have this level of conversation skills. And when you’re an intermediate-level conversationalist or close to it, it’s worth considering attaining an advanced level of conversation skills.

Advanced conversation skills will influence the way you come across, the impact you have on others and the quality of your relationships so much that you won’t believe. Few experiences compare to going to a party, meeting or social event, engaging with people and being one of the best, smoothest conversationalists in the room (if not the best).

So I firmly believe that gaining advanced conversation skills is a worthy pursuit, no matter who you are. But what does it mean to have advanced conversation skills anyway?

Well, I’d like to talk to you about 4 conversation skills that I consider will practically turn you into an advanced conversationalist. They’re not the only advanced conversation skills, but they are some of the most important ones. And I’m gonna show you how to cultivate them to boot.

1. Reframing

In conversation, reframing is the ability to look at the topic being discussed and the ideas being expressed from a new, original perspective, and talking from that perspective. It’s, in a way, switching the angle of the conversation. And it’s a great method to spice up the conversation.

Warm smiles on a wintery dayHere’s an example of reframing during a discussion with a girl.

Her: “Boy! My purse is really heavy. I don’t know why I’ve put so much stuff in it.”

You: “Yeah, well at least if someone harasses you on the street, you can easily use it as a clobbering device. They’ll be sorry they ever messed with you!”

That’s a reframe. And by doing this reframe with your remark, you’ve achieved two things. You’ve turned a negative (the purse being heavy) into a positive, and you’ve also given the purse an unconventional, creative utility (as a clobbering device). So your comment is interesting and funny, and it helps you make an impression. Not bad for one comment!

How to develop your ability to reframe: by deliberately trying to look at topics and statements made in conversation from new, different angles. Move away from conventional thinking and seek to think out of the box. With practice, you’ll get better at it.

2. Empathizing

Empathizing is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other person, understand their thoughts and feelings, and make statements from this perspective. The more empathy you have, the easier it is to empathize with someone in a conversation.

Here’s what empathizing look like.

Her: “My boss criticized me for 20 minutes for being 5 minutes late! I couldn’t believe it!”

You: ”Wow, I imagine you felt really frustrated and shocked. I mean, how big of a deal is it to be 5 minute late anyway?”

Her: “Yes, exactly! You get me so well!”

See what you’re doing? You’re putting yourself in the other person’s situation and you’re talking about how you imagine she felt and how she saw the situation. That’s empathizing. And when you empathize with someone effectively, it shows that you’re really listening and that you understand them. Which is very rare and it’s bound to earn you a lot of points.

How to develop your ability to empathize: by deliberately putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. The more you practice, the more your empathy improves, and understanding the other person gets easier, so making empathic statements gets easier.

3. Relating

Relating is the ability to connect to what the other person says, with something from your own life or knowledge. A master conversationalist is able to relate to a very wide range of statements, on a very wide range of topics. It goes something like this:

Him: “I went water surfing this weekend. Lots of fun!”

You: “So you do water surfing ha? I tried water skiing once. My back hurt for two days after that, but it was an amazing experience. Have to try it again sometimes.”

By making such a comment you enter in the other person’s world and you show them you can connect with it to some extent. You emphasize commonalities between the two of you, which encourages the other person to open up more, and makes them like you more. That’s the power of relating.

How to develop your ability to relate: first of all by developing a rich lifestyle, where you try a lot of things and have a large array of experiences. That way just about anything the other person talks about, you have some related experience to share. And second of all, again, by practicing sharing related experiences from your own life during conversation.

4. Storytelling

Advanced conversationalists tend to tell a lot of stories when chatting. And they know how to tell them well, so even a banal event seems like a crazy adventure when they narrate it. Rookies tend to only make short, generic statements in conversation, which does little to convey their personality and make it hard to keep the conversation going.

So captivating storytelling is definitely an advanced conversation skill worth cultivating. There is nothing more captivating than a good storyteller, grabbing and holding the attention of an entire group of people with their story about that time when they accidentally ate dish soap.

How to develop your storytelling skills: for one, by telling more stories. Start with short, simple stories if you’re not used to telling stories, and advance to longer, more intricate ones. And also by learning about the rules and principles of good storytelling and practicing them when you share stories.

