Communications Wisdom: Jim Bolton, Ridge Associates, Inc.

In conversation with: Jim Bolton, President & Owner, Ridge Associates, Inc.

The book, ‘People Skills‘, is a comms classic. It was one of the texts I had to study for my communications degree, and has sold over a million copies.

So it’s no surprise that the author’s son — Jim Bolton — ended up running his own comms training company!

You’ll love Jim’s interview below. It’s the second in our Communications Wisdom series. (Here’s the first one, with Karen Boalch from Macquarie Group.)

Reading Jim’s interview, it’s clear he’s not only a brilliant communicator, but a rather special human.



Jim Bolton runs Ridge Training (, a US-based firm that improves business and personal relationships through skilful communication.

Jim has presented at national conferences in the US and been quoted and published in numerous business publications including Executive Excellence, Harvard Management Update and

Jim, what principles do you swear by when presenting to a live group?

As a young trainer I asked a mentor of mine a version of this question. She said, ‘First, you gotta love ’em.’ Bringing a sense of open-heartedness and gratitude to your work can change the entire tone. It shows.

Other principles: Keep it interactive. Get people talking, to me and to each other. Ask questions that enable the audience to personalize the content to their lives and work. Connect the content to what’s important to them.

Who, or what, taught you the most about communication? (We’re guessing your famous parents will feature here!) Tell us more.

I grew up in a family where communication was the family business; my dad wrote his best-selling book People Skills when I was a teenager. He (half-jokingly) says he wrote it to figure out how to deal with me. I’ve also had a number of great mentors along the way who taught me how to connect with others in a meaningful, authentic way. These days, it’s my teenage daughters who keep me honest.

Nature or nurture? Can people learn to be great communicators, or must you be born that way?

Without any scientific basis, I’d say 90% nurture. Communication is about tuning into others. This comes easier for some people. The same is true with athletes or musicians; some start with better talents and abilities. But that doesn’t predetermine greatness. The greats work at being great. Through learning and continued practice, anyone can become a highly skilled communicator.

What makes someone an extraordinary communicator? What characteristics, personality traits, experiences or otherwise ‘add up’ to make them so?

Empathy for sure. An awareness of interpersonal and group dynamics. Being able to speak clearly, concisely, and non-defensively. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

What’s your secret sauce? When you sit down to write an important message to your team or clients, what process or method do you use?

The main thing is to understand others’ frames of reference. That’s why listening is so important as an ongoing practice. Whether it’s one-on-one or to a group of hundreds, my goal is to (a) connect what’s important to me with what’s important to them, both in the message itself and in the way it’s delivered; and (b) keep the dynamics and talk time balanced.

Does that process change when you’re under pressure with a short deadline? How?

It accordions. With more time to prepare I can be more strategic. But even in impromptu situations you can state your understanding of others’ current needs or circumstances, state your own, keep things mutual, and create a common platform for problem solving or action.

Some people say emotions are irrelevant at work: ‘Focus on the facts!’ What’s your take on that?

First, humans are emotional beings; it’s impossible to leave your feelings at the door.

Second, this issue only comes up around negative emotions — you don’t hear organizations say ‘leave your enthusiasm and passion at home!’

Third, people can focus on the facts and be productive even if they don’t like what’s happening. Many do.

Fourth, emotions are energy. Great leaders know that if they can effectively address emotions like disappointment, anger, disillusionment, etc., they can transform that energy, helping employees be more resourceful and engaged. When leaders don’t do this, it’s often because their emotions are in the way.

How do you approach influencing someone more senior than you?

I focus on our underlying needs. People often bring solutions to a conversation and negotiate those. But if you’re clear on the underlying needs — the senior person’s and your own — there may be solutions that neither of you thought of individually but which could be mutually agreeable. Keep listening and be curious about novel ways to address those needs.

What are your favourite strategies for motivating people to action?

Have a compelling ‘why.’ If people understand what they’re being asked to do and why it’s important — to you, their team, the organization and for them — they’ll care more. The more they care, the more they’re willing to do. Keep reminding people of the ‘why’ and take every opportunity to point out how their efforts are making a difference in realizing that objective.

What’s the toughest message you’ve ever had to write or deliver? How did you handle it? Would you do things differently now?

Six years ago my (then) wife and I told our young daughters we were getting divorced. I spent days emotionally preparing for the conversation and getting the words right. Even so that was the worst 10 minutes of my life.

Fortunately, things got better. We all worked hard at making our new relationships with each other work. Within months, my relationships with my kids and ex-wife became better than they were before.

Not every communication comes with a happy ending. We can’t manage other people’s reactions even though that’s what most of us really hope for. That part is up to them. All we can do is communicate our thoughts and feelings with caring candor and be as accepting as we can about how others’ receive what we’ve communicated. If we can do that without the residue of regret, we’ve done well.

What’s your favourite quote or saying about communication (serious or funny)?

‘The two words “information” and “communication” are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.’ 
— Sydney J. Harris
‘A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while (s)he gets to know something.’ 
— Wilson Mizner

What advice would you give people who aren’t confident communicators or want to improve?

There are many programs, books, and tools that can help you with the mechanics of communication.

But it’s your spirit that counts. As mentioned above, try to understand others’ frames of reference. Care. Most people communicate from their own frame of reference without consideration for others. You’ll be surprised how this one change can impact your relationships and results with people.

Who do you personally know that you admire as an extraordinary communicator? What makes them so good?

The best I can think of is my business coach, Bob Waterloo. He’s a great person to be around so I always feel energized after being with him. As a communicator, there are three things I value in him:

  • I know he cares about me and my success; he has my best interests at heart and helps me be accountable to those interests, too.
  • He asks questions that get me thinking about my circumstances and my assumptions in fresh ways.
  • He’s patient when it takes time for me to wrestle with what he’s saying, especially when I don’t like it.

Like to share any other gems? Comment away!

Loved this! I hope there’s a pony in here somewhere!

We hope you enjoyed our Communications Wisdom interview with Jim Bolton. What resonated with you?

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