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The Waterfall Effect or the Delicate Art of Alignment

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It’s like I’m standing under a waterfall, I said to her. The water just keeps coming and coming. For a moment it’s thrilling. Then I find myself gasping for air. Like I can’t breathe. And then I just want to get away.

We’re not talking about waterfalls, of course. We’re talking about this person’s communication style.

Her words, indeed, keep coming and coming. With passion. With enthusiasm. With ferocious commitment to a vision and a specific plan of action.

Wonderful. And I want to run.

Not because of the vision, because of the waterfall.

Let’s switch for a moment from execution to intent. It’s a very corporate word but I like it. To align. I long to align you with my vision, my ideas, our plan. I want to bring you along and onboard.

The toughest part of having a conversation about a decision that has already been made? You are 3 steps ahead of those you speak with. You have had time to align. They haven’t.

Waterfalling never gets us to alignment. Waterfalling is a narcissistic act of communication. Waterfall me, and I will either shut down to protect myself, or I will run.

Want to align others? Give them room to breathe. To think. To absorb.

Not under a waterfall.

Anytime I find myself with a waterfaller I’m reminded of the wisdom of the basics. How simple they are. How profound. These simple guidelines, honed in a previous career of coaching speakers, will immeasurably enhance the impact you have in any conversation. They will most definitely encourage alignment:

Mind Your Pace
When we’re waterfalling we tend to spew and gush our words. This rapid delivery is usually fueled by a noble instinct. I am passionate about what I’m saying. I believe so very strongly in my cause. I am “fired up.” Fine. What you experience as passion I experience as an assault. Remember, you’re 3 steps ahead of me. Your firehose style quenches my desire to come onboard.

Bear this in mind, as well: Waterfalling is easily interpreted as nervousness. As not being in command of a message. Waterfalling and rapid delivery are styles of junior leaders. And it makes it harder to align around your junior-ness, great intent notwithstanding. Do not wear your junior-ness on your sleeve. Mind your pace.

Pause frequently
Your pause allows me to hear my own thoughts. Know my own reactions to what you just said. Yes, to absorb. If you want me to align I need time to absorb. Only when I begin to absorb do I have the energy to align. When you waterfall without pause I reach my absorption limit very, very quickly. Help me out, please. Pause a lot.

Bear this in mind: The pause is not so you can overthink what you’re about to say next. That would be a narcissistic pause. Pause purely so I can breathe. That’s the altruistic pause. I thank you in advance.

Check for understanding
Waterfallers speak from a sense of noble purpose or entitled authority. Anytime you and I speak – yes really, anytime, especially in a business conversation – what matters is that our communication lands. That it is heard. Hopefully understood. Waterfalling without knowing if a message has landed is a waste of time and energy. Ours and theirs.

Let’s not waste either. Simple questions like Does this make sense? or How does this sit with you? or Is there anything I have missed? or May I clarify anything I have just said? indicate that we are interested in helping our message land. Alignment encouraged.

Invite responses
I’m much more likely to align when I am given space to voice my doubts and concerns. Just speaking my thoughts out loud liberates them and sets them free. Your thoughtful response and the comments and clarifications of others will help me to make sense of what you’re proposing, even when it is non-negotiable.

Alignment often happens in the act of “talking it through.” Under the spell of a waterfall I am condemned to silence. Voluntary silence sometimes creates the space I need to wrap myself around a new initiative. Forced silence rarely does.

Related: 4 Reasons Why You May Wanna Shut Up

So yes, the basics. Avoid the temptation to spew and gush. Mind your pace. Pause often. Check for understanding. Invite discourse.

Alignment is more likely when I am given room to breathe. So let me breathe. Better yet. Create the space so we can breathe together.

Alignment facilitated.

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