If you wanna learn more about these rules and principles of good storytelling, as well as reframing, empathizing, relating and other advanced conversation skills, I recommend that you get onboard my free social confidence newsletter, which is where I share most of my advanced conversation advice these days.

Once or twice a week, you’ll receive practical information from me for improving your social skills, social confidence and social life, directly in your Inbox. So go here right now and enter your email to join the newsletter.

Advanced conversation skills do take some practice to develop. But with the right guidance, it can be a surprisingly fast and rewarding experience. Through this article I’ve helped you set a solid foundation for developing advanced conversation skills. The rest is up to you.

Go get them!

How to Build Social Skills

I believe that if you’re lacking in the social skills department, then knowing how to build social skills is crucial. It’s crucial because your social skills play the key role in building a social life, and your social life plays the key role in being happy.

Over the years I’ve met people who did some amazing things in their life: they climbed the career ladder to the top, they made millions, they traveled the entire world, etc. And yet if they didn’t have a circle of people they enjoyed quality relationships with, they weren’t truly happy.

Your social life is a huge component of your overall life. And when you understand how to build social skills and you’re able to develop them to any level you want, you effectively take control of your social life.

Over the last 6+ years, my main focus as a coach has been on helping others with building social skills and confidence. I’ve discovered that there are 4 very effective strategies you can employ to develop your interpersonal skills.

Some of them might be things you’re already aware of to some degree but you may not have given them the attention they deserve, some of them may be completely new to you. Either way, I’d like to share them with you one by one.

1. Hang Around With and Study Socially Successful People

One of the best ways to learn effective social behavior is by modeling people who are already very good at it.

This modeling process is part subconscious and part conscious. Just by hanging around people with good social skills and witnessing the way they interact with others, your mind will involuntarily absorb data and tweak your own social behavior in order to improve it.

To this, it’s ideal to also add mindfully analyzing the social behavior of such people, seeing the patterns, and then deliberately incorporating some of their mannerisms in your own conduct. But the trick is to never simply imitate them: seek to understand their actions and adapt them to fit your own personality, as well as the social situations you run into.

If you lack social skills, you may be tempted to hang around people with a similar level of social skills, because you don’t feel inferior around them. But as the logic above concerning how to build social skills demonstrates, this is a huge mistake.

Try to befriend and hang around people with sharp social skills. Talk to these people, joke around, be a positive presence and you’ll notice that most of them are very open to making new friends. After all, that’s part of what makes them successful socially.

2. Build Your Social Confidence

SocialSocial skills and social confidence go hand in hand. In fact, what often seems like a lack of social skills is only a lack of social confidence. You just feel nervous around others and this makes you act rather awkwardly.

But if you would feel confident and relaxed, you’d be amazed how easy it would be to know the right things to say, be witty, keep a conversation going and be a very likable person. I talk more about this in this video, which you should really watch.

Do you often feel anxious in social settings or during conversation? Then I encourage you to focus on gaining social confidence even more than concerning yourself with how to build social skills. Abilities take a backseat to attitude here.

Gaining social confidence is a matter of rewiring some of your automatic thinking patterns, using both cognitive and behavioral tools.

This is a serious but relatively simple psychological process. I discuss it separately in this special presentation. Make sure you watch it as you’ll get in it solutions for building social confidence that you don’t wanna miss out on.

3. Get Specific Feedback and Use It

A challenge you may encounter as you seek to improve your conversation skills is that you won’t be able to see certain things about your behavior, because you need an external perspective to see them.

We all have blind spots when it comes to our own behavior. And the best way to correct them is to obtain some form of an outsider perspective, which you add to your own insider perspective.

There are multiple ways to do this. You can, for instance, ask some of your friends to give you feedback about your communication style, what they like about it and what they think it’s a good idea to change about it. Do try to get feedback from several friends though, because a single feedback can be biased.

You can also work with a professional coach who can observe your social behavior, either in real social situations or by using role-plays during coaching sessions, and give you the most pertinent feedback.

And you can also find creative ways to record some of your social interactions and review them yourself. For example, record a few of your phone conversations and play them back to you. Your perspective when you replay them will be quite similar to an external perspective.

4. Practice Does Make Perfect

Ultimately, all these ways to build social skills mean nothing if you don’t practice. Above all, you develop your interpersonal skills by going out there and having lots of social interactions with others.

