Recently, I became the member of an exclusive club where the cost of entry is to lose a parent. I’ve seen the profound impact this can have on a person, but, as with most life experiences, you don’t truly understand until it happens to you. For the past six months, my communication skills have been pushed to the max: researching illnesses I knew nothing about, navigating the revolving door hospital system and ultimately writing my mother’s obituary. Now, the task at hand is to get back to ‘normal’ life, and, for me, that includes helping leaders improve their conversation skills. In order to do this, I feel compelled to give my mom credit for teaching – and expecting me to follow - three communication rules that, in hind sight, taught me how to act like a professional.
While some families spend their free time at hockey rinks or dance competitions, our hobby was politics. We spent countless hours in campaign rooms, at local BBQs, in legion halls and anywhere else people gathered in the name of politics. I could share stories of the lessons I learned from my dad, the former Member of Parliament, but it was my mother, a political wife and leader in her own right, who lay down the law on how we were to conduct ourselves and treat others.
Last November, I found myself passing on some of my mom’s rules during a talk I gave to leadership students at a wellness summit, in my hometown of Niagara Falls. These young adults seemed to really appreciate the advice, and, I had the sense these tips were new to them. I find that communication skills are like table manners, what’s taught in one house may not be followed in another. Sometimes it’s the simplest lessons that offer the most helpful advice.
My Mother's Three Rules
1. Always give a firm handshake and look the person in the eyes.
Seven year-old me caught many men off guard following this rule and, in all honesty, it still happens to this day. My mom could not stand a limp handshake and she insisted that I shake a person’s hand with strength and confidence and that I “look them in the eyes”. It’s probably the most useful piece of advice she ever gave me. To many, a handshake is a litmus test on a person’s character. It has served me well to be aware of the impact a first impression can make on another person. A good handshake highlights a person’s confidence and, as a woman, it’s a great ice-breaker to show you can hold your own.
2. Be polite and helpful when you answer the phone.
When I was very young my mom was the president of a provincial women’s association and the Premier of Ontario called our house from time to time. We were scripted on how to answer the phone and I remember waiting several years before I was even allowed to share in this responsibility. Well before the age of 10, I was expected to be able to take a message, be resourceful and above all polite. Given that landlines are almost a thing of the past this tip may seem as outdated as using a typewriter, but the gem I learned was to be service-oriented, responsible and get the facts right.
3. Say hello to people you know.
My mom never understood when someone didn’t take the time to say hello. Whether it was a national convention or local meeting, her view was that you’re never too important or too busy to acknowledge people you know. It’s a little courtesy that goes a long way – even if you are in a rush and don’t have time for a chat. Given what we know now about the importance of emotional intelligence and being civil to one another, this is actually an important piece of advice. Failing to acknowledge someone, or purposely ignore them, is a form of social pain (feeling rejected) that can be more harmful than a person may realize.
As “soft skills” experience a Renaissance, I realize how fortunate I was to learn these lessons at an early age. I’m grateful my mom had the fortitude to make me not just learn her rules but also to follow them.