Books That Helped Me Connect With People

Last year, I made a concerted effort to read more.  Having reflected on what I had read in 2015, I was disappointed with how few books I read, so I made the conscious choice to change it.  While I’m not saying that every book I read in 2016 was transformative or personally edifying, I’ve found that reading more has changed some of my behaviours as I’m able to draw up the experience of others and see connections between ideas.

A perfect example from work has illustrated this for me.  At the College, we are in the middle of several program review cycles.  A few engineering programs in my portfolio are undergoing major program reviews and revision, while every program is also currently engaging in their yearly reflection.  As with any quality assurance process, the fact-finding and documentation phases are at best detail-orientated, and at worst an endless stream of forms and checkboxes.  If left unstructured, all parties involved find the process long, boring, and frustrating.

Part of my expanded role has been to provide support to the parties involved.  The upfront result is that I can provide easier access to information and a sense of continuity with other programs in the School of Engineering, while the backend result is that I can help keep these reviews from spiralling out of control and going way over time.

Last week, I received a very warm and heartening piece of feedback from a faculty member.  After spending 3-hours locked in a room with the program team, we emerged with a decent SWOT analysis and some potential action items.  A faculty member approached me and praised me for my facilitation.  He noted that sometimes faculty can put on an air of negativity towards change or events that are beyond their control, and he felt that not only had I done a good job of redirecting negativity into something more constructive, but I also added a lot of valuable insight into the process, despite not being an engineer myself.

I thanked him for his comments and reflected on the process.  I realized that a lot of the tricks I used during facilitation were borne from books and ideas I’ve read recently.  I would be lying if I pretended to have come up with these ideas by myself.  Instead, I want to credit some of the books I’ve read with helping me to do my job better.

The following books are offered as potential sources of information.  I’m not including them because they are the best or the only authorities in their domains.  Instead, I include them because I found something valuable within their pages; value that helped me do my job better.

In no particular order, and with some brief comments, here are books that helped me connect with people and do my job better.

***

How To Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Slight disclosure – I haven’t had a chance to finish this book!  Perhaps a bad choice to kick off this list, but of the material I read it was already incredibly valuable.  Sure, this book is quite dated and perhaps is a reflection of a era that we have since abandoned.  However, as a person who found connecting with people difficult, I found the simple advice of empathy and seeking to solve the problems of others from their point of view to be useful in the workplace.  I often approach problems more collaboratively and with an open ear to the issues concerning others, which makes working with faculty a lot more productive.

***

Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss

Another confession – I haven’t finished this book yet (I only started it last week).  Chris Voss was an FBI hostage and terrorist negotiator, and has distilled his experience into this book.  Many of his suggestions run counter-intuitive to previous practices, but his claim is that they are effective.  Am I negotiating for the lives of hostages with faculty?  Absolutely not.  But am I working to find common ground with a group of people with diverse and unique needs?  You betcha I am.  Negotiation is all about establishing a report and making a connection with the other person, and I found that information in this book helps to open those doors with people who may or may not be fully invested in the process (or have agendas of their own).

***

The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch

Finally, a book I’ve finished reading!  Including this book is less about helping me communicate with others and instead has helped me think differently on what we, as a team, need to put our effort towards.  Not every problem is worthy of our attention.  Through this book, I gained an appreciation for understanding that there is often an imbalance between the number of things that cause the bulk of our problems.  I’ve since started playing around with our review process and am proposing a radical reversal of how we think of program reviews.  Early feedback from Chairs and the Dean are quite positive, so I think I’m onto something when I propose that we find the key performance indicators for the top reasons why college programs do poorly.

***

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

Rather than a practical application book (though don’t misunderstand me, there is a lot of practical advice found here), I found the leadership philosophies discussed in this book to be insightful.  In order to get a collection of people moving in the same direction, you need to focus on what’s important and establish a top-down view of the organization.  Leadership starts at the top, but you need to also ensure that the people all down the line are empowered with a sense of direction, purpose and autonomy, and most importantly, a sense of trust.  While I don’t pretend to lead the team of faculty I’m working with, I can take steps to set up a safe environment where we can be free to discuss hard ideas, and we have a common direction to push towards.

***

Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley

I’m not including this to suggest that working at a College is like being in a war.  However, the same principles that this book discusses that keep Marines alive in combat can also be applied in everyday life.  I originally read this book to help me identify danger as a security guard at the bar, but I’ve also found that cluing into behavioural and environmental cues helps me to connect with others.  You learn to pick up on subtle nuances about how others think and feel, which can help you avoid problems and find common ground to work together.  Combat might be the extreme outlier, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from it.

***

Tribes by Seth Godin

Another leadership entry on this list to close things off.  While I don’t pretend to have any authority over my colleagues, I make sure to, at minimum, function as a supportive member of a team, and often provide leadership to help guide and decide the direction of the process.  This isn’t necessarily a top-down authoritative act, though.  Leaders need to help the group feel cohesive and unified, and more importantly, needs to give a sense of purpose and direction to the group.  At the College, we are seeking to provide the best educational experience for our students so that they go out and become supportive, contributing members of their communities (whether that’s the larger social community they live within, or the workplace they belong to).  To get people on board, you have to be willing to make others feel like they are a part of the team, rather than a means to your own ends.  We all have jobs to do, and we rely on others in order to do our own jobs, but that doesn’t mean you can make the process feel more like a collaboration.

***

Let me know what books you’ve found helpful to connect with others.  I’m always looking for book recommendations!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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