Your mind wants you to improve. It will do all it can to make you better at interacting with others. But it needs you to have real social experiences. It is from these experiences that it will learn the most and it is within these experiences that it will correct your behavior and construct better social habits for you.

What folks with much better social skills than you truly have on you is more social experience. Because they go out, meet people and talk to them while you stay home and watch TV or something.

But if you amplify your social life and you interact more with others, you’ll be amazed how much better your people skills will get in just a few months.

Ever since I started teaching the ropes of how to build social skills, I’ve seen this phenomenon happen over and over again. With consistent practice, good models, specific feedback and work on your confidence as well, you’ll see your social life and skills take off in no time.

Image courtesy of Vicente Alfonso 

How to Improve Conversation Skills

I see conversation as the glue that sticks people together. If you pay attention to how people bond, socialize and build partnerships, you’ll notice that it’s done mostly through the art of conversation.

It’s a very big surprise to me that throughout most of our formal education, we don’t learn how to improve conversation skills, because I believe they are some of the top skills one can have in our society.

Going beyond formal education, I find most books and courses on how to improve conversation skills to be crammed with platitudes and simplistic advice.

Since in my work as a social confidence coach I help my clients apply effective ways to improve conversation skills, I’m going to share with you the key action steps that, in time, I’ve noticed to contribute the most to mastering conversation.

Start with Conversation Confidence

The majority of persons who contact me and tell me they lack conversation skills, I usually find out upon a thorough inspection that first and foremost, they lack conversation confidence.

It’s not that they don’t have something to say or they don’t know how to converse; it’s that they lack the confidence to do so. They’re afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, come off as awkward or make fools of themselves. Thus, they end up being coy in social interactions.

Many times, 80% of their problem would be solved if they would get conversation confidence. But since they misdiagnose their situation, they seek to learn how to improve conversation skills instead, and they alienate themselves in this quest.

If you lack conversation confidence, start by getting this handled. Your lack of confidence is based on perfectionism and limiting beliefs, and it is in fact the primary cause of conversational deficiency. Change your thinking; your conversation skills will follow.

Because there are a lot of things to be said on this, I have a free conversation confidence guide for you in which I’ll teach you a 3-step process to become confident in conversations. Go here to get it.

Get More Social

I frequently hear people who struggle in their social interactions saying that they want to learn how to improve their conversation skills so they can then go out and socialize more. They believe if they just get the right techniques, the social animal within them will come out.

In reality, it works exactly the other way around. You go out more, despite your shortage (real or imagined) of conversation skills, you participate in social activities, you interact with lots of people, you make conversation, and as you do so, your skills sharpen.

This may be an uncomfortable reality because in entails that you face your shyness and socialize more, but it’s the only viable option. The primary way to sharpen your social skills is exposure to social situations.

This exposure, along with a constructive mindset, will gradually make your conversation style self-regulate and it will become more engaging, charismatic and powerful. It’s mostly a matter of practice and desire.

Balance the Energy

Think of a conversation as an exchange of energy. Well, whenever such an exchange takes place, balance is always important. You want the energy going one way to match the energy going the other.

This balance is often the missing ingredient in discussions between two people. In many conversations:

  • One person does most of the talking, while the other does most of the listening;
  • One person is whining, while the other is providing support;
  • One person is the entertainer, while the other is the entertained.

Whenever I see or I am in a conversation like that, I feel like there’s something missing and the social dynamic there is not sustainable.

Like most things in life, good conversation implies balance. It is through balancing the energy in discussions that you become able to make them fruitful for both/all the persons involved.

Master Self-Expression

From my perspective, the better you become at communicating opinions, feelings and experiences using language, the more interesting conversation you can make.

Again, confidence plays a big role. So, make sure to check out my free conversation confidence guide to get this area handled.

I find that many people have a very generic and vague way of expressing themselves. They talk in clichés, and they don’t put the richness of their inner world into the outer world. They may be really interesting people, but because they lack in verbal skills, few others ever find out.

Practice expressing yourself with words. Paint vivid and rich pictures in the minds of your audience, using words. This is something I’ve focused on mastering in many of my public speaking experiences and I can tell you that it’s just a matter of practice, repetition and persistence.

With the four conversation pillars above in place, making artful conversation is not hard at all. It’s easy, fun and something you look forward to every day.

In the process of learning how to improve your conversation skills, keep these pillars in mind and give them priority. They will take you and your social life very far.

Image courtesy of moriza

The Best of 2010 on People Skills Decoded

It has been a flourishing year on People Skills Decoded. I’ve let my mind run wild in 2010 and I’ve structured some of my best insights into over 70 articles published here this year.

Now, at the end of the year, it’s a good moment to look back on this body of knowledge and point out some of the best articles of 2010 on People Skills Decoded.

I’ve selected the best articles of this year based on several criteria, including the number of readers, number of comments, quality of feedback, number of Retweets and Facebook likes, and my personal appreciation of the articles on top of it all.

Here are the best 10 articles of 2010 on this blog (in chronological order), articles which I encourage you to read or re-read.

Positive Thinking Won’t Help You Now

The very first article of 2010, in which I discuss the concept of positive thinking and explain why positive thinking can be just as dangerous as negative thinking if used at the wrong time, in the wrong way.

The Law of Attraction vs. Science

I had clients who decided to work with me as their coach after reading this article. It’s a pragmatic, scientific debunking of the famous Law of Attraction which in my view isn’t really a law; it is rather pumped-up hype.

The Ultimate Tool for Managing Your Emotions

People ask me so often what methods I recommend for managing emotions that early this year I decided to write an article about the methods I use the most: CBT and CBC. From that moment on, whenever I get that question, I point to this article.

Why Attitude, Not Aptitude, Determines Your Altitude

The most read and discussed article I’ve ever written (so far). This is my statement on the importance of attitude above skills and why a have and attitude-based approach to communication coaching.

Why Being Yourself Is Hard and How to Actually Achieve It

Authenticity is a huge topic for me. I constantly find that people want to become more authentic, but they fail miserably. This article explains why and provides my insights into the real art of being yourself.

Top 10 Lessons Learned From Coaching 100 People

This year I’ve reached a major threshold in coaching: 100 clients. It was such an important moment in my career that I simply had to write an article drawing from this experience to mark the occasion.

How to Deal With Toxic People

I fully realized how common toxic people are after I published this article, because I received a lot of positive feedback about it. I still get emails from readers to thank me for it and tell me about the toxic people they’re cutting loose from their lives.

Get Off the Therapy Couch! Why Exploring the Past Is Nonsense

This was a controversial article which presents an important part of my philosophy for coaching. It explains why I believe exploring the past is pretty much a useless process and how real self-growth happens in the here and now.

Email Etiquette at Work

I was surprised by how much this article was shared and liked on Facebook in the first days after having published it. My readers seem to have deeply appreciated the simple, practical tips for effective email communication I present in it.

Nice Guy Syndrome

A recent article on one of my favorite topics. I couldn’t pass the opportunity to show the dark side of being a nice guy and encourage men towards a more confident, independent attitude. And the readers responded highly positively to this.

That’s it for 2010. Bigger and bolder things are coming for me and for People Skills Decoded in 2011; and I wish you the same!

Image courtesy of pfala

Beyond People Skills: My 3 Life Lessons

This article is written at the invitation of fellow blogger Abubakar Jamil, as part of the Life Lessons Series. You can find out more about this project and the people involved on his blog.

It’s a very enjoyable activity for me to look back at my life so far, at the experiences I had, to reflect on them and to draw lessons. It’s something I do periodically, in a systematic, pen & paper way, and something I encourage everyone to do.

As I’m doing this process now, there are 3 very valuable life lessons which stand out. They go beyond improving people skills and they’re the lessons I want to share with you.

Life Lesson 1: Your weaknesses are your strengths.

When I was a teenager, I was frequently described as ‘annoying’ because I asked a lot of questions and always wanted details about things I didn’t quite understand. The result of this was that I started asking questions about why it’s bad to ask a lot of questions. I never got a satisfying answer, but I also didn’t want to annoy people so I ended up shutting up a lot more.

As time passed and I got seriously into psychology, I began to see all the potential benefits of my tendencies to ask a lot of questions. I was basically an analytical person, which enjoyed decoding various phenomena. So instead of repressing this side of my personality, I decided to express it and find the best ways to do so.

Now, the fact I ask a lot of questions is what makes me have a good understanding of how people skills work; get a good grasp of my clients’ needs and provide real results through my coaching services. I still annoy some people, but I don’t mind that anymore. I know that if I look in perspective, my weakness is my strength.

Life Lesson 2: Perfectionism kills productivity.

I started writing at the same time I started coaching. I remember that it took me then almost 4 hours to write a one page article related to people skills which I now write in less than 2 hours. Part of this visible increase in my writing speed is due to the fact my writing skills have improved a lot in the passing years, and part is due to the fact I stopped being a perfectionist about my writing.

When I was writing articles for the first time, I felt this need to make them look perfect. I wanted the perfect structure, style, words and ideas every time. Later, I realized that perfection was not necessary. My readers wanted very good writing and high quality ideas (this made them read my stuff and buy my other services) but they did not require perfection.

By being a perfectionist about my writing, I was using a lot of time for each article, without a significant increase in the benefits to justify it. So, I gradually started to tolerate imperfection and give less time to each article. I continued to have a high standard in my writing, but I no longer sought perfection. Because perfectionism was killing my productivity.

Life Lesson 3: Hope is not enough, you need a good strategy.

This is a lesson which fortunately for me, I’ve learned mostly from the experiences of other persons around me. I say fortunately because it was a lesson learned mostly through big failures and loses.

I have seen people in my professional network lose a lot of money and fail miserably with all sorts of business ideas. And most of the time, these people had one thing in common: they weren’t applying realistic business strategies. They had a lot of hope and optimism, but no real understanding what it takes to make their business ideas work. They were very slow to learn from their mistakes, to develop their strategies, and so they’ve made businesses plummet.

I have seen this happen beyond managing a business, in managing a career or a life. And it’s the same pattern: hope is good but it is not enough. At the end of the day, you need to know what the heck you’re doing and have a solid strategy to reflect it. Hope is a good companion, but not a replacement for competence.

These are my 3 life lessons. What are your most important life lessons?

Image courtesy of Paco Alcantara

Improve People Skills Fast Through Immersion

I’m not generally a big fan of quick fixes and claims of fast improvement, for people skills or any other soft skill. I believe that most of them ignore the natural level of practice and repetition learning requires and they usually over-promise. However, I think there is one smart, effective way to get relatively quick results in developing skills.

Last week, I had a 6-day public speaking training with a very cool group of young participants. The kind of people who definitely had some smart things to say, but hadn’t actually learned how to articulate them with impact in front of an audience. Just the kind of participants I like to work with.

The 6 days of training were an intense learning experience. The participants did speeches almost every day, got and gave feedback, learned public speaking principles and techniques, did exercises and case studies. They got back home each day to research and prepare speeches for the next day, they talked with their friends about public speaking, and they probably dreamed public speaking in their sleep.

By the last day of the training, when they delivered their final celebration speeches, all the participants had made huge leaps in their public speaking skills. They had improved one subset of people skills in 6 days more than most people do in a 1 year.

How did this happen? What we have at work here is what I see as the only effective way to improve people skills or any soft skill fast: experiences of immersion.

Experiences of immersion mean that for a period of a couple of days up to a couple of weeks, you are in a totally different head space. In this period you focus almost constantly on a certain skill and doing the activities which develop it. You eat breath and sleep those activities, you constantly push yourself out of your comfort zone and by the time the period is over, something has visibly changed inside you.

Most self-improvement is done is small, gradual steps. You practice something 30 minutes each day for 6 months and then you see some real progress. With immersion, you practice almost non-stop for 3-5-15 days. There is pretty much nothing for you but that practice in those days. It’s intense learning with intense results.

Before you get too exited and jump into some 1-week bootcamp, I think a small warning is in order: not all skills and not all soft skills develop well though immersion. People skills tend to do so, but on the long run it usually requires a mix between periods of immersion and longer periods of small, daily practice to improve your skills with people in the best way.

This being said, I do encourage you to seek out and get into immersion experiences to improve people skills. Here are some important tips on how to make these experiences happen and make the most out of them:

  1. Save some money. Powerful immersion experiences often involve a training, bootcamp, workshop or adventure of some sort, which will cost you some money. So if you’re interested in one, make sure you put some money aside before you try to get into such an experience.
  2. Take a vacation. Most of us have work, school or families which require us to be there almost on a daily basis. So if you wanna have an immersion experience which will require at least a couple of days, you will probably need to plan and take a small vacation for it. Trust me: it will be one hell of a vacation!
  3. Choose the right people skills. Immersion experiences can be financially, physically and psychologically draining. You can’t afford to do them very often. So when you do, make sure you pick the ones which will improve people skills you find the most relevant: public speaking, conversational skills, confident communication etc.
  4. Don’t loose the momentum. If after an immersion experience you stop practicing, your newly improved skills will usually regress, often at a rapid pace. So keep practicing on a daily basis to reinforce the learning. That initial practice right after the experience is the most valuable one.

In the rushed society we live in, with some many things to do, immersion experiences are a rare thing. And I think this is a pity, since we all want fast growth and this is the only effective way to improve people skills and many others fast. Set the things in place for an immersion, do it, keep the wheels spinning, and you will improve your people skills in a breath taking way.

Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum

Good People Skills = Building Trust

This is a guest post by my friend Maria Dinu (Galca), who is an Effectiveness Coach. She works full time in HR for a Fortune 100 Company, and coaches in her free time. She blogs about how to better manage your life on LifeToolkit.net.

I pride myself with having worked with various types of people in my 10 year career in the NGO and corporate field of HR. I’ve seen young people who were very close-minded, 16 year olds who were wiser than 50 year olds, company leaders who mocked their people, or Finance leaders who could explain the business in 5 minutes to their kid. I’ve had bosses I loved, although they knew little business, and bosses I … well, didn’t like so much, although they were experts.

And there’s one thing I noticed, in all these cases.

In business, and life in general, you’re nothing if you can’t build trust.
Trust = Credibility.
Trust = Leadership.

If people trust you, they will ultimately follow you. As Stephen R. Covey puts it, in his very good book “The Speed of Trust”, trust can get people to accomplish things in a company much, much faster.

Relationships based on trust work faster, because there are no insecurities. There are no check-ups. There are very few fights. And, what’s a company, if not an intricate set of relationships?

How do you build trust?
The saying “It takes 10 years to build trust, and one second to destroy it” is very true. Trust is built through time. But I’ve seen results in months, if not days. Let me tell you a story.

Some years ago, I worked with a person for whom I made every day difficult, on purpose. I’m not proud to say that, and I did not enjoy that time. The reason I did it was that somewhere, in my mind, I had the feeling that new manager would spoil my career. She was new, and she had not established herself correctly in front of our team. So, I said, why not show her that this is not the way things work?
(Of course, things did not work. They only got worse)
What changed dramatically was that I found out she supported me. She talked to me openly about the situation, and showed me she cared. And things did happen. Turns out, I was wrong. And feeling ashamed.
Afterwards, she became, if not a good friend, an esteemed manager from whom I learned a lot, despite differences.

1. The number one way to build trust in your relationships, is show people you care. If your team feels you care, they will be there for you. Go out for coffee with them. One of the very good team leaders I know established excellent relationships with her people from Day 1, taking them out to beer, and saying openly “I’m here for you. I’m human, just as you.” A great HR Manager I worked with gained the trust of her 100+ people saying in an open meeting “I’m here to help.”

2. You don’t need to be a best friend. Only respect your word. OK, going out to beer with the team is a good way to build relationships. But I never went to beer with my previous boss – all the trust established was gained from respecting one’s word.

3. Transparency, even in the worst situations, can gain you more trust and support, than keeping “the bad news” a secret. In the time of crisis, many companies had to let people go. Imagine the number of business managers who had to go in front of their people and say “We’re not doing well.” Who would have the guts to do that?

Well, it turns out from various studies (including the reputed Mc Kinsey) that transparency gains you more trust than if you shove the dirt under the carpet. Going in front of the team and saying “We’re not doing well, and here’s why, and here’s what I’m doing about it” will get your people supporting you than ever. And, you know, it just might be THE thing to get the company out of difficult times.

Building a circle of people who trust you may be the best thing you do in your career. Not only will they recommend you, support you and encourage you, but they will help you reach your goals faster, and in a more productive way than ever before.